A slowing 8: Between thing and everything

When I take an old knick knack from your shelf, a trinket, even one covered in a skim of dust, I might imagine some memory lying under that layer. It is neither my memory nor yours, yet our creative entanglement is moved by the attention, this encounter.

See how we look at the small thing, with a care that marks it, marks us, and marks time? Your memento, too, is altered, the dusty layer smeared by my finger. Even our breath changes it.

The encounter with the object, your curio – this arguably minor art – can move us into some imagined past, an almost entwining seeing, utterly distinct yet immediate, sensory, and thoughtful. 

 Like 2 buildings

looking at each other

: cannot fall

         more disastrously
In  love


(Wong May, 45) 

The memento is not the memory. Nothing is known through it. It is a thing unto itself: porcelain figurine, wooden box, pewter spoon. Perhaps the knick knack is the most poetic of art forms, for we understand immediately that it demands this attention—and otherwise exists merely. This object is junk until we attend to it with some caring, some attentive imagining. And without this happening in the space of the mind – its memory, its kitsch, its place in a collection, however it might relate to the world of minds – it does not even exist.

The old knick knack becomes poetic. Looking at it, we might understand Lacoue-Labarthe, who suggests, “Poetic art consists of perceiving, not representing” (67). The poetic art is on the act of mind, “perceiving,” necessitating attention. The poet makes available this perception, gives it for the perceiving. Not only for the poet, but also the reader. We stand at the cabinet together. In the room and escaping it. The poetic is that which needs – insists upon and knows – the entanglement of all these. The more space opens, the more generous the field for attention. Take the thing from the shelf a moment.


In Wong May’s poem “Vague” – which you can discover online the PEN America site and in the collection Picasso's Tears– the tree in spring is brought to the reader, the vague is the poem, is time, is knowing. It is a distillation of a poetics of attention, in which we attend deliberately but remain at ease with only proximate knowing. Wong May's vagueness is visual and intellectually aware. 


            When in Spring
            The trees
                         grow vague
            With blossoms

                    the    vague     pink

            I don’t seek
            To Know
            What trees
            They are

(May 109)

The poem does not equal anything. It is not the memory. It is not your love affair or my grief. It does not represent the trees in spring.


The poetic art is outside of the pedagogical, is not teaching us. Tsvetaeva tells us art can’t even teach us itself, it is only “дано,” given (99). Or, again, Lacoue-Labarthe succinctly remarks, “A poem wants to say: indeed, it is nothing but pure wanting to say” (20). Its doing is undoing, attending to a making that is always only imminent.

Because the poem is not telling us how to understand it, it is powerful. The power lies in our attending to it nonetheless, in making with, while relinquishing the knowing that explains, that understands everything.

In the midst of a poem entitled “Wild Spring,” published this year in A Public Space, Wong May writes:

I stayed.

We stayed.
I have never seen so many narcissi,
              so pale a battlefield.

And, reading, the surprising abundance, impossible, begins to appear. Only just.  Line after line. And the poem continues, memory and art blending into a shape, and with some amazement “Where we stood admiring,  incredulous./A dream of wild spring” leads toward what becomes

Awesome in the pale field.
Each stalk was making its own paper
That was what the field sounded like
: Scissors,   Paper,   Dew.

(May 36)

We cannot hear the sounds of the field, but the poem gives to us this awe. We, too, stay. 

The poem that pulls away from itself, the poem that lets its world hover outside language, recognizing the impossibility of full rendering of experience (any other’s: the writer’s, the artist’s, the sufferer’s, the neighbor’s, the lover’s, the mother’s, the murderer’s, the dead’s). But as importantly, the work insists on the importance of attending to the experience in spite of the impenetrability of the knowable, the sprawl of the unknown.

Wherefore this power?

Not surprisingly, perhaps, we find that Wong May's collection Picasso's Tears: Poems 1978-2013 opens with an epigram by Niels Bohr, the very physicist through whose world Karen Barad furthers our understanding of the ethical implications of our essential entanglement. "What is it that we humans depend on?/We depend on our words,/we are suspeded in language," reminds Bohr, in Wong May. Yet suspended is precisely where the words fall in the poet's language, to be taken out of the curio cabinet again and again.


Merleau-Ponty asks, “But what if language expresses as much by what is between words as by the words themselves? By that which it does not ‘say’ as by what it ‘says’?” (p 82). In the poem, it is already asserted as "wanting to say," as the carefully painted knick knack merely resting on a dusty shelf -- the vague not sought, but found and "given." In abstract works, when the poem is not asserting itself as mimetic, we may be more readily invited to recognize the work as performed between the attentive reader or viewer, perceiving.  However, this invitation is awake in all works that will matter to us, if we will “stay.” 


Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Poetry as Experience. (1986) trans. Andrea Tarnowski. Stanford: Meridian, Stanford University Press, 1999.
May, Wong. Picasso's Tears: Poems 1978-2013. Portland: Octopus Books, 2014.
May, Wong. “Wild Spring.” A Public Space. 22 (2015): 90-91.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting. Ed. Galen A. Johnson.Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993.
Tsvetaeva, Marina Ivanovna. Статьи, Эссе. Moscow: Kniga po Trebovaniyu. 2011.