Poetry of Inquiry
At some point, probably around the time Pascal first looked up at the dark sky and trembled, the cosmos of meaning that human cultures had stretched over their heads like a tent blew open to reveal a cold, gaseous universe extending into the infinite, yielding traces of matter and light but no meaning at all. This shift from cosmos to universe is how the philosopher Charles Taylor characterizes the secular age, in which we suddenly found our selves calling out to the world and encountering no echo.
Of course, the silence of the world is no news to poets, but poetry has had a tendency to position itself as a privileged interpreter of that silence. Even after it stopped embodying the cosmos, that is, when poetry became modern, it continued its task of revelation, offering us the humanistic visions we needed to move on. In one version, it provided a forum for self-revelation, a shelter in which that modern cosmos, the internal, psychological “I,” was explored and discovered to have a deep hidden sense. In another version, poetry charged itself with the burden of wisdom, alerting us to the indifference of the world while suggesting that we should find in that a deep hidden lesson. The options have been changing, though – away from the self, away from wisdom and revelation – and the two books under review refract some of the new orientations.…
Patton fixes his monkish gaze right down at his feet, on the mud and the weeds, the “blithe / ash, black leaf, in fields of wild carrot where the goldenrod sprouts.” As different as they seem, his poems embody a similar kind of response to the same echoless universe.
The book opens with that indifference: “Four plates of raw / iron, folded over one / another, found there was no / way to hold the wold. / The world did not mind; // turning, it looked / as a child would, to itself.” A foal is born, assumes ten thousand forms as it grows, is harnessed, and does its work. A red maple “branch coughs in the wind, / the flowers give / up their attachments.” The poem ends.
There is very little to hold on to in these poems. You don’t gain a greater understanding of yourself or the world. There is no window into the mind. There are not even any quotables to take back to a dinner party. You don’t come away feeling cheaply enlightened. What you come away with is an experience, the feeling that you’ve been through something, something that, unlike most poetry, is more physical than mental.
You learn of concentration, his and your own. You work your muscles tramping through the consonant-heavy syllables. The language is tangled with words and sounds, like a thicket keeping you out at first. Ox is a difficult book to enter. As with all new surroundings, it takes a while to get accustomed to, demanding at least a few readings. Phrases are deeply nested, opening up into one more possessive, one more subordinate clause, one more adjective before the next subject, the next matted clause.
[S]ome fall like tufts of lion fur
to the forest floor
and redden, a resting place for the glance that fears
moving up the grown trunk’s furrowed brow –
up to the waving twig-tips
All tough “f”s and “g”s and “r”s until the “furrowed brow” releases its “w”s into the lightness of “waving.” And once your muscles get used to this, hacking through the wet thicket turns into a great sensual exercise.
Appropriately, it’s only after the second reading that you realize how peopled these poems are. All those poems, with titles such as “White Pine” or “Hawthorn” are actually full of settlers, soldiers and scholars, to whom the wood lends life and through whom it acquires a kind of history. Yet these humans are barely noticeable as wilful, subjective actors; they appear more as wispy veins of a maple leaf or barks off a trunk, as aspects of the world. Thoughts are made of wind and old men are indistinguishable from the weeping willow: “hair-thin parallel veins / course out from a silver crease / towards the leaf-edge / obliquely.… // The leaves, jaws, part / around a cleft-tipped tongue that now / should splay to calyx – .”
You can never be sure whether he is referring to the thing or to the person – thereby questioning how and how much we do or ought to distinguish between the different hierarchies of being. For Patton, the animate and inanimate are interchangeable, shot through with each other, an amalgamation he calls “Animal of mineral.”
In secular or humanist literature, nature generally serves as a quarry for metaphors. We mine substance from it and carve it into shapes that reflect us. In Ox, nature does not stand in for us, nor is it set apart from culture or human-made objects: “the leaning / cement-mixer in an oiled stream,” for instance, sounds as mechanical and artificial, or perhaps as natural, as the crystal gaze / of borne-up mica-glinting / April snow.” Things are as they are, part of an extended landscape of matter that makes its presence known through the poetry. In this sense, Patton’s, too, is a poetry of inquiry – the inquiry of a naturalist. Instead of questioning the world, outlining the hollow of human anxiety and then filling it with pre-made, tilled responses, he waits to see if the world has anything to say about itself. And it turns out that it does: the world says things in the earthy, tangled language of an untended shrub, fractal but sensible, messy but luscious.
It is a pity that at the end of several poems Patton angles for wisdom. As with Murray, the mantra slips in to the detriment of the poem: “the heart / that was hurt, will hurt” is a self-help banality that disfigures a beautiful poem about soldiers and thorns. The natural proliferation of pain is already in every line and this drum-roll finale depreciates the experience.
Also, the middle section of the book takes less successful forays into a fragmented Ovidian dialogue, and later the voice of Pliny the Elder, while trying to maintain a focus on the diverse unfoldings of nature – in fact, Patton uses Pliny’s Natural History as his guide. But his observational language rings flat with all that echo of tragedy and irony that swirls inevitably around any talk of “sleeping slave / girl and wakeful / Caesar” or of the “thin wine / of empire” spreading while “his wife takes her bath for hours / in the milk of half a thousand asses.” The juxtapositions are too blatant and Patton’s language dips limp-wristed, to use his own vocabulary. Historical pastiche is not an elemental language and Patton is at his strongest when he is spoken through by nature itself, rather than by discourse. Even though he relies on many different sources throughout the book, including Zen masters, the best poems are those that make him seem like a patient man who, sitting in a field, looking intently, hears what he sees. We are beneficiaries of this strange connection between Patton’s ears and eyes.
Both Murray and Patton are responding in a post-humanist manner to the echoless universe. The focus on the subjective and the psychological is diminished; the meaningfulness (or [meaning]lessness) of the world is sidelined. We humans can stop considering ourselves privileged beings. The continuum of existence starts with matter and ends with matter. Whatever is in the middle, including poetry, requires patience and inquiry, and an asceticism that can quell the hunger for meaning and let the world say what it has to say.
Arc (Winter 2008)