A slowing 9: Necessary unsayability (or: what the poetic makes)

Image: looking back is for the birds (detail), 2012 by Jennifer Wroblewski

At some point, yesterday or long ago, you read a poem and something happened to you: and you thought, or you didn’t quite think: yes. And this affirmative recognized a need, or a touch, or more precisely an answer to a question you hadn't even asked. The question hadn’t existed until the work appeared to create it, opening that space, revealing a gap.

In this way, the great work of art is a surprise. Stunned, if we discover it, we stop. So the slowing goes in different directions: we are slowed, stopped even, by the startling work of art, and we might (and ought to) slow toward it, seeking out an opening to discovery.

Some works startle not only with their newness, but also with an utterly old wisdom, which is always a surprise. Take Edmond Jabès’s circular, dizzying account of the language of the unsayable – inscribed in books yet rather urgently elliptical – in The Book of Questions. This work is generous in its giving of what is impossible to hold.  The Book, in Jabès, is a book of the divine, a book of Jews who fill the pages of the text with divine wisdom, and a book of language itself, of writing that asserts: “The world exists because the book does” (31). We turn to the works of language – even those beyond comprehension, that resist understanding – not only to make sense of the world, but to make it. In Merleau-Ponty's words, “We make perception out of things perceived” (5).

In the poetic, what we are attending to, perceiving, discovering, is often what is just beyond reach.

Poetry often shocks us with its stunning muteness. Anne Carson observes, “[The poet] does not seek to refute or replace that world but merely to indicate its lacunae, by positioning alongside the world of things that we see an uncanny protasis of things invisible, although no less real. Without poetry these two worlds would remain unconscious of one another” (59, emphasis added). We read to discover these spaces, these "lacunae," to create that consciousness which, otherwise, might not exist at all.

If we might take some responsibility for the making of this world, we might take some responsibility for the reading of it, the seeking out of that language which creates a richness of what phenomenologists and existentialists have called being (what we might call at times mindfulness, although that terms for me depletes the epistemological or knowingness of Being). We are accountable for the decision to limit the world or to engage with its complexity. The shock of yes when we encounter what Jabès writes: “Lived moments, faithfully recorded. The patient work of death” (214).

Some Thing Black, the poetic collection by Jacques Roubaud (published now twenty five years ago, translated, like Jabès, by Rosmarie Waldrop), is described on the book jacket as “a profound and moving transcription of loss, mourning, grief, and the attempts to face honestly and live with the consequences of death, the ever-present 'not-thereness' of the person who was/is loved.” A fair description. But does this really account for the way this book will choke you? It may make you grieve, even as you hold the very live hand of your lover. Roubaud’s mourning is more than transcription, but an assertion of absence, both the loss of a loved person and the also very real absence of language for that loss.

   You’ve left me a picture with your stamp on it, on the very
rectangle of reality it represents, and you are there, in the
place where you alone are absent. thus

    Out of what’s ended I fashion a truth

    Of not accepting that you’re not, the silence

      Roubaud, 81

What does attending to Roubaud’s account of loss create? "there, in the place where you alone are absent." Language circles back, as absence's presence does. What perception are we making out of perceiving this grief? He writes, “Where your nonexistence was so strong, it had become a form of being”(16). A new grief, a new gap.

    The telephone does not ring. As long as it does not ring,
that new world, that possible world, is still possible. It is still
possible that the phone will ring and the voice be the voice of
the woman he loves, who is dead. Who is no longer dead, has
never died.
                                                                                                Roubaud, 52

We read and those invisible things multiply. This is not transcendence but entanglement. Notions of transcendence as a goal of getting outside of the self – in the contexts of the transformative encounter with art – can become stultifying when transcending (the world) ignores the rather intense being-in-the-world that the strange intensity of art can jolt into us. The patient work meets the eruptive. An urgent listening to a silent telephone. We are perhaps dislodged from (transcending) something not to escape but to be more (proximate) to the entanglement of being’s complexity, adding to it.

Therefore necessary are the encounters with work itself, the poem, art, the sound, the tactile qualities, the senses: Necessary encounters to make space for other necessities. Making greater consciousness of the lacunae among the threads.  “But in the end,” Blanchot remarked in an essay on Jabès’s Book of Questions, in 1971, “there comes a moment when the austerity that is the centre of every important book, be it the most tender or the most painful, severs the ties and takes it away from us. The book no longer belongs to anyone; it is this that consecrates it as a book.” The book itself leaves yet another space, creates it. Another ringing to wait for, another lacuna.



Blanchot, Maurice. "Edmond Jabès' Book of Questions" European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe; Vol. 6, No. 2, 1972.
Carson, Anne. Economy of the Unlost. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Jabès, Edmond. The Book of Questions. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press 1972, 1991.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. New York: Routledge Classics, 1962, 2008. 
Roubaud, Jacques. Some Thing Black. trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Normal: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.