Emily Dickinson, “As willing lid o’er weary eye” (1050)

Lately, I have not been looking at nature too closely. It feels a blur of bugs and heat, an encompassing disorder I must move through. At this moment, though, I’m sitting at the computer. Unless I bring to the screen a particular focus, it is a blur of letters with a blue glow.

I don’t feel compelled to move. Rather, I’m in the mood to master a virtual space without having any idea what it is or what I’m doing. Identification with a willing lid o’er weary eye is easily had, as something makes me tired, but what?

As willing lid o'er weary eye (1050)
Emily Dickinson

As willing lid o'er weary eye
The Evening on the Day leans
Till of all our nature's House
Remains but Balcony

Half the poem consists of a simile pointing to a day’s work requiring rest: As willing lid o’er weary eye / The Evening on the Day leans. The Evening leans—it’s weary, it’s tired, it’s willing to embrace sleep. But what work was done? Anything?

I can’t help but think that nothing was attempted or accomplished. It may have been a day not unlike ours, shut down on account of worry and disaster. An overarching anxiety born of our stars, a mixture of expectations and fate, frustrations and hopes. That’s the only thing which feels real and thus remains: Till of all our nature’s House / Remains but Balcony.

Still, the optimism of the last two lines shines through. Starlight merely signifies the “Balcony” of “nature’s House.” A greater, grander mystery can be envisioned. If the day felt full of failure, why can’t the imagination be trusted? Why can’t the night be seen as a blank canvas for a most beautiful day?

I’m not sure what to say at this juncture. On the one hand, it’s nice to think that “trying” is a process conditioned by hope, dependent on a realm rich with possibility. An optimistic logic can thrive on destroying pessimistic, defeatist claims which usually go unchallenged. I grew up with a relative who would always scream about how the economy was going to collapse. It never did, but his arguments were never attacked despite the large assumptions they made and their inability to identify what was actually important in a given situation. At times, just pushing back against the gloom he conveyed made life a lot less taxing.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what I myself am doing in this virtual space. Reading a few poems? Writing a few words? If that’s the case, going to sleep is perfectly logical, no? Nothing is being done. Maybe I need to step aside and note that the outline of a house illumined by stars is a bit more than a minor miracle. The possibility of “nature’s House” may not be realized on any specific day, but is just as real–if not more real–than our fears and frustrations.

Graham Foust, “The Only Poem”

One of the tasks of political philosophy, I imagine, is accounting for how it is possible for an entire people to be in denial. Emphasis must be placed on “how it is possible.” Critics can ask “What do you mean by an entire people?” and “What if they actually have the truth and you’re in denial?” More rigorous thinkers can charge this topic with being too broad. Topics which are too broad may lead to large, general statements which do no justice to the details of how people live or how things work.

The only trouble with denying my question—”How is it possible for an entire people to be in denial?”—is reality. I can truthfully say “it’s obvious racism is a problem but so hard for people to admit it,” to take one example. I submit the following, though, for your consideration. Our understanding of history depends in no small part on certain narratives. One of the key narratives is of this form: “X number of people made mistake Y because they believed Z.” Such an understanding could be problematic, but also stands essential to how anything at least initially is learned.

Thus, if I ask “How are we currently in denial?”, I have to ask about an understanding of history. How is it shared and communicated? How does it lead to seeing the world in specific ways? The question of possibility has been transformed from a matter of theory into one that is practical. To grasp the possibility of mass denial is to grasp how a people understand themselves.

But how is such a possibility engaged? I can’t just read a history textbook. Plenty do this and repeat the most basic facts out of context as if they were divine truths. Nor can I simply call for reflection, whatever that means. I have far too many examples in my life of people who thought too much, concluded they were right, and armed themselves with the ability to angrily argue with anyone who thought differently.

Graham Foust’s “The Only Poem” opens with a meditation on moral idealism and its limits. At this moment, in the midst of plague, neo-Nazis and white nationalists are marching on state capitals with guns in order to insist on their comfort at the expense of everyone else’s safety. These armed marchers accuse everyone else of being Hitler. I can see who they are, but it’s a lot harder for me to know whether I’m doing the work necessary to defeat their awful movement. Foust’s lines speak to the intersection of “doing the work,” “making a commitment,” and “still being in denial:” This is not a machine. It does not kill fascists. You’re pretending to see the light.

The Only Poem
Graham Foust

This is not a machine.
It does not kill fascists.
You're pretending to see the light.

Winter. Some river,
its claws of water stalled.
You walk across, crossing this, it.

You trust ice, the thermometer,
and riotous loss. Even in danger,
you're a writer, liar.

Some might think his first stanza defiantly apolitical, a turn to nature and away from man-made horror. His poem does not kill fascists, after all. It refuses to be a machine. But “You’re pretending to the see the light” combined with his last “you’re a writer, liar” can be taken as self-referential. I want to assume he’s speaking about the same problem I’m having. I can’t know exactly when I’m in denial, when I’m “pretending to see the light.” This makes commentary on society’s denial of large issues difficult. In the case of the neo-Nazis who are marching, the issue isn’t the Nazis as much as how their protests are treated with far more sympathy than an armed anti-government movement should get. I can see the problem, but do I see the true cause?

One might say the true cause is obvious, for anyone can see a violent lust for power masquerading as freedom. Again, though, that only addresses the marchers. What about everyone else who doesn’t care? A significant part of not taking Nazis seriously is racism in the body politic at large, but there may be a related problem at work. Perhaps people cannot admit they are wrong in any way. Perhaps they’re convinced freedom is their right to value belief over knowledge in any and all cases. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, cruelty to the disabled and a host of other inhuman attitudes are attempts to grab and hold power and also an existential crisis of sorts. It almost seems like people feel that merely thinking about others is a form of selflessness. (It can be, in specific circumstances.)

In which case, the outstanding question entails human completeness. I must wonder about who I’m becoming throughout time. Not only “Do I have a debased notion of freedom myself?” but also whether I am achieving fulfillment beyond conventional moral claims. Am I able to see myself in a natural way, a way which sees others as human but doesn’t deny my dignity? Foust introduces this series of considerations by bringing his persona to a winter walk. Winter. Some river, its claws of water stalled. You walk across, crossing this, it.

His image of a stalled river recalls “you can’t step in the same river twice.” “You can’t step in the same river twice” speaks to both a lack of certainty and the fluid nature of identity. I believe I can accept that I’m responding to things and changing while still being identifiable. But maybe I’m deluding myself when I say that. Maybe it is much easier to know who I am by assuming what I can stand on. Whatever moral notions I have are like frozen water–they assume a more or less similar set of circumstances to what I’ve experienced. It’s like time has been frozen so that I can walk… somewhere. It’s not clear how others are regarded, if they are given any consideration, when I’m walking upon ice.

It’s the trust in this crazy process Foust ultimately settles on as a defining problem. You trust ice, the thermometer, and riotous loss. Even in danger, you’re a writer, liar. Ice is trusted because of scientific knowledge imprecisely applied (thermometer) and a tragic outlook born of cynicism and experience. There’s no real knowledge in our frozen moral notions. I don’t know anything when I accuse my age of being in denial about the most important things. I’m merely “in danger,” “a writer,” “[a] liar.”

One might suspect this reflection is collapsing into a vicious relativism. But on a practical level, morality is fairly relative. Relativism is usually opposed because genocidal maniacs want to argue that no one is any better than they are or people want to argue that their extremely petty notion of right and wrong is what everything else stands upon. Even though I know fascism is absolutely wrong, my moral notions are far from complete. They haven’t seen everything. They have barely accounted for this life, let alone the lives of others. It’s honesty about the conglomerate which serves as moral knowledge for myself that enables a small step away from denial. And sometimes, a small step is all that’s needed. The people most sure about their crazy views of right and wrong are willing to brandish weapons in order to not wear a protective face mask. In assuming the world is their vision of it, they’ve denied the very space in which others could be valued or loved.

Jane Kenyon, “Not Writing”

For a number of us, quarantine entails meeting our insecurities and rediscovering our weaknesses.

This isn’t to say that getting attention constantly is a good thing. But more social interaction, a more active, outgoing life, helps me fully realize what can be done with time alone. It helps put things in perspective, helps me think about what I value and why.

Right now, though, there’s nightmare, fantasy, and some kind of warped middle ground between them. That middle ground is not unlike shutting down, as it whispers “Why even bother?” in such a way that I don’t recognize the question. I do recognize there are answers to other dilemmas for which I need to wait. I do recognize that other attempts of mine to do more have failed. “Why even bother?” is inaudible, but its spirit characterizes my inaction, as if my spirit were less a dove and more like a wasp (no offense to wasps, which actually make efforts toward survival):

Not Writing (from Isak)
Jane Kenyon

A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs

at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.

Kenyon suggests that her inability to write is like not being able to enter her own brain. The wasp rises to the nest, daubs at the gray shape, but can’t get in. The wasp—all credit to it!—tries. It makes painting-like motions, multiple but clumsy attempts to enter. A writer trying to enter her “papery nest,” one would assume, has done all the prewriting exercises. She’s done freewriting for hours, read the work of others and made notes, checked her own diary entries, tried to write on an object she remembers from childhood, etc.

I want my “yeah, I’ve done nothing” confession to count the same as those efforts. On the one hand, it simply can’t–I’ve done nothing. The wasp built that house and is trying to enter it. Other writers are spending their time writing something unfit by their standards or trying to write.

On the other hand, there does seem to be a more fundamental issue, that of fumbling around with one’s own mind. That fumbling seems to link those of us who aren’t even trying with those who are trying with all their might.

*

A wasp rises to its papery nest under the eaves. There’s an ascent towards home for the wasp. Home isn’t some imagined promise. It’s real, “under the eaves,” anchored to a location, of substance itself. A writer’s products are real: the poems, essays, journals, stories, novels, even the bad ones, get readers and attention.

“Attention” requires disambiguation. I think of those who can never go without a significant other, not for one moment. Always a girlfriend or a boyfriend, and if they’re about to break up with one, the next is ready to go in a matter of minutes. I don’t want to judge, but I can’t relate to that need. I don’t need to know I’m wanted no matter what.

Then I think of those who desperately need respect. Everything is a show of authority. I’m not speaking of those who insist on the respect they deserve and use that respect to benefit everyone. No, I’m speaking of those who can’t show the least amount of respect, who try to make everything a joke or an excuse to act out, or those who create artificial standards for every person or situation they meet. Again, it’s a need for attention to which I don’t relate. When I’ve needed respect, it’s because people were treating me like I didn’t exist, like even my physical presence was negligible.

I can speak to what a lack of attention does. I replay in my head my “greatest hits.” Times I’ve given successful papers at conferences. Lectures or writings that inspired questions which had me musing for weeks on end. A lack of attention means I instinctively attempt to give myself attention, not realizing what I’m doing or why. It’s hard to see one’s own value in this state. It’s hard to remember that one’s sense of value is real, that it’s what makes home desirable in the first place.

*

It daubs at the gray shape, but seems unable to enter its own house. Our minds are more than what we value or don’t value. They can put us in motion, allowing us to start the activities which should benefit ourselves and others.

All well and good. So what does it mean to “daub” and fail to find words with which one is comfortable?

It seems like such a small problem. Plenty of people talk without caring about what they say and why. But for some of us, we really need to understand why. We want our words to count.

“Daub” is the key. We need to produce some kind of image which we can relate to and reflect on. That image should be one we can communicate to others. In my teaching recently, I’ve pointed out times that Aristotle seems to take on the persona of someone who is incredibly crotchety (“the young can’t govern! They’re all hormones! Excuse me while I yell at this cloud”), or how Kant may sound like an extremist in order to get us to clarify what we believe. The images of “crotchety old man” or “extreme fundamentalist” are necessary not just for my understanding, but for having any hope of clarifying my understanding. I’m probably wrong, and I’ll realize I’m wrong when what I observe in the text and through others’ reactions shows me another image I must take seriously.

The poem implies that for the writer, the image, for a variety of reasons, is missing. The daubing happens, but the words are either not there or don’t mean anything. Before writing on Kenyon, I tried writing on another poem which had one strong, quotable line and a bunch of other words that if I did something with, I would rewrite the entire poem. It’s possible to write and write and write and say… nothing.

The question is whether one wants to consider this—either my bad writing or the bad poem—a failure of craft. It could speak to someone, no doubt. It’s too glib to call it success, though, and its too personal to let the feeling of failure go. What’s at stake is that something essential needed to be said, not just for the writer but all of us, and at this moment its not being realized. There may be hope, but the future isn’t always helped through present inability.

Jane Kenyon, “Otherwise”

At home, trapped in social distancing—a sort of self-quarantine—while the pandemic rages. Lots to do. Lots to clean and organize, lots to read, lots of dreams and regrets to indulge. But what can I do that’s fulfilling or inspiring?

My immediate desire is to sharpen my skills, to do something small well. To show myself that I can build, execute a strategy, make a plan that works.

There’s a not-so-slight unease. The future, perhaps, is a limit on what is meaningful. And the future does not look good. One example: When I think about mass unemployment in a society cultishly devoted to the idea that some people work and therefore deserve—as if Donald Trump, Jr. has a real job— and others only deserve scorn, I also wonder about a world eager to neglect others, eager to forget they exist. Neglect can be a form of power, and people desperately want to feel power.

In short, the full trauma of unemployment has yet to be conceived. The full assault on the dignity of those who worked hardest but cannot continue, and those who earnestly wish they could work, has yet to be witnessed. It won’t simply be scorn from grifters looking for quick ratings on radio and television by having meltdowns about who is a “taker” and who isn’t. It will be a climate of opinion dictating who is allowed to speak at all, who is allowed a voice. One might say we live in this situation already, and I grant that’s true. I just know that it could get a lot worse, as unimaginable as that seems.

I know it could get so much worse for the conflicts people have with their own selves. How to justify oneself to oneself with little or nothing to do? “They also serve who only stand and wait” is majestic, but so remote. The world was remade from when that was said, in part to deny the truth underlying that statement.

*

In “Otherwise,” Jane Kenyon deals with the unimaginable with every step: I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. The unimaginable magnifies the real, frames it. Even with all the panic I feel, I didn’t think twice about getting out of bed on two strong legs this morning. But Kenyon has a heightened sensitivity to what must be real, what life has to be, precisely because it will be lost:

Otherwise (from the Library of Congress' Poetry 180 project)
Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

She describes a life in which she identifies and loves details. The beauty of things becomes visible to her through her experience. Not just strong legs with which to walk, but sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. Two experiences in particular constitute a peak in the poem: I took the dog uphill to the birch wood and At noon I lay down with my mate. The recognition of what one might term sensitive souls (e.g. animals, dependent on sensation to engage the world) and rational ones (herself and her mate) follows her listing of cereal and peach, which one could say are products of nutritive souls. The rationality she and her mate employ has an Aristotlean character–it searches for an end to human life, asking implicitly how best to live and love. All morning I did the work I love.

Still, it might have been otherwise. Perhaps it is natural to live and love, but not everyone has the same experience, and even those with lives we consider blessed do not experience the same forever. Kenyon presents us with an image of conventionality, a social ritual firmly placed in a human, all-too-human world: We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. Something about the “peak” of existence, of being created on the 6th day, is not completely satisfactory. It might have been otherwise points to the problem of temporality, of dependence on time, but while I just spoke of that I don’t think it’s the only issue. The most visible problem, living in the shadow of death, serves to highlight the other ones. In this case, we can readily see another one: the necessity of love and acceptance by other human beings creates a realm unto itself.

It’s a realm centered on artifice, on image-making. “Silver candlesticks,” “paintings.” I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. We build our lives to fit certain images, even when we ask hard questions. Perhaps the fundamental problem is precisely the dreamlike character of human existence. Kenyon painted a picture in which she participated in and shared the work she loved. She and her partner searched and encountered natural wonders. Temporality, again, indicates the issue—even to live and love and be loved is not enough—but is not itself the issue. The issue is more or less akin to knowing that one day it will be otherwise. That whatever that knowledge is, in a key sense it is beyond us.

She somehow finds strength and dignity in the face of uncertainty and the end of life. I cannot believe this is disconnected from the attentiveness the poem displays. Most days I can’t remember what I did, let alone tried to accomplish. But “Otherwise” takes every moment and makes it a painting unto itself. Not just a set of images, but words that conjure for each of us very specific experiences and memories. There isn’t a hint of neglect in what might be a model for courage.

Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, “Afraid Ancestral”

Panic is learned, I believe.

It could be natural. Maybe humanity has an instinct to fear the unfamiliar. —Still, there are babies radiating brightness, trying to say hi to every other person, animal, plant.— Maybe human reason creates a sense of familiarity over time, in order to naturally tell what to defend, what to avoid. —This is utter nonsense. It’s used informally nowadays to defend the most unnatural ideas, ideas such as “the homeland” or “the race.”—

Panic is more than likely learned. What is unfamiliar becomes familiar through learning, and perhaps panic would dissolve in all cases if we were fully resolved to ending our own ignorance and risking our prior commitments. Nothing is so simple, of course. There are things those we love have learned, and even if we don’t appreciate their knowledge immediately, we learn the same, wondering if we’ve become the exact same people as our parents. We learn a deep sense of fear. Mom is afraid / the sky will fall:

Afraid Ancestral (from The Many Names for Mother)
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

Mom is afraid
the sky will fall
because it's fallen
before
and there
is no recovering
from the weight 
of clouds.

Mom is afraid / the sky will fall / because it’s fallen / before — this is the hard case, if not the hardest. If I knew anything about how to reassure my parents, I would be a literal angel. They saw something, were shaken, and had every right to be shaken. I can label that irrational all I want. I’m going to be shaken, too.

Yet, there are ways I know. Differently, if not better. If I move away from the hardest case, a case like the shattering of what you’ve built your life around, I can see difficult cases where fear operates, for better or worse. I may even be able to think through them, ever so slightly.

*

One of them involves fear being useful. The son of Pericles in Xenophon’s Memorabilia III.5 worries that Athenians lack pride, and as a result, are faltering on the battlefield. Socrates—yes, that Socrates—says confidence isn’t always best for good order—maybe the Athenians need to be scared. Maybe fear will get them to be disciplined, try harder, achieve things thought impossible.

I’ve wondered about this for a while now. Fear does help us learn when we’re kids: it gets us to see the value of rules. It gets us to respect others and be mindful of their concerns. For a citizenry or an army, it serves as powerful motivation. People can build the strongest sort of courage by being scared of failing the people fighting with them.

But no one would describe Socrates himself—a man who didn’t blink in the face of being executed—as fearful. One might say, as I do, that he’s pained by ignorance. But scared of it?

The possibility of a completely fearless life does not seem to be without cost. Socrates did not stay at home and attend to his wife and children. Xanthippe for her part holds Socrates’ baby, utterly shattered in the Phaedo.

*

The sky will fall / because it’s fallen before is so much larger than mere utility. It’s a lesson which scars and stays. When we’re looking for someone to start a family with, we get scarred. We’re mistrusted, not fully sure of love, not able to communicate or be communicated with all within the span of successful relationships, let alone unsuccessful ones.

I’m not speaking here of the kind of trauma which causes brothers and sisters to never speak to each other again. This is something weirder, where one opens up one’s life to be shared and then feels like no one wants what you have to offer. It’s not insignificant, but it’s a fear and a hurt which accompany any attempt at a relationship.

Still, despite its “everydayness,” I feel like it might be justly described in somewhat cataclysmic language, as if the sky has fallen. No one should have to be so vulnerable just so others can reject them. It’s like the ages where people arranged marriages for the sake of property or status had something correct. This marrying for “love” thing would entail that a lot of people got hurt by making it an excuse for drama.

No one’s identity should depend on how desirable they are. Maybe this isn’t a big deal as regards a functional family or society, but it does seem right to fear losing oneself in a tangle of slights not meant to injure you personally, but reject your person all the same.

*

The sky will fall / because it’s fallen / before… there / is no recovering / from the weight of clouds.

We bring the books we’ve read to these lines, and that doesn’t do “the weight of clouds” justice.

We bring our pains from our relationships—maybe even our own familial trials—and still, no.

How to grapple with this fear? How to grasp what must be learned?

One might say to watch Mom carefully, who knows the sky will fall and has survived. There is power and faith in that view. I’ve seen enough to know that not everyone who survives does it well.

Of course one who loves will watch Mom carefully. But maybe we should watch ourselves just as much when we deal with “the weight of clouds.” Perhaps, for us, it was less the sky falling, and more our assuming the sky was the ground itself. And perhaps we plummeted, right through the cloud itself.

It’s that perspective which we resist. We more or less skip to “we’re becoming our parents,” treating the experience of how we established ourselves as an illusion. That, I think, is the mistake, the mistake which in some cases can break us in deep ways.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: you can’t possibly understand your own values enough. They will look like your parents’ values and draw you into some ironic situations, sometimes cruel and terrible ones. But the point where the sky fell for them is not quite the point where the sky falls for you. “The weight of clouds” is our weight, our individual weight, brought forth by the fact we love on our own terms, for our own reasons. Would that family understood that, instead of seeing all love as theirs.