Religious language leans on the apophatic, on the idea that cosmic reality might elude our words. ‘We live on a little island of the articulable,’ writes the Christian novelist Marilynne Robinson, ‘which we tend to mistake for reality itself.’ Gilead, her second book, is narrated by Rev. Ames, a dying churchman writing a long letter to his young son. ‘There is a reality in blessing,’ says Ames, ‘it doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that…’ To bless is to acknowledge the inarticulable. It’s an idea Brenda Shaughnessy alludes to; she rarely writes in a way that might be described as religious, but ‘Artless’ shares with older religious poetry a mode of describing an annexed reality. Her ‘no marvel, no harvest’ echoes Herbert’s ‘The Collar’:
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
The inarticulable ‘what I have lost’ is gone forever, as are the means of retrieving it. This gesture towards the lost thing has been developed, by later poets, into a peculiar kind of candid speech. Czesław Miłosz does this particularly well in ‘Elegy for N.N’:
We learned so much, this you know well:
how gradually, what could not be taken away
is taken. People, countrysides.
There’s a promise of simplicity, but our one certainty (that something ‘could not be taken away’) is soon destroyed. Like Shaughnessy, Miłosz is not writing religiously, though his allusion to epistemological Fall and his destroyed apophatism show him to be writing in that tradition.
‘Artless’ begins with a kindred promise of simplicity; it’s delivered with the energy of clipped and short lines:
No poetry. Plain. No
fresh special recipe
This will not be new, this poem, this heart – it won’t need acknowledging. The first line-break complicates the sentiment a little by depriving the second line of its negative. Momentarily it seems that this second ‘no’ might herald a change of heart and be negating the words before it. But the momentum of the sentence wins: there will be no fresh special recipe. Despite the certainty of the opening statements (‘Artless // is my heart. A stranger / berry there never was’), this, too, is a poem obsessed with the apophatic – what exists is often suggested by describing what there is not (roofless; meatless; senseless; there was not a stranger berry). How else to describe an unfamiliar heart, a heart suddenly a stranger?
I think of ‘recipe’, which in this case could be ‘poetry’ – there’s a ’t’ missing but otherwise the two form a kind of ‘rhyme as anagram’. The poem is figured as a list of ingredients which might make up a distant cake, a far-off reward. If to bless is, as Robinson’s Ames suggests, to acknowledge an inarticulable reality, then to withhold blessing is to deny that alternate reality. There has been no poetry, no attempt to describe anything ‘beyond the little island of the articulable’. It’s what Stanley Cavell calls ‘a fantasy of necessary inexpressiveness’, an attempt to keep oneself to oneself and to keep things as they are.
Even so, the whole poem plays a steady game of acoustic unsteadiness. Most of it doesn’t need pointing out, syllables swap partners and shift: ‘sun’ to ‘sunroom’ to ‘moonroof’ to ‘roofless’ in stanza two. Is this the right sound, is this the right sound? The movement is powered by something just short of anxiety, a kind of lolloping sonic dissatisfaction that seems neither comfortable nor in a hurry. Sometimes it tightens to claustrophobia:
That loud hub of us,
meat stub of us, beating us
‘Senseless’ might make anyone wince here; pitting ‘less’ against ‘us’. The excess ‘us’, ‘hub’, ‘stub’, ‘meat’, ‘beat’; repetition becomes a weird kind of avoidance, a refusal to move on. It’s an articulate inarticulacy – rather than simplicity and acknowledgement of cosmic law we have avoidance, chatter, excess utterance. Incantation, almost.
The landscape is important: the element of dream-like fantasy involved plays a crucial part in the work this poem does of suggesting an elsewhere (as does the collection as a whole). Yet the other time and place is always half-denied. The heart is a berry, which might be pleasant, were it not gone sour. The moonroof sounds delightful…but it’s roofless? And then:
All I’ve ever made
with these hands
and life, less
substance, more rind.
Mostly rim and trim,
but making much smoke
in the old smokehouse,
Fatted from the day,
overripe and even
toxic at eve.
Notice how ‘lifeless’ is so neatly admitted to the poem, though denied. There’s a lot of Geoffrey Hill’s ‘September Song’ in this landscape (‘September fattens on vines. Roses / flake from the wall. The smoke / of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.’) ‘September Song’ is another poem that questions the strength of poetry in the face of grief, although its canvas is larger and it invokes a larger atrocity rather than a personal tragedy. Hill’s wry ‘(I have made / an elegy for myself, it / is true)’ turns to Shaughnessy’s parenthetic equivalent ‘(a lesser / way of saying)’.
Occasionally the sound patterning evens out a little, the vowels are all gently and rhythmically repeated and things seem calmer:
No marvel, no harvest
left me speechless,
yet I find myself
somehow with heart,
It’s unclear whether the speaker is speechless or not. Nothing happened to kill speech, and yet the heart remains present. It’s one of those formulae that runs ‘I’m not stupid, yet I fail exams’, or ‘I’m not wealthy, yet I keep buying champagne’. The ‘yet’ sets up an equation in which being ‘speechless’ is the same as being ‘somehow with heart, aloneless’; being speechless is something one might expect to be as a condition of being ‘with heart’. If we read ‘heart’ as shorthand for emotion, or for depth of feeling, then to be ‘speechless’ is to feel things too strongly. The ‘heart’, though, is not the heart but with heart – to find oneself somehow with heart could be to find oneself somehow courageous, and not alone. Is it possible that the speaker is not speechless, and ‘yet’ still somehow brave? As though being capable of speech were a form of cowardice, and silence a form of strength. Later in the poem, speech is described with the maddest example of the apophatic in the whole Shaughnessy oeuvre: ‘silencelessness’. The heart is:
Spectacular in its way,
its way of not seeing,
but in everydayness.
In that hopeful haunting
way of saying
in darkness) there is
for the pressing question.
‘That hopeful haunting’ is the attempt to speak, not just straightforward speech but a way of saying, a lesser way of saying, and one wrapped in parentheses. Is that poetry?
The heart is eye-catching in its way of not seeing, days cease to exist. Shaughnessy’s ‘everydayness’ complicates the idea of silence, or ‘silencelessness’. Maurice Blanchot obsessively tries to define something he calls ‘the everyday’ or ‘everydayness’ in The Infinite Conversation, writing that ‘the everyday’ is ‘a silence…that we hear better in idle chatter, in the unspeaking speech that is the soft human murmuring in us and around us.’ Is this poem, with its chattering revisions and repetitions, the sound of the ‘everyday’? Blanchot has another striking passage:
…the everyday escapes. That is its definition. If we seek it through knowledge we cannot help but miss it, for it belongs to a region where there is still nothing to know, just as it is prior to all relation inasmuch as it has always already been said even while remaining unformulated, that is to say, not yet information.
Thinking back to Robinson’s idea of blessing as acknowledging the inarticulable, and this poem’s early refusal to do that, I wonder if the whole poem exists in some terrible space between totally giving up on the attempt to say something on the one hand, and recreating something comforting and safe on the other.
The poem folds in on itself, shifts into a formal question and closes with something that stops just short of being too neat, too twee. It defends itself from being taken too seriously with an archaic question (‘Heart, what art you?’) before going on:
playing a part, staying apart
from the one who loves,
Elizabeth Bishop, at the end of ‘One Art’, similarly interrupts her own poem. Shaughnessy’s question probes the worthiness of poetry (signaled by the botched archaisms) as a mode for exploring this kind of ‘disaster’. Bishop takes things the opposite way and draws attention to her own failed attempt to use poetry as anything other than denial, followed by disclosure.
If Bishop claims in ‘One Art’ that ‘the art of losing isn’t hard to master’ then Shaughnessy’s ‘Artless’ seems a direct refutation of this mode of processing loss. Bishop exercises her structural repetitions as a way of increasing conviction; Shaughnessy’s repetitions are stasis. Both, really, are evasion. While Bishop’s poem comes round to contradict her opening lines (‘loss is no disaster’ becomes its opposite) Shaughnessy’s ending moves in the opposite direction. The heart is suddenly graced with intent and agency, it is both ‘playing a part’ and ‘staying apart’ from the loved one, and there’s a suggestion that this realization might lead to somewhere better, beyond the poem.