No dawn / in the day of gone // no spring / in the year of gone // no gate / in the wall of gone // only a gap / where he’d stand // watching the cattle / content in long grass
From WHERE THE TREE FALLS (Bloodaxe Books 2019)
FRAME of REFERENCE Our fear of death is the love of life running away from the mortal limit that measures its “to be,” as given into the porosity of being, as always constitutively marked by the elemental patience of being that makes us (religiously put) creatures. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 226
Human creaturehood is taking a hit with the Covid-19 virus, no doubt about it. It’s almost as if we live in apocalyptic times. There’s the issue of scale. On top of the virus, now we have the West Coast fires. I moved from Portland Oregon three years ago back to Rhode Island. Yesterday it was reported that the amount of Oregon that has gone up in flames is equal to the great state of Rhode Island.
Job one is to return our minds to scale. Jane Clarke’s quiet poems can help. They help us confront the most important fact of our existence, the fact of death. The FRAME of REFERENCE given above is a good place to start in our consideration of one of her most modest-seeming lyrics, “Gone.” What measures the limit of our being is the fear of death, that is the turning away from life as given in our human situation, our condition of being in the porosity between mortality and eternal life. But the poem makes all those metaphysics eloquently clear.
For all its minimalism, “Gone” is a brilliantly composed lyric, fully engaged with the lyric narrative. As we have found in all our mindful readings of short poems, it proceeds by negatives. To focus on X, we contrast it to Y. This process begins by stating the givens of the case and proceeds to confronting and in some sense embracing its finite other. A good lyric goes beyond the idealism that folds the negation back into the positive. That’s each lyric’s secret form.
Clarke makes the lyric scheme obvious. She starts with the paradox defining the subject: once goneness — death— has happened, there is no starting over. No dawn, just endless day, acknowledgment of apocalyptic change. And as the paradox expresses it, we can’t handle the change.
So we back up. The lyric explores the case. No dawn to the day, no Spring to the year. Just unpunctuated (like the poem itself) undifferentiated sameness. But realized more deeply as we take in the poem. Meanwhile we confront the positive other of our creaturelyness. We grieve.
We grieve at the gate in the wall of our finitude, the gate which doesn’t exist. What’s gone is gone, what is left is us. The poem executes, in fulfillment of its primordial narrative, its turn. The gate not there is reframed as a gap.
Gap is among the most expressive of contemporary words. Where would Alice Oswald be without that word and its rich equivocity? A gap is double: aporia (no-way) and a void, perhaps, as we take it metaxically, a FERTILE void. But a void nonetheless. Nature may hate a void but human nature is riddled with voids, and we dote on riddles.
Is Clarke’s “Gone” a riddle?
The turn of the lyric yields not some version of the bereaved self, stopping short of embracing its loss as more than it can think and so other to its self-regarding grief. But a to-the-life look at what is gone in all its presence. That is, to use a word from the tool kit of Julian of Norwich AND Wittgenstein, the last step of the lyric narrative, is a SHOWING. We see the missing he: as in life, a life overflowing with “content” (the Shakespearean ambiguity of that word is NOT to much for this lyric but very much of its too-muchness.
This “porosity” between a mortal life and its infinite other defines the scope of the lyric. This reconfiguring seems to be built into our mortal being as it contemplates the case. This shaping is why we “trust to good verses” in Herrick’s phrase. Herrick knew something about how short poems figure in times-transhifting.
You can trust Clarke’s “Gone” to be a faithful companion on the way.