Lorine Niedecker, “Linnaeus in Lapland”

Linnaeus, not yet known as one who could categorize all life, is out there. He’s in Lapland, enduring the bitter cold in order to study lichens (which sustain the native reindeer), mosses, rocks, and the few plants Lapland has. One flower in particular commands his attention—he calls it Andromeda. It finds a place in his journal:

Carolus Linnaeus’ comparison of Andromeda and the plant he named after her. 1732.

Nothing worth noting, sighs the poem, except. In his drawing, her feet bound to a mound more rock than earth; her arms flail, begging for help while a monster looks quizzically on. Before his eyes, the myth unfolds—the arms, the quadrangular shoots. The shackles, the boots. Historically, his words:

This plant is always fixed on some turfy little hillock in the midst of swamps, as Andromeda herself was chained to a rock in the sea…. Dragons and venomous serpents surrounded her, as toads and other reptiles frequent the abode of her vegetable prototype…. As the distressed virgin cast down her blushing face through excessive affliction, so does the rosy-coloured flower hang its head.

An excess of imagination, we are prone to diagnose the naturalist with. But let the fullness of his and Niedecker’s imagination speak. Combined, they voice an understanding of an epoch:

Linnaeus in Lapland (from Poetry)
Lorine Niedecker

Nothing worth noting
except an Andromeda
with quadrangular shoots—
the boots
of the people

wet inside: they must swim
to church thru the floods
or be taxed—the blossoms
from the bosoms
of the leaves

*

Fog-thick morning—
I see only
where I now walk. I carry
my clarity
with me.

*

Hear
where her snow-grave is
the You
ah you

of mourning doves

This same Andromeda, reaching up with quadrangular shoots, contains the aspirations of many. On the one hand, she and they are both prisoners—they must swim to church thru the floods or be taxed. Niedecker’s scenario is so ridiculous one can’t help but picture it. A congregation in wet boots that swam to church through a flood in order to avoid taxes. The superhuman services the painfully petty ordinary. The life of a plant stands an unwitting alternative to what nominally rules men.

On the other hand, this little plant, filled with misguided aspirations, is life itself. The blossoms from the bosoms of the leaves. In Andromeda, not just the myth, but the constellation.

Linnaeus recognizes how life can be radically unfree, but then assumes a power. Fog-thick morning—I see only where I now walk. I carry my clarity with me. One might think this the statement of a scientist, which it certainly could be. He lets limits craft his vision into truth. But I could also see it as one of a jilted lover, one trying not to let his expectations best him. If the latter, is Linnaeus reproaching himself for indulging the juxtaposition of the plant and the woman? Again, his own words, not the poem: As the distressed virgin cast down her blushing face through excessive affliction, so does the rosy-coloured flower hang its head.

There is another possibility—embracing one’s desires and imagination while understanding one’s limits. Hear, he says to apparently no one. Hear / where her snow grave is / the You / ah You / of mourning doves. His vision becomes sound, as he understands that he has been speaking to himself. Love is lost, but that doesn’t mean seeing it in the world is any less real.

To understand the limits of one’s desire while embracing the whole world is a fantastic task. Linnaeus found at least 100 more species in Lapland than had previously been recorded. His acquisition of knowledge is literal enlightenment; his belief in his efforts heralded another age, another way of living life. Eros, by implication, is not strictly hierarchical, commanding allegiance to a greater beauty or merely standing above the worst sort of punishment. Wet boots are not the only way to furnish blossoming.

When I first read this poem, I thought of Linnaeus as having the power of Adam and naming everything. It looks like he names an absent Eve, but this poem only touches that to bring Linnaeus into focus. The power to name comes from God, and if one could name everything correctly, it would not be blasphemous or the mark of hubris to take note of a Supreme Being. What stands out is Linnaeus’ overripe imagination, his gentleness, his regret and communion. This is his universe, his Eden, and we are lucky to be witnesses.

Notes and References

The excerpt from Linnaeus’ journal is from Jonathan Skinner’s “Particular Attention: Lorine Niedecker’s Natural Histories.” In Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, ed. Elizabeth Willis. University of Iowa Press, 2008. 47.

My thanks to the Wikipedia page on Linnaeus, accessed March 4-5, 2019: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Linnaeus

Maureen N. McLane, “notational / sufficiency”

I’ll make a note of it, I tell myself, and I do that much. So I have built a journal filled with phrases meant to remind me of experiences I had, but those jottings have now become lifeless scratches of ink. Life cannot be contained by memory, and memory in turn is too much for words.

This dilemma could be restated as that of notational sufficiency. Notes weren’t enough, as I neither did justice to my verbal abilities nor my own life. A wager was made some days—was the attention given wholly enough? How should one regard one’s own life, give oneself appropriate attention? I know my typical answer is to become an anxious mess for hours on end, reliving everything I think I’ve done wrong and then some:

notational / sufficiency
Maureen N. McLane

notational
sufficiency: a wager

made some days
attention

seems wholly
enough

despite the danger
of a simplified

syntax, a mere
gleaning

from the surround—

so thought
hovered,

unstreaming,
punctual, rough

McLane is far braver than I am. Have her notes ever worked for her? Despite the danger of a simplified syntax, she indicates that they did work. Some days the attention was wholly enough; the simplified syntax did justice to the truth. She didn’t believe that she should have immediately written her autobiography, justifying and finding the greater truth behind everything she did and experienced.

Rather, she’s satisfied with the impossibility of capturing the fullness of experience with words. If you try to write everything out as it happens, you create another reality entirely. It’s not a reality which does justice to anything, it’s simply an attempt to say you have control over your own life.

What can you do with words, using a simplified syntax? Accept a mere gleaning from the surround. You don’t need to capture all of an experience or really any of it. Your life is not meant to have the staying power and profundity of Greek drama through sheer force of will. What you need to know is how you saw, how you reacted—so thought hovered, unstreaming, punctual, rough. Thoughts of yours which don’t quite flow, which sometimes explode like gunshots, need to be allowed to coalesce into thought, a reconstruction of a moment faithful to one’s own veracity. To put it more bluntly: your commitment to honesty is a search for your own honesty.

Chase Twichell, “Makeshifts”

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

Makeshifts
Chase Twichell

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.

Sappho, “I took my lyre and said”

I took my lyre—Sappho at once pronounces herself bold, empowered, and vulnerable. Uttering a musical phrase invites others to be lost in note after note. Is there such a thing as a song sung only to oneself?

Sappho feels and wants those feelings to flow to those near and beyond. Song itself should do that; what’s curious is her prelude to playing and singing. Her speech to her lyre looks like a moment of hesitation, of stage fright:

I took my lyre and said
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I took my lyre and said:

Come now, my heavenly
tortoise shell: become
a speaking instrument

I took my lyre and said—maybe the easier scenario to imagine is Sappho outside, seated upon a smooth stone in the sunshine, playing before a crowd excited to hear her. In which case, this is banter at a live show. It could be pure confidence masquerading as timidity.

What if she’s actually nervous, though? Maybe she isn’t outside, surrounded by fans, but indoors, alone, speaking to an empty shell devoid of a living creature. Come now, my heavenly tortoise shell: become a speaking instrument—this doesn’t seem divine when those circumstances are imagined. She speaks to the shell but does not believe she has spoken at all. The need for a speaking instrument—not just sounds or syllables, not just ritual, but words unique and resonant—is pronounced.

The shell has become a lyre before; she has realized herself as a poet before. It’s the object which reminds her who she is. We could say, then, that there is a Muse, a heavenly beauty which may dazzle and blind us physically. The Muse takes away seeing this world for the truth of this world. It’s something beyond us that allows us to realize who we are, as we act in amazing ways without quite knowing what we’re doing.

When we are returned to the world at hand, it is frightfully ordinary. Objects seem dead and powerless. One has to regard the right ones as heaven-sent in order to redeem one’s own power.

Sappho, “I confess / I love that which caresses me”

Love should have warmth, Sappho says guiltily. I confess / I love that which caresses me.

Why voice any regret? Basic relationship advice, advice any one of us would readily give: Watch how a potential partner treats everyone around them, not just you. In other words, being friendly, warm, observant of manners and rules should be consistent behavior. Someone worthy of your love should cherish life and those around them. They should be open to intimacy as a part of this. A “caress” speaks to those expectations more than an isolated action, and one shouldn’t feel guilty for having high standards, right?

I confess / I love that which caresses me
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I confess

I love that
which caresses
me. I believe

Love has his
share in the
Sun’s brilliance
and virtue.

But Sappho does express guilt. Maybe she thinks herself easily manipulated—the feeling someone cares can be confused with excitement and vice versa. Getting a relationship, for most of us, does seem to depend on this game of “hard to get.” The less you’re around, the rarer your presence and touch, the more you are sought after. I can’t help but think that the logic of “hard to get” weaponizes absence, making the presence of a beloved too much a matter of excitement.

Sappho presses ahead. She’s not afraid to love despite the thought that how she loves could use improvement. I believe / Love has his share in the Sun’s brilliance and virtue. The Sun merely sheds light on things, letting them be brilliant and virtuous. It caresses gently, from a distance. When we see, we keep things at a distance—we don’t immediately grab and devour them.

Love is this beholding, not just continual presence or continual touch. That doesn’t mean more a more sensual approach is a terrible thing. It does mean a certain warmth—a desire to caress, not just be caressed—is at play.