Marilyn Hacker

The Peripheral Position of the Sun
September 15, 2012 Hacker Marilyn

The Peripheral Position of the Sun


A young woman roars, laughs, splashes the face of a young man, nears the shore where the blinking lights of fireflies flash under the trees, gets pregnant, and thereafter, from the corner of her eye, she watches her every step as if expecting to see a different sun set every evening into the impressions they leave as she goes about her days. “Twilight was beginning to whiten everything above and blacken everything below.” So Victor Hugo describes the end of a 19th century day on the rural outskirts of Paris. Evening arrives again, thirty-five pages later: “A few constellations here and there in the deep pale heavens, the earth all black, the sky all white, a shivering in the blades of grass, everywhere the mysterious thrill of twilight.”[1] The pregnant woman’s attention drifts to the side, as if looking to the peripheries, to glimpse something over to the side, and there to discover, amid myriad details, configurations that reveal things no one else knows, or everyone else chooses not to notice. But the operative position for a logical conclusion is not at the end of elements in a sequence but between them. Typical empirical logic, temporally bound as it is to the chronologicality of cause-and-effect, assumes that, from a little sequence of two occurrences, one following the other, a connection between them can be made.A: The soldiers fire their rifles.

B: Rosalinda falls to the floor.

C: Conclusion: The soldiers have shot Rosalinda.

With element C we establish a connection: A, C, therefore B. The events—the interventions—that contribute to a particular plot (and to the larger landscapes that it lays out) are registered as temporal in various senses—as historical, as grammatical, as generational, as cyclical, as chronic. Daily activities and agricultural seasons stir eddies over the terrain. The present activities that we undertake habitually are thick with past. It is a past whose presence is logical (what sufficed yesterday should suffice today; what worked yesterday should work today), but it is also, especially to the degree that it is automatic, not only arbitrary but preconditional. As Barbara Maria Stafford says, “Living in a society means learning, largely automatically, to repeat forms of behavior that already existed.”[2] These “forms of behavior” are empty forms—“arbitrary”—until they are filled with today’s behavior. “The only way to remember a place for ever is to live in the place for an hour; and the only way to live in the place for an hour is to forget the place for an hour. The undying scenes we can all see if we shut our eyes are not the scenes that we have stared at under the direction of guide-books; the scenes we see are the scenes at which we did not look at all—the scenes in which we walked when we were thinking about something else […]. We can see the background now because we did not see it then.”[3] In the distant past humans were energized by their delusions, and yet we relentlessly sought to rid ourselves of them. Perhaps this is why people are so fond of having feelings when they recognize each other. “Don’t go for the obvious,” Askari Nate Martin tells the kids of the Oakland MAP as he sends them out for the morning with cameras or sketchpads, fifteen of them, age 12 to 16. “We be looking for clues to existence?” asks Tamarind Magee. In her right ear lobe she’s wearing a paper clip, she has elevated it to the status of jewelry. Tamarind doesn’t like to waste a minute. She’s playing with Askari Nate Martin, with his having been a cop and having quit “the copping,” as QJ puts it. Time is almost always experienced peripherally. It appears only in effects. Time is a stylist or a killer. Whatever it is transacting, it is over there somewhere, or behind us, we may have missed it. Maybe we each have an eye at the back of our head, though we haven’t yet thought, or dared, to open it. There are people who believe this to be true of everyone. Or maybe the eye was open and now we’re blinking, but the blink takes a human lifetime. When we blink we moisten our eyes, but that’s not the reason for the blinking. We blink to give our brain a break, a moment of respite from the influx of information. Or, rather, we give it a chance to make sense of what it has seen. “People’s motives are completely opaque to me,” says Maxine Able Smith to Dorothy Blythe Ward. “I understand agency but not causation.” To the left of the sandwich shop on the plaza the group of teenagers mills around each other. One darts away and darts back, laughing, another shouts. A second suddenly thrusts his open plastic water bottle in the direction of the first, splashing her. A third splashes a fourth. The teenagers charge, splash, leap back, shriek, hoot, demonstrating joyously or perhaps in utter anxiety and wishfulness their collectivity, their belonging to their group. Maggie Fornetti and Dewanda Horn cross the plaza, watching the kids askance. Nothing is happening; nothing is always happening. Those kids are fighting for visibility, Dewanda says. They’ve got their theme, says Maggie. They are only haphazardly notable. In this place, they are never simple, never quotidian, says Dewanda; they’re excessive. But not as expensive as they’d be in prison, says Maggie Fornetti. In order to perceive something, one has to believe something about it, consciously or—more likely—not. History does not provide literature with smooth transitions. It’s a Wednesday afternoon, 3:45 pm, April 6. Francesca Malaya Martin is in a window seat near the back of the # 51 bus, her back pack on her lap. To escape—or at least loosen—the strictures of the middle class takes time. It takes linear time, the kind of time the Enlightenment made primary and perhaps even mandatory, time for progress. Francesca Malaya Martin is considering a paradox: she has to make progress against progress. This is not too subtle a project; she does not consider herself apart from whatever interests her at the moment. The bus crosses Russell Street, moving slowly. On the right, ornate gold lettering on the closed glass door of the store that used to be Lora’s Closet now spells out “Goorin’s Hat Shop.” A man in a wheelchair with a dog is trying to maneuver past people waiting their turn to enter Ici. He tugs on the dog’s leash to pull it closer to the chair as people in the crowd, only half-consciously noticing him, nonetheless move just enough to let him pass. We only sometimes organize things according to their alphabetical aspect—A for apple, anadiplosis, accident, and C for click, creek, and cheese, C for ceaseless combining and citizenship, C for cities, chrysanthemum, for cave paintings, which is what the art teacher has been talking about this week. To appreciate its beauty, and even more its matter-of-factness, one must enter the environment as a part of it. Rhythms of cognition are set by attention and mutated by participation, improvised, in time. Making sense is an adventure of the moment. This is as true for Francesca Malaya Martin at age 14 as it is for me at 70. Time is invisible, uncaused, and within it we can experience absolute freedom. But history, of course, curtails it. During the period of Language Writing’s emergence, various historians (e.g. the Annales group, with volumes by Fernand Braudel and Lucien Fabvre just coming out in English) and cultural anthropologists (e.g., Clifford Geertz) were practicing what’s been termed a “turn to ordinariness” and producing “thick descriptions.”[4] Might Ron Silliman’s Ketjak or my My Life represent turns to the ordinary, might they be said to favor thick descriptions, offering accounts of what E.P. Thompson termed “history from below”? Francesca Malaya Martin gets off the bus at the corner of Woolsey and College, walks one block west on Woolsey, and then turns south on Benvenue. The late afternoon sun is warm on her shoulder, her shadow jumps forward as it meets a wall, undulates over the fissures, bulges, concavities, and niches of the sidewalk. They undergo her shadow. There are figures in them, things that, like the Pleiades, can only be seen peripherally. They are a distinguishable though indistinct sphere of reality, emergent rather than clear. Perhaps what Language Writing was making was not a “turn to ordinariness” as it was understood by Thompson and others, a turn away from history as the record of heroes and great deeds. Rather, it was making a turn to difference—thus to language, itself, certainly, but also to that which resists it, the unidentifiable in social and narrative terrains: undomesticated women, for instance, or narratives that won’t let you in or haven’t let you out. The conditions of failure, in other words. The moment of difference is the moment that writing can’t write, projected into the future even as it is preserved in nostalgia, experienced in pathos, and expressed by gaps in logic, rationality, understanding. Francesca passes the neighbor’s old white dog lolling on a patch of grass and pauses. Jonah Martin is sitting on the front steps of their house, concentrating on a Nintendo game in his hands. The connection between them, C, might be temporal—contingency. In the distance, but not a great distance, someone is just pulling a nail, and farther away a dog barks. Time is noisy. Shrimp click, caterpillars munch, and two students on mopeds clatter through the neighborhood. The painter Jean Millet is said to have once remarked that trees are like people who don’t speak the same language.[5] If one could abandon one’s penchant for self-scrutiny, itself both the gift and curse of the bourgeois individualist’s sensitivity, one might see others—the others. But where would one start?




[1] Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 870, 905.

[2] Barbara Maria Stafford, Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting, 131.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, 20.

[4] See Martin Jay, Songs of Experience, 242-43.

[5] T.J. Clark, The Absolute Bourgeois, 94.


Marilyn Hacker is the author of 13 books of poems, most recently A Stranger’s Mirror (Norton 2015), and translator of 16 collections of poems from the French, the last being Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s A Handful of Blue Earth (Liverpool University Press, 2017). Her translations from the Arabic include work by Fadwa Suleiman, Golan Haji, and Zakaria Tamer.