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As a follow on to my earlier post on human spaciality, Stanford assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems Lera Boroditsky has written a piece on Edge that explores how individual languages shape the way speakers think about space, time, colors and objects. She demonstrates that language has a fundamental impact on thought, “unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions. Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.”
One of her examples was particularly provocative to me given my interest in aboriginal art and what it represents to its makers. (To read my postings on aboriginal art and culture, do a search here for “aboriginal art”.)
Follow me to Pormpuraaw, a small Aboriginal community on the western edge of Cape York, in northern Australia. I came here because of the way the locals, the Kuuk Thaayorre, talk about space. Instead of words like “right,” “left,” “forward,” and “back,” which, as commonly used in English, define space relative to an observer, the Kuuk Thaayorre, like many other Aboriginal groups, use cardinal-direction terms — north, south, east, and west — to define space.1 This is done at all scales, which means you have to say things like “There’s an ant on your southeast leg” or “Move the cup to the north northwest a little bit.” One obvious consequence of speaking such a language is that you have to stay oriented at all times, or else you cannot speak properly. The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is “Where are you going?” and the answer should be something like ” Southsoutheast, in the middle distance.” If you don’t know which way you’re facing, you can’t even get past “Hello.”
The result is a profound difference in navigational ability and spatial knowledge between speakers of languages that rely primarily on absolute reference frames (like Kuuk Thaayorre) and languages that rely on relative reference frames (like English).2 Simply put, speakers of languages like Kuuk Thaayorre are much better than English speakers at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes or inside unfamiliar buildings. What enables them — in fact, forces them — to do this is their language. Having their attention trained in this way equips them to perform navigational feats once thought beyond human capabilities. Because space is such a fundamental domain of thought, differences in how people think about space don’t end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build other, more complex, more abstract representations. Representations of such things as time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality, and emotions have been shown to depend on how we think about space. So if the Kuuk Thaayorre think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time? This is what my collaborator Alice Gaby and I came to Pormpuraaw to find out.
To test this idea, we gave people sets of pictures that showed some kind of temporal progression (e.g., pictures of a man aging, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. If you ask English speakers to do this, they’ll arrange the cards so that time proceeds from left to right. Hebrew speakers will tend to lay out the cards from right to left, showing that writing direction in a language plays a role.3 So what about folks like the Kuuk Thaayorre, who don’t use words like “left” and “right”? What will they do?
The Kuuk Thaayorre did not arrange the cards more often from left to right than from right to left, nor more toward or away from the body. But their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced. The Kuuk Thaayorre not only knew that already (usually much better than I did), but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.
Thank you to Steve Durbin at Art & Perception for sending me the link to this article.
This short piece by Jonathan Jones (in The Guardian) captures rather succinctly many of the frustrations I have written about here in earlier posts. We are currently living through a period of inappropriate dependence on language to extol and explain what is often beyond language in the visual arts. Enough words! My voice joins others in a plea for inviting a variety of different responses including silence, stillness, and to be outside of thinking and logic.
The anecdote about Jackson Pollock is particularly heartwarming…
It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.
Yet, there are more and more pressures today on artists to explain themselves. Once, an artist was allowed to hide behind a vague and mysterious aura. The American abstract expressionist painters made grand pronouncements about their work that are so enigmatic they give away no hostages – nor do the kinds of epigrammatic comments made by Francis Bacon. Yet artists in Britain today are always offering explanations for what they do.
If you’re looking for the root cause of anything annoying, silly or spurious in the culture of art in 21stcentury Britain the source of the problem is never hard to locate. Once again the culprit is … public art, in which the popularization of art, the determination of institutions from parks to to local councils to be associated with it, and a lingering British Puritan visual clumsiness produce a lot of guff as artists try to promote the accessible virtues of their ideas.
As soon as you start saying what people want to hear, adapting your art to the common sense political and moral platitudes of ordinary speech, you betray subtlety and poetry. Artists presenting proposals for the Fourth Plinth, the Tate Turbine Hall and elsewhere should rebel again this. They should agree to all submit the woolliest and least explanatory pronouncements they can dream up. Something like: “The pictures I contemplate painting would constitute a halfway state, and an attempt to point out the direction of the future, without arriving there completely.”
That’s Jackson Pollock, writing a grant application in 1947. I don’t suppose it would get him much of a grant in Britain now. He’d have to explain what his webs and loops of abstract paint are all about … but he’d sit there chewing his pen, no more able to offer a simple explanation of them than the critic is half a century later.
Ho Xuan Huong (written here without the diacritical marks, so my apologies to any Vietnamese readers) was an 18th century Vietnamese poet whose works were recently translated into English by the poet John Balaban. Ho Xuan Huong was well educated, but due to family circumstances including her father’s early death, her options were limited. She was a concubine (a second wife) like her mother, a situation she deplored. But she found a voice for her frustrations through her poems, artfully crafted with double meanings and sexual innuendoes.
This was a woman who took risky attacks on the prevailing political regime and presumptive male authority. Her poetic skill and adroitly tooled metaphors have secured her a place as one of Vietnam’s most beloved poets. Reading Balaban’s translations, her poetry has the ironic distance and observational exactitude of a contemporary voice. The familiar edge of female anger and resentment, more commonly voiced in our era, is there in her work.
Francis Fitzgerald wrote, “In John Balaban’s translation, the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong—witty, caustic, and profound—should find its place in world literature. I like to imagine its author, the brilliant bad girl of eighteenth century Vietnam, throwing her erotically charged darts into the sexual hypocrisy of all ages and cultures.”
Her name, translated, means “spring essence.” Auspicious.
A few examples:
* * * *
* * * *
Drop by drop rain slaps the banana leaves.
Praise whoever sketched this desolate scene:
the lush, dark canopies of the gnarled tress,
the long river, sliding smooth and white.
I lift my wine flask, drunk with rivers and hills.
My backpack, breathing moonlight, sags with poems.
Look, and love everyone.
Whoever sees this landscape is stunned.
* * * *
* * * *
On Sharing a Husband
Screw the fate that makes you share a man.
One cuddles under cotton blankets; the other’s cold.
Every now and then, well, maybe or may not.
Once or twice a month, oh, it’s like nothing.
You try to stick to it like a fly on rice
but the rice is rotten. You slave like the maid,
but without pay. If I had known how it would go
I think I would have lived alone.
* * * *
* * * *
Weaving at Night
Lampwick turned up, the room glows white.
The loom moves easily all night long
as feet work and push below.
Nimbly the shuttle flies in and out,
wide or narrow, big or small, sliding in snug.
Long or short, it glides out smoothly.
Girls who do it right, let it soak
then wait a while for the blush to show.
* * * *
* * * *
Spring Watching Pavilion
A gentle spring evening arrives
Airily, unclouded by worldly dust.
Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside-down in sad puddles.
Love’s vast sea cannot be emptied.
And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.
Where is nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten.
He sleeps on the top of a mast. – Bunyan
He sleeps on the top of a mast
with his eyes fast closed.
The sails fall away below him
like the sheets of his bed,
leaving out in the air of the night the sleeper’s head.
Asleep he was transported there,
asleep he curled
in a gilded ball on the mast’s top,
or climbed inside
a gilded bird, or blindly seated himself astride.
“I am founded on marble pillars,”
said a cloud. “I never move.
See the pillars there in the sea?”
Secure in introspection
he peers at the watery pillars of his reflection.
A gull had wings under his
and remarked that the air
was “like marble.” He said: “Up here
I tower through the sky
for the marble wings on my tower-top fly.”
But he sleeps on the top of his mast
with his eyes closed tight.
The gull inquired into his dream,
which was, “I must not fall.
The spangled sea below wants me to fall.
It is hard as diamonds; it wants to destroy us all.”
“He sleeps on the top of a mast.” Like so many of Bishop’s images, this one takes on a life of its own. What is it to sleep on the top of the mast? What gives the image such power?
Common interpretations reference Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress where the Pilgrim Christian comes upon three men fast asleep, with fetters on their heels.
They are Simple, Sloth and Presumption. Christian then seeing them lie in this case went to them, if peradventure he might awake them. And cried, “You are like them that sleep on the top of a mast, for the Dead Sea is under you, a gulf that hath no bottom; awake therefore, and come away; be willing also, and I will help you off with your irons.” He also told them, “If he that goeth about like a roaring lion come by, you will certainly become prey to his teeth.” With that they looked upon him, and began to reply in this sort: Simple said, “I see no danger”; Sloth said, “Yet a little more sleep”; and Presumption said, “Every fat [vessel] must stand upon his own bottom, what is the answer else that I should give thee?” And so they lay down to sleep again, and Christian went on his way. (From James Fenton in the Times Literary Supplement)
Another interpretation draws a parallel to the personal domain of Bishop’s life and her battle with alcoholism.
And it has been noted that the reference to sleeping on the mast of the ship has its origin in the Book of Proverbs…which reads in the original (as the Authorized Version has it): “When shall I awake? I shall seek it again”. The “it” that the sleeper on the mast intends to seek again is wine, and the passage that it belongs to is a warning against drink (Proverbs 23: 29–35). Here it is as given in the Geneva Bible (which Bunyan used, in addition to the Authorized Version):
31 Looke not thou upon the wine, when it is red, and when it sheweth his colour in the cuppe, or goeth down pleasantly. 32 In the ende thereof it will bite like a serpent, and hurt like a cockatrise. 33 Thine eyes shall looke upon strange women, and thine heart shall speake lewde things. 34 And thou shalt bee as one that sleepeth in the middes of the sea, and as he that sleepeth in the top of the mast. 35 They have stricken me, shalt thou say, but I was not sicke: they have beaten me, but I knew not, when I awoke: therefore will I seeke it yet still.
This vivid evocation of habitual drunkenness gives us a sense of the biblical meaning of “sleeping at the top of the mast”; it is one of two parallel impossibilities – the drunkard is like one who sleeps in the middle of the sea, or who sleeps above the sea. (The Geneva Bible explains the first part of verse 34 as implying “In such great danger shalt thou be”.) Sleeping at the top of the mast would be both precarious and giddy-making; nevertheless the drunkard prefers sleep to waking, and so, if he does wake up, he will drink himself back into a stupor. As the Geneva note puts it, “Though drunkenness make them more insensible then beasts yet they can not refraine”. (Fenton)
Secular interpretations also abound. Harold Bloom claims this as one of his favorite poems. “I walk around, certain days, chanting ‘The Unbeliever’ to myself, it being one of those rare poems you never evade again, once you know it (and it knows you)”
The five stanzas of “The Unbeliever”, says Bloom, are essentially variations on the Bunyan epigraph. “Bunyan’s trope concerns the condition of unbelief; Bishop’s does not.” Quite how he could be so sure he does not say, but he continues: “Think of the personae of Bishop’s poem as exemplifying three rhetorical stances, and so as being three kinds of poet, or even three poets: cloud, gull, unbeliever. The cloud is Wordsworth or Stevens. The gull is Shelley or Hart Crane. The unbeliever is Dickinson or Bishop”. No doubt generations of diligent students have been recycling this taxonomy of poets ever since. (Fenton)
While intellectually informative and provocative, these variations cannot capture the essence of the image in a clear and encompassing manner. For me, this image is dream-like, with a prophetic warning about staying close to the earth. What takes us out, to sleep on the top of the mast so to speak, is a highly personal question.
Bishop’s gift is a mysterious ability to empower the most commonplace into something extraordinary, repeatedly transforming images and bringing them into another dimension and realm.
“I am very object-struck…. I simply try to see things afresh,” Bishop said about herself in an interview. “I have a great interest and respect…for what people call ordinary things. I am very visually minded and mooses and filling stations aren’t necessarily commonplace to me.”
As a follow up to my posting on March 9th regarding this last outbreak of false memoirizing, here are a few more bubbles under that tablecloth that can move around but never disappear. Jill Lepore, a prof at Harvard, has written yet another of her fascinating articles for the New Yorker magazine. She’s so damn smart, I am always excited when I find her name listed on the weekly Table of Contents.
In this week’s piece, Just the Facts, Ma’am, Lepore details the skinny on the intertwining history of historical writing and fiction. Turns out the term “history” has been used to describe all manner of writing, and the history of the term “history” also has a “who knew?” gender narrative to boot. I found the article fascinating. Here’s a few highlights:
Historians and novelists are kin, in other words, but they’re more like brothers who throw food at each other than like sisters who borrow each other’s clothes. The literary genre that became known as “the novel” was born in the eighteenth century. History, the empirical sort based on archival research and practiced in universities, anyway, was born at much the same time. Its novelty is not as often remembered, though, not least because it wasn’t called “novel.” In a way, history is the anti-novel, the novel’s twin, though which is Cain and which is Abel depends on your point of view.
In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, many historians worried that the seriousness of history, its very integrity as a discipline, was in danger of being destroyed by literary theorists who insisted on the constructedness, the fictionality, of all historical writing—who suggested that the past is nothing more than a story we tell about it. The field seemed to be tottering on the edge of an epistemological abyss: If history is fiction, if history is not true, what’s the use? (The panic has since died down, but it hasn’t died out. Donald Kagan, in his 2005 Jefferson lecture, “In Defense of History,” grumbled about the perils of “pseudo-philosophical mumbo-jumbo.”) In 1990, Sir Geoffrey Elton called postmodern literary theory “the intellectual equivalent of crack.” The next year, the eminent American historian Gordon Wood, writing in The New York Review of Books, warned that if things were to keep on this way historians would soon “put themselves out of business.” Reviewing Simon Schama’s “Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations)”—a history book in which Schama indulged in flights of fancy, fully disclosed as such—Wood wrote, “His violation of the conventions of history writing actually puts the integrity of the discipline of history at risk.”
If a history book can be read as if it were a novel, and if a reader can find the same truth in a history book and a novel, what, finally, is the difference between them? This is a difficult question, Hume admitted. Maybe it just feels different—more profound—to read what we believe to be true (an idea assented to) than what we believe to be false (a fancy): “An idea assented to feels different from a fictitious idea, that the fancy alone presents to us.”
Women were not only not interested in history; they didn’t trust it. In “Northanger Abbey” (completed by 1803), Jane Austen’s comic heroine, who adores novels, confesses that she finds history both boring and impossible to credit: “It tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” Austen saw fit to echo this exchange in “Persuasion” (1818). “All histories are against you,” Captain Harville insists, when Austen’s levelheaded heroine, Anne Elliot, argues that women are more constant than men. “But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men,” Harville guesses, and Anne agrees. “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” she observes, saying, “I will not allow books to prove any thing.”
By the end of the eighteenth century, not just novel readers but most novel writers were women, too. And most historians, along with their readers, were men. As the discipline of history, the anti-novel, emerged, and especially as it professionalized, it defined itself as the domain of men. (Women might write biography, or dabble in genealogy.) Eighteenth-century observers, in other words, understood the distinction between history and fiction not merely and maybe not even predominantly as a distinction between truth and invention but as a distinction between stories by, about, and of interest to men and stories by, about, and of interest to women. Women read novels, women wrote novels, women were the heroines of novels. Men read history, men wrote history, men were the heroes of history. (When men wrote novels, Godwin suggested, this was regarded as “a symptom of effeminacy.”)
This topic is even more interesting than I had imagined.
From up here, the insomniac
river turning in its bed
looks like a line somebody painted
so many years ago it’s hard
to believe it was ever liquid; a motorboat
winks in the sun and leaves a wake
that seals itself in an instant, like the crack
in a hardly broken heart.
And the little straight-faced houses
that with dignity bear the twin
burdens of being unique and all alike,
and the leaf-crammed valley like the plate
of days that kept on coming and I ate
though laced with poison: I can look
over them, from this distance, with an ache
instead of a blinding pain.
Sometimes, off my guard, I half-
remember what it was to be
half-mad: whole seasons gone; the fear
a stranger in the street might ask
the time; how feigning normality
became my single, bungled task.
What made me right again? I wouldn’t dare
to guess; was I let off
for good behavior? Praise
to whatever grace or power preserves
the living for living…Yet I see the square
down there, unmarked, where I would pace
endlessly, and as the river swerves
around it, wonder what portion of
love I’d relinquish to ensure
I’d never again risk drowning.
– Mary Jo Salter
I read the line, “the plate/of days that kept on coming and I ate/though laced with poison” and she had me.
A note on the format of this poem: I am unable to get WordPress to “tab” lines for indentation. (If anyone knows how, please advise.) The layout of this poem is an important part of the experience. Please refer to its proper presentation here.
What is it that Tom Stoppard does that moves me so deeply? Rock ‘n’ Roll was as intoxicating an experience as Coast of Utopia had been the year before. In many ways it is a continuation of many of the same themes, just brought forward 100 years and closer to home. (The play takes place in England and what was once Czechoslovakia, the bloodlines of Stoppard’s own identity.) We are still struggling with how history unfolds, how any one person can stand up, with honor, to the inexorable thrust of politics, of grand scale human folly, of historical precedence replaying itself over and over again, of disastrous conceits and misfired intentions.
In both Rock ‘n’ Roll and Coast of Utopia, Stoppard arcs his narrative out over many years and several generations. His voice does not speak to the concerns of his particular cohort group. Rather he traces the fractal pattern of how ideas grow, from what is frequently an inauspicious and unintended germination to historic unfoldings that explode with little regard for extenuating circumstances like truthfulness, appropriateness, or the achievement of any modicum of long term human benefit. The threads and leitmotifs in these plays are complex, provocative and interconnected, yet they are not delivered with anything approaching resolution. Stoppard poses profound questions about human existence that do not have answers. Intimations and flashes of possible resolutions come and go, but those moments are fleeting, a glinting parsec vision of what might have been.
An unforgettable experience.
Here is an excerpt from a review by Neal Ascherson of the Guardian, written when the play first opened in London in 2006:
“Rock ‘n’ Roll” is a subtle, complex play about ways to resist ‘systems’ and preserve what is human. At its core is a succession of arguments between two Czech friends, Jan (who holds some of Kundera’s attitudes) and Ferda (who more clearly represents Havel, and borrows lines from some of Havel’s famous utterances). Jan, forced to work as a kitchen porter, at first despises Ferda’s petitions against arrests and censorship as the self-indulgence of an intellectual clique. A devout rock enthusiast, he sees the persecuted rock band the Plastic People of the Universe (who actually existed) as the essence of freedom because they simply don’t care about anything but the music. They baffle the thought police because ‘they’re not heretics. They’re pagans’.
Ferda at first dismisses the Plastic People as long-haired escapists who have nothing to do with the real struggle. But later, when they are arrested and imprisoned after an absurd trial, he comes to understand that the heretics and the pagans are inseparable allies.
Leaving the band’s real-life trial, Havel famously said that ‘from now on, being careful seems so petty’. Soon afterwards a few hundred brave men and women signed ‘Charter 77’, the declaration of rights and liberties which earned them prison sentences and suffocating surveillance but which was read around the world.
Stoppard is fascinated by the Plastic People, by the idea that the most devastating response to tyranny might be the simple wish to be left alone. In Prague he met and talked to Ivan Jirous, their founder, whose long hair enraged the authorities. ‘I always loved rock’n’roll,’ Stoppard says. ‘And what was so intriguing about the Plastic People was that they never set out to be symbols of resistance, although the outside world thought of them that way. They said: “People never write about our music!” In the West, rock bands liked to be thought of for their protest, rather than their music. But Jirous didn’t try to turn the Plastic People into anything; he just saw that they were saying, “We don’t care, leave us alone!” Jirous insisted that they were actually better off than musicians in the West because there was no seduction going on. There was nothing the regime wanted from them, and nothing they wanted from the regime.’
There is dissent which wants to substitute one system for another. And there is dissent which simply says: Get off our back, scrap all the guidelines and controls, and humanity will reassert itself.
Patiently, Stoppard explained to me how historic disputes between Kundera and Havel were reflected in the play. Kundera, in the first confused year after the invasion, had hoped that the experiment could still continue, working out a society in which uncensored freedom could co-exist with a socialist state, a new form of socialism which still needed to be devised. ‘Havel said that it wasn’t a question of making new systems. “Constructing” a free press was like inventing the wheel. You don’t have to invent a free society because such a society is the norm – it’s normal.’
I asked if this notion of freedom as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’, something which doesn’t need designing, wasn’t close to the anarchist vision But this was not what he meant, it seemed. Stoppard’s trust that ‘people’ will behave well when left on their own has its common-sense limits. In “Salvage”, the third play in the “Utopia” trilogy, Stoppard makes Herzen puncture the exuberant anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in a needle-sharp exchange:
Bakunin: ‘Left to themselves, people are noble, generous, uncorrupted, they’d create a completely new kind of society if only people weren’t so blind, stupid and selfish.’
Herzen: ‘Is that the same people or different people?’
J. M. Coetzee. I am in awe of his work, even though its textures, angles and palettes are so different from my own creative matrix. In a very readable New Yorker review by James Wood of Coetzee’s new book Diary of a Bad Year, I found a few passages that are just too good to keep to myself.
Coetzee is interested in how we profess ideas, both in life and in novels. We tend to think of ourselves as intellectually stable, the oaken pile of principle driven reassuringly deep into the ground. All the Presidential-campaign cant about “values” testifies to this; to flip-flop is to flop. But what if our ideas are, rather, as Virginia Woolf imagined consciousness: a constant flicker of different and self-cancelling perceptions, entertained for a moment and then exchanged for other ones?
My point of view exactly. I have never understood the high value placed on unrelenting (and unenlightening) consistency.
Unlike the philosopher, the novelist may take an idea beyond its rational terminus, to the point where the tracks start breaking up. One name of this tendency is the religious, the realm where faith replaces wisdom.
In the last entry of this novel [Diary of a Bad Year], “On Dostoevsky,” Senor C writes:
“I read again last night the fifth chapter of the second part of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, the chapter in which Ivan hands back his ticket of admission to the universe God has created, and found myself sobbing uncontrollably.”
It is not the force of Ivan’s reasoning, he says, that carries him along but “the accents of the anguish, the personal anguish of a soul unable to bear the horrors of this world.” We can hear the same note of personal anguish in Coetzee’s fiction, even as that fiction insists that it is offering not a confession but only the staging of a confession. His books make all the right postmodern noises, but their energy lies in their besotted relationship to an older, Dostoyevskian tradition, in which we feel the desperate impress of the confessing author, however recessed and veiled.
Coetzee is SO Dostoyevskian, something I had not named until Wood stated it so clearly. And such a rarity for a writer at this point in our history.
She Considers the Dimensions of Her Soul
(Mrs. Morninghouse, after a Sermon Entitled,
“What the Spirit Teaches Us through Grief”)
The shape of her soul is a square.
She knows this to be the case
because she sometimes feels its corners
pressing sharp against the bone
just under her shoulder blades
and across the wings of her hips.
At one time, when she was younger,
she had hoped that it might be a cube,
but the years have worked to dispel
this illusion of space. So that now
she understands: it is a simple plane:
a shape with surface, but no volume—
a window without a building, an eye
without a mind.
Of course, this square
does not appear on x-rays, and often,
weeks may pass when she forgets
that it exists. When she does think
to consider its purpose in her life,
she can say only that it aches with
a single mystery for whose answer
she has long ago given up the search—
since that question is a name which can
never quite be asked. This yearning,
she has concluded, is the only function
of the square, repeated again and again
in each of its four matching angles,
until, with time, she is persuaded anew
to accept that what it frames has no
interest in ever making her happy.
The poet Young Smith is new to me. This poem, featured recently on Poetry Daily, captures an elusive but familiar state of mind. Some of these lines haunt: “a shape with surface, but no volume—/a window without a building, an eye/without a mind.”
This poem is included in Smith’s volume, In a City You Will Never Visit. Below are a few other poets’ responses to the book.
Young Smith has composed a subtle, intelligent, spare book with the cleanliness of good prose. “In a City You Will Never Visit” threads two long sequences (a suicide story, and a metaphysical meditation on light) among individual poems of tantalizing variety. With their moral syllogisms and gnomic tone, they might have come from Eastern Europe—an Eastern Europe we will never visit, a city of the mind.
Somewhere between the merciless ironies of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge and the aching metaphysical comedy of Zbigniew Herbert resides Young Smith, a student of the elusive nature of the real. “In a City You Will Never Visit” is an unexpected fusion of pleasures: a sequence of poems that accumulate with the weight of a novel, a lyric meditation on the behavior of light, and a study of the forms of longing—all of which Smith braids together into a fresh and striking debut.
There is an arrestingly ethereal quality to Young Smith’s poems as they navigate their numinous territory, where things that once seemed most familiar are revealed to be least controllable and comprehensible. Smith’s voices are troubled by tricks of light playing on objects that turn out to be merely the manifestations of our own witness, ‘made of notion’s fabric.’ I find myself drawn to these poems and their strategy of radiant patience in confronting what seems always to be almost just this side of unfathomable.
—J. Allyn Rosser