Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Nothing that Is

The Night, The Porch

To stare at nothing is to learn by heart
What all of us will be swept into, and baring oneself
To the wind is feeling the ungraspable somewhere close by.
Trees can sway or be still. Day or night can be what they wish.
What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort
Of being strangers, at least to ourselves. This is the crux
Of the matter, which is why even now we seem to be waiting
For something whose appearance would be its vanishing —
The sound, say, of a few leaves falling, or just one leaf,
Or less. There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there
Tells us as much, and was never written with us in mind.

- Mark Strand (via insipidexpectations)

What to say? While I was writing yesterday about leavetaking and self-abnegation, there were some thoughts like ghosts making their presence felt in the corners of my mind—the kind that disappear when you look right at them, but that you sense are still there—and I knew that I had recently read, copied, printed out, and pasted in my commonplace book something that was relevant. So I checked and here was this poem.

I like the way it opens, the two clauses of the first sentence, making parallel assertions that taken together express very precisely something deeply mysterious, an existential paradox: that we are here, in the world, alive and attentive to what is in front of us; but that we are also present to, if not explicitly aware of, another, perhaps more fundamental reality, which is not accessible to us, "something whose appearance would be its vanishing."

I've been reading Jim Holt's book Why Does the World Exist? A lot of the early part of the book is basically a historical survey of the way in which thinkers throughout history have attempted to answer the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" A secondary epistemological question has to do whether Nothing can be said to exist at all, or whether that's a logical impossibility, a linguistic trap of some kind. It seems to me that much of the poetry of writers like Mark Strand and W.S. Merwin is grounded in the assumption that Nothing does exist, as source, as destination, as underlying reality, larger and more transcendent than the world we know, and that its existence is instructive, a portal to wisdom: "There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there tells us as much, and was never written with us in mind." My favorite Merwin poem, Search Party, gestures at some of the same territory: there is that which we know, that which can be enumerated, that which can be accounted for, and yet it is not enough, it is never enough. There's more that we will never be able get at. We can only sense its presence.

Here's Strand coming at the question from another angle:

My Name

Once when the lawn was a golden green
and the marbled moonlit trees rose like fresh memorials
in the scented air, and the whole countryside pulsed
with the chirr and murmur of insects, I lay in the grass,
feeling the great distances open above me, and wondered
what I would become and where I would find myself,
and though I barely existed, I felt for an instant
that the vast star-clustered sky was mine, and I heard
my name as if for the first time, heard it the way
one hears the wind or the rain, but faint and far off
as though it belonged not to me but to the silence
from which it had come and to which it would go.

And here to round us out is the magisterial Wallace Stevens:

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

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