by G.C. Waldrep on July 29th, 2013
(Dan Beachy-Quick’s paper from our 2013 AWP Arcadia Project panel)
It looks out and it looks backward, back through its own looking, the pastoral eye. This vision, teleological and etiological at once, reaching towards limits it wants to resist, reaching down toward roots it wants to pulls up, marks for me the basic motions of the pastoral art as I’ve found myself practicing it–mostly unintentionally, finding myself caught in the tow of imagination’s own necessity–over the past many years. But rather than investigate pastoral so as to make a claim, part phenomenological and part aesthetic, rather than risk articulating it, cutting it into its component parts only to hope it can be stitched back together again, I’d like merely to do what feels most caring–as I also see the pastoral as a primary mode of poetic care–to take a survey, so to speak, to walk along the edges of my thinking, these pastoral edges, and describe some of what I see.
1. The Soul Seeks an Erotic Ground
I’ve come to take very seriously the somewhat absurd rendition Socrates offer Phaedrus when, retracting his earlier speech praising the non-lover over the lover, he tells him of the nature of the soul. The soul, he says, is tri-partite. He offers a metaphor. It is like a charioteer driving two horses, one of noble breed and fluent in the driver’s commands, and one bad, always struggling to resist the directions imparted to him. In this vision, the soul is winged, and the chariot flies through the heavens where the Forms exist, following the path of the god whose nature this soul most partakes of, as a poet might be among Apollo’s train, but so many souls are flying about, some in astonishing order, flying in harmony, and others in astonishing disarray, careening into others, and knocking off their wings.
It is this unwinged soul, such a soul’s descent, that feels of most interest to me. Such a soul is hard to control, as the willful horse pulls against the driver’s wish for order, the wish to return to ideal truth. The dark horse pulls downward toward a ground that does not yet exist, a ground that begins to form–so I imagine it–when the soul, through the senses of this dark horse, comes across someone he finds beautiful. At the sight of this person’s beauty the dark horse pulls so hard the charioteer must draw back on the reins with such strength that the bit bloodies the mouth, so hard he pulls both horses over. But the dark horse is relentless, forcing the others to near what he finds so irresistible, so near that the other parts of the soul also see this beauty; they see how in it there is some vestige of what in those pure heights they once saw, and the driver pulls back less hard on the reins, and the soul nears what fascinates it.
In some sense, this nearing beauty, the tension that is simultaneously erotic and epistemological, of sense and of soul, creates the very ground upon which this approach can occur. It is a ground riddled with fault. In fault it finds splendor. This ground, this field, this sudden acre, it forms between two opposed realities, between the Ideal and the Actual. I might say the flowers reach up toward the world that is denied by the world toward which the roots reach down. Far more than the object of beauty itself, I think of the pastoral as providing the ground upon which the difficulty of beauty can be encountered, can be suffered, for beauty seems to confound within itself the very contradictions that mark this meadow on which we find ourselves uneasily landed, this meadow, as Duncan describes the same, “that is a made place,” where “the shadows that are forms fall.” Here it is the shadows gain substance and breathe, in their beauty breathe, a place more than real and less than real, this rootless ground in which the mind takes root, hovering there in nothing, between Truth and reality, belonging to neither for being claimed by both.
II. Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego
Three men and a woman wander through Arcadia, all shepherds, and find on a rise a large gravestone, face weathered by age. One shepherd leans on the stone looking down as his friend runs his finger along the words etched into the stone. He touches those letters as if he tracing their shape reveals nothing of their sense, and there is the first sign Arcadia introduces me too, a kind of pun, or stranger, a kind of “un,” in which what words there are forms of absence that mark absence, that mark absence as present, as the letter is formed by the absence of stone. The third man looks down and watching his friend touch the incoherent letters looks back and up at the woman, finger pointing at the stone but not touching it, as if asking her to look and explain it, as if she has what none of them do, that she knows how to read the signs. But she won’t look. She looks down at the ground, a look of old called aidos, a look of shamefastness marked by the lowering of the lid over the eye, as if what is known is not to be known, as if one should know and also not know what one knows, and so she looks down, looks down, as is she sees in the ground some hole, not the open grave, but worse, a hole in the ground that is a hole in the canvas, a hole that doesn’t simply break the ground, but pierces it open to nothingness. Or is it just slightly different? She looks down and sees the edge, the very edge where Arcadia ends.
But perhaps her sense of shame offers us another instruction. Maybe it’s more than this warning that even in Arcadia death exists, that even here, death says “I am.” Arcadia asks us to doubt something hard to doubt, to dismantle something we assume isn’t merely a construct: self, the self-same, this one I mean when I say I. In ancient Greece, “I” was a word found on gravestones. The linguist Daniel Heller-Roazen writes:
The first person of the memorial object, from this perspective, appears as a purely written phenomenon. It constitutes the sign not of a living being but of its absence, and only as such can it mark the decease of the one it commemorates. Svenbro recalled, in this context, the etymological account of the first-person pronoun once proposed by Karl Brugmann, according to which the Greek ego, as well as its Indo-European relations, derives from a neuter noun, meaning simply, “hereness”: originally, “I” would signify the insubstantial being of whatever can be indicated as “here,” be it animate or inanimate, human or inhuman, its expression spoken or written.
Here I lie. I don’t mean me. It meant a word that spoke of me, and not as a person, not as an identity, but as a location. I locate myself as this very point, that in death is a point of absence. If Poussin’s painting does mark Arcadia’s edge, then it must mark the point at which it begins, and not simply where it ends. And perhaps our entrance into Arcadia requires of us a certain burial, a burial of what in me says I, the self-same me where who I am is reducible to the experience of my life, to what I feel and what I think, but what I feel and what I think were just the ways in which the world etched onto me a damage that allows me to say “I.” What happens when we bury that damage and walk into the field? What if I no longer can say I hurt in just this way but bury the whole harm and walk away? Do I multiply? Do I find that who I am are three men a woman all shepherds? That the image of my soul is quaternary? Not a charioteer and two horses, but those very figures in Et in Arcadia Ego, all four of them, three who cannot read and a fourth who will not look at the letters because, perhaps, she still can.
III. an eternal pasture folded in all thought
What can a field teach us about desire? Keats suggestS we put away the ease of that erotic primer, the “birds and the bees,” and reconfigure how it is we imagine our imagination:
It has been an old Comparison for our urging on–the Bee Hive–however, it seems to me that we should rather be the flower than the Bee, for it is a false notion that more is gained by receiving than giving. No, the receiver and the giver are equal in their benefits. The flower, I doubt not, receives a fair guerdon from the Bee. Its leaves blush deeper in the next spring, and who shall say between Man and Woman which is the most delighted? Now it is more noble to sit like Jove than to fly like Mercury. Let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at; but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive, budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favors us with a visit.
Imagination here alters, here in Arcadia. It is no longer than construction which takes what is and in some dissatisfaction plumes the mind with that which isn’t. Like the eye that open receives what enters it, this Arcadian imagination is likewise open, radical most in its passivity, its “diligent indolence” a quality erotic in that it depends upon another to complete itself, a quality creative because the whole field depends upon each flower, each eye or each mind, not a plan or a system, something even less than, and so better than, hope, to remain open, budding into patience.
It is into such a meadow I imagine Robert Duncan returning to when he is permitted. To be “permitted” implies some permission has been asked or something has been offered, and simple rite of initiation, some gift or some sacrifice. Ask the shepherds before the grave what I must offer, and in the asking itself, I cease to by anything more than a “hereness,” not a wanderer through a field, but a field that through a field wanders. That ground, as Duncan gives it to us, is one of subtle paradox, one in which the relationship between the given and the made finds itself reversed, and the made-thing is the given, the pre-existing, the eternal. The mind, the flower-like mind, is given the scene it also makes up, “that is not mine, but is a made place // that is mine, it is so near to the heart.” Curious how the mind dislodged from the seat of its reason offers to the heart the field it finds folded within thought, and nearing the heart, the field, made-place, becomes mine. The mind here seems circulatory, of the blood, and thought a kind of spirit or pneuma in the oldest sense, breeze-like bearing on it what it may chance to carry, all the made-things, given to the mind when the mind is something other than merely “mine.”
In the field the poet is a techne, a maker, and the poem is poema, the made-thing. I am a location called here, anonymous, one and many, as is the ancient Chorus. That word, too, is of this ground, moving back through its etymology past the dancing singers it names to the ground on which the singing dance occurs. Tracing that motion gives to my mind the made-thing of pastoral thought, not the song, but the ground on which the song occurs, and the foot there that dances, and the voice there that sings, is mine and not-mine, one and many.
I could not stop my hands clapping. I clapped
And clapped. I clapped as in the dirt the bird collapsed,
As worms grew wings, I clapped.
A man stood in a river balancing
A grape on his lips. His tears fell in the current
Swept them away. He kept performing
His trick: grape hovering over the hole
Of his open mouth and never dropping in.
I clapped and I could not stop
My hands from wanting to cover my mouth
But they would not. They clapped
And I listened to them clap–a noise
That if there were woods would echo in
The woods. But there were no woods
I could see. Only a man. Twigs in his hair.
Bent over the water where the water stood
Most still. A tree fell in the woods–
He kept speaking to his own face–
Is true if and only if a tree fell in the
Woods is true if and only if–
He kept speaking to his face in the water
As I clapped, applauding the logic
That needed no belief. Like the shadows
Of bird’s wings, the shadows of my hands
On the ground. If there were birds
I could believe in
the birds so I let myself look up.
One bird kept exploding in the sky.
One flower kept dying. Isn’t it happy? a child asked,
Everything eating the sun? Isn’t it
Happy? Isn’t it–she asked, laying down
On her back in the grass–happy?
Everything eating the sun? Isn’t it–
V. The apple in the tree
Anne Carson notes that “in a certain usage in Homer, . . . epic diction has the same verb (mnaomai) for ‘to be mindful, to have in mind, to direct someone’s attention to’ and ‘to woo, court, be a suitor.” Not knowing Ancient Greek myself, I cannot say with any genuine knowledge that the same verb is at work in lyric poetry, nor the version of lyric that unfolds in the pastoral. But I can say with necessary uncertainty, that it feels true to me: that in this meadow we’ve entered, in Arcadia, to think and to desire are one and the same thing, and we find the grass weaves together as a bound that “holds against chaos.” It may be that the grass is rooted in that chaos it resists, not a fact exactly, but a poetic logic that understands the work of imagination unfurls for us the leaves of an erotic epistemology.
Walk long enough in Arcadia and you’ll find this tree. Sappho describes it: “as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch / high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot– / no, not forgot: were unable to reach” . . .
The pastoral mind has, I suspect, a curious relation to the beauty of the unattainable, the desire of thinking’s reach. It undoes the ground back to chaos, and then rewrites it; and in the reformed field, should one be permitted to enter, the apple is at hand, the sweetapple on the highest branch, not because the tree has been cut down or the branches climbed, but because the ground itself is nearer the object of the heart’s thought and the mind’s desire.