Cole Swensen's Goest: The Meaning of Meaninglessness
(Alice James Books, 2004)
“Wearing the white flower of a blameless life...”
In 1920 in an essay titled “Tradition and Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot wrote:
What happens is a continual surrender of [the writer] as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.
Further in the essay, Eliot sums this self-sacrifice and extinction of personality with the word “depersonalization:”
There remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science.
Literature followed Eliot's tastes. In the eighty-some years since, the ideas of depersonalization, extinction of personality and science have become complicated philosophical concepts that redefine poetry and fiction and can energize a slim volume of poems such as Cole Swensen's Goest into a mysterious human artifact with recharging epic implication.
The poems of Goest are like the Cantos of Ezra Pound in that they seek out the origins not of life but of ancestral life.
There are screens behind which
everything goes ancient
and born of these shades, contagious: they make us
more numerous in silence
[from “The Origin of Ombres Chinoises”]
The Cantos are lengthy. The poems in Swensen's book, as its title suggests, are fragmented and sketchy. They consist predominantly of white space. Like a ghost, they are hardly there.
Mapping wind back to anchor
in a harbor city
or farther, insisted,
the glorious fleet off Normandy, 1013
was led by birds on edge
[from “The Invention of the Weathervane’]
On the glossy cover of the book is a photograph of Christo's “Running Fence,” stretching mutely and singly along the open land, the way telephone poles or railroad tracks once did, into the distance in a sanctifying gesture that gives a precious relevance. The ghost of Swensen's poetry is an ineradicable specter, the Holy Ghost, a sobering and absorbing presence that appears and reappears, that asks questions for which the answers must be searched until they are found. The word “goest” also suggests “guest” and “coast.” In the parlance of the war in Iraq, “ghosts” are unaccounted-for prisoners. Like a ghost, Goest speaks in riddles.
Of people passing
on the other side of frosted glass,
a woman at the opera is talking in her sleep.
Once there was a man who sang in his sleep.
Four out of five living things are insects.
“Goest” is not “ghost” however. It is an antiquated King James second-person singular of the verb “to go”, as in “Go cat go” or “How goes it?” and “So it goes”. As I read, I tried to think of idiomatic uses of “go”. Some internet search engines have it on the enter button, implying “begin the search”. In a video that surfaced recently regarding the Srebrenica massacre, Serbian troops mocked six bound Islamic prisoners, shouting “Yalla, yalla” which means “Go, go” in Arabic, as if some omnipotent presence were in the words of the troops, beyond them, speaking to the victims in their moment of utter darkness. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows”. The ghosts know and will tell someone. (See also the ballet Giselle .) No matter what it seems like at the time, actions will be recorded (as those Serbian soldiers found out). Consequence, responsibility cannot be evaded. We “go” (or stop) because we have to give account in our lives.
Using Eliot's terminology, Swensen has extinguished her personality, has depersonalized herself into a ghost, one that defers to other people's actions, “going” toward a higher cause, “something which is more valuable”. The more ghostlike the better the author.
This, I think, is also the meaning of Swensen's purposely asymmetrical use of the word “white” in her book. Two of the three sections, the first and last, are titled “Of White” and “On White”. One poem is titled “White Cities”; another, somewhat unnecessarily, is “The Future of White”. Lines of the poems also contain this word. “There is a single, almost dazzling white spot of a white house out loud/ against the fields...” and “A white bird in a green forest is a danger to itself”. The word “white” of course has many common associations. I think white associates with pale or exceptional to mean risky. Also clean. A meaning not so well known is “full” or ready for harvest. It's a word used often in the Bible. In the second chapter of the book of Revelations are the lines,
...To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
But, in my view, it is not something specific but something larger and more thematic that Swensen is trying to describe with her references to white. It is this idea of depersonalization itself, of complicated scientific knowledge, of absence, selflessness, blankness, intellect. She does not want to romanticize the heroism or, perhaps, the prominence of the reality that she admires. She does not want to exaggerate the quality of its attractiveness and solidness. She desires a bleached stony impersonal hardness, leanness, secrecy, a limitation and restraint. She wants to say that this is a reality entirely worthy of comment for its being miraculously only a little more than nothing.
Derrida, in The Gift of Death, also takes up the idea of sacrificing oneself for something more valuable. For Derrida depersonalization becomes death. With reference to Biblical Abraham, Derrida speaks of “absolute responsibility” based on the fact that we have to make decisions that no one can make for us. This is similar to Existentialism. Depersonalization, death become paradoxically an expression of the self, the self denied, the self ruled by the self. Derrida argues that this self is an irreducible self and calls it, using the language of science, a singularity.
What's important in this to Goest and to all writing is that Derrida finds this self, this singularity at first antithetical to language, along with ethics. Says Derrida, “As soon as one speaks, as soon as one enters the medium of language, one loses that very singularity”. To speak, to discuss, to “disclose oneself”, to merge with the general is to vitiate absolute responsibility and betray depersonalization. It is to sacrifice involuntarily. For Derrida the writer's task is to find a way to come out of hiding, to use language within the bounds of duty. There is an abhorrence of argument. Perhaps in some sense the author must die and return as a ghost to the task of writing.
One form of self-sacrifice that definitely is found in Goest, one that Eliot would heartily approve, is the poet becoming more the humble scholar and the poetry historical prose. The second section of Swensen's book is titled “A History of the Incandescent”. Poems in this section have titles such as “The Invention of the Night-watch”, “The Invention of Streetlights”, “The First Lightbulb”, “The History of Artificial Ice”, “The Invention of the Hydrometer”.
“The Invention of Streetlights” begins
(the night has houses)
and the shadow of the fabulous
broken into handfuls--these
can be placed at regular intervals,
walking down streets at times eclipsed by trees
In terms of style, the poetry in Goest reminds me of Larry Eigner, each word considered, crafted with a care that is itself part of the writing's message. The poems are insightfully written, remarkably well written. Though the collection is not long and each page is mostly white space, there is still a lot in the writing, imaginatively intermingled. The poetry is different from Eigner in that it is based not on observation of natural settings but on reading and study. Its purpose, particularly in the second section, is to convey not a sense of the momentary but of that unique span of time that has elapsed from the beginning of recorded history until today. This isn't an easy task and Swensen exhibits her abilities by tackling it at a high level of difficulty. The sixteen-line poem “The New World” begins:
or an obsidian strain.
They had others made of Inca stone
said by Ulloa to have been
blue and crossed by veins
that take no polish, that break
in sequence or pyrite
sometimes called the stone of health
The knowledge in this poem and others is symbolic. Swensen gives a sense of family-of-man progress epoch by epoch, elliptical, “as accidental as it is inevitable”. She points to the virtues that stand out. Like the Cantos , she describes the process of its occurring, the elements that interact, how it works.
the war: this is how
we got here, this
this living wall with all its doorknobs on.
and a couple red lines you
can’t quite read
They say “Rome”...
[from “The Future of White”]
The last poem of the book makes reference to a wedding. Titled “Five”, it reads,
There’s a wedding in a field I am passing in a train
in the green air, in the white air, an emptier here
the field is everywhere
because it looks like something similar somewhere else.
In the context of U.S.A. 2005 referring to a wedding brings, to my mind anyway, reference to “gay marriage”. To the orthodox religious viewpoint so-called gay marriage is unacceptable, a violation. But, from another, I would say, more disinterested point of view, from the point of view of science, of “singularities” and I think of Goest , gay marriage reveals something about the nature of marriage itself. The point of Goest is, in my view, this: It takes the qualities of writing brought forth in the 1920s and shows that these are not really qualities of writing but of nature. Goest gives us the nature that is associated with civilization or civilization from an historical standpoint. This is the meaning of depersonalization, self-sacrifice, self-restraint, “white”, “artificial”, stones, law, emptiness, “absolute responsibility”, knowledge, decision. They are not so much rules that we must follow but qualities in what we observe. How can we define a wedding (and the reality of its consequence) or anything associated with human life on earth as “natural” when the laws of these strangely prominent, simple yet complicated, sentimental yet dispassionate and important entities originate somewhere beyond our ability to conceptualize. The term “singularity”, taken from science, refers to the “time” before the birth of the universe. What it is said to mean is a time when there were no natural laws as we know them or nothing physical that we are familiar with at present. So that seeing the reality that we see we cannot really speak of natural laws, that is, the way reality works. We can only speak, with “fear and trembling”, of certain qualities that we observe at present. There is only one history of mankind about which we know very little. In speaking about it we must admit an element of gratuitousness and arbitrariness perhaps not in it but in our understanding of it. Derrida goes so far as to use the word “axiomatic”. Our ability to value reality derives from our awareness of it, the special significance we give to it in our lives, without knowing completely why.
Language too has this sense of being autonomous, sheer convention, unnatural. But we've known that for a long time. What we haven't been able to do is to “enter the medium of language” on certain subjects, such as God himself, in a way that appreciates our lack of knowledge; we have not been able to speak in a way that is literary, objective, interesting, appropriate. (“...the God of Abraham defined as the one and unique...” Derrida) Goest, way out there, begins to give a sense not of the substance of what we know or think we know but of the justification humanity can derive from vast emptiness and ignorance.