LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Mary Ruefle “Wintersault”

Snowflakes would be more gladsome / but when war ship isn’t there / they get mummed down to a hair / Mind you the nay-word has some mastery over us / I cried once when it stopped snowing / A flake looked at me so queer / The queer look of a flake is a sneer / It leaves things ice for a year / I be marvelous barbarous gladsome / when the nay-word be lyin’ in the wood / breathin’ regular and Christmas bells / far off, but here comes the cold morn / who wants a jagged piece of nay in my neck / when I want to be left floatin’ in a warm pool / in sum where I belong

from DUNCE (Wave Books, 2019)

FRAME OF REFERENCE “Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or utterance of feeling. But if we may allow the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener.” [John Stewart Mill, “What is Poetry” in Autobiography and Other Writings] In enabling us to overhear these struggles, the text of Philosophical Investigations offers us, dramatically, what Bouveresse has called a “narrow path that passes between predication and nonsense” [“‘The Darkness of This Time’: Wittgenstein and the Modern World”] in thinking all at once about human conceptual consciousness, self-conscious self-identity, spontaneity, expressive power, and value—the way of poesis.” Richard Eldridge, Leading a Human Life: Wittgenstein, Intentionality, and Romanticism. (The University of Chicago Press, 1997, p. 120)

You are forgiven if you stopped reading hours ago. This column can seem like glorified post-it notes. But that would be unfair to Mary Ruefle. Go back up and reread her poem Wintersault. I take it from her recent volume DUNCE. It’s perfect formally, by which I mean it follows the lyric itinerary, from out there to in here, from down there to up here. The second half of the chiasm is harder to see formally than the first. The way down is signaled by the dialect I be …
which follows that sneer— we are getting deep into the subjective, frustrated, perhaps terrified self now. Which is how we know we have found the narrow way. The alienation of the final lines presupposes the UP of the “ironic” in sum where I belong.

Go to the FRAME OF REFERENCE and the layered academic citations come alive (god willing). If you like this poem better than the citations, it’s OK. The poem is exceedingly clever in how it gives voice to some spontaneous coherence about human feelings in a divided time. The role of the nay-word, the dialectical answer to our seemingly undivided selfhood, does indeed have some mastery over us.

YET: Somehow the way of the poem—poesis— threads the needle in composing a clown’s kit by which we can recognize our humanity.


in memory of Ted Hughes

‘And what was it like,’ I asked him, / ‘Meeting Eliot?’ / /‘ When he looked at you,’ / He said, ‘it was like standing on a quay / Watching the prow of the Queen Mary / Come towards you, very slowly.’ // Now it seems / I’m standing on a pier head watching him / All the while watching me as he rows out / And a wooden end-stopped stern / Labours and shimmers and dips, / Making no real headway.

from Seamus Heaney: New Selected Poems 1988-2013.

FRAME OF REFERENCE Deeper than the self-division is the fork in the soul as a between. Is the issue just between the soul and itself, or between the soul and what is more than itself? The second, since the deeper we explore the immanent resources of self-creation, the more the wonder grows concerning a secret companioning power that is not one’s own. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 75.

The resources of the slightest genre of poetry, the lyric, are profound and penetrate the foundations of the self. Hopkins’s use of the noun self as a verb points to one dimension. In this fragmenty-looking text Heaney in the ripeness of his selving exposes some of the framework that opens the lyric to a simultaneous deconstruction and porosity toward its other beyond conceptual grasp. (Sorry about that flourish!) Put it this way: The figure of the dinghy receding into the beyond has a kind of subdued, not quite ironic sublimity.
The sharp ambiguity of the title anchors, as it were, the multiplicity of the ‘subject’ of “Eliot.”

One proposition I follow up in these Investigations is Lyric’s self-defeating figural complexity. Self-defeating in a good way, as “emergent form in a kenotic” way. Every move in a lyric reframes the self of the voice of the poet. Here Heaney talks to Hughes about Eliot, then reframes that from his own point of view. In the end it does seem Heaney is saying that Eliot has him in view as he departs the scene. Lyric poets have various ways of snatching the laurel from their masters, but the slow fade here has its own cultural moment. Heaney/Eliot/Heaney: a career long chiasm that continues to influence how we think of our poems, ourselves.

For all it’s grandiosity this figure is grounded not by the will-to-power of the emergent king of the hill but in the equivocity of the language. Starting with the almost tired expression of Hughes (a fiction/remembered dialogue) that sets up the opening, the middle “now” is alive with verbal energies: repetition in “watching him watching me,” a Narcissus image; and the increasingly dense image of the rowboat Eliot must drive through wave and current only to reach the departing Queen Mary. Is this a cruel joke? And it is “wooden end-stopped,” and that verbally split phrase “Labours and shimmers and dips.” Eliot’s craft breaking up mid sea? Since it’s Eliot we are talking about that image sets a new horizon while struggling to reach the old.

“Making no real headway” suggests, in the idiom “no real” that Eliot’s hegemony is sinking fast.

We are not used to arrogance from Heaney but the poem stands as more than a gesture. It’s a lyric that makes superb use of its resources without overdoing it (?).

One question lyric can’t settle is how it creates a new communicative space (porosity) by exhausting a whole set of figures in the process. Lyric deploys authoritative concepts like dialogue and metaphor and analogy (ships fading into the fog of the past) only to transform them into new creative energy. The deeper we go into the fertile void, it says in the FRAME OF REFERENCE, the more we are aware of a companioning power that is not oneself. So what is it? Say for now the intimate, not conceptually determined, universal.


She was buying an elixir / in a city / of bygone times, / yet we should think of her / now when shoulders are as white / and wrists as fine / flesh as sweet / Oh, vertiginous life!

translated by Heather McHugh, from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, edited by Czeslaw Milosz

FRAME OF REFERENCE In the aesthetics of happening, there is a surplus of showing, and this surplus is often the most unnoticed. We are not in an economy of lack. It is not an economy of struggle merely. There is an energy of being that is surplus to struggle. . . . In the aesthetics of happening there is a kind of ontological generosity . . . . There in the flesh there is too much already from the outset. WILLIAM DESMOND THE INTIMATE UNIVERSAL, p. 264.

The lyric narrative, from outer to inner, lower to higher, can be mapped in the most subtle ways. Heather McHugh is a master of style as her light touch shows in “was buying” and “should” among other elements (those as’s) of this unforgettable poem. From univocal pastness to the equivocal Subjunctive, the poem creates, in 8 quietly expressive lines, vertigo.

To experience this the reader enters a mindfulness peculiar to lyric. In focusing on an aesthetic happening the lyric grapples with the too muchness of language. Just how did Heather McHugh, no stranger to vertiginous self-expression, pull off such a subtle tour de force? Look again at the elegant spareness of the grammar. She knows her stuff as we used to say on deadline.

Following recent conversations about language being in the driver’s seat (I use the metaphor to capture some of the curiously mechanical feel of the conversation), we can appreciate the doubleness of the aesthetic happening. As in Alexandria, so in Berkeley. . . . Everything in so far as it happens happens in the intermedium of time. Time is the universal flesh of being. Language expresses time in vertiginous upsurges of self-expression.

Blah blah blah. So we can say that. But the difficulty of writing poetry includes subduing these energies to serve a higher good. Poems should go beyond expression — of self or language. This beyond either shows up (as beauty?) at the end or it doesn’t.

“There in the flesh there is too much already at the outset.” Desmond the philosopher becomes a poet in accessing some of the excess of beauty in his double “there.” Il y’a. The vertigo of aesthetic happening is shared by poets and philosophers in the between.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Anna Swir “Thank you, my fate”

Great humility fills me, / great purity fills me, / I make love with my dear / as if I made love dying / as if I made love praying, / tears pour / over my arms and his arms./ I don’t know whether this is joy / or sadness, I don’t understand / what I feel, I’m crying,/ I’m crying, it’s humility / as if I were dead / grattitude, I thank you, my fate,/ I’m unworthy, how beautiful / my life.

Translated from Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan, from A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, edited by Czeslaw Milosz.

FRAME OF REFERENCE There is something about the poem or painting or song that offers itself to all. … There is the intimate solitude but because it is offered to all, there is aesthetic communication, there is something of the spread of the universal about it all. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 92.

The lyric tradition has few more popular examples than Catullus’s couplet starting “I hate and I love.” The paradox of passion is an essential figure of the love lyric. The Polish poet Anna Swir (1909-1984) explores that paradox in “Thank you my fate.” At a time when lyric is the subject of debate Anna Swir may suggest new possibilities, especially regarding the self of the poet, which, as readers of Denise Riley and Geoffrey Hill, to name two British practitioners, know, is an open topic. And the polyvocalism of Sasha Dugdale’s DEFORMATIONS is getting a lot of attention. One of her lyrics is voiced by “water”; which reminds one of Oswald’s “Nobody.” And so on.

Swir could get lost in all this. There’s a desperate note of defiance in Swir’s voice. But it’s as hopeful as anything. Is it recognizable as a “feminist” voice? Does the total self-absorption of the poet raise too many issues for such a categorical question?

We’ve seen in these “investigations” that lyric often exposes issues about how we can define our language in lyric using tropes like simile, metaphor, and analogy. Reconsidering the Wittgensteinian “rules” of language use seems to be natural to lyric, natural because lyric appeals to something more original than poetic convention, namely raw feeling, or the intimate not the conceptual universal of the philosophers.

Swir’s conceptual promiscuity — humility, purity, dying, praying — characterizes the opening setting. Equivocation “fills” the mysterious moment with a con-fusion of concepts. The narrative after that becomes more sharply dialectical: I don’t know, I don’t know. The effort to know is frustrated by the fullness and the more-ness.

Finally the great analogy with dying appears justified. And yet it’s a grateful dying, a fullness of being that has reframed the participants: not the lover whose arms are bathed in her tears but her “fate” is love’s other. She confesses herself to be unworthy of such a beautiful fate.

Today the lyric is often used for extended suites that explore logical constructions, historical circumstances, and the antinomies of social values in a time of nihilism. That’s a good start at understanding the sonnets of Shakespeare, too. Swir’s focus on the inability of the self to grasp its experience conceptually yields both a good poem and a new picture — well, new-old picture— of the self in extremis. The FRAME OF REFERENCE suggest the widest possible lens for this picture of joyous chaos. The paradoxical solitude of ecstasy as communicated by the poem embraces an ontological wholeness that is no whole but an over-whole, expressing the more of the original experience.

I guess that’s why I love this poem. The over-wholeness of it. Swir’s book in English, TALKING TO MY BODY (Copper Canyon), is widely available thanks to Milosz and Nathan.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Charles Simic “Empire of Dreams”

On the first page of my dream book / It’s always evening / In an occupied country./ Hour before the curfew. / A small provincial city. / The houses all dark./ The store-fronts gutted. // I am an a street corner / Where I shouldn’t be. / Alone and coatless / I have gone out to look / For a black dog who answers to my whistle. / I have a kind of Halloween mask/ Which I am afraid to put on.


FRAME OF REFERENCE There is a dangerous doubleness, promising ennoblement but liable to generate corruption. The intimate universal is porous to heaven, but it can also be porous to hell. For, of course, the danger is there with the idiotic intimacy. It is daimonic in the double sense of being able to be turned to the diabolical side, as well as to the divine. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 58.

In these “investigations” we are discovering how lyrics appeal to our desire to grasp an underlying story that confirms our mastery of our conceptual world. Things occur to us in experience, aspects pile up into images, coherence emerges. We make poems of these. But by virtue of making the poems, we expose the figures — similes, metaphors, analogies, sound patterns of all sorts— and the otherness of these techniques create the cracks in the sense of wholeness, the cracks, so goes the song, that lets the light in.

Paradoxically, this doubleness is the appeal of lyric. Charles Simic, Serbia-born American poet, much celebrated (see google), has written extensively on the strong appeal of poetry to our sense of self. Czeslaw Milosz chose one of his wry little poems for his anthology A BOOK OF LUMINOUS THINGS, and prefaced it with a rather literal explanation about the persistence of childhood memories in dreams. In public conversations Simic often tells about being awakened to consciousness by a bomb that went off in his building when he was a child. There is a literal basis for his lyric “Empire of Dreams.”

With the title the reader becomes aware of a doubleness. Is it a metaphor that frames this memory of a dream? Whose empire is this? Whatever the technique used to get control over his conscious experience, his conceptual take on his dreams seems organic to his self-expression. The experience couldn’t be expressed without self-consciously interrogating its otherness, its givenness as dream but also its demonic sense of the possibilities of self-hood. (See FRAME OF REFERENCE.)

We are bewitched by the mode, the photo-realism of the noir narrative. We play along. It moves through the lyric narrative, from outer to inner, from lower to higher, with the whole complex story exploding conceptually at the end, the black dog, the mask. It’s as if the pretenses of the poem stood revealed as pretenses. Is the poem then not just a personal expression of deep-seated self-awareness as dream but an analogy for something else to be discovered? Or not? There is an intimacy to this final scene. The dog comes to the poet’s whistle. The poet questions the use of his mask. If we must accept the figure of analogy as the ultimate form or shape of this poem, we must accept the darkness of the light at the end of the tunnel. Analogies represent subjects in their plurality and doubleness. X is ti Y AS A is to B. The poem is to the dream as the dream is to … empire? The other to empire?

Tha sense of mastery we get when our conceptual world CLICKS with a poem. But CLICK is the sound too of a dead CLICHE. Cliche is the sound of a molten figure being cooled into shape by the touch of water. But there’s more this time around. That mask, suspended between poet and the cracks letting the light in.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Sasha Dugdale “Me as Bride of Christ at St George’s”

A whole procession of us, white-robed,/ even white shoes and socks/ I wore my mother’s wedding veil, studded with pearls, / for Corpus Christi Day. A day like today/ a hay fever day, the neadow’s first cut/ and the bees, the roses out, everything ripe. / The priest, noticing our bad habits, / said we should never keep the wafer in our mouth, / as it is the body of Christ, but we vied/ for who could suck the longest. / My grandmother took photos on a Polaroid / and in all of them our heads cut off / just our young torsos bobbing toward the chapel.

from DEFORMATIONS (Carcanet 2020)

FRAME OF REFERENCE One might say that art gives us neither an image nor an original but an original image or an imagistic original. There is doubleness in its relativity: both an immanent self-reference and a transcendent other reference; something deeply intimate, something intimating superior otherness (altus, above and below). WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal, p. 76.

There is almost too much going on in this short text. The notes indicate the source of the material as the writings of Eric Gill, and adds: “The voice in the sequence is not Gill’s—it is the voice of water which is good for recording disaster.”

Dugdale’s mode here involves foregrounding to an almost distracting degree the theory of the case. Starting with the Marvellian echo in the title’s analogy — Me AS — we have what we take at first as an anecdotal lyric, one of the most popular forms of poetry. Line-by-line it follows what we have called the lyric narrative, or the chiasm from outer to inner/from lower to higher (to put it bluntly paraphrasing St. Augustine of all people). Opening with the facts behind a photo, we move through the topics of the genre, gradually going from description to dialects of the occasion— time of year, the priest, a bit of conversation, charged with double meanings. Then a kind of wrap up that in fact delivers the final destruction of the original image, the seemingly “innocent” Polaroid.

So there’s that. There’s more. Starting with the fourth line — a day like today— there’s a universalizing pattern of analogy. Not only ambiguity — the play on habits— but that cultural sign that governs our social understanding. The wafer “is” the body of Christ. The signal of the analogy is “as.” The open placement of this analogy suggests that this figure of speech, so promiscuously fond of difference, is “behind” the poem as a whole. It is, after all, a day like today.

The energy of the final lines draws on the deepest awarenesses. See the FRAME OF REFERENCE. This “transcendent” other reference is the ultimate indeterminable side of the analogy. The event described, already pluralized by its sources, points to something greater than can be thought, a kind of dark light. The power of the poem, which is, as it were, just a taste of the book “as a whole” (e.g. the thing up for the TS Eliot Prize), is considerable, and considerable in light of both social and artistic dimensions. We shouldn’t really say “as a whole,” since that whole, under the sign of analogy, is an open whole. Now the “note”— the voice of the poem is that of water— can become part of our way of understanding the poem.

One final thing, Sasha Dugdale’s new book reinforces our awareness of the profound possibilities— formal, historical, personal, ontological, etcetera — of lyric.

LYRIC INVESTIGATIONS Jo Clement “Iron Work, V & A”

There’s not a pot to piss in. Least not the kind I’m looking for. / Move on, she said, You read too much into these things. // Still, our kettles boil, crucibles stew and sing. Their withy hooks / turn to litterfall. Wooden limbs left behind, long eaten. // But the iron pots we wrought, have they not weathered here / or found their place amongst the crested railings, locked gates // and all their keys? Now I see them loosed from wall and earth, / were these black balustrades not cast by the fiery Smiths?

from THE DARK HORSE, 42, Autumn & Winter 2020, p. 70.

FRAME OF REFERENCE As originally a charged field of communication, the idiocy is saturated with worth, prior to determination and self-determination. One might say that there is something overdeterminate to it as a kind of “too muchness,” though there is also something quasi-indeterminate about it, as opening to further determinations and self-determinations. The overdetermination is redolent of the good of the “to be.” The idiotic is an elemental field of communication, shimmering with the endowed promise of the good of the “to be.” WILLIAM DESMOND, The Intimate Universal, 206.

The “Notes on Contributors” in the new issue of THE DARK HORSE says of the author: “ Jo Clement is Managing Editor of Butcher’s Dog. Her debut pamphlet Movable Type (New Writing North) was published with support of Arts Council England.”

I will order a copy. Anybody who uses “movable type” in her title has my vote of confidence. I remember when I moved from newspaper work to book publishing. Movable type was an anachronism but in traditional book publishing preserved its aura.

Aura is relevant concept as we think about her poem Iron Work, V & A. The presence of works (not perhaps works of art) in museums challenge our sense of self as we entertain an other time. The voice of the poem is abruptly reconnected to her body and needs a lou. She speaks up and is rebuked as if she had hermeneutic issues. Aura of “things,” indeed a matter perhaps of thinking too much, is irrelevant to the bodily needs of the speaker, but it has everything to do with the poem.

This opening has an epigrammatic irreverence that locks in for the moment what we are to expect. The next couplet engages us at a still dialogical level but triggered by the equivocity of things. They have their depths, historical-aesthetic-dialectical. Kettles that boil are subject to the universal impermanence, they are like us in that, flesh of our flesh. Their withy hooks/turn to litterfall. We are at the o-level of being: the basic organic stuff, “o” meaning “organic” or perhaps “ontological.”

In the museum setting common things may undergo an aspect change, such as we expect from lyric. Now the style of the poem has access to new energies, new syntax, new levels of attention. “Now” has its corona or firmata effect.

Call it with Desmond (see FIELD OF REFERENCE) the idiotic dimension. Foundational thereness, pure possibility. The pie locates her pits and pans, flesh of her flesh, HERE. The grammar is precise, interrogatory but polite (compare the opening). “Have they not …or found their place”: the agon of high state-sponsored culture vs. how we live among our things: the idiotic aspect is intimate, pre-subjective, pre-objective, transhuman, to use categories invented by phenomenologists to make sense of human reality at its most universal.

Of course all this metaphysics may distract from the tone of the final lines. But the mode of existence of the lyric is embedded in, say, the conceptual litterfall of consciousness. Clement skillfully, gingerly, sifts through the life-appearances of her topic. Lyric succeeds as it keeps proportion among its voices.

Seen from a distance a question looms: isn’t there something truly other on the horizon of this question? Were these black balustrades not cast by the fiery Smiths? And since this poem interrogates the idiotic dimension, is not the imagery here acknowledgement of the powers of the enabling figure, analogy? Ana is a Greek prefix for “up.” Unlike metaphor, which lives in likeness— you might say description— analogy lives in difference. Its light is not the daylight of metaphor, a sort of convivial if conjectural half-light, but rather the darkness of difference. But like the balustrade of the poem, up not down (though we know from the chiasm that up may be down, as Heraclitus won’t be denied).

There is a powerful erotic yearning in Clement’s palate. It’s mixed with the differences of high and low. But as I don’t tire of saying, the lyric chiasm involves us in connections between outer and inner, lower and higher. The overall figure is analogy, which acknowledges the final differences between dimensions of thought. There’s a surplus energy in our efforts to bring every thing into the rational light of one museum. Analogy is the play of the gods of memory.

So thanks Jo Clement for this fine poem. May you write— and publish— many more.

LYRIC.CO Penelope Shuttle “long-lost”

the child vanishes / in the mist / and snow of the family // she vanishes/ in a trice, in an age, / no-one knows why or where // the dreamer / the quiet one the hero /they called her // no trouble / not a clown/ not a rescuer // she’s gone / clad in a paper dress/ never seen again //nor her passport / nor her shoes / nor her rabbit / not in this shining world

from FATHER FEAR (Poetry Salzburg at the University of Salzburg 2020)

FRAME OF REFERENCE In coming to what seems most intimately one’s own, one comes to what is not self-owned. Seeking to own itself, the owning of this selving darkens down into a cave that is not its own. The selving claiming exemplary singularity is undergroundedby nothing but the opening into nothing. It is an abyss, it is a gap—the gap is a chaos in the etymological sense. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 74.

Penelope Shuttle’s new pamphlet is full of wonderful lyrics. The word lyric is contested vigorously by contemporary critics (see for example STRANGENESS AND POWER: ESSAYS ON THE POETRY OF GEOFFREY HILL, edited by Andrew Michael Roberts), and I’ve found the debate interesting. But far more interesting are the poems themselves, specifically how they address the crisis of meaning in a nihilistic age.

Shuttle’s “long-lost” exhibits one of the most fascinating features of lyric, how it deals with loss. In raw experience, loss chokes off expression, overwhelms reason, obliterates feeling, lays waste to the deepest sense of self. In short, lyric can confront the forces of nothingness.

Shuttle makes good use of what I call the lyric narrative, which is a name for the chiastic knot of name and mystery, of our inability to find security in our expression of truth (Wittgenstein’s great theme). The threads we lay down In composing a lyric make a braid, but one that comprises multiple beginnings and endings. This sounds like a version of postmodern nihilism. It looks that way. Look again: in reaching its end, lyric completes an open figure we call analogy. The subject transforms into an activity of truth itself even while the truth itself remains organically open and vibrant.

In “long-lost” a series of negations build up a final image, “this shining world.” Given the narrative of loss the image is heartbreaking. But it carries with it the “negative” other of the analogy explored by the lyric. Who is this child? Self or other, yourself or herself? Whom does the mysterious voice of the poem address?

The lyric is powerfully evocative. The nothings in italics land like blows. The poem invokes what it denies. Thus it fulfills the purpose of analogy, comparing something, “the child,” to many things that it can’t be said to be (any more, or at all). Analogy builds a stairway to what is other to thought. (Ana is a Greek prefix meaning “up.”)

The poem leads us into the abyss of the self. The abyss is however not simply dark. It is alive with dark light. (See FRAME OF REFERENCE for the itinerary of selving enacted here.) This light is not the mere other to reason. It is not gnostic, pointing to the consolations of transcendence. It is the voice of the lyric itself. It is the voice of the finite other which is embraced by agapeic love. Shuttle’s final catalogue—starting with the paper dress (suggesting the imaginatively believed in paper doll), and descending from more sophisticated figures of self- existence to a pet rabbit (with so many associations), is somehow self-confirming.

The final line is both loss and gain. Analogy is a figure of both-and. It has the force of a PreSocratic essentialism, except that its foundation is in the figure of analogy, which, in the paradoxical tradition of poetics, “asserts nothing.”

LYRIC.CO Sean Hewitt “Clock”

A close warm evening opened by rain/ and me (caught out) leaning on a cedar. // A heron walks its white zed / along the bank and out into the water, // and just here a small beetle, sheen / of coal-black, pulls itself into the pink bed // of the rhododendron flower. Then, once / and once more, a foxbarks / and, though I love you and I know / there is no such thing as held time, // this tree seems suddenly like a stillness,/ a circle of quiet air, a place to stand // now that I have had to leave / and cannot think where I might go next.

from TONGUES OF FIRE (Cape Poetry 2020)

FRAME OF REFERENCE Analogically causation might be said, by contrast [to the autism of Hegel’s God] to create the finite other not as a self-othering, but through the interplay of likeness and unlikeness it releases the created other into its own being for itself, a being which is also in relation to God, as ultimate origin of all relations in communication between creation and Godself. WILLIAM DESMOND The Voiding of Being (The Catholic University of America Press, 2020), p. 94.

US citizens gaze into the abyss as President Trump leads them into collective suicide by pandemic. That’s the headline this morning. Kamala Harris represents a future worth fighting — and voting — for. Story buried in the culture pages of today’s paper.

I turn to one of the outstanding debut collections. Is Sean Hewett really that good? His poetry is pushing me to think harder about the lyric, a form of poetry unmentionable in polite society yet surprisingly popular. Let’s look at “Clock.”

It has the generic lyric shape as explored in these pages. Call it the lyric chiasm: outer to inner/lower to higher. (We borrow this from Augustine.) Many questions are finessed in the process of reading it, and not because they are hidden as presumptions of the form, though they do seem to be such. Some will react to these gaps in reason. Warmed over Heaney anyone? UNFAIR!

The naive — CAUGHT OUT — narrator. Exposed to the “otherness” of fellow creatures. Vividly sketched to the life. That heron, that beetle! Those weird fox barks in the dark, FROM the dark.

Calling. And the lyric turns from the internal equivocities to the intimations of the abyss of the human heart. Aspect change: the mode jumps from description to concept. There is no such thing as held time. The firmata opening the abyss even wider, deeper, lower. Time in this lyric open to being held.

And the final image of held time, the very cedar the poet leans on. (This has the neatness of a Cavalier lyric.) Structurally the change of aspect reveals the secret of lyric, analogy. Description — the initial mode— draws on univocal likeness. That heron— to the life! Etcetera. But now the gaps of difference show the inner twist towards otherness of indescribable dark difference— the figure of analogy. And it supports a figure of nothing: a stillness, a circle, a place.

What would we do without Heidegger’s antimetaphysics! Romanticism reborn in nihilistic times! That’s one way to put it. And believe me that’s what will occur to many readers. Default nihilism.

No. A more generous way is suggested by the FRAME OF REFERENCE. The release of the created (not merely fictive) other into its own time. “I cannot think …” Hewitt’s finesse of time (with a courteous bow to Eliot)— “Now that I have had to leave”— shakes the deterministic lyric to its foundations in the analogical space. The form of the lyric emerges as analogical consciousness.

Isn’t that something! Sean Hewitt made that for our consideration. Good on him!

LYRIC CO. Rocco Scotellaro “To the Carter’s Daughter”

I can live near you no longer / someone binds the voice in my chest / you are the carter’s daughter / who takes the breath from my mouth. / Because below us in the stable / the mules move in their sleep / because your father huffs near us / and does not go yet, high on his cart/ to chase off the stars with his whip

translated by William Weaver, The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, edited by Geoffrey Brock, p. 427.

FRAME OF REFERENCE The difference of self-love and love of other-being is subtended by a givenness in which the difference is not at all an opposition, but emergent into form out of the more original passage of the porosity of being.
WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Between, 226.

Analogy looks like an expanded metaphor, a this-as-that with the spread of a story. What does it feel like to decide your love has become impossible? Rocco Scotellaro’s lyric shows you. Never heard of him? Now you have, via his poem. He’s said to be a Neo-liberal, a socialist; he died researching agrarian economy; he died young. His years were 1923-1953.

It’s a fine poem. Like the poems of Catullus (84-54), it makes you feel what it’s like to make that life-transforming decision. It’s like dying. You can no longer speak. (The extremity of THAT is especially extreme for a poet!)

As a lyric in good standing (critics go on and on about the status of the lyric mode, well, just look at this one), it draws subtle hints from the language (the academics love to say it’s the language not the poet that speaks). Here lines two and four look a lot alike. Who is causing this crisis? The beloved (line two) or … herself? We expected him to say her father, whose oppressive presence makes it impossible for them to love each other.

But it’s not that simple. His love is turning into hatred.

The poem turns quietly to the world outside the speaker’s consciousness. BECAUSE. The imagery is of the world of flesh, of fellow creatures: mules shifting asleep in their stalls under the living quarters shared by the carter and his daughter. Her father “huffs,” waking in the dawn for another work day.

It’s a moment of change in the between sketched by the poet. The moment is specific. And yet it is more than the sum of its parts. There’s an equivocal issue— does he blame his beloved for being who she is? At first it seems like it. But the poem ends on an image of universal aspect: the stars fading from the lightening skies at dawn.

The poem is MORE than broken-hearted and stoic (that unstable stable combination explored by Catullus). It embraces so much more than the immediate voice suggests. The last line achieves an aspect switch that opens the poem to the world the fading light of the stars sheds on humanity.

So technically, the moment of decision is analogous to the bigger moment of accepting the larger drama, rather grandiloquently pictured in the last line. The father-figure has a profile now. To be his daughter is to be connected to a central player in the difference between night and day. It is to be connected to the way things are.

That’s the mode of analogy showing its ultimate power. By comparing two widely different (night and day) things it gets at the truth between them. It is a figure of the between, the metaxy between mortals and immortality (see the word “porosity” in the FRAME OF REFERENCE). Analogy is the great lyric figure as it makes us fleetingly aware of the darkness of God, the ultimate site of our loves and lives.