LYRIC PERFORMANCES Geraldine Clarkson “You taught me a new way of singing”

the words thick in my throat— like birds caroling, cat calls, badger / jazz, and all manner of tunes squirreled away / for the future. The lessons burned in my gullet / until in my tum I had taught them to others—/ and the two, three, four, seven of us/ were singing together and jamming—/ thrumming and humming, stipple-/ tonguing in clots and gobs of sound–/ dribbling and sliding, colliding in chords / and climbing, seven-handed, a knotted / bat’s-cradled tree-house skirling with hymns—/ us busking in Basque, arabesque —/ you bosky, you buzzing, you clopping in time.

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

FIELD Of REFERENCE For autonomy can take a rhapsodic form, as in Nietzsche, as well as a rational form, as in Kant. The moderating power of genuine friendship, its qualitative “evening,” proves important once again. It rescues freedom from both rationalistic calculation and the anonymous universal. The friend is a singular human, and the friendship of excellence can also keep us from the baser equivocities of some rhapsodic forms. Why? Because it is bound to a personal name. The personal name of friendship gives anchor or ballast to the rhapsodic energies of joy. There are no anonymous orgies of friendship. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL (Columbia University Press 2016)

Geraldine Clarkson’s first book MONICA’S OVERCOAT OF FLESH is receiving rave reviews. There are many things to praise here: a searing compassion, a many-colored technique, a complex but confident music comparable to Celtic song. Above all is the choral nature of the praise: this book is a happening.

To go deeper into this phenomenon I’ve chosen one of the shorter poems, a sort of ars poetica. Readers of this blog will recognize some of the structural themes, starting with the second person pronoun, but also the increasingly charged interplay of verbal equivocity and conceptual dialectic.

So, who’s this you? It’s instantly followed by me—my throat. But not before some playful equivocity: the reader may do a double take at “thick in my throat.” Not “stick in my throat”? Well, yes, that too.

The verbal thickness of the style requires successive performances: at first, second, third… glance there is no way to master this text conceptually. As a proper lyric it pushes off the terra firma of the opening: I mean it says that singing lessons from many species “burned in my gullet”— the past tense and an autobiographical hook offers a narrative before from which to launch the future (of) song.

Not pausing that sentence becomes the flow to the end. It is a flow of others. Others conceived as specific non-verbal, non-rational expressions of individual voices. The ache in the throat releases two, three, four, seven of us… Then an extraordinary chaos of voices imitating the selving (via Hopkins notably and Joyce and…) of voices.

It is no blur. It is loud perhaps but not pointless. Clarkson’s vision of this new way of singing draws on the oldest “forms” or purposes of selving sounds: praise. Say: Poetic sound is originally and terminally liturgical. Its “end” is not the pure concept or the individual self refolded into an original unity. It is the sound of the finite, singular, intimate other. As in a riff on Augustine’s identity crisis in Confessions. Intimate because more “inner” than any conceptual outer. But also higher than any one you.

Clarkson “shows” what she means but can’t say in so many words (a move crucial to lyric concluding): busking in Basque, arabesque invokes the hooked cross of the Basque “lauburu” or four-headed cross, which is immediately compared with/to another cultural pattern, the arabesque. This epiphany of form suddenly took me back to my youth in the big den chair in Bakersfield exploring word origins in my foxed Partridge and dazzled and numbed by Celtic interlace as a universal voicing of me.

AND FINALLY: the lyric “you” behind the all-performing mask. Who? Bosky, buzzing, clopping— that’s who. See the FIELD OF REFERENCE for a philosophical gloss. This “you” is more intimate than any name, in friendship with mortal others it makes music out of potentially riotous energies of selving. Lyric unity is irreducibly plural, harmonious. Clarkson’s ars poetica is all about friendship.

LYRIC PERFORMANCES Andrew Wynn Owen “Sand Grains”

Almost not anything at all, this particle // Of disconnected shell, /yet squirreling and shot / Through with a chutzpah fit for Frank Lloyd Wright.// Sheer angled mell, // A plankton’s cot, / It chuckles mischief, challenging the light. //A mineature motel, / Where some deceptive plot // Might stumble, after rambling on an article

Of lace, to solve its long-pursued conundrum. // Eureka. Awe. A crux / Hounded between the trees // For donkey’s years, corroborated. Truly, / Eternal flux / (Whatever wheeze // We try to pull), although it seem unruly, / Yields reverence redux. / As everybody sees // Sooner or later, nothing here is humdrum.

from New Poetries 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)

NB Double // signifies a flush left return. Sorry. The poem is beautifully self-conscious in the respect of line action as in all others. Buy the book and see.

FIELD OF REFERENCE Such a practice of philosophy asks a porosity of mindful thought to what exceeds complete determination in terms of finite immanence alone. It is a participant in this middle, does not overreach it from the outside, and if it is, as it were, lifted up from within, it too is always defined by passages in the between. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (Columbia University Press 2016), 167.

Desmond’s phrase ”lifted up from within” suggests the dynamic of Owen’s poetry. The armchair physicist contemplating the quantum paradigm will feel the pull of this dynamic, as will the lover of lyric saturated with English poems from Thomas Traherne to Auden to now. Owen is excessively charged with the givens and gifts of a tradition too easily categorized as mystical. (The reconsideration of the mystical after William James and the experiential hypothesis is one of the more massive eruptions/disruptions of the post-post symbolic era.)

Reconfiguring Blake’s grain of sand might be considered the daydream of a fictive country parson but following Owen’s syntax draws on intellectual and emotional competences rooted in the performative practice of lyric.

Shaping the lines — an aspect not well served by my format — is a mindfulness in excess of Marianne Moore’s laconic style. Swerving in its references from obscure etymologies — mell as in honey— to narrative exempla on the scale of Frank Lloyd Wright— Owen’s oceanic flux of verbal energy follows what we refer to as the lyric chiasm, the inside/ outside vortex that grounds the poem in the honesty of “whatever wheeze / we try to pull.”

Owen’s voice includes the outside skepticism of the inside wonder. Teetering on the edge of inanity is one of his specialties and lifts his poems up from within while acknowledging the frailty of the flesh of the chiasm.

The poem’s essential lyric argument opens at last on not the self-serving wholistic self but on the syntax of “sooner or later, nothing here.” The otherness of the finite other beyond thinking is well within sight. Owen is among the few poet’s today who know how to reach that pitch without self-conscious (and self-defeating) irony. We recall perhaps with a mixture of chagrin and gratitude how, in the words of the author’s preface, “wrong it would be to forget how to be loving.”

In a word, at our best, we are all “passages in the between” as envisioned here.

LYRIC PERFORMANCE Horace “To the Poet Tibullus”

Albius, honest reader of my poems, / What shall I say you are doing, out there in the country? / At work on a poem to outdo Cassius? / Taking a calm salubrious walk in the woods, / And thinking thoughts that are worthy of yourself? // You never were a body without a soul./ The gods gave you good looks and they gave you money, / And gave you the art of being pleased with their gifts. / What more could a governess want for the sweet child she raises, / Than that he should know and that he be able to say / What’s honest and right, and that he should act upon it, / And that he be granted favor and fame and good health, / And the money to live an agreeable kind of life? // Between hope and discouragement, fears, and angers, and such, / Treat every new day as the last you’re going to have, / Then welcome the next as unexpectedly granted. / / When you want a good laugh, you’ll find me here, in the pink, / A pig from Epicurus’s sty, fat, sleek, well cared for.

from The Epistles of Horace translated by David Ferry (FSG 2001)

FIELD OF REFERENCE The incognito generosity shows a surplus of affirmative “to be” as good that is always at work, though it be driven out of the foreground of our picture of things. WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal (Columbia University Press, 2016)

NB: in all my writing about lyric I owe so much to my Berkeley teacher W. R. Johnson and his indispensable book The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (California, 1982)

The voice in lyric is a problematic thing and gets a lot of attention on this blog. Modern lyric since Baudelaire has featured the alienated, ironic, voice. Which means in practice that the first person and second person pronouns lack a foundation in the Common sense world of the reader. So coming upon the “epistles” or literary letters of Horace (65-27 BCE) can be a shock to the system and inoculate the reader from any challenge to it. We instantly file it under irrelevant.

A quick google check will discover that Horace has always been considered thanks to his Odes a master of lyric. We may learn that after publishing his monumental three-volume book of Odes, he turned to a new form of short poem. They drew on philosophical traditions of conversation. Looking at one closely reveals lyric form as we discuss it at Lyric Investigations.

Indeed, my dear reader (!) will recognize many of the essential moves of lyric. The opening scene defers in some key way to the world shared by poet and reader. Then the loosening of our hold on that world as our language loosens into its equivocal status. As that move deepens our sense of our own fragility along with the poet’s and her language, a dance of dialectics takes over: if not this, how about that. The pieces are sharply defined and determinate and open to challenge. As a eddying flow of language it sweeps through, by us. In this section the lyric expands its references to more abstract but no less relevant material that tends to replace the poet’s voice with a more universal but no less intimate voice.

This lyric narrative shapes Horace’s letter to Tibullus, one of the young or “new” poets of his times. He speaks with the authority of the author of the Odes, which were not particularly popular though they had the imprimatur of the emperor Augustus and his minister of culture, who was Horace’s dear friend. He is avuncular and a little awkward in his new persona of the real Horace up close and personal.

After a catalogue of possible images of his addressee, slightly edged at the end with a suggestion of Narcissism, Horace cuts to the chase. Self-knowledge depends on one’s circumstances, and Tibullus had the good fortune not shared by Horace, whose struggles to achieve independence were dependent on the powers-that-be. The passage is both general in a textbook-way and, in its rhythms and warm tone personal. Horace rejoices with Tibullus in his good fortune. As the passage ripens, what moves front and center is Tibullus’s freedom. It was his good fortune to be able to say “what’s honest and right” and moreover that he was free to act on it. He had been granted “favor” AND money and could do whatever he pleased.

The image of Tibullus’s freedom Is obviously ideal, but no less real for that, at least in this letter. We get a glimpse here of the ancient practice of philosophy as spiritual exercise, in this case giving voice to the school of Epicurus. To us it goes down easily (according to our modern Epicurian ideals we believe in the universality of the pursuit of happiness. To Horace and Tibullus it probably had more of the smell of the academic exercise in the gardens of philosophy, and some of the fun was in how Horace could turn that into poetry.

But we are not done, or the lyric narrator hasn’t completed his moves until he can broaden the view beyond the dialectical to the intimate universal. Horace, or the poem, shifts the scene to the “between” or metaxu. Life is lived between the extremes of life and death. This between is porous to one’s individual universality, not the academic universals of the textbooks. The temperature of the language has now risen to lyric intensity. Whatever we receive in the future is excess. Unmerited. A gift of eternity’s beloved Time. Though a gift it shouldn’t be taken for granted. We live in contradiction. Now that’s poetry.

The last lines fulfill the lyric’s endowment of freedom in Horace’s self-image. As finite particular being beyond the scope of thought thinking thinking (Aristotle’s unforgettable phrase), Horace achieves an image of his own true self, grateful for his endowments, which include his gentle if not genteel sense of irony.

So the lyric narrative comes to a definitive end in Horace’s new poetry. As master of lyric, the status he achieved in the Odes, Horace performs lyric in a new non-lyric genre, which is the perfect move for his commitment to personal freedom. In Desmond’s 21st-century philosophical language, lyric is among other things the expression of the “to be” of incarnate free being.

LYRIC PERFORMANCE George Oppen “In Memoriam George Reznikoff”

who wrote / in the great world // small for this is a way // to enter / the light on the kitchen // tables wide- // spread as the mountains’ / light this is // heroic this is/ the poem // to write // in the great / world small

from New collected Poems edited by Michael Davidson, Preface by Eliot Weinberger (New Directions 2008)

FRAME OF REFERENCE When one refers to something neither universal nor particular, one thinks of the schema in Kant (in the Critique of Pure Reason) as a between in that regard. The schema somehow partakes of both the understanding and the sensuous, and is neither one nor the other. If we fixate on these two, and if we fix them, we fail to realize that more important is the power that passes between them. This has something to do with the imagination. This is a threshold power that is not a self-determining power— it is an endowed power, an enabling that itself is secretly enabled by a source it cannot enable by itself alone. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (University of Columbia Press 2016), 77

George Oppen (1908-1984) remains after a spectacularly varied life a poet’s poet. Throughout his life — which included a long silence preoccupied by ideological struggle within the new international Communist movement—he fashioned poems that had a personal purity about them. “Sincerity” captured what he valued in the modern American movement starting with Pound, whom he visited in his thirties and with whom he honorably and openly disagreed.

His late poem for fellow “Objectivist” Charles Reznikoff suggests both the virtues and vices of the style. For all its simplicity of outline it asserts propositions and depends on universals, assertion and dependence being a little contrary to the devotion to objective things. (Oppen loved mechanical things, especially small boats which he sailed with his wife Mary, and once built a car that was also a boat.)

From the metaxical point of view explored in this blog, perhaps too much has been sacrificed. The lyric narrative here lacks the characteristic energetic shaping of the sequence from equivocity through dialectics. Call it minimalism, it draws on the logic of will: small for this is a way // to enter/ the light … The little word for is the load-bearing member.

Performance is essential to this poetics; indeed it must be taken on faith as presented. It serves the lyric’s central figure of speech. And the per-formance reveals that, like many lyrics, the poem depends on analogy for its power: the kitchen tables — note the lack of apostrophe—wide-/spread as the mountains’ / light… (Note the apostrophe.) The comparison by virtue of the incomparability of the lights, we are entering the “widespread” by writing small, so something in light must be the unknown in the suppressed analogy. This is obscure but tantalizingly heroic.

The image is of tables widespread as mountains. The poem implies the light they share makes the difference. As the tables are to the mountains, the light on the tables is to the light on the mountains?

The value of “small” is not differentiated through the lyric narrative: it is asserted and illustrated. Historically this might be classified as “imagism.” Philosophically? In a poem which literally “points,” the climaxing word “heroic” is served by the self-affirming gesture “this” (see Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §45).

In its final lines the poem reasserts its theme not by lyric going beyond thinking (the poem in some sense only gestures towards the finite other) but by literal repetition, which perhaps draws on “repetition of” formula as performed in heroic rhetoric.

But as devoted, as it were, to “the small” in the great world” this poem addressed to his comrade exhibits the characteristic modesty of George Oppen himself. And his metaphysical chops. The devotion is real, the poem charming, the chops an untold story in the history of American lyric, and Oppen a poet worth returning to for what he does and doesn’t say.

Finally, the FRAME OF REFERENCE provides the most generous context for appreciating Oppen’s imagination as more than gesture. It has something to do with imagination, though that’s not part of the program.


When we are by ourselves, somewhere/ alone —as rarely happens—we/ are awkward with the double lack. / We miss the two who are elsewhere/but also the identity/we have in them. When we go back,/ we think, will we have lost the knack/of being who we are? The pair, / the parents, you and me, / who hold and fix, who cope and care./ But we remain that anywhere/ we go. It is us, finally./ Absence is absence, not attack / by nothingness. And we are free / to travel far, to pack, repack, / to take ourselves off anywhere. / We will be here when we come back.

from NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE. Such a practice of philosophy asks a porosity of mindful thought to what exceeds complete determination in terms of finite immanence alone. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal (Columbia University Press 2016), 167.

Toby Litt’s metier is prose fiction but lyrics sometimes happen to him, according to his head note in this anthology. That of course caught my attention. He tells us that “Awaying” “is one parent speaking to another, reassuring them they still exist.”

Thanks to how pronouns work in lyric, this poem needs no such explanation. We can consult the habits of performance of lyric. First the “we.” Traditionally double-focused, “we” often refers to a creature of the lyric moment of immanence, inseparable from the performance of the poem by the reader. Yet it speaks for the poet.

When we are by ourselves, somewhere / alone— as rarely happenswe are awkward… That could serve as a generic opening for any lyric. As opening situation it’s pure poetry, both sensible and looking forward to a narrative explanation. We don’t have to wait long.

“…we / are awkward with a double lack. / We miss the two who are elsewhere / but also the identity / we have in them.”

“Double lack” reminds one of Auden the paraphraser: it has a Platonic ring to it, perhaps the double identity of Eros as offspring of Lack and Plenty. No matter. What this lacks in specificity it makes up for in dialectical clarity. It makes the necessary moves. Jumping so quickly into the dialectical middle of the poem follows on the ambiguity set up by “the two who are elsewhere” so we can follow the moves of the game, which is gradually building speed and tension as a song/lyric, and Litt is eloquent in his note on the doubleness of lyric.

The generic setup yields to the need for knowing “who we are” which has emerged as the issue at this point. The answer has become part of the question, the ambiguity not to be banished by certainty. The reader is being asked by the occasion of the happening of the poem to keep on going on at a level of metaphysical style pushing the limits of her patience, but then as a parent she’s patient.

And has company. The lyric “we” picks up the rising energy as the poem turns. It is all beautifully phrased — Absence is absence, not attack / by nothingness. I love to say that. Too cool, so I back up: But we remain that anywhere / we go. It is us, finally.

Just wonderful, go on!

In Litt’s oeuvre this poem belongs to his case on parenting, as we gather from the notes in the anthology. “But I have kept writing about parenthood and its losses.” But qua-lyric, “Awaying” has that special lyric voice distinct within the sound of HIS voice— open to all the doubts of mindful use of language AND a singability that has everything to do with following the rules of the lyric road. (See FRAME OF REFERENCE.)

Repeat again: from outside to inside, from down there (the anywhere of absence) to the “here” at the very end of the road. That here is the going beyond thinking, the more than can be thought, the finite singular intimacy that is the gift of lyric.

So, yes, Toby Litt, master of many trades, even the impossible one of lyric, come out for a curtain call. We know what you mean when you say, “Very often, I have no idea where what I’ve written has come from; almost always, though, I know exactly where it’s going.”

LYRIC PERFORMANCE Vala Thorodds “Naked Except for the Jewellery”

You sketched a shelf / for all your imaginary things. Plants and records. /outlines of books that exist only in your future, best life.// Offered to add something of mine, whatever I liked.// But I couldn’t think / of what I cared for. So I said, ‘Jewellry.’/ Sweaters and shoes.’// When I meant, ‘My bike lock./ Procrastination./ The lies I told.’

from NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE In ordinary language there are reserves to the language of “doing justice” that are helpful for our reflections. WILLIAM DESMOND, THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL (2016)

Vala Thorrods was born in Iceland. She says her first great love was disco. She lists her current activities as poet, publisher, editor, translator, and literary curator. I mention this because the poem I’ve chosen exhibits the qualities essential to what gives me hope about the short poem in our time. These qualities are often overlooked. They involve performing conceptual capacities more associated with ‘doing justice’ and ‘telling the truth.’ Thorrods’ conception of lyric as dance enfleshes the scheme. It’s deceptively minimal-looking.

Anyway….It’s good to have such a distinguished person on our side.

Our side? Really? How gauche! But “Naked except for the Jewellery” (a line borrowed from Jack Gilbert) is exactly that, a revelation of a hidden side of, or perspective on, lyric. The poem begins in a situation defined as an aspect of “you.” The equivocity, indeed plurivocalism, of pronouns is exploited without apology: this is perfected performance of one aspect of lyric. I/you.

We naturally think this refers to an other. Exactly. And here that other is defined by its favorite things.

As we noted, Thorrod’s imagination is rooted in dance, and the movements of the lyric have a disco-like clarity. The second section “performs” this dialectic of selfhood with bright energy.

That movement is consolidated as the poem follows its pattern by opening to the murk of the inner self. This movement is executed by a random list of ordinary things. The list descends ‘kenotically’— this is spiritual striptease—in value. Thus the verbal moves reveal a naked self. That self can’t say what it means. It is frustrated in its efforts at free expression.

It can’t help itself.

So the self turns toward another list starting at even a lower level of conventional self-expression. But no, we might say, now we are getting somewhere! Confession!

Perform it! Perform the singularity of your most true imaginary things. Bike lock— perform the velar stops. The lanky, self-indulgent Latinate syllables — they always lie— of “procrastination.” And finally the self-exculpatory admission that, yes, in the past, I’ve told some lies and they cost me dearly.

Oh please!

What a poem!

LYRIC PERFORMANCE Penelope Shuttle “the colour rain in the lavender”

I’m past thinking/but I think about colors all the time / how each one / has its everyday name / red blue green/ but also its underground name/red is a first edition of Pushkin/blue is chief mourner of the sky/ green is the reading age of the forest/ these s3cret names/ are known only to the dead/ in their flipside world/of long ago and not-now/not to us the living know very little about colors or the rain

from FATHER LEAR (Poetry Salzburg 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE If the dualism of imitation and self-creation does not work, the matter is also not one of dialectical subsumption of one into the other, since such would make it a higher form of self-mediation, self-creation. It is metaxological: it is a between that is beyond the universal and particular. There is a sense in which these two terms lose any fixity they seem to posses since it is just in the passage that this metaxu comes to articulation. The passage shares in both the intimate and the universal. This passage as metaxological shows the doubleness of self-relation and other-relation. Art is especially rich in sensuous communication. WILLIAM DESMOND, THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL (2016)

An exemplary lyric! Lots of negative thinking— I mean NO punctuation, NO capitals, NO stanza breaks, NO rhymes!

But one feels the pull of something, call it barbarously the “argument,” the pull of grammar, through the situation named at the outset: I’m past thinking.

So in place of Cartesian certainty the equivocity of language will have to do. As opposed to thinking there is thinking all the time. This distinction depends on a radical shift in point of view. Can you conceive of the other to thinking AS thinking all the time?

No? What about color?

To think about color one must consider its doubleness, a color has a place in the color wheel—red blue green—and also its association with things in your life.

So the poem turns from semantic dialectics to little stories, the ancient grammarians (shoutout!) called them “exempla.“ In poems they ranged from a few words to a major narrative. The exemplum is related to the figure of figures, analogy.

Notice how Shuttle uses the so-called linking verb “is” to set up her exempla: red is a first edition of Pushkin. The “mind”: NO IT’S NOT!

And yet “it is!” Thinking about “red” what comes to (my) mind is a first edition of Pushkin. And so on, blue and green are exempla too.

Examples of what? They are “secret.” How secret? Now we face the abyss towards which the poem has been “unconsciously” leading us (it’s what lyrics do, they finish the passage more-or-less without us) to the other world, the land of the dead.

It’s a glorious extended (that’s relative) narrative of the most ancient story, passage to the other—“flipside” Shuttle happily says)—world. I love the lyrical “nots”: of long ago and not-now/not to us.

Now the music of now, not, and know blends into something rich and strange. A radical distinction upon which the meditation and the exempla depend, breathlessly. An assertion, a fragment, a proposition, a memoir of our passage from black& white abstractions to the world of color. The living know very little/about colours or the rain.


One of the secrets of lyric eternal life is repetition with a difference. Lyrics always desire another reading. The ontology of “more.” So we start from the top. This poem, it may be, started in Shuttle’s wonder about the mysterious color of rain in the lavender.

As Desmond says (see FIELD OF REFERENCE): “Art is especially rich in sensuous communication.”

LYRIC PERFORMANCES Zohar Atkins “Protest”

No sooner do I say / ‘Let there be light’/ Then a horde of angels arrives / With their signs.// ‘No more oppression of darkness!’ / ‘Stop occupying out empty wild.’ / ‘Down with the visible!’/ ‘God Should Know Better Than to Speak.’// Even the walls of my hotel lobby seem / To sing out against me. / But then I remember, I’m God. / Soon the angel will want to go home. // In the end, nobody will remember how they / Held hands, soaring together, like a school / Into the tear-dusk firmament./ How they laid their celestial torsos down in a row // To prove my world a desecration./ Nobody will hear their words of lament, / ‘Holy, holy, holy,‘ as anything/ But praise.

FRAME OF REFERENCE If you and I are to live religious lives, it mustn’t be that we talk a lot about religion, but that our manner of life is different. Wittgenstein. Quoted by Peter Tyler, THE RETURN TO THE MYSTICAL (Continuum, 2017), 227.

What I like to call Wittgenstein’s itinerary— saying, showing, acting— goes way beyond the normal academic path of research and understanding. It is lifted from Peter Tyler’s book on mysticism. As hermeneutic, it shakes things up.

Zohar Atkins is an American educated at Brown and Oxford and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Michael Schmidt, the editor of NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology has included some of his poems in his canon-building anthology. I’m very glad he did. I could easily have never read him otherwise.

“Protest” is a marvelous lyric. It fulfills the lyric narrative and then some. In its ludic qualities it enacts a profound meditation. In the manner of midrash it reconfigures a key moment in sacred history, that is the very beginning. But in the Western tradition, the tradition supplying key elements to our poetic consciousness, this moment has slipped out of philosophic awareness. Leave it to an American rabbi to bring it to life again.

Atkins does this with impeccable skill. He begins, well, at the beginning. Or just before. After that everything goes downhill. As is the way of lyric, equivocation is the first step. Plays-on-words like with their signs. How neatly that makes visible the confusion of angels!

The second stanza is a chaotic chorus. Angels scream protests. “Let God be God” could not be further from their minds.

The lyric turns inward— well of course it does. God’s mind clears. Reality sets in. The angels tire. Fatigue. Boredom. He can wait it out. Signs notwithstanding. “In the end” oblivion will set in, the happenings of the original fiat fade from angelic memory. The fourth stanza performs more, well, lyrically. It is after all saturated in vision and loss. For a while we enjoy the poetry.

Dialectics take their toll. Between the realities of now and then there is no contest. We are in the abyss, or facing it: nobody will remember. But the poem is not over. Following Wittgenstein’s path of understanding, we’ve become aware of the equivocities of saying and the dialectics of showing. What’s left is acting.

How does the lyric narrative do “action”? It exhausts the other senses. Atkin’s God faces the unspeakable: the angels rejected the sacred nature of God’s world. This can’t be, cant stand, one must do something!

The voice of the lyric emerges from the chaos as the paradoxical truth. This truth is a reading of appearances. Contradiction at the very moment of origin. It is a truth laid out with the coolest of grammars. Subject: nobody. Verb: will hear. What? Their words of lament. Lament? This double saying/hearing, basic toolkit of lyric, reconfigures angelic speech — holy, holy, holy — as something other than praise.

Key word at this stage of the lyric: as. That’s the word signaling the appearance in all its asymmetric glory of the Ana-logy. Analogy. Word of lament:holy::praise:X.

So just what do we do when we raise our voice in praise? Isn’t that the most bottomless question about lyric?

Atkin’s lyric midrash is an act, is action. It goes beyond words to a change in aspect. Before this, we believed X. Now we understand. An act of understanding. Nothing, mind you, we can put in words. In the final analysis, the word is the deed.

LYRIC PERFORMANCES Katherine Horrex “Waking in Twos”

A clock knocks time / between four walls/ where we lie caught up / in the excellent rejection / of all company but each other’s, / immune to the pendulum / as if it were the call / of animals elsewhere—/ cockerels crowing about / unfinished revolution, / so that whoever still sleeps, or slept, / is on infinite alert, half consciously. Not us./ Next door’s farm winds down, / its owner dead by his own gun/ for some days now. Not us/ and lorries light our room / with the colors of commerce.
from NEW POETRIES 7, an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)

FIELD OF REFERENCE Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end,—but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true, i.e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game.
from Ludwig Wittgenstein, ON CERTAINTY, edited Anscombe and Wright, translated Paul and Anscombe, 1969.

A wickedly clever lyric perfect for the hangover of Election night. Each cluster of phonemes spins in its gravity/inertia.

The title: “waking” misheard as breaking in twos.

Equivocity, the subsoil of lyric, sprouting everywhere. No thing without its other— A clock knocks time: “knocks” as in tick-tock AND “challenges the authority of.”

Verbal tension of the scene: “we lie caught (up)…” Think about caught. The dialectics of the lyric path leads us to the break: “not us.” Finally the reductive yet still vibrant image of the last line.

Wittgenstein’s path— from saying to seeing to acting— makes me wonder: am I wrong to feel an intense tug of NO compelling me over the abyss of exhausted dialectic into action? Or more precisely a relief that one CAN change one’s life? Hasn’t Horrex performed this lyric towards action/change of point of view to a standpoint outside the dialectic and within the lyric equivocity, art’s standing in the universal impermanence?

I hope so. In any event Waking in Twos is just the stiff drink I need this morning.

LYRIC PERFORMANCES Rachel Mann “Fides Quaerens”

Am I required to believe / In the uncorruption of saints,/ The Mother’s timeless womb? / / There is limit, even if limit / Is never drawn (I cannot/ Give an instance of every rule.)/ / I don’t know what ‘believe in’ means / In the vast majority of cases,/ Which is to say I think it enough// To acknowledge the glamour of words— / Relic, body, bone— I think / Mystery is laid in syllables, syntax, // Miracles a kind of grammar, / Milk to train the tongue.
from NEW POETRIES 7 edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)

FRAME OF REFERENCE Idiot wisdom: knowing and unknowing, in a willingness that returns us to the primal porosity and the elemental ontological receptivity and thankfulness for the gift of being at all. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 113.

So much going on here. I’ve modified the banner of this blog to reflect more accurately what it’s about. How we perform a lyric, make it real. Item: the core energy of Fidens Quaerens (seeking faith, as in Augustine for starts) is the energy between the words grammar and glamour. (Look them up.) It’s a gift.

In matters of faith, the most pressing matters of belief, modern reason breaks down, equivocity counts. Rules bewitch us.

Poet Rachel Mann is an Anglican parish priest. She has published four books, including a memoir and a historical study. She has issues with beliefs commonly held by her parishioners and issues with beliefs commonly held by fellow poets. Fides Quaerens raises these issues in honest English and superbly controlled vernacular, conversational (for a distinguished priest) style.

But the argument is somewhat vertiginous. It’s a great ride. Following the lyric itinerary in its Augustinian version — outer to inner, lower to higher (acknowledging the paradox of holy poverty)— it turns, after considering, with finesse, certain questions of belief, into the cloudy sunlit horizons of acknowledgment. One might say confession.

Logic and conceptual certainty give way to ways of thinking rooted in contemplation. These ways are grounded in the figure of figures, analogy. You have to think things through on patterns of diagonal comparisons that exhaust description. Assymetric symmetries. Performing a poem this good refreshes your mindfulness. Mystery is laid in syntax, syllables. That is, mystery is rule bound by grammar in the largest sense. Mann draws on sources shared by poets and thinkers, Geoffrey Hill and Wittgenstein among countless others, time immemorial. The sources confirm the role of practice, performance, in shaping the faces of belief. Performing this poem allows for selving of the better selves.

The poem has its stylistic reserves. Think Bach or the grace of a double play. As I say, the poem isn’t over until it acknowledges beyond sweet persuasion the finite other of the chiastic agapeic flesh: Milk to train the tongue.

Now read the FRAME OF REFERENCE. Put it away for reference. FIDES QUAERENS illustrates the profit of regular attention to matters of faith, and not only for priests. The issues are rooted in our practice of lyric, grammar, and our openness to the glamour of what exceeds thought.