Knowledge is power, the saying goes. I confess I have not appreciated this enough.
I’ll rant about the news. Try too hard to show I understand exactly why an event happened. This encapsulates U.S.-Cuba relations. Invest pride in a prediction useless to anyone or anything else. Because of larger tariffs, you’ll see trouble in this sector of the economy. Ranting about the news is testing the water’s temperature—secretly, I’m testing whether I know anything.
But if knowledge tells us “what is,” then it proves itself immediately useful. There could be times this actually happens. When I choose my words carefully, or examine how I’m feeling and react well, I may be demonstrating knowledge to be no less than being.
The notion that the truth perfectly coincides with how things are is more than seductive. If the truth about ourselves has to be proved to ourselves, then we want to know because we want to be. No wonder Aquinas saw unity, being, good, and truth as transcendental—moral aspiration rockets to dizzying heights and will not come down.
We need it to descend. I need it to descend. I need to see more of the world and stay strong doing so. The world does not want to be observed: it is a machine that thrives on breaking humans in order to prove itself. The sum total of human ambitions is an inhuman monster. But if I want to know, I have to start with “what is,” and that is not a metaphysical question. Can I see, reflect, and respond to what is all around me? Can I demonstrate basic awareness?
Not “everything,” not “being,” but “nothing” begins an earnest inquiry. What is the smallest with which I can start? Nothing has a name it can’t slip out of—
Nothing has a name it can't
slip out of. The waterfall is solid ice
by late November; the white pines
vanish under snow that's
blue in the morning, pink in the dusk.
Here's a little bouquet—ice
and evergreen and sun, three moments
arranged for human looking,
though it's only the husks of their names
that I've gathered and paralyzed.
Nothing has a name it can’t slip out of leans in at least two directions. There is the direction of no thing, as in all things must change, no thing can possibly keep its name forever. The waterfall is solid ice by late November, and so even water has slipped out of its name and become ice. What was wondrous because of its motion is now wondrous as crystal.
Then there’s Nothing in the sense given by philosophers of the academy. Perhaps there is nothing before or beyond this life, no eternal ground upon which to conceive human destiny or build morality. Maybe some of our highest rhetoric is notable for the extremes of vacuousness indulged. This Nothing, which derives no little power from anxieties concerning annihilation, has a name it cannot escape. The white pines vanish under snow that’s blue in the morning, pink in the dusk—a blanket of the simplest material causes the natural world as we know it to vanish, leaving only the light of the sky. The material only has character from reflecting that light.
How is it possible to find any knowledge of use in this beautiful, terrible cold? What actually is?
Instead of “what is,” start with the feeling of perception, the enchantment of growth: Here’s a little bouquet—ice and evergreen and sun, three moments arranged for human looking. Start with what’s immediate, and what’s immediate is that something is being given. “Three moments arranged for human looking” are a “bouquet,” a flowering. Perhaps the poet herself made the arrangement, in which case this is meant as a gift to us. Between ice that coldly stops motion and may return to water and sun that gives light and may give warmth lies the “evergreen.”
It’s tempting to think of the “evergreen” as characteristic of something permanent and powerful within humanity. Maybe we do know our destiny; maybe our hopes are grounded on a greater truth. But the evergreen is presented here as simply between ice and sun, one flower among others. The ever green, what one might imagine as hope eternal, is itself as much a hope as “ice” and “sun.”
To build optimism upon knowledge, uncertainty needs to be embraced. This bouquet is being given, and strangely enough, the receiver understands enough of it for it to be a useful gift. Here are “three moments arranged for human looking,” though it’s only the husks of their names that I’ve gathered and paralyzed. Names have become words and become distant from the very phenomena they represent. Yet because we understand the scene painted, these “husks” have built something lasting. The value of being lies in images come to life. The life of this bouquet is in the shared experience of the poem, where we have been given a riddle and a picture of a sublime winter. We see ourselves there, wondering what needs to be said.