The Other by Chard DeNiord

The Other by Chard DeNiord
February 4, 2019 Christina Mullin

THE OTHER

In his great book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake records some of his wisest lines in a section ironically titled “Proverbs of Hell.” Unlike Dante and Milton, Blake believed that “energetic creators” presided in Hell where they created what he called “memorable fancy” in defiance of the “mind-forged manacles” of conventional morality and religion. One of the most famous adages from his “energetic” litany is his claim that “the most sublime act is to set another before you.” This heavenly insight testifies to the transformative power of both sympathy and empathy. Yet, it also strikes terror in its challenge to encounter difference and strangeness in the other—a strangeness that incites a fear of losing one’s self in someone else. This relational conceit that lies also at the heart of democracy as a divinely imaginative idea for trusting in the collective collaboration of “the people” to determine “the common good” has obsessed poets since the time of Gilgamesh, if not before, and Western politicians since the time of Pericles.

Walt Whitman composed America’s poetic constitution, titling it ironically “Song of Myself.” In his preface to this operatic, transpersonal poem, Whitman declares that “the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors … but always most in the common people.” Whitman claimed that “Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature.” For that reason alone, he felt “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Implicit in his claim for “the common people” as the country’s genius lay his Blakean sensibility that apprehended the other as sublime by virtue of the other’s sameness. “Every atom that belongs to me as good belongs to you,” he exclaims at the outset of “Song of Myself.” For Whitman, the sublime is a complex reality in which the “many are one” and difference celebrated as the paradoxical essence within commonality—an idea Whitman divined in both his poetry and his muse, the country itself as an idea and people. So, irony lay at the heart of American democracy’s central poetic concept as Whitman perceived it, a concept that requires imagination, as well a human acumen for grasping love as “the kelson of creation.” When the citizenry and government fail to appreciate this irony, as Whitman felt they did following Lincoln’s assassination, the country loses its democratic magic and falls victim to wooden patriotism.

Whitman’s embodiment of the other in his transpersonal first person speaker not only filled him with what he called “multitudes” but established an enduring sublime charge to future generations of American poets that atomized both traditional forms and conventional subject matter. The subject of others would also become what Whitman called the ”the main things” in his poem “Poets to Come” for subsequent generations of American poets, from the modernists to present day poets, many of whose ancestors suffered alienation, ignominy, and censorship during Whitman’s day—” black folks, Kanuck, Tuckaho…Cuff” (from Canto 6 of “Song of Myself”)—but are receiving overdue recognition today in the poetry of such poets as Terrance Hayes, Natasha Trethewey, Ray Young Bear, Yusef Komunyakaa, Tracy Smith, Patricia Smith, Kevin Young, Lucille Clifton, Ross Gay, and Lucille Clifton, Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, and Major Jackson, to mention only a relative few. (Clearly, if a significantly larger number than the NEA’s calculation of American readers of literary fiction and poetry read the above poets, a less gaping cultural divide would exist between black and white Americans.)

While there are hundreds of contemporary poems that stand out as icons of alterity, I’d like to discuss only two, beginning first, however, with an email exchange I had with friend and fellow poet, Bill Tremblay, on the topic of Blake’s sublime influence. I quoted to him the same “proverb” from Blake as the one I quote above in a complaint I was making about the egregious dearth of compassion emanating from the current president. Bill responded with the following reflection, reminding me of how important the other is also as a correspondent who complements the writer’s ideas with further thought:

 

 

I think what poetry “conserves” is the process of reflection through representation. When we talked on the phone I mentioned that I’m a Blakean. It’s in Milton that Blake lays out his version of Adam and Eve. He asks the question of what the “original sin” was; he disagrees with Milton–it was not sex, it was not that they were ashamed of their nakedness. It was instead the invention of “self and other,” the split inherent in positing a subjective self which views every one and every thing as a [mere] object.

So Blake’s project is to re-subjectify what has formerly been objectified by use of the imagination in such a way as to create compassion. That’s why I used Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” as an example. Rilke shows us line by line in his sonnet how a process of re-subjectifying actually works. It is the light that shines out of the marble.

Most of the “bad” things we see around us happen because the actors or agents are people who have never imagined that there are internal dimensions to objects and that from their point of view objects are subjects; therefore, “there is no place/that does  not see you.” Therefore, “You must change your life.” In fact the cultural objective of “business” is to keep everybody thinking that life can only be understood as “You are  what you own.” A vast amount of misery comes from that, a misery covered over by “pride in ownership.”

 

 

Rilke’s phenomenological discernment of the “light within the marble” as a life-changing catalyst reminds me of a similarly strange encounter with the other that Elizabeth Bishop recounts in her poem “In The Waiting Room.” While waiting for her Aunt Consuelo, Bishop overhears her cry out in pain from the dentist chair—a cry that triggers Bishop’s first “strange” epiphany. This precocious experience terrifies her in a sudden episode of depersonalization in which she sees her six year old self transmogrify into her aunt, whom she describes as “a foolish timid woman.” In a scene that sounds almost like science fiction, Bishop experiences herself as other in the ironic host of her aunt, but rather than feel “foolish” and “timid” she perceives herself as other, as “one of them too,” as if “one of them” were as strange and different as an alien. She gains what Philip Larkin calls in his poem “Talking in Bed” a “unique distance from isolation.”

 

What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities–
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts–
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?

 

In her brief, frightening, moment of depersonalization Bishop perceives herself as both other and herself with a spiritual parallax vision that she can’t sustain for long. Her intensely close proximity to “cold, blue-black space” afflicts her with a “sensation” of “falling off the round turning world” in this terrifying I thou encounter with herself as other in the person of herself and her aunt.

Bishop’s terror in this poem reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s terror in her poem “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain” (340) where in the absence of another, including the Deity that comforted Anne Bradstreet in her moment of despair after her house burned down, Dickinson experiences a harrowing plummet in which

 

all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

 

Dickinson’s panic attack in this poem testifies not only to the horrifying vacuum that overtakes her psyche in the absence of another—“the funeral in her brain”—  but also to the stark absence of any epiphany that communion with another affords in a moment when “the plank in reason breaks.” Bishop not only comes to the realization that she’s “one of them too,” but that the “awful hanging breasts” of the African woman in the National Geographic she’s been staring down at in the waiting room that “holds us all together.” Yet without encountering the void as absence of the other, one doesn’t experience the other as loss, for which, as the chorus says in the The Epic of Gilgamesh after Enkidu dies, “there is no change of heart or spiritual conversion,/ for the heart has changed and the sprit has converted/ to a thing that sees how much it costs to lose a friend it loved.” (translated by Herbert Mason).

The last poem I’d like to discuss as an iconic example of transpersonal transcendence is James Wright’s “Hook.”

 

Hook
I was only a young man
In those days. On that evening
The cold was so God damned
Bitter there was nothing.
Nothing. I was in trouble
With a woman, and there was nothing
There but me and dead snow.

I stood on the street corner
In Minneapolis, lashed
This way and that.
Wind rose from some pit,
Hunting me.
Another bus to Saint Paul
Would arrive in three hours,
If I was lucky.

Then the young Sioux
Loomed beside me, his scars
Were just my age.

Ain’t got no bus here
A long time, he said.
You got enough money
To get home on?

What did they do
To your hand? I answered.

He raised up his hook into the terrible starlight
And slashed the wind.
Oh, that? he said.
I had a bad time with a woman. Here,
You take this.

Did you ever feel a man hold
Sixty-five cents
In a hook,
And place it
Gently
In your freezing hand?

I took it.
It wasn’t the money I needed.
But I took it.

This poem in its first draft was originally embedded in a longer poem that included the first draft of “To A Blossoming Pear Tree.” Both poems convey a radical empathic interaction between Wright and unlikely destitute others, but Wright wisely realized that both “the Sioux” in “Hook” and the gay stranger in “To a Blossoming Pear Tree” needed their own stages. In “Hook,” Wright exhibits his emotional genius for divining the reverse current of giving. By taking the sixty five cents that “the Sioux” offers him after Wright asks him “What did they do to your hand?”, Wright, in his signature cathectic way that one sees also in such poems as “St Judas,” “The Minneapolis Poem,” “To the Muse,” and “At the Executed Murder’s Grave,” and
“In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned,” grasps the ironic calculus of receiving by taking, despite his own lack of need. The intangible human currency this act transacts is priceless.

There are, of course, in addition to “In the Waiting Room,” and “Hook” myriad other contemporary American poems that focus on the electric other for their sublime subject matter. Here is a very partial list of poets whose poems contain transpersonal speakers who take the risk of encountering strange others in the paradoxical, sublime, Whitman-like practice of discovering sameness behind difference: Larry Levis (“The Oldest Living Thing in L.A.” “Elegy With A Chimney Sweep Falling Inside It” ), Terrance Hayes (“American Sonnet For Wanda C”), Robert Hayden (“Those Winter Sundays”), Natasha Trethewey (“Enlightenment,” “The Age of Reason”), Bruce Smith (“Lewisburg”), Philip Levine (“The Mercy”), Marilyn Nelson (”A Wreath for Emmett Till”), Patricia Smith (“Skinhead”), Bianca Stone (“Mobius Strip Club of Grief”), Denise Duhamel (“Ego”), Dennis Nurkse (“Introit and Fugue”), Galway Kinnell (“The Avenue Bering The Initial of Christ Into The New World”), Carl Dennis (“The God Who Loves You”), Ross Gay (“Ending The Estrangement”), Adrienne Rich (An Atlas Of A Difficult World), Frank Bidart (“Ellen West”), Jane Hirshfield (“For What Binds Us”), Bob Dylan (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”), Thomas Lux (“Pedestrian”), Li-Young Lee (“The Undressing”), Ruth Stone (“1941”), Brigit Pageen Kelly (“Song”), D.A. Powell ([because I were ready before destruction. bearing the sign of his affliction]), David Tomas Martinez (“The Only Mexican”), Peter Everwine (“Elegiac Fragments”), Sydney Lea (“My Wife’s Back”) Jill Allyn Rosser (“As If”), ( Lucille Clifton (“john”), Deborah Digges (“Tombs of the Muses”), Joy Harjo (“Conflict Resolution For Holy Beings”), Jericho Brown (Romans 12,1), Allen Ginsburg (“Kaddish”), Denise Duhamel (“How Deep It Goes”), Ilya Kaminsky (“Deaf Republic”), Carolyn Forche (“The Boatman”), Martin Espada (“Alabanza, “In Praise of Local 100”), Bill Tremblay (Walks Along The Ditch), Jeff Friedman (“Other”), Robin Behn (“In That Year”).
I leave it to others to add to this incomplete list. Our democracy cries out for the “good medicine” of a national readership of eclectic, electric poems; for the interpersonal charge that transpersonal poems provide in waking citizens to others as themselves; for the cure that poetry provides for viral false belief in a retrograde nostalgia called “great”; for a sublime commonality Whitman called genius.

Chard deNiord