The still small voice unto / My still small voice, I listen. / Hardly awake, I breathe, vulnerably, / As in summer trees, the messages / Of telegraphed errands buzz along / July’s contour of green.
American Poetry, The Twentieth Century, vol 2, The Library of America, 2000.
FRAME of REFERENCE The universal is the sourcing power that communicates itself, that comes to form, and the form that has come is universal in a derivative sense, only because the forming power is the ‘nec plus ultra’ of bringing to be—the ultimate creating power. This is again less like a technical making and is more suggestive of an origination from nothing. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 78.
This slight seeming poem is easily dismissed as one ruffles through the Library of America volume dedicated to more nearly contemporary poets, E. E. Cummings to May Swenson. David Schubert remains obscure despite the praise of luminaries. His story is largely unhappy In its outline. You should Google him.
The poem is certainly an attractive one in a conventional sense; key conventions of American poetry click nicely: the reconfiguration of Biblical themes, the image of the poet as passive, vaguely aware of his surroundings, his lush green surroundings buffering his sensitive ego, the pantheistic buzz.
That’s one way to put it. There’s also the home-made feel of the joinery, the seams of multiple themes nicely finished. We listen, with the poet, to the buzz of Nature, the length and syntax of the lines swelling gently in the middle. The lyric narrative is conscientiously served in big and small ways.
It opens with a reference to a moment in a biblical narrative, the isolated and beleaguered prophet reaching zero humanly as God Himself resumes his sense of self as a voice. A still, small one, we all know the phrase if not the context, which quickly fades in THIS context.
The lyric playfulness with pronouns as regards the poet’s self-consciousness is nicely executed in the opening lines. The biblical voice of YHWH finds an other or double in the poet’s voice. A handoff as it were, reconfiguring the original text followed by two compact parallel “I” statements: I listen, I breathe. This dialectical move fulfills the choreography of the lyric narrative. From the opening focus on an original I-Thou moment the poem pivots through the equivocity into an intenser sense of autonomy.
The self “breathes, vulnerably…” With that the narrative shifts to a Romantic landscape or rather inscape. AS: that phenomenal shifter so crucial to analogies of self. AS IF X were Y, or just a temporal marker: WHILE, establishing a new foreground.
As this second three-line half unfolds, the interpretation narrows to construe the sense of vulnerability. Not as in the Ur-text, vulnerable to responsibilities towards YHWH, but vulnerable to the immanence of communicative white noise. White in its presumed fundamental groundedness, this immanence is thick with voices—insects, birds, the sense of the sound horizon is expanded as the poem concludes with crisp-sounding metaphor (telegraphed, errands, contour) which complete the reconfiguration of the biblical scene into the scene of the lyric self.
Not so fast. As we’ve seen in these little essays on lyric, the lyric self is not a thing. It is double. Emerging from the transformative syntax of the poem, the lyric self finally opens to what is greater than can be thought, the finite other. The self draws on its nothing to reach out to the other. Now, this poem engages in its opening with a biblical scene presuming original nothingness, so the seed of this turning is always already there.
What we have instead of the finite other is an image of immanent continuity. In lines quite unexpectedly rich in equivocity, the final image unfolds in a blur: “telegraphed errands buzz along / July’s contour of green.”
July! Zenith of summer! July Fourth! Independence! Don’t want to overdo it, but there’s just a wee bit of that given the contrast of the two parts of the poem and their assumptions about selfhood. The Biblical I-Thou moment yields to the pantheist green of buzz. That immanence collapses the tension in the lyric self between self and other.
As the FRAME of REFERENCE suggests, this immanence occludes the sense of plurivocity within the original scheme. In the language of the poem, plurivocity is reduced to buzz.
Yet, yet… There’s a whisper—a still small voice— to the buzz. Perhaps the poem’s closure leaves a crack through which the light of otherness can pass, perhaps we can see in the potentiality of “As” an acknowledgement of the limits of immanence. Our human vulnerability would then be defined by the otherness of that July moment of unity. I don’t know. Give it a thought.