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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

You, Me and Everyone Else: Notes on Amy King’s "Two if by Land, I Do"

Two if by Land, I Do (originally published in Jacket #35)
Amy King

Do you want revision, air
without clouds, do you want some
time to, do you think of sun’s flesh,
Do you want sinking like an anchor or
Do you want what I want,
Soap for shoulder bone,
Do you want cleansing to begin,
Do you want gelatinous microbes
to torment your undone sin,
Do you want a shapely wooden leg
in a home far away
from your prescriptive land,
Do you want like everyone wants
to lie between
self expression & smashing dishes
or the raccoon beside the freezer,
Do you believe this the easiest
way to give back what’s given:
growth among the weeds,
connoisseurs of criminal beauty,
enamel licking teeth,
a metal tasting tongue to speak
these words that might be said, or do
you the material fact of body eat too?

Notes:

We begin with an internal audience (“you”) that wants things to be revised until they are unnaturally pure: “air without clouds,” “time to” (no object for the preposition, as if time is known purely in the abstract), “sun’s flesh” (flesh that disintegrates itself?).

The purest place you can be is at the bottom of an ocean. There, water will wash you perpetually. And it feels like something is being accomplished, too! You’re holding a ship steady, presumably, as long as it is linked to you.

So perhaps purity isn’t the greatest goal in life. It certainly isn’t a goal that defines us land-dwellers learning to live together. Eros is messy.

Our internal audience has a partner, the internal speaker (“I”). The speaker sees things in tension, but moving towards somewhere other than the bottom of the ocean: the quiet sensualism of “soap for shoulder bone” invites “cleansing.” Finally, a “time to” do something. But “cleansing” occurs in the realm where not everything is wholly pure – “gelatinous microbes… torment your undone sin,” as being human is a Fallen state, an incomplete action, and worst of all right now, just plain dirty. And if being at the bottom of an ocean sucks, notice where our internal speaker’s list has moved to: “a shapely wooden leg in a home far away from your prescriptive land.”

In the “prescriptive land,” perhaps, we can all follow the Law blindly that will make us as pure as the angels. Outside that land, we get this grotesque comic production from our own sensuality: we try to take control, and even though we accept imperfection, the whole enterprise is tilted towards artifice and thus our own ridiculousness. We all know the wooden leg lamp from “A Christmas Story,” but I never imagined finding true love might mean sleeping with the lamp.

So our internal speaker and internal audience have to do a bit more searching to find a solution to this puzzle, and you see the puzzle outright: Does talking about love in terms of purity generate and sustain love?

Our speaker brings us to the issue of “everyone” – what do they want? Apparently, they want “to lie between,” perhaps exactly between. But between “Self-expression and smashing dishes?” One would think self-expression causes the smashing of dishes, but the way the speaker puts the issue in “everyone’s” mind, it seems that people believe if they don’t express themselves they’re doomed to a loveless marriage.

No doubt that’s true to some degree, but there’s no getting around the fact that love of any sort declared publicly creates a public institution which suppresses the private. I think the safe reading here is that “everyone” is clueless, thinking the only obstacles to love come from without – hence, “the raccoon beside the freezer.” If we lie between that and the rest of our stuff, it can smash the dishes before we shoo it and no one gets hurt, right? Smashed dishes are just smashed dishes, they couldn’t possibly indicate any internal discord or starting a life together with a crappy conception of love, could they?

Of course, “lie between” might not be linked with “the raccoon beside the freezer,” which makes me wonder – why would you want a “raccoon beside the freezer?” Right now, I’m taking that to support the idea that “everyone” is unrealistic, at least in our speaker’s eyes.

- I know I’m stretching to get a commentary written fast, so that’s why I’m titling this “notes” :P -

In any case, let’s conclude as this poem does: we move finally from “want” to “belief,” and the title and the idea of journeying by land becomes all important.

This isn’t just about love between a couple. Love between a couple has never been just about love between a couple. This is about the foundation of morality.

It is possible we believe “this the easiest way to give back what’s given:”

growth among the weeds,
connoisseurs of criminal beauty,
enamel licking teeth,
a metal tasting tongue to speak
these words that might be said, or do
you the material fact of body eat too?

The weeds are an outlawed beauty, but they are still beautiful. “Growth” could mean something distinct from the weeds, or it could refer to one of the weeds.

“Enamel licking teeth” aren’t merely teeth looking for every last morsel: they’re teeth cannibalizing themselves to a degree.

“A metal tasting tongue?” For what words “that might be said?”

This list of three parallels the “self-expression”/”smashing dishes”/”raccoon” list above. Somehow, when the topic switched to “everyone,” and then to “belief” rather than want, the theme engaged shifted from “purity” to “appetite.”

As always, Amy King is well-aware of what I, as a student of Leo Strauss, would call the ancient/modern distinction. The fundamental difference between us and the medievals/Romans/Greeks is that we base politics on the fact men are not angels. We start with the idea that man loves himself and himself only. The other political orders start from the idea that man loves something higher. Therefore, all our talking about Constitutionalism and rule of law and procedures tends to miss the fact that the highest debates about politics concern the private in the deepest sense – we think we know what all men want, that desire is inherently public. We all know the culture wars dominate the political landscape. Are we aware to what extent, or are we made consciously blind by the mere conduct of our politics?

We don’t know if the speaker shares the “belief” posed. All we know is that to not have the “belief” is to “eat the material fact of body,” to insist on the purity which literally sinks one. Our starting point in this poem is a modern, all too modern premise, and the problem with purity has rightly been identified. We move to ridiculousness, and pretty much stay there. Perfect solutions are not to be had, not by us, certainly not by the many. The tension is what we have to live with, it seems, because to “give back what’s given” is probably the least of our duties, and the easiest way is sometimes the only feasible way.

6 Comments

  1. Enjoyed this as well as the link to her other work.

  2. I love the content of this post and I thank you for sharing it…

  3. What is called.. I really do inspire me.. Thank you for sharing it to us..

  4. This is such a wonderful post. Very motivating and inspiring about the truth about our lives.

  5. Victoria Taylor

    October 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    This is really amazing.. Keep it up!

  6. Excellent poems..How could you do that?I pity myself because even a single paragraph,I can’t do.Thank you for posting.

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