• Steven Matthews

A word which, it seems to me, is strikingly missing, in terms of the Absent Presences, shown un-sayables, and even the secrets and ambiguities discussed at the Contemporary Lyric Symposium held at Reading, is ‘mystery’. ‘Mystery’, in a religious sense, would seem a presumed traditional resonance of such terminology. This might be so, perhaps, in a bland or dangerously Arnoldian way; the poem as a displaced cultural counter for a now-lost belief. But it is so more especially in the sense that lyric offers a force, or sounding space, through which something strange can continue to be spoken within the yabber of the modern world. The lyric’s resistance is always about holding back, conserving, cherishing, something of a numinous possibility—however sublimated, however displaced—in both the particular poetic form and the creative process that has led to it. It is that trace of the numinous in the lyric that this piece will linger with, while longing that something more sceptical and dynamic, some new imagining of these terms, might emerge.

I’ve always been taken, for instance, by the fact that Seamus Heaney, a poet whose personal geniality and kindness and slyness meant that he ‘said’ more about his poems in interview and essays and lectures than any other modern poet, always set a firm limit to that saying. He wrote of the ‘superstitious fear’ he felt about regularising his practice as a poet, ‘the surprise and gratitude’ he registered as the words of a poem came to him: ‘You have been mysteriously recompensed by the words and you owe some fidelity to the mystery’ (in O’Driscoll 2008: 203). The rhetoric of exchange and reward, redress and balancing, is typical, as is the echo of Catholic rite. Nonetheless, ‘fidelity’ is in itself a corrective, a polite way of acknowledging an inner care for the gift and arrival of the lyric in a life, and a keeping of the poet’s attention open to receive it.

At around the time that Heaney was finishing the poems that appear in North (1975), he became absorbed in the resurgence of interest in the work of the Anglo-Welsh poet, David Jones. Jones glossed the ambition of his poetry, in the Preface to his epic The Anathémata, as to ‘“uncover”; which is what a “mystery” does, for though at root “mystery” implies a closing, all “mysteries” are meant to disclose, to show forth something’ (1952: 33). All poetry becomes a form of archaeology, recovering what has become obscure and buried, cultural deposits; but, more especially for Jones, the sacred relics of a specific place and landscape. This is what Heaney in North learnt from Jones: a stripping away of the soil and subsoil of land, of the conscious mind, to show the marks and artefacts of previous lived lives at any particular geographical spot. This version of poetry is a way of boring down, boring back into, the levels of history and consciousness to haul out a lost numinous purpose or aura. The form of the poem, its shapeliness on the page, offers a space for pause, for recovery, in the aftermath of (it is everywhere implied), a fallen history. What is revered is no longer on the surface, in the daylight; one justification of lyric obscurity under this aegis is that it gives presence where otherwise it is lacking, in the modern world, against our backdrop of continuing waywardness, violence, tragedy, political farce. The (lyric) centre will hold …

In the lecture-essay ‘… Poetically Man Dwells …’, Martin Heidegger glosses several lines by Hölderlin:

            … man

            Not unhappily measures himself

            Against the godhead. Is God unknown?

            Is he manifest like the sky? I’d sooner

            Believe the latter. It’s the measure of man. (in Heidegger 1971: 219)

‘Poetry is a measuring’, Heidegger affirms (1971: 221). Indeed, it is the measure of this gulf between ‘the godhead’ and humanity, the only measure, since metrics create new possibilities and paradoxes in language through which to think and to weigh such questions. ‘Hölderlin is perplexed by the exciting question’ raised here, Heidegger tells us, precisely because of its obscurity and irresolvability outside of the lyric space. ‘The god who remains unknown, must, by showing himself as the one he is, appear as the one who remains unknown. God’s manifestness ... is mysterious’ (1971: 222). So, Heidegger concludes, establishing the iconic aspect of Hölderlin’s lines as and for poetry: ‘the unknown god appears as the unknown by way of the sky’s manifestness’—that is, ‘manifestness’ to us humans (1971: 223). We are always, in our best moments, looking upwards, and it is in the images of that sky as poetry, and out of the ‘dwelling’ that poetry enables, that we do so. Humanity has ‘always measured [itself] with and against something heavenly. Lucifer, too, is descended from heaven’ (1971: 221). Once again, fallenness is integral to aspiration and ‘heavenly’ perception embodied in the lyric.

Paul Celan, personal sufferer of the hellish ‘heavenliness’ which Heidegger’s sense of historical destiny had enforced upon his people and ‘heartland’, remained nonetheless in dialogue throughout with Heidegger. Celan appropriated many Heideggerian terms and concepts in order to show relish, in his ‘Meridian’ speech, for the new and challenging perspectives within lyric poetry. The poet stands ‘mated’ to the poem she or he makes, Celan tells his audience; the poem exists ‘in the mystery of an encounter’ (2005: 164). The poem provides ‘I-distance’ to the poet, ‘stepping out of what is human’; it is both animal and puppet-like, alien and strange, like a ‘robot’. And it might literally turn the world upside down, show its diabolic nature: ‘whoever walks on his head, ladies and gentlemen, whoever walks on his head has heaven as an abyss beneath him’ (2005: 161).

Jean Daive, who walked many times with Celan through central Paris, seems to offer a sad mournful rebuke about the consequences of such intended readjustment towards the world through lyric language, when reflecting on the loss of his friend. Celan apparently jumped from the Pont Mirabeau into the Seine; his body disappeared for days. ‘It is because heaven is no longer open to man that man plunges into the waters and digs into the earth’, Daive laments. ‘Here … different methods compose a different vanishing’ (Daive 2009: 33). Daive does not seem to recognise the irony, when pondering his own and Celan’s poetry, in averring that ‘Often a word is the starting point’. But he is surely right to register the ambiguous feelings brought on by the breaking-into words that poetry also enacts: ‘As soon as we talk the world seems to lose some of its solidity, and it’s this move towards loss that interests us. But we cannot always face it’ (Celan, in Daive 2009: 75).

This is the despair at the start of Rilke’s Fourth ‘Duino Elegy’—Rilke, a sacred presence for both Celan and Heidegger: ‘Out-dated and late, | we press ourselves suddenly to the winds, | and fall down into inattentive waters’. ‘This is the chorus of obscene consent’, as Geoffrey Hill’s 1979 title sequence from his book Tenebrae warns us. Yet, and also, ‘this is the single voice of purest praise’: because ‘heaven is no longer open,’ we become ‘interested’ in, or fascinated by, our own erosions and movements-towards-absence; ‘This is the true marriage of the self-in-self’ (Hill 1979: 6). Nonetheless, what we yearn for, is a ‘“kind | of otherness”, self-understood’, as the second of Tenebrae’s ‘Two Chorale-Preludes on melodies by Paul Celan’ has it. In that ‘kind | of’, demotic looseness pranged by the line-break, fallenness intrudes itself.

Yet, and also, the exotic and the beautiful ‘true marriage’ continues to attract and to pull us in. On the wall of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris are pinned sections of the wood doorframe carved by Paul Gauguin for his house in Tahiti. On the left, a wan (dead?) (crucified?) Christ, left arm stretched heavenwards. In the centre, a mournful Tahitian couple looking towards Christ, the woman with a flower in her hair, hand raised as though in compassion for what she sees. To the right, a perky dog, tail raised, animal onlooker of (mocker of?) such scenes of reverence. Carved above the dog, the injunction: ‘soyez mysterieuses’. Plural—all you onlookers of this panel, crossers of this threshold into the painter’s dwelling.

Jorie Graham’s book of poems, Overlord (2005), is the best recent staging of ‘the mystery of encounter’ that I have come across, with its repeated poems as prayers, all titled ‘Praying (Attempt of…)’, followed by a chronological succession of dates across the book. That staging repeats, perhaps surprisingly, many of the Heideggerian (or Celanian) tropes, as in the early poem in the book, ‘Upon Emergence’—‘Concerning the gods I have no means. | But from this path what is it must be | seen, what must be thought and spoken of’. Graham’s clever enjambment ‘be | seen’ momentarily catches up the full charge of that ‘being’ (or ‘Being’) as the precursor of thinking and speaking momentarily, before we fall back into the simple act of looking out on the world as that ‘being’ which is what inspires us to think then speak poetry out. For Graham, we can ‘be’ in poems, as previously for Heidegger and Celan, both ‘here’ and ‘there’. We are both in the years of the early millennium ‘Praying’, and in the D-Day Landings of World War Two on the beaches from near where Graham is writing poems. The opening poem to Overlord is boldly ‘Other’—

                        We can pull back

            from the being of our bodies, we can live in a

            portion of them, we can be absent, no one can tell.

Once again lineation, controller of Celanian ‘breath’ and its ‘turns’, is careful. The truncated ‘in a’ is portioning the sentence in which the voice ‘lives’; we ‘pull back’ from one line to the next. Yet what is, our absence, is hidden in our bodily presence; otherwise it cannot be told. We ‘can be’ this, again, this is what the lyric poem allows, a version of our best selves, what Heidegger ponders in ‘… Poetically Man Dwells …’ as the ‘Full merit’ of humanity. When there are ‘no means’ any longer ‘concerning the gods’, poetry offers itself as a path, a possibility. Poetic ‘technē’, enjambment, metrics, obscurities rucking the breath, can register the complication and danger of this, but the confident lyric ‘path’ towards embodiment of the ‘unknown’ lies open.

I feel, and can remain ‘dwelling’ in, the allure of the High-Church, or the German-philosophical rhetoric. I can breathe the vertiginous after-resonances of such rhetoric in American letters via Emerson, in such as Jorie Graham. It is that rhetoric pertaining to the Symposium’s versions of what the lyric might represent or re-present—an almost salvific complexity in and for our troubled times. I long to have faith in it, in the making-present of absence, recoveries, the saying-of-that-which-has-not-been-said, the showings forth or raisings-up, as in David Jones’s ‘anathémata’. And yet it is impossible not to linger in scepticism, to long and yearn for Celan’s ‘counter-word’ that would jeer back at the pretention of all of this.

A brick-built small chapel next to a former Roman Road in an Essex suburb. A pale projector-light on a whitewashed wall in a Methodist Sunday School room. Wan exotic figures, linen headdresses, camels always in the background, a Christ angrily over-turning the tables in the Temple. A Sunday School teacher changing the slides, while reading a modernised version of the story, pointing always the moral of sacrifice, ranting against worldly greed. Bizarrely (I now see), linking Christ’s life to that of Captain Oates, go-er outside for some time, similarly self-sacrificial. Bible readings, the Bible stories learnt by rote for Scripture exams every year in which I could flourish. But little wonder in all of it, no mystery. It was all plain as day. I got out of attending as soon as I was old enough to answer back, typically signalling dissent by sullenly failing the last Scripture exam, to my and my mum’s humiliation.

If not prepared to indulge that far the subtext of the numinous in versions of lyric presence, I can celebrate the answering back that poetry might do in a world which is not paying attention. The political and historical force of that, but also the tutelage in attention and attentiveness itself that lyric poetry can give. In the ‘Meridian’ speech, Celan makes much of dates, fatal moments, and credits the poem with an ‘attentiveness’ which is devoted ‘to all encounters, with its sharper sense of detail, structure … all this … is a concentration that stays mindful of all our dates’ (2005: 164). ‘Mindfulness’ has cod currency these days as a sort of sub-meditation, but ‘attentiveness’ is at the heart of new understandings of the human brain. The neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist, for example, in The Master and His Emissary (2009), links right hemisphere experience, the metaphor-making capacity that enables new perception and expression, to the constant scoping of the world around that each brain continues. It is the right brain hemisphere that embodies experience; the left verbalises it. To suggest that the brain acts as a poem does is to re-mythologise and re-mystify, yet also to find new purpose to those tropes of saying the unsayable, presenting the absent, which frustrate and can’t move on as accounts of lyric action. But poems continue to find their dates and time, nonetheless, and, as recent brain science becomes more proven, perhaps the poetic possibilities within it will become so too.

Works cited: 

Celan, Paul 2005 Selections (ed Pierre Joris), Berkeley: University of California Press

Daive, Jean 2009 Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan (trans Rosmarie Waldrop), Brooklyn: Burning Deck Press

Graham, Jorie 2005 Overlord: Poems, New York: Harper Collins

Heaney, Seamus 1975 North, London: Faber & Faber

Heidegger, Martin 1971 Poetry, Language, Thought (trans Albert Hofstadter), New York: Harper & Row

Hill, Geoffrey 1979 Tenebrae, London: Andre Deutsch Ltd

Jones, David 1952 The Anathémata: Fragments of an Attempted Writing, London: Faber & Faber

McGilchrist, Iain 2009 The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, New Haven: Yale University Press

O’Driscoll, Dennis 2008 Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, London: Faber & Faber