the child vanishes / in the mist / and snow of the family // she vanishes/ in a trice, in an age, / no-one knows why or where // the dreamer / the quiet one the hero /they called her // no trouble / not a clown/ not a rescuer // she’s gone / clad in a paper dress/ never seen again //nor her passport / nor her shoes / nor her rabbit / not in this shining world
from FATHER FEAR (Poetry Salzburg at the University of Salzburg 2020)
FRAME OF REFERENCE In coming to what seems most intimately one’s own, one comes to what is not self-owned. Seeking to own itself, the owning of this selving darkens down into a cave that is not its own. The selving claiming exemplary singularity is undergroundedby nothing but the opening into nothing. It is an abyss, it is a gap—the gap is a chaos in the etymological sense. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 74.
Penelope Shuttle’s new pamphlet is full of wonderful lyrics. The word lyric is contested vigorously by contemporary critics (see for example STRANGENESS AND POWER: ESSAYS ON THE POETRY OF GEOFFREY HILL, edited by Andrew Michael Roberts), and I’ve found the debate interesting. But far more interesting are the poems themselves, specifically how they address the crisis of meaning in a nihilistic age.
Shuttle’s “long-lost” exhibits one of the most fascinating features of lyric, how it deals with loss. In raw experience, loss chokes off expression, overwhelms reason, obliterates feeling, lays waste to the deepest sense of self. In short, lyric can confront the forces of nothingness.
Shuttle makes good use of what I call the lyric narrative, which is a name for the chiastic knot of name and mystery, of our inability to find security in our expression of truth (Wittgenstein’s great theme). The threads we lay down In composing a lyric make a braid, but one that comprises multiple beginnings and endings. This sounds like a version of postmodern nihilism. It looks that way. Look again: in reaching its end, lyric completes an open figure we call analogy. The subject transforms into an activity of truth itself even while the truth itself remains organically open and vibrant.
In “long-lost” a series of negations build up a final image, “this shining world.” Given the narrative of loss the image is heartbreaking. But it carries with it the “negative” other of the analogy explored by the lyric. Who is this child? Self or other, yourself or herself? Whom does the mysterious voice of the poem address?
The lyric is powerfully evocative. The nothings in italics land like blows. The poem invokes what it denies. Thus it fulfills the purpose of analogy, comparing something, “the child,” to many things that it can’t be said to be (any more, or at all). Analogy builds a stairway to what is other to thought. (Ana is a Greek prefix meaning “up.”)
The poem leads us into the abyss of the self. The abyss is however not simply dark. It is alive with dark light. (See FRAME OF REFERENCE for the itinerary of selving enacted here.) This light is not the mere other to reason. It is not gnostic, pointing to the consolations of transcendence. It is the voice of the lyric itself. It is the voice of the finite other which is embraced by agapeic love. Shuttle’s final catalogue—starting with the paper dress (suggesting the imaginatively believed in paper doll), and descending from more sophisticated figures of self- existence to a pet rabbit (with so many associations), is somehow self-confirming.
The final line is both loss and gain. Analogy is a figure of both-and. It has the force of a PreSocratic essentialism, except that its foundation is in the figure of analogy, which, in the paradoxical tradition of poetics, “asserts nothing.”