The walk to the Paradise Garden
One thing follows another, incessantly. This I would posit as the first principle of Kenneth Irby’s poetry, one of the qualities of attention he shares with Whitman. Accretion matters, but also — and this perhaps is a second principle — the line we cross to meet things matters. Or rather, gives to matter that hallucinatory quality dreams have when they surprise us by waking us up. But “line” is not quite the right word for characterizing the thresholds where attention quickens, for a line — that is, a line of poetry — is what crosses a border, by which I mean that the work of a line is not establishment but movement. Perception is active, an encounter with the world, and this encounter is itself a thing that poetry records: self-reflexivity swells the accretion.
The world, of course, has a temporal aspect as well as a spatial one, and perception necessarily shares in both, meeting the world where the two coincide. Again and again, perception brings us to a crossroad, a complex interplay of history and geography, memory and presence, given narrative and thematic expression in Irby’s earlier poems. The later poems instead develop a formal expression of this complexity, resulting in texts that are extraordinarily private, having less in common with storytelling than list-making, an act of attention at once expansive and compressed. The experience of such texts — a third principle — is a paradoxical combination of traversal and dwelling. Their rule is graduction, to adopt one of the spurious words from the OED, cited there as an error for graduation — an error that brings together two of the source word’s distinct senses: division into degrees and the process of concentrating by evaporation. graduction, then, is a portmanteau of gradation and reduction; a dream word for a dream-like experience.
All of which has something to do with the walk to the Paradise Garden. But before I explain what I mean by that, let me make three digressions through Irby’s work so as to illustrate the three principles I have listed: accretion, crossing, and experience. Through these principles, Irby inhabits the world in which he finds himself and adapts it to art — world and art apprehended together, in language. Two aspects of a single thing, a single act: creation.
The first of these principles, accretion, ties perception to growth. As a principle of writing, it means that poetry lives by taking in and setting forth, extending its reach perception by perception, word by word. There is an essential restlessness in this. Although Zukofsky is an important influence, Irby’s poems are a far cry from the “rested totality” of Objectivism. Their animation is a form of participation; they share in the real that they strive to represent — a Heraclitean real whose varied manifestations are neatly summed in the early title Movements/Sequences (1965). Even dreams are caught up in this flow. “There is no illusory world, there is only the world,” writes Irby in The Flower of Having Passed through Paradise in a Dream, 1968, a credo that helps explain the following visionary passage from the earlier “A Set Series for Roy Gridley,” in which the metaphor of growth is prominent:
The flower that is the Imagination, that we live by, blooms
from the flame the eyes burn down the very town we live in
in all our light
and then build up again
I hear in these lines a powerful apprehension of what perception yields, articulated by a sentence that resists grasp, owing to a number of slippages in the phrasing, a characteristic I associate with the late work, though Irby accounts for it as early as the preface to Movements/Sequences — the very book from which this poem comes. Speaking in that preface of the work of the imagination, conceived of as a process independent of will, Irby writes:
[W]hat means I have to participate at all is in the shifts and twisting of syntax … following my vines of twisting movement, blind but certain. … The wisteria. The roses I trimmed today. … Finding a way in what shows no way: so, blind: but with the confidence that even to set one word down or speak at all moves in meaning: so, certain. … Following the textures and wrenching of how words follow each other, the flow. (29–30)
Caught up in that flow, the poet who trims roses is no longer gardener but gardened, the vine whose twisting movement he would follow. Moreover, in equating the twists of that vine with those of syntax — himself with the language to which he submits, blind but certain — Irby asserts that the imagination is a force that exceeds our powers of cultivation, and so is, in its way, a force of nature. Properly, then, the preface ends with a long quotation from “Projective Verse,” in which language is upheld precisely as a means of joining nature, of making contact with the real. The commonplace of our age, that language mediates, blocking our access to the matter of our lives, shaping our experience of it, has no authority in Irby’s work, though his contact with the real — sensual through and through — calls on language for help at every turn.
The intensity of this contact assumes its full significance in those later poems where the accretion of perception overwhelms the help of language, so that we sense but cannot parse the continuity of experience that Irby records; only music assures us of the wholeness of what’s perceived, moment by moment, in the flow of language. A choice example of this intensity is a queer text from 1983, in which the perception overwhelming language is, to begin with, the very attention to language that writing requires, a dizzying self-reflexivity whose one still moment is the perception of light at the end, a look up from the page, I fancy, that hands reverie over to the world it would hold:
to look into the pits of
and the blank of the word that does not come then
is its pits, to stare into that whole season of absence in its staring
seed of the seed that is not time
given in time into that
but what escapes from that black hole
is the recent angel of awareness
shriven staring, to write awareness
fresh mounted messenger from beyond the turning of the earth’s direction, back
dithyramb steward of the guardian of the bear, blazing in the forehead, plough
step to turn and return the pole
stiff is the penetrant of attention
mucoprotein gone down that drain, in the altered work, flood of each single fold
of the marriage host
from the clothing adornment, jewel wick in the nozzle of the lamp, stretched
toward this midden, back
emunctory life, paranomastically answering to the root of being
seek, seed, see’t, seen
in the gleam of the sunlight off the top of the yellow Capri parked beyond the
The second principle, crossing, asserts that perception is an activity, even when it occurs in repose. More pointedly, it asserts that perception is the crossing of a threshold, such that stories of crossing become scenes of perception. This way of speaking might seem peculiar, or at least unnecessarily metaphorical, were it not for the singular importance of crossings in Irby’s work. At least through Catalpa (1977), which ends in a flight from Chicago to Boston, crisscrossings of the continent provide narrative inspiration, opening pathways for the senses — including the historical sense (as in “Jed Smith and the Way”). I think my favorite of these literal crossings is the last of many that saturate the title poem of To Max Douglas (1971), the trek of “the Jurassic longing saurians,” who make their way across the Salinian terrain of California (218). The tread of those dinosaurs is explicitly a conduit for vision, not only because we are told that they crossed “with their tiny nearsighted // foliage-ridden eyes,” but also because we ourselves, as Irby tells us, “are the inheritors / of that gaze,” presumably because we are able to walk the same path (218). Pathways for the senses are so pervasive in Irby’s work, there is even a crossing, by accident or design, in the first line of the first poem — which is not chronologically the earliest — in Irby’s collected poems, The Intent On. This is the opening to The Roadrunner Poem (1964), a powerful act of perception whereby the object perceived becomes invested with the very being of the perceiver. The senses are that powerful for Irby: not only do they give him the world; they also, on occasion, project him into it:
The roadrunner that crossed my yard
and the roadrunner my neighbor kept as a pet
And the grain I am sunk into
staring into the wood, the bole in my hands, the window sill
Catch me as I go out along the ploughed fields
and stare there, back at me as I
at them went in come out (5)
The crossing of the roadrunner would hardly be noteworthy on its own; it becomes significant as the initiation of a chiasmus that Irby completes by crossing back (and here, to enlarge our appreciation of what this initiation yields, we might read the poem alongside Merleau-Ponty’s posthumous notes on the chiasm of perception, first published in France the same year that Irby’s poem was published in the United States).
Irby’s thematic treatments of crossing hardly hint at the number and variety of thresholds we encounter in his work. Here again I would cite the pertinence of the early title Movements/Sequences, since wherever a movement or sequence occurs there is implicitly a crossing. Movement is the more encompassing category since there can be no traversal of space that does not include a traversal of time, but even a motionless sequence involves a location in space: our existence is always both spatial and temporal; space and time mark every point with their X, hence at every point we find ourselves at a crossroad.
Irby attests to the potency of what these arrivals disclose in a short prose piece dated 1981, about a Japanese form of divination in which the questioner goes to a well-traveled road at evening, taking the first overheard words as his or her oracle. In certain poems (as in the following, from Studies ), it seems that the whole long length of the real is such a road, and all of the senses, not merely the ears, alert to its divination:
the sidewalks are all dried after the rain
except for the dark shadow around the dead squirrel
splayed out as though supplicating the concrete
fur of the spine ridge fur of the tail curled up along the spine ridge frayed up rat-
gray and gnat-thickened
yesterday late afternoon a few yards away it was sitting in the bare dirt head bent
down to the earth
bitten in the neck or by the quickest plague or simply the heart gone dropped in
carried in the night play by the same catch and turned around
so now to face me (570–71)
The third principle, experience, speaks to the character of the texts Irby produces in consequence of the first two principles, by which I mean in particular the character of the late work, poetry that seizes on the secrets of crossing and accretion — of perception as encounter and writing as its means or witness — in order to encompass and condense the real, or rather that portion of the real that Irby’s acts of attention and powers of language are able to disclose. “Not having made the world, I have created it anew each morning / in confusion Act Axe Axis,” he writes in “Notes” (from Catalpa, 275). The axis I take as a crossroad of time and space, memory and presence, a point at which perception occurs, recreating the world and placing us in it, as upon waking. The act I take as our material engagement with the world, the engagements of art certainly included (for these lines come from a poem about revolution, also about “the pages of Revolution” turned in bed while hearing Bach and thinking of Pound ). The ambiguous axe between axis and act is what confusion wields, a tool of destruction or construction, separating — that is, making distinctions between — the very things it fuses. This is the impossible task of graduction, a measuring out of the Heraclitean real that also, somehow, collapses its dimensions, a project best realized for me in the poems of Ridge to Ridge (2001) and Studies. Consider, for instance, the following short poem from the former volume, “[to almost midnight New Year’s Eve in Glasgow].” It begins with a fine distinction that sets us deep into a darkness where the eyes falter, though the other senses — especially touch and hearing — compensate; or maybe it is the memory of those other senses that compensates. Memory, in any case, lights up the darkness, sending us well beyond the coordinates of the title, an overload of sensation perfectly captured in the last line:
into the dark before the dark before the years
the old pants’ velour touch, to the new unknown belongs
as if there were no grown set worry and no undressing out enough
old skin leopard teddy bear witchery of variations memory
and the hat even the feather tango
each nut each sip a look into the ear
incapable smartness, unpredictable calling
old cold metal tumbler the lip just sticks to
Coca Cola Lifesavers from before the war accrual
and that soft mezza voce tuba languor and arousal
in the rapt aphasic ear (529)
Which brings me at last — “the rapt aphasic ear” does — to the Paradise Garden; or rather, to the walk that leads to the Paradise Garden — an epoch in the life of the imagination to which I was first introduced by Irby’s “Delius” (a poem from the expanded edition of To Max Douglas ), a tribute to the British composer Frederick Delius. “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” is Delius’s most famous composition, part of his opera A Village Romeo and Juliet, adapted from Gottfried Keller’s novella of the same name. In both novella and opera, the Paradise Garden is a tavern frequented by vagrants and the poor, but the treatments are markedly different. For Keller, the establishment has an ironic name; Cain’s descendants are the patrons. As they are for Delius, but without irony: his tavern stands at the edge of a paradise only available to those who have fallen, a possibility of happiness outside the bounds of society. That the fallen lovers shrink from this possibility is the true tragedy of Delius’s opera. Yet the lovers do find themselves tempted; their wordless walk is the opera’s crucial moment, though the absence of words and minimal action disguise its significance. Musically speaking, the “Walk” is an intermezzo — an operatic equivalent to Irby’s graduction: it characterizes the interval opened up between two discreet scenes, while compressing within that space the emotional impact of the opera as a whole.
Irby’s synopsis of the opera — or rather, his synopsis of the second half — actually downplays the walk, emphasizing instead a dream that the two lovers share, uncannily, a coincidence of experience that draws their dream into the shared world of waking reality:
Sali and Vreli before the fire
both dreamt the same dream: heard the choir
and saw the entwining cathedral light
marry them, grownup and child
couples crowned together
and so awoke, and left, already
on their way out of this world
passed through the fair of worldly
fair and wondrous things
and made the Walk
to the Paradise Gardens
that is all we ever hear from the opera
the Long Walk, nothing of the Caspar David Friedrich church
dream music, the Gardens full of whirling
dopefiend bohemians behind the Dark Fiddler
the lovers floating off in a coal barge
and fucking into oblivion
“this is the most heart-breaking music in the world” (231–32)
What Irby says here about the dream reiterates the credo I cited before, “There is no illusory world, there is only the world,” a statement that appears, as noted before, in his book The Flower of Having Passed through Paradise in a Dream. That this flower-bearing paradise, which dreams traverse, may have something to do with Delius’s Paradise Garden is suggested to me by a subsequent passage in the poem for Delius, an explicit reference to the credo and a beautiful summation of what the opera expresses: “Only a sensualist could so / trap the pain of parting / the endlessness of the moment of leaving / this world, this only world, for nothingness” (232). Irby has in mind here the opera’s final moment, in which the lovers drown while consummating their passion, but the “endlessness” he mentions captures perfectly for me the apprehension and expectation that linger in the walk, states of mind that swell to a melancholic grandeur in Delius’s music.
In citing this music, I do not offer it solely as an illustration of the three principles (though it handsomely illustrates the last two, crossing and experience). Its pertinence lies for me more fully in its revelation of the nature of art, of art as expression. For one important aspect of the walk is the fact that it arises in the context of an adaptation. Though Delius’s libretto transforms Keller’s novella in significant ways — the walk, for instance, is only implied in Keller’s narrative, is not described — the relationship of the opera to the novella is such that every expressive moment within it acquires, for those who know both, the hallucinatory power of a dream, a dream that haunts the waking world that shapes the dream in the first place. Such hauntings are all-pervasive in Irby’s work, which is unusually erudite without, however, requiring footnotes to be appreciated: his art is not a commentary on its sources but an adaptation of them, as dreams are an adaptation of everyday life. There are exceptions to this (and Irby’s commentary on Delius is indeed one of them), but by and large his writing is a kind of dream-work, one in which the borders between dream and waking — between art and life — are constantly crossed.
Taking “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” as a model for poetry leads me, then, to understand Irby’s art as inextricably tied to the work of adaptation. The adaptation involved in his art is not usually so literal as in the intermezzo that Delius composed for his own version of Keller’s story (which was itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s story), but insofar as anything given expression must be felt, and so known, there is inevitably a process of taking possession involved. In this sense, even self-expression is a form of adaptation: a mode of cognition whereby artists adapt themselves to art. This, I think, is one of the things that Irby means by “Etude,” a type of poem that he gives its own section in Call Steps, and that fills a whole book in Studies (whose title is a translation of “etude”). Moreover, it is the fact of this study that tempts me to think of Irby’s characteristic themes and methods as matters of principle — tempts me, that is, to think of his poetry, especially in its later manifestations, as a phenomenology in performance.
And so I would like to end with a poem that exemplifies Irby’s phenomenology: a study drawing on all three principles; also an adaptation of experience, that is itself an experience, haunted — like the walk to the Paradise Garden — by what came before and what will follow:
the window shattered out into the storm lets in the storm
lets in the flood and its redfronded palm trees
lets in what waits at the end
lets out what waits for the end
in this room right now that takes all that has come before and waits
it’s time to go home
the father time the mother space
but all these people here already are
a room as vast as presidency and as invaded
the father space the mother time
that are not home but orders of perception
as home itself is an organ of perception
lets in the rain that music makes
lets out the tightly woven carpets of the rain
knows at the end whose redfronded palm trees are they? (568)
In this brief poem from Studies, to which I can hardly do justice in a single paragraph, Irby contemplates the aftereffects of a storm, presenting us with a room that has seemingly reached a point of stasis. As the poem unfolds — a manifestation of accretion — we see that this stasis is also a crossroad, one to which Irby is brought by way of contemplation, reminding us that a stasis in one realm (call it matter) and movement in another (call it mind) can occur simultaneously; that these are different orders of experience corresponding to the different orders of perception, the corporeal and imaginative. It follows from this that there are different ways of inhabiting a world, which is why Irby is able to write “it’s time to go home” while sitting in a room that may indeed be his home: not only place but the presences that abide there show us we have arrived; we go home in mind as well as in body, and we can feel ourselves displaced from home in either capacity. Irby’s room is a figure for creation: shattering out and letting in, it rests between “what waits for” and “waits at,” traversed by both as they invade or abandon, make welcome or take leave. Finding ourselves at home there, we are discovered (for home, writes Irby, “is an organ of perception”) in parental embrace by space and time. Bereft despite that embrace, we find ourselves in need of home, abiding with all that the storm delivers — its “redfronded palm trees,” a figure for the wreckage.
Figure or actuality, poem or world, wrecked or whole, mysterious or familiar: creation.
3. To better place Irby’s poems in their chronological unfolding, I have given the dates and titles of the original volumes, except in the case of work from the final section of The Intent On, “Uncollected.” There, only a date is given.
[H]e who looks must not himself be foreign to the world that he looks at. As soon as I see, it is necessary that the vision … be doubled with a complementary vision or with another vision: myself seen from without, such as another would see me, installed in the midst of the visible, occupied in considering it from a certain spot. (134)
Elaborating, Merleau-Ponty writes:
We say therefore that our body is a being of two leaves, from one side a thing among things and otherwise what sees them and touches them; we say, because it is evident, that it unites these two properties within itself, and its double-belongingess to the order of the “object” and to the order of the “subject” reveals to us quite unexpected relations between the two orders. (137)
The world seen is not “in” my body, and my body is not “in” the visible world ultimately: as flesh applied to a flesh, the world neither surrounds it nor is surrounded by it. A participation in and kinship with the visible, the vision neither envelops it nor is enveloped by it definitively. … My body as a visible thing is contained within the full spectacle. But my seeing body subtends this visible body, and all the visible with it. (138)
Numerous corroborations of these speculative points could be found in Irby’s poetry, so much of which takes up the experience of what Merleau-Ponty calls “double-belongingess.” See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968).
6. In his novella, Keller amplifies the irony of his biblical allusion with four weather-worn archangels of stone, which hold up the roof of the tavern at its corners, surrounded by cherubs playing musical instruments. These instruments are a far cry from the flaming sword of Genesis, but Keller’s irony goes beyond a transposition of instruments, for his lovers do not fall for having tasted forbidden fruit; quite the contrary, their acceptance of the prohibition is what dooms them to their exile. The novella is thus an indictment of conventional morality, or in any case a dispassionate appraisal of morality’s effects. The original sin for Keller, the origin of the dispute between the families of his Romeo and Juliet, is the denial of an inheritance to a bastard son. That son, known in the story as the dark fiddler, is a human analogue for Keller’s musical angels and also an analogue for the snake of Genesis.
Delius, for his part, sidesteps social analysis, allowing the Paradise Garden to assume a significance independent of moral judgment. There are no stone angels in Delius’s libretto; his dark fiddler represents the opera itself, is more Prospero than angel or snake, though he has no power to effect a restoration. Displaced, not fallen, from grace, he is the master of a fallen paradise, and can only make suggestions, proposing to the lovers that they join him in the woods, apart from society, a prospect from which they flinch, choosing instead to consummate their love and die. Keller’s ironies are thus dissolved, like the pressures of society in a dream — not the church-wedding dream at the center of the opera, which is shaped by those pressures (a reversion to Keller’s perspective), but the dreamy song that drifts in from the river at the end, giving expression to what the lovers desire. Their intertwined voices describing that song make for one of the opera’s most exquisite moments:
Far-off sounds of music
waken trembling echoes,
moving, throbbing, swelling,
faintly dying in the sunset’s fading glow.
Where the echoes dare to wander
shall we two not dare to go?
The song from the river is something that Delius adds to Keller’s story, and what it adds reiterates the emotional content of the walk to the Paradise Garden: an apprehension of limits that might have been but will not be transcended, only transgressed.