LUMINOUS THINGS Jane Hirshfield “A Story”


from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz, p. 42

Something about idiot selving calls to mind some considerations about no-self (one thinks of certain doctrines in Buddhist thought). There is a more intensely intimate attention to the idiotic which opens up the porosity—-the “fertile void,” as I put it. This is not a static substantial self (as usually understood). The idiotics of the intimate universal is more than selving and othering, for these latter both are in the porosity, both participating in (overdeterminate) being and the fertile void, too much and nothing much.

William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, p. 456, fn. 1.

Jane Hirshfield is enormously successful. Few poets have reached her level of authority in American culture. Her success is two-fold, as a poet and as a teacher of Buddhism. So it is appropriate that Milosz’s headnote retells the Siddhartha foundation story and acknowledges his personal friendship with the poet. The theme of nature’s indifference and the role of compassion in Buddhism is further context for the reader.

The poem is likewise structured as if in response to the intimate universal. There is no attempt at rational unity. But Hirshfield is an old hand at the lyric narrative and how it draws the reader toward the abyss of the self. The poem reaches that point through a dialectic of points of view, increasingly “subjective.” Does the poem deliver the reader from the tendency in modern thought to resolve tensions through a variety of unities or “holisms” by which fact and language merge in an unstable but rhetorically potent moment?

The nesting structure of selves begins forthrightly in the objective opening. As we’ve come to expect from the lyric narrative, the next step moves into the equivocity of language. The “story of a small wild bird” has a generic feel of a fable. We are no longer in the world of Milosz’s “nature.”

The equivocity of language is double, both objective and subjective, to use outmoded modernist categories. The poem reinforces the hegemony of this dualism in the image of the beautiful dead bird. Its beauty has survived its death as anyone can tell who sees it there on the windowsill.

Enter the next selving voice, that of a little girl who responds to the universality of beauty by imaging the bird awakening from death. To further explore this equivocity as a matter of sense experience (the dichotomies of the poem involve those early modern dualisms the Romantics struggled with, only Hirshfield assumes them for the purposes of her story). Hirshfield’s voice is now emerging as a dimension of disbelief without undermining the voice of the narrative.

We are near the abyss now. The poem now turns to the point of view of the “woman.” First she sees what the child sees in the bird’s still, beautiful form. (Keats’s epigram about beauty being all ye need to know resonates here.) Hirshfield pushes the envelope now of the imagined response to the conflict between truth and illusion, a conflict where Buddha dwells. We move from seeming to “saw.” The woman “saw how.” How “the true,’ how the “true life”….

Seeing how! We’ve reached the final stage of the lyric narrative where the self yields to selving beyond itself. That’s the script. It’s usually capped by an image of non-objective/non-subjective radical otherness. What the woman saw showed in her face. She hid her face from the child. Why? To protect it from the complexity involved in seeing “the true life.”

The true life which “lifted/under the wings” which however beautiful are dead. Hirshfield has pulled out the stops of her craft. “Lifted” is perfectly imperfect as a word for what the woman understands, for the word compounds the ambiguity. “Under” bears a lot is structural weight here. Does it work for you? The difficulty of the image is reconfigured in the last phrase as simple complication. Fair enough. Hirshfield’s voice remains her own.

I cite the Desmond text to provoke thinking beyond the spell of the poem. The category “idiot selving” is idiomatic to Desmond’s metaxology. We like to mull over the idea of self with regard to the poem’s voice. It’s as if a new self emerges, not eclipsing the poet’s own voice but reframing it as other. Encouraged to think beyond classical reason and its doubles—-its universals and particulars—-we may slip into a holistic frames of mind that smudges the distinction between the primacy or firstness of the intimacy of the universal and the products of selving and othering. This process is abundantly illustrated in the narrative of Hirshfield’s poem. It is troubling on the level of the author’s intention, which may be caught up in its telling.

That is: Does Hirshfield construct an experience of holistic unity for the reader and then take it away? Does this manipulation fill out the negative vibe of her use of “woman”? Or is the woman Everyman who must suffer the illusion of beauty being all ye need to know?

Unresolvable questions.

LUMINOUS THINGS Denise Levertov “Living”


From “A Book of Luminous Things,” ed. Milosz p. 24

It is not easy at all to talk about this porosity of being, or of the primal porosity that marks our being. For how to get a fix on a porosity? There is no direct way, since porosity draws attention to the relative absence of determination rather than any fixed determinacy. Porosity is what allows passage. Porosity is permeability. Porosity is an opening. Porosity seems like a field of emptiness. So, at first glance, it seems. If this is so, how pin it down at all? How to refer intelligibly to it at all, except perhaps by subtraction from what determinably is already there?

William Desmond, “The Untimate Universal,” p. 209.

Why should thinking people care about poetry? Denise Levertov, a young British poet with roots in Hasidic Russia, discovered a new American style practiced by William Carlos Williams, and the rest is history. She became a foremost experimental poet in America and a indefatigable source of eloquesnt political and cultural protest. She eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest. Her presence in Luminous Things attests not only to her local charisma in Milosz’s life but to her relevance to the question, why should thinking people care about poetry?

Religion was always an issue for Levertov as it was for Milosz. Her religious journey brought her to Catholicism. But as a radical thinker she resisted identifying with the Church. She drew on many traditions, mystical included. “Living” illustrates her mature thought.

Most people would not call it thought. Depending on her finesse as an imagist, “Living” fulfills the lyric narrative in ways some might consider solipsistic. It opens by pointing to phenomena—-the fire in leaf and grass—-that is inseparable from metaphor. But she quickly reconfigures the commonplace metaphoric complex light/fire as a matter of appearances. It “seems.” This note of reserve is essential to her style.

It gives way to the lyric narrative as she explores the equivocal nature of her topic. It refocuses on time itself. This basic image of life as light involves the contemplative poet in the sense of time’s constitution as not only duration but the limits of being itself. Things last in time and communicate their lastingness in terms of the last, the end of duration.

Her sense of deep verbal play expands the scene in the second stanza. The camera pulls back and refocuses on very big things: wind blowing, leaves shivering. A touch of anthropomorphism prepares us for the refrain: “each day the last day.” Ecclesiastes weighs in. More specifically the echo of Renaissance plague-time lament, preserved in several plainstyle English lyrics, broadens and deepens the perception of the poem’s voice, emerging from those first more personal images. Levertov’s dialectical skill makes it look easy.

The poem leaps from the general to the particular in the third stanza. Exotic but quotidian, the image of the salamander, which reappears in lyric poetry as an image of ounceness or the instancy of being, is perceived as happening now to the poet. Enjambment opens into the final stage of the poem. For the first time the imagery breaches the reserve of the style: description and first person narrative—-I hold / my hand open—-communicate the community of the flesh in the moment: the eschatology of lastness becomes personal as well as universal. Desmond’s “Intimate Universal” comes to mind.

As does, on reflection, the “porosity,” which as an image of what comes first is a “problem” for thinkers. Yet in this poem the narrative makes it perfectly clear. The “Let” of scriptural tradition foregrounds the immediacy of creation. It is an act. It is personal. Levertov fuses the image of lastness and firstness in the release of the salamander.

Now THAT is epiphany!

The scope of the little poem suddenly expands: the final, the last, subject is the primal porosity. In the quote above Desmond suggests that one of the few ways to conceive of the porosity (that fluidity between something and nothing) is through negation, subtraction. This subtle double focus startles the reader as she feels both the quicksilver flesh of the salamander AND its escape. It literally passes from our conscious concrete awareness. Porosity is like an afterimage, more real now than the absence of the salamander.

The “greatness” of this small poem makes it signify as a good way to educate yourself out of the narrow conception of poetry that SEEMS to limit its role in our community. Don’t be fooled. The lyric is not just entertainment, it helps us think. The lyric fulfills the promise of communication. It cleanses us of various poisons that choke off the porosity from our sense of humanity. The deplorable state of human relations revealed by Covid-19 should make the modern self, structured by mindless and deadly prejudices, deeply aware of its parochial nature. Denise Levertov made way for a better humanity.


LUMINOUS THINGS Mary Oliver “The Kingfisher”


from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz p. 20

In coming to what seems most intimately one’s own, one comes upon what is not self-owned. Seeking to own itself, the owning of this selving darkens down into a cave that is not its own. The selving claiming exemplary singularity is undergrounded by nothing but an opening upon nothing. It is an abyss, it is a gap—-the gap is a chaos in the etymological sense. The singular selving is split, double, redoubling within itself, in an opening of space it cannot claim for its own. I would say that in this gap that “the porosity” is to be rediscovered anew and in this is to be recovered the sources of true creativity.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, p. 74.

Mary Oliver (1935-2019) MAY be THE most popular poet in America. Yet a close reading of her poems reveals an uncanny talent for exposing the shaky grounds of that popularity. We can get a handle on “The Kingfisher” by attending to the “voice.”

As we’ve shown, “voice” is itself a misleading concept. Taken to point to the voice of the poet—-that singular, albeit creative, thing—-the voice of the poem emerges as a complex unstable blend of insights generated by the flow of forms through the duration of the poem. It is not a single thing. It is polyvocal, grounded in the equivocity of communication in the between shared by poet and reader.

Voice is a dimension of a deeper structure: selving. The poem selves the poet. Or seems to. Maybe doubly?

Oliver is particularly brilliant at showing the happening of selving. In “The Kingfisher,” the process of selving IS the lyric narrative. Starting with a Hopkin’s-level description, the opening captures the aesthetic event of this thing we call Kingfisher—-even the compound word suggests an unstable combination between culture and nature.

The extraordinary luminosity of the image is both a Milozian epiphany and a pretext for searching the equivocities: the voice responds immediately in a contrasting sentimental mode. This plunges the reader into the dialectical middle of the narrative. The reader, having “seen” the Kingfisher, now must re-see it as the poem explores the “world” of the “you.” The reader is caught in the middle between pretty and dying: superlative prettiest and coyly qualified dying.

Next stage: from description to garrulity, the voice seems on edge, defensive: don’t I deserve a splash of happiness? I want to BE the sovereign Kingfisher, my prey is a silver leaf; I am a bejeweled blue flower. Death has nothing to do with it! Just a little happiness! Leaves are a dime-a-dozen; anyway I, myself the Kingfisher, wasn’t born to THINK!

Oliver’s boldness in uncovering the willful selving of the self-indulgent poet/reader is profoundly double. It is both satirical and sympathetic. The self has taken the plunge into the otherness of the Kingfisher. It is in the abyss of equivocal identity where there be dragons.

Desmond’s text shows us this stage of the creative process: the willful loss of “self.” It’s HARD. The voice of the poem has become increasingly shrill as it splits with its old self which longed to be/have the otherness of the Kingfisher. Poets really do risk facing their nullify as the voice of the poem gathers strength. (I think of the energies unleashed by all the selving going on in Geraldine Clarkson’s debut book of poems, “Monica’s Overcoat of Flesh.”)

The intensity of the closing lines, the wail erupting from the poet’s “thoughtful body” doubled by the worth of its very life! Thus exposed, this desire to be somebody, someTHING, else, beautifully (like the opening images but now in the new charged voice) emerges in a complex phrasing of sameness and difference. Is the reader WITH the voice of the poem in its doubleness? Something, anything—-perfectly!

As Desmond says, longing is belonging. Milosz’s headnote suggests the community of readers he has in mind. But it is not the community of the poem’s metaxologica community, which is open to the (dangerous) porosity. The new reader/poetic self is profoundly at odds with Milosz’s pained acceptance of the diminished life of rational consciousness. (We know a different Milosz from the poems.) The mindful reader—-a creation in this instance of Oliver’s uncanny art—-has other ideas.

LUMINOUS THINGS Robert Creeley “Like They Say”


from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz, p.18

The promise of being other is the promise of being oneself more fully, in being more fully with the other, in being in communication. Fully being oneself in communication and not being fully oneself cannot be separated by us. Hence we are creatures of longing and desire. Community is there in the desire to be oneself. Longing is belonging. Both are intimate and the promise of the universal. Longing for what, belonging to what? The wise blood in the flesh has an intimation; the aesthetic field of the earth gives signs but does not tell straight.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, p. 260.Z

In his commentary on this slender poem, so different in texture from his European maximalist aesthetic, Milosz invokes one of the most powerful myths of the Scriptural tradition, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. It’s an allusion the poem does not specifically encourage. I cite the Desmond text as perhaps more relevant. As developed by Desmond, thinking in the between, or metaxology (metaxu Greek for “between”; Plato developed this approach in key texts Desmond returns to throughout his voluminous writings). In his hands the Metaxy is a way of undermining our habit of absolutizing binary logical structures like being and nothingness, nature and culture; thinking in the between relativizes universals, showing instead the structure of the porosity of consciousness, its openness to what is beyond its capacity to manipulate conceptually, the beyond he names the INTIMATE universal, trimming the claws of Augustine’s myth of inferiority/interiority—-God being MORE interior than the self.

Don’t be distracted by that last bit. Let’s go on.

This passage is useful when applied to Creely’s poem. Milosz thought the poem through Biblically. We can think it metaxologically. The poet figure longs to be MORE OF himself, not different, but the woodpeckers disturb his dream. They do so because HE disturbs THEM. Why does the poet lay this very human trip—being in a disturbed mood—-on the woodpeckers? He doesn’t say. The poem is entitled “Like they say.”

As we used to say in school, it’s a problem of communication.

The mood of disturbance is part of the fundamental structure of the between—-communication. The woodpeckers are happy, fully engrossed in their being woodpeckers. They communicate their happy being in their noisy aggressive work which is tied into their particular between or ecological niche. Unlike the poet, they don’t long for more. Moreness is an essential motif in the original story of the Metaxy we find in Plato: love is a continuum of lack and plenty. Humans are structured by love.

Easy to superimpose that myth on the Biblical one, but not necessary. Creely is a fine poet and follows the lyric narrative through the senses of being: the setting, the interiorization of the setting in terms of equivocal language (I watched two happy), which opens the can of worms we call consciousness: is the man jealous of the woodpeckers? Who precisely is disturbed? Human self-understanding as illustrated by Biblical myth is profoundly dialectical, which is the third sense of being for Desmond. “Longing is belonging.”

There’s something about the hard knocking of wood pecking that resembles the hard thinking required by poetry—-I’m just saying.

The poet imagines and PERFORMS, however incompletely, community in his poem. At his disposal are WISE BLOOD —-“phenomenological/chiastic” flesh as the porous between—-and EARTH. But the earth does not “tell straight”—-does not reduce meaning to univocal concept. Reality is plural—a crucial principle in metaxological thinking.

The ‘signs’ of the Earth—-the final, metaxological stage of the lyric. Full porosity between finite man and what is other to his being/thought. Creely’s brilliant dialogical twist, linking to the title, reveals the irreducible otherness in the situation and perhaps answers the question of happiness. The poet thought “to himself.” The off-handed gesture fills momentarily the gap of the between with SELF as saying. “Like I say.” The porosity of this between is momentarily clogged by off-handed speech. But qua gap it’s also an opening.

This interpretation should bother you. Disturb you. Through the lyric narrative the poem has it both ways: the Biblical take, based on the inward awareness of guilt, and the metaxological take, which, without denying the first, reconfigures it in its double “my presence.” The “negative” “not” reopens the communication between the poet and his other, the woodpeckers. They say, I say. The poem does not resolve the living dimensions of the moment but holds them open, keeps them open in the reader’s imagination. A sort of peaceful between.

LUMINOUS THINGS David Wagoner “Loons Mating”

from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz

AESTHETICS (Glossary). Aesthetics refers to something more elemental and universal than art considered as a human intervention or construction. It refers us to the fleshed intermedium in which the communication of the intimate universal happens and is formed. The universal as intimate is intimated in the immediacy of the aesthetics of happening. There is a self-surpassing in the sensuous flesh itself—-the body in itself goes beyond itself. Aesthetic embodiment refers itself as much to the porosity of being asan open field of interplay as to the determinacy of being enfleshed therein.

William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 419.

In his preface to “Nature,” the first section of the anthology, Milosz says Nature is beyond good and evil; it’s the “great Other.” But he adds that in the modern period, we feel kinship with the non-human world of “basic drives.” Consciousness is humanity’s double burden, “our curse and blessing.”

The tensions in this set of themes allow him great freedom as an anthologist. We find Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” as well as Denise Levertov, a personal friend. He opens with the less well-known David Wagoner, whose “Loons Mating” is meant to express ambivalence toward what we might call the “aesthetics” of nature.

But the ambivalence of the word “aesthetics” here, as it expresses Milosz’s moral reservations, needs correcting. As Desmond’s glossary entry shows, we can reconfigure the issues in terms of the intimate universal. For Milosz, the intimacy of the universal (as opposed to the classical sense of universal as conceptually binding in all things), is the problem. For Desmond, aesthetics is a primary sense of being. All things are “aesthetic” and reveal themselves in “the immediacy of happening.” That fits what happens in Wagoner’s poem. Once again, a good poem is good “aesthetically” —-as a happening—-and good as thinking. This double-good emerges as the poem emerges in the reader’s mindful reading of the poem.

I’m tempted to cut to the chase and ask, have you ever heard a loon calling? Unforgettable! Thousands of poets have referred to its eerie other-worldly sound. That way of putting it is a cliche and exposes prejudices about the nature/culture duality that haunts popular culture.

The poem seems to be a scrupulous description “from nature.” That’s certainly how Milosz presents it. And its true. Desmond’s sense of aesthetic happening clears things up.

Note: Wagoner’s focus is clear and tight—-no sentimental lake effects. “Blurred smooth by dawn” draws on the equivocity of appearances and poetry’s capacity to let slip rigid categories. “Charmed circles” is a light touch conveying the increasing sense of aesthetic wonder as not dependent on subjective response. The poem carefully unfolds the specifically lyric narrative as happening to/through “the lake’s mercurial threshold.”

To back up: the situation in which the lyric is embedded and which it nourishes is not a concept or theme: it is a between. It “represents”: an account of porosity not rigid categories. Here specifically the flow between moments of dawn. Call it with Wagoner the threshold: it is a dynamic space that opens up. The lyric pays strict attention to thresholds as it moves in the porosity of its between.

It is a precise account of a happening “in nature,” and as such feels the more ”intimate.” He only graudually includes the observer in this Between. The moment “in nature” appears in careful phenomenological description: “…the threshold/Whose face and under face they share/in wheeling and diving tandem, rising together…” The close up shots—“beaks turned down and in”—bring the human into the scene. We are near the shore now. (There’s a subtle reference in “down and in” to the “itinerary of the soul” as portrayed by Augustine and countless others.)

The complexity, temporal and spacial, of the moment is gently opened to include an awareness that embraces the limits of this between. “And now…and now…” We have reached the moment of the intimate universal. It is communicated as so often by a feel for nonce unities in the imagination. The poem, finding its style in careful description from the playbook of Darwin, finally reaches beyond that legacy to a more intimate, a more universal “aesthetic.” “Beautiful sane laughter” completes the lyric narrative by acknowledging the paradoxical other than can be thought.

LUMINOUS THINGS Carlos Drummond de Andrade “In the Middle of the Road”


from A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Milosz

Idiotics: The etymological meaning of “idiot” refers us to the intimate: a reserve of being that is prior to determinacy, and that yet is not entirely incommunicable. Each of us lives idiotically, insofar as each of us is a singular being, whose very singularity seems to verge on being incommunicable in terms of conceptual abstractions and neutral generalities. We live our lives from within out, with this singular stress of self-being. This happening of intimate participation is both presubjective and preobjective. It is a happening of singularity in a field of energy, itself a happening of participation that is neither of the self nor of the other, and relative to which what is ibjective also comes later to form, just like the subjective itself. This idiocy is not a “what,” not a neutral generality, and is not to be exhaustively defined by formal determinability. As elemental, it is a charged field of thereness, and qua field it is a intermedium of communication. Idiotics also has to do with a certain intimate sense of the good of the “to be.” As happening, the idiocy of the elemental “to be” is not confined to any one thing, or any one self or other, but opens a given ethos of being, a primal ethos that is a charged field of ontological worth.

William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, p. 422 (Glossary)

In my experience of teaching A Book of Luminous Things, this is one of the most popular of the poems. Students   Respond immediately to the incantatory repetitions. The highly charged impact of this mere fact detonates a reserve of awareness of what Desmond calls the idiotic sense of being. The passive or rather impassive thereness of the stone triggers a shock of recognition.

The stone has no narrative, no inner story. One might say it represents the possibility of inwardness. “We live our lives from within out.” That absurd stone is the Beginning.

But even that seems to go beyond the poem. Something that is first “verges on the incommunicable.”  And yet the poem is not only a witness to the idiotics of being but an exhortation to recognize it.  “Never should I forget this event.” No reason is given for this urgency.  As Desmond’s glossary entry emphasizes, this “stone” cannot be understood by categorical thinking: this stone reasserts itself by its sheer thereness, its power as a pure inarticulate source of communication and even wonder that there is anything (like it).  There is and there isn’t.

In the Nineteenth century, as the Romantic sense of self — that (w)holeness that seems to articulate the lyric’s unity—becomes less and less authoritative, the lyric narrative shifts, the sense of ending recovers an awareness of presubjectibe and preobjective being, to use Desmond’s terms. The post- Romantic poem seems to assert the sheer idiocy or irreducibility of being.  In Desmond’s words, neither the self or the other is at stake, rather the poem “opens” a sense of primal worth in the charge field of communication.

Today the very presence of the lyric, its idiocy,  then may question the priority of nihilism.  Saturated in the creative nothingness of the fertile void, the very idiocy of the voice of the poem involves a sense, a presence, of worth.

But is that saying too much about this poem? Too “Metaphysical”?  We return to the shrewd, laconic headnote where Milosz ties the meaning of the poem to the reader’s capacity for “intense” “meeting with a thing.” The modern tradition of Thing-poetry is saturated in the voices of Rilke, Heidegger, and others. But Milosz frames his commentary in terms of “a moment of thought.”  That’s all it takes to “restore a serious meaning” to our encounter with a thing.

But this misses the “unserious” nature of our encounter with this particular stone. The value of this poem is in that ineffable distinction.

LUMINOUS THINGS Jean Follain “Music of Spheres”


from “A Book of Luminous Things,” ed. Milosz

The porosity is an opening, not only in us, but of ourselves as an opening. We are a passing opening. The porosity is a kind of nothing, in that it is no-thing, but the kind of thing we are is subtended by this no-thing. For the kind of thing we are is marked by the possibility of receiving being other than itself, and of surpassing its own being toward what is beyond itself.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 211.

Milosz’s headnote lacks finesse. His struggle with dualism—in his case, a religious struggle with Gnostic overtones—stresses a narrative of uncomplicated nihilism. The universe revealed by Winter is a cold, empty place. The brilliant image of the spinning can that comes to rest under the cold bright Winter stars seems to lock that vision into univocal clarity.

This rendering of the events of the poem ignores the qualifications embedded in the key figure. He is himself cold, indifferent, empty. He is also powerful. He has keys in his pocket and pointy shoes. He “absent-mindedly” kicks a can down the road with a touch of arrogance.

He fulfills the model of the succesful autonomous man.

Follain’s mastery of the lyric narrative is shown in the complexity of the final image. Follain’s finesse compromises the model of autonomy. The complexity is not merely visual. That image picks up the equivocity of the image of power. The old can steals the scene and comes to rest as a communication of order beyond the man, who is suddenly isolated and subordinated to something very large outside himself.

But there’s more. Reading the poem with porosity in mind (see Desmond text), the man himself, so solid seeming, is touched by nothingness. The man in the passing moment is himself passage. This is the larger truth of the poem.

My brief for the wisdom of lyric stands on how the lyric narrative concludes with this sense of radical openness. The powerful autonomous man is revealed as “subtended” by a transcending nothingness. This nothingness is not merely negative. The Winter’s night sky communicates many things, including the key moment of open consciousness, the wonder communicated by the mystery of being.

So the mindful reader of this poem identifies with this nasty man in his finite otherness and bespoke autonomy. We can imagine ourselves as him, thanks to the poem. Getting to know such a man is a key to liberal education: they are the illiberal masters of the universe.

Or are they? They think they are. The poem criticises the kind of thinking that just thinks its own autonomy (e.g. white supremacy). We learn from metaxical criticism that we are all such passages within the passing universe. We are conscious of our double nature, immanent AND transcendent. Pragmatic criticism is ill-equipped to deal with the fullness and openness of the lyric narrative in terms of immanence and transcendence. Those terms, often scorned by pragmatic critics, simply mark the boundaries of the porosity we are. They are dialectical and as straw. Milosz’s headnote does not quite capture the luminous moment of self-understanding communicated by this poem.

LUMINOUS THINGS Issa “Insect Song”


A Book of Luminous Things, Ed Milosz, p 6

What is to be stressed is the communicability with otherness in that embodiment itself. This is already there in the happening of the aesthetic environment, but we know this more intimately in ourselves, though not in any sense separable from the aesthetics of happening as such. Flesh is the porosity on the threshold of wording. In the flesh the porosity of being comes to aesthetic wording.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 254.

I write this in the resonant aftermath of John Lewis’s funeral. His prophetic message about a universal call to action in behalf of those systematically deprived of the right to self-expression through democratic processes—-especially African Americans—-rings in my ears and soul. And yet I once again turn to my job of writing about poems. How hypocritical!

My belief is this: poetry brings us into communication with the spirit of communication itself. If we block that universal spirit—- and we do, the world being too much with us—- we become disoriented and fail to find our own selves in the primary connections Desmond calls the “porosity.” We need such a word because our awareness of what we have in common as finite beings is constantly disfigured by secondary collectivities in religion, politics, art and so on.

Issa is with Basho the very name of haiku. Milosz’s choice of haiku to illustrate luminous things —- poetry—- in its essence is calculated to strip away conventions of thinking about poems.

The moment captured in these words —- the language of moment has a long complex tradition in philosophy—- is an epiphany of communication. It stresses the non-willful or spontaneous nature of communication. The song of a mere insect!

In the creative world of Issa, insects are beings in good standing. Issa specialized in insect poems, to use the vulgar language of technique and disposability. Insects can be cute. As here, they can seem idiotically unaware of their virtual nothingness.

In the same text from which I draw the above Desmond connects the deep interior being of every soul, as expressed as “interior” to that very self, as a something-nothing. “One is what one intimately is; there seems no gap of ‘nothing’ between oneself and oneself; and yet in the solitude of intimacy there is no solitude. What is the ‘nothing’ here? The gap of ‘nothing’ is the between-space of porosity where the enabling communication of the power of being gives us to be what we are and are to be.”

You may find this abstract language barbarous and beneath you. But the meanings it communicates are essential to the education of human beings. If this meaning is not interiorized, one can’t hear the song of the insect.

Issa’s narrative fleshes out the situation in no undertain terms. The branch on which the insect sings has been torn from its living roots, it has been swept up in the forces of the universal impermanence; it is headed for further disaster. The insect sings, obliviously.

For us to hear that song is for us to identify with the insect. We are one flesh. Do we ‘have’ an idiotic fleshy self that sings despite the circumstances of our finite being? Does this moment forge that identity?

I believe the answers to these questions explain why Milosz placed this poem where he did in A Book of Luminous Things. And in this historic moment of pandemic trans-shifting requiring people to come together against white supremacy, this choice is a good one.


LUMINOUS THINGS Kikaku “Wild Geese”


from A Book of Luminous Things, Ed. Milosz

The artist who assaults is the lesser artist, the artist who is seized is the greater; however, the seizure can sometimes have the appearance of assault, for the companioning power can be terrible. This is the essential equivocity of art. Aesthetic mixture: rarely touching pure porosity, more a promiscuous ambiguous Eros, in which “passio” and “conatus,” patience and striving, interlock in sometimes wondrous, sometimes grotesque, sometimes even obscene embrace.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, p. 82.

Milosz opens his anthology “Luminous Things” with a short section entitled “Epiphany,” referring broadly to an experience of radical otherness. Drawing on Ancient Greek, he says that epiphanies interrupt the normal flow of time and introduce a moment “when we intuitively grasp a deeper, more essential reality hidden in things or persons.”

First item —- as anthologist Ezra Pound would say—-is “Maximus” by D. H. Lawrence (see above), then a haiku by Kikaku (1661-1707).

Haiku were introduced to Milosz’s intellectual life after he came to California. He appears to have been at first an unwilling convert. Certain poet friends prevailed. The entry on Kikaku is somewhat perplexing. It seems to doubledown on the myth of the haiku moment. Kikaku was a student of Basho whom Basho found inconveniently unsubtle. Yet he was loyal after his fashion and left a detailed prose account of the Master’s final days.

It is notoriously hard to translate haiku into English. Milosz chose a translation that observed the formal rules generated by the first haiku establishment in English. It LOOKS like a haiku to us. (For 31 poems by Kikaku translated in single lines see Sato and Watson, “From the Country of Eight Islands.”)

Milosz reads Kikaku’s haiku as an epiphany poem. The passage from Desmond suggests a philosophical context that narrates the existential setting of the poem as an artwork. In Desmond’s view, human consciousness is a tension between an openness toward transcendence—-the passio—-and the constructive will, the conatus (he takes these Latinate terms from the broader traditions of philosophy).

Always first is the primordial porosity between mortals and immortals in the between. This is not the story of philosophical “universals” but of an ‘intimate’ universal not an objective determinate concept. If the constructive will gets the upper hand, the communication between transcendence and finite being is disfigured into a human determination of verbal meaning. In this sense, Desmond’s myth or story of the intimate universal is appropriate to Kikaku’s text.

The poem envisions the poet dozing in a small boat. In the Chinese tradition to which Japanese haiku poets were deeply indebted, poets were often shown adrift in boats—-a concrete image of the passio.

Here the poet is abruptly awakened by a flock of geese passing close by overhead. The imagery emphasizes their bodily strength and forward motion in contrast to the lazy poet. Thus the haiku is a comic illustration of “the essential equivocity of art.” Art is not usually the medium of “pure porosity” —- that would be in Milosz’s term epiphany. Rather art reflects the life of the between. “Epiphany” would be framed as ambiguous ecstasy, or “an ambiguous promiscuous eros, in which patience and striving interlock.” Kikaku split patience (human disengagement) and striving (the bellies of the geese) and presented the whole as a dynamic happening.

It is indeed a fine poem. The image of the bellies convey the sudden nearness of the animal thrust. The poet was perhaps suddenly conscious of his snug little dinghy in light of the wild but purposeful energy of the geese.

Referring to Milosz’s conception of epiphany, this haiku, rather than delivering a “moment” of grasping a deeper reality, delivers an image of finite life in the Between where passio and conatus do sometimes embrace, though the results may differ greatly. This polyvocal conception of art certainly includes poems of pure porosity (see “Maximus”) but more often things are more nuanced.

LUMINOUS THINGS D. H. Lawrence “Maximus”


from “A Book of Luminous Things,” Czeslaw Milosz, Ed.

One of the religious lessons of secularization is that the distinction of politics and religion can enable us to see the difference of this purer service that must wander in the midst of the political powers and their deserts. In the midst of its wandering it may find no place to lay its head and not because it has not yet gained political power but because it is witness to a hyperbolic dimension of the intimate universal, a dimension that political community at its best may allow, even encourage, but never constitute.
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 59.

In the Introduction to Czeslaw Milosz’s poetry anthology “A Book of Luminous Things,” Milosz says that because it focuses on the singular and not the general, poetry is on the side of “being” not on the side of nothingness. However eloquently put, this argument is misleading. And I’m sure Milosz knew what he was saying.

By its very structure, “Luminous Things” (hereafter LT) encourages the reader to consider the metaxical nature of being as these notes would have it based on William Desmond’s philosophy. The first poem we encounter, D. H. Lawrence’s “Maximus,” follows the lyric narrative into the resonant chiaroscuro of the equivocities of being. The objective sense of clarity seeming promoted by the style of the poem is delightfully perplexed by the interlocking structures of the poem. It is a perfectly pitched opener for Milosz’s anthology.

The title refer to Maximus, the philosopher teacher of the emperor Julian, “called the Apostate because he tried to restore paganism,” as we read in Milosz’s headnote to the poem. But as the passage from Desmond suggests, the poem is not about paganism but about, in Desmond’s phrase, the intimate universality of being. Yes, the “singular,” but only in the metaxological self.

Please bear with me. The language of poetry is deceptively simple. In fact it is densely implicated in general thoughts about being. Only the “magic” of poetic thinking turns the poem into a luminous thing.

The opening stanza is an open declaration of belief. God is first. The senses cannot take hold of him. He is a mystery.

But. There are stories about God that seem to give flesh and bones to the mystery. Maximus cites a legend from the “pre-Christian” world of paganism. Desmond’s text provides the ethos or “pitch” of the story. In the figure of the pagan god Hermès, god of, among other things, communication, we see the difference a purer power makes. A Christian would be forgiven for thinking of the man-god of the Gospel texts.

Polytheism is the rich human culture in which the events of the poem take place. The anonymous householder in the poem recognizes the wanderer as God. He is a luminous thing wandering in out of the surrounding desert. The lyric narrative follows the story to its conclusion: this man is a god, too. In Desmond’s metaxical sense, this man is an intimate universal. As Desmond shows in his book “The Intimate Universal” (2016), by separating the singular individual from the philosophic universal, philosophy has betrayed the truth of being.

It is Milosz’s purpose to reconfigure these themes of thought by reading good lyric poems such as those assembled in “Luminous Things.” Poetry is on the side of being not because of philosophy but because of the nature of poetry. In the essays I argue for this way of reading poetry, specifically short poems or lyric. And I suggest finally that poems such as those gathered and presented with profound tact by Milosz should constitute the central texts of “higher education.” Poetry can save us from modern nihilism but only if we pay close attention.