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Need to Know

Posted on: Wednesday, July 04, 2018

What do you need to know, she said. It was in relation to home-schooling her children. I think she meant you only need to know what you need.

i know nothing.
with this knowledge i see a one-eyed orange cat
who looks at me like baal and mouths a feline thought.
i know no-one.
an immigrant passes en route to work.
he wears a neat rucksack on a neat bike.
his retail uniform matches his smile.
i imagine a girlfriend in a neat house.

i suppose this same is better.
the sun plays a shadow fugue on the reticent houses.

– Máighréad Medbh(1)

On Monday I know something. By Wednesday I have forgotten I know it. Retrieving it depends on placing and continuity. Let’s say contiguity. This doesn’t mean that I don’t need to know it. Neither does it mean that I know nothing. The first line in the excerpt from my poem is saying that I am aware of no particular knowledge at that moment, but I do know things, of course, so to say this is to indicate a manner of feeling rather than a state of being. That said, I certainly don’t know what Baal looks or looked like, or even that he existed. (I almost know he didn’t.) So I lie.

The classic poetic moment is a synthesis of knowing and unknowing, if you take sense impression to be the known, and what can only be guessed the unknown. It’s interesting how often this leads to accidental allegory. In Denise Levertov’s book, The Sorrow Dance, there's a poem called 'The Unknown' that begins:

The kettle changes its note,
the steam sublimed.

As the lines are italicised I wonder if they're a quotation from the dedicatee, Muriel Rukeyser, but as they’re repeated later, I think the italics reflect the sense of the sublime. The poem is a dialectic of the ordinary and its transformation.

of seemly hope, performed to make a place
for miracles to occur; and if the day
is no day for miracles, then the preparations
are an order one may rest in.

I reckon that much of what we all do in the making of our “place” is a kind of godless propitiation. Also perseveration based on anxiety: the fear that inattention will show us in a bad light, or occlude the light. There’s always the unknown in the wings. My sister couldn’t pass a mirror without checking herself. Now I do similar. Trying to assess how often a day, I was first going to say a hundred, but ten would be more accurate. Still a lot, considering that only rudimentary information can be gained from it. I still have no idea how I look in action, until I (shrink) see a video. Then there are all those procedures that prepare one for the public or for bed. I can’t go out without being perfumed. I can’t sleep with dirty feet. Some of these procedures are graceful rituals that in themselves are gain enough. They do bring about, they are, little miracles. Others could more profitably go up in irreligious smoke.

It’s the contiguity of the known with the unknown that strikes me most in this poem, and how the domestic situation projects itself into a sense of art. Transformation is of the attitude.

                         But one doesn’t want
rest, one wants miracles. Each time that note
changes (which is whenever you let it))—the kettle
(already boiling) passing into enlightenment without
a moment’s pause, out of fury into
quiet praise—desire
wakes again. Begin over.

Later, the windows are “silk squares,” “a designed / middle distance.” The last three lines suggest that it is language that transforms, but the setting is not inconducive.

                          The awakening is
to transformation,
word after word.(2)

Deryn Rees-Jones’s 'Meteor' tracks a line of vanishing and then wipes the track. Beginning with a “hinged” Janus-moment, abstract and concrete loop around each other: “the summer distilled to the scent of jasmine / the scrape of cutlery, the chink of glass . . .”; chink, not clink, suggesting Pyramus and Thisbe and Levertov’s windows of ever-possible revelation. “Clothes held our bodies as a mouth might a kiss.” With this matter-to-metaphor lead-in, the meteor steps onstage to implied applause: “a stripped atom, trapping electrons / to excite the darkness with its violet light.” Levertov’s abstract agents—divinations, Hypocrisies, desire, hope—are matched by this meteor which “disturbed the heavens, / burned against the air to leave no trace.” 'Meteor' begins with a vanished story: “And this is how everything vanishes . . .” as if she were referring to something said prior to the poem. The “how” is “Like that night . . .” (my italics). There is something prior to and beyond the event and I suppose it’s the poem, but it’s also a question.(3)

Abduction, a type of vanishing, occurs in the poem facing 'Meteor' in Burying the Wren. 'Persephone' is the title and a symbol. The vanishing here is a “fall towards light, / the pull of the weather.” She calls this “love’s work.” The only concrete word in this eight-line poem is “rain.” All else is a function of sub-personal agents.

In Thomas Kinsella’s 'Death of a Queen,' the queen’s body is a sea where heart and memory are mobile entities. The “register” of pain or tragic gesture is a thing that can be eroded. “Reality, nagging like the tide, / Undermined her voice / Until its mass almost vanished.” Corpo-reality is here transferred into the voice and drained from it again—a reversal of Levertov’s movement from boiling kettle to word. Anger is personified, “released, shouldering like a bull.”

Despair ebbed to its uttermost
And she came with the step of a goddess,
Hypocritical, courageous,
Wreathed with longing, out of the mast
That crackled under her feet, not with pain

But with pagan accompaniment of applause.
Piece by piece, death was enticed . . .

Active abstractions: despair, longing. What is actually happening is not total death but a transformation of life into “on the face, a jaded rouge.” While a cosmetic is implied, “rouge” is also an aspect of self, personified as a “game” woman. The queen being the confident, self-possessed woman, the “jaded rouge” is the poor tenant.(4)

Symbolism is a mode of thought. Allegory is a mode of expression.
. . .

We cannot speak, perhaps we can hardly think, of an “inner conflict,” without a metaphor; and every metaphor is an allegory in little.

– C. S. Lewis (5)

In modern society so much is attitude. Our reality, we’re told, is within us. Be mindful be well. Cognitive behavioural therapy is effectively subversion of the metaphors we live by. Even scientific talk of sub-atomic particles has a touch of allegory, and we have battles with diseases all the time. This said, I think we lie or laze if we say that language composes the composite self. Body propitiation is profoundly transformative. But how to get the physical to language without the intervention of pre-conception is the question.

The allegorist leaves the given—his own passions—to talk of that which is confessedly less real, which is a fiction. The symbolist leaves the given to find that which is more real.

– C. S. Lewis(6)

I don't know.

The historian Yuval Noah Harari says that a cognitive revolution created the species we now are: “history declared its independence from biology.” He also says that we remain involved with biological laws: “. . . the more we examine . . . sensations, emotions, family ties—the less difference we find between us and other apes.”(7)

Maybe this sums up my question. Ego sum.



(1) From ‘the end of august,’ Imbolg (forthcoming September 2018).
(2) Levertov, Denise. The Sorrow Dance. New York: New Directions, 1966.
(3) Rees-Jones, Deryn. Burying the Wren. Bridgend: Seren, 2012.
(4) Kinsella, Thomas. Another September. Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1958.
(5) Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love. New York: Oxford University Press, (1936) 1959, 48.
(6) Lewis. op. cit., 45.
(7) Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. London: Harvill Secker, 2014, 37, 38.

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