PRACTICING LYRIC Geraldine Clarkson “caress”

your touch/more darkly styled/than your kiss/twists/my insides/like table linen/in the red handed grip/of Irish washerwomen

from Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh (Nine Arches Press 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE Determinate beings have an overdeterminate singularity that speaks of the marvel of the “that it is at all” of their being. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL 165

This very small poem carries an electric shock far beyond its look on the page. How so?

Clarkson has crafted a flow of connections out of human consciousness: the flow looks and feels spontaneous. She wasn’t thinking of metaphysics when she wrote the poem. Still: The flow is from the determinate — “your kiss” — about which there is no doubt; to the indeterminate —“more darkly styled than”; through the self-determinate (“my insides”). It ends in the metaxu.

These categories belong to philosophy, namely that of William Desmond, a contemporary Irish philosopher (see FIELD OF REFERENCE). The agon between philosophy and poetry is as old as Plato and as new as post-modernism. It adds relish and a profound originality to one’s enjoyment of lyric.

The ending of caress enters a fourth dimension of being: the finite singular other. Here it is introduced as a simile— once again, the quick finesse of the poet assures the reader’s receiving the shock of immediacy. There is literally no way to anticipate the particulars of the simile. The visual and tactile impact is sudden and wrenching. Desmond has a word for this mode of being, the overdeterminate. He takes the prefix “over” from philosophical and mystical traditions. It refers to the incalculable, the giveness, the singularity of the finite other. One might almost say its infinity. The phrase “red handed grip” comes out of the blue (and red)but fulfills the job and then some: to express the “that it is at all.”

Such exegesis is the pastime of the lover of lyric. It eventually brings the lyric within one’s practice of living. (Close reading has roots in what Pierre Hadot presents in his life work as spiritual exercise.) Reading lyric mindfully restores one’s awareness of having a home for oneself in the metaxu, the between where one’s finite nature opens toward an awareness of thinking the other than thought. The last piece of a lyric is often an image of of the “that it is at all.”

The elaborated nature of the final image has a polyvocal spread. Consider, it seems to say in its lavish particularity, the behavior of linen in water. Absorbent. Resilient. As bodies wracked by Eros. As tablecloths in the red hands of washerwomen. The speaker glancingly reveals a bit about herself, perhaps. The simile fills the moment to overfilling. This is the sign of metaxu: the between space a space of passionate encounter as of the original lovers Lack and Plenty in Plato’s myth in the Symposium.

Because the lyric reconnects our minds to orders of being that get lost in chaotic times, the lyric is enjoying new popularity. Where there is smoke there’s fire. Great lyrics— from Sappho to Horace down to Baudelaire and Celan — are rare, but they are trustworthy. They repay ardent attention with an overwhelming gift of understanding oneself.

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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