Toad’s Metaxyturn

Poem by Norman MacCaig (from Wild Reckoning: an anthology provoked by Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’). A good example of metaxyturn. The final space of the poem is more than imaginary; it has an ethical, a religious force or pitch. The poem leads us to where we see.


Stop looking like a purse. How could a purse
squeeze under the rickety door and sit,
full of satisfaction, in a man’s house?

You clamber towards me on your four corners —
right hand, left foot, left hand, right foot.

I love you for being a toad,
for crawling like a Japanese wrestler,
and for not being frightened.

I put you in my purse hand, not shutting it,
and set you down outside directly under
every star.

A jewel in your head? Toad,
you’ve put one in mine,
a tiny radiance in a dark place.

Play It Again, Sam (What is Metaxyturn?)

Metaxyturn is a knotty term of art naming the moment when dialectic breaks down abandoning the self to the void. Depending on the self’s willingness to let the will cease willing, an opening happens through the grace of others. In a poem, Metaxyturn is a structural turning point. The poem itself, to this point a project of the self, suffers an aesthetic happening that is both closure and opening. This phenomenon is attested throughout our best commentaries. For Du Fu, see Francois Cheng, Chinese Poetic Writing (NYRB), 41. A long war poem ends with ambiguity: who is seeing this horror? The sufferer or the poet? The reader? Metaxyturn reorients the text toward the “open whole” beyond the text.

What is Metaxyturn?

Metaxy is an English word used by Simone Weil among others. It means ‘the between’ in distinction from the absolutes that point to the borders of experience: life and death, for example.

Metaxyturn is my neologism for the point when consciousness becomes aware of this space as distinct from the self; when the striving of the self to transcend its lack ceases because that lack has been answered from beyond the self. With Metaxyturn the ‘metaxy’ or ‘between’ becomes plurivocal being.

Paul Ricoeur (Time and Memory) defines our ‘first relationship’ to language in terms not of speech but of listening. He applies this to Augustine on ‘the return from error.’ Metaxyturn is the point in a text or dialogue when one’s speech dries up, autonomous consciousness becomes void, and we start to listen to the other and to each other.

What Is The Middle?

“The ‘middle’ is a synecdoche, implying the whole in one part, but somehow also greater than that whole because its power is in reserve, in that which is missing and has to be supplied by the viewer’s imagination.” Alison Milbank, Dante and the Victorians, 40, on Ruskin’s discussion of Turner’s dragon, only one coil shown to the viewer.

The suggestiveness or allusiveness of the concept of “middle” in aesthetics needs to be complemented by ontological analysis as in William Desmond’s works. But Milbank’s usage seems well informed of the larger issues, which only became widely discussed in the late 20th century.

A Way of Life

Poetry is a Spiritual Exercise

A scented candle
burns on the kitchen table.
Citrus, a little

light, but no music,
no narrative other than
the passage of time.

The scent is a plus,
enough perhaps to disrupt
routine abstractions.

The title alludes to Pierre Hadot’s argument that ancient philosophy is not only a meditation on truth but a “way of life.” I believe poetry draws on the same concerns. As a craft, poetry is an exercise that draws the poet through a sequence of formal steps; a poem ends not with the “truth” but with a reconfiguration of the original situation of the poem. This “form” as it emerges shifts perspectives until the form stands free. The techniques of poetry make up the discipline — comprise the exercise– that, borrowing from Hadot, become “a way of life” for the poet and readers of poetry.

John Burnside’s Endless Other World

In ‘Gift Songs’ (2007) and elsewhere Burnside depends on our intuition of a space of experience given to happenings as opposed to events explicable by knowledge. In ‘By Pittenweem’ we read: ‘a glint of light, or something like a cry/that might be nothing;/only the other world/unending, yet lost throughout time/in a circle of light…’ The space is articulated by a verse style both limpid and obscure, the energy in the phrasing discontinuous yet driven. There’s a kind of endlessness to Burnside’s project. I’m sure many readers lose patience. Patience is a key virtue in the metaxy! Wallace Stevens comes to mind to be dismissed as insufficiently conscious of the threshold of the self’s own dark wordless intimacies. This particular poem has an epigraph from Charles Wright about the endlessness of the other world.