When we are by ourselves, somewhere/ alone —as rarely happens—we/ are awkward with the double lack. / We miss the two who are elsewhere/but also the identity/we have in them. When we go back,/ we think, will we have lost the knack/of being who we are? The pair, / the parents, you and me, / who hold and fix, who cope and care./ But we remain that anywhere/ we go. It is us, finally./ Absence is absence, not attack / by nothingness. And we are free / to travel far, to pack, repack, / to take ourselves off anywhere. / We will be here when we come back.
from NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)
FIELD OF REFERENCE. Such a practice of philosophy asks a porosity of mindful thought to what exceeds complete determination in terms of finite immanence alone. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (Columbia University Press 2016), 167.
Toby Litt’s metier is prose fiction but lyrics sometimes happen to him, according to his head note in this anthology. That of course caught my attention. He tells us that “Awaying” “is one parent speaking to another, reassuring them they still exist.”
Thanks to how pronouns work in lyric, this poem needs no such explanation. We can consult the habits of performance of lyric. First the “we.” Traditionally double-focused, “we” often refers to a creature of the lyric moment of immanence, inseparable from the performance of the poem by the reader. Yet it speaks for the poet.
When we are by ourselves, somewhere / alone— as rarely happens— we are awkward… That could serve as a generic opening for any lyric. As opening situation it’s pure poetry, both sensible and looking forward to a narrative explanation. We don’t have to wait long.
“…we / are awkward with a double lack. / We miss the two who are elsewhere / but also the identity / we have in them.”
“Double lack” reminds one of Auden the paraphraser: it has a Platonic ring to it, perhaps the double identity of Eros as offspring of Lack and Plenty. No matter. What this lacks in specificity it makes up for in dialectical clarity. It makes the necessary moves. Jumping so quickly into the dialectical middle of the poem follows on the ambiguity set up by “the two who are elsewhere” so we can follow the moves of the game, which is gradually building speed and tension as a song/lyric, and Litt is eloquent in his note on the doubleness of lyric.
The generic setup yields to the need for knowing “who we are” which has emerged as the issue at this point. The answer has become part of the question, the ambiguity not to be banished by certainty. The reader is being asked by the occasion of the happening of the poem to keep on going on at a level of metaphysical style pushing the limits of her patience, but then as a parent she’s patient.
And has company. The lyric “we” picks up the rising energy as the poem turns. It is all beautifully phrased — Absence is absence, not attack / by nothingness. I love to say that. Too cool, so I back up: But we remain that anywhere / we go. It is us, finally.
Just wonderful, go on!
In Litt’s oeuvre this poem belongs to his case on parenting, as we gather from the notes in the anthology. “But I have kept writing about parenthood and its losses.” But qua-lyric, “Awaying” has that special lyric voice distinct within the sound of HIS voice— open to all the doubts of mindful use of language AND a singability that has everything to do with following the rules of the lyric road. (See FRAME OF REFERENCE.)
Repeat again: from outside to inside, from down there (the anywhere of absence) to the “here” at the very end of the road. That here is the going beyond thinking, the more than can be thought, the finite singular intimacy that is the gift of lyric.
So, yes, Toby Litt, master of many trades, even the impossible one of lyric, come out for a curtain call. We know what you mean when you say, “Very often, I have no idea where what I’ve written has come from; almost always, though, I know exactly where it’s going.”