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.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Rebecca Cullen “How to Hang Washing”

It must be spring. There should be blackthorn/ blossom, a smudge of sun across your cheek.//From your patch of earth, you’ll hear the crest/of chatter from the playground at the school.//These pegs nip snugly, in time with magpie/calls as your arms lift, stretch, clip, repeat.

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

FIELD OF REFERENCE The best of politics seeks to make good in the more moderate domestic middle, but the problem of tyranny merits special mention: on going to an extreme it seeks to generate an oblivion to the possibilities of an agapeic service, beyond sovereignty and servility. Agapeic service is itself something extreme, but in daily domestic life it is also a secret and intimate “therapy” against tyrannical will to power. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 188.

Lyrics, especially very short ones, carefully create their own “extreme” or individual contexts (betweens) to forge the sense of unity of meaning and understanding we call poetry. In her introduction, Rebecca Cullen describes her shortest as between a prayer and a news brief.

Take “How to Hang Washing.” The framing begins with the surprise that hanging washing requires a set of instructions. Yet each of the three stanzas depends on the rules of different sets of grammatical rules. In the first, the verbs are governed by must and should. The second stanza proceeds from necessary conditions: you will. That use of will may easily go unnoticed but suggests the unconscious. In the final stanza, grammar expands to include the figural this. The very clothes pins take on a reflexivity and refer to the words of the poem.

All this verbal art happens unobtrusively. And that’s the point. Hanging clothes on the line follows “unconscious” rules as in a Wittgensteinian language game. Look again! It’s springtime, children are playing, magpies call, and your habitual acts are part of the music of time. In a poem of carefully varied subtle metrical features, the actions of “your arms” are named by punchy mechanical formulae: lift, stretch, clip, repeat. It’s all a game.

The point seems not to be that hanging clothes on the clothesline is an impersonal “game” because habitual act. This is a vision poem. Read mindfully it has an intense inwardness. I find a key to one of the deeper configuring aspects in the FRAME OF REFERENCE. Modern art reveals the presence of conceptual consciousness, often exposing ideological rigidities. It must do so to allow the unified flow from the meanings of the words to the understanding of the mindful reader. But this “unity” has a mimetic function: it represents a shift from conventional construction to a “passive” reception of finite otherness. Desmond uses the double Eros/agape to sort this change of aspect. The mindful reader of “How to Hang Washing” catches a glimpse of an “underlying” original “agapeic” image which accounts for the strange luminosity of this poem. The war against the loaded concept or “universal” of tradition is waged in behalf of the intimate universal.

We live in a time of tyranny and lies are routine. It can be a relief to lose oneself in simple tasks.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Luke Allan “Lemon”

This is how lemon feels between your thumbs, like a hard raindrop or a soft star. Pulsing, silent, actual. A stone with its moss on the inside, a counter-earth of spat champagne. A decorative statement about the future. If thought is the eroticization of consciousness then lemons are the eroticization of sunlight, hardwater babies growing wiser with each nap. Their pips scour the dark like owls.
from NEW POETRIES 7: an anthology edited by Michael Schmidt (Carcanet 2020)

FRAME OF REFERENCE There is never an absolutely complete presence. There is a presence but the intimate sensuousness of its making manifest is such that it can never be exhausted. It can never be exhausted because it can never exhaust what it seeks to make present in the image. The imitation undermines its own claim to completion, and must do so to remain itself. Were it to complete itself, it would no longer be an imitation. Its complete presentation of the universal would make it be simply the universal, and there would be no abiding otherness. WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal, 71.

Among other things, Luke Allan is managing editor of Carcanet Press, which published this anthology. He writes in many styles: style is everything and nothing here, which is disarming.

You could say, “Lemons” is a prose poem. So it foregoes several forms of determination, those classified as metrical. Which only foregrounds other forms of determination, like those swiveling on the axis of is/as. Each sentence is a bouquet of figures between being and likeness.

It would be fair to say this poem communicates a bunch of nested betweens. Lemons are A decorative statement about the future. Well, come to think of it, on the face of it they are decorative in an aesthetic sense and about the future in THAT sense, but then so are many things.

To catch another wave of poetic energy appears the eroticization piece. If/then maximalizes the is/as current. If you’ve been swimming in the poem’s ongoingness (choppy waters sentence by sentence), this figure about sunlight feels like a breakthrough of some kind.

Just what kind we know from the last several bits. Hard water babies, pips, and owls. The owls open up the gap in the between, the dark against all that lemony light. As Desmond might say, there is an abiding otherness.

I love this poem because it throws all the switches in my mind at, almost, once. Yet it flows toward the fertile void. It may be a small, self-conscious arty lyric but squeeze it and you get lemon juice.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Tomas Tranströmer “Female Portrait, 19th Century”

Her voice is stifled in the clothing. Her eyes / follow the gladiator. Then she herself is / in the arena. A gilt frame / strangles the picture.

from THE GREAT ENIGMA: new collected poems, translated by Robin Fulton (New Directions, 2006),p. 192.

FRAME OF REFERENCE The sign of contradiction might more fruitfully be seen as witnessing to a porosity on the boundary, asking from us more finesse for the equivocities of finitude. And perhaps this is not entirely alien to the philosophy of ambiguity sought by Merleau-Ponty. Metaxological finesse for these equivocities reads the sign of contradiction in terms neither servile nor sovereign and not in terms of a false choice between the intimate and the universal in the religious community of agapeic service. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 185.

It’s 9:30 on a sunny morning and I’ve missed my deadline for this post. The sloth induced by all the bad news is the cause. But I opened Transtromer and was, well, saved. If I don’t do my spiritual exercises with lyric, producing the trifold texts of this format, I can’t go on. And that’s a big problem.

Transtromer is one of the poets I turn to now. For decades I’ve loathed the hyperbolic formula that reconfigures salvation as in “our hope is in the X” (plug in “wilderness” or whatever floats your boat) but now I see. Trust in good verses sums up my apocalypticism.

The FRAME OF REFERENCE gives the philosophical setting of my “religion.” Transtromer’s lyric illustrates it. It fulfills the promise of the lyric narrative to take us through the labyrinth to the abyss. This describes the human condition, and its particular salvation.

So I say. Whatever. We are led to a question. That seems to repeat the formula of Four Quartets. But I think Transtromer improves on Eliot, who depends on the Christian universal (truth). Transtromer depends on the sudden silent sound of the lyric voice, which questions the framing of the question by the poet-in-the-poem. That is, the intimate universal.

See now the FRAME. What is this “sign of contradiction”? Read all about it.

Now I can go on.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Phoebe Power “Clarsach”

They lift the girl-harp in a hammock/ of silver wire not to touch the ground or snap // a clavicle. Her feet are blades / not pedals. They change the key In naturals // and sharps. On the lawn she tingles / her clitoris, and notes sprinkle with the grass-seed in the air.

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

FRAME OF REFERENCE. The ecstasy of time is time’s own ecstasy, but as given from the origin, it is also a rejoicing with the origin which leaps with its leaping: in loving itself it loves eternity, though it may not know it; it loves eternity because in its ownness it is loved by eternity. William Desmond, God and the Between, p. 297.

Phoebe Power draws on Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Joyce among others, her lyrics revive metaphysical powers latent in the equivocity of language. As the FRAME suggests, her readers may access latencies mothballed by dogmatic materialism. I say “dogmatic” because materialism is now open to metaphysical sources, enriching the foundations of lyric, as this lyric shows.

The conceit entertained in Clarsach is an analogy between the Scottish harp and the female body. So to begin with there’s a complex configuration of senses made visible by “understandings” which, once accepted, move the reader forward deeper into the poem. Start with “girl-harp” and “hammock.” Let that become a thing in your imagination. Taken together as the line gives them requires of the reader an energy that should come from the images themselves and devoted to the movement forward.

I put it that way because the poem makes it if not easier harder and harder to go forward. It depends on the capacities of the reader. The semantic suspension of “lift… not to touch…” enacts its meaning. Then “her feet…they” evokes the literal bodily playing of the harp, in a less figural way, and THAT gives way with a splendid bump to the supersensuous imagery worthy of Joyce or even beyond his limited character- bound mode enriched with lyric.

No apologies here! Definitely lyric!

In undervaluing lyric we enfeeble our own resources of understanding. The conclusion of this poem is moved by energies of “time’s own ecstasy.” The poem’s space is the metaxu or between of mortals and hyperboles of plurivocal being. Which is to say there’s a metaphysics at work in Power’s work that can be celebrated once we’ve done the work to understood the moves.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Theophilus Kwek “Moving House”

These are things that shake us in our sleep:/ doors left open, drawers, the bare-backed chair/ that still, without a coat, swivels gently,/ books in boxes. Pictures taken down, squares / of darker paint turned over to the sun,/ and, above all, their wiring undone,/ the lights’ glass tubes put away in plastic. // Once is enough. The eye learns to plot / all of this in each new habitation, / recognize the empty room’s joints, pivots, / dimensions— every house has a skeleton—/ while the body learns it must carry less / from place to place, a kind of tidiness/ that builds, hardens. Some call it fear,// or change, or losing what we cannot keep./ Others, experience. Truth is, it has no name / or station, and only the weight we give./ Old friend, I feel its steep tug again / this evening, across wire and lens / as you show me the house, a bare continent. / (These are the things that shake us in our sleep.)

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

FRAME OF REFERENCE 153. We are trying to get hold of a mental process of understanding which seems to be hidden behind those coarser and therefore more readily visible accompaniments. But we do not succeed, or it does not get as far as a real attempt. For even supposing I had found something that happened in all those cases of understanding,—why should it be the understanding? And how can the process of understanding have been hidden, when I said “Now I understand” because I understood?! And if I say it was hidden— then how do I know what I have to look for? I am in a muddle.

Ludwig Wittgenstein PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATIONS German text, and translation by G. E. M. Anscombe (Blackwell Publishing), §153

Born in Singapore, Theophilus Kwek has established himself at Oxford as an outstanding new poet. MOVING HOUSE is both traditional and radical in its transformation of the lyric narrative by argument. More than the dialectics of Bishop, he pushes a skeptical (see the FRAME OF REFERENCE) point of view of “muddle” that rhymes with the metaxical “middle” of a sort of radiant relativity (relativity open to asymmetric diagonals of understanding that may seem to stop the movement altogether, an aesthetics of radical uncertainty. And he does so with the poise of Chaucer’s idiomatic conversational style. Can MOVING HOUSE reconfigure pilgrimage? At least we can say that with MOVING HOUSE the paradox of the chiasm opens on a parenthesis of understanding, with the emphasis on “under.”

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Readers of LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS need no introduction to the movements of the lyric. Even the shape of this poem on the page suggests the chiasm of outer/inner//lower/higher, though the last stage is definitely metaxical (assymetrical) rather than univocally conceptual. This chiasm opens into the fertile void of the parenthesis, which is very cool.

Before we get there we work through a catalogue of “things,” but things that comprise a pattern of understanding, each case seeming to illustrate what the poet’s voice has in mind. The fact that the “understandings” keep coming creates a sense of vertigo. Those lightbulbs packed in tissues and boxed up — I’m guessing here — that are “above all” is metaphysical in the old, 17th-century sense.

The chiasm turns inward in the second stanza. Outer maps inner but doesn’t contain it as the lower/higher figure begins to take over. The “eye” becomes the source of a formula that can only mean, to paraphrase, “disaster.” It should be noticed how Kwek’s playful resonance with past masters liberates his voice. Modern skepticism is all about loosening conceptual ties, so the sound fills the cracks in the conceptual scheme as the catalogue dissolves into behaviors, attitudes resisting the conceptual skeletons of the past.

It comes as a pleasant surprise that the chiasm transforms into a “transcendent” voice. I put transcendent in scare quotes not to undermine the meaning but to sharpen our awareness of the steepness of the tug. The “you” is the metaxical double that speaks from beyond the narrative scheme. It is the voice of the finite other of the poem itself. So this itinerary of MOVING achieves a new equilibrium between bareness of concept and richness of awareness of the muddle of the middle, the parenthesis.

I hope Kwek’s prominent base of operation in Oxford means his generation has overcome the metaphysical anorexia of the poststructural generation. Here in Rhode Island we can only hope.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Francis Ponge “The Frog”

When little matchsticks of rain bounce off the drenched fields, an amphibian dwarf, a maimed Ophelia, barely the size of a fist, sometimes hops under the poet’s feet and flings herself into the next pond.
Let the nervous little thing run away. She has lovely legs. Her whole body is sheathed in waterproof skin. Hardly meat, her long muscles have an elegance neither fish nor fowl. But to escape one’s fingers, the fluidity joins forces with her struggle for life. Goitrous, she starts panting. . . . And that pounding heart, those wrinkled eyelids, that drooping mouth, move me to let her go.

Translated from the French by Beth Archer, from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, edited by Czeslaw Milosz

FRAME OF REFERENCE. What makes thought thoughtless about the holy? It is especially through fetishizing the univocities and of rationalistic and positivistic thinking that the philosopher can airbrush out the idiotic, the aesthetics, the erotics, and the agapeics: the singular love, the seeking love, the celebrating love. The eros-less of such thought has lost its intimacy, lost its body, lost the urgency of its desire, lost sight of the generosity of being that sustains all thought, even the most dessicated. It has abstracted itself from the intimate universal, and it is nothing but the skeleton structure of itself. The bare ruined choir of thought is driven out of hearing of the singing of the oceanic porosity. WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal (2016).

NOTE These “Investigations” explore the lyric as a challenge to our capacity to “go on,” having accepted the first step to take the next and the next until we can not go on. The lyric narrative engages different capacities or figures — description, metaphor, analogy, and so on. In lyric, the primary figure seems to be the analogy or chiastic relating of outer to inner and lower to higher. I borrow my title from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which dramatize the struggle for perfectly acceptable expression. These exercises are constructed in threefold aspects— texts, FRAME OF REFERENCE, and discussion, with the understanding that no piece has priority. Reading a poem this way is what historian of philosopher Pierre Hadot called “spiritual exercises” (see now Ryan G. Dunn, SJ. SPIRITUAL EXERCISES FOR A SECULAR AGE: DESMOND AND THE QUEST FOR GOD (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020)

Ponge (1899-1988) explores the space between consciousness and creature hood in curiously erotic terms, starting with the personification of a frog, in its natural seeming, with Shakespeare’s tragic Ophelia. Does this poem trigger you along feminist lines? Do you refuse to play along with the sexual personification of the little frog as Ophelia, especially when it breaks down as an analogy and so is discarded for more general schemes?

That is, does the poem frustrate your desire to “go on”? A close study of lyric in these pages indicates that lyrics are set up to question our capacity to read them. Time is of the essence of the poem which can only end by slipping the bounds of time in an act of transcending the narrative whole by opening to the possibility of freedom. Ponge’s frog becomes a symbol of Lyric! So we practice the poem and learn how to go on deeper into what can’t be said but only shown.

Eventually the struggle illuminates the doubleness of consciousness. The frog is a real frog—the description can’t be “airbrushed” to please reductive sensibility. It is also, in the poem, flesh of our flesh. That’s the problem. But the narrative transforms into an everyday situation and is resolved accordingly. Meanwhile the reader has been tested as to her capacity to go on. We can even take the hint from the FRAME OF REFERENCE and acknowledge the possibility of the holy.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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