Monday, March 30, 2009

Nine Genocides

Louis Finson, The Four Elements, 1611

It was like a hanging: being marched along streets with others, through great institutional doors, up stairs, to a desk, the groaning inbox.


They threw the bodies down the stairs, opened the warehouse door, rolled them inside, where the dead were logging hours on the loading dock.


Under the bridge, the alchemy of dawn is failing in its ancient transmutation, carbon dioxide and mercury sloughing off molecules of shit.


The final radiance arrives: everyone ossifies, tipping statues undercut by erosion, skeletons in derelict museums punching out, departing.


The lovers dressed, pulling underwear from under the chaise, stockings from the mantle, fur from bushes, hiding their feelers, hooves, horns.


Before they burned the bodies, they killed them; before they killed them they tortured them; before they tortured them, they gave them jobs.


Impossible not to forget the beautiful men, the children clever at their books, women full of wisdom, dead, my own body vaporized, my nation.


We were carrying bags from the grocer, polishing hammers, playing cards, dreaming of lost bodies, when the effacing brilliance distracted us.


Once we imploded the world enlarged, eroding every trace that anything had vanished, rain reclaiming our very atoms the better not to mourn us.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Eight Algorithms for Calibrating Precise Distortion

Carceri by Piranesi

A box of coins: One my fate, one my face, the others counterfeit. I close my eyes, reach in, choose: wrong, yes, but so it had been written.


The man with a headache reached into his mind and extracted a bit of shrapnel, which, examined, was the clone of a passage from Bach.


Signing the lien, he felt a twinge in his abdomen, as if someone were writing his own name on his belly with a pen of white phosphorus.


No one believed in demons, which made the exorcism a great success: there was dance, drink, and the guest of honor bleeding from the mouth.


Entropy broke through the cafe window, tipping a dish of cornichon, blinding the waiter with its radiation, emptying the diners' wallets.


Walking the shining hallway to the toilet, the busboy tripped over a marble head with a disgusted face, a patron who refused to leave a tip.


The slum in the heart of the flower, alley in the slum, door in the alley: in a grimy room, the homunculus sits, crippled, selling a flower.


As he went under anesthesia, the stockbroker dreamed the money he'd embezzled had written itself into a poem, and the poem into an epitaph.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Applied Platonism; or, What Work Isn't

I had been before to Warehouse 9. Situated on a cul-de-sac near the margin of the Army Corps of Engineers facility where I was then working, it was a large but unprepossessing building: sheet metal quonset-hut style, like an airplane hanger--probably it was in fact a recycled or otherwise diverted airplane hanger--large enough to contain, perhaps, a football field.

When I had looked inside Warehouse 9 before, it was empty except for a large expanse of dust-filtered sun angling down from skylights. This day, therefore, I walked up a short flight of wooden stairs onto a loading dock and opened a door, expecting nothing. What I saw instead was an ocean.

To be more precise, what I saw was a model ocean, a working replica of an ocean. But when I opened the door, I did not yet know that. All I knew was that the place was full of water, to a depth just below the level of the loading dock where I was standing, a sheet of water that extended virtually the length and breadth of the building. I stood for a moment bewildered; there was something here, I had been told, that I was supposed to see, but beyond the water, it was hard to tell what that might be or what I was to do.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I noticed a narrow platform in front of me, that led to a narrow walkway built of planks that led to the wall and then down the length of the building. I followed it, not knowing what else to do, and then saw that at the far end of the warehouse there was -- what? something, and a couple of people moving in the dusky light.


It was many years ago, in a universe far away. I had a job.

1972, a year when people were still considering dropping out as a viable lifestyle: always behind the curve, I was dropping in. I was 22. I had completed a Masters degree in literature and creative writing all except the thesis; struggling to finish the thesis, I convinced
myself that the whole academic enterprise was a mistake for me.

On a whim, I took the civil service exam. I have always been good at taking standardized tests; I realized the first time I took one, when I was in junior high, that such tests are not about knowledge (I certainly didn't know anything); they are about the people who design the tests. If you possess a certain kind of imagination, you can channel the test makers, and so doing, you can think three or four moves ahead of them. This served me well on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, on the PSAT, the SAT, the ACT, and the GRE, among other unpronounceable horrors. It served me especially well on the civil service exam, which struck me as the easiest test I had ever taken. Whoever designed this test, I thought, was simple minded beyond belief.

The test was so dull that I took it on a Saturday afternoon and promptly forgot all about it. When, on the following Saturday, I received a letter from the government, it came as a complete surprise. I won't pretend to remember the precise language of the letter, though I wish I could; the government's language is always entertaining in a perverse way, but unfortunately it is rarely memorable. The spirit of it I remember perfectly, and it was this:

Dear Mr. Hummer: Your score on our absurd test is absurdly good. Though we don't want to, because we suspect you are not one of us, we are forced to place you very high on our waiting list for civil service jobs. We cannot put you in the very top group, because that stratum is reserved for veterans of our armed forces; we are in the middle of a vitally important and highly illegal war on foreign soil, and your non-participation in that war perforce makes you ineligible from being ranked number one, number two, or number three on our list (we have that many veterans in your city who want to work for us), but the unquestionably high score you received on the test makes it impossible for us to ignore you, or even to rank you lower than 4th on the list, no matter how much we'd like to forget about you entirely. When and if your name comes to the top of the list, assuming any government agency would be insane enough to want someone like you, you will receive an invitation from that agency to consider whatever job they are trying to fill. In the meanwhile, please leave us alone.

Ever the obedient citizen, I obeyed that last injunction, and so, after a couple of weeks went by, I was again surprised to receive a letter, this one more specific and more cordial in nature.

Dear Mr. Hummer: We are impressed by your score on the civil service exam and by your profile. If you are interested, please contact us about interviewing for a position with our agency.

And so it was ordained by fate, whatever that word may mean to anyone, that I, apprentice poet, should go to work for the Army Corps of Engineers.


The installation where I went to work--let us call it, fictively, to protect the guilty, Hogwarts Experiment Station--looked like the hodge-podge of a minor land grant college, but without students. It had the same pragmatic, industrial-strength, mostly ugly architecture you can see in many parts of America on campuses named X State University. The primary difference was that the sidewalks and lawns were quieter, almost deserted, as if everyone were away on some obscure holiday. Some buildings looked like Nazi bunkers from a B war movie; some looked like the Chicago projects. In all of them, however, there were scientists, engineers, and technicians of every stripe, all hard at work on projects of a bewildering variety.

I was hired, however, not to be part of the Talent, but a very junior member of Management. The only office at Hogwarts, perhaps, that would have found a languishing English major of even the remotest interest took me on: Personnel. I was hired as a Personnel Classification Specialist Trainee GS-5 at the dizzying salary of $8000 a year, plus full government benefits, an arrangement I found wonderfully generous after two years of subsistence on a teaching assistant's stipend plus my wife's income as a low-level researcher for a state research and development agency. The forty-mile commute was a minor inconvenience, but I quickly found a carpool. The details easily came into focus. All I had to do was discover precisely what my job was.

I was given a desk in a room with two other desks. The situation was so familiar from my stint as a teaching assistant—an industrial-gray metal desk in an office with identical desks—that I felt immediately at home.

The sense that I had gone from one university to another was palpable and comforting—all the more so when I discovered that my work centered on a book.


It is difficult, from this remove, for me to recover the contours of the mental horizon within which I lived in the days I worked at Hogwarts, as they are long obliterated and many times replaced. I was twenty-two years old, recently married, somewhere in the middle of a long stretch of defining the center and margins of my life. A violent but solitary struggle to annihilate a “false” self—one based on the old-style Southern racism to which I was heir—was coming to an end. In the course of the next decade I would move across several plateaus, bridge an abyss or two, spelunk various cave systems, and become something perhaps remotely resembling an authentic human being.

In the meanwhile, I occupied, without realizing it, a sort of disposable self, one who had desperately cobbled together a set of values, affirmations and denials, goals, needs, and prejudices, and slapped the label “artist” on the whole assemblage. This psychic situation, as I reconstruct that time in my life, is what had led me to Hogwarts. I had a sense of mission, but no direction; I had a conviction of purpose, but no real ethos. I had tried teaching, but found I had nothing to teach, not because I was stupid or even ignorant exactly, but because I had no central values I knew how to share. Values I had, or thought I had, aplenty; I was awash in opinions. But they were brittle affairs in which even I had no real faith. Teaching called every word, every gesture into question, and I found the experience painful. I thought the pain came from the students’ incomprehension of the real, the beautiful, and the true; in fact, the problem was that taking responsibility for their progress reminded me of the failures of my own.

At the same time, I had embarked on an exploration of the so-called metaphysical domain. Goaded by a close study of Yeats, I believed I was a mystic-in-training, that my spiritual vocation was to be carried forward through the vehicle of poetry. I pursued thick books of Blavatsky and Gurdjieff; Hermes Trismegistus and Paracelsus were my familiars. The books I was reading were, in those far-away pre-internet days, hard to find, and their very scarcity convinced me I was onto something. In the absence of a local chapter of the Knights of the Golden Dawn, I joined the Rosicrucians (AMORC) by mail and sat up nights staring into candle flames, muttering the incantation “As above, so below.” I developed a false but temporarily necessary sense of uniqueness: surely I was the only card-carrying neo-Platonist working for the Army Corps of Engineers.


To say my work at Hogwarts was to center on a book is an understatement: the work in question was a set of books, or one enormous book distributed through many binders. As texts go, it was amorphous, and changeable: the black ring binders made it possible to remove pages for
revision, to excise the obsolete, and to add the new. But any such process was subject to strict regulation, as every government personnel office in the world had to have identical such texts. It was therefore a highly controlled document, but its physical nature suggested the book Borges describes in his story “The Book of Sand.” The narrator acquires the book from a mysterious man; before he buys it he inspects it.

I opened the book at random. The script was strange to me. The pages,which were worn and typographically poor, were laid out in double columns, as in a Bible. The text was closely printed, and it was ordered in versicles. In the upper corners of the pages were Arabic numbers. I noticed that one left-hand page bore the number (let us say) 40,514 and the facing right-hand page 999.

His examination of the book reveals that it is in fact infinite—not only without beginning or end or order, but also continually changeable, so that a page you turn does not stay where you left it, and the unendurable Truth you encountered there could never be found again.

I wish I could remember the actual title of the set of books that was to govern my life while I remained at Hogwarts; it was pure and perfect bureaucratese, and the language has slipped into some special black hole of my memory. In any case, the people in the office simple called it The Guidelines, and so I too came to call it.

My designation at Hogwarts, as I have said, was Personnel Classification Specialist Trainee GS-5. I was given this title when I was hired, but did not pay much attention to it since it was more or less meaningless to me. I was to come to pay more and more attention not only to my own designation but to everyone else’s since, as it turned out, it was precisely my job to do so.


From the outside, Hogwarts is a black box, figuratively speaking. Its function in the large sense is simple: anyone who has a question and can afford to pay for the answer may approach. Generally such entities are other government agencies, state agencies, or municipalities, but in theory it could be anyone. The question is submitted; professionals in the appropriate areas evaluate it and either accept the job or reject it depending on its appropriateness to the facility's potential. If the question is accepted, it enters the black box; time passes, and ultimately an answer, or an admission of failure, emerges from the other side of the box.

Hogwarts has an excellent track record as a black box that spits out accurate answers. My knowledge is dated, but when I was there, the party line, which I have no reason to doubt, was that the facility did not cost taxpayers a penny, but more than paid for itself by virtue of fulfilling its commissions.

From the inside, however, the simplicity of the black box was nowhere apparent. Hogwarts was a large, diverse, busy operation, doing its business along a myriad of avenues, but everywhere its fundamental process was the same: Hogwarts answered questions about the world by making models of the world. They controlled flooding in large river systems by building precise models of those systems; they learned about wave forms and turbulence with wave generating machines and wind tunnels; they designed the wheel for the lunar lander using a model of the surface of the moon. Their models were complex with detail; they were exact and they were elegant. I saw many of them during my tenure at Hogwarts, and my fascination was never exhausted--which was a good thing, since observing the models, and the work of the engineers and scientists who designed and used them, and the model makers who built them, was my job at Hogwarts.


Inside the heavy black binders of the Guidelines, there were job descriptions. Every government job at every classification level was represented there--no, not represented: determined. The Guidelines set forth the qualifications, requirements, and duties of every civil service position in the country, from physicist to maintenance personnel, hydrologist to administrative assistant to model maker--including, of course, Personnel Classification Specialist Trainee GS-5. For the uninitiated, that alphanumeric at the end of the job title (every government employee, I learned, has a GS number) determines the rank of the employee within the field, and hence the salary level. The Guidelines contained, in addition to a basic description of the job, a road map for moving from level to level, and hence for advancement. A Personnel Classification Specialist, then, is one whose job it is to mediate between the Guidelines and reality. Someone has to consult the Guidelines for the ideal of a given job at a given level, and then investigate to determine whether Dr. A is actually doing what he or she "should" be doing; if Dr. A. is doing more than the Guidelines dictate, a promotion must be made; if less, a change in duties or a downward adjustment. Since people's salaries are involved, there is a good deal at stake. Therefore, the Personnel Classification Specialist is an employee of some importance. This was applied Platonism with attitude.

The Personnel Classification Specialist Trainee, however, is a different matter. I was on a strict career schedule, whose contour was nothing more or less than a learning curve. Mediating between the real and the ideal, as it turns out, is trickier than it might at first appear, especially at a complex facility like Hogwarts. It had been determined before I was hired that the proper term for a trainee's apprenticeship was three years. For that duration, it was my job to learn; after that, having gone through a series of advancements within the trainee rank on a regular schedule, I would emerge from the chrysalis of training as a full-fledged Personnel Classification Specialist GS-9. GS-9 was, from where I sat, a lofty rank with a generous salary. All I had to do to get there was read, observe, and learn.

In short, my job at Hogwarts was exactly like graduate school.


Warehouse 9, then, was part of my learning curve. I was continually being called to go here and go there at Hogwarts to see what went on; it was necessary for me to have a clear and comprehensive understanding of the reality our personnel were part of. Observing was half the job; the other half was absorbing the contents of the Guidelines. Day after day I pored like a scholar of the Kabbala over the arcane contents of that set of volumes, consulting with colleagues when I found something puzzling or incomprehensible. Other times, I was called off to see what a group of hydrologists were doing here, a band of soil scientists there; I observed the permanent model of New York Harbor (complete with a two-foot Statue of Liberty) and the permanent model of the Mississippi River Basin, which occupied 30 square acres. I saw tanks full of turbulence, abstract projectiles, blackboards covered with equations taken from a bad film of the Manhattan Project. I talked to people, who were for the most part delighted to lecture me at length and in great detail on the work they were doing.

Many scientists, I learned, are obsessive and feel, in terms of the hidden essences of the work they do, lonely and--not so much misunderstood as uncomprehended. They enjoyed having an audience, even a captive one; but much of the time I found what they had to say interesting, however little I might actually understand it. They seemed to me not so different from poets, painters, musicians; they were improvising against sets of chord changes and master narratives, and while the products of their labors might be welcome to the world at large, the processes were arcane. The scientist, like the artist, aims for the product, but lives in the process.


As I entered Warehouse 9, the wooden catwalk around the edge of the ocean felt precarious, and its precariousness familiar, emblematic of my own situation: walking a narrow, precarious path with a blind wall on one side and an artificial ocean on the other. What on earth was I doing here--here in Warehouse 9, here at Hogwarts, here: this person, slave of this mind? The great vault of Warehouse 9 curved above me: Plato's cave with a vengeance. The shadows of other people flickered at the end of the catwalk. My own bloated shadow walked beside me, distorted, cast by reflected light from the softly rippling water. In the back of my head the voices of the Great Poets whispered: . . . lack all conviction . . . makes nothing happen. In the black book on the shelf above my office desk, the blueprint of my soul resided: GS-5, GS-6, GS-7. Somewhere, real life was happening. But where, and what did that mean?

The catwalk terminated on a beach. The back wall of Warehouse Nine was separated from the water by a zone of contoured sand. A few feet back from the waters edge, there were trees, and beyond the trees, a town--main street with shops, neighborhoods, cars, fireplugs. The trees were no more than three inches high, the buildings to the same scale. Here was a tiny town on a tiny beach. I was Gulliver, and this was my Lilliput: finally, it seemed, I had actually entered a book, rather than opening myself and allowing books to enter me.

At the very back of the building, there was a stainless steel compartment, the sort of thing one goes to Sears and buys to put in the back yard for tool storage. Too men were standing at the door of the compartment, watching me.

"Walk round behind the town," one said, "so you don't knock anything over."


The two men who met me in Warehouse 9 were described in the Guidelines as Modelmakers. What their names were I did not know, nor did they know mine; all that mattered was that I was the Personnel Classification Specialist Trainee and that they were Modelmakers: at Hogwarts, by their work are they known, and by their descriptions are they understood. We were the People of the Guidelines.

"What's this?"

"It's a town," one said, as if he were answering an idiot who'd asked the same question about the sky.

These two Modelmakers were strangers to me, but I had already met a good many members of their profession in the course of my work, and had duly pored over the Guidelines pages devoted to them. Of all the professional groups I had encountered at Hogwarts, they interested me the most. Their skills were a combination of the practical and the visionary; when scientists described what they wanted from them, the Modelmakers had to envision an actual construct, create it, and make it function. In some ways they reminded me of carpenters and plumbers I had known (they were carpenters and plumbers, when the job called for it), and in other ways like sculptors, painters, musicians, and poets--with a strong measure of model train fanatic thrown in. Generally, their pay scale (as I knew) was on the low end of the spectrum, but they seemed, as a group, stable, serene, and proud. Their work was utterly indispensable to the work of Hogwarts; without them, the whole place would grind to a halt, and they knew it.

"It's a town," I said. "I see that."


"It's terrific," I said, looking closer. Every shopfront on Main Street was painted in detail: drug store, book shop, soda fountain. All the motorists were obeying the rules. The trees were neatly trimmed, and windowboxes bloomed. "But what's it for?"

"OK, here's the scoop," the older of the two said. "A municipality in California has given us a problem to work on. This is that municipality. It's built as close to the real town as we can get it. Everything is there, right down to the trees; everything is to scale. We work from photographs, and from maps. Tolerances are very tight."

"I see," I said. "And what's the problem you're working on?"

He raised one finger. "There's a bit more," he said, and then gestured out at the water. "The beachfront is all precise as well; the town is built on a bay; this is the bay. The shape of the bay is exact, so is the contour of the ocean floor all the way out."

I looked down at the perfect beach, and noticed suddenly a new detail: over the beach, off the bay, surf was rolling: perfect miniature surf, which rolled in with perfect miniature curl, the leading edge of each fringed with perfect miniature foam.

"Holy shit," I said. It had never crossed my mind that surf of such apparent perfection could be made that small, each wave perhaps three inches high. Surely scale figured into the structure of things at some point; my intuition told me that a wave, in order to adopt so complex a form, would simply have to be bigger than that. But why did I think so? Obviously my intuition was steering me wrong, because here before me was the thing itself.

The skin on the back of my neck began to tingle. Surely some revelation is at hand. . . . The poets in the back of my head woke up; there was a stir in my inner anthology.

"This," I said, "is astonishing." The Modelmakers smiled benignly, as at a child's excitement. "How do you do it?"

"Wave generator," the younger said, pointing out into the distances of the Pacific. About three fourths of the way from which I had come, in the middle of the water, I saw a long metal object; its details were impossible to distinguish at this distance and in this light. "We can program it to make any wave form we want, at variable intensity."

I had seen wave tanks in another laboratory: huge aquariums in which scientists studying turbulence generated wave forms three times my height. That was very impressive, but this was miraculous: big waves were, well, big, and thus impressive, but they seemed thoroughly normal in some important way. These miniature waves were exquisite, and miraculous. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I was rapt by what I saw. I was not Gulliver, standing here: I was God. Or, no, I was an archangel. Perhaps I was a cherub. The gods here were the Modelmakers. This was their creation. It was art--art of the most utilitarian kind, and yet for its own sake--otherwise, why paint the storefront signs, why make the window boxes bloom? It was a bay in California; it was a universe. I found myself moved the way I was moved by symphonies, or by jazz, or by poems.

"Here's the gist of it," one Modelmaker said, while the other took out a small penknife and began grooming his fingernails. "The town proposes to build an offshore sewage treatment plant. That's it out there." Halfway between the wave machine and the beach, I now saw, was a low white rectangle--filled, I presumed, with tiny sewage, precisely to scale (I didn't ask). "What they want to know is this: if there is an earthquake or a tidal wave, will their plant withstand it? And if it doesn't, what will the environmental impact be?"

"So how will you determine that?"

"Simple," he said. "We'll crank that wave generator up to tsunami, stand back, and watch what happens."

Simple. Apocalypse is always simple. I imagined the machine and the wave it would make, would would happen to the trees, the cars, the houses, the post office with its perfect flag, the soda shop. It seemed a blunt and thick-headed way to do science, from one perspective; from another (like Alexander cutting the Gordian knot) it seemed the only possible way.

"Are you going to do it now?" I said.

"Oh, no," said the one with the penknife. "We're still a month away from that. We have a lot of fine tuning to do."

"Looks perfect to me," I said.

"Yeah, well," he said, flipping away a bit of thumbnail. "There are some problems here you can't see."

I felt a small tremor of the nerves. "Like what?"

"For one thing, sand. You can grind sand fine, but only just so fine; beyond a certain point it's not sand any more. If you were little surfer down on that beach, the sand would be too big. The sand is not to scale."

Slippage: my model universe was not what it appeared.

"For another thing," the other Modelmaker added, "there is the problem of the water molecules. Water molecules are water molecules. You can't get model water molecules."

"So--" I said.

"So the water is also not to scale."

This proposition was so peculiar I could not wrap my mind around it. I looked at the evil water, the offending sea, unable to say anything. Had I spoken, I would have sounded like Joyce's seagull: quark.

My own investment in this little world surprised me. I wanted it to work, but suddenly its existence seemed so problematic I could see no way for it to do what it needed to do: to be, not just a toy, but a world. And not just a world, but the world. I looked out at the recalcitrant water, the impossible sand. I was on the threshold of a cosmic betrayal, an infinity of heartbreak.

Finally I found my voice. "What do you do?" I imagined the whole model coming down, the water draining into a gutter, the tiny houses and trees swept into a trash bin, useless.

The Modelmaker paused. And then he spoke, and gave me the thing I had come for--the secret of Life, the Universe, and Everything, as the comic genius wrote--the revelation.

"We have algorithms," he said, "that let us build very precise distortion into the model."


I continued to work at Hogwarts for another couple of months, going through the motions of training. I moved from one to another office in Personnel, learning the ropes. I talked to secretaries, hydrologists, electrical engineers, about their actual jobs; above all, I read the Guidelines.

The truth is, though, that after my experience in Warehouse 9, I was done at Hogwarts. I was eager to get back to finishing my thesis, to writing my poems, to study. The missing piece in my thought had been given back to me, the thing that let me understand not only what an artist was, but what a human being was, and a human's business in the world--what was wrong with Plato, and what was wrong with me.

When I resigned from Hogwarts, some wag there said, not unsympathetically, "You're the most expensive ornament we've had around here lately." I could not disagree with him, because it was impossible to explain to him how important the work I had done there had been--to me, at any rate, if not to the Powers of Hogwarts. If I had had the presence of mind, I would have answered "Never hire a Neo-Platonist to do a Platonist's work" and left him slack-jawed. But I'm glad I didn't, for that too had become false. I had graduated from Neo-Platonism. I let my membership to the Rosicrucians lapse, and sold my Gurdjieff and Blavatsky.

Build very precise distortion into the model. In that formulation lies the work of a lifetime--the work of an artist, the work of a real human being in a real world, whatever you mean by real, by human, by world.

"The world is everything that is the case," says Wittgenstein. "The world worlds," says Heidegger. Fair enough, I say. From one day to the next, I don't know the algorithms; from year to year I'm not sure what I'm making a model of. Those are the questions of a whole lifetime. But in the face of all uncertainty, in the middle of the deepest mystery, I have my guidelines, my job description. I know what my work is, and what my work is not.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Eight Extremophiles

The dream of the poem is of an explosion creating unalterable change in its environment; what good is a poetry that does not change geology?


The fact of the poem is a microscopic entity in the upper atmosphere, only discoverable by a superlight vehicle soaked in liquid neon.


Between Auden's "Poetry makes nothing happen" and Milosz's "What good is a poetry that does not change nations" walk the ghosts of all poems.


The space where reader meets poem is a wrecked zone in the ruin of cultural memory, in the ghetto on the south side of the medulla oblongata.


To extract the enzyme that carries the poem from the mind of the reader to the mind of the body politic requires the centrifuge of the muse.


Poetry is one strand spun in the double helix of the DNA of the body politic; each poem is a molecule thereof.


The DNA is an aggregator, selector, interpreter, and reviser of experience; the poem is a form of experience, unavailable elsewhere.


The creature emerges from murky water, crawling, and discovers--by having a shape that can crawl--there is such a thing as a shore.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

If the Art of the Possible Meets the Unacknowledged Legislator, Will the Universe Implode?

I posed a question online the other day that stimulated some amusing responses: When will university departments decide they must have 21st-century specialists on their faculties, and how can we prepare to market ourselves as such? The question was tongue in cheek, but there is a vital issue behind it.

Social engineering has for a long time been in serious disrepute almost everywhere. The fall of the Soviet Union stands for many--thinkers and non-thinkers alike--as emblematic of the failure of humans to be able to apply social theories to social realities. Best leave the thing to run itself, one line of thinking goes; it is self-regulating like a natural system.

But the collapse of the Bush Doctrine appears as decisive an emblem as the collapse of the USSR. Left to themselves, it seems, people run to Ponzi schemes and other forms of outright theft. And so it falls, in the US, to Barack Obama to reify the "progressive" model of social engineering. Whether or not he succeeds in getting his plans through the defensive line of the opposition party, with all the cheerleaders shouting "Socialism," the genie is out of the bottle again. And so the question arises: where are the 21st-century specialists? Can we identify effective engineers of the future among us now?

In the March 19, 2009 issue of Nature, Thomas Homer-Dixon reviews a brace of books that deal in different ways with this subject. Homer-Dixon observes:

In a world reeling from surprise, where once-in-a-lifetime events seem to happen every month, two things seem to be constant. The first is the inadequacy of expertise. Although the people we have anointed as experts might not admit it, they are as bewildered by the world's turbulence as the rest of us. They are also little better at predicting what is going to happen next. The second constant is a pervasive feeling of insecurity. The things we assume to be bedrock truths around which we can organize our lives — scientific theory, moral precepts, political institutions or perhaps the timeless rhythms of nature — seem to be increasingly under assault.

Expertise fails us, it appears, because the nature of our circumstances are so unique and so complex that it is beyond--what? present levels of training and education? human capacity per se?--even to make sense of the present, much less predict and prepare for the future. We need 21-century experts, it appears, though there is not enough 21st century in place for anyone to know what that means.

Homer-Dixon's review evaluates two works of political science, neither of which satisfies him: ". . . both books ultimately disappoint," he says, "for reasons that say less about the books themselves than about the largely unrecognized gravity of humankind's current predicament." Homer-Dixon has his reasons for coming to this conclusion; I would go a step further and say that any "expert's" book on the subject of the speculative shape of the 21st century and beyond is bound to fail. It appears that we need prophets, not experts, for there is and never has been any expertise of the future sufficiently reliable to shape a culture.

And yet cultures have shape. They always have, and as long as they endure, they always will.


The future: we have no idea even what we mean when we say that word. We don't shape the future; we lurch into it--individually as fragile vehicles of flesh, collectively as a work of art: the body politic, the necessary fiction, never finished, forever a work in progress.

The shape of a culture is the shape of the body politic. We shape the body politic as best we can to be able to survive the brutality of the "future."

And who gives shape to that chimera? All of us do, through our collective effort to live. Occasionally an individual brings forth, through luck or grace or genius, some idea or work that is so powerful we cannot ignore its influence. The author(s) of the Old Testament fall into that category; Buddha and other "holy" men and women; Thomas Moore, perhaps; Thomas Jefferson perhaps; Marx perhaps. But in making a canon of this kind--based on effect on the shape of the body politic--dare one ignore Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickinson, or Whitman among obvious Western examples? Dare one ignore Mozart, Matisse, etc.--add all the names of all the great (or not so "great") artists you can think of. Not only have they played a part, they have often led the way.

It is precisely the artist's job to imagine the body politic. It is precisely the artist's job to negotiate, in ways available to no one else, between the individual body and the body of the Leviathan, the giant we create and sustain who then contains and carries us forward.


We live in Plato's Republic precisely to the extent that the artists have been banished from the center of pragmatic cultural imagination. Relegated to the sidelines, to the slums of power (real power, the power of the spirit), artist are forgotten at worst and infantilized at best. And the worst part of it is that many artists have accepted and embraced this situation. It can be pleasant to be infantilized; the "grownups" are engaged in the "real" work of the Republic; the infant is free to scorn real work. This is not to say that artists do not work, but even they are seduced into disbelieving in the true power of their own vocation, and to celebrate that situation. I think it is fair to say that my own generation of poets, by and large, has failed to live up to its full responsibility in this regard; we have been distracted by a large array of non-essentials.

I am not making a plea here for a social realist art, for a utilitarian art, for a pragmatic art. Art should be many things to many people; it should, in fact, be a form of play. But play can be terribly serious.

I am also not making a plea for artists to rise up and take over the government. Picasso would have been a terrible president. Artists without political scientists, without economists, etc., would make the worst kind of botch of the world, and though it might be highly entertaining to watch them do it, I don't suspect any of us would have the stomach for the realpolitik that would result.

What I DO want to suggest is that artists have, in this country at least, been left out of the equation for far too long. What artists do, what they offer, is at least one of the missing ingredients in the situation described by Homer-Dixon. There IS no expertise that will predict the future. But we must, every day we live, create and revise the body politic, which must not be allowed to become too weak to carry us, but also must not become muscle-bound, or too big (like the dinosaurs) or too inflexible, or too invested in being this and not that. It must be an effective shape shifter, ready to become whatever is called for.

Artists, perhaps, are not the best bureaucrats. One hopes not, at any rate. And we need good bureaucrats; I am not one to scorn a brilliant bureaucrat. We need diplomats, and numbers crunchers, and policy wonks.

But who among us knows the most about creating and revising? The particular expertise offered by artists and their creations is essential to the health of any body politic. But our body politic seems to have forgotten this fact: not only the politicians, not only the rank and file of our citizens, but even the artists have forgotten this part of their job--forgotten it, or given up on it in disgust.

None of us can afford that gap, that loss.

Artists: step up. You have a place at the negotiating table, around the council fire. If the other councilors ignore you, refuse to be ignored. If the other negotiators deny you, insist on your right.

How do you refuse, how do you insist? By making art that knows its right in this regard. By making art that will not be denied. Art will shape the body politic in any case, whether politicians or the public, or artists, acknowledge that fact or not. But what will that body look like? What will it be? That question cannot be answered except with the paradoxical observation that, while its nature is unpredictable, its being is in our hands; and if we don't do our jobs properly, keeping firmly our purpose before us, that unknowable and unpredictable creature--which is nevertheless not unimaginable--will be a botch, a Frankenstein's monster, a blob.

Shelley famously, or notoriously, observed that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Rarely has he been taken seriously. But our future may well depend on our understanding what he meant, and enacting it.

Ten Implosions

Smell of iron in the wind off the mesa--the man at the desk looks up, tasting axehead, knife blade, ghost's chains, his mother's womb-blood.


Before bed, turning out the last light in the house, she saw the chemical formula for darkness inscribe itself inside her eyelids.


He felt ill and lay down as the last bus disappeared into the tunnel with men in suits reading headlines, the markets sliding into fever.


In the poem, a girl in a library sleeps, her face on a book; I read her skin in its paper, spot of drool in the margin, a hair in the gutter.


All the angels in Rilke gather at the bookshop to argue with Whitman: who touches this book touches what?


A couple in a convertible at midnight, arguing bitterly; moon half eroded by the solar wind; at roadside a dead coyote, half eaten by ants.


Willows laced over the pond water of history, their image fractured by the ordnance of a war only the dead remember, or a simple wind.


What happened at the end, when everyone thought there was no one left to think, was simple: they forgot it all had ended, and went on.


There was always filth, someone had to touch it, love it, lest it fade like the traces, eons after, at great distance, of a burnt-out star.


At the end of the world an empty beach, empty sea, empty wind, flat, lifeless, leaving nothing behind but its poisonous etching of salt.

Friday, March 20, 2009


A few years ago, at the request of the poet Mark Jarman, I wrote the following “statement of poetic purpose” (which I chose to call an apologia) for the Poet of the Month feature of the PoetryNet website ( It ran again in January 2009 on the blog of The Kenyon Review, and I reproduce it again here because it seems to me a good basis for further exploration of what I regard as issues crucial to the art of poetry.

I confess that I approach the task of making a statement of poetic purpose with the same apprehension Randall Jarrell felt on being asked what he did for a living by a stranger in the next airplane seat. It is difficult to explain to others just what we are up to as poets; one is tempted simply to point to the poems and leave it at that. But that isn’t fair to people of good will who find the profession of poetry puzzling.

What does poetry do, people sometimes ask, exasperated, it seems, by what they have read or what they have not read; what good is poetry if it has so small an audience?

What good is your pituitary gland, I am prone to answer, and can you say that at this moment you are aware of it? Do you even know what it does? Are you even sure you have one? For the culture, I am convinced, poetry functions on that level; for the engaged individual reader, its work is something else: an electrification, a reminder that there are real mysteries left. For the poet, it is a pure obsession, a sequence of questions which have no answers, of demands that have no satisfaction other than the satisfaction of obsession itself.

The texture of my particular version of this obsession derives from the conviction that poetry inhabits and enunciates an incommensurable zone between individual and collective, between body and body politic, an area very ill-negotiated by most of us most of the time. Our culture, with its emphasis on the individual mind and body, teaches us very little about how even to think about the nature of this problem, which means that our culture, as a collective, is far more mysterious than it seems: even the mystery is hidden. E pluribus unum is a smokescreen: what pluribus; what unum? And yet this phrase is an American mantra, as if it explained something.

Whitman remains the greatest teacher we have yet had on this particular subject, and poets’ fascination with him is founded on his amazing leap into the mind of the body politic. He seems miraculous because what is for most of us a near-unbroachable difficulty was for him no difficulty at all. I am the body politic, his poetry says; I speak the mind of America, the mind of humanity. It is no wonder that the rest of us are a bit more reticent; even if we could think the thoughts of the body politic, would we want to? On the other hand, it may be that contemporary poetry is hypnotized by the good liberalism of the young Wordsworth, who wrote “What is a poet? . . . He is a man speaking to men. . . .” This idea seems so obvious now that—once we translate it out of its gender-specific form—it is well-nigh unquestionable; but the self of Song of Myself is no “mere” human. “I contain multitudes,” Whitman famously wrote; but he also wrote “Who touches this book touches a man.” The boundaries of selfhood are redefined several times over in these two formulations, and Wordsworth’s humble, generous, and simple idea is confounded by the gulf between these poles.

Our present situation, obviously, makes it difficult to share Whitman’s optimistic seamlessness; his job was Adamic, and we live after the American fall (or several of them). It is for that reason, maybe, that American poetry so often pays lip service to Whitman while its practice is grounded much more firmly on Wordsworth. We write most frequently out of “our own” experience, speaking (or singing) in “our own” voices; poetry workshops, critics, and general readers often insist on it (write what you know). And that approach has yielded a large and bountiful crop of poetry in our time, one which is sufficiently diverse in its points of origin that it may seem ungenerous to complain that it is often too similar in method. The most potent divergences we have are neoformalism and language poetry—the former insisting on a return to a former sameness, the latter insisting on the monotony of an idée fixe (what would language do if there were no pesky people involved?). Neither of these routes offers much more than a journey on a Möbius strip.

The most fruitful direction I have assayed is to make my writing a continual meditation on the principle that language is the flesh of the body politic, and therefore deeply complicit in all human doings on the individual as well as the collective plane. I find hope for poetry in this idea, though nothing so ecstatic as Whitman’s near-boundless enthusiasm. Who touches my book touches a book, it seems to me, and forgets this at his or her peril, since men and women are different from books, and more valuable. Still, the book can make a difference; the book can vivify, and the sum of books makes up an important part of the brain and nervous system of humanity.

Nine Incisions

A man wakes terrified from a dream; he takes down a book of poems and reads, "A man wakes terrified from a dream. . . ."


Need drives the mouse in the wall and likewise the furnace at the heart of the sun: not human need, but the need that fuels the neutrino.


Being needed to Be. Its war with Nothing's need to remain Nothing punched a hole in the fabric of Nonbeing. Thus God, the Big Bang, Buddha.


Human need is a special case: a wound in the world seeping its bloody discharge from nothing to something. Mind is a scab that stanches it.


Conscious Being requires constant mediation: with Unconscious Being, and with Nothing. Consciousness triangulates whirlwind and abyss.


"Black sound" of Lorca's duende: will of Nonbeing erupting into Conscious Being through Unconsciousness, played on the synthesizer of self.


What was "god," ever, but a word we use for need: the kind of need that is manifest in gravity, in the speed of light, the solar wind?


For the right reader, the poem is a force--not of nature, but of consciousness, pressing across the gap from nothing to something to waking.


A terrified man sleeps, and in his dream he sees the body politic wake, terrified, remembering the poem that begins "A terrified man sleeps. . . ."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Lost Worlds, New Deals

[This piece appeared in January 2009 on the blog site of
The Kenyon Review. I want to repeat it here partly in the interest of completeness and partly to help contextualize some upcoming material.]

O arms that arm, for a child’s wars, the child!
And yet they are good, if anything is good,
Against his enemies . . . Across the seas
At the bottom of the world, where Childhood
Sits on its desert island with Achilles. . . .
–Randall Jarrell, “The Lost World”

It’s a commonplace of aging that childhood, trailing clouds of glory as Wordsworth conceived it, grows ever more distant and ever more difficult of access; the children we once were turn more and more into mental mannequins, polished fictions, as unreal to us in fact as any of the great dead. And we are supposed to mourn the child we were. The archetype of a “normal” life bends toward sentiment where childhood is concerned. If the reality of a particular childhood prohibits this–if a child was a victim, of vicious parents, vicious communities, vicious nations, vicious circumstances, vicious gods–then the adult who survives is required to mourn twice: once for the unhappy child who suffered, once for the happy child who never was.

This is as much the stuff of counseling as it is of poetry. Not only is there an Inner Child, we learn, there is more than one: a Bad Inner Child, who serves as a mask and a diversionary tactic for the Good Inner Child. As part of the act of mourning, one must confront the Bad one and transform him or her–turn Bad to Good, or, push come to shove, Bad to Dead–in order to find one’s way to the Good one. That journey is supposed to lead to healing.

But what, really, are “a child’s wars”? In Randall Jarrell’s poem “The Lost World” (quoted above), trees provide the child’s arms that “are good, if anything is good/Against his enemies.” A good stick is about the best weapon the average child has. How hard can the confrontation with the Bad Inner Child really be? Perhaps the hard part is the journey, the twenty years required to sail from one’s own childhood war, where the best weapon is a wooden horse on wheels, to the island where not the child but Childhood waits–and not Childhood only but also Achilles! Let the dead Greek drink from a bowl of goat’s blood and he will utter truth: I would rather be a slave in a beggar’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the great dead. How useless was my war, Achilles will tell you. How stupid was my death. I played their game and they killed me. Toy sword. Wooden horse. Watch your back. Beware.

What if, when you journey to the Isle of the Inner Child–across the seas, where he or she has retired after childhood’s wars into the polished fiction, the death that is History–your inner child is Achilles?

Or what if your inner child is the product of a vicious community, the image of it: a nasty little racist?


I’m dreaming of a wolf, as Mama wakes me,
And a tall girl who is–outside it’s gray,
I can’t remember, I jump up and dress.
We eat in the lighted kitchen. And what is play
For me, for them is habit.
–Randall Jarrell, “The Lost World”

Childhood for me is an ambiguous zone, precisely double. I entered the world into circumstances enviable in many ways. I was the second and youngest son of an essentially loving family which maintained a peaceful household; we were not wealthy (and so I avoided the problems that wealth can convey) but neither were we poor. We lived on a working farm that was diverse in a way quite unlike most farms now: there was a wide variety of crops (cotton, corn, wheat, milo, and “truck” crops of all kinds; there were beef cattle and a dairy; there was poultry, both chickens and turkeys; there was an apiary), and we grew virtually everything we ate. We children had chores, but our work was not onerous; we learned about animals and plants at close range, and also about life and death.

It was a pretty place–not beautiful, exactly, but appealing and accessible; I was allowed from a very early age, when I was not in school, to roam much of the time where and as I liked. The family collie went with me, and in his presence I felt both befriended and secure (he was intelligent and diligent; he had a passionate hatred of snakes, which he killed on sight; he had an unerring sense of direction and could always find his way home, and mine with him in the event I should get lost). There were other children, cousins, I could play with if I chose; but it was also easy to avoid them if I wanted solitude, which mostly I did. In this polished fiction of my childhood, I trailed Wordsworthian clouds of glory; I wandered lonely as a cloud; I was “young and easy under the apple boughs /About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green.”

And so on and so on and scooby dooby doo.

So that when the day arrived when I understood–suddenly, it seems in retrospect, as if I had been struck by lightning–what a lie it all was, the shock of the discovery almost blinded me–though in fact I had been blind all along, and the blindness of the realization was the beginning of something like real sight.

What was it I realized? There is a long answer and a short one. For the present I’ll give the short one: it was Mississippi, it was the 1950s, we were white people. Everything we had was stolen, even ourselves. Therein lies the doubleness: I had a pilfered Eden. I lived in it even though I had no real right to it. Already fallen, I lived there like a tiny god. When in the fullness of time I learned the truth of my situation, it was too late to know the truth. I was broken; I was fallen; I was compromised.

This is the situation of racists in a society structured around institutionalized racism. In another context, Marx aptly called this sort of delusion false consciousness. That label works as well as any other. It’s a convenient shorthand for a species of damnation.

Inner child, you little criminal: where is your lost world? Some worlds are better lost. Your Atlantis is cleaner drowned than when it stood in the innocent air.

I said to an acquaintance, who is a therapist by profession, the other day: what I can’t understand is why there are not clinics and twelve-step programs all over the South, indeed all over the world, for the benefit of recovering racists. Alcoholics and drug addicts have programs; why not me?

When I was born, my people came to me and said, in essence, this: you will believe as we do, because we love you, and so you must; if you do not share our belief, you will be the enemy; but what we believe cannot be believed in the clear light and under the scrutiny of clear vision; and so, my child, with love in our hearts, we now will pluck out your eyes. That done, I no longer knew my child’s war was a war; and I could not know that the weapons the good trees would give me were worthless against my enemies. What would set me free?

The truth, yes. And I came to the truth in time. But here’s the rub: the truth will set you free, but it will not heal you. The truth is true, but it is relentless, uncaring, unfeeling. Achilles on the island knows what’s what, but face it: he’s still dead.

You have your scars–honorable scars, maybe, once you know what they are and why you have them–and they are with you forever. If I have one story worth telling, it is the story of my blindness; it is the story of my scars.

Inner child, the truth has drowned your world. Your ghost wanders on an island in the sea of truth, cut off forever from the place that gave you breath. And who is with you there? Achilles, the ghost of anger, forever brooding on the falsehoods that destroyed him. Apt company, old soldier. You cannot have your life back. Your love was blind and your rage was blind and you killed your own world without knowing what you were doing. If there were peace, you could rest in it; but that can never be.

Lost world, lost love, lost paradise. What an epic you lived through. What a waste it was.

We have a new leader who is unlike any we have ever had. His advent, to many of us, feels like a new beginning, a transformation. Is it in fact? Barack Obama is an exceptional man, but he is only a man. Nevertheless, I hear voices echoing in the body of the nation: heal us, they say; transform us, they say; make us whole, make us new, make us good. How well I understand that desire. How well I know the danger there.

Obama has done many extraordinary things already. The one that surprised me the most came in the speech he delivered on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008. He looked America in the eye and he said the word sacrifice.

That same word, I believe, ended the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who told us many unpleasant truths that few were ready to hear. That word, which no U.S. politician has dared to speak from that time to this, returns at the beginning of Obama’s presidency. In my opinion, whether he, and we, accomplish what we need to accomplish in the coming years will depend on how this word is negotiated.

In order to banish my own blindness, years ago, I had to strike a bargain. I would gain something, but I had to give up something. I could have new eyes, yes. And in order to get them, I would not have to exchange what you might expect. I could keep my childhood, such as it was, because no one comes from nowhere. The island would be there in the endless ocean; Achilles would preside. All that I could keep. What I had to give in exchange was sentiment.

I cannot love my childhood. It is tainted and cursed. My childhood, so innocent and glorious, so loving and full of light, was based on a vicious lie: you are what you are because that person over there, who happens to have black skin, is less than you. That is how you define yourself. That difference, that stupid, evil, wrongheaded distinction, is your soul.

What can I say that is worth anything, coming from such a source? One thing, and one thing only: America, my childhood is your childhood. We come from blindness. Our names are stolen. People have died in order for us to be free, we are fond of saying; but people have died in order that we may own land, have lilting houses, grass, apple boughs. People have died laboring under our yoke. We cannot change that. It is our history. It lives on the island in the sea where our peculiar American Achilles sulks. We are, as Columbus first, for his own purposes, called this continent, otro mundo–not new but other world. We seem familiar to ourselves; we have not yet begun to understand our own otherness: the problem of the other is not the other; it is us.

So if that is true, what can we do against it? We can sacrifice the sentimentalism of our vision of history. Our inner child, our Eden, is not pure. We must not cling to it. American atavism is peculiarly dangerous. It produces insularity, surly isolationism, false consciousness.

Ours is a homemade country. That is part of what is problematic about us; it is also our strength, for that which we made once, we can make again and again, the same way (as Whitman understood so well) we make and remake a poem. What we have created we can re-create. But like all true revision, this can be done only through precise and disciplined and unsentimental sacrifice, to re-vision ourselves in ever-refining form.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pharmapoesis: Fifteen Chemical Assays

Whitman said "Who touches this book touches a man." I say "Who touches this book touches a pharmacy."


Poetry is as elusive as the cure for the common cold; the poem is as ordinary as aspirin.


A given poet's body of work is uneven? The inventor of aspirin also invented heroin.


The "necessity" of the poem is a consequence of the condition of an individual consciousness: what do I lack that only the poem fulfills?


Poetry has no utility for individual consciousnesses and only hypothetical utility for the zeitgeist. What the oversoul lacks: Poetry?


And yet the formulation and distillation of the poem--its extraction and crystallization--follows from the poet's sense of imminent need.


The pharmacologist attends to doctors' descriptions of need; the poet attends to a chorus of pain, the blues refrain of the body politic.


The self is a creation of that aggregate of selves that is the body politic, which is itself a creation of aggregated selves.


Knowingly or unknowingly the poet hears the interior voice of the body politic and attends to the gaps, the lacunae, the abysses in it.


If the poet succeeds, the poem does not fill a void but entangles the boundaries of a targeted gap, so that the one side mirrors the other.


In this transaction: no benefit in the material or therapeutic sense; how can the "vision" of a single cell affect the health of the body?


Corollary of Whitman: entanglement between individual bodies and the body politic is a necessary condition of the existence of the zeitgeist.


Body politic is a "necessary fiction," even from Whitman's perspective; it exists only as a "quantum" mirroring of broken individual selves.


"For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/In the valley of its making," a ghost dreaming of a greater ghost, the valley the gap between.


The muse exacts/lithiums, prozacs--/The ghost in the machine/needs its dopamine.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ephemera/Nine Prose Tweeku

Day-old snow under a stone sky at midnight: and beyond flattened trees, in the shadow of a rust-eaten combine, one animal invisibly moving.


The man with the rifle in the blind sits still; his uniform chafes but he cannot move or the face in his scope might ghost and go on living.


Wind-driven dust eats at this rock face as it has for centuries, leaving its tracery of scars, its crows-feet, the aneurysm of erosion.


The blind girl in the library passes her hands over dusty spines like a pianist, like a pickpocket.


The translucence of agate. Shade of the blue fir. Track of a slug, luminous in starlight. Garbage truck. Brickbat. A dead mouse in the wall.


If you hadn't recalled the cabbage and turned suddenly back, the man in the suit would never have lost his pistol. Osmosis. Wages of gnosis.


A dark chamber in the spine of the boar holds the ozone-colored powder that crystallizes his hunger. He lives in his body only. Die for him.


Her eyes convulsed, then closed as the soldier entered her, grinding against her belly the rifle's muzzle, the bracket securing the bayonet.


Dawn should be immaculate, burning you clean, but smoke pours out of the wreckage, shrapnel, and a photograph of you on the train, waving.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Nine Compositions for Saxophone and Electron Microscope

Whitman used "adhesiveness" to describe his ideal for the action of poetry; as well consider it an obscure but vital neurotransmitter.


An error of the capitalist model to consider poetry analogous to food; poetry is a drug, and is there for those who need it, not for all.


Is it elitist to say poetry is not for all? Is penicillin elitist because not everybody needs it? Poetry answers needs, not numbers.


The poem is a dynamic zone wherein the reader gets a glimpse of Poetry--as if a cell could be granted a swift vision of the body it inhabits.


The experience of the poem is not therapeutic; rather it is either necessary to the reader or not; indispensible if necessary, excrement if not.


To consciousness, the poem is experience; to Being, the poem is a neurotransmitter, carrying messages across the gap between cell and body.


Benign chemicals in excess are irrelevant to the body; inessential poetry is likewise sloughed off and excreted.


Deep in the structure of the body politic the poem makes its way, well below even the level of the cell, by a subtle but irrevocable osmosis.

Meanwhile there is moonlight; wave breaks against wave; horses sleep standing up in an obscure grove; and everywhere the smell of roasting meat.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sprung Vision; Or, Who is Duane and Why Do I Have His Syndrome?

[This piece appeared in January 2009 on the blog site of The Kenyon Review. I want to repeat it here partly in the interest of completeness and partly to help contextualize some upcoming material.]

Perfect 20/20 vision will not be enough to pass an eye test given to military pilots. It also involves “contrast sensitivity.”One must be able, for example, to see a white cat walking in the snow.

–”Field of Vision,”

Nothing! No oil
For the eye, nothing to pour
On those waters or flames.

–Robert Lowell, “Tooth and Eye”

The light was almost unbearable.

“Look right,” said Dr. de Souza. ”Look up. Look down.” He was examining my left eye with what I can only describe as an illuminated lens. His technician had spent 45 minutes taking detailed digital photographs of my retina–through layer after layer of retinal tissue, I was told–but if Dr. de Souza had made any use of those photographs, I never saw it. My impression is that, though Dr. de Souza works in a clinic that possesses all manner of marvelous devices, he prefers to trust himself instead of the machinery. Throughout my encounter with him, I was impressed by his aura of quiet authority and confidence, which was the very opposite of off-putting. I trusted this neat, semi-handsome, self-possessed man, and I was glad to trust him.

“Look left,” said Dr. de Souza.

“I can’t,” I said.

The burning lens flickered away. “You can’t? Why not?”

“I have Duane’s Syndrome in that eye.”

With my right eye, the one not being examined, I saw a smile flicker across his face, an expression I can only describe with the hackneyed word elfish. Dr. de Souza resembled an elf. Indeed, it occurred to me that he might have been one.

“Duane’s Syndrome! Really!” He bent closer to my left eye. “Look left?” he said again, this time with a different tone.

“Really, I can’t”

“Interesting,” he said, “Very interesting. But it causes me a little problem.” He stepped back and stroked his chin. “I must see your entire retina in order to find where the rip is. When there is that much blood in an eye, there is surely a rip. But if you can’t move your eye, I can’t see the whole expanse.” He paused again, looking at me as if I were a coconut that was being resistant to cracking. “What to do?”

The question was rhetorical. He knew exactly what to do.

“Here’s the thing. We’ll just pop that eye a little.” We will? He produced a demonic little metal spatula, which he pushed all too firmly against my upper eyelid, into the seam between my eyeball and its socket. “Now,” he said, “Let’s see.”


Some of my earliest memories are of ophthalmologists’ offices. When I was very small, my parents began taking me on an intermittent quest for the doctor with the answer. I remember dim rooms, eye charts, pleasant technicians with quiet voices, inexplicable lenses and instruments, cases, containers, bottles, droppers, a menagerie of gadgets designed for the simple purpose of covering one eye. Above all, I remember “eye doctors,” in those days men to a man: thin, balding individuals, they form a composite archetype in my mind. “Watch the light,” they go on saying quietly in my mind. “Look here at my nose. Don’t move your head. Follow my finger with your eyes.”

The technology of ophthalmology has changed a great deal since the middle 1950s, but the end-user environment of the profession has remained almost exactly the same: dimness, quiet, an atmosphere of tight-lipped, urgent authority. This is very important, the body language of the examination chair tells you, but don’t be alarmed, we’re here to help, we know what to do. At some point the eye chart ceased to be a poster tacked to a wall; it turned into a mirror, and then into a screen, capable of multitasking. But someone has been at pains to make it look pretty much the same as it always did. Going to the ophthalmologist is a return to a familiar if vaguely fraught milieu. We’ve always been here, studying you, says the table in the waiting room, even though you haven’t thought of us in years.

A visit to the eye doctor never frightened me, even when I was quite small. I can remember being baffled, feeling flattered by a certain level of attention, and always, before it was over, becoming bored. Yet there was a sort of unspoken urgency about these pilgrimages. Two or three times a year, my mother would tell me one evening, “Tomorrow we’re going to see an eye doctor,” and early the next morning, often before dark, we’d be in the family car. Sometimes I’d go to sleep in my bed and wake up in the Ford’s back seat, feeling the vibration of the road through the cushions, a sensation I always enjoyed. Where were we going again? To a town we’d never visited, where there was a different doctor, one who–but look, dear, there’s a pretty horse! And look at that old house behind that hedgerow! What do you think it would be like. . . .

After several years of this, it dawned on me that there might be something wrong.


The internet is an infinite source of entertaining information. On the website of The Ophthalmology Hall of Fame (!),, we learn the following facts:

Alexander Duane was one of the first investigators in ophthalmology with a special interest in accommodation and squint. He was born into a prominent family in Molone, New York. His father was the army general James Duane and his boyhood was spent moving between various postings. He was educated at the Union College, Cincinnati, where he gained many academic rewards and thereafter studied medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, which later became the medical school of Columbia University. After graduation in 1881 Duane interned at the New York Hospital and was educated in eye medicine by the German-born American ophthalmologist Hans Jakob Knapp (1832-1911). He specialized in this discipline and commenced ophthalmological practice in New York in 1884. For a brief period he taught ophthalmology at the Cornell University.

The first time I ever heard the mystical phrase “Duane’s Syndrome” I was, unsurprisingly, in an ophthalmologist’s office. It was 1986; I was 36 years old, Reagan was in the White House, and I lived, strange as it seemed to me, in the middle of the state of Ohio. My glasses were beginning to give me trouble, as they did routinely every couple of years. I was in for a routine exam, to see whether I needed a new prescription. And as I was relatively new in town, I had sought out a new doctor.

The office was one of the infinite series–we have some new information, said the diplomas in gilt frames on the wall–and so I felt immediately at home. I went through the usual routine–insurance card, medical history, a delay for the evident purpose of reading magazines on gourmet cooking and the Super Bowl; then a preliminary examination conducted by a technician concluding with the administering of the magic Drops of Dilation that made one Allergic to the Light, another wait while the drops’ spell matured, and then at last the arrival of The Doctor.

This particular doctor was a little out of the ordinary. She was tall, blindingly blond (or maybe the blindingness was an effect of the dilation of my pupils), and had a definite but graceful Swedish accent. I had picked this practice more or less randomly from the telephone book, but I had made my choice based on the fact that the doctor of record was female (it didn’t hurt, either, that the office was almost directly across the street from my house, but in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, almost everything was just across the street). My motivation in so choosing was not, whatever you may be thinking, anything other than pragmatic. I had discovered some years before that I preferred female doctors in every specialization. Not to make hasty or invidious generalizations, but: it seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that male doctors have a tendency to be more interested in themselves and their own authority than in the patient and his or her malady–whereas female doctors, on average, will actually listen to the patient. Individual experience will vary, but the statistical tendency remains.

When she pointed at the bridge of her nose and said “Look right here,” I was glad to do so. When, after a couple of minutes of examining my eyes, her face suddenly lit up in delight, it was not, alas, I who was the cause of her pleasure; it was my Syndrome: it was that bastard Duane.

“You have Duane’s Syndrome!” she declared (in fact, she almost sang).

“I do?”

“Of course!” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and at the same time a variety of miracle. “May I ask you,” she went on, “would you mind very much if. . . .”

“Would I mind if. . . .”

“I’d like my assistants to see this. We don’t see many cases of Duane’s Syndrome, and it would be useful for them.”


My poor mother was one of the first generation of mothers deflected by the work of Dr. Benjamin Spock. In 1946, his The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care appeared; it became an immediate best seller. 1946, the year of my older brother’s birth, is a threshold year for the baby boomer generation; America shifted gears, and even our isolated farmer family was not unaffected. Whether or not my mother ever read that book I cannot say; it’s possible that she did, but it’s equally possible that she was influenced by newspaper and magazine second- and third-hand interpretations of the master. She was not in any case a theorist. She was a smart, empathic woman with little education who loved her children, respected authority, and was easily motivated by guilt. She was also a traditionalist, a respecter of the mores and methodologies of the past. This constellation of attitudes left her at a crossroads where we children were concerned: one moment we were tender souls at the mercy of a traumatizing world; the next, we were simply pint-sized adults who needed to suck it up and tough it out.

Exactly when she noticed that all was not right with my eyes is unknown to me, but it must have been early on. Duane’s syndrome is a “birth defect,” and its presence is fairly obvious. Clearly it worried her. My earliest memories of our family doctor involves not only needles and gigantic tongue depressors, but also the injunction “Watch my finger; don’t move your head, move your eyes.”

It must have worried her that this little affliction of mine did not fit any familiar pattern. It was not “lazy eye,” or amblyopia, an eye problem more serious and more common but altogether more treatable than mine; when I was in elementary school, several of my classmates wore the familiar “lazy eye” patch, a piece of of white tin designed to cover the stronger of their two eyes, encouraging them to strengthen the other eye by constant use. What was wrong with me more resembled strabismus, or crossed eyes, but if I did indeed suffer from strabismus, it was not a typical case.

As I reconstruct this dimension of my past, it seems to me that my mother was caught between an impulse to find a cure and a sort of inertial fatalism. She would seek out, or hear of, a doctor we had not tried; we would make the pilgrimage; once again, the doctor would be baffled. I remember once, when I was five or six, one such professional gave my mother a pamphlet of eye exercises; I was to do them twice a day. My mother led me through the regimine for perhaps a week with so little enthusiasm for it that even at that age I noticed. When we gave it up, I asked her why we had stopped. “The doctor said we should do this,” she told me, “and when I asked him ‘Will it help?’ he only said ‘It won’t hurt.’” That formulation still seems to me the perfect encapsulization of the whole problem.


“The light of the body is the eye,” we are told in the Book of Luke; “therefore, when thine eye is single, thy whole body is also full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body is also full of darkness” (11:33). I’m glad to say that–many though the Bible verses I was required to commit to memory may have been–I did not run across this passage until I was an adult. By the time I was seven, it was clear that my vision was becoming problematic. What would I have made of the “body full of darkness,” or the even more peculiar logic of the single eye versus the evil one?

Blissful in my Biblical ignorance, I was taken, in the fall of 1957, to yet another eye clinic, this time the Oschner Clinic in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I have since come to understand that it was my second grade teacher, Mrs. Mullins, who had suggested to my parents that I should have my eyes (if not actually my whole head) examined. Mrs. Mullins had noticed that I was a very able reader, that I loved books, and that I tended to hold them closer to my face while reading than regulation normally allowed for. This was something new, and so off we went on another mission of pure vision.

The examining room at the Oschner Clinic was a familiar place full of familiar objects; it had the hushed twilight quality of so many other similar rooms I had visited over the years. This time, there would be, before it was all over, a new set of examinations; but the preliminaries by definition came first, and quickly the old problem became apparent.

I cannot remember the doctor’s name, but I recall him as a tall, quiet, faceless man, bald with a fringe of black hair; he was, perhaps, a little heavier of build than the stereotype I had assembled, with a prominent belly under his unbuttoned white coat. But he struck me, even at the time, as uncommonly quick-minded, and above average in common sense.

“Follow my finger with your eyes,” he said. “Don’t move your head, just move your eyes.” The finger tracked slowly from center to my right, then back. Center was his world-orienting nose. Then the moving finger writ to the left, and as it did so, it became two fingers, and on the right edge of my sight, the nose became two noses. Then, as the finger moved back, the world changed from double to single.

I don’t recall the ensuing conversation in its entirety. What I remember was this: that sensible man produced a stainless steel cup from somewhere in the room and set it on the table in front of me. “Put your hand on the cup,” he said, and I did so. Then he moved the cup to the far left side of the table. “Again,” he said, and I put my hand on the cup. Again he moved it, this time far right. “Again.” He repeated this exercise many times, and each time, unerringly, I put my hand on the cup.

“Well,” the doctor told my parents, “it’s clear that he doesn’t suffer from continual double vision. If he did, he would miss the cup half the time.” He demonstrated someone flailing to put a hand on the mirage of a cup; his heavy hand thumped the table. “It would be possible to perform the kind of surgery in his case that we perform for strabismus, but my guess is that it would do no good. Whatever the trouble is, it’s not really a problem unless it’s a problem, if you see what I mean. The boy seems to adjust his sight quite well to the way his eyes work; it’s not giving him any real practical trouble. I suggest, then, that you just don’t worry about it.”


Don’t worry about it was the best of all possible advice, especially for my mother, who naturally preferred not to. For me, it was impossible–particularly from that day forward–not to give considerable thought, if not worry as such, to questions of vision. Following the exchange about the ways my eyes tracked, we proceeded to a more ordinary eye exam, which was the real point of this visit. I read the eye chart; I went through the (for me) novel ritual of looking at letters through various lenses slipped into a slotted frame (”which looks better, number 1 (click) or number 2 (clack).” Then came dilation, a waiting period, a further examination. During the dilation period, my vision slipped into cloudiness; I was given cardboard sunglasses; I tried to read a book but could not focus on it no matter how close to my face I held it.

Following this series of rituals, we hung around Baton Rouge for awhile. We visited the state capitol building, stopping to visit the site of the assassination of Huey Long; in my silly square cardboard sunglasses I tried to read the plaque commemorating this event, and failed–but I fingered the alleged bullet holes in the marble wall. Then we rode the 34 floors to the observation deck high over the city. I had never been so far above the ground–even elevators were a novelty to me in 1957, and my first ride in an airplane more than a decade in the future–and I was excited at the prospect of seeing the ground from such a height, but everything was blurred for me.

The drops used for dilation have evolved since the late 1950s and the effect does not linger nearly so long now as it did then; my eyes would not return to their normal state until the next morning. Well before then–following our tour of Baton Rouge landmarks such as they were–we returned to Oschners, where a new pair of glasses were waiting for me. I put them on, but not much happened; the effect of the dilation cancelled the new lenses. And the next morning, when I woke up and put them on, not much looked different; but when I took them off, there was a marked difference in what I saw. Without the glasses, the world was in soft focus; leaves on trees were indistinct; print in books was fuzzy. I had not noticed before that there was any problem with my vision, but now that I had the glasses, my world without them was a different one than the “corrected” world I saw through them.

The effect, when I took them off, was similar to the effect of dilation on my sight. The suspicion dawned on me–one which I still carry in the back of my mind and examine now and then, unseriously and yet indelibly–that the doctor had put something in my eyes that had tampered with my sight. Before that day, as far as I was concerned, I saw fine. Now, I was near-sighted, a “four eyes,” as my older brother wasted no time in pointing out. Someone had to be responsible for this. The quiet-voiced sensible ophthalmologist was the logical suspect.


Eye and Tooth

My whole eye was sunset red,

the old cut cornea throbbed,

I saw things darkly,

as through an unwashed goldfish bowl.

I lay all day on my bed.

I chain-smoked through the night,

learning to flinch

at the flash of the matchlight.

Outside, the summer rain,

a simmer of rot and renewal,

fell in pinpricks.

Even new life is fuel.

My eyes throb.

Nothing can dislodge

the house with my first tooth

noosed in a knot to the doorknob.

Nothing can dislodge

the triangular blotch

of rot on the red roof,

a cedar hedge, or the shade of a hedge.

No ease from the eye

of the sharp-shinned hawk in the birdbook there,

with reddish brown buffalo hair

on its shanks, one ascetic talon

clasping the abstract imperial sky.

It says:

an eye for an eye,

a tooth for a tooth.

No ease for the boy at the keyhole,

his telescope,

when the women’s white bodies flashed

in the bathroom. Young, my eyes began to fail.

Nothing! No oil

for the eye, nothing to pour

on those waters or flames.

I am tired. Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.

(from Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead)

This poem of Robert Lowell’s will resonate for anyone who has suffered from problems with the eyes. It will also resonate, I think, for anyone who has suffered from a vision problem in the artistic sense, if not with visionary problems as such. Lowell undoubtedly suffered from all three. He wore thick horn-rimmed glasses, 1950s style, the kind that might have made him look at home with a pocket protector in his shirt and a slide rule case on his belt. Manic depressive, he had clear if sporadic issues with the nature of reality itself. Caught on the cusp between the great modernist moment and something that still lacks a name–postmodernism is an inadequate word that I for one hope will be shortly flushed down the toilet of history–he sometimes floundered in his art, sometimes magisterally lost his way (and that he allowed himself to do this, even after his fame was well established, is a testament to the greatness of his obsession). He wanted, too, to be a visionary in the strict sense; he would have exchanged his Pulitzer Prize for locust and honey in the desert if he had been given the keys to the throne room of Spiritus Mundi. His adherence in the 1940s to a rather radical brand of Catholicism (he was a convert) led famously to his being incarcerated for refusing the draft and opting out of the Second World War.

Certain poets, certain poems, were burrs under Lowell’s saddle–poems he loved and wanted to have written, but which were for various reasons out of reach for him. This, surely, is true for virtually every poet, every artist, and is simultaneously a source of frustration and an incentive to the work. We know how the young Lowell loved and, in his own 20th-century key strove to emulate, Milton: the blind poet who “saw” the whole of human history, in Christian terms at least, in Paradise Lost. We also know how Lowell, along with a whole generation, was torqued by Eliot. These two masters, one out of the depths of history, one on the threshold of his own moment, were the crosspieces on which Lowell the poet was crucified–willingly so, for part of his brilliant and tortured soul longed for a crucifixion peculiarly his own, upside-down, perhaps, on the cross of Poetry.

One other poet, less intensely perhaps but potently nonetheless, was in this sense a great problem for Lowell.

Once, visiting friends who loved poetry as much as I, I played a game we enjoyed: we’d get a bottle of wine (or several) and all the poetry books in the house, put everything on the dining room table, and drink at least some of the wine; then we’d pick up books of poetry at random, open them in an equally random way, and read whatever presented itself. When it was my turn–my fourth or fifth turn, probably, after several glasses of wine–the book that fell into my hand was the wonderful Farrar, Straus, and Giroux reprint of Lowell’s Life Studies and For the Union Dead in one volume. I looked at it with satisfaction; it was the early 1980s, but I had already studied those poems with care and attention for a long while. When I opened the book, though, I found myself looking at a poem to which I had hardly paid any attention. I recalled reading it before and dismissing it–not without reason–as one of Lowell’s “lesser” poems, a relative throwaway. But now, reading it aloud, I was suddenly riveted by the poem’s first line:

Walking and walking in a mothy robe. . . .

Why had I never heard the echo? Of course, of course, of course: the great model was Yeats, the poem “The Second Coming,” with its famous opening: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” “The Second Coming” is an enigma to most readers, and to poets it is also a provocation: how did he do it? Where did he get that authority of voice? What is the source of that vision? For a poet with Lowell’s proclivities, these questions must have been urgent, and penetratingly painful.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight. . . .

Yes, Bill Yeats, so you say, but how? Why you? Why not me? What’s the secret; what’s the trick; what offering to what god must you deliver to bring forth that poem and make it whip its great wind against the eardrums of the world?

Lowell’s poem provides us with a glimpse of how this poem, and these questions, affected him:

Dropping South: Brazil

Walking and walking in a mothy robe,

one finger pushing through the pocket hole,

I crossed the reading room and met my soul,

hunched, spinning downward on the colored globe.

The ocean was the old Atlantic still,

always the swell greened in, rushed white, and fell,

now warmer than the air. However, there

red flags forbade our swimming. No one swam.

A lawless gentleness. The Latin blonde,

two strips of ribbon, ripened in the sun,

sleeping alone and pillowed on one arm.

No competition. Only rings of boys

butted a ball to keep it in the air,

while inland, people starved, and struck, and died—

­unhappy Americas, ah tristes tropiques!

and nightly in the gouges by the tide,

macumba candles courted Yemanjá

tall, white, the fish-tailed Virgin of the sea,

corpselike with calla lilies, walking

the water in her white night gown. “I am falling.

Santa Maria, pray for me, I want to stop,

but I have lost my foothold on the map,

now falling, falling, bent, intense, my feet

breaking my clap of thunder on the street.”

I will leave it to astute readers to parse the significance of all the parallels and dissonances between this poem and “The Second Coming,” particularly that between Yeats’s Sphinx and Lowell’s Yemanjá, the mermaid-goddess of the Brazilian Umbanda religion, originally a spirit-queen from Yorubaland in Africa. Perhaps more broadly she has become a feature of Santaria religions and Vodou; she is an orisha, part stand-in for the godhead, part nature deity.

For my purposes, what is most important is the grasping of the nature of the visionary moment. In Yeats’s poem, the narrator’s purview is immediately global: from the falcon and the falconer, we follow the widening gyre quickly outward and upward, to a vantage point above the globe where all earthly locations feel immediately visible. For the faded figure in Lowell’s poem, he of the mothy robe and its pocket hole, the globe is not the earth itself but the globe in his study–a reduced scope, surely, from das ding an sich to its mere representation, upon which perches the narrator’s soul like a little daimon, an homunculus. From there we are sucked willy-nilly, randomly it seems, to an inscrutable Brazilian beach: a semblance of luxury stagnates the surface, which is presided over by Yemanjá’s priestess, the sleeping “Latin blonde” while the interior hides something different: starvation, political strife, death. The narrator, bewildered, slides off this scene like a fried egg off a teflon pan: myopic American, he cannot enter here. Slipping toward the goddess, who to him is the Goddess of Otherness, he evokes two tutelary spirits, neither of whom come to his aid. One is Santa Maria, the Virgin Mary, who is another of the emanations of Yemanjá–or perhaps it’s the other way around–but a more familiar version; the other is a scientist, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, through the agency of his great despairing book Tristes Tropique, which is a jeremiad wrapped in an autobiography. We will never understand the cultures we travel to study, Levi-Strauss argues, because the presence of the anthropologist alters, perhaps destroys, the very culture he or she has come to study. “The first thing travel has now to show us,” he writes there, “is the filth, our filth, which we have thrown in the face of humanity.” The “prayer” that concludes the poem is a doomed one, a prayer of the failure of vision. For Yeats’s narrator, the vision simply closes, and he can still say, as he does in his enormously famous and endlessly quoted conclusion, “Now I know”

. . . now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

He knows, yes; and as far as we can tell, at the end of the poem he is still up in the sky somewhere, watching. Lowell’s narrator, however, falls. He is intense, but he is bent (a good formulation for Lowell’s poetry, and his mind, throughout), and the voice that should be great within him, his thunder, is broken.

Long though the explication may be–and there is a good deal more I could say about these two poems side by side–most of it struck me all in a flash of insight once I saw the linkage. I don’t want to argue, still, that this is one of Lowell’s great, or even very good, poems. In and of itself it is perfectly all right. But as a gauge of Lowell’s visionary evolution, it is crucial. The party line on Lowell is that he futzed around with religion when he was young, converting from is Boston Protestantism to the intense Catholicism of his early adulthood, but then, having discovered Freud among other things, he left all that behind and began taking his own troubled life as the subject of his poetry. While there is truth in that distillation, there is also much in it that is misleading. “Dropping South, Brazil,” is, I am convinced, an indication of where the visionary impulse in Lowell went. It was not extinguished, it was defeated; but the defeat was not absolute, and the breakage not without issue.

One last important visionary, with a falcon of his own, should not be left out of account: Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet who embodied another of Lowell’s thwarted ambitions, a genuine if deeply difficult priesthood. Hopkins was a gnarly, meaty practitioner, a formidable poetic musician, whose enduring innovation he called “spung rhythm,” which he derived from what he called the “instress” of the world–spirit (the accent in the poetic line) striving against, and chiming with, matter (the unstressed syllable). For Hopkins, the vision per se was a given: the world is beautiful, and the poet praises it (when he is not lamenting his own shortcomings and his error of despair); what mattered most was the music, the hymn within which one broadcast praise. For Lowell, the problem is different: it is the vision itself which falls short, and he shores it up with his own peculiar distortions: “I saw things darkly, / as through an unwashed goldfish bowl,” or as he puts it in another poem, “Myopia: a Night,” “all’s / ramshackle, streaky, weird / for the near-sighted, just / a foot away.”

Lowell became a practitioner of “sprung vision,” a way of seeing that was accurate because it was precisely “off,” within which the so-called “confessional” impulse reveals itself as still part of the pattern of a visionary exercise, however partial, blurred, myopic. That myopia, for Lowell, is inescapably ours, if not necessarily universal. Perhaps it is a product of our historical context. Perhaps it is a product of a particularly American short-sightedness. Does the “Latin blonde” see more than Lowell’s narrator? It’s hard to say: she’s sleeping, and in sleep she has access to her own beautiful dreaming, while Lowell is left insomniac, trapped in his waking nightmare. If for Joyce “History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake,” for Lowell it seems to be a nightmare for which only falling asleep is a cure. He knew his history, and he wrote it: cultural history, and the history of Robert Lowell. If there was a failure of consonance between those two narratives, it could only be because one could not see it. My history is necessarily a product of cultural history, Lowell’s poetry reasons. It has to be. If I don’t see precisely how that is true, then that is a symptom of my own blindness. Therefore, I will confess to being blind. In that confession will inhere my truest vision.


The following information is quoted from a website called Genome (

Duane’s syndrome (DS) is a rare, congenital (present from birth) eye movement disorder. Most patients are diagnosed by the age of 10 years and DS is more common in girls (60 percent of the cases) than boys (40 percent of the cases). DS is a miswiring of the eye muscles, causing some eye muscles to contract when they shouldn’t and other eye muscles not to contract when they should. People with DS have a limited (and sometimes absent) ability to move the eye outward toward the ear (abduction) and, in most cases, a limited ability to move the eye inward toward the nose (adduction). Often, when the eye moves toward the nose, the eyeball also pulls into the socket (retraction), the eye opening narrows and, in some cases, the eye will move upward or downward. Many patients with DS develop a face turn to maintain binocular vision and compensate for improper turning of the eyes. In about 80 percent of cases of DS, only one eye is affected, most often the left. However, in some cases, both eyes are affected, with one eye usually more affected than the other.

My case of Duane’s is typical. I have not a “limited” but an “absent” abduction of the left eye; and while my adduction is relatively unaffected, I do exhibit some retraction: as the eye tracks right, the eyeball is pulled back a bit into the socket. My explanation for this, which is purely of my own invention, is that the atrophied muscles are unyielding and as the eye moves away from them they anchor it down, pulling it inward.

The long and short of it is that my left eye, while tracking more or less normally to the right, will not track leftward past the middle. I suffer, therefore, some loss of peripheral vision on the left side. My left eye–or rather the area around the eye–has a visible droop on the left side, since the eyeball never rotates to that side; the muscles around the eye have atrophied due to disuse. Finally, if I look at something or someone obliquely to my left without moving my head, I am in fact suddenly cross-eyed, a condition I can correct easily simply by turning my head until the eyes are working in parallel again. The effect is visible and often quite noticable; it was this symptom that worried my mother until the Oschner’s clinic doctor released her from anxiety, and sent us all on our quest for answers–answers we never really got.

I was in my middle thirties before I had a name for this condition, and the full explanation for it followed quickly from that revelation from the “Swedish blond” ophthalmologist of Mt. Vernon, Ohio. But I had understood Duane’s Syndrome all my life from the inside. Turning my head exaggeratedly to the left has always been a necessary over-correction of mine; dealing with the mild teasing, and the interest, that came from the strange manifestation of my inability has been familiar to me longer than my memory extends, and is with me still.

Myopia is something else again. As is usually the case, my near-sightedness was progressive throughout my teenaged years and into my twenties; every year I had to trade a pair of glasses for a stronger pair. Short-sightedness is sympomatic of a hyperextended eyeball, one that tends toward the shape of an egg rather than that of a sphere; the focal points of my eyes are in the wrong place, and so the world is blurred. As one grows, the hyperextention becomes more exaggerated, and stronger corrective lenses are necessary.

To what extent does the warpedness of my vision contribute to my poetry? We can be reasonably sure that it does not cause it, else all nearsighted people would be poets, and all poets nearsighted, an assertion that is not (quite) true even metaphorically speaking. Nevertheless, I am certain that, had I not had various kinds of problems with my eyes, my poetry would be different. My vision would be different. I might trust the world to be what it is more than I do. I would not have access to that profound alteration in the apparent nature of things to which removing one’s glasses gives rise. Without the “unwashed goldfish bowl” of my peculiarly distorted sight, I might believe more seamlessly and yet more naively in what Joyce called “the ineluctable modality of the visible.”


A case of Duane’s Syndrome


For many years I had been warned. A person whose eyes are like yours . . . there is a tendency . . . beware of certain symptoms. Sitting in Dr. de Souza’s examination room, waiting, as one does, for various things to take place before the doctor appears, I thought of the history of my vision. It presented itself as a series of identical visits to rooms like this one–in effect, of visits to this room, where I had been so many times before, even though I had never actually been here. The eyeball gets longer and longer. Eventually, perhaps, the viscous humor inside the eye separates from the retina. When it does, the retina may tear. This process may be more or less serious. It can result in partial or total detachment of the retina. The end result in extreme cases can be blindness.

I had finally seen the flashing, the weird heat lightning in the eye. I had seen the gout of blood, which presented itself as a ghostly gray plume in the middle of my vision. Here at last, as the Bible puts it, “that which I had feared was upon me.” And as is so often–but alas not always, no indeed–that which I had feared was not so bad. I had to have a little repair job done, which Dr. de Souza committed freehand with a little hand-held laser; it worked on my retina like a tiny nail gun, shooting bursts of cauterizing light onto the tear. This process was weirdly painful; one is not accustomed to feeling tiny nails, as it were, shot against the back of the eye, and the soul protests at its window being dealt with in such fashion. But the thing was done.

What I will not soon forget, though, was the moment irony entered the room like a demented technician, right on cue and perfect of performance. Of my nameless syndrome, fifty years ago, that Oschner’s ophthalmologist–probably dead now–had said: it’s not a problem unless it’s a problem. Now, of my Duane’s Syndrome, Dr. de Souza said: Interesting. But it causes me a little problem.

A little problem. All those years I sat in my boring classroom experiementing with my weird eye: if I turn my eyes this way, if I try it that way: and what are those strange translucent objects floating in my field of sight? And how is it a tree looks one way with glasses on, another with glasses off–which is real? What have the doctors done to me? Something in my thought: they took my good clear sight away, they gave me glasses. Who has done this thing?

A grownup forgets all this of course. Of course. And yet, St. Augustine, more grownup than anyone ever has been, realized suddenly, “I have become a problem unto myself.”

“Here’s the thing,” said Dr. de Souza. “We’ll just pop that eye a little.” We will? He produced a demonic little metal spatula, which he pushed all too firmly against my upper eyelid, into the seam between my eyeball and its socket. “Now,” he said, “Let’s see.”

My muse, my Sphinx, my Yemanjá: Sprung vision. What image out of the soul of the laser will come to trouble my sight? Yes. We’ll see. We’ll see