FIELD OF REFERENCE Music as form that is forming and formless, as intimate and yet as more than itself, as universal speaking to all, even those who resist. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (2016), 91.
Geraldine Clarkson’s first book, as opposed to chapbook, has a breadth and depth that challenge the reader. It is a challenge posed by the more challenging approaches to what has been routinely called spiritual or religious experience. (See now Marin Dubois, Gerard Manly Hopkins and the Poetry of Religious Experience (Cambridge, 2017.) Put it this way, nobody is quite sure what James meant by “experience.” Not to mention “religious.”
To what experience of words does Clarkson’s She had the words refer? The opening of the poem provides a rich sense of this. We get a snapshot of this sense of the word “words” in the title— like when you find your self saying “I have the words, I know what I mean, but …” THAT experience of words.
It’s an experience of words assumed by, say, The Four Quartets, so it’s not peculiar to Clarkson. That said, her way of imagining the subconscious life of words seems distinctly her own, which is important because readers of lyrics expect that. The narrative here has many “values” in the sense assumed by the wine taster’s palate. These words experience the seasons, shrink back from summer/fall’s liminal (that sill or threshold) abundance to winter’s groggy, skeletal shroud. They experience fits of resistance to oblivion, waving ambiguously but vigorously (take the word order, to what realm of experience does it belong?).
So from the acknowledgment of the tenuous claims on sense exerted by words to the rather brilliant image of their quite proper self-love in most keep their sugar/for themselves (not only to but for themselves), we face the abyss. It’s just possible for the poet to rest in the chaos of the words themselves. Some poets do. That is a way of defining the ultimately senseless poetic that seems to credential numberless poets today.
But Clarkson follows the lyric narrative by imagining a new life for words, that we call the metaxu. This space disavows the certainties of deterministic concepts and, on the other hand, the narcissistic life provided by the poet’s self-determined autonomy. The last five lines of the poem are predicated by “unless.” That is, on condition that someone / else may be counted on. Not the public, not the tradition, not the poet’s self….
Now the poem invokes the metaxu. The imaginative space of creation as invoked by the word order. If Clarkson were W. H. Auden we might know what she means by order, to wit, something out of the chummy catholic tradition. The metaxu has no index to such Meaning. Whatever order means in this poem’s between flows from the unconscious life, threatened by disasters underground that force them to the surface (her reframing of Plato’s cave?) to the promise of this singular word order. That is, to the metaxical openness to what is other to thought thinking itself. To the finite singular other as imagined by the poet in this poem as the voice of if not of the poet herself then of her poem. To this intimate universal referred to in the FIELD OF REFERENCE as “music.”
So in light of She has the words what she has is belief in the music of the words she has.
Rock on, Geraldine!