Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

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Emily Dickinson, “I have no Life but this” (1398)

I have no Life but this (1398)
Emily Dickinson

I have no Life but this —
To lead it here —
Nor any Death — but lest
Dispelled from there —

Nor tie to Earths to come —
Nor Action new —
Except through this extent —
The Realm of you —


At first glance, a love poem of the “you are my everything” sort. It starts with a pathetic plea, “I have no Life but this.” Then things get peculiar: “To lead it here?” The phrase comes out of nowhere and makes little sense. All we can say is that the speaker’s life leads something “here.”

That does not seem like much of a life, but the speaker lacks death too. Unless “dispelled” – not quite expelled, but the use feels the same – “from there.” Huh? I thought she was bringing something “here!”

So where does this riddling immortality reside? It isn’t bound to any particular future, or anything the speaker does from now on. It is dependent on someone we assume a beloved. Going back to the first stanza, a lover drags her life into the immediacy of the present, puts herself and all she knows under a spell.

This is a sort of immortality, but it is a stasis. There is no forethought or action apart from the beloved. But if the beloved accepts, then the lover is no less a prophet, a creator (“tie to Earths to come”/”action new”). Yes, it is a love poem – one about how crazy love is.

Hannah Stephenson, “The Aloe Vera Grows Ragged”

The Aloe Vera Grows Ragged (from The Storialist)
Hannah Stephenson

Break the barbed plant to heal a burn.
The aloe vera grows ragged but
is not wild.

Plants are half-asleep.
Sleep is what breaks time into sentences,
drowsiness is how sleep reaches for us.

Sleep is a many-tentacled thing.
Everything is a many-tentacled thing.


Some things in life are simpler than they first appear. But what does that mean? So we approach an aloe vera plant. It looks “barbed” and “ragged.” Must be overcome to get its healing power – oh wait. It’s broken easily and can be used for healing immediately. As “ragged” but not “wild,” it speaks of civility more than we do.

Maybe that’s the half-sleep of plants: a serenity which trusts the world is accessible, that growth can be assumed. Sleep is not entirely irrational. Rather, “it breaks time into sentences.” If all we were was wakeful, if wakefulness itself did not need to be achieved, we’d have no way of organizing our lives in the most basic way. Breaks to the plant, or even our lives, allow us to be present.

There’s a catch: “drowsiness is how sleep reaches for us.” One might wonder why sleep as death isn’t a catch, too. It is, and also breaking a plant isn’t the same thing as organizing our own lives. Those are two other problems, but the powerful, binary logic of saying that truth is simple, fostering growth, nearly eliminates them. It doesn’t matter if death provides breaks, because such breaks enable us to see others’ lives as a whole. It doesn’t matter if plants are torn apart for our sake, as they serve our needs. There’s a selfishness and a coldness to the healing of the first stanza.

Only “drowsiness,” that state between sleep and wakefulness, smashes this picture. You can’t say plants are drowsy. They are what they are. We, on the other hand, fluctuate in being ourselves. “Sleep reaches for us,” and we don’t really organize our lives with sleep, not like we break a plant. We don’t have the control that would make simplicity worthwhile. It is also not clear we grow. Maybe we’re dragged down by tentacles.

The turn to “sleep,” “everything,” and many tentacles, though, is a positive development. If one thought healing comes with truth, that’s not quite accurate. It comes with time and a recognition of just how complicated things were and are. Sleep is ultimately restfulness. The problems we confront are too large to tackle in one day, and that’s fine.

Emily Dickinson, “We never know how high we are” (1176)

We never know how high we are (1176)
Emily Dickinson

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies —

The Heroism we recite
Would be a normal thing
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King —


We set standards. But we don’t merely judge ourselves in this life by those standards, if at all. Our desire is also to be judged after our lives are complete, with regard to whom we tried to become. We use the uncertainty of who exactly judges (God? the public? ourselves?) to advance a hope. Because of the lack of knowledge, because of our fears now, we can know we will be that much greater in the future.

This is not a problem limited to thinking about the Christian afterlife. This is actually the more general problem of nobility. We set the standards we want to be judged by? We assume the judgement of others will be our own, before even accounting for falling short of our own mark? Compounding the issue: nobility is the heart of morality. Nobility ends in self-sacrifice. Something is known to be moral when one will die for it.

What’s funny is the hubris of our standard-setting. We see ourselves as humble throughout the process. Our time as Heroes, reciting our stories to ourselves, should continue uninterrupted. It’s normal enough to us. But something broke that normalcy and spurred this poem.

“Did not ourselves the Cubits warp” – the Biblical measure of “cubit” is the distance from the elbow to the middle finger’s tip. As mortals, we do not provide a consistent measure or ability to measure. There is more. Our lack of measure is “for fear to be a King.” Not death, change, decline, or failure alone awoke the speaker. It was the pretended/not-so-pretended humility that provoked. We want our standards, we want judgement, but we don’t really want the responsibility entailed. No one really plays God. That is realized once one thinks he’s playing God.

Kobayashi Issa, “On a branch…”

“On a branch…” (from Poetry)
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Jane Hirshfield)

On a branch
floating downriver
a cricket, singing.


I discussed this poem with several people. Each time, I forgot that I had already talked about it.

Weirdly enough, that seems to mirror what I do remember of my first impression. One could easily imagine a boat going downriver with a rower singing to make the time pass. The branch with a cricket on it is a perfectly natural occurrence, one that could happen with or without humans around. And it is a complete mockery of human happiness.

Our happiness seems to involve some degree of control. If we row downriver, we conceive the current only as help. We only imitate the nature of which we are a part, at best. That cricket might be hurtling to its doom, but it sings like it would any other time. Now if we were in a rowboat, we too would be moving toward (eventual) doom. But we definitely react as if things were so different for us and the cricket.

Related – I don’t know how possible it is for us to accept the fact we work with fragments. Nature, as a whole, appears that way to us: “branch,” “floating” (being carried by some waves), the partial song of the cricket. We have to posit wholes, and those wholes center on us and what we see. They’re necessarily limited, necessarily a part, and we don’t always do well with them, even when they float with us. To really accept that all is change looks like it has an aura of divinity.

Wendell Berry, “Be Still in Haste”

Be Still in Haste (from Poetry)
Wendell Berry

How quietly I
begin again

from this moment
looking at the
clock, I start over

so much time has
passed, and is equaled
by whatever
split-second is present

from this
moment this moment
is the first


Why do we want clean slates? It’s worth thinking about the title’s imperative, “be still in haste.” We want clean slates not because of a desire for stillness, but because we want something and want to feel like we can get it. Maybe we’re told to be still, or more likely, are telling ourselves to be still.

It does not feel like the speaker is particularly ambitious, though (“How quietly I begin again”). Nor is there an acute sense of tragedy. He seems to be letting out a sigh, like one resigned to think he hasn’t achieved what he needs. At stake: not so much ambition, but fulfillment and happiness.

Twice he tries to resolve himself to starting over. When “from this moment” is one line, he stares at the clock and realizes that he is weighting the moment of starting over with the whole of his life. He says all that time – all his time – is equivalent to that split-second he wants to begin again. This prompts a bit of hesitation, a reevaluation of what it means to start anew. In the last stanza, “from this / moment” is broken apart; “this,” the speaker identifying something important to him, matters more than the moment.

The absurdity of saying “this moment is where I began” when one has to spend another moment recognizing that beginning is apparent as well as resolved. In saying from this moment, this moment is the first, he’s not throwing away his past. It matters, it is what brought him here. The funny thing is realizing those moments of change have such an everyday character, as if nothing actually changed.

First Reflection: Sappho, “Tell everyone”

Tell everyone
Sappho (translation Mary Barnard)

Tell everyone

Now, today, I shall
sing beautifully for
my friends’ pleasure


My personal journal is filled to the brim with rants. Confused and contradictory, they swirl away from each other. Everyone else has failed me, or I have failed, or all of this was fated. Maybe a moral issue is at stake, maybe nothing of the sort exists, maybe I imagine problems where there are none. The matter of flux: no solutions, lots of blame.

So a few hours ago I saw a book of Sappho’s poems for $2. Most of what I glanced at reads like the fragment above. Read the introduction, flipped a few pages, thought what could I possibly do with this? Yeah… what could I do?

In this case, my want to “tell everyone,” to “sing beautifully,” is a want for a clean slate. This isn’t something done innocently. It’s done with the consciousness that there are outstanding problems, and yes, at some point they may need to be addressed directly and resolved. A purposeful denial operates here: “my friends’ pleasure” is the priority. Not my own pleasure, not what I deserve or what is good for me. With a bit of guilt emerging, I’m glad I told you guys to tell everyone. I can implicate all of us in this project.

Robin Davidson, “Winter Litany”

Winter Litany (from Verse Daily)
Robin Davidson

Kraków, March, 2004

I stand on Wawel Hill
in early March and morning snow
falls in flocks
tiny paper cranes
descending blowing dissolving
one into another
on the cobblestone walk
an avalanche of light

I believe this must be
what death is

this alternate
shining and melting, shining and flying


Standing on Wawel Hill, where Polish kings were crowned and laid to rest, the speaker watches snow fall and muses on death. She’s at the heart of the ancestral, but she does not pick an image from our rituals marking death (i.e. “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”). Those rituals may seem tired and useless upon close inspection, but they dictate the world we live in and who we are to unprecedented degrees. The heart of the ancestral is the heart of the conventional.

Rather, she picks a natural, contingent occurrence to think through. It’s snowing in early March; for some of us, that’s spring. Nothing need fall, nor resemble flocks of paper cranes that swoop down, blow across, and go out of existence into each other. Their cumulative effect is to brighten a stone walk. Again: one might pick the stone to represent death.

But the eternal, lifeless stone can only show us those aspects of death. It’s always there and stoic towards us. That isn’t the whole story. Death is also change, stunning and unexpected in a way. Its power isn’t just dictating to our lives. We want it to dictate to our lives. We want to remember the dead, see them as having made and continually making us and our world better. Reduced to memories and impressions, we are in the end nothing but shining and melting, shining and flying. It could be worse.

Polina Barskova, “From Mad Vatslav’s Diary”

From Mad Vatslav’s Diary (from
Polina Barskova (translated by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky)

I was a coal-miner, water
Poured over my gray hair, my eyelashes.
My sister, alive and laughing,
Shepherded such glorious cows!

I was a soldier, and afraid of living
I did my best to die–but did not manage to stumble
Upon any bad luck. The tsar’s own daughter
Visited my cabin and gave me a magic rope.

I was a slave. My master’s wife
Adored us, the dark, forbidden Slavs.
The green sunrise was the strangest.
In sorrow I danced, swaying, trembling, on wooden porches.


We are presented with three nonsensical portraits of one man. He claims to be a coal-miner one day, another day a soldier, yet another a slave.

Do the portraits unify? I confess I’m having fun playing with the details. The coal-miner, cleaned up from work, reveals gray hair and eyelashes. In a weird way, he resembles his work naturally. It seems perfectly appropriate that he has a sister who take a joy in him and his own spots. The first stanza gives us a hint that there are natural, familial loves, and they can work for us.

The second stanza gives us a soldier far too aware and cynical about self-sacrifice. The soldier declares that he wants to die, he wants to trade his life in for a name at best. Of course, this being Russian literature, he finds someone attracted by this sort of thing. We can imagine the tsar’s daughter burdened by the name she has to live up to. In sleeping with him, he is marked by his now too powerful enemies, and the standard she imagines defines her is broken. There are unnatural loves that come from dark, awful places. However, it is no coincidence this stanza features the highest personages, the noblest conventions, of the poem.

The coal-miner recognized a happiness that came to him, but the soldier continually refused it. What of someone striving for happiness? It’s like being a slave; it’s frightening thing how easy it is to be used. There are things you think you want, and when they happen, they’re not life affirming in the least. To have to indulge one’s lust is to want to escape the quest for happiness entirely. But all one can do is drink, tremble in the wind atop a wooden porch. In other words: you’re more static that you thought yourself, more rooted in the world we’ve created.

Happiness as a love that controls does not quite work. Still, the portraits unify. That diary could be any of ours.

All of politics is an attempt to manipulate me. Why should I study it?

Obviously, I cannot convince all of you that political science is worthwhile. Some of you will think that no matter what I say, I’m out to indoctrinate you. And I can’t lie, I do have an agenda. So if people having agendas bothers you, do yourself and the rest of the world a favor and never read anything, watch anything, or talk to anyone. After all, the mindless accusation that everyone is out to manipulate you assumes you are some paragon of innocence who deserves to be treated like an extra special flower by everyone else. It accuses before ever asking whether the accuser has done anything to manipulate others.

Ok. Not a lot of you have left. Great. I think you see that the problem posed is pretty specific. Politics does not pretend; it is openly about power and control. And you’ve got parents and relatives and friends and random people shouting at you about it, telling you that if you don’t think this specific way the world will end. So you react by moving away from politics, seeing your ideals realized another way culturally. Maybe through religion, punk rock, service, sports, etc. To be honest, it’s a weird situation America is in. The polls don’t really adequately describe the lack of interest in civics; they just show we hate Congress. Every time Glenn Beck gets up there and starts yelling about the Founders, I know another student who might have been interested in reading the Federalist decides it isn’t worth it. A high school teacher of mine asked our class one day if we had any interest in being President. 2 or 3 hands shot up. He remarked in his day, in the 70′s (not exactly a time of conservative nostalgia), every hand in the room would have gone up. Not because everyone wanted to be President, but because it was considered an honor worth having and striving for. I’ll bet that anecdote tells more about the current state of U.S. politics than anything else.

So let’s go back a little bit. At some point, Americans more or less believed they had a real hand in their own governance. They didn’t just go through the motions or resign themselves to fear of the other party. To think being President is a good thing shows some belief in the effective power of politics. And it is true, for all the evils that are ascribed to politics, there are many goods that have emerged from it. I don’t think you can say politics alone created racism, but it was a politician who, in proclaiming Emancipation, made it clear that a reunified America would never again tolerate slavery. We just celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela, who promised no retribution on the part of his party after enduring years of second class citizenship and made good on that promise. South Africa isn’t perfect by a long shot – it needs much more competitive elections – but it is primarily white supremacists who falsely insist there is “white genocide” in South Africa. People like Churchill, Jefferson, and Gandhi are remarkable precisely because of their political greatness.

Something about politics, then, can’t just be manipulation. Not if great leaders sacrifice, not if people invest hope and trust in them and receive something – freedom, justice, a better life – for it. Something about the very concept of politics is transformative. And whatever that something is, we’re blind to it.

To make a long story short, we’re blind to it because contemporary approaches to politics are successful. They’re successful because they’re reductive. My prime example: the American Constitution. It’s a pretty successful set of laws, it seems – America’s not exactly weak. So why didn’t people, say, 2000 years ago come up with the idea of a President, a Congress, a Judiciary? Were they too busy riding dinosaurs to work?

The truth is that civilization, if not technology, was relatively advanced in the ancient world. For Aristotle, the city aims “at the authoritative good of all.” This, in the very opening of his Politics, cannot be overthought. First of all, we emphasize individual liberty, typically implying that it is our individual right to not give a damn about others. Here’s Aristotle saying that if you want what is best in life for yourself, it is going to probably involve something social. Your happiness is at stake. “Authoritative” also speaks to what must be agreed to be good: virtues speak louder than vices.

Now the Aristotlean approach is not dogma, despite linking politics with happiness and virtue. Aristotle is a philosopher outlining an inquiry; the Aristotlean polis never existed. The best regime had to be laid out, as only in the best regime can the good citizen be squared with the good man. All of us recognize that there is a distinction between our obligations as a citizen and who we are as simply human. That distinction existed for Aristotle, too, only with the caveat that our political and personal obligations had to reconcile somehow.

The distinction exists for us a more severe way; the political feels almost unnecessary to us. The arrival of Christianity did not do away with pagan thinking about virtue entirely. But it took happiness and set it in the next life, casting doubt on all attempts to rule properly in this life. God is the only judge, the Church His bride. True Christians are citizens of the kingdom of God; true Christians are in the image and likeness of their Maker. The consequence: in the Middle Ages, politics was practically a topic of no importance, though many words were spent on law and virtue. The height of this reasoning is the idea of natural law: the moral law is known through reason. What need is there for deliberative bodies or wise rulers? What need to enforce the law?

When serious thinking about politics reemerged, it did so against both medieval and classical concepts of politics. The medieval concepts had to be overthrown sharply: they were license for the abuses of the Church, warfare between Christian sects, and terrible institutional planning. But pagan thought, since it had been synthesized with the Church, had to go too. Pagan thought did not just limit thinking about politics; inasmuch “Aristotlean physics” is a phrase with currency, it was necessary to attack to have science. The thinking that underlies American Constitutionalism embraces Enlightenment, making all of humanity smarter in ways immediately useful to them. This means an emphasis on scientific progress, which is not strictly the same thing as aiming for happiness or virtue. Education was redefined to be more about utility than character.

In fact, happiness – except in the phrase “pursuit of happiness” – drops out as a necessary end for the citizen. What matters is not so much if we are happy, but we are stable and secure. Machiavelli declared that a Prince is better feared than loved. While he does not mean this to say that we should embrace tyrants that make us all scared, he does mean that our fulfillment in the government we create is not to be had. Government is a necessary evil, devoid of virtue. In Hobbes, who witnessed the religious zeal that drove England into civil war, the primary reason we create government is self-preservation. We cannot trust a “state of nature” where anyone or groups of people could attack anyone. Our individual safety is why we contract to set up a sovereign. It is a far lower concern than happiness or virtue, or conformity with the rational order of God’s Creation. It is a concern centered on fear.

Locke, writing shortly after Hobbes, makes this sort of reasoning palatable to a broader audience. Locke was preached from pulpits in Revolutionary America. Central to Locke is that government respects “life, liberty, and property” – the last famously replaced in the Declaration by “pursuit of happiness.” A government that does not respect these things is violating the rights of man and should be rebelled against.

One can see how more than the right to be safe emerges from property rights. Property really is the key to the Constitution, as well as seeing how much political thinking over the years changed. Neither ancient nor medieval thinking cared much for acquiring property. A virtuous citizenry, for the pagans, would be self-sufficient and diligent in their work. For the medievals, fasting was an obligation. But now, acquisition becomes the heart of things. This is partly because of the need to have useful science and technology, partly also because commerce and trade are less destructive than religious warfare. The big reason, though, comes up in Machiavelli. If a ruler under false pretenses executes one man’s father, that grudge may cause one man – the son – to take up arms. He might get support. He might also decide that his dad was a troublemaker and let it go. But if that ruler takes the father’s property away, the whole neighborhood, anyone with property, is alerted and angry.

Property is a material alarm system which warns everyone if the government is getting tyrannical. For Madison, in Federalist 10, the products of liberty are not just a factional conflict that the sheer size of the United States will never allow to be problem (too many factions, therefore never a majority faction). Our liberty also creates a diversity of properties which are important to us in different ways. This is not Madison being glib; this is the logical consequence of trying to not directly address happiness or virtue. Security, stability, and a view of freedom as what government should not do characterize the American regime. Property rights are integral to all of that. But how exactly does this unite us as a people? Give us moral purpose? It is much easier to say under an ancient view of politics that government is the possibility of collective moral purpose. Lest you think we do not need any such idea – that we can fight for freedom alone – remember that this country tore itself apart less than a hundred years after it was founded over whether slavery was wrong or not.

I don’t think we’re successful in spite of ourselves. For years, we’ve had people willing to look into difficult questions and accept hard answers. To me, the real problem with our deemphasis on studying things like politics or history or literature or philosophy is that, at best, we want to conduct studies to get easy answers. Oh sure, the studies are hard work, the methodology is difficult to defend, the implementation is never quite perfect, and the results do affirm what we’re working with as fundamental concepts. But let’s get real: we want easy answers. We want to know 60% of people will vote one way or another if we tell them something. That reasoning would not have been important 2000 years ago, and is fatal to a republic where our purposes are open. The biggest sacrifices our leaders make involve telling us things we don’t want to hear in order to make sure we have a country 20 years later. At least, those are the sacrifices they made.

Jane Kenyon, “Taking Down the Tree”

With thanks to Temperance Dewar

Taking Down the Tree (from Poetry)
Jane Kenyon

“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.


Those tragic families with their murderous games of power and lust don’t really exist. They’re just excuses for George R.R. Martin to write torture porn. We have to imagine an usurper tormented by a vengeful, single-minded prince and loose women of luxury running as if suffocated by morality. The whole realm they are in is dark. It’s like we’re turning our own imaginations off. We only read this stuff for school, after all.

There’s another way to turn our imaginations off. Just pay insufficient attention to how one behaves in one’s own family. Fighting greedily over ornaments shows a willingness to destroy the memory of your family, and for what? One can say the “jumping jack” represents the place that can be claimed after the spaniel, but I think that misses the import of how arbitrary both evil and desire can be. Kenyon hints at a genuine nihilism in such pettiness, the hateful confusion of fear and pride and whatever else.

To grasp that nihilism does not require a particularly Christian understanding, though the Christological image presents itself well enough. Tearing apart the wood ornament limb from limb tears the family, tears Jesse’s tree – Christ and all that make Him. But I think that more or less renames the failing to appreciate family, to love humanity. There is nothing doctrinaire about this poem. To wit: it recalls Augustine’s lament in the Confessions that infants can show tremendous selfishness, wanting food or attention or both every waking moment. Yet it has no call for immediate conversion or repenting of one’s greed.

Our ten year old speaker feels “depraved.” This may be a moral response, but more likely the product of not getting what she wanted how she wanted it. Simply not getting what she wants can make her more careful packing the other reflectors of light, the lights themselves, the toy containers. Yes, tradition is all around her, with a dying tree central, and she has no awareness of what any of this means. There can’t be an awareness of what this fully means, as the speaker is ten years old in her recounting.

Light is not a desire of the younger self. It is only appreciated by the older one who has grown to somewhat understand Claudius and the courtesans. Still, the ten year old has an advantage in her terrible ignorance. Knowing no better, she mistakes homemade simplicity for grandeur and gladly accepts supper. The darkness now is good enough for the older self, as the light is implicit.

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