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Publication Type:Journal Article
Source:Culture, Theory, & Critique, Volume 47, Issue 2, p.133-147 (2006)
Keywords:Overlord; Weil; Carson
Abstract:Beginning with Wallace Stevens, the influence of Simone Weil’s philosophy of decreation on American poetry has been substantial, if often underestimated. Focusing on recent volumes by Jorie Graham and Anne Carson, I suggest that this use of Weil’s philosophy presents a new way of understanding a dominant trend towards the metaphysical and difficult in modern American poetry. In various and divergent ways, both poets’ work explicitly points towards a decreated world and explores the ways in which poetry replaces prayer when God is absent. Both in form and content, this work expands upon and illuminates ideas put forth by thinkers such as Blanchot and Nancy, but it is primarily through an understanding of Weil and decreation that such work can best be approached. For Carson and Graham, poetry is the best expression of the imminent void; by placing their work in a definite Weilian context, it is possible to reveal their claims about the nature of truth, God and the material world more fully.
Full Text:Simone Weil’s legacy as a philosopher has remained uneasy; with a public reputation situated somewhere between mystic saint and madwoman, it is only recently that her work has been systematically examined from a philosophical perspective. More influential, and surprisingly unremarked, has been the adoption of Weil as an avowedly secular patron saint of modern metaphysical poetry. The incorporation of Weil into a poetic canon of reference deserves all the more attention because of the widespread reluctance to take her work seriously as philosophy. This reticence has come about largely because of the difficulty of separating Weil’s philosophical writings from her own life. As Francoise Meltzer points out: ‘It has been easy to dismiss Weil’s life, except as a curiosity’ (2001: 613). Introductions to her posthumous works focus almost entirely on her individual struggles with hunger and grief as a path to what she called, from early in her writings, the ‘value of suffering’ (Weil 1970: 3). The logical and theoretical inconsistencies within her work, or what Maurice Blanchot calls ‘a thought often strangely surprised’ (Blanchot 1993: 106), have themselves led to a desire to read Weil not as a serious philosopher, but as a religious memoirist at worst, a challenging but unplaceable thinker at best. T. S. Eliot uses this latter approach in his preface to The Need for Roots: ‘We must simply expose ourselves to the personality of a woman of genius, of a kind of genius akin to that of the saints […] our first experience of Simone Weil should not be expressible in terms of approval or dissent […] what matters is to make contact with a great soul’ (2002 : vii).
The remarkable aspect of Eliot’s preface is not his slightly patronisingtone or his implicit stamp of cultural approval, however, but the way inwhich he presents himself both as a thinker and a poet in order to convey anunderstanding of Weil’s work. For it is as a poetic thinker and as an inspirationto poets that Weil has best survived. Weil’s poetic influence has beenrethought most remarkably in two recent volumes by established North American poets, Jorie Graham’s Overlord (2005) and Anne Carson’s Decreation (2005). For both poets, Weil is used as the symbol of prayers to an absent god and personalises the questioning of being with which the poets are engaged. Weil is a representative of how the individual talks to God and, more importantly, how the individual talks to God when there is no God with whom to speak and no hope of an answer. These two volumes must be approached primarily as readings of Weil’s work; as such, they illustrate Weil’s influence on contemporary metaphysical poetry. While Carson presents a relatively sympathetic account of Weil’s philosophy and Graham in many ways offers a refutation, both poets approach the world in a way which cannot be understood without reference to Weil. Reciprocally, however, Carson and Graham’s interpretations of and derivations from Weil also present a subtle rethinking of Weil’s work itself; in their mutual emphasis on the text itself as the symbol of created matter, Carson and Graham offer a possible solution to some of the key paradoxes within Weil’s work.
The poetic adoption of Weil stems, perhaps, from Wallace Stevens’s useof her philosophy of decreation to explain how it is that ‘the theory of poetry […] often seems to become in time a mystical theology’ (Stevens 1951: 173). InStevens’s extrapolation, Weil:
says that decreation is making pass from the created to the uncreated,
but that destruction is making pass from the created to nothingness.
Modern reality is a reality of decreation, in which our
revelations are not the revelations of belief, but the precious portents
of our own powers. The greatest truth we could hope to discover, in
whatever field we discovered it, is that man’s truth is the final resolution
of everything. (1951: 174–75)
Weil thus provides a way to see the human imagination, both individual and collective, at the centre of modern ways of being. Decreation provides a path from the world of belief to the world of the individual; when a system of thought predicated on creation fails, what remains is the truth of the imaginative endeavour. This move does not negate the existence of the world: in fact, the entire notion of decreation is predicated on the pre-existence of a broader creation from which all knowledge and being comes. Yet creation itself does not provide a way for its own understanding; the process of uncreating allows the individual to examine her role in relation to creation through the act of self-negation. As Simon Critchley summarises Stevens’s thesis: ‘God is dead, therefore I am. The problem is that it is not at all clear who I am’ (Critchley 2005: 43). Or as J. Hillis Miller expresses it: ‘God is dead, therefore I am. But I am nothing. I am nothing because I have nothing, nothing but awareness of the barrenness within and without’ (1990: 35).
It is only in the death of God that the rest of the world is now revealed as unknowable and thus it is only when God is nothing that ‘man’ too may be revealed as nothing. As Jean-Luc Nancy writes: ‘“God”, the motif or theme of God, the question of God, no longer means anything to us. Or else – as is all too obvious to an unbiased eye – what the theme of God might mean to us has already moved or been carried entirely outside of him’ (1991: 112). God has been replaced in the human imagination by the larger created world, but without God the creation of the world is a mystery, and the stance of the individual in relation to that world is even more elusive. The problem, as Stevens phrases it in ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’, is that we are caught between a world revealed and understood through individual sight and the fear that this world is something which precedes us: ‘we live in a place / That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves’ (Stevens 1976: 102). Decreation is ‘a seeing and unseeing in the eye’ (Stevens 1976: 104); it is what allows the poet not to make the world, but to discover it:
[…] to impose is not
To discover. To discover an order as of
A season, to discover summer and know it,
To discover winter and know it well, to find,
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather,
It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. (Stevens 1976: 125)
The task of decreative art, for Stevens, is to discover the world without imposing on it, to encounter the world as it is created and, knowing the impossibility of creation, still see the world to be what it is. Poetry is no longer, in the words of mid-period Martin Heidegger, ‘the act of establishing by the word and in the word’ (1949: 304). Poetry cannot impose or establish. It is instead the act of revealing what has been uncreated: it sets out to discover, in a world in which godly creation seems impossible, what it is that remains.
For Stevens, this decreation comes about through individual imagination and yet, more importantly, reveals the world without the individual, reveals ‘a universal poetry that is reflected in everything’ (1951: 160). There is an assumed universal truth that underlies the necessary fictitiousness of poetry: the poet ‘must create his unreal out of what is real’ (Stevens 1951: 58). There is a triangulation in Stevens’s account between the real, the fictive and the poet which stems from, and yet rejects, Weil’s theology, a theology which Carson summarises as an ‘erotic triangle […] involving God, herself [Weil] and the whole of creation’ (2005: 168). For Weil and her followers, decreation is not only a way of approaching or revealing an uncreated world; it is also an act of uncreating the self in order to allow the world to reveal itself fully. As in Stevens, where there is a tension between the creation of the individual and the underlying truth he must recognise, Carson marvels at the conflict in Weil between her advocacy of a complete self-negation and her role as a writer.
This is one of the central enigmas in Weil’s work, and the one which most appeals to her poetic descendents: if Weil is serious about uncreating the self and about creating a void where the self was, ‘how are we to square these dark ideas with the brilliant self-assertiveness of the writerly project […] of telling the world the truth about God, love and reality?’ (Carson 2005: 171). The revealed truth can only be communicated by the individual, yet the truth of the world is also only revealed in the absence of the individual. The individual must yield completely to the world of creation and yet cannot ever truly do so and remain individual. As Weil has it: ‘Once we know that something is real, we cannot be attached to it’ (1970: 72). When the individual is fully revealed, when she is placed in the world as she truly is, she can no longer be understood as an individual at all, but only as an aspect of creation. And yet, for Weil, this revelation is even more elusive, for creation is not only the tangible created world to which a poet such as Stevens looks for the basis of truth, but also the presence of God. If God, as Weil argues, can only be loved through atheism and the affirmation of his absence, where does this leave creation itself? Creation is, in this circuitous and deliberately paradoxical argument, that which cannot be approached, known or believed in, yet that which is still paramount.
And so we begin to approach the two central mysteries of Weil’s thought: the individual is only made completely manifest when she is uncreated, and creation itself is the presencing of God, yet can only be revealed in God’s absence. The nonsensicality of the first presupposition, especially as concerns the writer, is made clear by Blanchot: ‘A writer who writes "I am alone" […] can be considered rather comical. It is comical for a man to recognize his solitude by addressing a reader and by using methods that prevent the individual from being alone’ (1999: 343). If one substitutes or expands ‘alone’ to include Weil’s decreated self, then the paradoxical, or even comical, aspect of her work becomes clear. She cannot write as she writes: to do so negates her very claims, for in writing the self is opposed to the void. For Carson, this paradox remains the very strength and beauty of Weil’s writing: [T]he telling [of an experience of decreation] remains a bit of a wonder. Decreation is an undoing of the creature in us – that creature enclosed in self and defined by self. But to undo self one must move through self, to the very inside of its definition. (Carson 2005: 179)
To write the decreated self is not to write the absence of self, but the very core of self. To understand oneself as an individual who cannot be revealed as such, and to communicate this with what remains of the outside world, is to approach the very limits of selfhood. This is, for Blanchot as well as Carson, the value of Weil’s thought: in setting up such paradoxes, Weil ‘accepted within herself as legitimate the inevitable opposition of thoughts’ (Blanchot 1993: 106). This opposition is not merely a philosophical paradox, but an approach to the nature of being. The separation of the self from the self or, in Carson’s wording, the move of the self through self (Carson 2005: 179), is the way the self is understood. ‘We come back to the question: if what tore her from herself is not herself and is not God, then what is it? One must answer: “this tearing itself’ (Blanchot 1993: 115). In Blanchot’s reading of Weil, that which is divine within the self comes about and is revealed through the abandonment of the self. Carson expands this claim to show that all that is essential to the self is revealed through this abandonment. The self is never more the self than when it is not, when it is recreated as void.
The remarkable feature of Carson’s struggle with this paradox is that she approaches it in a variety of forms: the passages quoted above are from a largely academic essay, ‘Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God’ (2005: 155–83). The following section of her book is called simply ‘Decreation: An Opera in Three Parts’ (Carson 2005: 185–240). In this formal separation of approaches to Weil, Carson follows Blanchot’s separation of Weil’s emptiness into two forms, affliction and attention. While affliction has been the dominant theme thus far, attention is far more crucial to the way in which Carson poeticises Weil, or appropriates Weil towards poetry, or simply rethinks Weil. Attention is that aspect of the void which permits language and reflection. According to Blanchot: ‘Through attention, language has with thought the same relation thought would like to have with this lacuna in it – this affliction – that thought is and that it cannot render present to itself. Language is the place of attention’ (1993: 122).
Language is the way this worked-through void, this selfless self, is revealed. This becomes clear when Carson begins to write Weil’s life and thought as opera. It is this formal shift for which critics have most severely attacked Carson: Charles Simic, in a recent summary of Carson’s work, calls the ‘Decreation’ essay ‘full of marvellous insights’, while the ‘Decreation’ opera lacks ‘a believable speaking voice and a convincing dramatic situation’ (Simic 2005: 30). If it is surprising to learn that ‘Decreation’ has been staged within the past few years, this surprise comes not from what Simic calls ‘the thinness of much of the writing’, but from the sense that Carson, in this libretto, has moved entirely into the play of ideas. In a poem such as ‘Decreation Aria [sung by Simone alone in an empty place]’, Carson (2005: 235) is as concerned with the space around the text as the text itself. The poem consists primarily of single-word lines surrounded by blank space, such that each word forms a question which is only answered by the emptiness of the surrounding page:
I am excess.
breaks the silence of heaven,
blocks God’s view of his beloved creation
and like an unwelcome third between two lovers
gets in the way.
(Carson 2005: 235)
What Carson is demonstrating in this poem is what the ‘[w]orld as it is when I am not there’ looks like. The poem, like Simone, is placed ‘alone in an empty place’. Each one-noun sentence briefly disturbs the space, or the emptiness, that is the pre-existing page. In a poem of only seventy-one words, Simone refers to herself as ‘excess’ twice and asks, as a ‘creature’, to be undone. As limited as the poem is – in tone, in lexicon, in length – it is still too much, it begins to be undone but cannot be fully uncreated. The poem, like Simone, moves towards the uncreated without being able to reach it. The text cannot be a creation complete in itself, but neither can it fully reveal the void. Weil writes that ‘[a]lways, beyond the particular object whatever it may be, we have to fix our will on the void – to will the void’ (Weil 1952: 13). Here Carson shows both the willing of the void and the way in which the particular object, in this case the poem itself, also stands in the way of that will. The object, no matter how limited or reduced, always stands between the self and the complete realisation of the void.
Carson’s work here follows from her translations of Sappho’s fragments, If Not, Winter (2002), in which each fragment, even those of only two or three words, is given two pages, one for the original Greek and a facing page for the English translation. The space around the text is as revealing as the text itself. Carson uses brackets to indicate where the original papyrus has been destroyed, for ‘brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure’ (2002: xi).
Or, as Graham puts it, brackets represent: ‘The mutability of the external meeting the mutability of the internal’ (2003: 66). This yields translations such as that of Fragment 87D, which consists of ten brackets and the word ‘youth’ alone in the middle of the page (Carson 2002: 171). Such work provokes the reader into a contemplation of absence and loss. These techniques prompt critics such as Simic to claim that ‘the content Carson works with is better suited for prose than for poetry’ (2005: 29). In her own defence, Carson quotes Lacan: ‘The reason we go to poetry is not for wisdom, but for the dismantling of wisdom’ (Carson 2004: 201). Poetry is itself an act of decreation and of dismantling. Carson perhaps follows Stevens in his view of poetry as ‘the unofficial view of being’ (Stevens 1951: 40): her work is poetic not because she breaks lines of prose into verse, as Simic claims, but because she attempts to chart the emergent emptiness of everyday life at a purely individual, symptomatic level. What makes her writing considerable as poetry is that she does not answer absence, but only points towards it. This is not only an approach to poetry – a way to illustrate what it is the poem does not include as well as what it does – but also a way to illustrate the absence of God: ‘The best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t’ (Carson 2004: 218–19). This is, for Carson, the way in which language, through attention, reveals emptiness: each word points to all the words it is not and asks an unanswerable question. The void Weil desires is revealed in Carson’s verse as the space around the text; what remains for the reader is to move from the text to the emptiness which surrounds it.
Carson begins to examine emptiness in the very idea of the fragment. Sappho’s Fragment 31, appearing with very slight variation in both If Not, Winter and Decreation, breaks off mid-stanza. In interpreting the final line (‘All is to be dared because even a person of poverty …’ [Carson 2005: 161]) Carson makes use of the break to cast doubt on all that has come before: ‘I don’t want to give the impression that I know what this verse is saying or that I see where the poem is headed from here, I don’t. Overall it leaves me wondering’ (2005: 161). The value of the fragment is that it opens the reader to wonder, to a sense of poetry as a representation of the ungraspable. There is something clearly contrary about this desire to read the poem back from its fragmentary status. And yet what remains of the poem for the modern reader deserves interpretation in its own right, not because we can guess what it was Sappho wrote in the remainder of the poem, but precisely because we cannot. In our inability to predict the poem’s original content, we are opened to the void that lies beyond the poem. In another poem from the opera, ‘Duet of the Sleeveless Sports Blouses avec Maman [sung by Simone and Madame Weil waltzing in an empty factory while the Chorus of the Void do calisthenics in slow motion]’ (Carson 2005: 230–34), Carson illustrates how the text, through attention,
becomes fragmented and ultimately reveals emptiness. The poem starts with a simple postcard from Simone:
Chère Maman I have bought two sleeveless sports
blouses Today a street fight between Nazis and
Communists No I was not there? Please send
me special post what I asked for last
letter (the Hegel) Kisses.
(Carson 2005: 230)
The awkward line breaks and the lack of conventional punctuation point to disorder, but otherwise the stanza reads as ordinary language. As the poem progresses, the words from this verse jumble together, until finally we read a stanza such as:
No special Maman sport to the last
fight two less
kiss sleeves Today?
cher Hegel? (Carson 2005: 233)
The poem is clearly humorous, but also illustrates how words lose meaning, how sentences fragment themselves over time, how the void is always just beyond the object. This may not be conventional poetry, certainly, but it is written very carefully to reveal a paradox at the heart of poetic thought: the printed declarative is no longer sufficient to map modernity’s focus on emptiness, and so the poet must, in the words of Gertrude Stein, ‘act so there is no use in a center’ (Carson 2004: 226).
Carson uses her decentralised poetics to examine the unplaceable nature of being as it occurs in poetry, not because poetry reveals truth, but because it allows for attention. Speaking of her task as a poet, Carson says: I do think that something of the effect I have on people is to put everything on an edge where they’re both charmed by the person or the writing, and also flatly terrified by a revelation or acceptance of revelation that’s almost happening, never quite totally happening. (2004: 196)
Poetry does not admit revelation, but only the potentiality of that revelation, it occupies the space between perception and truth. This is why, in her recent work, Carson is intentionally elusive: her work points out its own arbitrariness, the way the text stands only thinly between the reader and emptiness.
By indicating to the reader that the text is necessarily incomplete, Carson forces her to look at that which is outside the text – the void – for revelation. The text here also alludes to the absence of God. Weil argues that everything, including, or perhaps particularly, God, is mediated relation (Weil 1970: 91): the world in the absence of God is thus the world without mediation. What makes Carson’s texts so difficult is that they present an unmediated world, a world that is revealed as it is without the presence of a mediator, and thus with no explicit way for the individual to understand it. In an earlier, more conventional long poem, ‘The Truth About God’, Carson writes: ‘My religion
makes no sense / and does not help me / therefore I pursue it’ (1995: 39). The sentiment remains in Decreation: religion – and poetry – are worthy of pursuit precisely because they do not make sense, because they begin to reveal the truth but fail. For both Carson and Stevens, poetry moves ‘constantly in the direction of the credible’ (Stevens 1951: 58), but crucially never quite reaches it. It is only in this way that poetry can approach the absent God, the God ‘who wishes to remain unknown, […] who wishes, sending himself in the visible, there to remain invisible’ (Nancy 1991: 122–23). For Carson, poetry, in its individualism and its elusiveness, its difficulty and its ability to point towards the void, is the only way to approach the unmanifest divine. In her project, Carson is reiterating what Miller reads in Stevens, the poet as ‘the first man facing an “uncreated” world, with everything still to be imagined’ (Miller 1990: 38). Stevens, in order to ‘match the mobility of the moment […] comes to write a poetry of flickering mobility, a poetry in which each phrase moves so rapidly it has beginning and ending at once’ (Miller 1990: 42). Imagination, reality, God, the mind and words all become equivalent, because all are the products of decreation. Carson invites the reader to see this uncreated world not only by pointing to the void outside the text, beside the text, but by incorporating the void within the text itself. The final passage of the ‘Decreation’ opera is sung by the chorus:
Come cherries come.
Come tease a saint.
(Carson 2005: 240)
The reader can apply several layers of interpretation here: the presence of cherries refers to Weil’s death from hunger; the repetition of ‘come’ makes explicit the erotics of mysticism; the use of the chorus indicates that Weil’s selflessness is ultimately successful, that she is finally only visible as void, as other. And yet the text itself appears to mean little or nothing. The invocation for cherries (or God, or truth) to come remains open and unanswered. The poem begins and ends at once because it cannot move to something other than itself. The poem reveals its own limitations: it requests the presence of God and is met only by absence, by a blank page. For Weil, humans can only escape torment ‘by begging God to come down’ (Weil 1970: 149), by praying unconditionally. Prayer, as Iris Murdoch points out, is itself a form of attention, an ‘attention to God which is a form of love’ (Murdoch 1970: 55).
For Weil, God exists only through the individual’s supplication, only ‘because I desire him’ (Weil 1970: 157). In ‘Decreation’ Carson attempts to make explicit the desire for God (where God represents all that is present or manifest in creation, all that is not nothing), and yet, still following Weil, she also illustrates the difficulty and even extinction of that desire. The poem cannot be more than it is: it is an act of supplication, a pointer to that which lies outside itself, but it cannot be answered. Carson’s work in ‘Decreation’ is to create a form of poetry that is an unanswered prayer in itself. In so doing, she begins to illustrate the way in which reality, or God, or truth, always remain outside the poem.
Carson here approaches a form of prayer that is, in Nancy’s terminology, a suspension of prayer. In the absence of God, for Nancy, all that can remain of prayer is its memory: ‘This recitation prays for want of praying. It does not implore so as to be able once again to pray: it addresses a lack of prayer to a lack of sacred name, it is a litany laid bare’ (Nancy 1991: 121). This is surely what Carson is explicating in the ‘Aria of the Last Cherries [sung by Simone Weil from a hospital bed, the Chorus of the Void tapdance around her]’ (Carson 2005: 238–40), in which the prayer is not a prayer, the God supplicated not God, but the form of the prayer remains. Prayer is ‘a proof of the impossible truth of God’s motion’ (Carson 2005: 177); it is that which makes clear the truth of impossibility, as well as the impossibility of truth. This truth – which is impossible, which is nothing, but which is no less true for that – must be presented as poetry, because it is poetry which allows one to approach this constant motion. ‘It is the function of the hymn to decreate’, writes Carson (2005: 178): for ‘hymn’ one can substitute all poetry. Poetry survives because it has the ability to point to the uncreated, even to make something pass into the uncreated itself, without moving into destruction, or the pass into nothingness. ‘Decreation’ is such a text, one which illustrates the way in which something created can pass into the uncreated. If one follows this argument from Weil to Stevens to Carson, Simic’s complaints about the latter’s works are easily discounted. Simic writes: ‘She labels almost everything she writes as poetry. I don’t see the point’ (Simic 2005: 29). The point, as much as one is possible, is that it is only in poetry that decreation can take place: Carson’s work is not poetry because of the form it takes, but because of the work it does.
It is tempting, if misleading, to read Carson’s work as over-intellectual, even non-poetic, especially when, as in Decreation, her primary concern appears to be with the intangible. Similarly, Graham’s work has been ‘regarded as a literary anomaly, as an eccentric and highly sophisticated thought-experiment’ (Tiffany 2001: 92). And yet, what Carson and Graham are writing is not an academic obfuscation of the world, but instead a poetry that in its very difficulty comes to represent the world as it is. For Graham, the world is an often awkward confluence of material things. In its focus on the material world, her approach to poetry appears oppositional to Carson’s, with the notable exception of Swarm (1999), which both cites Carson directly and contains a Carson-like focus on the emptiness of the page around the text. However, her larger concerns echo Carson’s: how can a poem show what cannot be seen? How can a created thing such as a text represent the passage into uncreation? For Graham, it is ‘physical matter’ and ‘actual details’ which provide a pathway to ‘something invisible’ (Graham 2003: 58): emptiness is approached not by explicating emptiness or the void, but by incorporating everything that is not void into the poem in order to see what remains. If Carson lets the word ‘Excess’ stand on its own, Graham shows the reader what that excess might be. In an interview at the time of Never (2002), she appears to be content with occluding the void in favour of ‘the here and now’, which are
the terms that summon presence. In the literal sense, as well as the
spiritual. Although we usually use the word to mean the presence of
the greater-than-human, in that book in particular, it’s the presence
of others – the attempt to rebuild the shattered community of ‘we’.
(Graham 2003: 57)
Thus, for Graham, ‘presence’ may refer to something like God, but her concern for the bulk of her career has been with the presencing of the physical world, both human and inhuman. Her latest volume, however, marks a change, retaining the line-length and the excessive materiality of her early work, but using them to confront more directly the absence of God and the process of decreation itself.
Overlord largely consists of poems on D-Day and war, interspersed with a series of six poems called ‘Praying (Attempt of [Date])’1 (Graham 2005). These latter poems directly confront the void, not in order to embrace it or will the self into it, but in the hope of turning either towards God or towards the material world in refutation of that void. For Weil, the void is the ‘dark night’ that gives rise to the ‘need of god’ (Weil 1952: 10–11). The void, then, is that which is both made by and can only be filled by grace. Graham employs a much looser conception of the void in order to explore what happens when the void cannot be completely accepted, when something remains that cannot be renounced. The self – and the world – may be revealed by the void, but the desire to shore the self up against that void is still powerful. As ‘Praying (Attempt of Feb 6 ‘04)’ has it:
I wake up in time, it is still dark.
Take the familiar position.
If I open my eyes I know what there will be: nothing.
No, really, nothing. So must keep them
shut, face in hands, hands holding eyes shut.
[…] I love you I try to say from the floor.
To what? Somebody persuade me. (Graham 2005: 65, 66)
These poems illustrate the ways in which the self attempts to shield the self from nothingness by physical means. The void, or ‘nothing’, is both desired and feared; the autobiographical self is surrounded by nothingness and uses the poem, as prayer, to shield herself against it. Here, then, Graham engages not so much with decreation as with destruction, its ‘blameworthy substitute’ that makes the created ‘pass into nothingness’ (Weil 1952: 28). The ‘familiar position’ of kneeling, the hands on the eyes, the frequent appearance of watchful cats, are all an attempt to put matter in between the self and nothingness, to use the created to combat its own destruction. For Graham, the self and the understanding of what the self might be are revealed as what remains against the void. The poet cannot love God (or another human) without being persuaded that such an other exists, and thus she turns to the tangible world of hands and eyes and floor as that which must remain real, even as it is revealed to be insufficient. Although the material world may disappear, it also gives rise to self-conception; the self is that which can contemplate both the world full of things and the void. Following Weil, the self also becomes that
which stands between matter and God: ‘All the things that I see, hear, breathe, touch, eat; all the beings I meet – I deprive the sum total of all that of contact with God, and I deprive God of contact with all that in so far as something in me says “I”’ (Weil 1952: 36). Graham’s purpose in these poems is to catalogue the entirety of the material world in order to find what it is that still says ‘I’. It is thus possible to see Graham’s use of Weil as a reversal of the latter’s methods: rather than embracing the void in order to allow God contact with the material world, the self in Graham’s writings turns to that world in order to understand the origin of nothingness or the void itself. Only in attempting to understand the self’s relation with the material world can the poet begin to understand what that ‘something invisible’ that is not matter might be. Unlike Stevens and Carson, Graham does not explicitly look to Weil for the origin of the void, but for its opposite, for matter in its created state.
Although Weil is a pervasive presence throughout these poems, there is only one poem in which Graham cites her directly. This poem is ‘Praying (Attempt of June 6 ‘03)’ (2005: 16–19), where she writes:
[…] On account of its perfect
obedience, matter deserves to be loved, Weil says. Matter she says is
entirely passive and in consequence entirely obedient to God’s will. I
matter, says the voice from the just-greening eight-foot hedgerows. I
The only choice given to men, she says, is to desire obedience or not to
desire it. If a person does not desire it, he obeys nevertheless,
perpetually, inasmuch as he is a thing subject to mechanical necessity.
If he does
desire it, he is still subject, but a new necessity is added, a
necessity belonging to supernatural things. It is nearing seven. When
we have the feeling,
she says, that we have disobeyed God, it simply means that for a time
we have ceased to desire obedience. I desire obedience. I do not have
towards which to direct my desire. It is a beautiful moonlit night.
The young owl that sung out once might sing again. (Graham 2005: 19)
In this passage, Graham uses Weil’s words as a buffer against the very void Weil espouses. Whereas Weil writes that, ‘We must not seek the void [… but] we must not run away from it either’ (Weil 1952: 21), Graham does both at once. In recognising and even advertising her prayers as impossible attempts directed at no one, Graham seeks an understanding of the void, but in her repetition of Weil’s phrases and in her appeal to the natural and material world she also seeks escape. These prayers are, again, what Nancy calls ‘a litany laid bare’ (Nancy 1991: 121); they are prayers which could be answered by anyone – even the song of the owl would suffice – but are themselves only remnants of a now impossible appeal. The volume ends with a poem, ‘Posterity’, which charts the journey between self-doubt and the material world. The material world is deceitful, and must be renounced, but it is also all that remains. As Graham ends this poem:
Oh I have talked too much.
To praise to recall to memorialize to summon to mind
the thing itself – forgive me – the given thing – that you might have
persuaded yourself is invisible,
unknowable, creature of context – it is there, it is there, it needs to be
there. I awaken again. The
man, last night, his hands
no longer operational.
I wake up operational
over what country now.
The rain has ceased,
I stare at the gleaming garden. (Graham 2005: 88)
The world, both material and spiritual, becomes an article of faith. Graham needs the world of things to exist, if only because it is impossible to write without reference to it. Emptiness cannot be encountered purely as itself, but can only be understood in relation to what it replaces. Even as Graham looks to the void she still believes in all that which is not the void – the ‘gleaming gardens’ of phenomenological experience – because they serve as reference points from which to chart the self’s relation to the invisible.
The material, created world brings with it a host of difficulties: it cannot simply be rhapsodised, nor used as a comforting buffer between the self and the absence of God. Like Carson, Graham finds the answer to her prayer in the materiality of the text itself. Just as Carson uses fragments to focus the reader on the space around her, Graham uses long lines, a wordiness for its own sake, to focus the reader’s attention on text as ‘matter’. The text fills the page, running into the margins: if Weil’s claim that matter is obedience is to be taken seriously, then it is not Graham who desires, or finds, obedience, but the poem she writes. The text itself is matter, filling the emptiness of the page; the poem’s work is not in its content but its form. For Graham, material things, whether they include the infinite material possibility of the world or are limited to ink on a page, are a solution to the void. Materiality does not replace the void: the poet-figure is still left alone waiting for an answer from God and seeing only absence in its place. Instead, materiality reveals the void by showing everything that the void is not: the invisible is revealed by the visible. Overlord’s sometimes scathing reviews focus on the reduction of all that is within the world to the purely material. William Logan writes that: ‘Graham’s lack of any sense of proportion reduces the argument of Overlord to something like: "On the one hand, my kitty has AIDS; on the other, a whole lot of guys died on Omaha Beach”’ (Logan 2005). And yet it is in this equivalence that Graham approaches a Weilian ideal: what unifies all of this material is that it must be renounced. ‘Renunciation demands that we should pass through anguish equivalent to that which would be caused in reality by the loss of all loved beings and all possessions, including […] our opinions, beliefs concerning what is good, what is stable, etc.’ (Weil 1952: 31). The world is full of material things, and while they may lead towards the invisible, to the emptiness or even to a something, they must also be renounced and uncreated. Overlord is, in part, an attempt to catalogue the material things of the world in order to show how they are, in themselves, able to be renounced. In this renunciation, Graham is trying to show what it may be that the world really is.
For Graham, renunciation and decreation begin with an acknowledgement of all the material things in which the self is invested. Emptiness can only be found piecemeal, as each aspect of the material world is examined and renounced:
Listen: exclude yourself from the world, now, you can do
it, it is a practice. Say no to each part. Start with the right
hand, the left, the right eye, the left, no to the mouth. No no to the
chest – keep
going – cut it all away, put yourself away, speech away, hope away,
nothing – take yourself out of the prison – out of the organic – you are not
breathing now – eyes closed go on I will keep speaking you can trust
me – now,
is there a solution … (Graham 2005: 78)
In this poem, ‘Copy (Attacks on the Cities, 2000–2003)’ (Graham 2005: 74–79), Graham shows this ‘you’ how to escape from the world, how to allow the self to be formed as a void, how to uncreate the self. And yet this uncreation is predicated on the self of an other, the ‘I’ who keeps speaking, narrating the poem. Even as emptiness is revealed, as the self gives way to nothing, there is still a constant ‘I’: the voice which prays, which advises the self towards the void but cannot fully achieve it. Emptiness, the absence of god and the insufficiency of the material world all finally coalesce into, and are understood by, a constant ‘I’. Concerning Stevens, Miller writes: ‘merely to see being in things is not enough. Being must be spoken’ (Miller 1990: 48). Graham goes a step further to argue that those things which must be spoken require a speaker.
Being and emptiness must both be spoken, the created and the uncreated. The long lines, the repetition and the sheer wordiness of her work convey Graham’s desire to voice the possibility of all that is and all that is not. Graham’s work is thus one of incorporation, just as Carson’s is ultimately one of exclusion. Yet the two poets are working towards similar goals: the understanding of the decreated world, the charting of a world which has absence as its primary way of being. They both follow and invert Weil’s assertion that the world contains a ‘deifugal’ force – ‘Otherwise all would be God’ (Weil 1952: 28) – by charting all that remains when God is absent, whether it be emptiness or the fullness of material things. In their dual approach to the problem of the absence of God and the difficulty of the material, they represent a larger shift towards metaphysical questioning that has taken place over the past few years for poets of their generation. Even Mark Doty, one of the great modern poets of the physical world, now writes:
Materiality the impenetrable thing.
We don’t know what it is
other than untrustworthy –. (Doty 2005: 24)
If, as Critchley argues, ‘the dark metaphysical talk of the poet can momentarily focus the bewilderment to which most of us are wedded, and which passes for our inner life’ (Critchley 2005: 40), then the specific paradox that Carson, Doty, Graham and others are addressing must be seen as symptomatic of a general doubt concerning the role of the individual in relation to an absent god and an untrustworthy material world. We still pray, even when there is no one left to pray to; we still assert the independence of our selves, even when the self seems completely illusory; we still trust in the permanence of the physical world, even when all else points to the contrary. The ‘singular case’ of Simone Weil’s life and thought, yielding affirmations that are blindly at odds’ (Blanchot 1993: 106), now seems to be representative of the situation of the world.
To say, as Graham does, that poetry might somehow save the world seems an impossible claim. In her own work, though, Graham points to something else that poetry can do, something perhaps far more important than saving the world. She cites Auden’s claim that: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ (Graham 2003: 96). Auden is exactly right, if not in the way he intended: what poetry can do is reveal the imminent void or the emptiness at the centre of everyday life for what it is. Poetry, whether expressed in such extreme forms as the minimalism of Carson’s recent work or the maximalism of Graham’s, is the form best situated to decreate the visible world and to explain the world which has alrEady been decreated. It is only through the work of the imagination that the paradoxical nature of the world can be made clear. It is here that Weil’s use for, and influence on, modern poetry becomes clear. Weil introduces a view of the world in which truth is always concealed and yet the search for revelation is absolute, a world in which opposition is the only path to understanding. This is the worldview both Carson and Graham adopt.
Poetry reveals nothing, makes nothing happen, because it is still something. Both poets attempt to reveal a world in which all is questioned and nothing is answered. This is the world that Weil began to reveal, but it has begun to reach its fullness in a poetic movement dedicated to the metaphysical and to the paradox that Graham and Carson have, in their disparate ways, exemplified.
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