Chase Twichell, “Animal Caution”

Memories of a certain significance entail grand gestures, rituals piled atop rituals. Every so often, Twichell climbs to a height where a cairn memorializing one of her parents lies. Whenever I touch the cairn marking the summit of one of my parents stops me. She’s carefully stepped on certain areas of the path, noted landmarks such as rocks and plants, tried not to startle the wildlife. The cairn itself stands unique, made from local stones. Each stone is rough and uneven, with a texture and color all its own. Together, they form a small hill echoing the hill they sit upon. 

Animal Caution (from Poetry)
Chase Twichell

Whenever I touch the cairn
marking the summit
of one of my parents,
touch the top stone,
an animal caution comes over me,
sinew and muscle like the brook’s,
a sudden shivering
green-brown flame.
Soon they will be constellations,
and I a small tower of stones.

So much alludes to every moment in life having weight and seriousness. And that’s the problem our parents pose. What are you doing with your life? What are you doing with what we gave you? These questions may be verbalized, but their importance is in the spirit we believe we should manifest. Their silence in our blood builds us or kills us. Even some of the worst parents leave a clump of various visions marking themselves in our mind. A happy birthday party; an extremely extravagant Christmas; advice not meant seriously which ironically worked. The best parents can leave legacies which threaten to paralyze with shame.

One can’t help but feel that Twichell measures herself against that cairn. [I] touch the top stone, an animal caution comes over me. The measurement results in a quiet but significant gesture. She reaches out and touches the top of the cairn, a height she can reach. At that moment, an animal caution. Parental love, bound up with our bodies, can at times ignore our choices and our values. For some children, this is annoying; for others, it is the height of neglect. Still. What if, for a moment, we tried to see as their love sees?

We can’t, of course. Only briefly can we become an animal enhanced by a desire to survive and prosper. And even then, we’re beyond the type of love implied. Sinew and muscle like the brook’s. Sinew and muscle enhanced by an animal caution, by an excitement not as much fear as alertness. But the sinew and muscle are ultimately like the brook’s, not simply animal. Strength gathers from a stream of continual change. Drawing strength from change is specific to our individual growth. Parents can only help with this, if they recognize that it must happen at all.

And then, Twichell writes what sounds like a vision. A sudden shivering green-brown flame. Perhaps it was a vision for a moment, like Moses’ burning bush. But in the end, it must be Twichell herself, a blend of tree and fire, shivering. Her own recognition that she’s here, she’s alive and growing and changing now. That what oppresses with regard to parental love is a sense of being which struggles to comprehend change. This is not the fault of any set of parents, though the limits of parental love are clear. We as children, even adult children, struggle to understand our parents as people. They become moments, expectations, idols. None of this is unnatural, but it is certainly mystical, a process of the beyond defining the here and now. Soon they will be constellations, and I a small tower of stones.

Hannah VanderHart, “When Someone Says a Poem is Masterful”

Mastery, as VanderHart demonstrates, is an exceptionally cruel word. This did not need to be the case. However, hundreds of years of slavery and not nearly enough serious reckoning with every drop of blood drawn with the lash has created a peculiar situation. “Mastery” should speak to the empowerment, confidence, and joy which expertise in craft brings. Instead, ghosts appear to speak a disgusting reality. Some have built pride, wealth, and even a set of warped traditions from owning and abusing other human beings.

It is morally imperative, then, that “mastery” is undone. But when a word has to change, that change must start with an individual, and what to do with masterful as a compliment? Masterful… is arrow after arrow in the still-pumping heart; it is possible to be proud and wounded, both at once. One has to remind oneself of what is at stake on a number of levels. Who is the master of art? no one / Who wants to master the body of a poem? no one should / I have a master in my family tree / Jack Allums: he will always be there

When Someone Says a Poem is Masterful (from On the Seawall)
Hannah VanderHart

It is arrow after arrow in the still-pumping heart
 
who is the master of art? no one
who wants to master the body of a poem? no one should
 
I have a master in my family tree
Jack Allums: he will always be there
 
the male head of a household
a person licensed to command
 
teacher and enslaver: Jack
the original from which copies were made
 
his word was writ on bodies
 
–
Even in Amherst, Dickinson’s imagination
runs to mastery, to master
 
in her third “Master letter,” she crosses out the line
 
but I knew you had altered me.
 
when Emily crosses a line
she revises, she helms herself
 
she circumnavigates
 
–
 
The mythos of mastery is this — a canvas sail
is said to master the wind
 
and a wooden rudder the sea
 
but the wind can shred the sail, and the ocean
dissolve a human tongue
 
so that it cannot say a single word
 
to make will always be better
than to master
 
better than salt and sugar, fields
of someone else’s labor

The desire to become the “master of art” and the desire to “master the body of a poem” cannot be understood as normal accomplishment or frustration regarding craftsmanship. Everyone gets tired of trying to make every word or stroke or motion or inflection count and just wants expression to be easier. But there are some—some considered terrible artists, some at the top of the field—who think it is possible to possess something which makes everything easier. They’re tempted by no less than precedent. On the smallest, most superficial note: it absolutely is the case I’ve been able to write more and write better since I bought a new laptop. New materials, new techniques, new ideas transform our making, make our products better than what we made before. Why can’t there be something that speaks superiority once and for all? The hubris sneaks in imperceptibly, as we would all like a legacy as artists.

We turn to Dickinson, who addressed an unsent letter to a Master, crossing out the line but I knew you had altered me. Mastery erases identity; the worst teachers want all the credit. The funny thing is realizing one’s own expertise constitutes an obstacle to oneself. That if you submit, declare everything as revealed, proclaim yourself the vessel, then there is no more growth, no grounds for pride, no way to see yourself. You don’t have a superpower, it has you. Against this, VanderHart posits that Dickinson stopped and went around. When Emily crosses a line / she revises, she helms herself / she circumnavigates. In revision, an admission of change; in helming oneself, committing to a direction and readiness for defense; in circumnavigation, not merely going around an obstacle, but exploring a world hitherto unknown. The assumption of mastery is the limit of one’s world. An abandonment of formal authority, in this case, brings into being possibility.

It sounds beautiful. Still, as a practical matter, we will try to make things, striving for not only what is better, but best in the end. And so the mythos of mastery must be addressed. A canvas sail / is said to master the wind / and a wooden rudder the sea. A canvas sail and wooden rudder sound like simple materials. Mastery has a deceptive humility about it. A second’s reflection: how exploration turned to exploitation, how a few countries claimed the world as their own, setting in motion centuries of genocide and violence. The wind can shred the sail, and the ocean / dissolve a human tongue. Sails proved not enough for empires glutting themselves. They eventually needed iron and lead. The ocean did dissolve human tongues in the worst way, blotting out innumerable voices, creating tuneless praise of brutality and order everywhere. To make I take to be the call to fine art. To make will always be better than to master. What matters is doing it yourself, warts and all, being 60 and producing lines sometimes outdone by an 8th grader. Integrity must never depend on possession. That some can only see themselves as worthy possessors, one might say, is the sin against the Holy Ghost.

Socrates, Money, and Virtue: Apology of Socrates 30a-c

What I would like is success. I’d like to do a thing well, get something good, and feel secure about what I can accomplish. 

Maybe “success” is the wrong word. Maybe what I want is a certain kind of security.

Socrates, in the Apology, seems to speak to this type of desire, albeit in a riddling way. His words: “Not from money does virtue come, but from virtue comes money and all of the other good things for human beings both privately and publicly.” Virtue makes money, he claims, and gives us “all of the other good things.” 

Um. I should probably check how much I’ve been drinking. Okay, let’s try his words with a bit more context:

[Socrates:] “…I suppose that until now no greater good has arisen for you in the city than my service to the god. For I go around and do nothing but persuade you, both younger and older, not to care for bodies and money before, nor as vehemently as, how your soul will be the best possible. I say: ‘Not from money does virtue come, but from virtue comes money and all of the other good things for human beings both privately and publicly.’ If, then, I corrupt the young by saying these things, they may be harmful. But if someone asserts that what I say is other than this, he speaks nonsense.”

Plato, Apology of Socrates 30a-c.

What is Socrates up to? This is one part of a series of arguments where he says he does no less than the bidding of Apollo. That he exhorts all to virtue, pushing everyone to make their souls “the best possible.” To that end, he tells the whole of Athens that if they’re virtuous, they’ll make money.

Rude, I believe the kids would say. I’m tempted not to take Socrates’ speech terribly seriously. After all, for whatever virtues he displays, he’ll be put to death. And he is pretty much saying that money is all Athens understands.

Still, one thing gives me pause. He says he tells the young this. On the one hand, you could say this serves as a sarcastic denunciation of their elders. But the young need more than savage takedowns, and Socrates of all people knows this. There’s a positive teaching hiding here. In what sense does virtue make money?

All my life I’ve found people who have some success and are chill about it to be incredible. Someone happy to celebrate you, happy to spend a bit more money or spend time listening. I wouldn’t say explicitly their virtue made them rich, but it’s not like their virtue made them poor. I want to believe they deserve to have what they have, since they care to give.

Is that enough to say virtue makes money? That there are those of us who believe the virtuous should be rich? That we would give to see them prosper? That doesn’t quite work, but I feel like I’ve stumbled upon some sort of moral circumstance of which we’re not always aware. Money seems to have exceptional value when in the right hands.

This could be challenged. “What about someone who kills a bunch, gets a lot of money, and uses it to evade capture and get what he wants? Isn’t money providing a lot of value for him there?” It is, there’s no doubt of that. But most of us are inclined to argue against this objection, I imagine. It looks like value to the one criminal isn’t quite the same as value to more of us combined with the reputation and legacy of the one giving. Aristotle speaks highly of generosity and magnificence, of private and public giving, calling them both virtues.

That’s not the end of the discussion, certainly. But it makes sense to move on because we do need an answer to whether virtue is money. This world is unrelentingly materialistic. Survival might depend upon reconciling some notion of a moral good with a desire for gain.

I’m wondering about Socrates’ declaration that virtues gets money and all the other good things “privately and publicly.” Why that qualifier? Why not just say money and all the other goods, and leave it at that? Only knowledge—only the truth—makes a private/public distinction irrelevant in this case. If virtue is knowledge, then virtue is wealth, because one must know in order for wealth to actually be wealth. This can be a trivial argument. For example: someone given money who has absolutely no idea what to do with it is in real danger of losing it. On a more profound level, for money to do the things we want it to do, knowledge is absolutely necessary, otherwise we would be just as well off without the money. That, I suspect, is the real teaching to the young. It’s a teaching I need to take to heart. What knowledge do I need in order to appreciate success? What knowledge do I need to feel secure?

References

West, Thomas G., Grace Starry West, Plato, and Aristophanes. Four Texts On Socrates: Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, and Aristophanes’ Clouds. Rev. ed. Ithaca [N.Y.]: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Osip Mandelstam, “Suddenly in a light shawl”

Machiavelli testifies to “catching thrushes with my own hands” in the Letter to Vettori. “I would get up before daybreak, prepare the birdlime, and go out with… a bundle of birdcages on my back.” It wasn’t a hobby. Stripped of any honor or power, left with only his family’s land, he sounds like he’s trying to survive. He depends on woodsmen to turn the trees on the land into firewood. He fights with those buying the firewood. He gets into even more fights over card games.

I teach the Letter because it’s relatable. Maybe we’re not trying to survive the same way. But the loveless, joyless, fairly lonely life depicted makes sense. We’ve all been there, at least once. (Sometimes, we’re there and don’t quite realize it.) He is writing a letter; he does talk with the woodsmen; he does have people to argue with. But for most of the text, there’s no sense of intimacy as in Mandelstam’s poem below:

"Suddenly in a light shawl"
Osip Mandelstam (translation by David McDuff)

Suddenly in a light shawl
you slipped out of the half-darkened hall –
we disturbed no one,
we did not wake the sleeping servants...

This is overcharged with erotic energy, but why exactly? We can picture someone strikingly beautiful, bathed in shadow, absolutely in love and willing to go anywhere with us. It’s a dream sold to us through novels and movies. It’s not an unnecessary dream, either. If romance had nothing to do with love, romance wouldn’t be as attractive or misleading as it is.

For my own part, I’m drawn to the various ways this poem creates mystery. A “shawl” covers; “the half-darkened hall” doesn’t allow much vision; no one is “disturbed” (not even the audience!); no one is awoken. Whatever these two share is intensely private, their own personal bliss that can’t be understood or analyzed by others. The erotic energy comes from the privacy, not what is done in privacy. 

The poem can speak to the contemporary situation. Society at this moment is failing. People indulge conspiracy theories and extremism, which both cheapen the lives of others. Some who may be more privileged ask if it is ethical to bring kids into a world that looks doomed; others speak of pandemic relationships. Still others face persecution by the state or those the state empowers. The overwhelming feeling among nearly everyone is that one has to run away from this time and place to have something profound or lasting. That what is real has to reside in the fantastic, because it has to be worth remembering.

It sounds strange to connect Mandelstam’s indulgence of sensuality with Machiavelli’s complaining about bad firewood buyers. But there is a direct connection. For both, the worlds in which they lived had ample amounts of terror and misery. Mandelstam’s story is well-known. The very first thing I remember reading about Machiavelli is how he was tortured.

Mandelstam’s poem serves as a memory and a love letter. It holds someone dear at the moment it is read. It places them in a remembrance which transcends both, but only they have the key to it. Machiavelli’s letter goes a different direction. He eventually speaks about his daily reading as if he were feasting on ambrosia. It sounds strange to consider a lust for knowledge the same as, well, lust. I confess I’m not entirely convinced of any connection myself. But true privacy seems to be about creating spaces in which one can reveal oneself to others, where the few involved are fulfilled, heard, seen.

Osip Mandelstam, “The Poem”

With a sluggish gait, my mind moves from half-formed thought to half-formed thought. Looking through older work of mine, I see more clearly where I failed to fully explain what I wanted to say. Real writers, well, I imagine their minds spring into wakefulness. They start saying what needs to be said and make amends for bad sentences. My brain instead decides to shut down. Not only pretend that I didn’t write trash, but that I couldn’t possibly write any better.

So now I’m staring at Mandelstam’s “The Poem,” wondering about Wiman’s beautiful gloss. Wondering, too, about all the not-so-good sentences out there. Do terrible lines merit white meteorite, infinity’s orphan, word painwaking particular earth? If the word creates, do bad words create abominations? Or can they not create at all?

The Poem
Osip Mandelstam (translated by Christian Wiman)

White meteorite, infinity’s orphan, word
Painwaking particular earth...

Supplicants, tyrants, it doesn’t matter.
It is matter: unbudgeable, unjudgeable, itself.

I’m partial to an answer of a certain subtlety. The heavily romantic vision of “The Poem” doesn’t discount verbal failures. White meteorite, for example. It can speak to the enthusiasm sensed behind an overwrought analysis or a writer trying to jam in everything that engages them. I’ll confess some things are a pain to read until they aren’t. In a few cases I’ve found myself asking “What is the author striving for?” after wanting to stab his draft. Somehow, the answer to the question became apparent and compelling.

Infinity’s orphan. Orphaned, unrelated, unable to engage the whole as it truly is: a flux beyond measure or definition. Perhaps there’s no greater slight on bad writing than arguing it shouldn’t exist. But then one could ask whether good writing should exist. Good writing can be horribly misleading. I can’t count the times I’ve been seduced by a few words into denying the obvious. I can’t count the times good writing aided me in failing to recognize my own interest.

Whatever makes writing necessary, important, and good for humanity has to do with “orphan.” The finite, the particular, the individual, the specific. These things begin with the pain of difference, rejection.

A vision of a meteorite striking a planet—word painwaking particular earth. It’s beautiful to witness, but no one thinks of their own writing as awakening entire worlds. However, everyone who loves to read has something they worship. I feel, at this point, like bad and good are not terribly relevant terms, though they can be helpful in certain situations. What takes precedence: infinity’s orphan, with whatever pained distance it has from beauty and completeness, describes the worst literary experiences we have and the best.

Mandelstam’s poem about poetry concludes with a comment about the audience themselves. Poetry does not suffer supplicants or tyrants. It is beyond them and holds them in irrelevance. If they read and find it relevant, that is peculiar to them as individuals; their excessive subordination or desire resists painwaking. This much I think I understand.

More complicated is the claim that poetry is matter—unbudgeable, unjudgeable, itself. I can make a smart sounding comment about the Greek word poesis, which means “making” and refers to the activity of Homer and the tragedians. They built worlds, they brought life to the gods. But that doesn’t help address the immediacy of unbudgeable, unjudgeable. Those words sound personal, alluding to the experience of moving and being moved. Poetry doesn’t move, but we want it to speak exactly for us. Nor does it need our judgment, even though we’d like to say some poems better describe us and others not so much. It just is, a building more than the activity of building. It gives life, but its objectivity is in focus for Mandelstam/Wiman. It’s an organic object we find ourselves resting against or upon.