Offering: March 2022
Poetry, witness, perception
This month’s Offering is about poetry and, as is often the case when putting out work in a world like ours in times like these I wondered how is it justified.
I’ve been limiting my social media use to basically business hours, with a hard cut-off at 5 pm that’s been good for me. Yesterday morning, I finished up the Offering and opened Instagram to an image of the poem “We Lived Happily During the War” by Ukranian-American poet and writer Ilya Kaminsky, which Ocean Vuong had posted.
Vuong, who is also a poet and writer, shared it with a caption, part of which said:
“there are days i question the art, this feeble practice of meaning making. and then there are days when the word is larger than the world—and yet is still in it. these days are made possible by poems like this one. sadly, the history of poetry is also the history of war.”
I’d recommend reading “We Lived Happily During the War” before or after this Offering. It’s short and does a lot, I think.
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Image description: A creek in late winter in rural Pennsylvania—with a blue sky and bare, but just barely-budding trees—with cut-outs of six characters from Pamela Colman Smith’s Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot. From left to right they are The Fool, Queen of Cups, Ace of Swords, King of Cups, The Empress.
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It’s the morning of February 20, the day after the last Offering which is usually a morning for rest. I pull Three of Wands and Queen of Cups with my coffee as I’m about to start journaling. I indulge a trite reading and write it down, though it says little. By writing it down I mark an X on a spot to a doorway that I can’t be bothered to walk through now, but might later.
The easy read is something to cleave to but not much. I leave it, and move on. I write about aggravation and the wind. I go back to the previous day’s pull, Queen of Swords and Ace of Cups. I write a few things about how age has made me more scared and not less, and thought about how, as a kid I’d imagined it would be just the opposite.
I write contradictory things, as usual, about hoping I’ll spend a lot of time in California this year and about never leaving my garden.
Then I circle back to the X, and the doorway:
I’m not satisfied with my interpretation of queen of cups. Not at all. I think the cups are connected with gnostic sense, direct experience/knowledge. Gnostic queen? This only raises more questions. Like what lets you (me) know that you’ve experienced God directly? Ha, funnily, I think of California. The vastness + beauty. How big it all is.
I have been thinking about poetry + about witness. Shelly Rambo associates witness with Spirit. I think I’m associating spirit/witness with air, with queen of swords. Water feels more like memory, a bank where information is stored. I think of the word perception. What is seeing.
Poetry is a challenge to that question itself bc to write a poem of any kind of quality (imo) you have to perceive what is otherwise imperceptible yet immediately recognizable to those who missed it but know it instantly when they see the words. gnosis. ha.
As a teen I wrote poems constantly. I think I perceived the necessity of witness. It wasn’t that I had a fantasy of testimony. In fact, I was sure no one would ask what I’d seen. But with poems I did my own asking.
I was protective over what I saw and felt, not in a sense of being private about it but of wanting to give it a home. I’m still like that. I didn’t know the word trauma. I did know that a lot was going to hinge on remembering.
This is an Offering to poetry. For clarity (I hope), I’ve broken it into sections.
The therapist I saw for years in the Bay Area used a pendulum to ask questions about the origin of problems. Like around what age did it start, did we need to know what it was to clear it, and is there a block to doing so.
Because many things improved through my time with her I started to trust that you don’t need a name for how you got hurt in order to heal from it. But since I cannot be sure, I still rely on written and memorized words, as if they were breadcrumbs.
There is a Cornish legend about two lovers named Tristan and Isolde. When Tristan is wounded by a poison-tipped spear, it gets infected. And when things don’t improve, he does something only a person who knows that emotional facts are just as real as the physical, would do: He gets in a boat with a harp, and lets a great river carry him to the source of the poison.
Sure enough he arrives to the kingdom of the queen who made the poison where he’s brought back to health with the help of his future lover Isolde. Sometimes, writing a poem is like this. It's finding a charged moment—a bend in the creek with enough moving water to get you somewhere—and getting in.
Put this way, I get why some say “poet” is a name to be given, not claimed. It’s a noble way of navigating the world that you cannot do without courage. It’s giving oneself over to texture, not knowing where you’ll end up and who’s there. Sometimes when we write poetry we are legends riding right to the source of a poison.
(At this point I’m starting to understand why I pulled Queen of Cups.)
I’m still reading Shelly Rambo’s book, Spirit and Trauma, which is about witness and survival. What I’m hoping to say here is that witness and survival both tie to poetry.
The intention of doing poetry activates an archetype of witness. Poetry is a way of being in the world that is concerned with testimony, gathering, with an understanding that no one else will if you don’t. Not for lack of love, necessarily, but because certain details only exist because you do. At the same time, at a root level those details contain something shared.
In fantasies of myself I am born bardic: I come here knowing there are things in each moment that we’ll need later, and that it is my task to preserve them.
Shelly Rambo looks to trauma theory to assert that witness is necessary after trauma. Witness in this case is itself paradoxical, since by nature trauma is something that could not be fully comprehended at the time that it happened which means that it often can’t be fully named, told or seen later on. My therapist knew this when she held out her pendulum and asked, “do we need to know what it was, to clear it?”
For Rambo, adequate witness is not a matter of precision or exact seeing, it is a matter of remaining. By this definition of witness as remaining, one must place the goal of healing somewhere else, for a while. To sit with the wound and the trouble. In the case of trauma an event blurs the lines between life and death, and death itself is the thing that remains. It doesn’t stay in the past. It exceeds its time limit.
So to witness requires this skill of remaining and of letting things be unresolved as you do. Many mistakenly believe this will be easy, but it’s not. I think of the worst poems, they start as a lesson in a poet’s mind, the poem itself reduced to a prop for the human need to have neat ending. It’s bad in the sense that it’s unfaithful to life.
In The Disappearance of Rituals, Philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes that “poems are magic ceremonies of language.” He doesn’t say what the ceremonies are for, whether it’s a good or a bad thing. And I know that by linking poetry with witness, I am moralizing it. Wanting it to be for some good, some healing.
I’m doing this because I, too, need neat endings. But I also know that a poem is a charm. And I think part of the deal with charms is that you don't always get to know right away what they’re for.
In her book, Shelly Rambo beautifully cites philosopher Jaques Derrida, who notes that the french word for “to survive,” survivre, translates to a surplus of life. This has to do with poetry because of the way that a poet dwells exactly there, in the supposed extraneous. In the torn husks and runaway fruit and all other so-called extra things. Things which have poets to thank for their survival.
Philosopher Brian Massumi has said, unforgettably, that poetic is a word “we reach for when language is outdoing itself affectively.” Poetic language is a style that outperforms other styles in a very specific category, which is the stimulation of feeling.
In this way, poetry is transgressive because feelings are so often not asked for. The poetic is language that bends its role, does what its told, and then some. That then some, the surplus, announced itself, uninvited. It’s an unauthorized B-side, resurrected from the cutting room floor. A poet is a key witness to the forbidden, erstwhile present.
I write MERLEAU-PONTY in all caps before I take a break from the Offering to eat breakfast with my partner in the nook wrapped in windows. The house where we’ve been staying this winter is on the edge of a forest and, into what I perceive as a shared low-grade frustration he says, “It looks like the trees have buds.”
“Yeah, I barely noticed.” I don’t exactly pretend I didn’t spend all morning writing about poetry and perception but I am pretending. Because this moment with the buds, and the synchronicity, it’s a moment that marks so distinctly the start of spring and that’s something you don’t always get and it’s so full of meaning. Don’t ask why instead of saying that I say I barely noticed and strain to control my face and body.
It’s true though. There is a red in the trees that wasn’t there before. Like someone’s brushed watercolor over tree-green ink, and now the whole house smells like compost. My boots are wet and hands blistered from the wheelbarrow. I can feel muscles that only get used in the spring, readying themselves for the call to old service.
In Meditations on the Tarot, Valentin Tomberg talked about four stages of knowledge: there’s the raw experience, then the felt understanding of the experience, then the practical application of what one experienced and understood, and then finally, come the words for it (2002). The function of language is that it expands, refines and varies whatever meaning there was to begin with. I’m arguing—and it’s easy to do—that poetry is the seizure of that process.
I became interested in Maurice Merleau-Ponty through Andy Fisher’s Radical Ecopsychology which I started reading last year while recovering from surgery. Merleau-Ponty’s work is not about writing poems. I think its about perception as a bodily function. It says that as humans we are not plastic-shelled Dysons attaching vacuum-sealed thoughts to an outside world of fuzz, pine sap, thorns and body language. Rather, our whole way of thinking is formed by what we see, hear, smell, touch and taste.
In the foreword to Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, which is written by philosopher Taylor Carman, he writes that Merleau-Ponty’s life’s work was centered around the question “what is seeing?” and that he was guided by this two-sided mystery: “that we are open onto the world and that we are embedded in it.”
Being open onto the world means that we are beings whose awareness is entangled with what’s outside of our own physical bodies, “binding us to them” in a way that’s different from say, a couch and a coffee table are bound to one another.
Being embedded in the world means that we are not couches or coffee tables, “not angels nor machines” but fallible, living, changing beings. The point of this is that for Merleau-Ponty to view perception as something that occurred from the inside out, was to misunderstand our human situation.
For him, perception wasn’t about inner states. It was about familiarity, navigation, a homing instinct, it had an anti-estranging function in relation to the environment. The poetic instinct is like this, too. With it, one can feel one’s way back, re-orient in the microclimates of a body, a room, a place. A poet will tell the tale eventually, but that isn’t the first task.
Poetry is part of a mystical order in which the philosophy of all things comes last. Having forgotten this order I’ve written loads of truly bad poems trying to slap words over the world. I get so used to giving words to experience that I forget to let experience give words to me. Words which could take me where I ought to be going, like Tristan, with the harp, in the boat.
I imagine every good poet as someone who can get in the boat before they start singing, but in my case the singing itself is sometimes a boarding process. Sometimes I don’t know where the boat even is, or the water, until I get some words down.
And all of this is just to say—and shout out to William Carlos Williams whose icebox poem in the public library of my hometown invited me here in the first place—I think the poet’s job description is simple, albeit impossible:
Don’t miss a shift in contour, color, or mood.
Develop the psychological faith to trust what you see and what wants to be seen through you, even if it puts whole rooms of people out of their way. Even if it’s not neat or convenient.
Be vigilant with an unyielding faith to the tacit. And yes, this orientation toward every subtle thing is sometimes a trait of having survived trauma. It can be trouble. But it’s also a way of seeing that makes for good poets.
Sorry for the neat ending.
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Anonymous. (2002). Meditations on the Tarot: A journey into Christian hermeticism. TarcherPerigee.
Han, B. (2020). The disappearance of rituals. Polity.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2013). Phenomenology of perception. Routledge.
Rambo, S. (2010). Spirit and trauma: A theology of remaining. Westminster John Knox Press.