The Letter and the Law
|Aleph, by Tirzah Goldenberg. Verge Books, 77 pp., $18.|
|Cinder, by Susan Stewart. Graywolf Press, 256 pp., $25 (hardcover).|
|The Absolute Letter, by Andrew Joron. Flood Editions, 80 pp., $14.95.|
After the party, morning breaks, and the dishes remain. The good crystal in heaps in the sink, the unwieldy glass punchbowl filling the whole lower tray of the dishwasher. When I lift it up, an unsupervised helper, five years old, too young to have been in attendance the night before, the faceted weight is too much for me, and, as it drops, it shatters against the kitchen tile and strafes through my naked ankle. I know I am bleeding, though I don’t feel any pain. When I look at the blood, I start to cry, and run from the kitchen for my bedroom, less from hurt, and more out of the shock of seeing myself opened up.
In an ironized position, a tragic figure arrives at an apex of perfect knowledge. The truth of their reality becomes crystal-clear. But the clarity, this refractory moment of consciousness, is additionally an instant of alienation. Here transpires a deep severing from self, the self that lived so long under one set of assumptions. Who you are can never again be who you were. The same is true of your world. Except, your world was never your world.
In Remnants of Auschwitz, Giorgio Agamben glosses a reading by Japanese psychiatrist Kimura Bin of Heidegger. Bin uses Heidegger’s account of Dasein’s experience of time in order to illuminate three fundamental types of mental illness: melancholy, epilepsy, and schizophrenia. He breaks time into three corresponding categories, each related in terms of the metaphor of a party: ante festum, intra festum, and post festum. Dasein experiences itself in part post festum—literally, “after the party,” an inherently melancholic state. Expanding, Agamben says that Dasein, or any being, “always experiences his own ‘I’ in the form of an ‘I was,’ of an irrecoverably accomplished past with respect to which one can only be in debt.” This corresponds to Heidegger’s notion, where Dasein finds itself “always already abandoned to a factual situation beyond which it can never venture.” Being, then, is always late to itself, to its own celebration. Maybe even missed it altogether. Morning is always already breaking, the punchbowl is always already broken, and there is everywhere profuse bleeding from the ankle.
There is an irony at the heart of Being, where irony is that position in which I am always already abandoned to a factual situation beyond which I can never venture—whether that is the fact of my body, or the fact of my cut, or the fact of a broken crystal All. The tyranny of fact which has always ruled, but only just now manifested itself, banishes me utterly from myself, so that I can’t even feel it, can’t even cry.
If the ironic moment is a moment of revelation, and Being is ironic, then Being is always being revealed to itself as such. Revelation is an esoteric experience: as irony dawns and dawns, it illuminates layers and truths of reality that have always been present, but self-concealed. The subject in the ironized position apprehends all at once their own positionality—the true dimensions and furnishings of a world in which they have always lived, but never recognized or fully known. A further paradox constitutes the ironized position. The narrative drama of irony centers on the tragic reveal, but the ironic realization is to grasp at last one’s own decentralization—one’s own periphery, a paratext to a larger underlying, esoteric context, the world, that text the world is.
To call the world a text is to beg a definition of the text. Is the text expression? Intent? If there is an authorship to the world surely it is co-authorship—interacting, mutually reactive forms, the effects of one body on another extending and branching and crystalizing and thawing across space and time. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur claims that events can be interpreted like texts, insofar as human agents participate. The idea of the world as a text is familiar, too, in some spheres of Judaism. For instance, adherents of Kabbalah have a heightened sense of the mythic textuality of the cosmos, which is submitted as a stratified, layered text, where meanings compound on meanings. Everything is a reflection of everything else. The world of men is a reflection of divine realms. As a form of mysticism, Kabbalah prioritizes the individual experience of transcendence into, and thus access to, secret realms of nonindividual meaning and truth—realms beyond the senses. These realms are present but latent, since all of creation exists in such strata.
The human world, that which is given, is there to be read.
In this textual vision of existence, Joseph Dan explains that grammar becomes a basic law of nature and creation; for Kabbalists, “the laws of creation are the laws of language” (18). As if a syntax, what is is in order, is in relation, in that it is meaningful. Syntax is everything, everything is syntax, and “the nature of each entity is not decided by its structure…but by its place in the detailed hierarchy of beings descending from the supreme Godhead to the animals and stones in a field” (82).
Like a language, the objects of creation become forms of reference, too. But what is it they refer back to? Some strains of Kabbalah claim a “hidden, intrinsic numerical harmony that binds together the words and letters of the sacred texts and all phenomena of existence” (Dan 19). In such a nonsemantic treatment of language and world, a thing is a word and a word is a thing, and there is no bracketing, and the syntax of the material world is that divine text, that hidden song.
So things sing.
When you encounter Tirzah Goldenberg’s Aleph—a book that emerges out of strains of Kabbalah—you encounter first of all a thing, an object, even before you encounter a book. Surely it is a singing thing. It is beautiful to hold, to thumb through, thumb its stops, taste the reed, before you read. Because of its brevity, when you do turn to reading it, it can be finished comfortably in a single sitting, can exist in the mouth like a taste of one whole grape.
A book of intense and spare compression in its own right, Aleph courts paradox insofar as the same compression of language on the page reveals the essential whiteness, wideness, and spatiality of that page. With sometimes only a handful of words in the margins of fields of white paper, Goldenberg conjures both plenitude and scarcity. Indeed, the scarcity of actual ink—the contraction, constriction, the tzimtzum of language—gives way, makes that space, that void that is filled with possibility. With this visual signal, Goldenberg mimes the first cosmic creative gesture. According to Kabbalists, in order for God—infinite and totalizing—to create the world, to let something exist, he contracted away from it, constricting his infinite, all-pervading light, as though into vessels. His light poured into the void he left behind, just as light fills up darkness, illuminating new, independent existence—which is plurality; which is chaos; which presses back then shatters those vessels of the sephirot; which hold the being of God inside them. So the first creative act begins with self-exile, self-withdrawal. But so it also begins in shattering, fragments strewn throughout the lower realms, still bright with God’s light. For Kabbalists, divine creative scattering—that first initial cutting-off of being from being—initiates a work of reconstruction in the lower realms, a rectification of that shattering by the souls of earth, a process known as tikkun, or literally, “repair of the world”: “construction for eternity.” Understood in this light, creation is always regenerative, and destruction engenders potentials, possibilities.
Inviting restoration, the created thing is a fragment.
Goldenberg writes as a repeating, recombining reframe: “Dead sea and float / my body / one finger’s / fragment of a psalm.” The writing is fragmentary. The body is fragmentary. The psalm and vessel are both fragmentary forms, too. And yet there is a latent reference in the fragment—like a finger that points, up, like a psalm that supplicates. An essential attractive, attracting association.
So the form of the fragment here is creative in that it invites or supplicates; it hosts the more that is possible. The fragment is an imaginary locus, giving rise in the mind to a whole range of possible protean forms. The mind doing its filling in. Making the most of what is given.
But was not the tzimtzum, too, a series of rectifications and repairs? Restoration gives the ground for ruin, for ruin’s restoration.
The dove sent by Noah to probe the coastlines of the earth after the flood returned with an olive branch. Why this bitter fruit as proof the world was whole again? Why not something special, like cinnamon or balsam? the commentators ask. A rabbi replies: “Better is bitterness from Eden and not sweetness from beneath your hand.” Bitterness out of Eden reminds that there more exists than just this hand. The bitterness of creation is a gift insofar as it reminds there is more beyond mankind.
Goldenberg remembers this principle when she invokes Paul Celan, who wrote once that “A tree- / high thought / grasps the light-tone: there are / still songs to sing beyond / mankind.” Goldenberg writes in reply: “thresheld / in the tree- / high thought // tselem bloom merely / near to me // there are / still songs to sing / shame”—ending this page with a word that invokes an earlier epigraph from Allen Grossman: “Let us say that the maxim ‘only poetry after Auschwitz’ means that…the body of honor is reconstructed from the body of shame.”
The bitter body, the broken body of shame, dovetails into recombination, restitution, honor, brightness, light—even as the form of the threshold initiates or dovetails space. Like the Kabbalists, Goldenberg traces out the inherent cycles of damage and recovery involved in all creation. She shows that there needed to be need for there to be promise. The promise that anything is: that anything could be.
Goldenberg turns the fragments into a form of prayer, of supplication (“hear, who love / the earth, olives”). Under her hand, speech is always directed-toward (altar-heard or altar-spoken) just as the letter Aleph is always invocation, phonically the opening of the mouth and throat prior to speaking, the drawn breath, the first letter of creation. The body is always a gesture, an “unfurling cloister script.” Create—a void is created. There is light. There is the world. There are trees. And thought is high insofar as it is tree-high. And only from a tree-high height can we grasp the light-tone.
For it is only by our givens we are given more. Revelation reveals more.
The practices of reparative reading offered by Goldenberg’s book work counter to the paranoid strategies of a hermeneutic of suspicion. Being is always offered the means to venture beyond its factual situation, because its factual situation—being itself—is co-constituted by what is beyond it, what is outside it, always (but never already) coauthoring it. The irony of being is not that it is banished utterly from itself, as Heidegger has it, but that it manifestly cannot extract itself from the conditions of its existence—that is, the world around it—as God could, all-powerful, leaving a crack between he and All, creating All with a flaw.
“Reaper, repairer, here appear,” writes the poet Andrew Joron, as if to a muse, approximating that first, cosmic summons.
In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein writes, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
A variant of the same notion translated out of the original German reads: “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”
He writes soon following these claims, constantly fiddling: “The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.”
It is hard to tell where world begins and mind ends, and where mind ends and language begins.
According to Wittgenstein, we all, like Goldenberg, are thresheld in the tree-high thought.
But is thought high only insofar as it is tree-high? Or is a tree high because we have the word for “high”? Where did we get the word for high? Did it come from observing a tree?
Where did we learn the syntax to assert meaningfully the tree is high? And high in relation to what? In relation to me?
If syntax is a system of meaningful relationship, the subject-object relation between me and tree takes on a spatially syntactic quality.
I am, in relation to that tree. The tree is, in relation to me.
And when I speak to you of that tree, the tree is speaking through me. The tree as I have been through it has been through me. Has run through me.
In the poem “Oil and Water,” published first in Red Rover (2008) and included now in Cinder: New and Selected Poems (2017), Susan Stewart explores, as she does in much of her work, the acquisition of language, and language as a form of knowledge, by way of the world. But it is not only the human subject that acquires knowledge; Stewart’s is a radically expansive, even metaphysical, conception of what counts as knowing. In her poem, the world knows itself through itself. I offer the poem in full:
In your hand, a Roman votive
lamp—made of clay, like us.
Fire-floating, failing sail across
the oil, then puff,
The silent fire held back within
its well. Smallest light in dust,
the smell of baked
Run your hand
beneath the running water,
hold it to your
lips. A word can
slip through thirst
like a wafer, like
A burn is cured with ice,
which makes a burn
I knew a girl who saved a gull from death.
She gathered up its feathers gummed in tar.
She brushed the pinions down
with a toothbrush dipped
in soap, and gently
ran the faucet
on the breast.
A whale knows oil and water
and a song. This knowledge
comes from rain
They say that oil
and water do not mix,
but one is life below
the light and one
is votive fire.
A whale knows
this, as does
a gull, as
does a girl,
comes from rain
A whale knows oil and water
and a song.
Knowing just happens in this poem. This knowing is a given. It’s a given that the whale knows oil and water and song, because it is those things; these things are its givens—its milieu and also its self. It comes to know its givens through a process of “fervent passage”—that is, a going-through life that is life, that is living-from. In this poem, fervent passage rhymes conceptually with the hand that runs through running water, then knows it, and so thirsts for it. The running of the water is understood in the running of the hand, which is then understood in language, which “slip[s] through thirst.” Stewart maps an ecology of experiential, even embodied, knowing—knowing that occurs when entities in the world go through the world. Go through, as in, experience. Go through, as in, suffer. Go through, as in, depart.
Of course, to focus too much on epistemology in this poem is to miss the underlying narrative. Here is a story of rescue, of recovery, of tikkun. A girl saves a gull by cleaning its oil stains. These oil stains have come, presumably, from a tanker or platform spill at sea. The oil spill, presumably, has occurred as a result of human error. By engaging in repair of the world, in the wake of error and suffering, the girl becomes a figure of the tikkun. But, notice: she repairs the world with a toothbrush, consisting of plastic handle and nylon bristles, products of petroleum. Notice, too, the votive lamp described in the beginning of the poem, marking and mirroring the passage of a person through life, significant of going-through. Perhaps the well of the lamp is filled with oil. The light that marks the person—that honors the person—is supplied by oil. The toothbrush that cleans the gull is supplied by oil. The oil has gummed the feathers of the bird. And once, whales were our wells of oil. An ecology of repair here is a simultaneous ecology of damage. This is a poem that witnesses to the passing-through of the world through itself, eternally repairing itself, eternally destroying itself—a fervent passage, in which wake are knowledge and language as overflow.
The irony is: your world was never just your world. Nor your toothbrush just your toothbrush.
This essential principle—that all is in essence all else—is offered earlier in “Cinder,” the titular poem of the new collection, published first in Stewart’s book The Forest (1995):
We needed fire to make
the tongs and tongs to hold
us from the flame; we needed
ash to clean the cloth
and cloth to clean the ash’s
stain; we needed stars
to find our way, to make
the light that blurred the stars;
we needed death to make
an end, an end that time
in time could mend.
Born in love, the consequence—
born of love, the need.
Tell me ravaged singer,
how the cinder bears the seed.
Like Goldenberg, Stewart describes an economy of consequence and need, of reparation as a precursor to more destruction.
In this equation, the cinder contains within it a seed. In “Apple,” Stewart writes both that “The apple’s core carries / a birth and a poison” and that “damage will bloom / in beauty’s seed.” “The fruit” is both “reward and penalty / at once.” This is a sentiment that Stewart appears to share with the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, who wrote that “in everything there is a portion of everything.” Anaxagoras laid out a vast vision of potentiality, where all qualities of all things were concealed in expressive ratios in all other things.
For Anaxagoras, the principle of potentiality is an ontological principle. Things are other things. It helps explain existence and its changing states of being. For Stewart, the principle of potentiality is also epistemological. Things know other things. Take the first stanza of “Apple”:
If I could come back from the dead, I would come back
for an apple, and just for the first bite, the first
break, and the cold sweet grain
against the roof of the mouth, as plain
and clear as water.
A tantalized voice tells us how an apple tastes. Against a roof, the roof of the mouth, an apple has the taste of grain. It tastes plain. It tastes as plain and clear as water. What does this speaker desire anyway? An apple? Or a drink of water? So the apple contains the seed of water. Hunger is thirst. The apple is an essentially porous thing; its essence is porous—but it becomes so, importantly, only after passing through the going-through of language, through the different words and names for apple:
Winesap, and York Imperial, the striped
Summer Rambo, and the Winter Banana, the little
Rome with its squat rotunda and the Pound apple
that pulled the boughs to the ground.
The Sheep’s Nose with its three-pointed snout,
the Blue Pearmain, speckled and sugared.
There is some sense in which the Sheep’s Nose apple contains knowledge about an actual sheep’s nose. The apple becomes sign for the sheep and the sheep’s snout a sign for the apple. They bear out one another’s trace through the syntax of experience, through the going-through of the world, pushing the world through like a thread, a mending.
Once known, realized in language, the apple is unlimited. Word leads to word just as thing leads to thing in an infinite syntax.
By our givens we are only given more.
By our cinders we are given seeds. Damage blooms there. A word for thirst slips through.
When the poet speaks, she speaks as the world speaks, in fervent passages.
The wordiness of the world is most clearly felt in Stewart’s newest work, in a new section of poems called Pine. In the second poem in the collection, “Pine,” Stewart imagines “an alphabet made of trees.” Letters, like forests, have depth. She offers a catalogue of sensory data and memory unspooling from the word for “pine,” which she parses sonically, treating each of the four letters in turn: “a plosive, a long cry, a quiet stop, a silent letter / like a storm and the end of a storm.” It is from the word for pine that the speaker of the poem encounters all their other, prior encounters and knowledge about pines. For instance, latent inside the word “pine” is “The Christmas tree, nude and fragrant, / propped as pure potential in / the corner with no nostalgia for / ornament or angels.”
The pine tree, once it is mediated through experience and language, becomes an icon of pure potential. The world unlocks language, and language unlocks the world. If the world is an alphabet, there is no end to the letters of the alphabet that it can form. The poem “Pine” could go on forever in the “orthography of other pines / I don’t yet know,” as the speaker remembers the scent of Pine-Sol, “Grandmothers wearing pinnies trimmed in rickrack,” family branches, “pine cones at the Villa Borghese: Fibonacci increments / heart-shaped veins, shadowing the inner / edges of the petals.”
In the mind, a forest explodes.
Stewart seconds Goldenberg: if the world is a text, it is, like the body, an “unfurling cloister script.” Fence-posts in a field after mowing look to her like “Ns,” and, in “The Summons,” the objects of the world—“the barber’s clicking teeth…, the tongue of a lizard…., the bugler’s lips”—are used as the words, the sense units—the words—to summon a friend.
Yes, the world is a text—but it is a text in a constant state of revision, constantly unfurling, being rewritten as it is read, revised depending on the positionality of the reader, whose coming and going provokes a bloom of differentiations, a forest of alphabets, “alphabets made of trees.” And in our comings and goings, looking and looking, we find glimpses of ourselves.
Language is the broken, breaking principle by which I am given more of what is given.
Anaxagoras believed that all things contain the possibility of all other things. When I eat brown bread, that brown bread contains the particles that make up my red blood and my white bone. There is a portion of everything in everything; “existing things are always composite” (Wheelwright 158). Whether something appears in the form of brown bread or white bone is a matter of ratio: “what distinguishes one thing from another is the relative amounts of the various ingredients of it.”
Stewart puts in another way: “it’s all / equivalence, / deferred”. The exquisite differentiation of forms becomes a principle of uneven distribution of the same material across time and space.
Anaxagoras used this concept to explain change without denying the reality of changed, changing qualities—that is, without denying the world of appearances. Anaxagoras takes appearance at its word. The word it speaks is All—everything but it, including it.
How does Anaxagoras explain the initiating ratiocination of reality? He proposes—perhaps not so strangely, in light of Stewart’s vision for the relationship between mind and world and language—that the motivating force of the differentiation of all things is, in fact, the force of Mind (whose limits Wittgenstein says is language, whose limits are the world):
And Mind took charge of the cosmic situation, so that the universe proceeded to rotate …And Mind set in order all that was to be, all that ever was but no longer is, and all that is now or ever will be….It was the rotary movement that caused the separation—a separation of the dense from the rare, the hot from the cold, the bright from the dark, and the dry from the moist (Wheelwright 163).
It is the spinning, turning motion of mind that initiated the differentiation of reality. This recalls Stewart’s focus on the coming and going of mindfulness, or, as in her poem “Holzweg,” of turning and turning, describing a rotary motion that works against the closure of the world into categories of experience. Centering on the image of a key turning over and over in a lock, Stewart explores other forms of turning, too:
It was always in Spring that I hoped to turn
away from myself, away from the inevitable closure
of feeling, hoping that some feeble maxim was the truth,
that what returns returns when least expected, winging
its way back through an open window…
… It was no use, looking for closure
before the word was ready to yield it up. Better to follow the allée
of chestnuts even if it ends in disease and extinction, the hard truth
waiting at the close of beauty. And if not beauty then the twisted keys
of what could be haltingly thought and known.
In this poem about the limits of human capacity to fully apprehend anything, Stewart asserts that an essential condition of Mind is a halting turning motion. A rotation, setting things in motion, or perhaps following a motion that was already there, and is there again—something winging its way back through an open window.
The basis for seeing any thing as such, as difference, is the whirling-apart (or the whirling-around, to catch a glimpse, to know what it was that just flew past the window (see “The Owl”) that the mind does.
This promise for growth of the All on the basis of Mind, on the basis of the difference it makes, restlessly rotating, turning like a key in the lock, the lock in the door at the border, the limit, the garden wall of the world, by Anaxagoras, Stewart echoes, too: “What has motion becomes / a name in motion, growing toward / an end it does not now.”
By turning and turning, what Stewart works against is closure, the collapse of openness, where what returns returns when least expected, winging in, on wings that have “[grown] from atoms.”
Rather than limiting and closing off, Stewart realizes that names propagate. Poets like Goldenberg and Stewart show us how names, insofar as they speak of forms, develop, persist, and evolve in relation to those changing forms. The world is in a vast system of naming, self-naming, and renaming insofar as it is the expression of a syntax of complex interrelations.
Andrew Joron is a poet who takes on the relationship between mind, language, and world. In The Absolute Letter, Joron is essentially concerned with the grammar of difference—but an Anaxagorian form of difference that contains the seeds of all-else. He returns again and again to the letter “A,” which marks out indefinitely:
of dark upon
light, the very Idea
In this poetry, indefinite marking-out is a metaphysical condition, part of the grammatical background of the cosmos. The grammatical nature of absolute reality is an idea that Joron explores by way of the Romantic German poet Novalis, who was “provoked into thinking about ‘sound writing itself’ by the German physicist Ernst Chladni’s book Discoveries in the Theory of Sound, published in 1787. The book describes how Chladni scattered flour or sand on glass or metal plates, then stroked the plates with a violin bow: as the plates resonated, forcefield-like patterns appeared in the particles on their surfaces. For Novalis, these ‘figurations of sound waves’ were the ‘a priori letters’ of a universal script.”
Joron goes on: “The world itself is composed of the letters of the Absolute: anything, real or ideal, that undergoes a self-complicating—ultimately musical—form of motion becomes a sign of the processual emergence of the Infinite within the finite.”
For Joron, as for Stewart and the Kabbalists, the world is here again a text. But the letters of that text are in fact the forms of the world, inscribed at the juncture of circumstance and force. Furthermore, these forms form by happening, by being happened upon. Expression, or expressivity, is an outcome of co-incidence: a universal, an “unfurling cloister script.”
What is infinite here is not an ideal, preexisting, Platonic realm. Rather, Joron evolves on Novalis by showing that what is Infinite is in-process, emergent. This outward movement toward no (sensible) end takes us back to Stewart: “What has motion becomes / a name in motion, growing toward / an end it does not know.”
If there is sometime Absolute above or underneath all this, it is the outgrowth of complexity, where parts make up a whole greater than their sum. The Law of the Absolute is written and then read through the dynamic interaction of self-complicating forms.
As Joron has it, “flaw is law.” What is “random” has a “moral rind.”
If we go along with Joron’s claims that the world is the (ultimately musical) expression of a universal script, there are other claims implied about the nature of authorship. The Anaxagorian Mind, in Joron’s poetry, becomes essentially distributed and distributive. He writes, “No agent, no object in / The white rites of what writes.” Nothing is not Mind, even though Mind—the motivating, expressive force that exhibits the conjunction of forms in time, where forms as such are forms of names, and names as such are names in motion—also, paradoxically, lies above or outside of the systems it encompasses. In truth, this isn’t inconsistent with Anaxagoras, who writes, “In everything there is a portion of everything else, except of mind; and in some things there is mind also” (Wheelwright 160). In both cases, the paradox is that Mind lives both in and outside of the systems of difference it describes, proscribes. It is both more-than and as-much-as. As in the study of complexity and complex systems, the emergent whole of the system feeds back onto and affects its constituent parts—a self-complicating, concatenating form.
Extended, distributed forms of authorship render the human agent fundamentally porous. The human body becomes a site of scribed coincident as much as any other thing—as much an “object subject / to the scrape of script, the claw of law.” The scraping claw of the script of law renders all objects subject, and all subjects object. There is, as Joron writes, “No (turned / inward) one.” This goes for objects as well as human subjects. All coincides.
So far as language is concerned, the distributed but simultaneous event of word, writer, and reader renders an illegible, changing text: “Being / Being the one // unstable, unstatable state—”. It becomes Joron’s task to come to grips with the unstatable nature of being, given only language to attempt to do so. The work of this poetry is to attempt to use language, with its rules of syntax and 26 letters of the alphabet, to translate the letters of the Absolute, which are ostensibly infinite and infinitely recombining, on the principle of intersections between forms and forces. It is an impossible translation task, and it fails utterly. Of course, the failure of language to contain the language of All that All is becomes the motivating formal principle and guiding spirit of Joron’s book. So it is that “flaw is law—/ ruling over the over- / flow of pure potential.”
Flaw, contingency, and the potentials within the dynamics they effect: these become, these are law. As form is the expression—the absolute letter—of what happens, so what happens has crystalized into differentiated form. It is up to the poet, the ravaged singer, to tell of the seed in the cinder, to tell of the forms of potential—the names and letters of the names—that exist in all other forms, especially damaged ones, or ones that have been “changed, changed utterly,” to quote Yeats’ great poem on social damage and its outcomes. It is up to the ravaged singer to read out the absolute letters; to stir “the random to render / stored order”; to draw the bow against the Chladni plate of all, that all is, and reveal its underlying, substructing, substrate language: That Which Is as a factor of What Has Been factoring into What Will Be.
Joron’s collection enacts the notion that flaw is law by giving itself over to the play, or the rangy, proliferating errancy, of language. Much of Joron’s collection relies on puns, enjambment, rhymes, and other melopoetic and logopoetic devices. Instead of enforcing a regime of order, the unique prosody of this collection offers possibility. Instead of closure, the play of one word to the next offers openness and spontaneous generation: “Say O for C: the rhyme / Of eye & symmetry fails. Try I, then tree.”
In wake of the failure to articulate using traditional vocabularies or structures of syntax, the speaker turns to speak the text the world is. Unable to say “I,” except as a kind of perjury, a tree is offered. A tree is acknowledged as the absolute letter that means “I.” This also invokes the phenomenological experience of the relationship between subjects and objects, hinting at the ways in which subjectivity is constructed out of experiences with objects, like trees. Every self-referencing speaker is thresheld in a tree-high thought.
Poetry and language, in Joron’s collection, become the principle of potentiality earlier explored. Of that most essential unit of poetic utterance, Joron writes, “My lone line, the join of all I am not.” The kind of language that Joron enacts closes the gap between subject and object, singer and world, because it intimates the structure of larger, more distributed, and more totalizing forms of language that are expressed within the “grammatical background of interstellar light”—structures that constitute every deictic “This” as a “shared shard.” The “shock of being human, as it passes through the body”—that is to say, the shock of being tree, the shock of discovering “the pure O in soul” in the “noise in soil”—is “the shock of language.” This is not to say that all language is always generative. But it is at least to say that Joron’s collection models a form of generated, generative language that thrives off the phenomenal experience of misprision, of misreading, of over-reading, of readings of illegible texts, of flaw that writes the law, a law that “allows a lawless all.”
The punchbowl of a party I didn’t attend breaks against the kitchen tile, breaks the skin of my ankle. The shock I feel is not pain, but of being opened all at once to the world.
Really, I was always open to the world. Opened by it. Going through it as it goes through me. Needle and thread through needle and thread, inter-mending.
This is the condition of irony: to be rightly aligned with reality and history in a way that radically disturbs or decenters the self. Goldenberg, Stewart, and Joron each use poetic logic to show that the condition of living in language is likewise an ironic one. My language, which is my world, made of the world, reveals me with respect to the world, returns me to the world, the lived reality of it.
In fact, I cannot help but return. I was always already there. Turning and turning, round and round.
That great figure of the ironic condition, Oedipus, had to live out the aftermath of his ironization. In Oedipus at Colonus, he wandered, banished, blind by his own hand, to find a place to die somewhere outside Thebes. At Colonus, near Athens, he took his rest against a rock, only to be informed by a local villager he was trespassing on land sacred to the Furies. Oedipus remembers then a prophesy he had received from Apollo, who told him that there, at such a site, “shalt thou round thy weary life, / A blessing to the land wherein thou dwell’st, / But to the land that cast thee forth, a curse.”
All at once, Oedipus sees himself for what he could be as what he is, and always was. The cinder, the seed, where damage blooms.
Dan, Joseph. Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Wheelwright, Philip, ed. The Presocratics. Odyssey Press, 1966.
Kylan Rice is a graduate student at Colorado State University. He has poetry published in The Seattle Review and West Branch, and writes occasional book reviews for Colorado Review. He also produces the Colorado Review podcast.