The Between and Finesse, with a note on Heaney

The concept ‘metaxu’ or ‘between’ is not a geometrical figure. We say ‘between finitude and the infinite,’ for example, as if they are to be classed together. There’s an asymmetry to be dealt with however beyond us such dealing may be.

Heaney’s poetry is full of such evanescent betweens, especially the late poetry. ‘A birch tree planted twenty years ago / Comes between the Irish Sea and me’ (‘In the Attic,’ from HUMAN CHAIN.)

That is, thinking the between requires finesse.

Heaney’s Poetry and the Saturated Midst of Human Being: a commentary on ‘Had I Not Been Awake.’


Heaney’s poems often celebrate ‘equipment’ (to use Heidegger’s word) in ‘thing poems’ that have a certain elusive luminous quality that some critics categorize as ‘sacred.’ This critical move changes the discussion and charges it with religious significance. Nothing wrong with that procedurally but in practice it often loses the experience of the poem. A poem always has a temporal structure and it can be a challenge to remain faithful to that.

‘Had I Not Been Awake’ (Human Chain 2010)
is scrupulously attentive to the temporal conditions of the subject. A wind hits the house and drives the poet from his bed where he was NOT sleeping. It’s as if the energy that tore the leaves from the sycamore also affected him. Indeed, ‘the whole of me a-patter’ borrows the language of the initial event. The poet’s ‘Wholeness’ seems to be at issue. The balance of the poem further specifies the nature of this wind-event. It’s like an animal, also a ‘courier.’

The looseness of the unfolding description seems intentionally casual, even slap-dash, but the point is made. The wind-event both was and was not ‘out of the ordinary.’ The moment of impact ‘lapsed ordinary.’ The awkwardness of the phrase stands out in the poem’s idiomatic, indeed ordinary conversational style.

The event which so ‘electrified’ the poet passed without further consequence. As a point in time it justifies no further reflection. There’s an energy in the negatives of the final stanza that point to an apophatic framing of the event. The physical effect on the poet is clearly caused by the event, but what caused the event? Despite the fact that its happening almost seemed dangerous, the poet is not inspired to further reflection.

Is Heaney reframing a Romantic moment in ‘post-modern’ terms. Is he self-consciously denying the relevance of religious categories with which to deepen our hermeneutics beyond fact?

I don’t know. What I do know is that the poem manages to elaborate on the event as it literally struck the poet physically. Even ‘returning like an animal to the house’ suggests the return of its awake self to somatic conditions: the danger of the whole physical show collapsing, condensed into a supercharge of energy coursing through the body, seems worth commemorating. Heaney’s lifelong devotion to the sensuous inscape of things now opens on new thresholds in the body, in the senses, in what Desmond calls ‘the senses of being.’ The moment provides insights—-in the body as well as the mind— into the superplus dimension of life itself. Religious categories themselves point to extreme perspectives on our human lives, but those categories have become confused and confusing. This ‘windfall’ itself illustrates the excess that characterizes the human ordinary. The between does not depend on conceptual determinations of the extremes —- there are as many betweens as there are ‘states of mind/body’ (here Heaney prudently blocks the standby ‘dream’-Between as cause of the event). The seeking of meaning in the event of this event is quickly (in living flesh) terminated by reason. Those powerful negatives tell a bigger story that is of only philosophical interest.

Now return to the title. Had I NOT been awake. What? The apophatic logic of the ‘negative’ in the title is a stroke of genius.

The Surplus of the Between, Paul Celan and Joyce


Translated by Susan H. Gillespie. Corona: Selected Poems of Paul Celan (2013)

Celan hated to be called a ‘hermetic’ poet. This late poem leaves no doubt of the source of difficulty: world and word are not transparent to each other but doubled. Or rather: everything in the world is doubled, which makes it illegible.

To paraphrase not once but twice.

Even time is doubled. The word time is rooted in the concept of splitting or cutting. Then there’s AM and PM. Is there something jarring about the sounding of the hour, dividing or cutting the flow of time?

The human self resists, rooted in its very selfhood, yet shakes free or is shaken free of its own-ness, dividing from its oneness in breaking (free) of the moment to leave itself once for all.

This narrative is a narrative of betweenness. The desire to understand is frustrated first by the illegibility then by the doubleness. Even time, which we may imagine as a unifying element, is doubled in consciousness, the ‘moment’ being understood on second thought as movement.

Finally, even the self splits up. Up is the good news. Forever is a sign of difference as an ontological principle.

Rather than hermetic perhaps Celan is a poet of the between. Commenting on Joyce’s Ulysses, Desmond addresses the problem of ‘surplus immediacy.’ Thinking and immediacy are opposed like the banks of a river. Joyce’s art tries to render the surplus immediacy of one day in Dublin. Affirming the occasion AND the surplus. (Between System and Poetics, 26 f).

Joyce and Celan, improbable doubles in the surplus immediacy of the between.

Lyric as a Way, with a Poem by Levertov


From ‘This Great Unknowing: Last Poems’

Levertov’s finesse is such that her lyric may accommodate multiple images of primal value. ‘Noblesse Oblige’ refers effortlessly/spontaneously to several traditions: Chinese, Greek, Romantic, phenomenological (that laughter). Her vision is transreligious and personal,
the images of a ‘primal ethos’ (Desmond) serving the narrative so essential to lyric: selving.

She makes it look easy. Selving this open to transcendence always verges on the absurd, on the nothing-version of the self’s permeability.

We need a myth of selving that doesn’t stop short of the final act of humility Levertov builds her lyric around and through. Since the self energetically defines itself through its will and technique, the lyric self must follow its dialectic to the brink of loss. This up/down paradox opens on the radical other that transcends the self (Levertov’s mountain). It opens on Plato/ Diotima’s myth of Eros as offspring of want and plenty. In Eros, plenty overwhelms the want. It passes through the nothing of pure presence. As Desmond points out (Gift of Beauty, 290), this passage through nothingness is not nothing, it is a way, ‘a making way.’ The space so traversed is the ‘primal porosity,’ ‘the universal impermanence, the ‘fertile void’ —- in a word, the metaxu. (Desmond’s verbal imagination is indeed fertile!).

The selving of the poet in the act of creation is an act of unselving that foregrounds what is already always there. Every good lyric however modest (let us praise poetic modesty) is a gratuitous act of self sacrifice that draws on the patterns of practice found in the most stringently selfless mystical apophatic ways. The poem is a gift. The presence of the fully charged poetic image may ‘double’ the religious image and this may cause the self to question its independence, always an unresolved issue for the sovereign self in Modernity.

Levertov’s gently ironic title suggests something of the cost of having worked through the selving and unselving process which is essential to lyric as a human way.

Nihilism and a poem by Milosz


Milosz writes from the abyss of the human self, confronting the voice of nihilism that calls into question ‘the calling of men.’ The phrase is double: the meaning of the human being AND the expressions of ‘men’ in light of the mystery of being.

Thinking in the between honors the differences; nihilism is a form of reductive rationalism. The poem as an expression of the between remains true to the question in its plurivocity. For Milosz the metaxical style expresses the central mystery of apophatic theism. ‘For Christ’s sake’ reorients the reader in the abyss of the question towards the religious horizon without crossing the line into idolatrous certainties. Finitude circumscribes faith.

Lyric and Agapeics, and a poem by Yeats


Does such a trivial moment — don’t say it didn’t happen —- deserve even a metrical exercise?
This jaundiced question, so full of resentments and aesthetic prejudice you might think nihilism and bad taste are connected.
The question observes the contingencies of the between—-the asymmetric relativities of actual experience. It is not answered. But it reasserts, in the careful build of meter and rhyme, the enduring and often depressing limits of communication between others. But through lyric’s equivocity— which is not mere relativism —- the ‘intimate universal’ of a porosity between the divine nothing and created creatureliness is itself acknowledged.

To wit: lyric witnesses the between as it has conceptually evolved in Modernity as a response to Nihilism and reductivism. . For the between— and lyric—equivocity means not meaninglessness but saturated understanding beyond system. ’Myth’ in Vico’s sense.

The lyric embodies moments of ontological worth and in that sense, outside further definitions of discipline (Zen, apophatic Christian prayer, and so on), claims its central place in culture.

The Idiotic Surd: two texts—one Desmond, one Issa


Among the current categories of poetics is the ‘surd.’ It goes easily — too easily— with nihilisms of various sorts. It suggests that ‘mystery’ by definition is absurd. So much for ‘myth.’ In opposition to absurdity as the ground of being, Desmond argues for a ‘fertile void,’
a charged field of possible meanings in which our being is embedded before any self-determination. This field is what he calls the ‘intimate universal.’ As a ‘sense’ of being, it is the first, the ‘idiotic.’ So: Not universal in the old sense of a cause from which all being(s) may be deduced , but ‘pre-‘ every determination. Myth and story ‘idiotically’ (as in village idiot) connect with this ‘deep background.’


To sum up: As we struggle free of the conceptual givens we confront the givens of experience, and even that category needs mindful attention. Call it the ‘surd’—-from absurd—- once again to escape nihilistic implications in favor of the ‘pre-subjective, the ‘universals’ embodied in myth and religion, folk tales and stories by masters such as Dickens, Pynchon, Gaiman and countless other idiots to whom we owe our sanity.

Like Issa.

Issa (a student of Basho famous for his delicately real insect haiku) writes:

From the Great Buddha’s
great nose, a swallow comes
gliding out

(Sam Hamill’s translation). The translator created a dot grid of hard ‘g’s’ from which the swallow ‘glides,’ the ‘humor’ being rooted in an intimacy of living things that predates/transcends even the statue of Buddha if not what it ‘refers’ to. It’s absurd and totally real and even sublime.

The idiotic poetics of this ‘intimate universal’ is explored in William Desmond’s The Intimate Universal (2016). The text above is from p 206).