LYRIC COMPANION Alison Brackenbury “Species”


Sometimes they rise before me in the night: / the lemurs, eyes as bare and bright as moons; / the lizard, ancient as the afternoon; the coral’s tender hands which sun bleached white. / Some are immense: the tiger, shot and still; / some thumbnail sized, like Chile’s emerald frog / I never saw, and soon, nobody will.

from GALLOP: SELECTED POEMS (Carcanet 2019)

FRAME OF REFERENCE The neighbor is the other beside one, next one—Nachbar. There is a neighborhood of being. The neighborhood is the intimacy of being waking communally to itself with its own idiosyncratic love. The neighbor is our companion in the intimate universal. The neighborhood is the between stressed by love that enlivens us to the particularity of the beings that live beside one. Beside one need not be next door—though the next- door neighbor is the proximate one beside one. The agapeics of the intimate universal reveals a being beside oneself in being beside the other. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 408.

Woke up this morning to the news the President Himself has the COVID virus. I must admit I was pleased, then ashamed. My column today Is about the basic structure of being and hence of ethics and aesthetics: being is plural AND intimate.

In “Species,” Alison Brackenbury finds the universal in the intimacy of being. Others of all shapes and sizes matter. They haunt our dreams, resisting our ability to reduce their differences. Modern nihilism depends on this reduction so that humans may proceed with the project of subduing the earth. Something more original than Eros Tyrannos keeps asserting itself, the contemporary Irish philosopher William Desmond calls it the intimate universal.

Brackenburg’s poem unfolds in the style of an epigram, a lyric form used by the first so-called “modern” poets of Alexandria and Rome. The self-contained lines are patterned dialectically, conversationally on sameness and difference. The momentum gathers through a sort of witty logic. Rhyme and other art forms tussle for attention with realistic description. Despite the economy of means strong feelings develop.

Even so tight a form benefits from the overall lyric narrative as we intuitively experience it. The world asserts itself, prompting response to its heterogeneity. Lemurs glow in the dark: you can’t make this stuff up. Though of great interest to scientists, lemurs are fast going extinct.

The poem wanders purposefully among species, and the theme of mortality overtakes the theme of plurality. It’s a sort of dream poem, the human presence affecting the subject matter in a distinctly passive way. One might say a hopeless way. The turn of the poem, quite unexpected though formal signs like the enclosure of the first four lines by rhyme suggests something is afoot.

The turn, then, breaks the mold. Following the dialectics of live coral and the sun, the poem startles the reader with a stop-time image: “the tiger, shot and still.” This creates the sense of ending so fundamental to lyric. The poet’s voice blends with the other voice of the poem. The intimacy of nightmare yields to an impersonal deeply intimate otherness.

The neighborhood we take for granted is shrinking, and our sense of self is shrinking with it.

So much in so little.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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