A never was careful about the number
of books he chose to perpetrate.
A’s lack of frugality, indiscrimination.
A knew better, but distracted, allowed
the whole lot, from Paris to China
to seashore to in between to embrace
to so we are at war to the wind’s hooks
to a cloud of flies to we are each one
of us is we to finding the homeless
in statues of former friends to deliverance.
Let me guess a way to your brain: A-lite and A-tragic.
Dear A, you put pen down for, or A, you forgo the rest.
I’ve sat through two and quiver into the third round.
My hand has sometimes been pointed out
an abusive thing, at times, unsteady.
Hunger, never defined. Frequently applied in A.
Use these things before being so ordered. Find at least
one version of a predicament in A: whatever you want,
you will, like a literate insect, fabricate or radiate.
I want to meditate on the above poem in order to see the relation between speech and coming to a conclusion within one’s own thought. My own feeling is that this has broad implications for how we conceive of politics. If we cannot be sure of our own moral stances, how can we be so sure others are wrong?
The first thing I want to note is “A.” The letter is given to us without a period after it, as if it were the article, or the first letter of the alphabet. That “A” “perpetrates” many books tells me that “A” does indeed place and form words, and, as corny as it might sound, this reader does wonder where “Z” might be.
Now “perpetrates” is a curious word: we talk of perpetrating crime, and a “lack of frugality” and “indiscrimination” seem to hint at criminal intent. But at the same time, the word itself means “to bring into being” or “to accomplish,” depending on how one wants to read the Latin word “pater” into the etymology. How is crime linked with creation?
Skipping ahead in the poem, we have a hint of how this is possible: our narrator seems to complain about her/his hand being “unsteady” and therefore “abusive” at times. The act of creating, even creating one’s own resolve, means abusing something or someone. We will return to these lines later, because there is a deep point about the conduct of politics I want to make. First I want to be clear about how it is we make decisions.
“A knew better” – how? I’m not clear on that, nor the nature of the distraction. What is clear is what “A” “allowed.” We are moved by the narrator from the distance between cities to the distance defining an ocean or a continent. “In between to embrace” seems to imply that an ocean for A might as well be a continent, for the next set of ideas depends on an image of people at war, moved by the wind, acting like flies and like a plague perhaps destroying a city. A love that attempted to bridge distance turned to hate, and the hate will itself change to pity after power has been attained and there is time to think back to ideals once had (“statues of former friends”) and the want of repentance.
What A “allowed,” in short, is passion to completely dominate politics. What he “knew better” of was what he “knew” – there is no knowledge underlying the movement of the third stanza, just different longings at different times which seem to correspond to the stages of one’s own life. Youthful idealism collapses into adult cynicism but then the thought of one’s own death makes one long for some sort of acceptance or deliverance.
Passion completely dominating politics, obviously, is not merely selfish but self-absorbed. The difference between the terms is that the latter does not merely look for a good one can have, but sees the good only in terms of what one can have.
A in his/her better moments is “lite,” in worse moments “tragic.” I suspect this is as direct a statement as possible that the phrase “It’s cool” is the most destructive phrase on the planet today. Either we work to conceive of a good, and start thinking through something akin to hierarchy, or the good is merely being comfortable. In which case, “evil” has far more definition than “good” and seems in many more cases far more logical. Note that the “liteness” probably stems from A’s covering all things: tastes need to be cultivated, things need to be included or excluded for reasons. The reasons may be debatable, but they need to be there.
Now I’m not clear on “you,” and whether the narrator is distinguishing between another audience and A and the narrator him/herself, or whether there is just all of us, narrator included, and A. It would seem that “you” connects another audience and the narrator, given that the narrator has “sat through two.” But we need to be careful reading here, because this poem of 8 stanzas is beginning again: this is stanza 5, and instead of describing A, a letter is seemingly being written to… a letter.
I think we must identify with the narrator most especially because of stanza 5. One starts writing to A, but “put pen down for” can also imply the act of having stopped writing. “You forgo the rest” then can be a repetition of having stopped writing, or the deeper reason: A forgos everything anyway in his own “name.” He encompasses everything, after all.
So let’s sum up right now before we conclude. We’re getting a portrait of a particular sort of person in A, a person that has lots to say and not a lot of thought, a person that thinks speaking only is reasoning. Anyone that wants to meet A personally is more than welcome to talk to my father, btw. Now we could get all literary and metaphorical and say that A is the sum total of all words ever said, or the ability to make words in the first place. But again, to turn that into something which is a poetic subject, something we might want to relate to, involves a personification that is a moral comment.
So how should we deal with people like A? (i.e. how to deal with a blowhard like me?)
Our narrator struggles with the fact that using speech alone makes one’s relation to A ambiguous. Speech means talking about an issue, not deciding and acting. And as we have seen above, a lack of action allows a whole lot of things to take place which is thoughtless but directly reflective of character. Since A encompasses all, even in indecision he has “decided.”
That’s where the “hand” being “abusive” and “unsteady” becomes instructive. We need to act in order to get a feeling that we are responsible. Wrong or right, at least from there we can see what we can control, want or need. That means we have appetites that can be satiated, as opposed to having everything but not knowing what one wants. I think you can see what the basis of “enlightened self-interest” is now – happiness is possible when people throw aside reason for a second for an achievable desire.
To use, then, is the moral lesson. If one doesn’t use, one will be “ordered,” and that is pure subjection (ala the 3rd stanza) to forces within and beyond. Where A is not ambiguous is its totality: we are small compared to it, and precisely because of that, we can “fabricate” within it, or “radiate.”
I would be very, very foolhardy if I did not point out our crudity in this compromise: A has a grandness to it, in encompassing all the stages of life. We’re like insects, and think about how insects radiate and ask if the motion of the mind or the heavens is comparable. My suggestion is that compromise with what is grand and what one is passive before is just the beginning of politics, that enlightened self-interest is itself just a beginning. There are goods we can deliberate about, and if you want to know more about that, well.