Saturday, May 30, 2009

I Say Mellifluous

I say mellifluous, but it is so only in the sense that the unsweet may attain to the mellifluous. Oh, I’m listening more. And more. Oh! This is dangerous. This singing. This singing that eschews sweetness. This singing that only modestly and carefully and in the most understated of ways will admit sweetness. Will admit melody into this medium of the profound.

Have you explored this? Have you submerged yourself? And, oh! I must say that my metaphor in the previous post was inept. Was mistaken. Oh, please understand that as you listen to the profound, you are. Well. You disintegrate. You don’t explode. No. You disburse. You discombobulate. You discompose. You discontinue. You discourse. You disencumber. You disabuse. You disjoin. You dislocate. You dismay. You dispense. You dissociate. You distort. You distribute yourself. Randomly. Everywhere.

Oh, these Gyuto Monks. How did God come up with these? How did he teach them their practice? What subtle nudges did he make and in their making make this? This subtle enormous unlikely improbable remarkable needle of light into the soul?

One is not floating on the surface any longer as one listens to this. No. One is matter and soul descending through a blue medium. A blue liquid. Filled. For now. With sun.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Listening to the Gyuto Monks

Throat singing. Overtone singing. Various names for it, but. Listen. I’ve been listening all afternoon. Exploring the profound. The lowest lost human notes. And simultaneously, chorally, two tones and then three tones. Chanting. Praying.

I get the idea, as I’m sitting here. The feeling. That I’ve never been born. That I exist in a kind of liquid made entirely of sound. I’m closing my eyes, and I’m finding I’m empty and I’m full of this sound. The sound the ocean would make if it were human and there were no one around to hear. The ocean before people, singing a song it has been singing since the beginning of the world.

They are praying, but I do not know what they are saying. The words are in another language. One I don’t understand. And even those who understand the language say they cannot understand what is being prayed because of the distortion. The stretching and shortening and intoning and the guttural idiom into which the words have been transposed. The oceanic dialect into which the words have been submerged.

Chanting like the swells out in the ocean. Out away from the continental shelves. Out where the ocean is deep blue and black and wine-colored at midday. The sun. The infinite suns glistening on its surface. The cyclic swells coming and coming, sometimes deep. Sometimes shallow. But always underneath them a depth that is miles of strange. Miles of dark. Miles of creatures that swim slowly in a dance-like rhythm. Creatures that one can hardly imagine. Thick down there—a holy unholy presence that occasionally surfaces.

Occasionally the whale, for example. Occasionally the creature as large as an office building. Blowing. Leaping. Occasionally a pod of them. A pod of blue whales rising to blow and dive and surface and dive randomly all about one’s raft. One’s craft of sticks and rope and cloth. That may easily be smashed and randomized across the surface of the sea. But isn’t.

Or perhaps I’ve always existed. Perhaps I’ve always been floating like this. Undulating on the surface of the deep. Since before time itself. Listening to the sea chant in this way. Announcing joy. Articulating danger. Pronouncing order. Exploring chaos. Expressing gratitude down to the mellifluous base of its being.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

But of Course Justice

But of course justice with a lower case j is what the Isaiah Agenda is all about. Isn’t it? Justice as love. Justice as forgiveness. Justice as kindness and generosity and intercession. Justice as intervention. As tenderness. As care-giving. As self-sacrifice. As charity. As doing unto others. As redemption. As salvation. As Kingdom presence.

Part and parcel. One of the many Kingdom strands woven together at the beginning of the world. By Jesus. Through whom all things were made.

Justice as what drives us to do impossible things for one another. Improbable things for one another. Ridiculous sappy outrageous things for one another.

So what can this mean? This sense. That yes, justice is worthy. Justice is Jesus. Justice is what we are about as followers. And this idea, embedded within the other. That for ourselves this is poison. Seeking this for ourselves is. Well. It’s outrageous. It’s greedy. There is evil everywhere in the room of this meaning.

How does this work, exactly? This idea that for me, justice is something I do not deserve. Something that if sought for oneself, there is. Oh. A feeling that. Well.

But that for others, it’s a requirement. It’s necessary. It’s required now. Immediately. If not sooner. It’s a noble cause.

Inwardness and outwardness. The idea that justice changes depending on which direction it’s pointed. Like love. Like forgiveness. Like. Well, you get the idea.

The one idea. But it’s multifarious. Multidirectional. Multilateral. Multilocular. Multiloquent.

But further, there is also the sense that justice insisted on strenuously for others may become revolution. May become hatred. May become untold evil committed out of outrage. Out of the sense of real damage and pain. Out of maybe a numbness created by months or years or decades or centuries of cruelty and torture and killing and exploitation and denigration and unspeakable acts repeated until.

Well, you get the idea. So even the idea of justice directed outward. Directed toward the protection and nurturance of others can carry in it also great evil if allowed to evolve. Allowed to mature into something monstrous. Something full of outrage calling for punishment and retribution. Eradication. A blotting out. An erasure.

I think of soldiers. Some of whom I took care of when I was in the Army. Psychiatric ward. Viet Nam veterans. Oh, 1972 or so. These men. Some of whom had gone berserk. Their friends killed. Their lives threatened. Everything around them that breathed or lived threatened them. Their friends killed in horrible fashion. Men who. Well. Wanted justice. Nothing more. Nothing less. And then of course. They went crazy because of what they did. Some of them, anyway.

Some thought they were Jesus. Some thought they were the devil. Some were catatonic. Some hallucinated terrible things. Some evolved fascinating theories that made no sense. Theories about DNA. About Japanese composers. About the meaning of everything.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mrs. Dalloway, Again!

Speaking of Justice. With a capital J. I finished Mrs. Dalloway, and what you may find interesting is that there is more about faith in this novel than most Christian novels one might pick up in a bookstore today.

That may not be saying much. But still. Oh, there is evil. Clearly identified evil. There is the communion of saints, although they are not identified as such. There is strong spiritual connection throughout, one character with another. As though the unconscious parts of the characters and some of the conscious parts of the characters all swam in the same spiritual medium. In the same ocean of spiritual meaning, spiritual being, spiritual struggle, spiritual vulnerability.

There is the persistent metaphor of the waves and the oceanic bringing the highly various sensibilities and personalities and perspectives together into one disparate community of experience and understanding and spiritual immediacy. It is as though the various characters have been created to live separated from one another bodily but to live together also, commingling in one homogenous substance. One linguistic or elemental or moral or emotional or cultural or kingdom construct.

There is one Christian that is identified as such. One unattractive, large, desperate woman. A woman who attempts to alienate Elizabeth from her mother, Clarissa Dalloway. The woman resents Clarissa. Resents people with money. Envy’s them. Is full of spite and anger and self-loathing. A woman who cries out for justice. Who is bitter because she feels the world has ignored her, may even despise her. Feels as though the world and those around her have been thoroughly unjust to her. And she has no means of escape.

She attempts to alienate Elizabeth from her mother but is not successful. And the narrative leaves her desolate, miserable, feeling acutely the injustice of her life. She knows her powerful feelings are not Christian. Her pastor calls her emotions and attitudes “of the flesh.” She knows that her hatred of the privileged is wrong, but she feels herself to be powerless to do anything against it.

Another character—Septimus Smith—a shell-shocked veteran of World War I commits suicide to avoid his evil doctors. Doctors who are in denial of the horror that exists in the world and that Septimus has seen and participated in. In denial of his real mental and spiritual terror. Doctors who pretend that evil does not really exist and who want Septimus to participate in this same delusion with them. This lie with them. And in his anguished state of mind. His tortured spiritual state. Septimus can think of no other way to escape them than to throw himself to his death.

These and many others are arranged in a kind of chorus of spiritual unfolding, of spiritual disrobing, of spiritual improvising. The narration moves from the stream of consciousness of one character to another and to another and through almost 20 altogether throughout one day in June, 1923. A day that precedes Clarissa Dalloway’s party. A party given for no particular reason. In the evening. Party-giving is Clarissa’s particular joy. Bringing together others who should be brought together in the flesh as they have somehow already been in a less apparent way. This is her contribution, she thinks. This ability and willingness to bring people together who ought to be together.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Parable of the Perplexed Reader

I happened to be reading “The Parable of the Persistent Widow” (Luke 18:1-8) the other day, and it struck me that something so simple would have to have a plain meaning. Would not have any semantic recalcitrance about it. And so I read it with this predisposition in mind. Here it is, for your reference.

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: ‘In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!’

“And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

The writer tells us what to think about what Jesus says in this parable. So this should be a piece of cake, is what I’m thinking when I start it. He tells us that Jesus tells the parable “…to show them [his disciples] that they should always pray and not give up.” Fine, I’m thinking. Piece of cake, then.

Then I actually read the thing, and I’m thinking, Now let’s see. Where else in the Gospels does Jesus emphasize justice? Where else is justice in this life the important thing in Jesus’s teaching? Oh, sure. Justice on the last day. Justice when Jesus comes back. That’s clear. But does justice in this life figure importantly in his teaching?

I don’t seem to find that. No, what I find is an emphasis on love. Improbable love. Possibly impossible love. On loving one’s enemies, for example. On turning the other cheek, for example. On seeking the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of God. In the midst of suffering and oppression. I see him providing an example of what? An example of justice-seeking for himself? Does he demonstrate in his own life that God can be expected to provide justice to us here, in this life? Doesn’t he ask us, for example, to bear our own crosses?

Is bearing our cross the same as justice in this life? Should we expect “troubles” and to bear our cross in this life, or should we expect justice?

And what do you make of the sudden shift Jesus makes in the last sentence of the parable? Here, he’s talking about a widow and an unjust judge. He’s encouraging his disciples to expect justice of God, soon. After all, if an unjust judge will dispense justice, can’t God be expected to dispense justice when the time comes? But then he shifts the subject to something else entirely. Or does he? He talks about faith.

Here, he’s been talking about justice, justice, justice. And now he talks about faith. Why? Is he trying to suggest something about those who obsess about justice? Who seek justice above all things? Who grind their teeth concerning the injustices that are perpetrated on them every day? Who can think about little else?

What about faith? he asks. In the midst of all this justice-seeking, is there room for faith?
Or maybe what he does mean is that we should just keep praying for justice to be done. Maybe what he does mean is that seeking justice persistently is a sign of faith.

Is there a chance he could mean all of this? Is there a chance he does not present this story for simple decoding? Is there a chance he wants us to meditate on this story rather than decode it and move on quickly to the next one? Is there a chance that the function of the parable in Jesus’s curriculum is not proverbial? What is the chance that many of Jesus’s parables are actually more like koans than they are like proverbs?

So when I say that ambivalence, ambiguity, and paradox may be an inextricable part of things. Of language. Of the Bible. I’m thinking of some of these parables. Some of these Jesus stories. That seem to be more like koans than they are like explications.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Spirit Work of Creation

What is The Spirit Work of Creation? Isn’t it first of all the revelation of God? Isn’t it first of all the movement of the Holy Spirit into us and through us and out into others? Isn’t it the building and upholding of a Holy Spirit light pipe between us and God and between us and one another?

Isn’t The Spirit Work of Creation like grape plants and the making of wine from them? Isn’t God, the Father, the root of us, and Jesus the trunk of us, and aren’t we the branches on which the grapes grow? And isn’t the Holy Spirit the flow of nutrients up from the roots, through Jesus, and into us and into the grapes that dangle from our lives? The Holy Spirit as the capillary action of the plant, through which we have our being? And aren’t the grapes that we produce—the good of us, of our lives, our relationships, of our making—to be crushed and fermented into a pleasant, complex, flavorful, enlivening, fortifying, joy-releasing wine?

And aren’t we also the wedding guests? Those who are drinking the wine that is the essence of the good making of our ancestors and our friends and our family—the community of saints everywhere throughout all time?

Isn’t this our purpose? Isn’t this our method? And to the extent we make linguistic objects, to the extent we say things to one another and in our saying discover and make the world—we mystic believer priests—shouldn’t these locutions, these constructs, these encouragements, these love poems, these speculative instruments, these comedies, these tropes, these blogs, these works, these explorations of the possible impossible, these imaginative leaps, these outpourings, these roarings, these blessings, these expositions of the beautiful, these pseudo-psalms be like grapes that can be crushed and made into wine for the wedding feast? Wine for the enjoyment of the wedding party and all the saints?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mrs. Dalloway

I began rereading Mrs. Dalloway, a novel by Virginia Woolf, yesterday. Oh, what a lovely novel! What a linguistic and cultural and epistemological and ontological and philosophical and theological adventure!

A novel by a supposed atheist about an atheist within whose sensibility we discover the world and human experience as largely a mystical continuum. A mystically connected, remarkably fluid, largely spiritual mode or place or dance.

We inhabit the minds of many characters as Clarissa Dalloway makes her way through her day, but always come back to her experience, her purpose, her place, her history, her sense of things as the center, as our principal agency of knowing in the novel.

And as I made my way again through the beginning of the novel, I was delighted to dive deeply into this remarkable author and swim about in her imagination. Swim about in a world she has made for us from which we can look out into and re-experience the world.

And as I read, it occurred to me that the semantic recalcitrance that we experience in texts, in linguistic objects, begins with the semantic recalcitrance of the world itself. Of the world we partly experience and partly create or make in the experiencing of it. The world we make in the linguistic constructs we create in the act of our experiencing it.

A world in which events are both trivial and momentous. In which the real events of note are our experiences of the visible or auditory. Of the olfactory or tactile. Of the recordable events we all believe we should be able to agree on. Events such as a smoking airplane writing an advertisement for toffee in the sky, or a man hearing the birds sing, or people noticing a car carrying someone important as it makes its way through the crowded street.

As I began this extraordinary experience again, it occurred to me that each of these characters were spirit-beings through which all kinds of intangible things were passing. History. Emotion. Ideas. Perceptions. Urgencies. Purposes. Opacities. Good intentions. Conflicts. Grief. Love. Civilizations. Evil. Incomprehension. Ignorance. Imperfect understanding. Meaning.

And it seemed like these characters. These simulacra of real people. Were more like elements in the vast hydrodynamics of a planet than they were discrete individuals. As if they played the role of sentient nodes in the enormous spirit-work of creation.

Sentient and self-creating nodes, to some extent. But created nodes also. Nodes created by someone else. Some other agency that is largely secret and imperfectly known. Only hinted at in the confines of this particular infinity. This particular linguistic object.

So who is Mrs. Dalloway? Well, that is of course the question provoked by the title. Along the way we are given a number of answers. Partial answers. Here is one: "She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. . . .far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day."

And here is another: ". . . at any moment the brute would be stirring, this hatred, which, especially since her illness, had power to make her feel scraped, hurt in her spine; gave her physical pain, and made all pleasure in beauty, in friendship, in being well, in being loved . . . quiver, and bend as if indeed there were a monster grubbing at the roots . . ."

And here is something specifically about the opacity of things or the finality or perhaps fatality of things in the mind of Clarissa Dalloway: "So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying "that is all" more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body . . . says too, That is all."

This last passage is most interesting, isn’t it? It is to me. The heart. The human heart. In the sounds and the rhythms it makes. Is a metaphor for ocean waves building and falling. Or are the waves a metaphor for the heart?

Or are the waves—an emergent reality created by the interaction between water and wind, the largely substantial and the largely insubstantial—more a metaphor for the human heart taken figuratively? Taken as an element of the soul?

What goes on here? Isn’t there an admixture of figure and ground? Isn’t there a confusion of the literal ground of the metaphor with the thing (substantial or insubstantial) being illuminated? What is human sentience? That half created, half made up sense of who we are and where we are and what we are about and what is happening to us and what we are doing that gives us our uniqueness? Our personhood? Our being?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Semantic Recalcitrance

Wallace Stevens makes a vocation of semantic recalcitrance, but he did not invent it. Oh, take for example this poem by John Donne, a 17th century English poet, a poem called “Batter My Heart,” oddly enough:

Batter my heart, three personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captivated and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

So what is the poet saying here? Is he saying that he wants God to take him by force, against his will, his reason? Is he saying that he wants God, the great freedom lover, to imprison him? To do damage to him? Does he want God to go against his nature? Does he want God to be un-Godlike? Isn’t this irrational? Isn’t the poet being rather emotional here? But don’t the prosodic control and extended metaphor demonstrated here tell us that this is a remarkably rational man?

Or take for example this little imagistic poem by William Carlos Williams, a 20th century physician poet call “The Red Wheelbarrow:”

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

What is this poem about? Is it really about a red wheelbarrow? Apparently. But why would we care? Why should we care? What is the point? And what depends upon this red wheelbarrow? Does it literally depend or figuratively depend? Or both? Are we talking about rainwater here? Does the glazing of the rainwater depend on the red wheelbarrow? Do the white chickens? Does our understanding of the poem depend on the red wheelbarrow? If so, how so? But doesn’t understanding have to do with ideas? And there doesn’t seem to be hardly an idea here, does there?

Or take for example William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” written perhaps in the 16th century:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Is this a woman the poet is talking about? Is it the idea of a woman disconnected from any particular woman? Is this God or Holy Spirit? Is it a man? Is Shakespeare homosexual? If this is a woman the poet is speaking to, why does he pretend to compare her to a summer’s day, when he really contrasts her with spring and summer weather? In what sense can a woman be or exist in eternal summer? What is eternal summer? Is that heaven? Is the poem itself a kind of heaven or eternity? How is this possible? How is it possible for a linguistic object such as a poem to “live?” How can a linguistic object give life to a living person? Doesn’t it work the other way around, with the living person giving life to the poem?

Or take for example the first five verses from the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

Is “the Word” language? Is it the Torah? Is it Jesus? What does “in the beginning” mean? Does it mean at the beginning of time? At the beginning of the universe? The beginning of this planet? Does it mean before the beginning of time? Of the universe? How can the Word both be God and with God? What sense does it make for a person to both be a man and to be with man, for example? If we say that “the Word” is in some sense Jesus, then what does it mean for all things to be made through him? Did he make all things, or did the agency of their making originate with someone else? What sense does it make to say that a living person had life in him? Isn’t this obvious? Why point it out? And how is the life of Jesus “the light of men?” What is “the light of men?” And in what sense can the darkness not understand the light of men? How can darkness understand anything?

Are ambiguity, ambivalence, and paradox—semantic recalcitrance—at the heart of language and any linguistic object? Are these qualities at the heart of Jesus and his meaning for us? Are these qualities to be found throughout the Bible? And if so, what does this mean for our understanding of Jesus, God, and the Bible? What does it mean for how we would best think about and talk about and write about God and his Word?

Is certainty about God and the Bible possible? In what areas is certainty possible and reasonable and justifiable, and in what areas isn’t it? Why?

Is theology an attempt to perfect God? To perfect the Bible? To the extent that it is, isn’t this a serious problem? Isn’t this like taking arms against a sea of troubles in hopes of ending them? (Please visualize here a man with a sword, hip-deep in the ocean, hacking away at the waves as they come crashing over his head.) Isn’t certainty in every theological dimension doomed? And isn’t the person who seeks certainty about God in all matters doomed?

Isn’t the I AM telling us, in telling us that his name is I AM, to back off? Isn’t Jesus in referring to himself as I AM telling us to back off?

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Single Artificer of the World

And so what is this poem about, then? This poem by. Well. We think he might be an atheist. But maybe he’s an agnostic. Or maybe he’s a closet Christian after all. He did, supposedly, become a Roman Catholic while in the hospital toward the end. Maybe he’s playing with religious ideas all along. Or Christian ideas. Or maybe not.

Who is the singer? Whose spirit is she? Is she the poet’s muse? Is she the poet? Is she the Spirit of God? Is she the emblem of God and of all human makers? One does recall Genesis 1:2: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the water.”

Is the singer’s song art? Is it the Bible? What are the words she sings? Does she sing God’s Word into existence here? Why is her song different from the natural world itself? The sea itself? Where do the words that she sings come from? What are the words of her song? What is the melody?

Who is Ramon Fernandez? Why is he pale?

Who is the maker in the last sentence? Is this the singer? Is this someone else? Is this God?

Does any of this have anything to do with baptism, which is both of water and the spirit? Does any of this have to do with the creation of the world? With the creation of our understanding of the world?

In what sense do “the words of the sea” speak of origins? Is this whole poem about origins? Is the whole poem about the mystery of the origin of the physical world? About the mystery of the origin of our art, our saying, our speaking about the physical world?

What does Wally mean by the words, “mimic motion?” What is the ocean imitating? And why does he characterize the ocean’s “mimic motion” as creating a “constant cry?”

Why does Wally say that “The sea is not a mask?” I mean, I never thought of the sea as being a mask. Did you?

And what does he mean by saying that “her phrases stirred/The grinding water and the grasping wind?” Did she create them? Did she merely influence them?

And if the poet and Ramon are walking by the sea, how can they only hear the singer and not the sea itself? After all, the poet says, “But it was she and not the sea we heard.” Wasn’t he right there? Wasn’t the sound of the sea and the wind loud in his ears?

Is the sea truly meaningless? After all, the poet says, “meaningless plungings of water and the wind.” Is the poet contrasting the meaninglessness of the sea with the meaningfulness of the singer’s song?

What world does the singer make? The poet says, “Then we,/As we beheld her striding there alone,/Knew that there never was a world for her/Except the one she sang and, singing, made.” Does she make the meaningless world of the sea that she strides beside? Or does she make the meaningful world of her song? Or does she make both? Does she hear the sea or not? Does she see the sea or not?

Does the singer’s song speak the sea into existence or not?

Is the singer God’s imagination? Or is she our imaginations? Is she what God makes to bring order to the world? Or is she what we make to bring order to our world?

One does not know. There is little in the way of certainty here. There are terms we recognize. There are ideas we work with. There are contrasting but incomplete assertions about this world. The world of this poem. And maybe they bear some relation to the world we live and breathe and love in outside the poem.

Maybe the song that is this poem makes a world. Makes a linguistic object. That is a simulacrum of the world outside it. Or if not a simulacrum, maybe it is the philosophical and theological DNA through which such a world can be made.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

What? Linguistic Beauty?

Oh, I don’t know. Have you listened for example to Wallace Stevens reading “The Idea of Order at Key West?” You can find a recording on the web. It’s. Oh. It’s like he’s tightrope walking in about eleven dimensions. Inflection, tone, pitch, timbre, volume, head voice, chest voice, groin voice. The syntax. The words. The strange words as they are assembled. None of them strange so much in themselves but their order. They are ingeniously ordered. Mystically arranged. Astoundingly made.

One might with good reason say that there is a very wide swath of poetry since Stevens that is imitative. That is derivative. That is much less ambitious but nevertheless reminds one of Stevens’s semantic resistance, his otherness, his insistent lack of idiomatic coding.

There is in “The Idea of Order at Key West” and most of the rest of his work a kind of nose-thumbing at the paraphrasers. The simplifiers. Those who want a locution, a text, a phrase, a verse, a sentence, a poem—any linguistic object—to mean one thing and one thing alone.

See for yourself:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the grasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and , singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of themselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Pray Tell

And so pray tell, what can you possibly mean, Billiam? Billabong? You prevaricator. You poetaster. You dissembler. You overly nuanced lover of ambiguity, ambivalence, paradox, and fence-sitting. You over-educated dabbler in pastoral pontification, pulpit puling, and pretentious poesy. You kindergarten theologian. You pre-verbal philosopher. You linguistic cad!

You might say. And you might say this with some justification. In fact, I might say this with some justification.

But take Wallace Stevens. Oh. One of the finest American poets of the 20th century. Take him, for example. Atheist. Literary philosopher. Fictive theologian. A man who comes to poetry. Who takes poetry to be the supreme or original path to meaning. Who says to us, “Look here. Listen here. Meaning is in story. Meaning is in poetry. It’s in the making of fiction. It’s in the making of a beautiful linguistic object.

“At the end of reason. Beyond all reason, there is imagination. And the linguistic imagination is where we live. Where we come alive. How we come alive. And the. Oh. The end of the linguistic imagination. The purpose of the thing. Is the beautiful itself. Is the figuring—the bringing—forth of linguistic objects that are themselves beautiful. That give us glimpses of the Beautiful, which is the source of all linguistic beauty.”

Or he says something like that.

And so, what is this guy after, you might ask. What makes this guy go?

The Beautiful. The Imaginative. The Fictive. The Made. The Other. Poetry. BIFMOP.

And what is BIFMOP? Where does it come from? How does it have such power, to make an insurance vice president and one of the finest American poets of the 20th century scurry after it like a March hare after its love-interest?

Well, haven’t we been over this ground? I mean, haven’t we already spoken at length about this? No matter how much he might protest, isn’t old Wally after God? God as we can find him in language? In linguistic objects? God as he manifests himself in Poetry? In the Beautiful. In story. As he manifests himself to our senses? To our sensibility? To our Imagination?

Isn’t God always the Other whom we seek? Always? In everything? In everyone? In all objects? In all discourse? Everywhere?

Whether we like it or not? Whether we admit to it or not? Whether we are aware of it or not?

Oh, Wally! Keep it up, I want to say to him. Never mind about God. Let’s not talk about God so much, if this is. If you have experienced something that has made you irrational on the subject. If something has happened to you as it has to me.

Just keep that poetry going! Keep that up, please. Keep up that making that is the rhyming we all do in the mind of God. The rhyming we all are after with the Word. With God’s Word. Through which he speaks all things.