Before our January 6 interview with poet John Wieners on Beacon Hill, I called up an old friend, Bill Wellington, the night librarian and all around nice guy of the UMass–Dartmouth Library, to find out if he had a message to relay to poet Wieners … the connection is that of two young Beantown beatniks.
Bill playing his jazz up and down the coast, backing Billie and Bird, eventually having to give up the horn because of personal and medical reasons. The other, a shy young poet with a circle of dear friends in Beacon Hill, and Bill was one of them, scripting down and out scene-verse that caught the spirit of youth, the flailing passionate heartache of it all, moments of time strung together with words like pearls on string.
After the years have rolled into each other, the magical nights on the Hill become these stories, tales told to an attentive English Lit undergrad by a cool and raspy-voiced jazzman-turned-librarian, who returns to the poems of an old friend as evidence of the magic, the time gone by.
(BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MESSAGE?)
It’s a message of creativity, youth, of the human capacity to care deeply about the quality of another’s life, why some still hold the word, the idea — as sacred. Enjoy.
To backtrack to the beginning of Robert Creeley’s preface to John Wieners’s “Cultural Affairs in Boston,” which about sums it up:
If poetry might be taken as a distance, some space from the action, relief from the crowd, or if its discretions, what it managed to leave out, avoid, get rid of, were its virtue, then all these poems would be in one way or another suspect. They are far closer to a purported Chinese apothegm I read years ago and continue to muse on: “How is it far if you think it?” I don’t truly know. It doesn’t seem to be far at all. Nor do these poems, any of them, seem ever some place else, or where they move apart from an agent, either feeling or thinking. They’re here, as we are — certainly a hopeful convention in all respects, but where else to meet?
Wieners makes an absence horribly or heartbreakingly present:
“The walls are alive with pictures.
Faces haunt the dark.”
(from Wieners’s “A Series, 5.8,” Ace of Pentacles)
“Poetry is a trance
“The man I’m kissing
lives right here
despite all odds
on my lips”
“and the gossamer twilights on Boston Common, and Arlington Street
adrift in the mind”
(After Symond’s “Venice,” Nerves)
And from “5.9”:
“Dread night is gone,
you see suspended in a bar against the blackness
the mighty lord, who makes his way
Love in his eyes as a bride might say
To put away all fear.”
Is it Duncan’s open field Wieners refers to in “The Meadow Where All Things Grow According to Their Own Design”?
“Destiny lies behind our forces
and what lives in the soul
dies not. It inhabits our dreams
as perpetual as light.”
Am I stretching the point to suggest that though Wieners often writes in form and sometimes in rather formal language there is an organic aspect of his poetry, that his belief that all forms are organic pervades his poetry?
If as Creeley delineates, the poem is there because of the intensity of Wieners’s thought and feeling, so Gerrit Lansing’s elegant restraint gives us poetry that is always there, meditative, in a world un-fragmented, distilled, accepting: “guiltless I milked the cow, / slaughtered chicken, / swam with snakes” (“How We Sizzled in the Pasture,” Working in the Lower Red Field).
To both, the world is filled with myriad creatures not only from written traditions but from lived experience. Gerrit ends his poem “For John
Wieners, 1934–2002” (Poems Uncollected, Old and New):
“the sound of drums in early afternoon, the poems
echoing our marvelous faults, their fruits.”
The marvelous, the human, the humane, the ambiguous “their fruits,” everything is taken in, dealt with.
What else do the two share? Gentleness, constant devotion to craft. Massachusetts. Each underrated though those who know their writing feel immensely appreciative and are aware of its worth. I recall Creeley reading at Stone Soup in Boston eons ago & dedicating his reading to Wieners, who listened happily in the audience. Gerrit always precise, at times understated, loving but with clear boundaries. What little I knew of Wieners makes me feel he was endlessly openhearted, despairing, enthusiastic, wild. Gerrit knows his place, meaning he is in himself, self-contained, knowing his place is everywhere.
Have visited Gerrit several times & each time he has commented on my aura, which apparently fluctuates or at least varies. He has one of the fullest libraries I know of & seems to have read most everything in it, retaining most of that, I hear.
Having been subjected to quadruple bypass heart surgery recently, Gerrit (looking ruddy) still seems undaunted by death. Where has his meditation taken him — certainly to equanimity. Wieners was elsewhere, looking for love.
When I moved to Cambridge in 1971, I saw Wieners in Temple Bar Bookstore on Massachusetts Ave. Excited and nervous, I approached him, and he asked, “Do I know you from Georgia O’Keefe’s house?” No. “Are you a Medici?” Heading back to my apartment, where a poem of Wieners hung on my wall, I glowed.
Gerrit offers OJ or booze, seems willing to discuss Vedanta with my Vedantic friend, happy to hang out with Simon Pettit to talk about the paranormal (he’s an encyclopedia, according to Simon), calm in disagreeing with a relative of mine about haiku, and indulgent when asked over-general questions about the spiritual life.
His house is a treasure, up the hill and across the divided highway from the ocean, in down-home Gloucester. The rooms are large and packed and his intriguing housemate John can sometimes be seen moving books up to the top floor, even more books hiding there, waiting to spill over into the living room. He collects mushrooms, meditates, plays classical piano. One can imagine him living the aesthetic life in New York though he now finds comfort at the seaside: “Old and new dependencies, good harbor, deserted beach of seaweed brown” (“XVIII, The Soluble Forest”).
The younger poets in his area adore him and care for him and hang at his house. Amanda Cook, he tells me, waited five hours at the hospital with Gerrit’s nephew until his operation was over. He gives parties, still. Such friends as Ken Irby stay in his guesthouse out back in summer.
He combines traditions, high and low culture, sex and spirit, all is one:
Thomas Burnet, in The Sacred Theory of the Earth, posited that the earth had formed as a smooth, regular sphere with a thin surface, below which was a vast ocean. The Great Flood, he believed, had occurred when the surface of the earth broke open, for God had willed it so, and fell down into that ocean.
Here is the fourth section of Gerrit’s “In Erasmus Darwin’s Generous Light”:
Telluris sacra theoria [The Sacred Theory of the Earth]
If you consider the sacred theory of the earth,
water below and water above,
the egg cracked and split, the spirit spurting out
flood and ark of sacred origin, waterfall of starry jism
the milk of the stars from her paps
on uplifted ecstatic faces and lovers locked in happy freedom in their crucible …
in my garden, Erasmus Darwin said, blooms
bright surprise galore on bright surprise
and from their volant passion splurge cataracts of eyes.
In the tulgey wood the light consoles
and in the generous light of Erasmus Darwin’s ripe exuberance
(and he knew the caves below where sun at midnight shone)
the fields, his very strawberry fields, are Eleusinian.
Genesis and Alice in Wonderland in the mix. The sublimity and chaos of nature. Charles Darwin’s poet grandfather (whom Gerrit described in his reading at the Boston Athaeneum in June as a poet of sexuality and plant life) and God. Jism and the sacred natural world. Contradictions and acceptance. The Beatles and the Eleusinian fields, the dwelling of the blessed, in the stream of Okeanos, the Ocean. And the caves below where sun at midnight shone? Jesus, born in a cave, brings the world light at the solstice? Coleridge, who was influenced by Burnet? For Gerrit, as for his friend Robert Duncan, these are not simply allusions, they are lived places of the mind.
The Ace of Pentacles, in the Tarot, is apparently about making one’s dreams come to pass. The Empress is the womb where the idea gestates. And so goes Wieners’s “The Imperatrice.”
The Empress is an extreme card — one minute things are wonderful, the next, horrible. One’s labors may come to fruition, so it seems Wieners is carrying forward The Ace of Pentacles’ hope. Wieners’s The Imperatrice sits on the left page; on the right, a poem I have long remembered, for “My Mother,” “talking to strange men on the subway,”
“‘But I love her in the underground
and her gray coat and hair
sitting there, one man over from me
talking together between the wire grates of a cage.”
The Imperatrice, “who sits supreme above all human ecstasy,” “Lady of the blue / robe. Scent of sperm / a cloud of devotion to her nostrils,”
“Or with the objects of eternity
about her and
for our eyes worn out with love.”
These two tasters of life have in common their absorption in nontraditional as well as traditional spiritual ways of seeing and experiencing the world, their acceptance of seeming opposites, their love of life, as intense as any despair, finally. Hallucinations of truth. Intimations of … Expecting/hoping for a new time to come; in Gerrit’s belief system, that is a non-persona, universal world. As Gerrit knows the world as real and unreal, so too does Wieners, despite his attachment to it:
From Wieners’s “Dreams of the Day”:
There are other realities
besides those existing before
Secrets of the mind
where phantoms dwell
and people pass who never
on the face of the earth.
Dark veils cover their faces.
causes high tides
To roar upon the shore
That is the mind.
Where no one ever is
But those who never were.
Yet Wieners, filled with spirits, longing, agony, IS there; Gerrit all the while in equipoise; both seers and lovers. Both having dived into the occult: From Wieners’s “Le Chariot” (Ace of Pentacles):
“To ride in your heart instead of heaven.
This is the card that reads as seven.”
If Gerrit knows it in a more spiritual sense, Wieners is familiar with the emotional ride of what we can’t know intellectually yet which can dominate the senses and feelings. To continue with Creeley: “The poetry of John Wieners has an exceptional human beauty — as if there were ever any other. There is in it such commonness of phrase and term, such a substantial fact of a daily life transformed by the articulateness of his feelings and the intensity of the inexorable world that is forever out there waiting for any one of us.”
There you have it from the mouth of Black Mountain that Wieners is not only a lyric poet and a sonneteer, a troubadour and the tenor in the opera, he is a poet of daily life, including the bizarre daily life under all our covers.
As is Gerrit — connected to the earth, the ocean, New York, he flies upward and outward and inside to realms just as intimate and interconnected as anything more mundane. As Gerrit says of Thoreau (“Henry Thoreau and Cosmic Concord”), [he] “made of his daily and local experiences a rich mythological fabric … He feels along his nerves the reflections of all things in all things …” How could I neglect to mention Wieners’s book Nerves in this context, though admittedly it is often horrific in its imagery — yet full of beauty still.
In 1965, Wieners wrote a subjective, insightful preface to Gerrit’s The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward (a Motto Book, New York, 1966). In it, he gives us hints as to what they share by letting us know what he reacts to & feels: “The title is ‘wrong’: alchemically it is right; but the essence of purpose is not downward. It is upwards towards heaven.” Self-deprecating, he makes me laugh when he claims: “For me to write with intelligence is a difficult thing. For Gerrit to write without it is even more difficult.”
While Gerrit’s work reveals an enormous vocabulary, sense of history and the paranormal throughout it, clearly Wieners — even in his talking of the alchemical — unravels his knowledge of the arcane throughout his own writing. “The discontinuity of image, the ‘confused’ mind you will think you will find there. You will not. The obtuse is clarity.” Wieners might as well be talking about himself. His critics be damned, he is coherent emotionally, in the way of Baudelaire and with sometimes equally strong conceits, metaphors that are in a visceral way images, they live so fully on the page.
“Rhythm is that elegance of thought the Greeks called paradise in their apple orchards.” And this is Wieners’s line as well as Gerrit’s phrasing — elegance, even for Wieners amidst all the devastation. “No, the wild tulip shall outlast the prison wall / no matter what grows within” (“Private Estate,” Asylum Poems).
“Now I have to learn to carry them [Gerrit’s poems] with me over the streets of the city; and dismay the madness of a nation with their magic.” Those who imagine Wieners’s poetry “limited” to the personal would do well to look again; he was all too well aware of the injustices and distortions of our “society” that Gerrit’s words would wipe away and transform, magically.
And sound, Wieners and sound, my God. Even in his sweet autograph to me in 1998 in my old Ace of Pentacles, he was concerned with lining up similar sounds:
“Just To A Fan
John Wieners Fondly
[@ John Wieners 1964 was printed here]
Offered to Ruth Epson
Sometimes Gerrit writes a gorgeous lyrical line: “The night is warm he walks the mountain road” (“Melanthus in the Mountains,” Working in the Lower Red Field). When mellifluous sounds are apt, he is the sorcerer who can create that spell.
Gerrit played tennis with John Ashbery weekly at Harvard. Once I saw Wieners, dressed as a woman, lying along the Charles River, cops questioning him. Tonight there will be a meteor shower, visible if the clouds dissipate. This, then, is what the two gentlemen have in common — a glimpse of the inexorable, the glorious and the beautiful, the terrible and the grand, the numinous. Or the knowledge of what Gerrit describes in his Thoreau essay, “the universe as a net of glittering jewels.” (A February Sheaf).
Words and thoughts that come to mind when hearing Wieners: acute, raw, dissipated, aching, howling, feverish, clamoring, nocturnal, blindfolded with his eyes open, his colors red, purple, and black, like a glimpse of a peacock in the dead of night. Did he have to strain to see? An open question. Erotic yet with a tone more of longing then of titillation. Felt the pull of fate and destiny.
Gerrit’s language gives a sense of repose, spice, effervescence, concord, brightness, effulgence, sometimes seems crystalline, is balanced and proportionate. The erotic in him is high-toned in that it is one with all of life, alchemical: “We flow together like molten gold and molten gold” (“Alba” Working in the Lower Red Field); “This sex is more than sex, under the will of the God of sex” (“A Poem of Love in Eleven Lines,” Inscriptions). He adds grace notes, sings hymns, plays the flute. Sometimes the sax: “Whose joint? Pass me one, please” puns on the title “The Joint is Jumping” (Working in the Lower Red Field).
Admittedly, Gerrit lives in a world of magic, contentment, intellectual history, spirituality, and even publishing that Wieners when distraught may not have had access to. Like Blake, he knows that “The word of Sin was always Restriction” (“La p(l)age poetique”) and lives an unrestricted life to the degree one can in “the Vulgar Advent,” as he calls it in “Statement: How Set Was Conceived.” He locates his essay: “Gloucester, Massachusetts, at the Equinox of Fall,” noting that “To discover our spacetime address we must fix our position in time as well as in space” (“The Burden of Set #1”).
(And as with Louis Zukofsky, for Gerrit numbers have connections to the macrocosmic world: “is the number 18 / the tablets are empty / everybody’s crossed over / and no one has ever gone over” (“XVIII”) plays with the Hebrew chai, good fortune.)
Yet in the same essay, quoting Stevens, he reminds us that “poetry increases the feeling for reality” and in “La p(l)age poetique” that “Making the soul is always particular” and in these ways is in unity again with Wieners.
Yet neither is didactic. Both have the feel of flickers of the absolute, of visions obscured and sometimes revealed. Both are link-boys, who could be dangerous. Many couldn’t hold a candle to them.
John Wieners's Boston haunts
For almost thirty years, John Wieners lived meagerly and humbly in the same apartment in Beacon Hill; 44 Joy Street, Suite 10 as he called it. Joy Street, originally called Belknap Lane, named after the Colonial Apothecary, Dr. John Joy, with its history of livery stables, was his home. Wieners became somewhat more reclusive in his later years, but he was still a fixture on the streets of Beacon Hill, seen often trudging tragic-comically through the streets with his bag draped around his shoulder, and a cigarette in his hand, carrying himself with a certain muted elegance. The sad fact of these last eight years is that chance sightings and encounters with the man in his world, in this world, can never happen again. Beacon Hill, a neighborhood that has changed drastically since his death, seems not to notice or to care that a great poet was ever among them or even more poignantly that he has left.
Like a ghost, Wieners can be glimpsed in the emptiness of specific places left behind. There are many places to me where I can conjure up a spark of his spirit just by walking his Beacon Hill streets.
One of the first places Wieners and I met for lunch was at the John W. McCormack Federal building cafeteria at One Ashburton Place across from the State Capitol at the top of Bowdoin Street. The cafeteria was on one of the higher floors of the building and was easy to access by elevator. In the ten years I knew Wieners, we only visited it a few times, but the memory of that lunch is very clear. I asked him if he missed Black Mountain College and North Carolina. He casually remarked, “One does not fully appreciate the landscape of a place until they have long left it.” That line has stayed with me particularly through the years. He also maintained that he once worked at the McCormack Cafeteria bussing the tables. Whether it was true or metaphoric never mattered to me. He wistfully remarked “They don’t bus these tables anymore.” There were other cafeterias where we would lunch; a state administration building in Government Center, and the Massachusetts General Hospital cafeteria to name a few.
After lunch we stood on the landing behind the McCormack building where Federal Employees stood blankly around us enjoying cigarettes in the afternoon sun. I made a comment that amused him and he casually remarked, “My cheekbones get high from you.” I told him that was such a great line I would like to use it in a poem. He dismissively changed his tone, replying “Oh, I wish I never said that.”
Once a week we would meet together to share the same routine. First, we would visit the lobby of Massachusetts General Hospital. Wieners’s cousin Walter had set up a disbursement plan for a stipend of cash to be delivered by a male nurse, Brian, who was close friends with Walter. Wieners and I would wait patiently each week in the busy lobby of MGH amidst the flow of humanity, for Brian to arrive with an envelope. Often we’d have lunch in the hospital cafeteria. A few times we would walk up the steps of the original MGH building to visit the Ether Dome.
The Charles Plaza located at the bottom of Joy Street was Wieners’s lifeline to his weekly goods; cigarettes, percogesic pills, and his meager supply of weekly groceries. At that time, the Plaza had a Burger King, a CVS drugstore, a Brigham’s, and a Stop & Shop supermarket. We would walk across Blossom Street to Charles Plaza to have lunch at the Burger King. Wieners would always order the same thing — a plain hamburger, french fries and a coke. On the hamburger he would put nothing except multiple packets of salt. We’d sit down to a fine Burger King meal amidst the lunchtime crowd of Beacon Hill. Once, a publisher and admirer of Wieners planned on meeting him for lunch. The publisher showed up on Joy Street with a single rose as a gift and offered to take Wieners anywhere in the city for lunch. He suggested Harvard Gardens. Harvard Gardens, which figured prominently in Wieners’s poem “Chophouse Memories,” where he sat reading poetry in the humid summer evening of Beacon Hill, as Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer wept in the “incipient rain and electric-charged air.” It has been a Beacon Hill institution for over forty years. Wieners had gone there many times throughout the years, but he never went there in the time I knew him. Wieners thought about the publisher’s offer for a moment and deferred making a decision until we crossed over Cambridge Street. Wieners suggested since we were so close to Charles Plaza we should just go to Burger King. The publisher was deflated. He insistently reiterated his intention to buy lunch anywhere Wieners desired in the city. I knew where we were going from the moment we stepped out onto the street. The three of us sat in the Burger King. The publisher was baffled and mortified that his date with Wieners’s was less than he dreamed it would be. I sat there next to Wieners, the awkward third wheel of the date. Wieners presided over the impaired proceedings, answering questions courteously, completely content to be exactly where he was.
We’d also visit the CVS pharmacy for three specific items that were more important to him than sustenance. He would pick up, religiously every week, a pack of Kool cigarettes, a box of Percogesic pills, and a Primatene Mist inhaler. The Percogesic pills were over-the-counter pain relievers. For some reason Wieners had to have a refill of that specific brand every week. The Primatene Mist inhaler helped him breathe but it probably gave him a kick as well. He would stand outside the drugstore with a cigarette in one hand and the Primatene Mist inhaler in the other. After each drag on his cigarette, he’d immediately take two puffs on the inhaler, which would always make me laugh. “They kind of cancel each other out, don’t they?” I asked him. “No, not all.” was his curt response. If the store was out of Percogesic pills or Primatene Mist, we would walk down Cambridge Street to the “Phillips” as John called it. It was another CVS pharmacy on Charles Circle across from the Old Charles Street Prison. Before it was a CVS it was a local independent drugstore and Wieners continued to refer to it by its former name. The Phillips CVS, in particular, played a vital role in Wieners being properly identified after his death. Wieners had no identification on him when he suffered his debilitating stroke in the Blossom Street parking lot located right behind the hospital. What he did have in his pocket was a receipt for his weekly purchases. Through the dogged pursuit of a social worker at the hospital, she was able to trace Wieners CVS savings card number on the receipt back to his apartment, and ultimately to his cousin Walter, whose name was on Wieners’s apartment lease. Luckily, his family and friends were notified just in time to say goodbye before he passed away. But, not before he laid unidentified for five days in the intensive care unit in a coma, assumed indigent and homeless by the hospital staff.
Just around the corner from the Phillips CVS, is the Phillips playground. Along with the Myrtle Street Playground, this was Wieners’s favorite place to stop off and enjoy a cigarette. Phillips playground is a two level playground on the north slope of the Hill surrounded by a metal fence, somewhat hidden between buildings. Wieners would sit on the bench with his head cocked, smoke slowly escaping his lips as Beacon Hill nannies ushered children to the lower level structure. We’d sit in silence for thirty minutes or more sometimes until I’d have to make the move and break the spell. Close to the Myrtle Street playground, Rollins Place was another secret location John liked to duck into for a smoke and some afternoon meditation. Rollins Place is one of the most interesting courtyards in Beacon Hill. It is a hidden cul-de-sac with a garden and paved courtyard consisting of six single-family townhouses with a unique faux Greek Style white mansion at the end of the alley. Wieners loved to linger in the cool shadows of the courtyard on a summer day.
Wieners favorite window in the back room of his apartment overlooked the rooftop of the African Meeting House, located on a dead end off Joy Street called Smith Court. This street had been the epicenter of Black culture in the 1800s. Wieners knew well the secret alley behind the Meeting House that lead up the hill and out onto Russell Street. The alley was rumored to have been part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Nearby, Wieners participated in Steve Jonas’s poetry magic evenings in the sixties with poets Joe Dunn, Carol Weston, Rafael Gruttola, and others.
Down the hill on Joy Street towards Cambridge Street is 78 Joy Street, the home for many years of poet and Wieners supporter Jack Powers. Wieners would rely heavily on Jack’s good graces throughout his life on Beacon Hill. Jack would always feed Wieners or give him smoke money while persuading Wieners to read at some Powers sponsored reading in return. Jack was a conduit for reunions with old friends such as Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Ed Sanders, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Herbert Huncke; when they were in town. Powers also worked tirelessly to book paid readings for Wieners, often paying him out of his own pocket. Powers was a lifeline for Wieners on the Hill. It was through Jack that I first got to know Wieners.
A particular venue for many Wieners readings in the nineties was the Old West Church on Cambridge Street. The historic church dates back to the Revolutionary War and is where the phrase “no taxation without representation” was first coined. Sadly, many of Wieners’s readings there were sparsely attended but he would always read diligently whether there were ten people or 100 people present, some readings much more compelling than others.
Another notable church in Wieners lore is the Charles Street Meeting House on 73 Charles Street. The church was known in pre–Civil War times as a stronghold of the anti-slavery movement where Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Tubman gave fiery speeches. In 1953, during Hurricane Hazel, Wieners happened upon a reading by Charles Olson at the Meeting House where he was so taken with Olson’s reading he soon followed Olson to Black Mountain College. The modern day Meeting House is a disappointment to those who go there to see the church where this historic reading took place. The church was sold in 1979 and was renovated into a flower shop on the first floor and office space on the upper floor. It stands next to the firehouse made famous in the TV series, Spencer for Hire. Wieners and I visited the Meetinghouse only once, standing at the elevator bank momentarily then we were gone.
Driving through Boston I’d often catch a glimpse of Wieners in front of the Boston Public Library. As I got to know Wieners, I realized why I’d always see him outside the library. The Glad Day bookstore was a long-standing gay bookstore right across the street from the BPL. Whenever Wieners would get paid by check for a reading or for residuals from a publisher, he’s go to the Glad Day to get his checks cashed. The owner of the Glad Day, John Mitzel, was an old friend of Wieners who would always front Wieners money without any expectation of restitution.
Once, while driving Wieners back from the Glad Day bookstore en route to the supermarket, we averted a near tragedy on Bowdoin Street; right next to the State Capitol and the McCormack Building. As we drove down the Hill, I signaled to proceed to the right to grab an open parking spot. As I cruised over to the spot, I heard a crash and saw a biker come hurtling over the hood of my VW. Wieners put his hand over his mouth and let out an “Ooooh.” I maintained my cool and got out to see if the biker was all right. The biker was laid out in front of the car, sprawled on the street. I asked him if he was hurt and if he needed an ambulance. He cursed and told me to turn around and put my hands on the car. I first thought he was a bike messenger but then noticed his blue shorts and shirt and realized that I had hit a Boston Police Officer on bike patrol. Wieners and I sat in the car as three cop cars came and went. Each cop glared at us with angry disgust. After waiting nearly an hour I asked the officer if they could at least let Wieners go. They reluctantly released him when they realized he would not be a reliable witness. He draped his bag around his shoulder, took his rubber band from his ponytail, put it around his wrist, and went ambling down the hill to the Stop & Shop. After two hours of being held and questioned, I was finally, miraculously let go without even a ticket. I caught up to Wieners at the Stop & Shop, pushing his cart down the aisle as if nothing happened.
The one time we actually went inside the Boston Public Library together was to see the original version of A Star Is Born. We sat in the darkened basement of the BPL watching James Mason and Judy Garland. Wieners was rapt and attentive during the entire movie. I was less so. I dozed off several times during the movie, once even jarring myself awake from my own snoring. As we walked out, I felt like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. I half apologized for going catatonic during a movie that obviously meant a lot to him. “That’s alright” he said, “Jimmy Mason makes you groggy.”
There are a few places I never visited with Wieners although I tried to persuade him to go with me. The first place was the Boston Athenaeum. I was a member in the late 1990s and I thought he would enjoy going back there since he had told me stories of going there years prior. I often tried to cajole and persuade him into going to the Athenaeum with me. He would initially agree and then subtly his enthusiasm would dissipate until he was resolute in his decision not to go. In fact, I rarely ever saw Wieners on the Robert Lowell/General Hooker/Boston Brahmin/Boston Common south slope side of Beacon Hill unless we were driving through the neighborhood.
I also tried to get him to visit the Common Fountain with me, since his “Ode to a Common Fountain” was among my favorite poems of his. But I couldn’t even get him to stroll the Common with me, let alone get him to stand before the great fountain of his youthful dreams. The other place that he was interested in visiting with me was Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church off Summer Street near Downtown Crossing. I worked near the church and we had made grand plans to attend the Sunday Service but we were not able to make it happen, for whatever reason. Sadly, the only time Wieners and I were in church together was at Saint Gregory’s in Dorchester at his funeral, which was more poignant and touching than I could have imagined.
I am often referred to as Wieners informal caregiver in the later years of his life. The truth is I gave him no more care than any friend would have. If anything, he showed as much or even greater care for me than I for him. Robert Creeley echoed this feeling: “We are not taking care of John any more than he is taking care of us, if you hear me. We need him very much. We need what his poems can say.” Towards the end of his life, his world and the neighborhood he lived in became a place where it was increasingly harder for Wieners to have an independent life on his own terms, given the challenges of mental illness and poverty he had to manage every day. Beacon Hill is no longer a place where a poet such as Wieners can live independently. Every time I walk the streets of his neighborhood, I am reminded of him, and of his generosity, his grace, his indomitable spirit, and his love for his hometown of Boston. Although we no longer have Wieners, we have his poems. His voice echoes and his spirit remains alive to me in the streets that ribbon behind the state capitol on the bohemian side of Beacon Hill, where so much has changed.
I am here today to make a claim for the “Noone” who “bears witness for the / witness.” Negation is never as it seams in Paul Celan. Yes and no are unsplit neighbors housed in abrasive proximity in the noem. That alien traumatic kernel of Das Ding in the Nebenmensch adjoins and hystericizes me, yet also wakes me to the both/and that exceeds and opens thought. As the pure products of America go crazy, Noone arrives to witness and adjust, Noone can drive the car.
Giorgio Agamben, via Primo Levi, posits the “living dead” Muselmann figure (or figuren) of the Nazi camps as the “complete witness” to the disaster, the witness who can’t speak and bear witness, the subject who literally undergoes catastrophe. Thus, “the witness, the ethical subject, is the subject who bears witness to desubjectification.” The “author,” whose etymological origins include vendor, one who advises or persuades, and witness, is also always coauthor. “The survivor and the Muselmann, like the … creator and his material are inseparable; their unity-difference alone constitutes testimony” (150). The survivor’s testimony is adjoined to the one who cannot speak, the “Noone” — or, via another translation of Celan’s Niemand, “Nobody” — suspended in a third realm between life and death. The unsaying is always present as a remnant in the saying, as “the human being is what remains after the destruction of the human being” (Agamben, Remnants, 134).
For Agamben, “poets — witnesses — f[ind] language as what remains, as what actually survives the possibility, or impossibility, of speaking” (161). Speaking for myself, I do not trust the poet as direct transparent witness; I do not trust the “modest witness” as ethnographic fieldworker. I do not trust the speech of “I was here,” so I am entitled to speak. Always-authored testimony has its roots in the master’s testes.
But I do sort of trust Noone, the polyvocal, multifocal, desubjectified or maybe just “bad” subject who bears witness for the witness who bears witness to the Muselmann’s catastrophe. I do think there is a way that poetry can partially reclaim the gaze of the witness from an intersubjective non-triangulating “third” or more remove, without succumbing to colonization. Perhaps not incidentally, the presently absent Muselmann is German for Muslim, and catastrophe in Arabic is nakba, the term Palestinians use for the “ethnic cleansing” they endured in 1948: “If you do not want to talk about Odradek, Gregor Samsa and the Muselmann, then shut up about your love for a neighbor.” The transcendental ethical two (me and you, reader-writer, reader-text, writer-text) tends to founder on the shoals of the spiraling out political three. No one, no two, but peut-être a futurity of three or more, in an act of imagination that brings together present absences, absent presences and so-called “present absentees.” Borrowing from Lacan, “It’s only because we can count to three that we can count to two.”
Near the end of Agamben’s argument on the Muselmann’s unsaying speech, he makes a concomitant argument for interstitial knowledges in time:
In the concept of the remnant, the aporia of testimony coincides with the aporia of messianism. Just as the remnant of Israel signifies neither the whole nor a part of the people, but rather, the non-coincidence of the whole and the part, and just as messianic time is neither historical time nor eternity, but, rather, the disjunction that divides them, so the remnants of Auschwitz — the witnesses — are neither the dead nor the survivors, neither the drowned nor the saved. They are what remains between them. (163–64)
I’d like to posit this liminal space of what remains as precisely where the multifaceted Noone of innovative, avant-garde, whatever-you-want-to-call-it poetry can do its interruptive, interrogative work, burrowing in the gaps between calcified knowledges to release and circulate what I call the “mad affects” that can both hinder thought and set it alight. Something like chips of Walter Benjamin’s messianic Jetztzeit — “now-time” — that flash up as unarchived, effaced remembrances of suffering that interrupt and reorient this time. Or Jacques Derrida’s profane “messianic hope … without content” that can manifest itself as an urgent injunction to act in the present, much as democracy or justice à venir may never come. Maybe it will, peut-être it won’t.
To offer one slant anecdote, I went to Palestine-Israel for the first time in January 2009 for a research trip that ended up coinciding with that horrific war on Gaza. Yet, I deliberately did not write about my direct experiences on that trip. Instead, I used collage, disjunction, parataxis, dissonance, and other aspects of form in an attempt to engender “mad affects” within other people’s Orientalist and thanatourist narratives and other people’s first-person testimony. As Shoshana Felman writes, “The more a text is ‘mad’ — the more, in other words, it resists interpretation — the more the specific modes of its resistance to reading constitute its ‘subject’ and its literariness.”
It is of course not new to use artifice to generate unreadable effects and affects in an attempt to shift the molecules in the brain — modernist avant-garde and post-structuralist “language” and “languagey” poetries have toyed with this process masterfully by way of “fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on.” But, much as I’m not interested in neoliberal notions of what’s new in poetry, there is another element that emerges with the author’s attempt to witness and persuade and sell by adjoining her/himself to the Muselmann’s impossible speech; or to that of the homo sacer not considered human enough to be sacrificed, but whose bare life can be extinguished at will. There is poetry/performance from Juliana Spahr, M. NourbeSe Philip, Laura Elrick, Kaia Sand, Jordan Scott, kari edwards and others that enacts this “speaking silence” through affective gestures, that attempts to conjure the deracinated spectre or golem of the Noone and stick her/his “‘Oriental’ agony” (Agamben, Remnants, 70) to you like shame, instead of evacuating the desubjectified subject on the altar of the language game. Speech happens at the threshold of the human and the inhuman, at the hyphen adjoining I and Thou, but it indeed may be mad and indecipherable: “Odradek is the form which things assume in oblivion.” The text reaches a limit, but perhaps better to go there than stand by and deny we have responsibility as authors. Or pretend we’re not authors at all.
The Noone is someone, many ones, a social “structure of feeling” that can be powerful when harnessed. I feel this with my compatriots on this panel, a common politics and sociality that are part of what keep me going. As I struggle to write these ten minutes, Israeli troops have killed at least nine unarmed people and wounded scores of others on a humanitarian ship carrying ten thousand tons of food, medicine, building supplies and toys to Gaza. Can poetry do anything about a tragedy like this? No. And again I wonder what the hell’s the point. But I still feel called to fail well in the catachrestic effort to listen to what is unsaid and beyond knowledge in the testimony of the witness who bears witness for the Muselmann’s “bare, unassigned and unwitnessable life” (Agamben, Remnants, 157). “They crowd my memory with their faceless presence,” writes Levi. Like the Guantanamo detainees risking US national security by shamelessly scratching thousands of lines of poetry onto Styrofoam cups with their fingernails. “No more sand art, no sand books, no masters.” In 1982, after the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, Emmanuel Lévinas was asked if the Palestinian was not the consummate other to the Israeli. Lévinas demurred, saying that’s not what he meant at all, that the other was neighbor, who could be kin, but was at least a friend vis-à-vis a discernible enemy. Perhaps, as Slavoj Žižek suggests, in an effort to transcend the friend-enemy binary we should restore the grotesque face to the faceless Muselmann neighbor, whose infinitely vulnerable call is neither legible nor audible, but can only be hauntingly felt, an infinitely unreasonable impress-ion on and in me, engendering a set of mad affects that I can’t turn away from, that stick to my bones. In Arabic, shahīd means martyr and witness, as in witness to the truth. Unthinkable truth of living experience — there is no certitude in testimony, and the poem is untranslatable. The two can only be created by passing through the three.
During a suicide bombing, the body, in an act of sublime necropolitics, becomes the ballistic weapon, and the primary target isn’t the victim/enemy but the witness who must attempt to make meaning from shards of bodies melding in a precarious we. In Latin, the roots of testimony are not only the master’s testis but terstis, the one who is present as a third. Psychoanalysis and philosophy sometimes tell us that subjectivity is witnessing as response-ability, however impossible a task; and the intersubjective third is a mental space where responsibility begins. Perhaps the truly radical call, beyond reason or recognition, is to witness that alien thing in the excessive neighbor beside me and you — Freud’s strange Zug (a trait, but also a line or mark or remnant) in the Muslim’s absent present face. That punctum, the accident that pricks, wounds me, can render me capable of renaming a body grievable, as Judith Butler has called us to do. If “negation is at the heart of testimony” — Celan’s no-poem, the noem, is also noesis, the heady nous, and even yes, nous, the impossible we. Noone is an interpenetrative many. In the same bony ash-strewn poem that contains “Noone / bears witness for the / witness” the speaker stands “at the threeway,” the impossible fork in the path, and calls out in apostrophe to “you threeway / hands.” Much as witness and testimony and experience and feeling and presence and even Celan may be bad words in our hallowed post (Post)-modernist/structuralist/breakfast cereal circles that may sometimes include Reznikoff but not Forché and friends, perhaps “something / is given off” within us, a response-ability to the mad address, an impossible handshake “in isolate flecks” as “No one” madly adjusts the gears. As the consummate formalist Victor Shklovsky said, facing the dearth of aesthetic options after the Russian Revolution, “There is no third path and that is the one we’re going to take.”
A version of this essay previously appeared in Canadian Literature.
1. This is a slightly revised version of a paper I gave at the Rethinking Poetics conference at Columbia University, New York, June 12, 2010, on a panel titled Affective Economies and Prosodies, with Jeff Derksen, Lisa Robertson, and Chris Nealon. I have preserved the markers that frame this piece as an oral performance for a specific time and audience.
3. See William Carlos Williams, “To Elsie,” in Selected Poems (New York: New Directions, 1985), 53–55. Also, Das Ding (the Thing, la Chose) and Nebenmensch (a fellow human being, the one next to and adjoining me, the neighbor) are terms theorized by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan.
18. See Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), and Jessica Benjamin, “Beyond Doer and Done to: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness.” Also, see Bracha Ettinger on the transjective in The Matrixial Borderspace (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
In the summer of 2007, I had occasion to be in London for Blind Light, the Hayward Gallery’s retrospective of British sculptor Antony Gormley. The work from which the exhibition took its title — a rectangular glass-walled “room” with doorlike openings at either end and a ceiling fitted with vapor generators and uniform sources of high-intensity white light — involved visitors in an uncanny perceptual exploration. From outside, the boxed and glowing cloud revealed no sign of the exhibition-goers moving within, until here and there a silhouetted hand or elbow floated into view as it approached the glass. Once inside, the visitor experienced an almost complete loss of spatial reference. The vapor’s efficient scattering of light made sight beyond a few inches impossible. Proximity to other persons or to the perimeter could not be judged; the contours of one’s own body became invisible. Sound was attenuated by the density of the fog and the steady breath of the vapor generators. Only proprioception and the ear-brain system’s balance mechanisms remained to orient the visitor, and, absent visual and auditory cues, even these were not always reliable. Despite the brightness hanging in the air, the distant senses — sight and hearing — were as useless as they’d be in a black box. Blind Light, indeed.
The sole exception to this sensory muffling occurred when, moving within the cloud, one person encountered another. A face, or occasionally a shoulder, emerged from the surrounding whiteness only inches away — much closer than the usual bounds of personal space in our culture — and often at the instant that the two bodies touched (thus activating one of the proximate senses). The work’s conditions created, at least to the prepared mind, a kind of dramatic heightening of the intimacy implied by any face-to-face encounter.
Blind Light, along with many of Gormley’s other works, is an eloquent investigation of the subject-object division. His sculptures often begin with his own body (via plaster casts), not as an object of contemplation or a vehicle for biographical narrative, but as a starting point for exploring the boundaries of the human person. Through manipulation of scale, positive/negative space, and a variety of other devices, he tests those boundaries against the natural world as well as the social and built worlds, inviting us to consider the implications of the relationships created across, and represented by, those boundaries. The devices — encounters in a glowing cloud among them — force us to attend to the role of the senses in constructing and mediating both boundary and relationship.
As I made my way through the show, it struck me that Gormley’s work addressed several preoccupations of the poet and thinker Susan Stewart. I might have known; when I reached the gift shop I found that she had, in fact, authored one of the catalog essays. In that essay she suggests that
Gormley’s contribution to the subject-object problem in art is analogous to the contribution the phenomenologists have made to that problem in philosophy more generally — Gormley begins from deep within the experience of life and moves outwards to encompass more and more of the given world; there is no alienation between perceiver and object or, more accurately, artist and nature.
The procedure Stewart here ascribes to Gormley could equally describe much of her own poetic practice. She has also said that she uses her critical essays “as a kind of notebook for thinking through projects I’d like to do in poetic books”: the poetry and criticism form a continuum. I’ll begin this essay, then, from within the experience of her poems, reading closely from the most recent collection Red Rover and following a few of her meditations outward into her critical thought. By setting her ideas in the context of a range of other voices — some that she engages directly and others that she does not — I’ll draw out some implications for her poetics and for her sense of the place of art, including poetry, in contemporary culture.
Red Rover opens with “The Owl,” a poem that is at once invocation of the muse, genre exemplar of the nocturne, figure for the creative act, and catalyst of a primary thematic exploration of the book — the relationship of perception to conscious being, to knowing, and to human and aesthetic encounters:
I thought somehow a piece of cloth was tossed
into the night, a piece of cloth that flew
up, then across, beyond the window.
A tablecloth or handkerchief, a knot
somehow unfolding, folded, pushing through
the thickness of the dark. I thought somehow
a piece of cloth was lost beyond the line —
released, although it seemed as if a knot
still hung, unfolding.
Some fragmentary shape, like a hand at the wall of Gormley’s Blind Light, crosses the poet’s peripheral vision “through / the thickness of the dark.” Here, however, the fragment cannot yet be firmly identified or domesticated; it remains provisional. Its indeterminacy, though tied to naming, does not come from any quality or limitation of language itself; it is prior to that cultural negotiation. What the sense organs send the brain is not yet a settled percept, but still “lost beyond the [clothes-, sight-, or poetic] line.” Even an orienting scale is not yet clear (“tablecloth or handkerchief”). The poet is troubled by her provisional identification and, in an inversion, restates the problem by means of a different image, almost in passing:
The after-image went, a blot beyond
the icy glass. And, closer, there stood winter
grass so black it had no substance
until I looked again and saw it tipped
with brittle frost.
After positing alternatives to her first identification (cloth), the poet settles on a different one — a snowy owl — in a passage that introduces the role of memory and volition in perception even as it emphasizes the unstable link between natural phenomena and their perceiver:
I called this poem “the owl,”
the name that, like a key, locked out the dark
and later let me close my book and sleep
a winter dream. And yet the truth remains
that I can’t know just what I saw, and if
it comes each night, each dream, each star, or not
at all. It’s not, it’s never, evident
that waiting has no reason. The circuit of the world
belies the chaos of its forms —
Stewart here invites us to consider that the incommensurability of alternative percepts (and of the local worldview each implies) arising from a given stimulus might yield not an alienation between perceiver and object, but rather a space for the play of imagination, a site of the artist’s creativity, and a field in which her intention will operate. Elsewhere in the collection she will suggest that such incommensurability also constitutes a source of social conflict and tragedy.
In reviewing “The Owl,” John Kinsella makes the general observation that it is “also a poem about writing poetry, about where poetry comes from,” and indeed Stewart’s line “the name that, like a key, locked out the dark” echoes a principal thesis of her Poetry and the Fate of the Senses that “the cultural, or form-giving, work of poetry is to counter the oblivion of darkness.” Following Kant in the Critique of Judgment, Stewart has often made use of the idea that works of art and aesthetically striking things in nature exhibit finality of form. Ange Mlinko in her review notes a parallel with Hegel, who uses the figure of the owl of Minerva that, in his words, “begins its flight only with the onset of dusk” to argue that philosophy can provide understanding of a stage of reality only after it has occurred. Beyond a general claim about where poetry comes from, then, we might posit that “The Owl,” in its retrospective meditation, stages the process of coming into form.
In focusing on slippages of perception, slippages that raise the questions whether and how prior concepts or categories of understanding might be necessary for sensory events to be resolved as perceptions — and thus for us to know the world — Stewart engages in a mode of poetic exploration different from, and complementary to, one based on exploiting the slippages and cultural bindings of the linguistic material itself. This mode is a peer rather than an heir to that of Language writing.
The principal device Stewart uses in “The Owl” might be called a “troubled-recognition topos.” The recognition involved is not Aristotelian anagnorisis, in which discovery precipitates a tragic character’s pivotal realization, but the assimilation of sense impressions, troubled by some knot or mistake in that process. The knowledge or identification ultimately reached may be partial or flawed owing to the rigors of the passage to recognition. Though perhaps not commonplace, the device has numerous precedents. A few examples will indicate the wide range of inflections such troubled recognition may give to the passages in which it occurs and help characterize Stewart’s use of it in her poem — and in her poetics more generally.
The hero of the fourteenth-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, when directed to the site of the Green Chapel, has no language for the “balȝ berȝ,” or swollen mound, he finds there:
And al watz holȝ inwith, nobot an olde caue,
Or a creuisse of an olde cragge, he couþe hit noȝt deme
[And all was hollow within, naught but an old cave,
Or a crevice of an old crag. He could not deem it
It appears to be nothing but a cave or cleft in an old crag, but he “could not deem (judge or pronounce) it with speech/words”:
Þenne he boȝez to þe berȝe, aboute hit he walkez,
Debatande with hymself quat hit be myȝt.
[Then he makes for the mound; he walks about it,
Debating with himself what it might be.]
As he struggles to fit the evidence of his eyes to his concept of a chapel, Gawain speculates that in such a wild and ruined place the devil himself might tell his matins: it is “þe corsedest [cursedest] kyrk þhat euer I com inne!” The poet uses the knight’s inability to recognize the structure as something from his own world to suggest the presence of the supernatural: here Gawain expects to be beheaded by the as-yet-unnamed Bertilak, whom the reader will learn was transformed into the apparently invulnerable Green Knight by the great sorceress Morgan le Fay. Gawain’s troubled recognition contributes to the mood of dread and suspense, and thus to narrative drive and to the poem’s psychic weight. That an unresolved sensory–cognitive incongruity evokes the uncanny or the supernatural is a phenomenon Stewart also acknowledges in her poem: “Some human hand could not / have thrown that high, or lent such force to cloth, / and yet I knew no god would mind a square of air so small.”
Emily Dickinson, in “In Winter in my Room,” describes a mistake in sensory interpretation that leads to a misnaming. The speaker “came upon a Worm” that later turns out to have been a young snake, a fact that becomes apparent to the speaker and one that terrifies her, sending her running to the next town. Here the naming that tames this intrusion of nature into her bedroom (a harmless worm, “Pink, lank, and warm”) is disrupted by the later appearance of the snake “in feature as the worm before / But ringed with power —.” The poem ends with the ambiguous line “This was a dream.” — a line that retrospectively both undermines the earlier namings and raises the possibility that the dream explanation is itself just another naming that attempts to reconcile an unassimilated sensory experience. It also evokes the genre of the dream vision, which Stewart explores later in Red Rover in “Variations on the Dream of the Rood,” and hints at one approach to dealing with the subject-object division: the subjective idealist or “life is a dream” strategy (to borrow Calderón’s title), versions of which have played an important role in Buddhist thought as well as in Western philosophy.
In his 1944 poem “The Forgotten City,” a storm forces William Carlos Williams’s speaker to drive an unfamiliar route from the country back to the city. Along the way he passes through “extraordinary places, as vivid as any / I ever saw,” inhabited by “this / curious and industrious people” with “completely foreign manners” who live with “little apparent communication / with an outside world. How,” he asks, “did they get / cut off this way from representation” in “our” media, when they were “so near the metropolis, so closely / surrounded by the familiar and the famous”?
The suburban city and its inhabitants appear to Williams’s urban speaker as a newfound land or exotic civilization. Partly because of the estranging effects of the storm and its floods, and partly because “I had no idea where I was,” the entire scene strikes him as uncanny. He can vividly perceive physical attributes of the place and its people, but seems to be unable to abstract from these any category or label — any recognized place or street name, or term such as “suburb” — that might relate them to the world he knows. This speaker’s encounter with the philosophical problem of universals contrasts with that in Stewart’s poem, whose speaker has several categories at the ready but cannot establish the vision’s attributes with sufficient accuracy to confidently deploy any of them absent a self-conscious act of will.
Nearer parallels to Stewart’s use of troubled recognition occur in two poems from Robert Frost’s 1923 collection New Hampshire. In “A Boundless Moment,” the poet emphasizes the act of will involved in perception, and the potential such an act holds for the speaker’s self-deception. Frost’s poem, however, unlike “The Owl,” admits the possibility of a knowable external truth: its speaker consciously rejects his own comforting interpretation of pale ambiguous shapes among the bare maples (the kind of naming that allows Stewart’s speaker to “sleep a winter dream”) in favor of the harsher identification his reason and experience dictate must be correct. By contrast, Frost’s “For Once Then, Something“ insists on the speaker’s inability to be sure what he has seen in a well’s depths, as Stewart’s speaker insists that she “can’t know just what I saw” beyond her window. Frost’s speaker is allowed — only once — to glimpse something in the well of poetic inspiration beyond his lyric self, something durable (“Truth? A pebble of quartz?”) that presumably remains at the bottom of the well awaiting better viewing conditions. Stewart’s speaker is of a different kind, and the nature of her encounter is both more dynamic and more exemplary. Like the casts of his own body from which Gormley often elaborates his sculptures, the speakers of Stewart’s poems are less vehicles for expressing the drama of individual personality than they are representative human beings, whose encounters with the world a reader might equally experience. Frost’s poet-speaker has been “taunted” with “never seeing deeper” than his own reflection in the water’s surface; he has strived (“trying”) to make out some treasure of meaning, and “lost it.” He has pursued an agon with the nature that frustrates discernment, depicted in language laced with moral judgment (“always wrong,” “rebuke,” “for once”), emerging with a tone of bittersweet pride at having achieved at least a glimpse of something beyond himself. Stewart’s speaker, by contrast, is all inquiry: the “it” in “I can’t know just what I saw, and if / it comes each night, each dream, each star” can as easily refer to the dream and the star as to the thing she has named snowy owl. The subject-object problem remains, as does the paradox of simultaneous pattern and chaos in the world of phenomena. Even astronomers, the poem reminds us — whether Galileo making his pioneering drawings, or those who now observe a universe of accelerating expansion — must look down from their instruments and the vastness of their perceptual field in order to record what they can’t know with certainty they saw; the patient corroboration of their results by other observers produces the accumulating probability that is as close as science comes to certainty. Stewart writes poems of wonder, in every unsentimental sense of the word.
And she’s been doing so for a long time. Stewart toyed with troubled recognition in “Pear,” from her 2003 book Columbarium. The poem begins in the context of schoolchildren breaking off branches of pear blossoms for their teacher: “Believing each simple thing passes from a perception that is less clear / into one that is, eventually, more clear …” A few stanzas later, the grownup speaker, now stalled in traffic on a bridge, looks “out and up and there / I saw the girl flying and falling, flying and falling” with arms outspread; the speaker infers, though she cannot see, the trampoline “that must have been the yielding source of all her motion.” First wonder, then perception passing from less clear to more clear. But this faith is undermined by the rest of the poem, in which the speaker, stalled again weeks later at the same point of the bridge, cannot remember the flying-and-falling girl but only the vague sense that something is about to happen, which precipitates instead the memory of a fire alarm in her childhood (whether drill or actual conflagration is left unclear) when “everyone must leave the school — with every sweater and pencil left in place / — to burn, and burn / and burn back to the ground.” These images of the instability of perception, which relies on memory, and of the fragility of the edifice of knowledge in contrast to irreducible matter, serve to direct our attention again to the moment of encounter with the flying-and-falling girl at the center of the poem, just as the conclusion of “The Owl” returns us to the encounter interrogated in the first half of that poem. It’s always the moment of encounter — with natural objects, with people, with works of art — that raises the subject-object problem and poses the question of what we can know. And beyond the specific trope of troubled recognition, the nature of that encounter and the question of what attitude one should take toward it are central to Stewart’s work.
The second poem in Red Rover, “Lavinium,” begins:
I met the girl who held the flower and mirror
And the boy who sent his hoop up to the god.
Put away childish things they said, and stepped
Into the future. They were made of baked earth,
Their tenderness intact. (6)
Later, “The hoop rolled down again, / clattering.” And “The girl awoke and put her flower / inside the mirror.” The speaker observes, “We think of them. / They never think of us. / We think of them” so that “love’s asymmetry is true” (italics in original).
A reader conditioned by the emotional logic of personal lyric might see in this poem the wistful lament of an adult (Stewart is herself a parent) regretting the inevitable individuation and distancing of maturing children, depicted with symbolic attributes and a Genesis-like reminder of mortal clay. Such a reading is not illegitimate, but it’s incomplete. You can almost hear the borscht-belt plaint hovering in the background: “You don’t write, you don’t call …”
The richness of “Lavinium” and the rationale for its placement near the head of the collection are both signaled by the title. Lavinium (modern Pratica di Mare) was a port city of Latium, some fifteen miles south of Rome, whose legendary founding by Aeneas is mentioned by Virgil. It remained a religious center into the Roman period, with important cults of Minerva and other gods. During the first five centuries BCE, certain classes of Latins made votive sacrifices of terracotta figures there to mark rites of transition from childhood to adulthood. Some of these are now displayed in glass cases in the Museo Archeologico Lavinium. The poem’s characterization of the boy and girl as made of baked earth (translating ‘terracotta’) and its mention of locked cabinets, glass, a doll, and robbers that had come and gone for years, thus place the speaker before ancient votive figures rather than living adolescents. Knowing this context changes the poem into something richer and stranger.
Boston Globe reviewer David Barber complained that Red Rover is “dense with … hermetic allusion.” In the age of search engines, however, one is tempted to say, as the poet herself does in “The Owl”: “So look it up.” Because, to quote Stewart on allusion, “It’s very important to me to have my poems be accessible to people from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. … There are some things we all know, and some things that only a few people know. … A poem cannot be based on an experience that’s merely private, or esoteric to the degree that it’s private.” Here the use of allusion rather than exposition — whether a reader acquires the particular references or not — represents an economy of poetic means that permits concentration on the moment of encounter.
Stewart’s choice of the verb “met” to characterize her speaker’s encounter with the votives, and her use of the words “boy” and “girl” to designate them, enact what she has called “the deep formal analogy between the face-to-face encounter between persons and the face-to-face encounter with artworks.” The initial making of the figures presumed an audience or receiver of the offering: originally the priests of the cult, the family members in the rite, and ultimately the god. The rest being long dead, the modern speaker viewing the votives stands as if in the place of the god. And indeed the poet restarts suspended time: the hoop that the boy sent up to the god rolls down again and he turns cartwheels over “endless” sand.
So one encounter figured by the poem is the imaginative meeting between the speaker and the ancient children represented by the votive figures. This encounter invokes the wistful emotional response proper to the adult-child relationship of the first reading given above. However, as Stewart has pointed out, any work of art posits a reciprocity in which the “stored activity of the maker” is “simultaneous to an implicit and reciprocal capacity for animation in the receiver.” Therefore the speaker in “Lavinium” is confronting not only the reanimated images of the ancient children, but the reanimated work of an ancient maker.
To attend to the maker is to realize that the adult-child relationship in the poem, in which the reader shares the speaker’s godlike position and assumes the respect due from minors to elders, has been altered and indeed reversed. The votives of the ancient maker are the work of the modern speaker’s artistic forebear; the child is parent to the woman. It is the “hard-hearted doll,” after all, who “repeats the lesson”: “love’s asymmetry is true, / they never think of you.” What relationship, Stewart invites us to consider, do we as contemporary audiences and artists bear to past (and future) makers and their creations? Do we think of them? What ought we think of them? These are ethical questions, a point to which I’ll return.
“Lavinium,” as the book’s second poem, thus introduces Red Rover’s exploration of childhood: the legacies we receive as children and those we leave our own children. In “as clerkes find written in their book,” one of the Songs for Adam later in the collection, the words are given to Adam, who broods on one child’s murder of the other: “Think of the child, / your father, / think of the mother, your child.” — the reader here addressed as if the offspring of Cain, and Adam’s grandchild.
Stewart has said that her 1995 book The Forest was concerned with the world of her parents and their generation, while the next, Columbarium, depicts the situation of her contemporaries as they face the future — the collection’s georgics, for example, ask what knowledge will be taught and what lost to the next generation, with what consequences. In Red Rover she explores what it means to be very young in the world, to be transformed into the no-longer-young, to be recruited into the transmission of cultures with all their horrors and achievements. Several of the poems evince this directly in their conceits and titles, taken — as is the book’s — from children’s games. Others extend the concept to cultural childhood. The town of Lavinium, for instance, flourished during the formative stages of Latin civilization. Stewart’s “Variations on the Dream of the Rood” reinscribes one of the earliest poems in English, portions of which were carved in runes on the Ruthwell Cross in Scotland in the eighth century. She translates or adapts three poems from Chaucer, who wrote during English poetry’s youth; in “The Former Age” Chaucer himself conjures an innocent, mythic time before metal and techné introduced inequality and strife into human affairs.
At the very center of Red Rover opens the collection’s hinge, the poem that puts the greatest pressure on the book’s nexus of childhood and legacy: “Elegy Against the Massacre at the Amish School in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, Autumn 2006.” The background to the triggering events, as well as Stewart’s ties to the locale and culture, are well covered in Mlinko’s review. “[A] girl is not a kind of girl,” writes Stewart of the five schoolgirls shot dead in their classroom; “she knows her rhyme / she has her name.” This quiet insistence on individual personhood parallels the assertion of Stewart’s early mentor, Alan Grossman, in his Summa Lyrica that “the traditional function of poetry is the conservation of names.” The statement also inverts the category problem in “The Owl” — here it is the individual that matters, not the class “girl.”
Stewart constructs a spare and elegant form to preserve these names, as befits the culture of the Plain People of Lancaster County. Each of the poem’s fifteen stanzas has five lines, or one for each girl. The first two lines of each stanza consist simply of the italicized names of the slain girls, separated by commas, and occasionally the conjunction “and.” The litany of names is not, as we might expect, an exact refrain:
Lena, Mary Liz, and Anna Mae
Marian, Naomi Rose
when time has stopped
where time has slowed
the horses wear the rain
Mary Liz, Anna Mae, Marian
Naomi Rose and Lena
the lanterns lit
at midday dark
At each repetition, with one exception, the leading name of the previous series vanishes from the head of the line, reappearing elsewhere in the list. Thus the poem enacts the shock of loss at every turn. The retention of the displaced name in the set creates, as Mlinko notes, an analogy with children’s circle games, thus conceptually rhyming with other poems in the collection titled with the names of games. More importantly, however, this retention testifies to the poet’s determination that through poetry none of the names should be truly lost, and bears witness to the faith of their community that its circle will ultimately be unbroken.
The remaining lines of the first stanza are repeated in the last, forming a ring composition that closes the sacral circle of the poem: “when time has stopped / where time has slowed / the horses wear the rain.” The figure of the dripping horses looks back to conventions of pastoral, and indeed to the pathetic fallacy of sympathetic nature in the pastoral elegy. I don’t think it mistaken to see even the immortal horses of Achilles, weeping for Patroklos, as ghostly presences at this scene of mourning for the young and the beautiful. But it’s typical of Stewart to choose such a detail, with all its literary-historical resonance, in order to stress a much more fundamental fact: this is a culture that still uses horses. Death has stopped time for the five girls, and in another sense for their families, in a community that has chosen not to be modern — to slow time. The killer introduced modernity into their schoolroom in the form of a 9mm pistol, a stun gun, and bondage equipment. He introduced, in other words, a fatal regime of nonconsensual time.
Face to face
In her pivotal essay “On the Art of the Future,” Stewart proposes that “what the practice of art in general [as opposed to the making of individual works] might be for is the carrying forward of a practice of ethical encounters between persons.” Purposelessness in aesthetic making — freedom from political, pragmatic, and other predetermined ends — is for her “at the heart of what makes art a possible ethical sanctuary.” This purposive but purposeless quality, familiar from the first part of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, is foundational for Stewart. It acknowledges that a work of art is the result of an artist’s intentional or purposive activity, but to the extent that it is art, it is free of a prior purpose or agenda. It exists in and for itself; achieving its completed form is its highest or final end. Stewart also emphasizes something less often stressed, citing Kant’s paradigm (developed in sections 46–50) of aesthetic experience as “in truth an encounter between persons — the maker and receiver.” Like nature, the genius (Kant’s term; Stewart extends the sense to include any maker) gives an unanticipated rule to art, but one that Stewart notes can be inferred only retrospectively and which thus requires the participation of another person: the person who receives the work. Though every work of art requires an intention or purposive action simply to come into being, that intention cannot be teleological, or it would be inadequate to any aesthetic result. “Here,” says Stewart, “every artwork confronts us with its integrity as form [Kant’s “finality”] and with its existence as the outcome of a prior intention. Engaged with the work, we can only move backward from its particulars to inferences of that intention.” Those particulars, like the work as a whole, cannot be fully brought under our pre-existing concepts or any predetermined program. We don’t explain the work away; we “enrich our apprehension, to challenge our usual habits of making the world intelligible.” Thus, “this meeting with an artwork that is of itself and for itself is analogous to that free ethical stance in which persons are encountered in themselves and for themselves — without prior determination of outcome or goal.”
In this formulation of the free encounter of persons Stewart draws first on the controversial ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, who holds that “the approach to the face is the most basic mode of responsibility.” She notes, however, that Levinas rejects any true intersubjectivity, fearing that we inevitably project our own subjectivity onto the being of others, and thus in his ethics of the face-to-face he requires the perceiver to be “held hostage to the requirements of the other” — a position reminiscent of the sacrificial logic of human relation to the gods, and one that for Levinas has theological roots. Stewart retrieves from this a secular, less extreme, and more intersubjective potential, “since we are able to recognize the common human position of others without projecting upon them the features of our own interiority, just as the way we recognize faces in general is separate physiologically from the way we recognize particular faces.” Hence the face-to-face response both to art and to persons partakes of an obligation of openness and nonhostility, if not of sacrifice, and Stewart draws several specific parallels between Kant’s aesthetics and Levinas’s ethics: “the nonteleological, the asymmetry inherent in reception, the imbalance between the underdetermination of received intention and the overdetermination of consequences, [and] the requirement of an affirmation or recognition of being.”
Though Stewart does not engage with him directly, such a model of the face-to-face encounter shares striking affinities with the relational dynamics of Martin Buber. Buber’s state of pure relation, instantiated by speaking face to face the “primary word” I-Thou, represents for him the fullest realization of human personhood, and is contrasted with the objectifying and instrumental relationship of the I-It. For Buber the I-Thou relation is direct, occurs in an intense and timeless present, and cannot be continuously sustained: “this is the exalted melancholy of our fate, that every Thou in our world must become an It.” Understanding, experience, recognition of means — all cause the Thou to become an object among objects. This is true of beloved persons and also of works of art: when “[a] man is faced by a form which desires to be made through him into a work”; this form is a Thou, which arises not from the artist’s soul but which “steps up to it and demands of it … effective power.” Through speaking the primary word with his whole being, the artist bodies forth the work. “To produce is to draw forth, to invent is to find, to shape is to discover. In bodying forth I disclose. I lead the form across — into the world of It. The work produced is a thing among things, able to be experienced and described as a sum of qualities. But from time to time it can face the receptive beholder in its whole embodied form.”
This last sentence hints at a crucial point for Buber — that every It retains the potential to return to the fullness of a Thou in response to the “turning” (Umkehr) of an I: “that which has been so changed into an It, hardened into a thing among things, has had the nature and disposition put into it to change back … again and again that which has the status of object must blaze up into presentness and enter the elemental state from which it came. … So too in art … It [the work] longs as in a dream for the meeting with man, that for a timeless moment he may lift the ban and clasp the form.” Thus in his own somewhat mystical formulation Buber not only affirms Kant’s characterization of the aesthetic experience as an encounter, but offers many colorful figures for the process that Stewart calls reanimation: the recuperation of the stored labor and intent of the maker.
Buber’s “turning” inevitably evokes the modern poet who “from his youth” had “read and revered” Buber — Paul Celan, whose “breathturn” (Atemwende) makes the poem the site of a similar impulse toward relation. In his 1960 Büchner Prize address, the “Meridian” speech that is his most carefully considered and influential statement on poetics, Celan develops a number of ideas that offer illuminating context for Stewart’s own reflections on making. He identifies poetry first in the perception that its language is “tangible and like a person,” having “shape, direction, breath” — “breath, that is, direction and destiny.” It is this sense of movement and intent, figured several times in the speech as a journey, that distinguishes poetry from mere ‘art’ — understood as petrified nature, trained carnival monkey, or technical automaton — and that, by defying any such program, allows it to become “an act of freedom” (a formulation not incompatible with Kant’s purposive purposelessness). “In other words: language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation which, however, remains as aware of the limits drawn by language as of the possibilities it opens. … This shows the poem,” Celan writes, “as one person’s language become shape and, essentially, a presence in the present.” (In his notes for the speech, Celan quotes from Whitman’s poem “So Long” as if to illustrate the strength of this commitment to the poem as agent: “Camerado, this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man.”)
But though “the poem speaks … only on its own, its very own behalf,” it has also “always hoped to speak on behalf of the strange — no, I can no longer use this word here — on behalf of the other, who knows, perhaps of an altogether other.” Celan evokes the cultural separateness he feels as a Jew, one valence carried by “strange” or “alien” at several places in this text, before redirecting his emphasis to a sense of the other as Thou, perhaps even a transcendent Thou (“This ‘who knows’ … is all I can add … to the old hopes”). Celan doesn’t dwell on this incorporation of the other into the “shape, direction, and breath” of the poem, but it makes a crucial space for the absent other(s) to stand, as it were, beside the poet-as-survivor or poet-as-witness in the encounter with the reader, who is also an other. And this encounter is at the heart of poiesis for Celan:
The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.
Does this very fact not place the poem already here, at its inception, in the
encounter, in the mystery of encounter?
The poem intends another, needs this other, needs an opposite. It goes
toward it, bespeaks it.
And like Buber, Celan understands this encounter to be renewable. Even though the poem carries with it only “one, unique, momentary present,” it “holds its ground on its own margin. In order to endure, it constantly calls and pulls itself back from an ‘already-no-more’ into a ‘still-here.’” Thus “the poem becomes conversation — often desperate conversation”:
Only the space of this conversation can establish what is addressed, can gather it into a ‘you’ around the naming and speaking I. But this ‘you,’ come about by dint of being named and addressed, brings its otherness into the present. Even in the here and now of the poem — and the poem has only this one, unique, momentary present — even in this immediacy and nearness, the otherness gives voice to what is most its own: its time.”
In his insistence on incorporating the temporal situation of the other — the receiver, the spoken-on-behalf-of, the Thou — into the unique present of the poem, Celan makes a place for the dead, who were a constantly felt absent presence for him. But he also makes a place for the future reader, and so out of the poem’s constant struggle with darkness and silence “find[s] the connective which, like the poem, leads to encounters.”
Stewart, like Celan, writes with a sense of addressing an audience that includes the living and the dead. She does not, however, share Celan’s suspicion of — or hostility to — art as a history of forms. Hers is the poetics of someone who sees the present moment vividly, but as embedded in a long view; of someone steeped in cultural and aesthetic history, for whom the makers of the past seem intensely present. In The Poet’s Freedom (2011) Stewart meditates on and theorizes such transtemporal encounters, proceeding in her usual way by means of historical examples, in a chapter entitled “Meeting.” She attends carefully to this passage from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir of the Stalin years, Hope against Hope:
Both [Osip] Mandelstam and Akhmatova had the astonishing ability of somehow bridging time and space when they read the work of dead poets. By its very nature, such reading is usually anachronistic, but with them it meant entering into personal relations with the poet in question; it was a kind of conversation with someone long since departed. … This would probably have been understood by Keats, who wanted to meet all his friends, living and dead, in a tavern.
Of Akhmatova, Stewart notes: “Deliberately choosing confinement [under surveillance for a suicide watch in her little room at Fountain House] over emigration, she continually expanded her empathetic powers of imagination in space and time.” Stewart espouses a similar empathy. She has said of Harold Bloom’s idea of the anxiety of influence that “I really don’t feel that very powerfully,” and indeed, rather than any revisionary spirit of agon, she appears to share Mandelstam’s sense that he “could look for friends and allies” among writers of the past. That spirit pervades Red Rover in the many poems that translate, rewrite, or otherwise converse with texts by known authors. It is also consonant with Stewart’s interest, in that book, in the cultural knowledge and rhetorical forms embedded in the rhymes and rituals of the children’s games she deploys.
Stewart’s commitment to cultural and literary continuity is the opposite of nostalgia. If she is less than partisan on behalf of avant-gardes, she is clearly skeptical of the categorical and totalizing claims to which they are prone. Artists make what rebellions they must in order to create their art, and inevitably those will take their place in the history of encounters.
In The Poet’s Freedom, Stewart develops a three-part model of artistic creation, drawing not only on classical sources but on the variant origin stories in Genesis and their influence on Western traditions of art-making. Here she argues that human making requires, first, a freely spontaneous act of will, independent of the biography of the maker — a speech act, as it were, analogous to the divine “Let there be light” or to the priestly source’s account of man as created “in our image” through the divine word alone. Second, since humans are not transcendent deities and cannot do their creating ex nihilo but must intervene in the material and cultural conditions into which they are born, there must be an act of making or forming analogous to the divine separating and forming on the six days — or to the Jahwist source’s account of man formed from clay and woman from man’s rib. Finally, in addition to these interdependent tasks of the intellect and tasks of the hands, Stewart reminds us that artistic making requires a judgment — the “it is good,” or decision to stop or abandon the work, that signals finality of form and separates the work of art from all that it otherwise might have been. This decision launches the work into the life of its reception, and into the possibility of its destruction. It’s worth noting that by incorporating this third component into her model, Stewart also facilitates the application of Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment to the artist’s creative act itself rather than solely to the apprehending act of the receiver.
Any of these three components of creation — volition, formation, judgment — may be, and indeed have been, valorized by artists or theorists to the diminishment or even exclusion of the others. Stewart observes such exclusive emphases as salient in different art-historical moments: a realism of “absolute obligation to the experience of the maker”; a Hegelian “art of absolute spirit” or pure conceptualism; an art of material intervention alone, or of everyday craft. For her, however, such narrowly focused practices are intrinsically both limited and inadequate to the ethical potential of art:
Each would have its own claim of resistance: the realist in a critique of imagination, the conceptualist in a critique of materialism, the materialist in a critique of hyperintellectualism, the artist of the everyday in a critique of self-consciousness. Yet, for obvious and self-contradictory reasons, these approaches to art making are defined by negative freedoms — they are driven by freedoms from. Bound by definition to those practices they deny, they cannot overcome their secondariness.
In “On the Art of the Future” Stewart articulates her motivating concerns — for the essay and, I would propose, for her poetics more generally: “To put my aims simply, I am interested in preserving persons from totalitarian systems of social control, including systems of nonconsensual time and technological development, and preserving artworks from speculative allegory.” We have seen Stewart protesting, in her elegy for Lena, Mary Liz, Anna Mae, Marian, and Naomi Rose, the fatal imposition of nonconsensual time; later in this essay I’ll consider some implications of technology for her poetics. First, however, I want to look at Stewart’s extension, in The Poet’s Freedom and elsewhere, of her argument that works of art, including poems, must be free, in their creation and in their interpretation, from extrinsic allegory.
“Why,” she asks in an interview, “would I ever make a work of art where I already know what I’m going to do when I start?” To begin with a definition of a ‘poem,’ or a prior idea of a particular relation of form to content, would be “a frame that you would then have to … bring as an allegory to what you’re doing.” For Stewart, “art is way ahead [of culture as an already made thing] and doesn’t know its terms from the outset. This is also why … I have advised against chance procedures of composition, but I’m really for chance in art. I think art is the most chancy thing.”
This last remark may be a uniquely insightful reformulation of Mallarmé’s famous title, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), reminding us that the use of aleatory methods, appropriation, or rule-bound procedures — however productive they may be as techniques — can never relieve the artist of her position of uncertainty before, and responsibility for, her choices in the field of possible actions. And to the extent that a chance procedure or constraint determines the character of the resulting work — gives it a prior purpose — to that extent it imposes on the work the nature of an allegory, as surely as any preexistent symbolic schema. To that same extent the work would no longer partake of Kant’s purposive purposelessness, and so, presumably, for Stewart it would be less adequate to aesthetic judgment.
This chancy quality of art is important for Stewart because it is a touchstone of the artist’s freedom. And the artist’s freedom is for her the paradigm of the person’s freedom: that preservation from totalitarian systems and nonconsensual development. So while art and ethics may have “strikingly different consequences,” in the sense that fictive actions and real ones are incommensurable, they both involve forms of reflective judgment. Moreover,
[t]he artist’s positive freedom of making, and the face-to-face encounters between persons that follow from it, are … the foundation for the meetings of free and freely creating persons in free associations — those ideal meetings where persons sustain a mutual respect toward one another’s intentions as they move toward an open future.
Stewart follows Kant and Marx in seeing self-legislation as central to both the artist’s creativity and the person’s authenticity; she follows Arendt in seeing art as the epitome of the distinction between labor, “which becomes erased back into time and nature,” and work, which “has some manifested consequence.” The further distinction between objects made for an explicit purpose and works of art “carries over into our sense of a life worth living,” since art “gives us an opportunity to judge what counts and what doesn’t count.”
Stewart sees such a life, historically never very secure, as threatened. “We have an economic system that is willing, in the interest of short-term gain, to destroy not only the physical and mental health of individual workers but also, in utter self-defeat, the resources of the earth itself,” she writes. “Concepts of planned obsolescence and replacement, the operations of profit’s sublimity, are as counter as they could be to the values of singularity and saturated meaning I have been pursuing.” She cites as a counterforce some prescient lines from Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” addressing those values:
The cultivation of poetry is never to be more desired than at periods when, from an excess of the selfish and calculating principle, the accumulation of the materials of external life exceed the quantity of the power of assimilating them to the internal laws of human nature. The body has then become too unwieldy for that which animates it.
Shelley’s distinction between the body and that which animates it brings us back, via its mind-body dualism, to the larger subject-object problem. We have followed Stewart through poems that meditate on the mysterious paths by which physical sensations become perceptions and then intended images and ideas, including aesthetic creations. We’ve traced some implications of her assumption that, as Donald Wesling said in his review of Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, “the senses need a body to center and register them, and a person to socialize the body.” We’ve seen that this concept of persons underpins a fundamental analogy between the face-to-face encounter of persons and the encounter with works of art, including poems. Such encounters with art, and the making that enables them, stand for Stewart against a privative solitude, darkness, and silence, thus exposing a deep affinity between this aspect of her work and that of Paul Celan. The person as subject of encounter is for Stewart also the subject to be spared from repression. In working out the implications of this idea, she — and we — must confront the subject-object problem in particularly contemporary forms.
Modeling the person as maker allows Stewart to explore at length, in The Poet’s Freedom, a variety of political, cultural, and biological conditions that characterize essential negative freedoms — freedoms from — and positive freedoms — freedoms to — that contribute to her paradigm of the creative, open, and tolerant life. In contrast to political action or certain technological interventions, the limited field in which free art-making operates “allows for erring as a kind of opening.” The reversibility of art — the maker’s “control over time and consequences” and the necessity and safety of constantly starting over — allows for “further richness in the emerging form and further knowledge of nature.” In Stewart’s view,
when human beings intervene in the fabric of nature at the level of molecules and cells, for example, it is only by doing so within a finite sphere, characterized by reversibility, that they can be saved from disaster. Irreversibility is the standard for damage as reversibility is the standard for healing.
The centrality to Stewart’s poetics of the embodied person as individual subject, and of Kantian aesthetic judgment as a third capacity beside knowing and feeling, position those poetics as a kind of barometer of intellectual and cultural developments. If, as the philosopher and commentator on noise Ray Brassier proposes, the fundamental issue facing contemporary philosophy is how human experience fits into the world described by science, participants tend to fall into two camps: “those who want to explain science in terms of human experience” and “those who want to explain human experience in terms of science.” Brassier adds:
I side with those in the second camp who insist that we can attain an objective perspective on our own subjectivity. Philosophers in the first camp dispute this on the grounds that to explain experience objectively would be a contradiction in terms which would only ‘explain consciousness away’ and ultimately alienate us from the subjective core of our own humanity. … My own view is that despite its fundamentally reactionary tenor, the objection above registers a genuine difficulty, and that it is unrealistic and a little panglossian to insist that we will remain ‘human’ much as we are now even after the explanatory ‘reduction’ of experience.
Stewart has said, “I have one primary goal as a poet and that is to get people to read more slowly, and to re-read … and see connections between poems.” She sees a “whole biological transformation that can happen in the reader” when attending to the physical aspects of poetic expression, and “by slowing readers down and helping them attend to language in this way, I have some small role in slowing the culture down and being a stay against this incredible imperative toward speed that we have, and toward making ourselves more machinelike.” Stewart is not unaware of technology’s role as a sometimes-productive counter to contingent nature for art making. She notes, for example, that “the conditions necessary for the practice of art by women have only been available by means of technological interventions in our biological destiny.” But she is more concerned about “an alienating technological determinism and absorptive social coordination of time” to which art making might be an alternative, rather than a mere negation. Even as little is done to mitigate poverty and physical dependence under hierarchical social forms, “new varieties of impoverishment have been brought about by the unthinking acceptance of technology.” It’s not physical want that she has in mind here, but the dearth of “undedicated” awareness in which a creative agent — Stewart dislikes the way the term “subjectivity” can elide the distinction between volition and passive experience — can have free play. “It has been our choice,” she writes, “to let machines demand our attention rather than free it.”
It is, as McLuhan might have predicted, the dynamic of technological change and the seductive fascination of new media for both artists and audiences — more than the depredations of a hypostatized “capital” — that have the profoundest consequences for contemporary ways of being in the world, including art-making. As of 2011 data centers, or server farms, consumed about 2 percent of global electricity — more than Russia, and about the same amount as Italy or Spain — and worldwide, the amount of data to be stored doubles about every eighteen months. Even without factoring in the environmental impact of the servers that feed ereaders (including tablets used for reading), their mere production, replacement, and use for reading ebooks over five years would account for a carbon footprint at least twice as great as that of the same quantity of printed books, and so far the explosion in ebooks has not resulted in a decline in the production of printed books; the impact is additive.
The direction and scale of this trend are clear enough, and one could multiply citations in every domain of cultural production, from movies to scientific journals to digital art, and extend them to include blogs, social networks, and games like Farmville, whose data reside almost entirely in the cloud. While companies and researchers are working to mitigate the environmental impact, whether by moving server farms to Scandinavia (where ambient air can be used for cooling and most electricity comes from carbon-free sources) or pursuing quantum computing (whose greater efficiency depends so far on power-hungry cryocooling), the cultural record is being shifted wholesale to media that depend upon the electrical grid and to data formats that must be regularly updated or converted. Meanwhile the machines that read them obsolesce, only to be redundantly replaced by newer models at ever shorter intervals.
Stewart’s work meets these trends at two junctions. First, she resists the philosophical position that the given world, including the earth and its resources, exists for humans in an instrumental sense. The often-noted elegiac strain in both her poetry and her criticism begins in this resistance. Lament for what has been and will be lost is further prompted by that ethical concern for persons and encounters that I have already discussed. “If we have any kind of environmental consciousness,” Stewart says, “we have to care about strangers, who may or may not have a blood relationship to us, in the distant future.” Using E. O. Wilson’s term, she observes:
Perhaps we in contemporary Western societies do not see nature as a “language” — that is, as organized at a coherent, sacred, level of signification — but certainly most of us respond to nature, even at the most rudimentary level, with a kind of biophilia. Living things call out to other living things.
If, as some believe to have already occurred, the progress of global warming reaches a point at which only geoengineering can salvage life on the planet, then we will all, ironically, become dependent on the very instrumentalism Stewart warns against. Not surprisingly, then, her work — especially The Forest but other poetry and criticism as well — turns up regularly in syllabi and conversations on ecopoetics.
A second junction with technological determinism involves the preservation of created works. Unlike, say, a sixteenth-century book in storage, a digital file cannot survive under a regime of benign neglect. Unless regularly copied and converted to a current data format, or unless obsolete machines (whether virtual or physical) are maintained to interpret it, a digital work will likely become unrecoverable even faster than works on notoriously volatile cellulose nitrate film stock or nineteenth-century newsprint. Undertaking such preservation activities on a large scale raises questions of societal commitment and allocation of scarce financial and other resources. As Stewart has said, “Like natural resources, art works need continual care — and care only comes from intimacy and knowledge.” There is no such intimacy without access; the universal availability of “the most refined, considered works of our minds and hands,” requires that “every person … have the resources and education necessary to cultivate his or her sense of taste. It seems to me to be as much a birth-right as the inalienable status of our bodies.” Networked digital technology at once advances this availability and increases the long-term cost — and risks — of maintaining it.
In light of the speed, seductiveness (1.01 billion Facebook users and counting), costs, and risks of technology uptake, Brassier’s question about the status of human experience takes on a new urgency:
Some recent philosophers have evinced an interest in subjectless experiences; I am rather more interested in experience-less subjects. Another name for this would be ‘nemocentrism’ (a term coined by neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger): the objectification of experience would generate self-less subjects that understand themselves to be no-one and no-where. This casts an interesting new light on the possibility of a ‘communist’ subjectivity.
This is not too far from the concept of “substrate-independent mind,” one of the scenarios associated with a postulated technological singularity, or emergence of greater than human intelligence through technological means. Rapid advances in hyperconnectivity, robotics, biotech, nanotech, and miniaturization have led to predictions that the singularity is near; and though, as Bruce Sterling has recently written, machines still can’t pass the Turing test, many artists in the generation born after postmodernism are trying out aesthetics that reflect their comfortable collaboration and symbiosis with technology. Whether or not “seeing like digital devices” results in recruiting satellites or London’s web of ubiquitous surveillance cameras to construct a suprapersonal vision, it’s certainly not hard to imagine a day when the cliché of the smartphone as prosthetic becomes literalized. But as Sterling reminds us, “the aesthetics of surveillance cams are not value-free. Because aesthetics are not value-free.”
So if, as Brassier imagines, an objective, scientific characterization of human experience were achieved, and that characterization facilitated a collective subjectivity of some kind, what would it mean for such a subjectivity to create a work of art? Some more tightly integrated crowd-sourcing version of the artist’s collective might be a recognizable template for the volitional and formative aspects of making. But what would it mean for such a subjectivity to experience and judge a work of art? We don’t yet have a metaphysics or an aesthetics equal to the question. Maybe a better question is what kind of ethics would apply to such a collective subjectivity. Again, we can’t know with confidence, but we do have a kind of prototype in the corporation. Legally a person, the liabilities and responsibilities of its constituent biological persons are explicitly limited. The track record for corporate ethics warrants critical study in this context.
But what if, as science grows closer to understanding the nature of human experience, that nature becomes, rather than a superseded and mystifying fact, a thing in Bruno Latour’s sense, a matter of concern — so that art, philosophy, and science together work to enlarge our appreciation of its complexity rather than reducing and fragmenting it? It was after all the neopragmatist Richard Rorty who appropriated and “stretched” Harold Bloom’s term “strong poets” to designate writers who had enriched and advanced the contingent vocabularies of philosophy. And while Rorty extended the term to include prose writers who had given us new language games, it was verse — not the philosophy he had read or written — that comforted him in the experience of his own final illness:
I suspect that no comparable effect could have been produced by prose. Not just imagery, but also rhyme and rhythm were needed to do the job. … [A]ll three conspire to produce a degree of compression, and thus of impact, that only verse can achieve. Compared to the shaped charges contrived by versifiers, even the best prose is scattershot.
For Rorty, in other words, it is the sensory effects of verse that give it such force.
There is no more cogent exponent of the relationship of poetry to the embodied senses than Susan Stewart; she remains among those strong poets who enrich our ability to describe human experience as — in Latour’s sense — a matter of concern. And perhaps, as she writes, “the knowledge of parts and wholes, the freedom to act and the freedom to judge that art can provide, might help us become … a resource for that nature we have heretofore depleted.”
In the concluding lines of “The Owl,” Stewart recurs to wonder and uncertainty:
And still I thought a piece of cloth
had flown outside my window, or human hands
had freed a wing, or churning gods revealed
themselves, or, greater news, a northern owl,
a snowy owl descended.
The wisdom of troubled recognition is shown to be the wisdom of humility. Neither human ingenuity nor divine intervention is “the greater news,” but rather the given world of nature. The difficulty portrayed here — as in Gormley’s Blind Light — in fixing the boundary between the human subject and the natural object suggests the ecological and philosophical interpenetration of human experience and the “objective” realm. However powerful science becomes in characterizing each, Stewart cautions in both her poetry and her criticism against excessive confidence in either the ‘disruptive change’ of technology or the teleological ‘creative destruction’ of aesthetic revolution. Unintended consequences, she intimates, are buried in small graves in Lancaster County. Inquiry, not mastery, is her aim:
In the Iliad, there is no natural death —
everything comes about by intent
… All that violence
out of somebody’s error.
Intent, even the recovered intent of poets, is fallible. In art’s ability to accommodate error Stewart sees a great strength. In life, however, consequences matter. When the forests are gone, who will be able, like the Amish, to forgive?
Acknowledgments: In response to my query, Clare Kinney and Bob Perelman contributed examples of troubled recognition; thanks also to them, to members of the Smedley Street writers group, and especially to Rachel Epstein for insightful comments on the draft of this essay. Thanks to Danny Snelson and John Paetsch for early links to noise and nonphilosophy.
1. Susan Stewart, “The Sculptor as First Finder,” in Antony Gormley: Blind Light (South Bank Centre, UK: Hayward Gallery Publishing, 2007), 94.
2. Stewart, Studio 111 interview at University of Pennsylvania, May 4, 2004.
10. Among the mythical wells of wisdom and poetic inspiration that prefigure Frost’s symbol is Connla’s Well, alluded to in several of W. B. Yeats’s works including “The Wanderings of Oisin” and the play The Shadowy Waters, and which the Irish poet encountered in a visionary experiment. In a letter to Mrs. Dorothea Hunter, a fellow member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, Yeats described its waters as “the waters of emotion and passion, in which all but purified souls are entangled” (letter of January 1, 1898, in The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Alan Davis [London: Hart-Davis, 1954], 293–94). Frost met Yeats in London in 1913 and was familiar with his work.
11. In this Stewart’s practice recalls, though for different ends, Auden’s dictum: “Our sufferings and weaknesses, in so far as they are personal, our sufferings, our weaknesses, are of no literary interest whatsoever. They are only interesting in so far as we can see them as typical of the human condition. A suffering, a weakness, which cannot be expressed as an aphorism should not be mentioned.” W. H. Auden, “Hic et Ille,” in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1968), 99.
12. In Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, Stewart quotes Henri Bergson from his 1908 treatise Matter and Memory: “There is no perception which is not full of memories. With the immediate and present data of our senses, we mingle a thousand details out of our past experience” (Stewart, Poetry, 152). Contemporary research is even more emphatic. British neuropsychologist Richard Gregory estimates that “visual perception is more than ninety per cent memory and less than ten per cent sensory nerve signals” (see Atul Gawande, “The Itch,” The New Yorker, June 30, 2008, 58–65).
13. Publius Vergilius Maro, Aeneid XII, 193–95.
15. Confidence in this mise en scène is supported by the fact that Stewart taught aesthetics at the Tyler School of Art in Rome from 1988 to 1997 and was a visiting writer at the American Academy in Rome in 2001.
17. Stewart, “On the Art of the Future,” in The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 15. A version of this essay was presented as a talk at Slought Foundation in Philadelphia on April 9, 2003.
34. Celan, The Meridian: Final Version–Drafts–Materials, ed. Bernhard Böschenstein and Heino Schmull with assistance from Michael Schwarzkopf and Christiane Witkop, trans. Pierre Joris (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 132.
35. In his longest draft of this section before the final redaction of the whole speech, Celan throughout this passage uses “I speak” rather than “the poem speaks” (on its/my own behalf and on behalf of the other/alien) and connects this first-person agency with “the poem’s hopes” — emphasizing how deeply personal was his sense that the author “stays with” the poem. See Celan, The Meridian: Final Version–Drafts–Materials, 55.
41. “[W]hen we use language, we’re entering into a relationship with others, both the living and the dead, and when I write a poem, I’m very aware of all kinds of audiences: an ideal audience, perhaps of just a few people who might, to my mind, represent very high standards for poetry or what poetry can do; but also I have to keep in mind people who might not understand what I’m talking about, so the poetic project has a kind of pedagogy to it — I think especially in the course of reading a book. … And of course the whole history of women as poets and artists and intellectuals has meant a great deal to me. And those women are among my ideal listeners, whether they’re present or not” (Stewart, Studio 111 interview).
42. Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope against Hope, trans. Max Hayward (New York: Modern Library, 1999), 231, quoted in Susan Stewart, The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 178.
46. It’s tempting here to detect traces, applied to the Western corpus, of the ethnopoetics pioneered by Dell Hymes, who was teaching in Penn’s Department of Folklore and Folklife when Stewart began her doctoral work there in 1973.
51. “In art we can explore freely a range of ethical choices without having to bear the burden of what would otherwise be their lived consequences. Art is saturated with intention in this way, and the receiver, instead of suffering from the maker’s will, is instead able to enter into it at a distance, and in turn make errors of interpretation that are likely to be productive.” Stewart, “Poetry and the Senses: An Interview with Susan Stewart,” Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry 4, no. 9 (Spring 2009): 54–55.
58. Ray Brassier and Bram Ieven, “Against an Aesthetics of Noise,” nY no. 2 (2009). Brassier might also be termed a nonphilosopher, having often been associated with the “nonphilosophy” (sans-philosophie) of Francois Laruelle and its sympathizers.
62. On the percentage of 2011 global power use and the comparison with Russia, see The Los Angeles Times Technology blog for April 22, 2011. On the 2010 percentage and the comparison with Spain and Italy, see The Telegraph for October 26, 2011. On the rate of growth of digital data stored on servers, see The Economist for June 30, 2011.
63. The Millions blog; “Are eReaders Really Green?” blog entry by Nick Moran, May 1, 2012.
67. Michael Specter, “The Climate Fixers,” The New Yorker, May 14, 2012.
68. Conversion of data formats itself raises the question of the definition of the digital “work” to be preserved. In many cases, the original code is an important constituent of the work itself, perhaps even more so than a manuscript or book as “material object.” As with analog sound recordings on magnetic tape or 78 rpm phonograph records, preservation of such formats implies maintenance of archaic playback machinery, whether in hardware or virtual form.