from Poetics.ca #5...

The Mimetic Music of Negation: The Imitation of Wallace Stevens in Robert Bringhurst's "Hachadura"

Mimetic [/m¹΄me:tik]: adjective 1. relating to or habitually practising mimesis or mimicry.

Introduction

In the introduction to "Hachadura," Robert Bringhurst, having admitted to filching many of his motives from the American poet Wallace Stevens, asks an interesting question: "What . . . does the ghost of Wallace Stevens, in his comfortable apartments, have to do with the bitter fate of human beings in a village in Ahuachapan?" He answers with lines from "Nuances on a Theme by Williams:"

Lend no part to any humanity that suffuses
You in its own light
and continues, reversing the order of the poem:
Shine alone, shine nakedly, shine like bronze,
That reflects neither my face nor any inner part
Of my being, shine like fire, that mirrors nothing.

– Stevens quoted in Bringhurst’s Introduction to "Hachadura"

I’d like to think about this theft, to consider the question Bringhurst asks, and to look a little more deeply into Stevens’ work to find the imitative traces of his ghost in Bringhurst’s overarching theme of negation. To filch is to furtively steal something of little value; this may explain why Bringhurst’s introduction appears in only one version of the poem, the one published in The Beauty of the Weapons (it is not particularly furtive to explicate sleight of hand). The low value implied by filching suggests that Bringhurst may have an ambivalent stance toward Stevens’ particular view of negation. Yet, the stolen lines, metaphors and tones have found their way into Bringhurst’s text. I suggest that Bringhurst had deeper motives for his theft, and more profound insights into the peculiar value of Wallace Stevens’ sometimes remote sensibility. Wallace Stevens provided Robert Bringhurst with a model both for the poetry of negation and for an embodied poetics that asserts the dialectical music of being. But Bringhurst found Stevens’ poetics insufficiently grounded in the presence of things in themselves. By imitating and revising Stevens’ poetics, Bringhurst gives embodied language to the human aptitude for violence in a poetry that is sharp, clear and unadorned.

Hachadura and Negation

"Hachadura" nominally concerns a village in El Salvador where "the cultures of the old worlds have mingled as thoroughly as anywhere, [and] even the simplest forms of human harmony seemed hopeless to maintain." After identifying his preoccupations with the reproducibility of violence, he questions his own motivations: "How can a man make music in the face of these preoccupations?" His affirmative answer deserves reflection: "How, given the chance, can he do otherwise." The chance Bringhurst refers to may come from the fact that he was a resident of El Salvador before the violence began. Having been in a position to recall a moment of human harmony, it may be that Bringhurst felt the need to give voice to negation’s discordant forces.

Reflecting on the ontology of negation, Jean-Paul Sartre writes about a gunner who must choose between whom he wants to kill – those whose being will be translated to nonbeing – and whom he wants to defend – those whose being he affirms and sustains by his choice: "man is the only being by whom a destruction can be accomplished." This destructive force informs the shifting imagery of presence and absence in "Hachadura." In section I, we read:

There is a nothing like the razor
edge of air, another

like the tongued pebbles, syllables
of sea-wind and sea-color and

another and another like the salt
hide drying inward

Bringhurst presents us with a series of nothings that bear contemplation: the nothing of the edge of the air at the elemental boundary of earth (pebbles) and water (sea). To give a trope to nothing is, in some sense, to deny it by throwing substance upon it. Bringhurst introduces a key theme that will recur throughout the poem: the opposition between a productive (sea and land) nothingness that is troped with the organs of speech and a dry, unproductive nothingness troped with the flayed or otherwise disembodied flesh of the body (hide). The phrase "there is a nothing" is yanked directly from Stevens’ work. Bringhurst continues to conceptualize and embody negation with abstractions and the imagery of flesh:

There is a point at which
meridians are knotted
into nothing and a region
into which meridians fray and intertwine,
but not like mooring lines; they
fray like the leading and trailing edges
of wings, running from nothingness
to muscle and strung from the muscle back again.

– Bringhurst, "Hachadura"

Bringhurst perceives of negation as an action between aspects of being. He represents it as a process of becoming, a transformation between states located at what appear to be the permeable boundary between the meridians and the almost mathematical point at which they knot "into nothing."

In an unconcealed reference to "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," Bringhurst undertakes an interesting shift from Stevens’ poem:

My Connecticut uncle stares into his manicured
thumbnail, thinking of his Riviera uncle’s
smoked-glass monocle

– Bringhurst, "Hachadura"

Bringhurst makes a peculiar connection between Connecticut and the Riviera that appears so fanciful, so mocking of Stevens and the context of Bringhurst’s self-declared subject matter, that it sounds off colour. However, Bringhurst may be playing with the interplay of cultures in America – the observing, exteriorized self (the American looking at a manicured nail thinking of the European who looks through a lens) in the chain of exploitation and privilege. This is not such a wilful reading – Bringhurst concludes this section with language more severe:

Notice in addition to the others at this intersection:
. . .
this one with, undeniably, a knife in his hand,
this one, this one saying nothing . . . .

– Bringhurst, "Hachadura"

This is an excellent example of how Bringhurst relocates Stevens’ language into a time and place more viscerally laden with the violent aspect of negation. But Bringhurst also tempers the threat of destructiveness with the re-creative aspect of "darknesses." He writes:

bones taking root in the darknesses
and darknesses
flowering out of the bone.
gods and men and goddesses
and ghosts are grown out of this

The plurality of darknesses, gods and goddesses, is strikingly similar to Stevens use of "polyptoton" in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." The implication here is that there is no single emptiness, and that, like in the origin mythology of the Bible or the singularity theory of physics, everything comes out of nothing. Bringhurst identifies this in direct language while rejecting Stevens’ eloquence. The image of flowers growing out of the bone is both familiar and strange, part of a more embodied language that Bringhurst pursues, where the image correlates with sensual experience.

Finally, I want to briefly quote from the final section of "Hachadura:"

These, therefore, are the four
ages of man:
pitch-black, blood-color, piss-color, colourless.

– Bringhurst, "Hachadura"

The direct style of speech, the alliterative overload and the staccato rhythms break, finally, from Stevens’ style. Bringhurst represents a simple, circular progression: nothing, being, exploitation of being (pissing on it, pissing it away), nothing (the pitch-black absence of light).

Wallace Stevens and Negation

In Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, Harold Bloom traces the lineage of "The Snow Man" in the writings of Nietzsche: "the self must be made divine because the human being stands now empty in the wreck of all past times. But, before this god-making takes place in the self, the last mythologies must be stripped from the human." The involvement of this emptiness of the human condition in the violence of El Salvador appears to fascinate Bringhurst. If we return to Stevens, we see that the man of the snow beholds – perceives and conceives – nothing that is not there – no absence or silence left behind in the wake of moving forward in time; and the nothing that is – a present nothing that the imagination encounters and bleeds being into.

Poets might be said to be nothing themselves in their poems; yet they are, paradoxically, nothing without their poems. The poet as poet is nothing without the participation and re-creation of the act of proprioception. As Daniel Schwartz writes, "Is not ‘The Snow Man’ a eulogy for Keatsian negative capability where the poet empties himself of his own ego as a prelude to responding to the full power of his imagination." So, too, in Stevens Bloom traces the legacy of Emerson; in Poems of Our Climate, Bloom quotes Emerson: "Standing on the bare ground . . . all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all." To see clearly requires that the space between the perceiver and the perceived be as empty as possible – a truth of physics that applies to the ego of the negative-capable poet.

With regard to the poet and the self, Bringhurst agrees, writing, "When you go to work for the poem, you give yourself away. Composing a poem is a way of leaving the self behind." For Bringhurst, poetry is an encounter with the other – a means of learning by engagement and participation. In The Beauty of the Weapons, Bringhurst writes songs and parables, translates from the pre-Socratic philosophers and encounters Salish mythology – but seldom uses the word "I;" when he does it is hard to distinguish in that "I" the poet Robert Bringhurst. Bringhurst might be said to agree with Nietzsche’s aphorism from Thus Spoke Zarathrustra: "You say ‘I’ and you are proud of this word. But greater than this – although you will not believe in it – is your body and its great intelligence, which does not say ‘I’ but performs ‘I.’" For Bringhurst, the ego and the subject-object aspect of negation bring with them a dangerous ability to see the world as not of ourselves.

Bringhurst correlates this with Nietzsche’s intimation of embodied knowledge – that knowledge exists not only in the cognitive categories of Aristotle and the forms of Plato, but also in the body’s encounters with the world. This is the moral centre of "Hachadura." In "Poetry and Thinking" Bringhurst writes, "The world is us, and we are little replicas and pieces of the world." He describes the place of the human in the world as a "tissue of interrelations." But abstractions and rationalizations rooted in a concept of the mind that separates the body from thinking rip this tissue. "The only way out of this tissue," writes Bringhurst, " . . . is to stop paying attention, and to substitute something else – hallucination, greed, pride or hatred, for example – for sensuous connection to the facts."

Stevens’ exploration and exploitation of negation is by no means limited to "The Snow Man," nor is his thinking about negation limited to the erasure of the ego. In "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" Stevens writes:

To discover winter and know it well, to find,
Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,
Out of nothing to have come on major weather

It is possible, possible, possible. It must
Be possible. It must be that in time
The real will from its crude compoundings come,

Seeming, at first, a beast disgorged, unlike,
Warmed by a desperate milk.

Stevens articulates negation as a creative force that is, at first, threatening, outside ourselves (unlike). Bloom writes of this passage, "There will be something desperate about the real-to-be, but not about ourselves."

For Sartre, similarly, negation and nothingness can be conceived of as an active – a destructive, and thereby negatively creative – absence. There is an aspect of brutality to negation. It is a cognitive and cultural means of making distinctions (me and not me) and of acting in self interest with regard to those distinctions. To be creative is to deny that nothing is – to say, in other words, there is not nothing. Stevens says exactly this in "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," a poem about the decline of sexual vigour and the fear of a corresponding decline in creative energy:

There is not nothing, no, no, never nothing,
Like the clashed edges of two words that kill.

While Stevens is mocking here, "in magnificent measure," we should not assume that the ontology of nothing is absent from this poem. The association of words and violence – the frequent tonal brutality of "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" – constitutes a meditation on aging and desire, and an engagement with approaching absence and limitation. As Bloom remarks, "The tropes of pathos, the wounding synecdoches . . . are all self-mutilations, or defensively, they are all turnings against the self."

"Esthetique du Mal" has been a difficult poem for critics. There has been little consensus on its value. In it, Stevens fuses two events concurrent with the Second World War: a letter from a soldier published by John Crowe Ransom and the eruption of Vesuvius. In "Esthetique du Mal," we read:

The death of Satan was a tragedy
For the imagination. A capital
Negation destroyed him in his tenement
And, with him, many blue phenomena.

– Stevens, "Esthetique du Mal"

Helen Vendler comments on this poem in Words Chosen Out of Desire. She identifies Stevens as a poet of hunger and mercilessly renewed desire. She writes, "to create the new we must first de-create the old; and the reality of decreation [sic] is as strong as the reality of creation." This is precisely the conception of nothingness-making (de-creation) that Bringhurst presents in "Hachadura."

The last aspect of the many gestures of negation found in the work of Wallace Stevens that I want to briefly examine occurs in "The Auroras of Autumn." Bloom observes of this poem that the "movement from unthinking custom to a consciousness of moral ancestry to a sense of natural entropy is suggestive of the natural history of our sensibilities as we are compelled to engage forebodings of our own death." Stevens writes, "Farewell to an idea . . . The cancellings, / The negations are never final." I will leave it to Bloom, again, to provide context to these lines. They introduce Canto III, which goes on to explore "the failure of the power of the mind to assert itself over the auroras of the wind, synecdoches of the universe of death (and of language)."

Finally, for Parmenides, too, "not being cannot be." Parmenides and the pre-Socratic philosophers are crucial to Bringhurst’s way of thinking. If Sartre says, "negation is a refusal of existence," then Stevens and Bringhurst might say, "not negation is an affirmation of existence." Sartre’s observation is apt for this poem: "In order for destructibility to exist, man must determine himself in the face of this possibility of non-being, either positively or negatively."

Mimesis

Stevens’ technical resources extend beyond the rhetorical tropes of an eloquent argument. Some of his most effective techniques are musical. As Lisa Goldfarb writes, "[m]usical variations . . . represent more than a convenient form in which Stevens practices familiar themes; the elasticity and open-ended quality of musical variations enable Stevens to present his enduring concern with the motion of both the mind and world." So we have, in Stevens, more than just the motives of negation, but the tropes and rhythms, too: both its rhetoric and music. Bringhurst deploys these tools throughout "Hachadura," sometimes mocking Stevens and Stevens’ comfortable apartments, as Bringhurst meticulously imitates Stevens’ tropes. By means of this mimicry – imitating Stevens, appropriating his power and redeploying it – I think Bringhurst drags Stevens out of his sometimes remote intellectual and rhetorical language into the blood and guts of the real by means of the way that Stevens pointed toward but, in some ways, failed to reach. To pursue this idea, I want to examine Bringhurst’s thoughts on mimesis.

In many ways, Bringhurst might be considered a poet of the archaic mode, by which I mean that his affinities, his sensibility and his imagination frequently partake of a pre-Socratic stance to the world. In "The Old in their Knowing," Bringhurst speaks both of and from the perspective of Herakleitos, Parmenides, Empedocles, Demokritos, Pythagoras and Sophocles, but not once from the perspective of Aristotle or Plato. In the introduction to this sequence of poems, Bringhurst writes, "If it is true that for us the fragment is the atom of form, this brokenness is one more bond between them and ourselves." Bringhurst is writing both about the fragmentary nature of the knowledge of the pre-Socratics and the fragmentary legacy of our knowledge of their writings. He finds in the pre-Socratics the birth of a way of thinking that remains poetic, still rooted in the real material nature of things:

And Parmenides lay in the goat-dunged heavy-stemmed
Grass, imagining things and thinking
Of all of them there in the inwoven ply, his mind flying
And gulping, trying for the whole cascade

– Bringhurst, "The Old in their Knowing"

Bringhurst understands pre-Socratic thought as an ability to participate in an originary thinking that is holistic and embodied.

Rather than imitate a priori forms (the Platonic idea of mimesis), Bringhurst’s mimetic strategy engages its object actively and performatively. However, as we saw when discussing his perspective on the self, Bringhurst does not indulge in egocentric performance. For Bringhurst, mimesis includes the ideas of imitation and copying "but participation would be closer. It is imitation in the culturally significant sense of the word: the sense in which children imitate their elders and apprentices their masters. Mimesis means learning by doing."

In Poetry and Performance, Gregory Nagy clarifies the process behind the transmission, codification and transcription of the Homeric texts from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period. For Nagy, performance is a re-enactment that, to a certain extent, appropriates the power of the text and gives it a new birth through improvisation within the limitation of rules that govern the performance as much as the text. Nagy writes, "The paradox of mimesis is that the archetype to be re-enacted must re-enact, not just enact, in its own right." He emphasizes the root of the word "text," where writing is a weaving of texts. As he puts it, a poet is one "who sews together the songs." This is exactly in the simile Bringhurst uses to ground mimesis in creative action: "human songs, like birdsongs, are part nature and part culture: part generic predilection, part cultural inheritance or training, part individual inflection or creation. These are the three parts of mimesis."

It appears reasonable enough to say that Stevens is a poet well aware of the dialectic of negation, and who can supply some of the music, tones and tropes necessary to make the encounter with negation representable. Bringhurst has lifted some of his motives, gestures and syntax from Stevens’ opus. Yet, I remarked earlier that Stevens seems at times remote. His sensibility seems at times to live comfortably in the apartments of his abstractions, language games and the fictive music of purified imagination. The referent for the music Bringhurst composes involves an atrocity; he brings to it a concern for the mimetic capacity for violence: "Yet I think it has something to do with our uncanny ability to recreate El Salvador on continent after continent, century after century, time after time."

Let’s return to the question Bringhurst asks himself: what does Stevens have to do with El Salvador? As Milton Bates writes, "The sad fact is that Stevens’s poetry, though intellectually demanding and aesthetically satisfying, has long seemed emotionally unsympathetic even to sympathetic readers." Why would Bringhurst filch from Stevens? The answer may lie in an aspect of Stevens’ work that is sometimes overlooked. Stevens’ remoteness is a function of the very difficulty of seeking more than just the vocabulary and technique to express (not ideas but) the thing itself; rather, Stevens is searching for a new language appropriate to an embodied way of knowing the thing self-to-self.

Mirroring Nothing: the Mimetic Music of Negation

Stevens is groping for a language to express ideas that are remote from everyday thinking, and even from the rigours of rational discourse. Stevens writes, "The irrational bears the same relation to the rational that the unknown bears to the known. In an age as harsh as it is intelligent, phrases about the unknown are quickly dismissed." By means of certain irrationalities certain new ways of knowing can be discovered or beheld. In "Embodied Consciousness and the Poetic Sense of the World," Todd Balazic explores the relationship between Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and Wallace Stevens’ poetics. Balazic writes, "Since body and world are phenomenal through and through, philosophy’s quest for what Stevens called ‘The greater seeming of the major mind’ begins and ends in ‘The lesser seeming’ of embodied consciousness, ‘in the blind / Forward of the eye.’" It is this kind of embodied consciousness that Bringhurst seeks to represent in the shifting between abstraction and concrete imagery in "Hachadura." In a paper that reflects on Stevens’ poetry after 9/11, Bates writes:

To say that pain is human is to say that it is cultural as well as natural, fictional as well as factual. It is an imaginary as well as a neurological and emotional event. In the ensuing cantos of "Esthetique du Mal," Stevens brackets this insight by examining the varieties of cultural experience that shape our experience of pain. He also gauges the effect of mistaking – or deliberately substituting – culture for nature.

– Bates, "Pain is human: Wallace Stevens at Ground Zero"

So Stevens provides an imitative model for Bringhurst to encounter the violence of El Salvador and the complicity of culture in that violence. Bringhurst might be said to engage in the following gestures: first, he embraces Stevens as a model for encountering negation as an element of poetic knowing; then he questions Stevens’ particular way of knowing both, by mimicking Stevens and translating Stevens’ opacity and eloquence into direct, visceral speech. Like Stevens, Bringhurst locates nothingness in the interstice; unlike Stevens, Bringhurst directly encounters that nothingness and its de-creative and re-creative capacities. Vendler, I think, provides an insight into why Bringhurst must both affirm and refute Stevens:

To elaborate . . . a possible Darwinian theory of poetry, and to enclose in it a theatrical Wordsworthian mimetic hymn to the "mountainous atmospheres of sky and sea," sets in relief the alternate poetic Stevens is about to proffer, which is introduced by one of his useful contradictory buts – "But it was more than that." The new poetic is neither instinctual nor mimetic; it is an abstract one of intellectual artifice, of exact measurement, of geometric lines and demarcated spatial zones.

I think that Bringhurst distrusts that level of artifice. What Balazic writes about Stevens applies, I think, equally, if not more profoundly, to Bringhurst’s "Hachadura:" "poetry resides in an ‘occasion,’ an event confirming perception’s immersion in the immanence of the world – a self-sufficient world requiring no messianic infusions from beyond." Bringhurst expresses neither a naïve refusal of atrocity, nor any coda for the dead and dying of El Salvador; in embodied language, he engages musically with the creation/de-creation that is part of human culture.


Works Cited

Todd Balazic. "Embodied Consciousness and the Poetic Sense of the World." SubStance 31(1), 2003.

Milton J. Bates. "Pain is human: Wallace Stevens at Ground Zero." The Southern Review. Winter 2003.

Harold Bloom. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, 1976.

Robert Bringhurst. The Beauty of the Weapons. McLelland and Stewart. Toronto, 1982.

Robert Bringhurst. "Poetry and Thinking." Thinking and Singing. Tim Lilburn, ed. Cormorant Books. Toronto, 2002.

Lisa Goldfarb. "Pure Rhetoric of a Language Without Words: Stevens’s Musical Creation of Belief in ‘Credences of Summer.’" Journal of Modern Literature. 27.1, 2003, pages 122—136.

Gregory Nagy. "Poetry and Performance."

Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathrustra translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Penguin Books. London, 2003.

Jean-Paul Sartre. Being and Nothingness translated and with an introduction by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

Daniel R. Schwarz. Narrative & Representation in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens. St. Martin’s Press. New York, 1993.

Walt Stevens. The Palm at the End of the Mind: selected poems and a play by Wallace Stevens. Holly Stevens, ed. Knopf. New York, 1971.

Walt Stevens. Opus Posthumous. Knopf: distributed by Random House. New York, 1989.

Helen Vendler. "Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions." Representations. 81, Winter 2003.

Helen Vendler. Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire. University of Tennessee Press. Knoxville, c. 1984.


End Notes

  1. Bringhurst, The Beauty of the Weapons.
  2. Sartre.
  3. Longinus, in On the Sublime, defines this rhetorical device as substituting plural for singular forms.
  4. Bloom.
  5. Schwartz.
  6. Bloom.
  7. Bringhurst, Thinking and Singing.
  8. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathrustra,. "Of the Despisers of the Body." Thus Spoke Zarathrustra.
  9. Bringhurst, "Poetry and Thinking."
  10. Ibid.
  11. Bloom page 211.
  12. Stevens, "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle."
  13. Bloom, page 39.
  14. See Bates.
  15. Vendler, Words Chosen Out of Desire, page 31.
  16. Bloom page 262.
  17. Bloom page 265.
  18. Parmenides.
  19. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, page 43.
  20. Sartre, Being and Nothingness, page 41.
  21. Goldfarb, "Pure Rhetoric of a Language Without Words: Stevens’s Musical Creation of Belief in ‘Credences of Summer.’"
  22. Bringhurst, Introduction to "The Old in their Knowing."
  23. Bringhurst, "Poetry and Thinking."
  24. Nagy, page 57.
  25. Nagy, page 66.
  26. Bringhurst, "Poetry and Thinking," page 163.
  27. Bringhurst.
  28. Bates.
  29. Stevens, Opus Posthumous, page 228.
  30. Balazic.
  31. Balazic.

 

 

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