December 2003

Stephen Dunn is one of the luminaries of what I like to think of as the Wisdom School of modern North American poetry. He lives and teaches in New Jersey, and is the quintessential secular humanist. His recent book Riffs and Reciprocities: Prose Pairs (Norton, 1998) is a very interesting experiment in poetic thinking. As is typical of the prose poetry genre, the pieces in this book are short, playful and involve many interesting leaps. What’s new is the call-and-response method of composition. That is to say, each poem or “riff” summons a “reciprocity,” which is usually not quite and often not at all the expected opposite. For example, faces calls up bodies; passion, paradox; fog, luminescence.

In this manner, the reader gets to sample linked thoughts that indulge themselves in all the contradictory messiness of ordinary, healthy thinking, albeit raised to a higher level of gracefulness and precision. (Hmmm, grace and precision, now . . . ) Thus, the book as a whole constitutes a very subtle attack on binary thinking. Highly recommended, like almost all the books I cite on this site (why would I waste my time otherwise?).

In fact, you’ll really have to track down a copy of the book if you want to see what I’m talking about. Not only would reproducing a whole pair be more than I want to risk here, but without the option of facing pages, this medium wouldn’t do it any justice. But since the scroll-like weblog page seems to favor chains of apothegms, let me at least include a few short excerpts. In each case except the fourth (“Acceptance”), the quote includes the ending of that particular piece. While this may distort by implying more finality than the full context would permit, I hope it conveys some sense of the balance and symmetry at work here. (Perhaps we can we think of each quote as one hand clapping?)

from Cynicism (p. 100):
“What do we value? What do we love? A skeptic is no one’s favorite lover, but I can’t help thinking as a skeptic might. I love what’s left after love has been tested. I value the doubt that gets the scientist to the solution. When a skeptic meets a cynic on the street: ‘Nice day, so far,’ the skeptic says. The cynic has to think about that.”

from Indifference (105):
“There’s evidence of life in hatefulness, which is why indifference, not hate, is the opposite of love. Between lovers, what’s worse than a shrug? . . . For those regulars of indifference, to whom so little matters, some synapse between brain and society has snapped, some link between hearts and other hearts. They are beyond hurt, these masters of distance, they don’t permit themselves the sweetness of the tragic world.”

from Religion (27):
“I’m saying this to myself: the sacred cannot be found unless you give up some old version of it. And when you do, mon semblable, mon frere, I swear there’ll be an emptiness it’ll take a lifetime to fill. Indulge, become capricious, give up nothing, Jack my corner grocer said. He was pushing the portobellos, but I was listening with that other, my neediest ear.”

from Acceptance (111):
“And then the expansion of what personal means: another person’s tragedy, a country’s collapse. The larger the personal becomes the greater our helplessness. Better to be furious at one thing, become radiant with purpose. Better to love links and rhythms than all-embracing answers.”

from Erasure (77):
“Any fictionist knows that one event, even if poorly executed, can make another happen, the slightest authenticity creating a path to the hidden. One way to revise: erase something, erase something else, see what’s left standing, then see if it deserves companions. Total erasure makes sense too, a grand cleaning up after the misconceived party, a starting over with a better nothing. The eros of beginnings! Yet even then, who doesn’t desire to leave a trail, barely followable, or dream of being properly found by someone who might exquisitely look and care?”

“The urge to go beyond the limit remains stronger than the insight into the limitations of our knowledge. In [Goethe’s] Faust we can already see what Nietzsche and, later, pragmatism will emphasize: the will to knowledge is always nourished by a will to power. For this reason, the will to knowledge can never rest in knowledge itself; its urge, according to its roots, is immeasurable because, behind every knowledge, new puzzles mount up: A priori, knowledge wants to know more. ‘What one does not know, that is precisely what is needed. / And what one knows, cannot be used.’ Wanting-to-know is an offspring of the desire for power, the striving for expansion, existence, sexuality, pleasure, enjoyment of self, and for anesthesizing the necessity of dying. Whatever presents itself as theoretical enlightenment and research, in the nature of things, can never reach its alleged goals because these do not belong to the theoretical sphere.”

– Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (tr. by Michael Eldred, U. of Minn. Press, 1987), p. 179.

The close link between will to knowledge and will to power is recognized – and feared – by many societies. For example, in the Mande language of the Maninka (a.k.a. Malinke) of West Africa, the verb lon, to know, “often associated with the occult . . . may be used metaphorically . . . To know is to control; thus, one who has too much knowledge about a person is potentially threatening.” (John William Johnson, trans., The Epic of Son-Jara. Indiana UP, 1987, 117 n. 369.) The only limits to this knowledge, and the limits to which it may be put, reside in strong social norms. Not all societies have such controls: see, for example, R. Fortune, Sorcerers of Dobu, or Paul Stoller’s riveting In Sorcery’s Shadow. An interesting question is whether our own society may be one of those in which sorcerers rule essentially unchecked. (I raise this question in a very sketchy and unsatisfactory fashion in my essay “Freeing the Ensorcelled Word.”) This could form subject matter enough for another whole blog, easily.

My friend Phila sent along the following quote:

“If a man were to inquire of Nature the reason of her creative activity, and if she were willing to give ear and answer, she would say – ‘Ask me not, but understand in silence, even as I am silent and am not wont to speak.'”

– Plotinus, via the translator’s (F.L. Pogson’s) preface to Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will.

Here’s an interesting piece from a cycle of devotional poems to a local manifestation of the god Shiva, attributed to the 16th-century Telugu poet Dhurjati. According to the notes, all the objects mentioned in the first four lines of the translation are references to actual legends.

“In what form can my mind worship you?
Haven’t men revered you as a kneecap,
a woman’s breast, a measuring jar,
as a goat turd?
Heal my unease
and show me your real form so that
my eyes can be filled with you,
O God of Kalahasti, O drunken bee hovering
over the lotus of the mind!”

For the Lord of the Animals – Poems from the Telugu: The Kalahastisvara Satakamu of Dhurjati, trans. by Hank Heifetz and Velcheru Narayana Rao (U. of California Press, 1987), #2 (p. 16).

Here’s one more, to help clarify a little this poet’s rather nuanced view of the pitfalls of desire (#62, p. 76):

“I never think of asking you to give me things,
so if you don’t care for my poetry
I’ll bear that all right.
It’s only my tongue’s natural work,
nothing other than my worship.
O God of Kalahasti,
how could I ever find you
if all I wanted of you
were my wishes?”

The notion of nature or the world being feminine, as in the Doty poem just quoted, may be more deeply rooted in our thinking than we suspect. Students of Latin may have noticed a certain resemblance between the word for matter (materia) and mother (mater). This echoes the Greek precedent in part, though to be consistent the Romans should have chosen silva (forest).

Say what?!

“Aristotle’s conception of matter (hyle) contains the idea of embryonic genesis; it is elaborated, by Aristotle, through the analogy of motherhood, giving birth to what [Erich] Neumann [in The Great Mother] calls the ‘childbearing maternal significance of the tree.’ Hyle, maternal matter, means ‘forest’ in Greek. The Latin cognate is silva, which means much the same thing. Marcel Mauss, writing about the anthropological notions that preceded modern ideas about matter, described it as follows: ‘Silva is the generative power conceived as feminine, it is the forest. In the idea of the forest there is . . . something undisciplined, savage, and dangerous, but also animative and receptive’ [Oevres, 1968, translated by Sahlins]. It was this wild and disorderly, feminine quality of the forest that eventually disappeared from the cosmology of nature in the seventeenth centure, including in the work of Descartes.”
– Peter Sahlins, Forest Rites: The War of the Desmoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France (Harvard UP, 1994), 49.

All of which helps to explain why, in the early 19th century, bands of male peasants in the French Pyrenees dressed up as women for a series of night-time acts of “eco-terrorism” against charcoal makers and the newly appointed national foresters. To learn more about that, you’ll have to get hold of the book: a fascinating study of a rebellion against modernism that ought to be as well known as that of the English Luddites.

“What I love about language
is what I love about fog:
what comes between us and things
grants them their shine.”

– Mark Doty, “Fog Suite”

Mark Doty’s work stands as an eloquent and persuasive apologetic for the appeal of surfaces. In another poem, “Favrile,” he describes a friend weeping at a puppet opera: “Jimmy wept // at the world of tiny gestures, / forgot, he said, / these were puppets, // forgot these wire / and plaster fabrications / were actors at all, // since their pretense / allowed the passions / released to be – // well, operatic. / It’s too much / to be expected to believe; //art’s a mercuried sheen / in which we may discern, / because it is surface, // clear or vague / suggestions of our depths. / Don’t we need a word // for the luster / of things which insist / on the fact they’re made, // which announce / their maker’s bravura? . . . [A word] for everything / which begins in limit / (where else might our work // begin?) and ends in grace, / or at least extravagance.”

As a gay man, Doty has good reason to resent the essentialist biases of Western thought. In one poem, “Concerning some Recent Criticism of His Work,” he responds as follows to the complaint, “Can’t he think of anything but all that sheen?”

“. . . Every sequin’s
an act of praise.

These bright distillates
mirror the day’s

glossed terms –
what’s the world but shine

and seem? She’d sewn

the wildly lavish thing
herself, and wore

– forgive me! – shimmer . . . ”

The ellipsis is his own (that’s the end of the poem). I love the way he deftly connects his own creation with Creation itself, gendered but not specifically identified. All three poems I’ve just quoted are from his fifth book, Sweet Machine (HarperPerennial, 1988). I can’t resist one more quote, the closing lines of the last piece in the book, “Visitation,” which is about a humpbacked whale that comes into the harbor for a week. After some amazingly beautiful stanzas describing the whale and the evident great pleasure it took in exploring its surroundings, Doty talks about the effect of this “visitation” on himself:

“. . . And though grief

had seemed to me itself a dim,
salt suspension in which I’ve moved,
blind thing, day by day,

through the wreckage, barely aware
of what I stumbled toward, even I
couldn’t help but look

at the way this immense figure
graces the dark medium,
and shines so: heaviness

which is no burden to itself.
What did you think, that joy
was some slight thing?”

The mind has its own desires & not all of them are pure: it might find (for example) certain thoughts to be shapely, others adorably waif-like, some as fatal to the other five senses as the Lorelei. For Osip Mandelstam, exiled to the Russian steppe, flocks of poems appeared as goldfinches on his daily walks. In the 12th century, Richard of St. Victor, the most systematic of mystics, discovered that the mind has three pairs of wings. It can soar and circle on any one pair, but maneuvers best with all six wings unfolded. One wonders how many years he labored over his sketches of the soul’s most intimate secrets. Each verse of his Bible was a separate pane stained by a separate sky.

Contemporary North American poetry is deeply particularistic. In a complete about-face from the high fashion of a thousand years ago, when allegory reigned supreme and “creatures” were scorned as fit objects only for the lowest levels of contemplation, today the vast majority of poets seek “no ideas but in beings,” to quote Lawrence Ferlingetti’s slight deformation (in a recent interview) of the famous dictum of William Carlos Williams. I could quote virtually anyone from my private pantheon to bear this out: Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton, Ai, Chris Llewellyn, etc. The narrative poet Larry Levis makes this praxis explicit in one of the briefest components of his masterwork, Elegy.

As with the Warlpiri dreaming just quoted, particularities from outside the boundaries of the poem itself help advance the reader’s comprehension. For this book, context is everything since the whole forms an almost-unity, with many motifs and images reoccurring throughout. It also helps to know that the author grew up on a large vineyard in California in the 50s and 60s, and thus presumably worked with the man in the photo/poem or with men like him; that he died suddenly and without apparent warning or foreknowledge during the final assembly of the manuscript that became, by some mysterious, tragicomic or theurgic process, his own elegy; and that the book was put in its final form by his great friend Philip Levine, who is known primarily as a poet of the working class. Finally, note that there is both an ironic and literal displacement at work. Are we at a gallery exhibition, in the presence of Johnny Dominguez — or simply staring at the page? Or all three? Self-reflexivity rarely gets more suggestive than this.

Risking charges of copyright infringement as usual, I’ll quote this piece in full. But I strongly recommend the whole book to any and all readers. Buy it, because you’ll want to read it again and again.

Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967

I’m going to put Johnny Dominguez right here
In front of you on this page so that
You won’t mistake him for something else,
An idea, for example, of how oppressed
He was, rising with his pan of Thompson Seedless
Grapes from a row of vines. The band
On his white straw hat darkened by sweat, is,
He would remind you, just a hatband.
His hatband. He would remind you of that.
As for the other use, this unforeseen
Labor you have subjected him to, the little
Snacks and white wine of the opening he must
Bear witness to, he would remind you
That he was not put on this earth
To be an example of something else,
Johnny Dominguez, he would hasten to
Remind you, in his chaste way of saying things,
Is not to be used as an example of anything
At all, not even, he would add after
A second or so, that greatest of all
Impossibilities, that unfinishable agenda
Of the stars, that fact, Johnny Dominguez.

– Larry Levis, Elegy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 12.

Rather than perpetuate certain misunderstandings engendered by the term animism, I am thinking it might be better to speak of particularizing – as opposed to universalizing – traditions. This identifies what, to me, most distinguishes tribal religions from our own: their concern with the inner realities of specific beings, places and events, and the web of relationships that connect the people to them (and to each other). Whereas to speak of animism – or of shamanism, fetishism, etc. – risks placing undue emphasis on certain features that may be more important in some traditions than in others, in an attempt to universalize what resists universalism.

This bias is hard to surmount: we say “the universe” as if unitariness were a fact of nature. (These days, physicists and astronomers seem more and more convinced that the opposite is the case.) The Greek cosmos remains a much more expressive term. A cosmos is a stage where sacred dramas are enacted, where all manner of narratives unfold and intertwine, where the Word becomes flesh – and vice versa, perhaps.

At its most original, a telling partakes of multifaceted particularities. Let’s borrow a bit from literary criticism: we are talking not (or not merely) about texts, but about sacred speech acts. Story and poem, song and dance, the present moment and illo tempore (to use Mircea Eliade’s terminology) may all be fused. Listen to this brief passage from one of the Warlpiri dreamings, from central Australia:

“That person lived always in that place beside that waterhole. The other two lived at Yajarlu. That is where they lived. The child crawled about on her own near the waterhole there.

‘Well, suddenly those two disappeared from there. They disappeared. They went in, forever. No, they did not come out again.

“Later another person, another man came that way, but he did not see them. ‘Ahh, nothing there! I say, what happened to them?’ He tried to find them. Then he went back to the other place where he was living. He lived there a long time, the person who belonged to that place, the old man, Jupurrurla. The old man lived there a long time, in his own country.

“Then he saw the fires. In the west. He saw the fires. ‘They are lighting fires over there! Yes, the people are lighting fires! Later I will go over to look at the burnt-out areas, yes, later I will go over and have a look. I will have a look at the burnt-out areas tomorrow. Tomorrow I will look at them, tomorrow.”

This comes toward the end of a dreaming entitled “To Yarmurnturrngu and How I Came Back to Yajarlu,” told by Jacko Ross Jackamarra and translated by Peggy Rockman Napaljarri and Lee Cataldi (Warlpiri Dreamings and Histories (Yimikirli), HarperCollins, 1994, 37-43.) What a casual reader would consider the main story is already finished; this mysterious passage belongs to the whole by some magic of juxtaposition more familiar to us from lyric poetry than narrative proper.

It is precisely the indirection and allusiveness of this sacred speech act that leads me to believe that the way of silence, the via negativa, may be native to particularizing traditions, too. You’ll have to get a hold of the book yourself to see what I mean. But for now let me quote the translator’s note in full, over-long as that may make this entry.

“Jacko Ross Jakamarra is regarded by other Warlpiri people living at Yuendumu as one of the finest exponents of the traditional narrative. To the Western reader, his way of telling a story may seem strange, cryptic, allusive and apparently disconnected; characters and stories are introduced that do not seem to relate to the apparent plot, the matter of the abducted child.

“However, as the title indicates, what is important is the return of the mother with the child to her home in Yajarlu. In fact what unifies the narrative is place, not character or a single strand of events. All the events in the narrative take place at or in relation to Yajarlu: the theft of the child, its return to its rightful home, the separate but always present concern of the old Jupurrurla for both the people, the mother and child, and the country, and who might be lighting fires. The narrative is about restoring things to their rightful state and position. In this way, at the close of the story, the traveler who is passing through on his way to his own home and relatives provides a coda elegantly emphasizing this central concern.

“There are two other aspects of Jakamarra’s narrative technique which should be noted. One is the allusiveness, which both complements and teases the listeners by demanding they supply details they should know, for example, that Jupurrurla is the owner of Yajarlu. The other is the humour of the dramatized exchanges, the words put in the mouths of the different characters, and also of course the way the narrator acts these out, the way the other woman considers taking the child and decides to do so, the panic of the mother when she discovers the substitution.” (Warlpiri Dreamings and Histories, 43.)

Others have written more eloquently than I can about the importance of place-based narratives in fostering moral and ethical concerns: see especially Bruce Chatwin, Songlines (about the Australian aborigines) and Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places (about the Apache). I merely want to point out that similarly poetic, somewhat humorous narratives of place redolent with hidden lessons and allusions may be found within our own tradition. For example, in Genesis: check out the telling of Abraham’s purchase of a burial place for Sarah (23:3-20).

The conventional complaint one hears this time of year is how commerce has debased gift giving. But we must be careful to distinguish modern American consumerism from commerce per se. As a matter of fact, in many societies the merchant is accounted the most generous and hospitable of individuals. I am not sure that history or anthropology support the notion that trading itself contibutes to the disenchantment of the world, by which all beings are reduced to lifeless objects or resources. The most fundamental economic act is the exchange of gifts. And most religious worldviews are deeply imbued with notions of indebtedness and reciprocity.

A more egregious debasement results from extending the usage of physicists and mathematicians to all of metaphysics, to invent a new category of givenness. Bergson claims that this is the fundamental error of Leibniz, Spinoza and the other prophets of the clockwork universe: they believe that everything is given in this static, essentialist manner pioneered by Aristotle.

The problem with this is that “the language of objects catches only one corner of actual life,” as Martin Buber says. (I and Thou, Walter Kaufmann translation. Scribners, 1970, 69.) Gabriel Marcel builds a bridge between the subjective and objective viewpoints when he writes, “A being is given, not at all in the banal and moreover uncertain sense in which philosophers customarily use this word, but rather insofar as it truly is a gift. Let us carefully refrain here from considering the gift as a thing. On the contrary, it is an act.” (Tragic Wisdom and Beyond, Northwestern University Press, 1973. 54) This is so because true reality is relational – “An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing,” as Fukuoka put it.

In the Christian worldview, one cannot consider gift giving for long without considering the ultimate gift of divine grace. Though not myself a practicing Christian, I’ve always been attracted by this concept, which perfectly embodies the simultaneous transcendence and immanence of Whomever. Though I find the whole notion of the incarnation supremely strange, I can see one obvious, spiritual or psychological value to this mythos. With the Unknowable somehow choosing to make a gift of itself – to take the form of a helpless, newborn infant – the true nature of its relationship with us is revealed to be reciprocal. The gifting can now go both ways; we are no longer overwhelmed by false dichotomies that presuppose a hierarchical order.

This morning I came across a beautiful riff on this theme from the Epistle of James, which was unfamiliar to me because in general I avoid the epistles, not being a very big fan of the apostle Paul. Though traditional in its patriarchy and up-down hierarchical views, its language in the King James version is unsurpassed. The phrase “filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness” does mar the poetry a bit. But I love the way this passage begins with grace and ends with the nitty-gritty of social obligations.

James 1
17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
18 Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
19 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:
20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:
24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.
27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

Merry Christmas!

Despite what Bergson may have thought, Spinoza did not believe in a clockwork universe; he believed in ‘flat multiplicities’: networks of immanent effects (no prime mover, no transcendence) etc. Big inspiration for Deleuze.
Mark Bonta

My blunder, actually – I was putting words in his mouth. Bergson’s conclusion about L. and S. in Creative Evolution (Mitchell trans.), which you may not agree with, reads as follows: “The resemblances of this new metaphysic to that of the ancients arise from the fact that both suppose ready-made – the former [i.e. Leibniz] above the sensible, the latter [i.e. Spinoza] within the sensible – a science one and complete, with which any reality that the sensible may contain is believed to coincide. For both, reality as well as truth are given in eternity. Both are opposed to the idea of a reality that creates itself gradually, that is, at bottom, to an absolute duration.” (353-354. Italics original.)
– Dave