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.

JUXTAPOSITIONS Osip Mandelstam “Pear blossom and cherry blossom”

from Osip Mandelstam, “The Selected Poems,” translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Mersin, New York Review of Books, 2004

Porosity of Being: Porosity is often taken to name a permeable boundary or open access between two (determinate) domains or things. We think of A or B as relatively firm, while between them is some more or less open border, one not absolutely closed to passage. But how to think “passage as passage”? One must speak of the medium in which passage occurs, but the medium is not a thing but a field in which things or passage eventuate. Porosity suggests a field of passage—itself a passing field, since it is not fixed or determinate. What if A and B are themselves marked by porosity? You could then have things and events, themselves porous, in a field or sea, itself a porosity. What passes would not pass as fixed in itself, but as itself passing: passing in passage as such. Here we might connect the porosity with creation: the passage is creative in a porosity that passes between nothing and (finite) being and between being and nothing again—-and this passing is renewed, again and again. Arising in being and setting, coming to be and passing out of being, creation brings to be the the porosity within whose intermedium all things live and move and have their being. How to get a fix on the porosity? There is no direct way, but it is revealed in human things like the child’s impressionability, the experience of being seen through, the blush, or the experience of music or prayer.
William Desmond, “The Intimate Universal,” p. 424.

Osip Mandelstam was born and raised in St. Petersburg. He was a leading experimental poet, known even today for his equivocal, and exquisite, sense of form. In 1934 he was arrested after reading an epigram mocking Stalin to friends. In May of 1938, while in exile, he was sentenced to five years in a labor camp. He died in the Gulag Archipelago in 1938.

“Pear blossom and cherry blossom aim at me” dates from the last years of his life. It is a superb example of the metaxical lyric that foregrounds not so much the “I” of the poet as the happening in which the I emerges only to be eclipsed by the porosity of its being.

This “Metaphysical” way of putting it makes perfect sense in light of the poem’s narrative. The frail flowers are relatively strong in light of the porosity of the poet. He experiences them as communicating directly with him in threatening ways. Mandelstam was a great student of Dante and Dante’s sense of the sovereignty of Love seems relevant here. The poet’s identity is in flux. The poem sheds light on the human condition as being one of passage.

The poet does not shrink from naming the mysterious one emerging from the description of the double powers, low and high, that frame his porous existence—“Stars in clusters of blossoms, leaves in stars”: it is truth. While throughout his poetry Mandelstam evoked ideals of human culture, he was not an idealist. Truth is ambiguous. It is double, of flower or strength. It dies in its happening. Everything is passage.

Creation brings the porosity into play even as it passes. The vigorous pungent blend of energies Mandelstam calls “the twin scent’s sweetness” is narrated in the final line in the terms of porosity. It’s a mixed bag, this truth, a fitting subject for the martyr poet.

JUXTAPOSITIONS Tomas Transtromer “Sketch in October”


Tomas Transtromer “The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems” translated by Robin Fulton 2006

Agapeics: There is an incognito generosity or surplus of affirmative “to be” as good that is always at work in the between, the “metaxu.” We do not become socially associated, we are what we are in an always already at work association. The meaning of this is something more than ourselves individually. It is participation in something more primal, a community more primal than this or that determinate or self-determinate community—-this is the overdeterminate commons. This surplus generosity of the agapeic makes all forms of community possible—-though it does not receive the name of the agapeic. A “too-muchness” of enabling power as letting the good of particulars and communities realize itself in one fashion or another. This agapeics of the Intimate Universal is beyond the dominion of serviceable disposability, and also beyond the power of erotic sovereignty we find especially in the political realm.
William Desmond, “Glossary” in “The Intimate Universal,” 419f.

The poetic image is a focal point of meanings not initiated by it and not exhausted by it. The image draws on the plurivocal nature of the reality communicated by the language of the poem. Transtromer’s displaced and disused tugboat invites the reader to stay awhile, thus overcoming the resistance to its strangeness and earning a bit of the reader’s imagination.

For years I lived at the mouth of the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The sound of the tugs going out to sea echoes in my mind as I reread this poem. Tugs are cast in narratives of connection. Their powerful motors can overcome the tides that ebb and flow at the edges of society, where there’s always somebody who wants to be fetched.

Transtromer’s image however has the absurd quality of the modern nihilistic poem. As an image of human good intentions it is forlorn and subversive of the hope that it may once have served. That sense of lack of power is emphasized by its double, the image of the trees, which have “colors” that “act as” “signals to the other shore” like the horns the tugboat once blew to communicate the double message of warning and promise.

The images fuse in the body of the poem, thus fulfilling the promise of metaxical communication. The Metaxy is at the beginning a hermeneutical space between two limits of lack and plenty which Plato presents as a myth in his dialogue The Symposium. Metaxical space engages the imagination of the reader, overcoming the resistance which Socrates says made him disbelieve it at first. Eros in Plato’s myth is a creative connection between human lack and a sort of divine overfullness or “porosity.”

The philosopher who has done most to uncover the relevance of metaxic thinking, William Desmond, makes a distinction between erotic tension and the agapeic pole of the Metaxy or between. I have given above his glossary entry to “agapeics” from “The Intimate Universal.” Some such understanding is essential to understanding Transtromer’s lyric “Sketch in October.” Despite the absurdity of the tug image the poem draws on the idea of a primordial, selfless love.

That absurdity receives a second boost in the second half. Developing the landscape of the poem where the complex imagery of the tug and the trees first appear, the poet pictures mushrooms sprouting from the grass on the roadside. In what may seem as a sentimental image of personification, the poet engages the energies of the myth of love. From down in the darkness someone is trying to make contact; in a very economical but rich image, the mushrooms stretch upward in a cry for help.

The image however unsophisticated draws on a timeless sense of the origins of the human drama. The reconfiguration of the imagery in a larger context is achieved by the final line. “This surplus energy of the agapeic makes all forms of community possible.” This contemporary myth of Eros as agapeics of community is illuminated by Transtromer’s simple concluding line: “We are the earth’s.”

The popular educated sense of Plato as an idealist shuts us off from a great source of the wisdom of the Metaxy. Humanity’s “Between,” the scene of its happening, is not idealistic. It is characterized by what Desmond calls “chiaroscuro,” or the shadowy fertile void of the universal impermanence. Transtromer’s landscape expresses not only the absurdity and pain of the human condition but its dimension of hope. As Desmond says, there is an incognito generosity always at work in the between. This dimension is definitively a dimension of communication. Things —- disused tugboats, trees, mushrooms —- communicate the dimension of communicability.

We are taught in school to reject this form of reason, the figure that draws out the implications of its own configurations. This educated habit of intellectual scruple shutters poetry and poetic philosophy to us. The educated reader is blind to the brilliance of Transtromer’s lyric “Sketch in October.” But in the language of the poem we are part of a primordial community, call it Earth. Dwelling there requires emotional openness to the mixed messages of the Metaxy—- of hope and despair, finitude and infinitude, the mortal and the immortal, Eros and Agapeics. If we wish the political realm to be more than a war of all against all, we need to be educated by the narrative of lyric as illustrated by this poem. There is no better source for the saving wisdom of the Metaxy than mindful reading of lyric. As a modest proposal, reading “Sketch in October” seems a good place to start in replacing contemporary nihilism by the spiritual exercise afforded by this poem.

JUXTAPOSITIONS Hart Crane “The Broken Tower”


“At issue is not univocal being but an endowing source of plurivocity. To be in communication with the plurivocity and the doubleness that seeds the equivocity is to be tempted to fall out of plurivocal community into a counterfeit world—-a world in which we counterfeit being by reconfiguring it in terms of our own intimate conatus and idiotic monstrousness. The world as given offers a primal ethos saturated with life-affirming being. Even the beings we humans fear and hate participate in the self-affirming love of life too. We humans reconfigure this primal ethos in terms of our own endeavor to be; seeming to subject it we create a counterfeit creation in the process. If one were religious one might speak of a fallen world, but a fallen world is not an entirely corrupt world. It is double, mixing good and evil, equivocal beyond good and evil. The counterfeit pays its complement to the more original reality it dissimulates. In analogous fashion, our reconfiguration pays its complement to a more primordial community of being in which we are endowed. And in which we participate, even when we go on to deform and mutilate it, so great is this, the forgiving generosity of the being process. If we think the counterfeit world is the real world, then we are in bad shape. Our own bad shaping of things becomes the measure of things.”
William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 228f.

There are few more vivid images of the destructive power of creative energies than Hart Crane’s “The Broken Tower.” Having published in 1930 his modernist epic “The Bridge,” Crane (1899-1932) was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931 and spent a year in Mexico intending to write a long poem but produced little. On his return from Mexico he committed suicide by jumping overboard.

I make almost no use of biographical context in these commentaries but “The Broken Tower” appears to reflect a manic phase in the last year of Crane’s life. That suggestion is dwarfed by the massively eloquent evocation of the shocks suffered as the poet witnesses “the primal ethos” in his “conatus” or effort to be a sovereign self. The poem witnesses “a more primordial community of being” even as it experiences the emergence of a “counterfeit” world that engulfs the present moment. Please note the use of “counterfeit” acknowledges the urgency of the poet’s response to an irreducible aspect of the original—-equivocity. Crane’s vision of the doubleness of experience in the Between is faithful to the plurivocity of being. “The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray”—-the image is framed as part of the lyric narrative as quest.

At which point the poet’s voice—-the “conatus” or will—-asserts: “The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower…” This happening is the moment of turning/recognition that gives shape to the lyric. The poem’s intelligible form begins to emerge. The lyric narrative recharges itself in light of this emergent form. “And so it was I entered the broken world/To trace the visionary company of love…”

The word “trace” communicates and acknowledges the frailty of the commitment. An account of deformation is coupled with the original, now-broken image, an image rooted in a primordial community. The capacity to witness “each desperate choice’ of love is measured as an instant. This is, it is measured as an aspect of the scattered visionary self embodied by the emerging form of the poem.

So, the poet has his doubts. Rather than follow through with the lyric narrative’s capacity to reinvision the failed conatus in terms of transcendence, the other to thought, the radical other confronted in the porosity of the mortal/immortal between, this poem asserts its redoubled vision of the old univocal imagery of “crystal Word” as a rape of the flesh “cleft to despair.” This rich evocation of tyrannical love is the counterfeit of agapeic love, which remains as other to the vision of conflict that dominates the narrative of Crane’s poem. Metaxical criticism is rooted in the excess of the good, an excess that eventually overwhelms the erotic drive of the protesting poet’s self. By “eventually” I mean this commentary reaches beyond the limited self-understanding of the poet. Metaxical criticism sometimes executes a double reconfiguration, returning the poet’s reconfiguration, the “counterfeit,” of the original experience to the flow of the porosity of the mortal-immortal between. Crane’s loss of erotic selfhood illuminates the agapeics of being.

As in certain visionary poems by Rimbaud, things could not be clearer. Rimbaud’s key work “Season in Hell” likewise reframed the original polyvocal community of love as a mirage, an indulgence of idealism. Rimbaud acted on his reconfiguration and became a small-time gunrunner in the Near East (more TK). Crane’s reframing is less radical. It struggles with the narrative of lyric, refusing the moment of “desperate choice” that would acknowledge an other that eclipses the poet’s horror of the “shadows in the tower.” In its stunning confessional clarity, “The Broken Tower” illuminates “the generosity of the being process” which provides each potential reader with contexts true to the intimate universal beyond Crane’s vision.