LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Francis Ponge “The Frog”

When little matchsticks of rain bounce off the drenched fields, an amphibian dwarf, a maimed Ophelia, barely the size of a fist, sometimes hops under the poet’s feet and flings herself into the next pond.
Let the nervous little thing run away. She has lovely legs. Her whole body is sheathed in waterproof skin. Hardly meat, her long muscles have an elegance neither fish nor fowl. But to escape one’s fingers, the fluidity joins forces with her struggle for life. Goitrous, she starts panting. . . . And that pounding heart, those wrinkled eyelids, that drooping mouth, move me to let her go.

Translated from the French by Beth Archer, from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, edited by Czeslaw Milosz

FRAME OF REFERENCE. What makes thought thoughtless about the holy? It is especially through fetishizing the univocities and of rationalistic and positivistic thinking that the philosopher can airbrush out the idiotic, the aesthetics, the erotics, and the agapeics: the singular love, the seeking love, the celebrating love. The eros-less of such thought has lost its intimacy, lost its body, lost the urgency of its desire, lost sight of the generosity of being that sustains all thought, even the most dessicated. It has abstracted itself from the intimate universal, and it is nothing but the skeleton structure of itself. The bare ruined choir of thought is driven out of hearing of the singing of the oceanic porosity. WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal (2016).

NOTE These “Investigations” explore the lyric as a challenge to our capacity to “go on,” having accepted the first step to take the next and the next until we can not go on. The lyric narrative engages different capacities or figures — description, metaphor, analogy, and so on. In lyric, the primary figure seems to be the analogy or chiastic relating of outer to inner and lower to higher. I borrow my title from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which dramatize the struggle for perfectly acceptable expression. These exercises are constructed in threefold aspects— texts, FRAME OF REFERENCE, and discussion, with the understanding that no piece has priority. Reading a poem this way is what historian of philosopher Pierre Hadot called “spiritual exercises” (see now Ryan G. Dunn, SJ. SPIRITUAL EXERCISES FOR A SECULAR AGE: DESMOND AND THE QUEST FOR GOD (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020)

Ponge (1899-1988) explores the space between consciousness and creature hood in curiously erotic terms, starting with the personification of a frog, in its natural seeming, with Shakespeare’s tragic Ophelia. Does this poem trigger you along feminist lines? Do you refuse to play along with the sexual personification of the little frog as Ophelia, especially when it breaks down as an analogy and so is discarded for more general schemes?

That is, does the poem frustrate your desire to “go on”? A close study of lyric in these pages indicates that lyrics are set up to question our capacity to read them. Time is of the essence of the poem which can only end by slipping the bounds of time in an act of transcending the narrative whole by opening to the possibility of freedom. Ponge’s frog becomes a symbol of Lyric! So we practice the poem and learn how to go on deeper into what can’t be said but only shown.

Eventually the struggle illuminates the doubleness of consciousness. The frog is a real frog—the description can’t be “airbrushed” to please reductive sensibility. It is also, in the poem, flesh of our flesh. That’s the problem. But the narrative transforms into an everyday situation and is resolved accordingly. Meanwhile the reader has been tested as to her capacity to go on. We can even take the hint from the FRAME OF REFERENCE and acknowledge the possibility of the holy.

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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