LYRIC COMPANION Basho “Composed on Horseback”

The roadside hibiscus has been eaten by my horse.

translated by Hiroaki Sato, ON HAIKU (New Directions, 2018), p. 42.

FRAME OF REFERENCE The best definition of the traditional haiku I’ve seen says that it is a one-line poem with two main descriptive elements that can’t be divided into lines. HIROAKI SATO On Haiku, p. 67.

The anglophone public resist Sato’s definition of haiku, which is based on Japanese practice. The history of Haiku in English translation has been until now dominated by the pioneering work of scholars and poets steeped in the sounds of English verse. The 5-7-5 convention recuts the traditional unit of English verse but retains its rhythms and syntax. Sato, by far the most authoritative translator of Japanese poetry into English, argues for a one-line poem with this complication: that it resist being divided into lines. That is, the very essence of haiku is a unity of thought. Since it comprises “two main descriptive elements,” the principle of unity is not … obvious? Is this where Zen creeps into the conversation?

I find the hibiscus poem cited above fun to read. I think it’s a good poem, not because it satisfies Sato’s definition but because it satisfies my take on the lyric narrative. Apparently these two definitions are complementary in my mind’s eye. The roadside hibiscus is clearly THERE (roadside adds the crucial touch of contingency). The predicate HAS BEEN EATEN satisfies the narrative’s need for opening the aspectual range of the nature of hibiscus (it is good to eat, which reveals its place in at least one scheme of things, one which the reader should find interesting in several senses).

The picture is completed by the last bit—by my horse. Picaresque? Realism? Zen “shit happens”? What’s the point? But in our study of the lyric narrative the point is MORE than the completion of the thought. The poem’s whole is beyond the individual reader’s sense of the whole. The poem packs an extra, excessive punch. That energy fuses the syntactic bits into a radiant whole beyond the subject/object divide.

I’m spending today rereading Geoffrey Hill’s final critical writing as preserved in COLLECTED CRITICAL WRITINGS. I think his argument about “to get within the judgment the condition of the judgment” is really important. It speaks to the mindfulness of the poem (and allows me to give that battered dulled word some edge). Basho’s hibiscus poem resists easy reduction to principle or sentiment. Rather it honors what is beyond our mind’s circuitry. Horses and hibiscus get along in ways we can’t ever quite grasp. My horse judges that THIS hibiscus would make a good snack on the journey. We often forget about our horse’s horsy needs. My horse makes a judgment, Basho’s poem supplies the condition of the judgment, which I call “the finite other.”

So, despite the controversy about lineation, if you ask me, this haiku is a good poem.

LYRIC COMPANION John Burnside “Dundee”

The streets are waiting for a snow / that never falls: / too close to the water, / too muffled in the after warmth of jute, / the houses on Roseangle / opt for miraculous frosts / and the feeling of space that comes / in the gleam of day / when you step outside for the milk / or the morning post / and it seems as if a closeness in the mind / had opened and flowered / the corners sudden and tender, the light immense, / the one who stands here proven after all.

The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah, edd. 2000, p. 508.

FRAME of REFERENCE One might think that sublimity will bring us back to this sense of intimate otherness. It does but in the shattering of form proportionate to our measure. …Something exceeds that form of universality. It is intimate because it strikes through to our own deepest intimacy with a kind of violent formlessness. There is a more hyperbolic sense of the universal in its otherness, communicated in the breakdown of the proportionate universal. The intimate universal is in this breaking in; more, there is a breaking down, and hence a breaking through and a breaking beyond, and this in no subjective, or objective, sense. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 100.


America ‘s sorrows now include the death of Ruth Bader Ginzberg. The crisis will now include her replacement on the Supreme Court. More ghastly polarization in the body politic. We need our poets even more. We need the quiet, the sharp, animal sense of the finite other in the midst. That need is difficult to fill. There’s always John Burnside.


Burnside’s key narrative, shown here in an early poem, depends on a performance using a mask of a regular Joe covering the face of a Rilke. Sounds like a bad joke.

But his narrative cleaves to the basic Lyric narrative. It starts outside, goes inside, meanwhile going down then, paradoxically, up. You see this, feel this, as you read around in Burnside. In our need for a deep sense of possibility, he pulls it off.

Outside there’s an unfinished feeling, a waiting for transformation. Snow. The waiting perdures, stretching our sense of things to include a sense of nothingness. The old existential gambit. Burnside nails it down in plain details of extremity: too this, too that. Makes sense.

He goes deeper into the equivocities of the moment, of the language. The moves are crisp, dialectical, proper names splitting common sense: the houses on Roseangle! Rose/angle!

The very houses “opt” for the ordinary sublime. We may become aware of the slight tension in the syntax, unending, just commas, the short “free verse” phrases building a thickness like thin, translucent washes. The poem turns inward and down/up.

To fetch the milk left by the milkman — the ordinariness of tract housing, suburbia; to fetch the morning paper. Who lives like this now? The power of the lyric narrative absolves this uncertainty in the greater whole of the unfolding poem. We play along. We like this guy, this moment mid morning, midlife, mid everything. He’s us. He needs more than his life has on offer. And in stepping outside, he opens up. The space is fluid.

The tense of the verb changes from the generic lyric present to the past of the “as if.” We know in our guts this move in the narrative. It’s OK. We accept without hesitation Analogy. Much is at stake. Our self hangs in the balance on the edge of despair.

Burnside’s vision has a hard edge to it. This is more than the sublime. He follows the lyric narrative through the final difficult stage. It’s make or break for the poet. How go beyond despair? The suburban self is out of gas, but salvation comes with the milk and the morning post. A closeness in the mind / had opened. Just like that.

No snow, just a change of aspect, a Blick to Wittgenstein. Duck/rabbit. No, no. More than that. The corners sudden and tender, the light immense…Then the final, unauthorized move, a gift of the poem itself: the one who stands here — HERE! After all— a gift of the ambiguity of the vernacular. But the center of this boundless moment is the word “proven.” Is THAT what has been going on? A trial?

I need to think about that. This moment fits Desmond [see Frame of Reference] on the sublime: A thorough breakthrough. I need to think about that.

LYRIC TRANSFORMATIONS [New Series] Michael Longley “Starlings”

Sitting up against a sea wall, / Eating fish and chips, we count / The starlings, a dozen or so / Swaggering opportunists / Unexpected on the shingle. / Shall we throw them leftovers, dear brother? Greasy fingers. / Spangled iridescences. / Is this Bangor or Ballyholme? / A blink and they attract thousands / And thousand more starlings, a shape- / Shifting bird-cloud, shitlegs / Sky-dancing. No collisions. / Wherever you are, Peter, / Can you spot on your radar / Angels? There’re starlings, really / Heavenly riffraff flocking / Before they flap down to roost.

From Angel Hill (Cape, 2017)

FRAME of REFERENCE Returning more directly to the erotics, what is at issue is the self-surpassing energy of the human being. We must connect this with the porosity of being. Recall, once again, that ‘poros’ is one of the parents of Eros in the account of Diotima-Socrates in Plato’s ‘Symposium.’ ‘Poros’ sometimes is connected with ‘resource,’ but one could stress it as offering a way, a way across. If ‘penia’ or lack couples with it, there is a paradoxical mixture of poverty and plenitude, and one could see in both the ‘poros’ and the ‘penia’ an alternate opening. For just as ‘poros’ is not this or not that, it seems to be like a nothing—and yet it is the opening of the possibility of passage. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 315 f.

Like many, I trust the lyric to help me out of everyday depression. Lyric takes my world and opens it up. If I read a lyric carefully my sense of hope will be restored, my energies refreshed. Why?

Not because the lyric offers an escape from human limitations. Often read to shore up a predisposition to pure ideas over the world of flesh and bones, the lyric will fail. Lyric returns us to reality. But reality that requires transformations of key cultural assumptions. Reality happens between our neediness and the supernatural abundance of creation. If you read this poem in the modernist way of resentment at religious imagery (angels) you will not experience transformation but microwaved nihilism.

Technically, Michael Longley’s “Starlings” is full of lyric transformations. Readers of this column may expect shoptalk here but this is a New Series. Suffice it to say, the upshot of lyric is not idealistic. The transformations serve an intenser awareness of what Desmond calls the paradox of poverty and plentitude. It guides me through these transformations to a rejuvenated appreciation of the promiscuous mix that constitutes human reality.

LYRIC COMPANION Zbigniew Herbert “Tenderness”

In the end what can I do with you—tenderness / tenderness for birds and for people for a stone / you should sleep in a palm in the eye’s depths / that’s your place may you be woken by no one // You spoil everything you get it back to front / you contract a tragedy into a pocket romance / you change the high-toned flight of a thought / into sobbing and exclamations into moaning // To describe is to murder because it’s your role / to sit in the darkness of a cold and empty hall / to sit solitary where reason blithely rattles on / with mist in a marble eye tears running down

Trans Alissa Valles The Collected Poems 1956-1998 (Ecco, 2007)

FRAME of REFERENCE This poetry is about the pain of the twentieth century, about accepting the cruelty of an inhuman age, about an extraordinary sense of reality. And the fact that at the same time the poet loses none of his lyricism or his sense of humor—this is the unfathomable secret of a great artist. ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI, from the Introduction

Herbert’s complexity of tone has been teased out by Zagajewski as a proportion with undefined quantities of realism, lyricism, and humor. This bit of applied poetics however vague is worth pursuing given the importance of Herbert to our reception of lyric. Herbert’s poetry challenges our assumptions about the relative value of lyric to modernity.

“Tenderness” is a late lyric it would be tempting to overlook. It opens with a Personification, a figure typical of Romantic lyric, an address to a “universal” or abstraction; one thinks of Keats. It is not one of the big names but it names a human quality that is central to our outworn picture of humanity as such. “Tenderness” has been in short supply in modernity: it is irrelevant to the capitalist march of progress as we subdue the earth for our utopian purposes. (Trump’s strategy of sacrificing a certain number to the virus so “we” can attain herd immunity is a current example.)

Personifying abstractions fits the lyric program and has been roundly discouraged by our masters. No wonder Herbert’s “Tenderness” has low self esteem. The poem opens characterizing it as misplaced concern for beings like birds, people, and stones.

That random list alerts our well-honed expectation of irony. The prominence given to Tenderness as the theme of a poem can’t be serious. Tenderness should be reduced to the recesses of human being. But the language used in this rather banal proposition is too interesting. You should sleep in a palm or in the depths of the eye. Tenderness is flesh. It has a place in our bodies. Like other aspects of the human self, it is best left alone. It’s like other passions, anger or lust.

So the opening neatly and powerfully sketches the situation. That prepares us for further description of qualities: after the initial naming and touching on the interesting aspects—the equivocations that cling to the word “Tenderness”—we are prepared for a more robust dialectical description of the sides of this dangerous aspect of our being. The ad hominem attack, the trial (Herbert grew up under Nazi and Soviet regimes), continue. In short, tenderness transvalues our values. We say tragedy, you find the makings of romance; we say our soaring thinking, our spiritual exclamations, you transform them to eruptions of ungovernable grief.

You debase our inner life; you drag us down. We’ve seen how lyric often reframed basic themes, how it reconfigures culturally accepted narratives by the power of its own narrative. Its narrative submits socially accepted schemes to verbal and dialectical analysis, concluding with the deconstruction of the social “I” constructed by these schemes in light of what is other to thought, the finite (not abstract) Other, the Intimate not the determinative Universal.

The final stanza is devoted to a description of the role of Tenderness. Pushing off from the axiomatic “to describe is to murder” (a reconfiguration of Wordsworth’s “we murder to dissect”?), Tenderness is pictured as it witnesses the drama of reason’s self-presentation. The description is itself hyperbolic: the suppressed response of Tenderness is compared to weeping marble. The exaggeration is the point, the too-muchness of Tenderness was always the point.

So in this minor-looking lyric we find the elements Zagajewski singled out for praise, the balance of qualities, descriptive, analytical, lyrical, that taken together explain Herbert’s position in our rogues gallery of 20-th century poets. As we rediscover the integrity of the lyric in its narrative we can more fully appreciate the finesse and elegance of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert.

LYRIC COMPANION David Schubert “A Successful Summer”

The still small voice unto / My still small voice, I listen. / Hardly awake, I breathe, vulnerably, / As in summer trees, the messages / Of telegraphed errands buzz along / July’s contour of green.

American Poetry, The Twentieth Century, vol 2, The Library of America, 2000.

FRAME of REFERENCE The universal is the sourcing power that communicates itself, that comes to form, and the form that has come is universal in a derivative sense, only because the forming power is the ‘nec plus ultra’ of bringing to be—the ultimate creating power. This is again less like a technical making and is more suggestive of an origination from nothing. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 78.

This slight seeming poem is easily dismissed as one ruffles through the Library of America volume dedicated to more nearly contemporary poets, E. E. Cummings to May Swenson. David Schubert remains obscure despite the praise of luminaries. His story is largely unhappy In its outline. You should Google him.

The poem is certainly an attractive one in a conventional sense; key conventions of American poetry click nicely: the reconfiguration of Biblical themes, the image of the poet as passive, vaguely aware of his surroundings, his lush green surroundings buffering his sensitive ego, the pantheistic buzz.

That’s one way to put it. There’s also the home-made feel of the joinery, the seams of multiple themes nicely finished. We listen, with the poet, to the buzz of Nature, the length and syntax of the lines swelling gently in the middle. The lyric narrative is conscientiously served in big and small ways.

It opens with a reference to a moment in a biblical narrative, the isolated and beleaguered prophet reaching zero humanly as God Himself resumes his sense of self as a voice. A still, small one, we all know the phrase if not the context, which quickly fades in THIS context.

The lyric playfulness with pronouns as regards the poet’s self-consciousness is nicely executed in the opening lines. The biblical voice of YHWH finds an other or double in the poet’s voice. A handoff as it were, reconfiguring the original text followed by two compact parallel “I” statements: I listen, I breathe. This dialectical move fulfills the choreography of the lyric narrative. From the opening focus on an original I-Thou moment the poem pivots through the equivocity into an intenser sense of autonomy.

The self “breathes, vulnerably…” With that the narrative shifts to a Romantic landscape or rather inscape. AS: that phenomenal shifter so crucial to analogies of self. AS IF X were Y, or just a temporal marker: WHILE, establishing a new foreground.

As this second three-line half unfolds, the interpretation narrows to construe the sense of vulnerability. Not as in the Ur-text, vulnerable to responsibilities towards YHWH, but vulnerable to the immanence of communicative white noise. White in its presumed fundamental groundedness, this immanence is thick with voices—insects, birds, the sense of the sound horizon is expanded as the poem concludes with crisp-sounding metaphor (telegraphed, errands, contour) which complete the reconfiguration of the biblical scene into the scene of the lyric self.

Not so fast. As we’ve seen in these little essays on lyric, the lyric self is not a thing. It is double. Emerging from the transformative syntax of the poem, the lyric self finally opens to what is greater than can be thought, the finite other. The self draws on its nothing to reach out to the other. Now, this poem engages in its opening with a biblical scene presuming original nothingness, so the seed of this turning is always already there.

What we have instead of the finite other is an image of immanent continuity. In lines quite unexpectedly rich in equivocity, the final image unfolds in a blur: “telegraphed errands buzz along / July’s contour of green.”

July! Zenith of summer! July Fourth! Independence! Don’t want to overdo it, but there’s just a wee bit of that given the contrast of the two parts of the poem and their assumptions about selfhood. The Biblical I-Thou moment yields to the pantheist green of buzz. That immanence collapses the tension in the lyric self between self and other.

As the FRAME of REFERENCE suggests, this immanence occludes the sense of plurivocity within the original scheme. In the language of the poem, plurivocity is reduced to buzz.

Yet, yet… There’s a whisper—a still small voice— to the buzz. Perhaps the poem’s closure leaves a crack through which the light of otherness can pass, perhaps we can see in the potentiality of “As” an acknowledgement of the limits of immanence. Our human vulnerability would then be defined by the otherness of that July moment of unity. I don’t know. Give it a thought.

LYRIC COMPANION Verses from Old Irish “A busy yellow bee”

A busy yellow bee / who makes / a not insignificant journey / flying joyfully out / over the great plain / in the sun / pausing at blossom after blossom / cup after cup // and then happily back again / to rejoin / the orderly community of the hive

Anonymous, translated and edited by Geoffrey Squires, MY NEWS FOR YOU: IRISH POETRY 600-1200 (Shearsman Books, 2015)

FRAME of REFERENCE Perhaps we are like the Ridiculous Man of Dostoevsky ‘s tale whose evil eye has introduced corruption into the world. The corruption blossoms as the counterfeit world whose mingling of life and death mimics life—but it really serves death. Unlike the Ridiculous Man we now refuse the dream he had of the inexpressible goodness of the true life beyond the counterfeit one. [p. 229]…The agapeics transforms the social space of our between- being, consecrates it into a neighborhood of love wherein neighboring, as a “being beside,” is neither simply passive nor simply active. It is not passive, though it is in receiving, and hence there is a loving patience to it. It is not active, since it is not simply a construction, though we have to constructively engage with others in the neighborhood. We receive and do ourselves in the neighborhood. [p. 411] WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Univeral (2016)

The presence of Lyric in modern culture IS subversive. It undermines the hegemony of the idealist image with the narrative of passage. Whereas the rule of autonomy — that the fullness of being is the self-defined individual — has created an Ultimate in an image of Eros, the lyric narrative sustains an understanding of life as plurivocal community devoted to finite others. Call that the order of Agape.

Squire’s translations from the Old Irish lyric supply brilliant examples of the lyric narrative. They sometimes feel like fragments — ARE fragments grammatically speaking — but stand on their own. They stand on their own because the unit of meaning in lyric is not the “image“ of the autonomous self but the porosity of that self in passage, in community.

The expansion of the image of passage by participles — flying, pausing— is especially felicitous. The whole sense of the step-by-step unfolding rounds off in the image of return.

As we struggle to conceive of the post-capitalist world, lyric is an invaluable resource. (In the FRAME of REFERENCE I submit two points of view relevant to the case.) Squires’ carefully wrought syntax creates a double image of action and intention— of animal being in passage. Phrases like “not insignificant” and “joyfully” may trigger the Ridiculous Man in us, as may the whole of the final section.

“Orderly community” is not ideological but a complex image of lives in passage, in communication. The “Between” of the busy yellow bee we recognize, if only unconsciously, as our own ON A GOOD DAY. The event of unconscious recognition is inseparable from poetry, however. That’s the “Medieval” part?

LYRIC COMPANION Linda Gregg “Night Music”

She sits on the mountain that is her home / and the landscapes slide away. One goes down / and then up to the monastery. One drops away/ to a winnowing ring and a farmhouse where a girl / and her mother are hanging the laundry. / There’s a tiny port in the distance where / the shore reaches the water. She is numb / and clear because of the grieving in that world. / She thinks of the bandits and soldiers who / return to the places they have destroyed. / Who plant trees and build walls and play music / in the village square evening after evening, / believing the mothers of the boys they killed / and the women they raped will eventually come / out of the white houses in their black dresses / to sit with their children and the old. / Will listen to the music with unreadable eyes.

From A BOOK of LUMINOUS THINGS, ed, Czeslaw Milosz p. 127

FRAME of REFERENCE Polemos [war] is the king and father of all things for Heraclitus, but there is a logos that runs through all things, a universal intimate in the course of things. But where is such a logos in Nietzsche? Deeper than logos is chaos. More intimate than the universal , logos itself at bottom is chaos. Nothing one reads in Nietzsche seems to have resources rich enough to prevent, finally, the collapse of the difference between “eros ourranios” [heavenly eros] and “eros tyrannos.” WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 374f.

Evil is hard to think about. The imagination calls on the apocalyptic traditions in its efforts to do so. That risks the charge of self-indulgence, or worse, the charge of the manipulation of the emotions of woe and wonder to gain power over a helpless audience. Because of its minor role in the human economy, lyric offers ways of contemplating this most difficult theme.

In his headnote to this poem in A Book of Luminous Things, Milosz, who among modern poets was no foreigner to the themes of evil, mentions almost in passing that the poet Linda Gregg was aware of the prominence of evil in her setting, a landscape in modern Greece. The tone of this remark defies description.

Enigmatic might do it. The value of the poem is the failure of monstrosity to defeat the artist. Gregg makes excellent use of the lyric narrative. With roots in many world cultures, the lyric narrative flourished in Ancient Greece, as readers of this column are aware. Gregg makes no use of ancient myth. Her mode is quiet objective description before it develops the deeper voices.

Quiet it is not quite: the long, almost casual lines unfold a syntax both musical, physical, and impersonal. The subject “she” seems purely instrumental. Within a few short parallel constructions it focuses on a domestic, mother-daughter scen, then the background in the distance: a tiny port where the shore reaches the water. It’s as if reaching the water was the point all along.

And the poem turns inward. “She” sits on her mountain doing something women are often seen doing in art and life, so the poem suggests. But the quality of her detachment is not a personal excellence but a response to what she sees. She is “numbed” by what she sees as she looks down her mountain, but is also “clear.” She’s not excited or confused by it.

She “thinks.” Nothing poetic, she just sticks to the facts about the people involved, the bad actors as we say now— bandits and soldiers. But thinking is still paying attention to them in terms of what they do not what they know. The reader, carefully preparared by the narrative’s inward turn, may fail to see the bandits and soldiers for what they have become.

Returning to the places they have destroyed they build it back. Plant trees. Build walls— trees and walls being targets of past destructions. And now they fill the evenings with music they make, filling the new-made village with the sounds of normal, creative, human life. And they believe in the redemptive power of good works and patience. The poem suggests a difference between humans and walls and trees but only suggests by invisible or rather inaudible but growing gaps in the narrative.

But “she” as narrator becomes less numb and less clear now. Her detachment has given way to truths less given to description and quiet syntax. As practiced readers of lyric we expect by now a shift in point of view. The five lines of the closing section have the long relaxed lines of the body of the poem but they are charged not with recognition and acceptance but with disbelief.

Lyric pushes us beyond what we are used to. We are not used to seeing past and present in terms of the unspeakable nature of Evil. The woman on the mountain, we now know, only exists because of the poem. Her very human voice has become the voice of truth in the poem. Yes, numb and clear, but not only that.

Finally the pretense of syntactic calm gives way to the violence of its theme. A sentence fragment ends with a poetic figure, a figure which just barely contains the unspeakable and only does so because we will it, because we pause in the end to contemplate the infinite (unbounded) meaning of what is the Other — “The unreadable”— to the poem itself.

We have come to expect this as the unfinishable way lyric ends, but we never expect THIS opening so strangely before us now in the absence of words.

LYRIC COMPANION Philippe Jaccottet/Mahon “Airs”

Each flower is a little night / pretending to draw near //But where its scent rises / I cannot hope to enter / which is why it bothers me / so much and why I sit so long / before this closed door // Each color, each incarnation / begins where the eyes stop // This world is merely the tip / of an unseen conflagration

from Selected Poems, translated by Derek Mahon (Wake Forest University Press, 1988)

FRAME of REFERENCE In the charged field of aesthetic happening, the most useful thing might be the art of a sacred magic that enters into the fluid porosity between the human and the divine. What is “useful” in this field has an aesthetic charge that cannot be separated from the sacred and the beneficences and the curses of the powers on us. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 269.

In his preface to his Selected translations of Jaccottet’s poems, Derek Mahon contrasts the poet’s presuppositions with those of Samuel Beckett. In “Airs,” the book from which our poem has been selected, Jaccottet says, “To start from nothing, that’s my rule. Everything else is distant smoke.” Beckett, however, said that the poet must accept his fundamental lack, “ failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion.” Mahon concludes that they share the presupposition that they have almost nothing to say, but finds Beckett too systematic and anyway, unlike Beckett, Jaccottet is in love with the earth.

This comparison amounts to a mini-dialogue about nihilism and the many shades of gray. But the stark difference is clear to Mahon: Jaccottet starts with the lack,the nothing. His love of the earth makes a big difference. Mahon’s pithy discussion draws on the biblical narrative of Genesis: creation from nothing, the difference, the lack, the love.

The poem itself reconfigures the Genesis narrative at several removes, but Mahon is not wrong to situate the poem in the contrast with Beckett. The poem opens with a thumbnail of the poet sitting mute in front of a flower which has cast a spell on him. (See the FRAME of REFERENCE.) Mahon’s superb ear translates something of the original’s light touch and its rhythmic play between the syntax and the line length.

It’s important to read this small poem aloud to come under the sway of its scope and dimensions.

The opening couplet involves us in an insuperable, an “existential,” difference. The flower only “pretends” to close the distance between the poet and itself. The descent into the frustration and resentment on the side of the poet is vigorously expressed in the middle stanzas. The final figure of “the closed door” has the crispness of the opening image, woven of essential “is” and personification. Unlike the opening, this middle draws on the original myth of origin: “toute vie” begins where our appreciative glance stops. The flower is closed to our affectionate regard.

Mahon emphasizes the Ur-myth of the Biblical / Christian origin story by translating “toute vie” as “each incarnation.” This is in line with his conclusion that Jaccottet “is in love with the earth.” And so we have reached the turn of the poem. We can’t go on. Color, that inexplicable dimension of things that often articulates the differentiating beauty of the individual, is a tease, a bad cosmic joke.

Nihilism is the only word for it. The ardor of his love and the depths of his wretchedness as a spurned lover yield to a compact universalizing image: framed by the distinction “seen/unseen” the image of the depths of the world as a fiery chaos draws on Nietzsche’s myth of Dionysus, to mention only one version of the “Nothing” which is really, it would seem, Everything . And yet the poet’s love of the beauty of this world sustains his patient loyalty to this incomprehensible finite other (Beauty).

Thus the lyric narrative comes to a resolution OUTside itself— other than thought; the “thought,” which is smartly expressed in the traditional image of the fire beneath the surface, does not exhaust the Eros of the poet.

LYRIC COMPANION Jane Clarke “Gone”

No dawn / in the day of gone // no spring / in the year of gone // no gate / in the wall of gone // only a gap / where he’d stand // watching the cattle / content in long grass

From WHERE THE TREE FALLS (Bloodaxe Books 2019)

FRAME of REFERENCE Our fear of death is the love of life running away from the mortal limit that measures its “to be,” as given into the porosity of being, as always constitutively marked by the elemental patience of being that makes us (religiously put) creatures. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 226

Human creaturehood is taking a hit with the Covid-19 virus, no doubt about it. It’s almost as if we live in apocalyptic times. There’s the issue of scale. On top of the virus, now we have the West Coast fires. I moved from Portland Oregon three years ago back to Rhode Island. Yesterday it was reported that the amount of Oregon that has gone up in flames is equal to the great state of Rhode Island.

Job one is to return our minds to scale. Jane Clarke’s quiet poems can help. They help us confront the most important fact of our existence, the fact of death. The FRAME of REFERENCE given above is a good place to start in our consideration of one of her most modest-seeming lyrics, “Gone.” What measures the limit of our being is the fear of death, that is the turning away from life as given in our human situation, our condition of being in the porosity between mortality and eternal life. But the poem makes all those metaphysics eloquently clear.

For all its minimalism, “Gone” is a brilliantly composed lyric, fully engaged with the lyric narrative. As we have found in all our mindful readings of short poems, it proceeds by negatives. To focus on X, we contrast it to Y. This process begins by stating the givens of the case and proceeds to confronting and in some sense embracing its finite other. A good lyric goes beyond the idealism that folds the negation back into the positive. That’s each lyric’s secret form.

Clarke makes the lyric scheme obvious. She starts with the paradox defining the subject: once goneness — death— has happened, there is no starting over. No dawn, just endless day, acknowledgment of apocalyptic change. And as the paradox expresses it, we can’t handle the change.

So we back up. The lyric explores the case. No dawn to the day, no Spring to the year. Just unpunctuated (like the poem itself) undifferentiated sameness. But realized more deeply as we take in the poem. Meanwhile we confront the positive other of our creaturelyness. We grieve.

We grieve at the gate in the wall of our finitude, the gate which doesn’t exist. What’s gone is gone, what is left is us. The poem executes, in fulfillment of its primordial narrative, its turn. The gate not there is reframed as a gap.

Gap is among the most expressive of contemporary words. Where would Alice Oswald be without that word and its rich equivocity? A gap is double: aporia (no-way) and a void, perhaps, as we take it metaxically, a FERTILE void. But a void nonetheless. Nature may hate a void but human nature is riddled with voids, and we dote on riddles.

Is Clarke’s “Gone” a riddle?

The turn of the lyric yields not some version of the bereaved self, stopping short of embracing its loss as more than it can think and so other to its self-regarding grief. But a to-the-life look at what is gone in all its presence. That is, to use a word from the tool kit of Julian of Norwich AND Wittgenstein, the last step of the lyric narrative, is a SHOWING. We see the missing he: as in life, a life overflowing with “content” (the Shakespearean ambiguity of that word is NOT to much for this lyric but very much of its too-muchness.

This “porosity” between a mortal life and its infinite other defines the scope of the lyric. This reconfiguring seems to be built into our mortal being as it contemplates the case. This shaping is why we “trust to good verses” in Herrick’s phrase. Herrick knew something about how short poems figure in times-transhifting.

You can trust Clarke’s “Gone” to be a faithful companion on the way.

LYRIC COMPANION Eugene Guillevic “There Are the Moments”

There are the moments / When one could drowse off / Even right beside you / Without lack of respect. // There are the moments, perhaps, / A great calm inflicts on you, // When you have settled your accounts / And found them good. // Everyone sometimes, / Even you with your frenzy, / Can be pleased with themselves.

Trans Denise Levertov. “Guillevic: Selected Poems” (New Directions, 1969), p93.

FRAME of REFERENCE. The agapeics constitutes an aesthetic field of communication. …The augmentation of the “more” in offered communication is the miraculous multiplication of relation(s) in the intimate universal. …It is communication from the full to the full, not from the lacking to the full. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (2016), p. 92.

Levertov’s Guillevic is a substantial piece of modern poetry in English. Her impeccable plain style, based on her reception of Williams and other American modernists, makes it seem natural. Guillevic’s place in French intellectual history is fascinating but won’t concern us this morning. We are in quaranteen and in need of companionship that speaks to our condition of isolation and despair.

A few facts: Throughout “Carnac,” named for his birthplace in Brittany, the poet addresses the ocean in all its moods. Since antiquity, the ocean has symbolized the great enigma. Alternating between mortal threat and buoyant enabler, the ocean has earned the respect, even the reverence, of mankind.

Not the Love, to jump ahead.

So there’s nothing obscure about this piece of the grand mosaic that is Carnac, Guillevic’s booklenth meditation on his home-by-the-Atlantic. The lyric narrative begins on a rare note of accord. The poet sees himself as a kind of Odysseus, much tossed about but to that extent feeling on top of things. Peace prevails for the moment. Respect— not love, not reconciliation—is the mood.

Readers of the professional variety are wont to register some refusal showing their superiority: isn’t this mood a kind of personification, even pantheism? We are talking about the Destructive Element here! As thoroughly modern people we know enough to distance our selves from such primitive nonsense.

Going deeper into the mystery of the peaceful moment, the poet speculates (remember the middle of the lyric is given to dialectical examination of the opening situation). Guillevic summons up the improbable but illuminating imagery of his own profession as tireless worker in the state finance department in Paris. (He’s also a Communist in good standing, so he has personal experience of the ethical complications of modernity.)

Levertov’s diction renders the complexity of the moment with great finesse. The great, the monumental self-obsessed Reality, is suffering an almost charming recess in its immanent being. The poet is if not charmed receptive. The FRAME of REFERENCE provides the perspective of the lyric narrator. This is a moment not of the strenuous otherness of Eros but the more original unity of the intimate universal. The Eros Tyrannos of the ocean is subdued in what might be taken as the peace of coital indifference if this were Late Yeats.

But it is Guillevic. His communist realism, his commitment to the hard finite otherness of reality, keeps myth at bay. There is no Presocratic effort to find the symbolic Universal in the universal impermanence. The final tone of the poem accepts the wonder of the moment for what it is: not a sublime reconciliation of opposites but a grateful recognition of what Desmond’s metaxological Between would name “porosity,” the communication between the finite and the infinite that is an improvement on Eros. It is not an escape from reality but a grateful acceptance of possibility that redefines nothingness, the siren of modern materialism, as a fertile void.