She was buying an elixir / in a city / of bygone times, / yet we should think of her / now when shoulders are as white / and wrists as fine / flesh as sweet / Oh, vertiginous life!

translated by Heather McHugh, from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, edited by Czeslaw Milosz

FRAME OF REFERENCE In the aesthetics of happening, there is a surplus of showing, and this surplus is often the most unnoticed. We are not in an economy of lack. It is not an economy of struggle merely. There is an energy of being that is surplus to struggle. . . . In the aesthetics of happening there is a kind of ontological generosity . . . . There in the flesh there is too much already from the outset. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL, p. 264.

The lyric narrative, from outer to inner, lower to higher, can be mapped in the most subtle ways. Heather McHugh is a master of style as her light touch shows in “was buying” and “should” among other elements (those as’s) of this unforgettable poem. From univocal pastness to the equivocal Subjunctive, the poem creates, in 8 quietly expressive lines, vertigo.

To experience this the reader enters a mindfulness peculiar to lyric. In focusing on an aesthetic happening the lyric grapples with the too muchness of language. Just how did Heather McHugh, no stranger to vertiginous self-expression, pull off such a subtle tour de force? Look again at the elegant spareness of the grammar. She knows her stuff as we used to say on deadline.

Following recent conversations about language being in the driver’s seat (I use the metaphor to capture some of the curiously mechanical feel of the conversation), we can appreciate the doubleness of the aesthetic happening. As in Alexandria, so in Berkeley. . . . Everything in so far as it happens happens in the intermedium of time. Time is the universal flesh of being. Language expresses time in vertiginous upsurges of self-expression.

Blah blah blah. So we can say that. But the difficulty of writing poetry includes subduing these energies to serve a higher good. Poems should go beyond expression — of self or language. This beyond either shows up (as beauty?) at the end or it doesn’t.

“There in the flesh there is too much already at the outset.” Desmond the philosopher becomes a poet in accessing some of the excess of beauty in his double “there.” Il y’a. The vertigo of aesthetic happening is shared by poets and philosophers in the between.

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 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 and other sites.

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