Yes and No are not true opposites, says Bergson (Creative Evolution), and I agree. Every No is a swallowed Yes . . . or may we say that some Nos are pregnant with a Yes? Atheists are such monists; the gods they don’t believe in are all the same, like the black stone of the Kaaba to the deniers of idolatry. Listen carefully: Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge (Psalm 19:2). The very first twins are Time and the Word; before them, tohu-bohu: formless, dwelling in possibilities. Definitely not chaos – that aristocratic nightmare of a world without up and down. Eventually some people ventured an accounting of this, which has “more being than any other being in the world, but since it is simple and all other simple things are complex in comparison with its simplicity, in comparison it is called Nothing” (David ben Abraham ha Lavan, quoted in D.C. Matt, Zohar: The Book of Elightenment. Paulist Press, 1983, p. 34). But the less said about that, the better. Selah!

COMMENT

“Protiston mein ariston kai Nuktos.” Parmenides’ Poem

Translation: “First of all things there was Night.”

– Phila B.

REPLY

Thanks. Yet another example of the usefulness of quoting out of context!

I cannot resist adding parenthetically (but all my thoughts are parenthetical) that, in my view, Parmenides’ infamous poem marks the precise point where Western philosophy took a wrong turn down a 2500-year-long blind alley. Self-identity the sole attribute of reality? Give me a break! Take away the grammatical copulative and the whole project of Being vanishes like smoke. Or should I say like smoke and mirrors, with the mirrors positioned to face each other and the impossibly transcendent (male) Thinker improbably multiplied ad infinitum . . . ad absurdam . . .

– Dave

To follow up on the topic of history and freedom, check out Octavio Paz’s Nobel Acceptance Speech. A typically brilliant, brief overview of the history of the idea of history, with some of the implications for politics and literature spelled out in a fairly prescient manner (as it now appears 14 years later). He says, among things,

“Ours is the first age that is ready to live without a metahistorical doctrine; whether they be religious or philosophical, moral or aesthetic, our absolutes are not collective but private. It is a dangerous experience. It is also impossible to know whether the tensions and conflicts unleashed in this privatization of ideas, practices and beliefs that belonged traditionally to the public domain will not end up by destroying the social fabric. Men could then become possessed once more by ancient religious fury or by fanatical nationalism. It would be terrible if the fall of the abstract idol of ideology were to foreshadow the resurrection of the buried passions of tribes, sects and churches. The signs, unfortunately, are disturbing.”

And here’s an excerpt from the concluding paragraphs:

“Reflecting on the now does not imply relinquishing the future or forgetting the past: the present is the meeting place for the three directions of time. Neither can it be confused with facile hedonism. The tree of pleasure does not grow in the past or in the future but at this very moment. Yet death is also a fruit of the present. It cannot be rejected, for it is part of life. Living well implies dying well. We have to learn how to look death in the face. The present is alternatively luminous and sombre, like a sphere that unites the two halves of action and contemplation. Thus, just as we have had philosophies of the past and of the future, of eternity and of the void, tomorrow we shall have a philosophy of the present. The poetic experience could be one of its foundations. What do we know about the present? Nothing or almost nothing. Yet the poets do know one thing: the present is the source of presences.”

– Octavio Paz, “In Search of the Present,” 1990 Nobel Acceptance Speech

(N.B: I found the link while roaming through the Borgesian labyrinth of Stephen Cullinane’s blog, Log24.net.)

Afterthought: Reading this over from the top down, I see that I have allowed Paz to steal my thunder. By the time readers slog through to the end of my own disquisition on time and narrative, they’re likely to feel an acute sense of deja vu warmed over! But so what? The synchronicity of discovering Paz’s thoughts on this subject (on a site devoted in part to the celebration of synchronicity) right after fleshing out my own sends a shiver down my spine. Maybe there really is something to this “whole lotta nothin’!” Words aren’t just words, words have something to say. (Quoting someone here, can’t remember who.)

First natural observation of the New Year: a gray squirrel running through the branches of the five black walnut trees in the yard of my parent’s house. I’ve drunk my coffee, have gotten up to go back inside my own cottage (it’s 30 degrees F) and I notice the squirrel as I glance west, toward the sunlight seeping down Sapsucker Ridge and across the field. The walnut trees are still half in shadow, their crowns glow a rich gold. The squirrel – probably resident in the cavity of the largest tree – is racing up and down the sunlit limbs and flinging itself from tree to tree in a manner I can only describe as ecstatic. When it pauses, its tail vibrates spasmodically and it rubs both sides of its face and neck against the tree bark, left side then right.

I know this behavior from having observed it often among squirrels in the butternut tree that stood in my own front lawn until this past August, when it toppled over onto the porch one morning shortly after I’d gone inside. (Losing this butternut was almost as traumatic for me as the death of my grandfather the month before; both left a sizable hole.) I assume, based on what I’ve seen and what I’ve read in the scientific literature, that this behavior is associated with the onset of estrus. But something can have an “explanation,” be fairly familiar and still seem strange and wondrous. My only resolution for the New Year (and lord knows I could make many!) is to see the world more frequently in such a light.

Nowhere is the Bible’s status as the fountainhead of Western civilization more in evidence than in its conception of time, its invention of history as a purposeful narrative with a beginning and an end. Some of that is in the interpretation rather than the literal content: for example, contrary to the vast majority of translations, Genesis begins with A beginning, not THE beginning. That is, it should read “When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth . . . ” But this is almost irrelevant if we are interested in the Bible’s cultural influence. In fact, one of the things that makes it still so rich and rewarding a text, even for agnostics like me, is the immense multiplicity of voices one hears as one reads. Impossible to find a passage that has not been freighted with meaning by some faith community or another in the past 2500 years.

The imputation of meaning to Biblical and quasi-Biblical texts is probably a topic I’ll return to frequently in the course of my blogging. Today I am thinking about freedom and authority. Originally, of course, the core of the Bible was simply an ingenious anthology designed to give comfort and guidance to a priestly people in exile; only later did it become – let’s face it – something of an idol. (1) Faced with the nearly unquestionable authority of these ancient writings, what was a religious thinker to do?

The Christians, for 1500 years or so, allowed themselves the freedom of allegorical interpretations. This strategy did lend an air of legitimacy to a wide range of beliefs and propositions, many of them mutually contradictory. The downside was that it tended to vitiate characters and events and deracinate story qua story. The rabbis – probably partly in reaction – rigorously avoided allegory; their main interpretive strategy was to posit a timeless quality for each major event and character. That is to say, any given phrase or incident could be liberated from its immediate context and applied to other, superficially irrelevant situations, according to a continuously elaborated set of interpretative rules. Since the Rabbinical Fathers, like the Christians, assumed perfect internal consistency for the Tanakh as a whole, they could draw an effectively infinite number of lessons from the text simply by connecting discrete passages in new ways. In this way they, too, altered the original narratives to allow for multiple potential beginnings and endings, while preserving the particularity of beings and incidents.

The rabbis permitted themselves an additional freedom that the Church Fathers did not: the power to construct new, authoritative texts. It is interesting, however, that they studiously avoided all narrative in the first and most impenetrable of these, the Mishnah. Historian Donald Harman Akenson (Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, Harcourt, 1998) sensibly suggests that this avoidance stemmed from a heartsickness over the disasters that befell Palestinian Jews in the first several centuries of the Christian era, when the Mishnah was assembled. They were sick to death of the history they and YHWH had co-created.

The rabbis asserted a patriarchal version of vox populi, vox dei. There’s a wonderful story in the Talmud of a rabbi who successfully contended against multiple signs of displeasure form Heaven, including an earthquake, in a dispute over the interpretation of a law. He won by asserting that the Torah (Law, Dharma) is for human beings, and the majority were on his side, whatever God might think! Thus, the Mishnah – the great, lawyerly text upon which the whole grand edifice of Rabbinical Judaism is based – does not claim to derive authority from the written Torah, though Biblical references abound. Instead, it claims the cumulative authority of hundreds of communally sanctioned elders engaged in passionate and intense debate over the course of several centuries. According to Akenson, the Babylonian Talmud (a.k.a. Bavli) makes this freedom from the tyranny of the text explicit, on a few occasions going so far as to reinterpret passages from the Torah to mean essentially the opposite of their apparent meaning! And of course, the real wealth of the Bavli lies in the countless short stories that are introduced to illustrate one point or another. (Pretty much my whole exposure to the thing has been through translations of this Aggadah.) By hook or by crook, within or without the meta-narratives of historians, the real world in all its flawed and multifarious splendor will sneak back in!

But what I am wondering today is whether it makes sense to talk about freedom at all in the context of Jewish and Christian eschatology. This strikes me as the real problem with monotheism, as far as human rights and the self-determination and dignity of all creatures is concerned. Conceptions of the divine can shift (in some circles, have already shifted) to accommodate non-hierarchical and immanentist modes of thinking. But how do we escape from the finality of history, from the apparently arbitrary choice of yes or no, hope or despair? Isn’t the notion of a once-and-for-all judgement inimical to freedom? Can a freedom whose true, realized form inhabits the future alone ever be anything but a mirage? Isn’t it, in fact, like the proverbial carrot suspended forever out of reach, luring the donkey forward? Objectively speaking, isn’t the donkey as much a slave to his desire for the carrot as he is to the master who drives him with a switch?

The atheist has a simple exit strategy, of course. I would suggest, however, that the person of faith might do well to avail herself of much the same strategy! After all, didn’t Meister Eckhart say “For the love of God, get rid of God” and Linji exclaim that “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”?

To return once more to this weblog’s main theme, that ultimate reality is ultimately recondite: it is not that It has no name, but that Its name must remain hidden until the end of time. What if time may be annihilated through a sudden act of grace? Does it even make sense to hope for such a revelation, given what we have just said about hope? But from long wrestling, the tradition suggests, some kind of grace or deliverance may come.

Recall again the trickster Jacob, journeying home and in fear for his life – walking, for all he knew, straight toward his doom (Genesis 32 and 33). Recall that Esau had been cheated out of his birthright for no good reason: that is to say, only the zero-sum determination that their father Isaac’s blessing could go to one son or the other, but not to both, had made his lying brother the favorite and him the outcast (Genesis 27). In some mysterious way that the text does not spell out (thankfully, for untold generations of exegetes!) Esau’s forgiveness is prepared by the “angel’s” act of grace in granting Jacob a new name and a deeper wisdom. (2)

The obvious anthropological precedent here is the initiation ceremony, the end product of which is a new name and a new man. (3) Enhanced self-knowledge and re-integration into society are the expected corollaries. In this case, Esau recognizes that the former sociopath has been transformed.

I can’t help thinking that the reconciliation between these archetypal warring brothers offers hope for the present-day situation in Palestine: “And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself. And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me. Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. And he urged him, and he took it.” (KJV, Genesis 33:9-11. Italics are of course my own.) Without a spirit of generosity and forgiveness, without a willingness to see God’s face in the adversary, there will never be true freedom for either side. And is it not in fact this sense of limited blessings, of a zero-sum game, that turns reality from a superabundance of “lights and mysteries” into a narrow tunnel leading toward a single, blinding light?

I must confess at this point that I cannot take full credit for the foregoing chain of thought. This whole meditation was sparked by my reading of the following passage from Abraham J. Heschel right before I drank my morning coffee:

“The opposite of freedom is not determinism, but hardness of heart. Freedom supposes openness of heart, of mind, of eye and ear. . . . Freedom is not a natural disposition, but God’s precious gift to man. [I can hear my anarchist compatriots howling already!] Those in whom viciousness becomes second nature, those in whom brutality is linked with haughtiness, forfeit their ability and therefore their right to receive that gift. Hardening of the heart is the suspension of freedom. Sin becomes compulsory and self-destructive. Guilt and punishment become one.” (A. J. Heschel, The Prophets: An Introduction, Harper, 1962, 191.)

Among other things, this offers a neat solution to the theological conundrum of how hell – a place without god – can exist, if god is omnipresent. Illusory as it may ultimately be, it is human beings in the midst of history who manufacture such an absence. I would add that, anywhere nihilistic thinking is allowed to predominate, anywhere that the “nothing more than” mentality holds sway over “nothing less than,” a kind of hell is created. But let’s hear the rest of what Heschel has to say.

“In other words, the ability to understand, to see or hear the divine significance of events, may be granted or withheld from man. One may see great wonders, but remain insensitive.” And drawing upon numerous Biblical examples, Heschel makes the following startling (to those unfamiliar with the via negativa) pronouncement: “It seems that the only cure for willful hardness is to make it absolute. Half callousness, paired with obstinate conceit, seeks no cure. When hardness is complete, it becomes despair, the end of conceit. Out of despair, out of the total inability to believe, prayer bursts forth.” (Ibid., 191-192.)

Heschel goes further and posits that God is not without blame: “The dark fact of callousness, just like the luminous power of understanding, goes back to God who creates light as well as darkness in the heart of man. The weird miracle of callousness, resistance of God, may be due to an obstinacy imposed by God. Punishment and guilt become one.

“While not denying that the people sin of their own free will, there is a subtle awareness of God’s being involved in man’s going astray, an involvement that adds bafflement to injury.
Oh lord, why dost Thou make us err from Thy ways
And harden our heart, so that we fear Thee not?
(Isaiah 63:17)” (Ibid, 192.)

And there, save for some additional quotes from Job (39:16-17) and the rabbinical commentator Kimhi, is where Heschel leaves us: with the bafflement. Theodicy (how God can be good and omnipotent, if evil exists) must remain an unsolvable dilemma, comparable to the existence of samsara in Buddhism.

My favorite approach to the problem is to turn it back on itself. Setting aside the question of how biological existence would be possible if no sentient being ever suffered, imagine a world where bad things simply couldn’t happen to good people. If good were automatically rewarded and evil automatically punished in an obvious way, then freedom would become hollow and meaningless. Good itself would lose all meaning, given the consciousness of an automatic reward. (If someone is being good solely or primarily because they think that will get them into heaven, are they really being good – or just looking out for number one?) The sad thing, I think, is that many, many people – of all faiths and none – would view this as a perfect world! In fact it would entail complete totalitarian madness; the only rational response to such a world would be suicide.

So where is the true freedom of heaven to be sought? My friend Fred Ramsey includes at the bottom of his e-mails the following quote from the great Yoruban-Nigerian drummer Olatunji: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow, a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.”

“Ah, purported truth through punning – how simple-minded, how low-brow!” How come? Puns and rhymes and rhythms tell us as much about the way the world works as, say, mathematics. In any case, I think it’s true. Actually, I arrived at a similar spot at the end of a long poem – which, oddly enough, pivoted on a quote from a Yoruba hymn comparing the Creator (Obatala) to a swarm of bees. Trying to sound as vatic as possible, I ended up pouring this thought into a reductionist mold: “The kingdom of heaven is nothing but the world in bloom.” (See the last poem in Capturing the Hive.)

So yes, I believe this much: that we must allow the gift of the present to become fully present, within and without. How we get there, individually and collectively, is another question.
____________

(1) The relentlessly monistic and iconoclastic Sikhs are honest enough to refer to their main religious text as a guru – the Guru Granth – and pay it frequent homage as the one licit object of near-worship. I gather that many Jewish congregations have a similar relationship with scrolls of Torah, and of course for many Christians – especially those of a Pentecostal bent – a physical Bible is far more than just a book. In each case, the text has become a talisman or icon. The terms fetish and idol now seem derogatory, but phenomenologically it’s all the same thing. I fail to see how the supposedly naive belief in a spirit literally inhabiting an image differs from the belief that the sacred may be concentrated anywhere – in mountain, temple, ark or book.

(2) Jacob is far from the only major character in the Bible to wrestle with god, literally or figuratively. Among other examples of note we should consider Abraham’s argument with god at Mamre (Genesis 18:23-33) and – most perilous of all – Zipporah’s defense of Moses against YHWH’s murderous intentions at the inn on the border of Egypt (Exodus 5:24-27). The latter case apparently had to do with the blood-guilt Moses had incurred through his earlier murder on Egyptian soil, which a diety committed to retributive justice would be bound to exact payment for – against what must have been Its own intentions. If this line of interpretation is correct, this is one of the few places in the Bible where something like the Greek notion of universal laws overriding the divine will appears to be invoked.

(3) Or woman, except that women don’t undergo initiation in most societies. The Pueblo Indians generously spin this as a mark of women’s natural superiority – they are already “finished” in some sense that men are not – though I doubt that such a perception has ever had a very wide currency.

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?”