Thursday, April 06, 2006

Physiognomy

One of Frank Bidart's poems from his new collection, Star Dust, has gotten under my skin. Well, not just one, there are others, but this one in particular:

The Poem is a Veil

V E I L,--as if silk that you in fury must thrust repeatedly
high at what the eye, your eye, naked cannot see

catches, clinging to its physiognomy.


This isn't necessarily a new idea--that of the work acting like a veil, although I can't quite remember where else I've read/heard it expressed. It sounds vaguely classical. In On the Sublime, Longinus writes, I believe, of the work acting as a veil between reality and truth, but he is speaking, I believe (again), of the veil acting as a curtain which must be drawn aside. I know that idea is expressed in Classical literature. It may be that I'm remembering Longinus' formulation of St. Paul's (? I am so lazy this morning and refuse to look things up) dictum, "now we see through a glass darkly, then, face to face."

OK--I've taken a short break to look through at least the underlining in my copy of On the Sublime, and I do not see underlined, at any rate, that passage that is later found in the Christian gospels--but I know it is either taken from Longinus, or taken from another Classical author. I do not have time to re-read Longinus this morning from start to finish.

At any rate, Bidart's poem certainly references the sublime--there is, even in this brief piece, a sense of transport, or a reference to transport in the thrusting of the veil at what one can in some way cogitate (is that a verb?), but not really see. This may not be the divine, but it is some approximation of a version of divinity. How's that for a complicated, 'let's edge away from certainty' kind of sentence? The word, 'fury', an emotional marker, also references the emotions bound up in sublimity.

'Fury' or 'furor', in fact, is the one emotion Plato finds valid in poetry--I think he specifically uses that word in Ion--the poet is filled with 'furor', which, for Plato is a vatic emotion--the poet calls forth an emotional stream, which emanates from him, barely controlled. Which is why the poet is, for Plato, dangerous. Longinus, as per my underlining and note jotting, seems to be attempting an apologia for Plato in On the Sublime. Frankly, Aristotle is emotionally cool, and the artist as maker, craftsman, in Aristotle is missing something--an emotional core. This is the missing piece supplied by Plato, albeit negatively.

Longinus makes the emotional, even the overly emotional, critical to the art of rhetoric: "I would affirm with confidence that there is no tone so lofty as that of genuine passion, in its right place, when it bursts out in a wild gust of mad enthusiasm and as it were fills the speaker's words with frenzy." Now there's an Ion moment for you. And what is the purpose of this loosing of the emotional floodgates? For Longinus, it is to approach the divine, or what Plato might have, alternatively, referred to as a higher truth: writers in the sublime style "nonetheless all rise above what is mortal; that all other qualities prove their possessors to be men, but sublimity raises them near the majesty of God" (Longinus).

So Longinus turns Plato on his head, making what is negative and unnecessary in the Platonic exegesis of literature and rhetoric the most positive and necessary of all things.

But, returning to Bidart, what does this "veil" mean or approximate? Who really knows for sure? It's not the veil-as-curtain that is pulled aside to reveal a truth. The veil in Bidart's poem, for me at least, is like the lightly controlled emotional outburst--that emotional bursting is what releases the veil, I think. The silk is thrust 'in fury'. And it is "thrust repeatedly / high". So there is this image of the silk streaming forth from the hands (the heart?) of the poet, but upward--and it is awfully hard to throw a silk upward. It is too light. But the result of this effort is to get at what "the eye, your eye, naked cannot see". To get at the unknown. But the unknown is never truly know, and Bidart captures that, because the veil is not drawn aside to reveal the truth, but clings to its topography and outlines--the veil remains in place--without it, one cannot 'see' the truth. Now we see through a glass darkly, then face to face.

I like also the little tic of "the eye, your eye". Throughout Star Dust, Bidart uses the pronoun "you" as both specific and general reference simultaneously. Is he speaking to me, or just over my shoulder at the general audience? That usage is one of the devices that gives the poems in the book a spooky and powerful aura. Here, Bidart is using 'you' correctively--it's not the general, it's the specific--but it's a momentary turn to the 'you' of the individual reader that is striking. In other places, the word oscillates more.

Final thoughts: after the rhetorical high style (think Milton, Shelley, but even Wordsworth, really--but that's another post) is put to rest in the twentieth century as inappropriate to the contemporary speaking voice, what remains of the sublime is, in large part, symbolism. The symbol acts as a veil between the known and the unknown. It is the species of metaphor that is the most open-ended. But is symbolism the only device we can use as a veil? Probably not. In reading through Daisy Fried's new book, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again, I note how her use of description is like a veil. The description is so precise, so clear, that it becomes revelatory. In seeing what we ordinarily see, by calling attention to it in all its detail, it becomes like the veil and we see through it or can sense under it the protuberances of higher truths. See especially, "Running while Screaming".

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