These are things that shake us in our sleep:/ doors left open, drawers, the bare-backed chair/ that still, without a coat, swivels gently,/ books in boxes. Pictures taken down, squares / of darker paint turned over to the sun,/ and, above all, their wiring undone,/ the lights’ glass tubes put away in plastic. // Once is enough. The eye learns to plot / all of this in each new habitation, / recognize the empty room’s joints, pivots, / dimensions— every house has a skeleton—/ while the body learns it must carry less / from place to place, a kind of tidiness/ that builds, hardens. Some call it fear,// or change, or losing what we cannot keep./ Others, experience. Truth is, it has no name / or station, and only the weight we give./ Old friend, I feel its steep tug again / this evening, across wire and lens / as you show me the house, a bare continent. / (These are the things that shake us in our sleep.)
from New Poetries 7: an anthology, edited Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)
FRAME OF REFERENCE 153. We are trying to get hold of a mental process of understanding which seems to be hidden behind those coarser and therefore more readily visible accompaniments. But we do not succeed, or it does not get as far as a real attempt. For even supposing I had found something that happened in all those cases of understanding,—why should it be the understanding? And how can the process of understanding have been hidden, when I said “Now I understand” because I understood?! And if I say it was hidden— then how do I know what I have to look for? I am in a muddle.
Ludwig Wittgenstein PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS German text, and translation by G. E. M. Anscombe (Blackwell Publishing), §153
Born in Singapore, Theophilus Kwek has established himself at Oxford as an outstanding new poet. MOVING HOUSE is both traditional and radical in its transformation of the lyric narrative by argument. More than the dialectics of Bishop, he pushes a skeptical (see the FRAME OF REFERENCE) point of view of “muddle” that rhymes with the metaxical “middle” of a sort of radiant relativity (relativity open to asymmetric diagonals of understanding that may seem to stop the movement altogether, an aesthetics of radical uncertainty. And he does so with the poise of Chaucer’s idiomatic conversational style. Can MOVING HOUSE reconfigure pilgrimage? At least we can say that with MOVING HOUSE the paradox of the chiasm opens on a parenthesis of understanding, with the emphasis on “under.”
But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
Readers of LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS need no introduction to the movements of the lyric. Even the shape of this poem on the page suggests the chiasm of outer/inner//lower/higher, though the last stage is definitely metaxical (assymetrical) rather than univocally conceptual. This chiasm opens into the fertile void of the parenthesis, which is very cool.
Before we get there we work through a catalogue of “things,” but things that comprise a pattern of understanding, each case seeming to illustrate what the poet’s voice has in mind. The fact that the “understandings” keep coming creates a sense of vertigo. Those lightbulbs packed in tissues and boxed up — I’m guessing here — that are “above all” is metaphysical in the old, 17th-century sense.
The chiasm turns inward in the second stanza. Outer maps inner but doesn’t contain it as the lower/higher figure begins to take over. The “eye” becomes the source of a formula that can only mean, to paraphrase, “disaster.” It should be noticed how Kwek’s playful resonance with past masters liberates his voice. Modern skepticism is all about loosening conceptual ties, so the sound fills the cracks in the conceptual scheme as the catalogue dissolves into behaviors, attitudes resisting the conceptual skeletons of the past.
It comes as a pleasant surprise that the chiasm transforms into a “transcendent” voice. I put transcendent in scare quotes not to undermine the meaning but to sharpen our awareness of the steepness of the tug. The “you” is the metaxical double that speaks from beyond the narrative scheme. It is the voice of the finite other of the poem itself. So this itinerary of MOVING achieves a new equilibrium between bareness of concept and richness of awareness of the muddle of the middle, the parenthesis.
I hope Kwek’s prominent base of operation in Oxford means his generation has overcome the metaphysical anorexia of the poststructural generation. Here in Rhode Island we can only hope.