LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Theophilus Kwek “Moving House”

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.

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.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Wislawa Szymborska “In Praise of Self-Depreciation”

The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with./ Scruples are alien to the black panther / Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions. / The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations. // The self-critical jackal does not exist. / The locust, alligator, trachina, horsefly / live as they live and are glad of it. // The killer whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos / but in other respects it is light.// There is nothing more animal-like/than a clear conscience / on the third planet of the sun.

from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS edited by Czeslaw Milosz (1996). Translated from the Polish by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire

FRAME OF REFERENCE In truth, the inner exploration of the inner does not come upon a univocal innerness but rather to an inward otherness that is more like the opening onto an abyss. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL, 73.

When A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS became available in 1996 I assigned it to a special reading circle at Brown University. We started with Szymborska, whom nobody had heard of. In a few weeks she’d won The Nobel Prize in Literature. Born in Poland in 1923, she died in 2012, having become famous for her poems, whose matter-of-factness enlarged the range of the modern lyric.


Today this poem should be published widely in the US as a definitive statement on the newest member of the Supreme Court. Enough said.

But is it a lyric? It makes no effort to reveal the poet’s innermost self. Look again. It does have a confessional core, however ‘ironic.’ The final lines express a passionate belief in conscience. A very important poem for our nonexistent paideia.

How’d we get there? There’s a narrative — from outer to inner, from low to high— coming to rest at an abyss beyond thought, a perfect paradox of tone that is nothing if it is not lyrical. My heart leaps up whenever I recite it.

The narrative is inscribed in the movement of the examples away from univocal fact to something more like wonder. From buzzard to the expanded stanza— two whole lines!—on the HEART of the killer whale.

The final stanza is perfection in how it changes the point-of-view. We have been moved through the world— well, “the animal kingdom”—to a hyperbolic vantage point from “outer space.” Thus the lyric form of the poem breaks into its own unique voice. The whole thing rings with a crystalline analogy of being. Desmond’s “intimate universal” indeed.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Seamus Heaney “Whitby-sur-Moyola”

Caedmon too I was lucky to have known, / Back in situ there with his full bucket / And armfuls of clean straw, the perfect yard man,/ Unabsorbed in what he had to do / But doing it perfectly, and watching you. / He had worked his angel stint. He was hard as nails / And all that time he had been poeting with a harp / His real gift was the big ignorant roar / He could still let out of him, just bogging in / As if the sacred subjects were a herd / That had broken out and needed rounding up. / I never saw him once with his hands joined / Unless it was a case of eyes-to-heaven/ And the quick sniff and test of fingertips / After he’d passed them through a sick beast’s water./ Oh, Caedmon was the real thing alright.

FIELD OF REFERENCE When Wittgenstein’s approach is applied to the spiritual realm, its application is neatly summarized by Drury’s remarks concerning The Tractatus:

….

  1. ’Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly.’
  2. ’Philosophy will signify what cannot be said by presenting clearly what can be said’
  3. ’There are, indeed, things which cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are mystical.’
    from Peter Taylor, The Return to the Mystical: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Teresa of Avila and the Christian Mystical Tradition (Continuum, 2011), p. 47

The reasons for remembering certain lyrics are myriad and suggest our deepest needs. As I sort through my books looking for something that makes me calm down as the world seems to be collapsing around me, Heaney presents himself. He can be a little self-important but when it comes to “the witness of poetry” (I really must give Milosz another try), his image of Caedmon does the trick. I too want to achieve that human facility of effortless doing and also awareness of the other.

I leaned in school that Caedmon’s hymn was in the running for the earliest lyric “in English” albeit Old English. “Dark Ages” English. Like many legends it comes with problems. The story is that Caedmon was an illiterate cowboy. How could he have ‘written” a hymn. You can look it up.

Or you can read Heaney’s poem. In light of the FIELD OF REFERENCE the poem addresses the problem of the legend by observing “Wittgenstein’s approach” according to his friend Drury. It’s a pretty no-nonsense approach and it suits this blog by freeing poetry from its arguments with philosophy by agreeing with a basic distinction between saying and showing. Lyric by my lights reflects the distinction as it unfolds in the reader’s time/consciousness.

Here we call that temporal unfolding the lyric narrative or itinerary. Heaney’s first sentence grounds Caedmon in historical time— until the last phrase, which should come as a not- surprise: “and watching you.” For as practiced readers of lyric we hardly bat an eye. In lyric the self is double. So sure, Caedmon sees us hanging around the yard suspiciously.

We are waiting. We have not long to wait. The mystery part—the showing implicit in the legend—happens as the poem turns away from the known knowns of the literary tradition, or what we call, somewhat disingenuously,
history.

As it turns out we must swallow a double image of sound—the big ignorant roar— and an analogy, an “as if.” Once that figure is out there the poem returns to the legend. Or the act of judgment that presents Caedmon’s claim, according to the Poet, as “the real thing.”

The REAL thing. Double gesture: eyes to heaven, fingers alive to the flesh’s equivocity in the being of the yardman, whose knowledge of these things is trustworthy. This double we recognize as the sign of the metaxu or between. Things just never resolve to the thing-in-itself. There’s always more.

Heaney SHOWS Caedmon’s specific intimate being by an act, we say in our scrupulous way, that “could well have happened,” in Caedmon’s world, we carefully add. BUT the “as if” of the historical imagination is doubled by the poem’s opening to the other than can be thought, what Drury considered “mystical.” And Drury was no slouch.

So the poet’s voice emerges from the mix of voices in the poem by a kind of fiat. That’s what I like to call the emergence of the open form of the poem. It supplies me with equilibrium in dodgy if interesting times, when nothing else will do.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Muriel Rukeiser “Islands”

O for God’s sake / they are connected / underneath // They look at each other / across the glittering sea / some keep a low profile // Some are cliffs / The bathers think / islands are separate like them

from A Muriel Rukeiser Reader, edited by Jan Heller Levi (Norton 1994)

FRAME OF REFERENCE The artwork is a wording of the between, an aesthetic wording of the between—metaxological in the literal sense of an aesthetic logos of the metaxu. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal 86

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) is not a household name, even in poetic households. She was a member in good standing in “the exact generation” (Rexroth); a Vietnam Nam War activist; above all an inspiration: Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, Marilyn Hacker, Grace Paley. And so on. Her sense of form was hybrid. A hardworking freelancer she possessed a hard-won, intimate feel for the English language that broke genre-barriers in honor of her wide variety of subjects. She’s a model writer.

This little poem exemplifies Rukeyser’s lyric craft. The sound recalls the Tudor plain style. Abrupt speech, short lines, energetic economy— the madrigal dance, lutes and drums. And a “moral poem,” a land/seascape lit by the light of truth. It opens with the force of discovery of the context of the obvious — distance, alienation— and proceeds through figures of speech before descending to the real subject: human stupidity. As an image however the poem radiates faith in the possibility of communication.

Lyric is a demanding form. Always at odds with the givens of the language, always seeking a fullness beyond mere thinking, it finally points beyond itself. Rukeyser’s political rage had the purity of prophecy. While it speaks out of immediate passion it sings the intimate universal. Not the “universal proposition” or commonplace pointed to in the opening outburst (the geographical facts), but the aesthetic intimate universal communicated by the direction of the poem toward a unity of human – and – world expressiveness: landscape ANDinscape. The bathers, self-obsessed, project their solipsism onto the wider truths of their existence. They are in this together — this “between,” this metaxu, they just don’t know it.

The poem speaks to a whole that transcends the oblivion of human participants. Fierce and rather tender, “Islands” has a voice that speaks well for its maker.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Catullus “Dear Veranius”

Dear Veranius, of all my close companions / by three hundred miles the foremost— have you / come back home to your household gods, to brothers / one in mind with you, to yout aged mother?/ Yes, you’re back! The news makes me so happy—/ I’ll see you safe and sound, hear all your stories / of Spanish tribes and cities, what you did there, / told in your special style. I’ll hug you to me, / rain kisses on your eyes and laughing face. Oh / take all the fortunate men alive now— who, pray, / could be happier, more fortunate than I am?

from THE POEMS OF CATULLUS: a bilingual edition translated with commentary by Peter Green (University of California Press, 2007).

FRAME OF REFERENCE To return to the Augustinian theme: there can be turns to self that are not loving homecomings to the intimate universal but platforms for accentuating claims made for the powers of self-determination, or indeed self-assertion. The turn to self is then a turn from an other perceived as equivocal, as a possible curb on my self-determination. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 50.

Catullus: 87-57 BCE. (Disputed.) Caesar was a guest at his father’s dinner table; Catullus would later write a perfect witty epigram to/about Caesar. Not nice, and dangerous.

Catullus helped invent the modern lyric. The edition cited here is a monument to the best kind of scholarship. Packed with references, it still showcases the poems. Peter Green’s agile English leaves the bitter-sweet taste of poetry in the mouth (“bitter-sweet” as Anne Carson reminds us grounds our sense of self in Sappho’s sensibility).

Catullus wrote personal and impersonal poetry and seems to have wanted them published together. As lyrics, one presumes. His sense of self as displayed in the poems is heterogenous, which is to say some of the epigrams are shockingly personal (like the one to Caesar).

School editions of Catullus tend to be expurgated.

The poem given here would not grab your attention as you thumb through this handsome book (lots of fucking and sucking) at the bookstore. Its art is subtle, its occasion public/private. Its lyric itinerary uses a zoom lens to create gradually diminishing separation. Outside to inside. The middle is a little interior dialogue, and it increases the energy. With the turn to the personal emotions, the poem builds in intensity until it stops at the conjectural extreme of unsurpassable happiness. Acme. Low to high. Conceptually this lyric is the complete deal.

The original Latin is dense with sound patterns observable by the inner ear of the Latinless reader: narrantem loca, facta, nationes/ut mos est tuus, applicansque collum/

Here, at the beginnings of the modern lyric tradition, we have not irony or self-lacerating confession, or unmoored nihilism (all of which feature here and there in the oeuvre) but a fully fleshed image of transhuman identity. We.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Mary Ruefle “Wintersault”

Snowflakes would be more gladsome / but when war ship isn’t there / they get mummed down to a hair / Mind you the nay-word has some mastery over us / I cried once when it stopped snowing / A flake looked at me so queer / The queer look of a flake is a sneer / It leaves things ice for a year / I be marvelous barbarous gladsome / when the nay-word be lyin’ in the wood / breathin’ regular and Christmas bells / far off, but here comes the cold morn / who wants a jagged piece of nay in my neck / when I want to be left floatin’ in a warm pool / in sum where I belong

from DUNCE (Wave Books, 2019)

FRAME OF REFERENCE “Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or utterance of feeling. But if we may allow the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener.” [John Stewart Mill, “What is Poetry” in Autobiography and Other Writings] In enabling us to overhear these struggles, the text of Philosophical Investigations offers us, dramatically, what Bouveresse has called a “narrow path that passes between predication and nonsense” [“‘The Darkness of This Time’: Wittgenstein and the Modern World”] in thinking all at once about human conceptual consciousness, self-conscious self-identity, spontaneity, expressive power, and value—the way of poesis.” Richard Eldridge, Leading a Human Life: Wittgenstein, Intentionality, and Romanticism. (The University of Chicago Press, 1997, p. 120)

You are forgiven if you stopped reading hours ago. This column can seem like glorified post-it notes. But that would be unfair to Mary Ruefle. Go back up and reread her poem Wintersault. I take it from her recent volume DUNCE. It’s perfect formally, by which I mean it follows the lyric itinerary, from out there to in here, from down there to up here. The second half of the chiasm is harder to see formally than the first. The way down is signaled by the dialect I be …
which follows that sneer— we are getting deep into the subjective, frustrated, perhaps terrified self now. Which is how we know we have found the narrow way. The alienation of the final lines presupposes the UP of the “ironic” in sum where I belong.

Go to the FRAME OF REFERENCE and the layered academic citations come alive (god willing). If you like this poem better than the citations, it’s OK. The poem is exceedingly clever in how it gives voice to some spontaneous coherence about human feelings in a divided time. The role of the nay-word, the dialectical answer to our seemingly undivided selfhood, does indeed have some mastery over us.

YET: Somehow the way of the poem—poesis— threads the needle in composing a clown’s kit by which we can recognize our humanity.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Seamus Heaney “Stern”

in memory of Ted Hughes

‘And what was it like,’ I asked him, / ‘Meeting Eliot?’ / /‘ When he looked at you,’ / He said, ‘it was like standing on a quay / Watching the prow of the Queen Mary / Come towards you, very slowly.’ // Now it seems / I’m standing on a pier head watching him / All the while watching me as he rows out / And a wooden end-stopped stern / Labours and shimmers and dips, / Making no real headway.

from Seamus Heaney: New Selected Poems 1988-2013.

FRAME OF REFERENCE Deeper than the self-division is the fork in the soul as a between. Is the issue just between the soul and itself, or between the soul and what is more than itself? The second, since the deeper we explore the immanent resources of self-creation, the more the wonder grows concerning a secret companioning power that is not one’s own. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 75.

The resources of the slightest genre of poetry, the lyric, are profound and penetrate the foundations of the self. Hopkins’s use of the noun self as a verb points to one dimension. In this fragmenty-looking text Heaney in the ripeness of his selving exposes some of the framework that opens the lyric to a simultaneous deconstruction and porosity toward its other beyond conceptual grasp. (Sorry about that flourish!) Put it this way: The figure of the dinghy receding into the beyond has a kind of subdued, not quite ironic sublimity.
The sharp ambiguity of the title anchors, as it were, the multiplicity of the ‘subject’ of “Eliot.”

One proposition I follow up in these Investigations is Lyric’s self-defeating figural complexity. Self-defeating in a good way, as “emergent form in a kenotic” way. Every move in a lyric reframes the self of the voice of the poet. Here Heaney talks to Hughes about Eliot, then reframes that from his own point of view. In the end it does seem Heaney is saying that Eliot has him in view as he departs the scene. Lyric poets have various ways of snatching the laurel from their masters, but the slow fade here has its own cultural moment. Heaney/Eliot/Heaney: a career long chiasm that continues to influence how we think of our poems, ourselves.

For all it’s grandiosity this figure is grounded not by the will-to-power of the emergent king of the hill but in the equivocity of the language. Starting with the almost tired expression of Hughes (a fiction/remembered dialogue) that sets up the opening, the middle “now” is alive with verbal energies: repetition in “watching him watching me,” a Narcissus image; and the increasingly dense image of the rowboat Eliot must drive through wave and current only to reach the departing Queen Mary. Is this a cruel joke? And it is “wooden end-stopped,” and that verbally split phrase “Labours and shimmers and dips.” Eliot’s craft breaking up mid sea? Since it’s Eliot we are talking about that image sets a new horizon while struggling to reach the old.

“Making no real headway” suggests, in the idiom “no real” that Eliot’s hegemony is sinking fast.

We are not used to arrogance from Heaney but the poem stands as more than a gesture. It’s a lyric that makes superb use of its resources without overdoing it (?).

One question lyric can’t settle is how it creates a new communicative space (porosity) by exhausting a whole set of figures in the process. Lyric deploys authoritative concepts like dialogue and metaphor and analogy (ships fading into the fog of the past) only to transform them into new creative energy. The deeper we go into the fertile void, it says in the FRAME OF REFERENCE, the more we are aware of a companioning power that is not oneself. So what is it? Say for now the intimate, not conceptually determined, universal.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Jean Follain “Buying”

She was buying an elixir / in a city / of bygone times, / yet we should think of her / now when shoulders are as white / and wrists as fine / flesh as sweet / Oh, vertiginous life!

translated by Heather McHugh, from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, edited by Czeslaw Milosz

FRAME OF REFERENCE In the aesthetics of happening, there is a surplus of showing, and this surplus is often the most unnoticed. We are not in an economy of lack. It is not an economy of struggle merely. There is an energy of being that is surplus to struggle. . . . In the aesthetics of happening there is a kind of ontological generosity . . . . There in the flesh there is too much already from the outset. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL, p. 264.

The lyric narrative, from outer to inner, lower to higher, can be mapped in the most subtle ways. Heather McHugh is a master of style as her light touch shows in “was buying” and “should” among other elements (those as’s) of this unforgettable poem. From univocal pastness to the equivocal Subjunctive, the poem creates, in 8 quietly expressive lines, vertigo.

To experience this the reader enters a mindfulness peculiar to lyric. In focusing on an aesthetic happening the lyric grapples with the too muchness of language. Just how did Heather McHugh, no stranger to vertiginous self-expression, pull off such a subtle tour de force? Look again at the elegant spareness of the grammar. She knows her stuff as we used to say on deadline.

Following recent conversations about language being in the driver’s seat (I use the metaphor to capture some of the curiously mechanical feel of the conversation), we can appreciate the doubleness of the aesthetic happening. As in Alexandria, so in Berkeley. . . . Everything in so far as it happens happens in the intermedium of time. Time is the universal flesh of being. Language expresses time in vertiginous upsurges of self-expression.

Blah blah blah. So we can say that. But the difficulty of writing poetry includes subduing these energies to serve a higher good. Poems should go beyond expression — of self or language. This beyond either shows up (as beauty?) at the end or it doesn’t.

“There in the flesh there is too much already at the outset.” Desmond the philosopher becomes a poet in accessing some of the excess of beauty in his double “there.” Il y’a. The vertigo of aesthetic happening is shared by poets and philosophers in the between.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Anna Swir “Thank you, my fate”

Great humility fills me, / great purity fills me, / I make love with my dear / as if I made love dying / as if I made love praying, / tears pour / over my arms and his arms./ I don’t know whether this is joy / or sadness, I don’t understand / what I feel, I’m crying,/ I’m crying, it’s humility / as if I were dead / grattitude, I thank you, my fate,/ I’m unworthy, how beautiful / my life.

Translated from Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, edited by Czeslaw Milosz.

FRAME OF REFERENCE There is something about the poem or painting or song that offers itself to all. … There is the intimate solitude but because it is offered to all, there is aesthetic communication, there is something of the spread of the universal about it all. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 92.

The lyric tradition has few more popular examples than Catullus’s couplet starting “I hate and I love.” The paradox of passion is an essential figure of the love lyric. The Polish poet Anna Swir (1909-1984) explores that paradox in “Thank you my fate.” At a time when lyric is the subject of debate Anna Swir may suggest new possibilities, especially regarding the self of the poet, which, as readers of Denise Riley and Geoffrey Hill, to name two British practitioners, know, is an open topic. And the polyvocalism of Sasha Dugdale’s DEFORMATIONS is getting a lot of attention. One of her lyrics is voiced by “water”; which reminds one of Oswald’s “Nobody.” And so on.

Swir could get lost in all this. There’s a desperate note of defiance in Swir’s voice. But it’s as hopeful as anything. Is it recognizable as a “feminist” voice? Does the total self-absorption of the poet raise too many issues for such a categorical question?

We’ve seen in these “investigations” that lyric often exposes issues about how we can define our language in lyric using tropes like simile, metaphor, and analogy. Reconsidering the Wittgensteinian “rules” of language use seems to be natural to lyric, natural because lyric appeals to something more original than poetic convention, namely raw feeling, or the intimate not the conceptual universal of the philosophers.

Swir’s conceptual promiscuity — humility, purity, dying, praying — characterizes the opening setting. Equivocation “fills” the mysterious moment with a con-fusion of concepts. The narrative after that becomes more sharply dialectical: I don’t know, I don’t know. The effort to know is frustrated by the fullness and the more-ness.

Finally the great analogy with dying appears justified. And yet it’s a grateful dying, a fullness of being that has reframed the participants: not the lover whose arms are bathed in her tears but her “fate” is love’s other. She confesses herself to be unworthy of such a beautiful fate.

Today the lyric is often used for extended suites that explore logical constructions, historical circumstances, and the antinomies of social values in a time of nihilism. That’s a good start at understanding the sonnets of Shakespeare, too. Swir’s focus on the inability of the self to grasp its experience conceptually yields both a good poem and a new picture — well, new-old picture— of the self in extremis. The FRAME OF REFERENCE suggest the widest possible lens for this picture of joyous chaos. The paradoxical solitude of ecstasy as communicated by the poem embraces an ontological wholeness that is no whole but an over-whole, expressing the more of the original experience.

I guess that’s why I love this poem. The over-wholeness of it. Swir’s book in English, TALKING TO MY BODY (Copper Canyon), is widely available thanks to Milosz and Nathan.