Hold Fast to the Promise

"Wall," 2011

"Wall," 2011

Charles (Darwin) believed intensely that no one of them could have played so consistently urgent a role without the warm affection and steadfast support and devotion of the others. The intensity of their feelings could properly be called love. They had fought for each other, valiantly, sometimes when it was not merely inconvenient but dangerous. Yet never did they fight each other, indulge in jealousy, envy or spite. There was not a destructive bone in their corporate body.
— Irving Stone

Dear Friends,

The above quote is taken from very near the end of Irving Stone's biographical novel The Origin (1980). In the context of Stone's narration of Charles Darwin's life, the passage is fitting enough—Darwin had a number of exceedingly close colleagues with whom he shared interests and ideas, experiments and speculations, and this feels familiar, somehow. But how, exactly? Is it familiar today? Is it not extraordinary, to work at one's dreams with the encouragement of one's peers?

In his short autobiography, Darwin touched on what personal characteristics he figured had enabled him to accomplish so much in the course of his life:

My success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these the most important have been—the love of science—unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject—industry in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that thus I should have influenced to a considerable extend the beliefs of scientific persons on some important points.

Those virtues which follow love in Darwin's self-evaluation can be seen as constituents of love: patience, reflection, hard work, remembrance, invention, common sense. Each quality is deep and rewarding; and Darwin's calling them "moderate abilities" is at once a nod towards humility and towards the incredible power of moderation, which carries the suggestion of facilitation, cooperation and community. (The idea of "keeping within due measure" stems from the Latin modus, "measure," which carries with it notions of rhythm, song, and style.) This brings us back to the so-called "corporate body" of Darwin's immediate contemporaries.

I'm trying to talk about the importance of silence, about forgiving ourselves for all the noise we make. Friends afford and ensure one another silence and forgiveness alike. In The Origin Stone wrote about a number of occasions in which the competition of science put friendships under great strain. Anyone who has been in a classroom (perhaps especially an MFA writing workshop) will understand when I say that sometimes it feels like we're all just trying to figure out what it means to be a part of something. David Mutschlecner's notion of "radical contingency" comes to mind over and over again.

I hope you'll forgive me for (adding that I'm) having trouble integrating all the different profound points of interest that have brought me to this place, this feeling of deep undying respect (awe? fear?) for silence, for the space between. I like the community Robert Hass assumed/invited when he said (in one of Pearl London's workshops at the New School, 1977): "Of course, setting out consciously to write about anything, I'm sure you all know, does absolutely no good." Is it the "consciously" part that gets in the way? Or is it the writing, the codification, the record-keeping? Or perhaps it's the standard, the idea of doing "good"?

While visiting David (Mutschlecner) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Indigo, he handed us a copy of Allison Cobb's After We All Died (Ahsahta Press, 2016). The first official piece/poem in the collection is called "I forgive you," and in it Cobb addresses the human body in all its concrete, utilitarian particulars. The poem is simultaneously life-giving and life-halting; Cobb spreads out the body's gruesome particulars (on the page) with the tactical comprehension of a surgeon and the total compassion of a poet. That each sentence begins with the words "I forgive you" is hard to believe, hard to deny, hard to stomach. There we are/one is, lovingly mutilated, available for viewing, offered up like a sacrifice. Here I begin to comprehend the tragedy that Cobb so doubtlessly perceives.

The other night we watched Before the Flood, Leonardo DiCaprio's harrowing summary of climate change; semi-consciously, I begin to search for respite from the knowledge that our species is disastrous. (I turn to J. K. Rowling's latest, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, only to find the poetry that is the truth: Here, this place, this moment in time, is both wondrous and awful. Families suffer and heal. Friendships form, fail, and form again.) Anne Carson gives this sense of disaster some artistic context. Here is an excerpt from her recent book/anthology Float (Knopf, 2016), specifically the chapbook "Variations on the Right to Remain Silent":

I say catastrophe is an answer because I believe cliché is a question. We resort to cliché because it’s easier than trying to make up something new. Implicit in it is the question, Don’t we already know what we think about this? Don’t we have a formula we can use for this? Can’t I just send an electronic greeting card or Photoshop a picture of what it was like rather than trying to come up with an original drawing?

Carson is talking about Joan of Arc, how Joan rages against cliché, a language convinced of itself. "Had silence been a possibility for her," Carson continues, "Joan would not have ended up in the fires. But the inquisitors' method was to reduce everything she had said to twelve charges in their Latin language and their own wording. That is to say, their story of her solidified as the fact of the matter." This is the screen through which the inquisitors' "[see] the world without looking at it" (re: Francis Bacon, "I don't only see you, I see a whole emanation..."); it conceals tremendous violence.


Here is Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets (Phoenix, 1998) speaking to the beginnings of poetry in the English language (c. 1300), with reference to the influence of Latin: "In such polyglot churches, where shreds of paganism survived in elaborate ceremonial, the children who were to be poets learned that things could be said in quite different languages, and that the language they spoke at home or in the lanes always came last. They learned that there were parallel worlds, the stable Latin world of the paintings, windows, statues, and the world in which they lived, where plagues and huge winds and wars erased the deeds of men. Obviously the earth was a place of trial, hardship, and preparation."


Darwin observed and acknowledged this violence in his study of species and theory of natural selection: "We do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects and seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life." Vicente Huidobro's Altazor, writes Octavio Paz, "subjects language to violent or erotic acts: mutilations and divisions, copulations and juxtapositions." Nikos Kazantzakis writes in "The Second Duty" of The Saviors of God:

Yes, the purpose of Earth is not life, it is not man. Earth has existed without these, and it will live on without them. They are but the ephemeral sparks of its violent whirling.

I never know where I'm going in this language, these marks and sounds, this flex and breath. It would seem a dangerous uncertainty; it can be terrifying, beautiful, frustrating, overwhelming. Quite obviously, this essay doesn't properly address the profound variety of contributions by poets and artists and scientists to our awareness—perception and communication—of violence, of the work (on and beyond this planet) that is left to be done and undone. (Stars also live and die.) However, it is some consolation to say that poets, artists, and scientists make works available to our hearts and minds that we might somehow embrace the catastrophic (in)sides of ourselves.

Yours in the many ways,

— Joe