By: Sasha Smith
Because I chase existence, my long poem Aletheia: The Stream of Unclosedness is a convergence of two concepts: 1. the exploration of gestation and fetal development gone awry and 2. the perfection and imperfection of the cosmos through the Golden Ratio. I encourage you to engage first with Audio & visual excerpts and/or 4 φ sections in Columbia Journal, prior to this sequential essay.
What is Aletheia? A continuation of my writerly obsessions. A development of Nature. Of Matter. Of the Universe. Its Atoms. Cells. Membranes. Embryos. Super Novas. Us. Star Dust. Folds. Is. You. Typical. Topical? Contemplating existence is a common theme of mine but after losing a friend in 2018, my obsession became set on questioning how I define existence. What does the order of disorder and the disorder of order look or sound like? What or where is the definition of existence or the existence of definition? There’s a focus also on the multitudes of -verse: traverse, converse, averse, obverse, reverse, inverse, and the essential Universe. In fact, the same could be said about -sence: presence, absence, omnipresence, quintessence, and essence. Etymology, movement, and definition are intrinsic and salient elements in the foundation of my poems. If:
- existence = ex + sistere : out + take a stand : coming into being;
- define = de + finis : completion/totally + end : bring to an end;
- -verse = vertere : turn;
- -esse / is = to be;
- -sense / sense = thought, meaning, feeling;
- also the etc and linkage of | be, being, that, the, this, thing, matter |
then defining existence is a paradoxical and visceral task. I welcome it, always. What if no one remembers your existence? Is existence a thing that can not be broken down? Is it matter? Subatomic? Are there no true fundamental parts? No root? No element? No nucleus? No membrane? Is it deeper than the protons in your last breath. That breath. Yes, that breath. That one. The one that just left you. The one you can’t have back. Is that existence? Probably. Maybe? Who knows. No one! It doesn’t even matter. Matter doesn’t matter.
I’ve decided – because I can and because English is a language I mock because it isn’t mine, was never mine, isn’t even its own, is something stuck permanently in superposition, in its own potential – I’ve decided that existence is more and less, nothing and everything, we don’t exist and we exist, because we’re not ours. Our matter isn’t ours. Our being isn’t being. There is no memory outside of the sentiment of our fixed physical state – a state we’re only trapped in for the duration it takes for us to return to Us. We are perpetually in the state of gestation. Fermentation. Decomposition. We are forming and folding, coiling and unraveling. We-Universe, We-Being, We-Void. How do I turn that into the language of a poem? How do I turn that into the language of all my poems?
That’s the quest. My poems come out of gestation. I consume, I let sounds bounce around post-consumption. I let them form. I allow stages of that formation to cause a shift and then I listen to the crash. I let it crackle until its cracks and creases begin to eat me – becoming the Poet’s Elergy or Autophagy or Ouroborus. Autolysis or Black Hole. I let it enact upon me a new sort of revenge. A galactic one? I won’t explain further, but this is how I exist within my work and in a sense nothing I write can differ from its predecessor or successor because it will always be locked in this obsession of self-eating and D-I-Y language.
Subvocalization is silent speech. “Internal speech”. As you read this your articulators (speech organs) are moving. As you read this the words become images but the language and the meaning of this very sentence is spoken by your inner voice and therefore transcends the picturesque serif font. To read is to speak is to hear. Or something. Maybe. I prefer to read my work aloud, but I also consider the inner voice and the motors of the body that are tied to language. I use a visual, oral, auditory landscape, so my project Aletheia: the Stream of Unclosedness is an exploitation of nature and existence in all its randomness and order, all its inevitability of formation and arbitrarily shifting design. The problem for this Poet is that this is an unachievable endeavor. I doubt it translates well in practice vs this essay-esque explanation of the theory/concept behind it.
I claim lyricism as a default but what does that mean? Does the fragmentation and concept of my work declassify it from your sense of lyric? What is your sense of lyric? Is it strange that the word ‘lyric’ makes me cringe? Is there a classification? I don’t know how to define my work as anything other than an ‘exploration’ of definition and existence as it exists in superposition or as suspension. My questions are wholistic. What is the trend or nature of my work? I struggle to see movement, surprise, effectiveness. Am I doing anything? What am I doing? Is my work a reenactment of a decision to define Existence as Is (or etymologically ‘a decision to define ‘coming out of being’ as ‘to be’). Does that mean anything? Does the poem have a place in that? Does any poem? Is this too socratic for you? I know the answer is ‘You’re thinking too much” but in my most doubtful phase of writing, I’m unable to escape the feeling that my poems aren’t harassing the senses AND conveying genuine meaning, but that they’ve instead turned into spilt porridge on winter pavements.
How much of my writing is concept and how much of it is art? Theory vs practice. Perhaps my exploration of language and my combative approach to that exploration has soured feelings towards my own use of it. It’s easy to become sick of yourself (especially when the Self is an Autophagy Apologist).
Is my work arbitrary? What if it’s not? Does it work for or against its intentions? Is there anything surprising in its language or contents? Is it wrong to say there’s no answer? Or that any answers will serve as false reasonings for a post-MFA therapy session? Have I used up all I can extract from a language shoveled into my ancestors marrows? Ancestors whose own languages were throttled and eroded into a frequently insulted stew-like speech? Am I seeking but failing to grasp surprise or torque, or whatever it was that came through my journey via residue? Am I an imbalanced writer? An imbalanced person? An imbalance? Am I tipped towards the edge with projects and concepts in one hand and an emptied dictionary in the other.
I don’t know if I see language in a way that best answers my posed questions (or anyone’s). I’ve never been able to place my writing in any zone or category worth championing, and that state of superposition is tiring. Sometimes painful. Mostly disorienting. I accept the term ‘experimental’ for the ease of others and the term lyrical out of the default responses of others. But what is it? Why can’t I accept my language, my style, my sensibility, my voice, these poems as more than an “Is”. If there’s a question to be asked of any piece of art or any fragment of meaningful and mindless, fumbling thought, it’s “Is this arbitrary bullshit”?
Those are “Writer-Being-Writer” questions not to be asked in workshops, or asked at all. So I asked. ‘Why bother?’ begs absolutely no one in the Aether. Because there’s a world that binds innovation to adventure, encloses it in paper sheets, and slips it into labeled frames for no one in particular and for no particle or participant, no principle or principal, and no waiting patron or partying partisan of parting participles. Because why not bother? Because YES to discord over concord. Because I can. Because ‘Is’ is ‘Existence’. Because Is.
James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break, unlike myriad other collections, does not engage with heavenly bodies as romantic or symbolic imagery. Rarely are the stars and the sun referenced (save the poem title “To the Evening Star: Central Minnesota”), let alone milked for poetic power. This is a book concerned with the earth. The only celestial entity that is entertained in these poems is the moon. The poem “Beginning” opens with “The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.” Here the spirit has a spotlight on it. The feathers that fall from the moon call to mind wings and the rising and falling of wings’ movement, just as the lungs breathe in and out and embody the origin of the word spirit, spirare, “to breathe” in Latin. The poem continues, “The dark wheat listens./Be still./Now.” Should not the wheat be illuminated in the light of the moon? But it is dark, turned off, seeking without distraction in the black night. And it is listening – to what? To Wright’s stillness. In that stillness, one can feel the lungs’ rising and falling (like the wings to which the moon’s feathers were once attached), one is alone with the spirit in its most personal state. Then, “Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow/Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone/Wholly, into the air.” The woman lifts the shadow of her face, not her actual face; it is the darkness cast off her body that she moves before she herself moves and is then swallowed by the air. This woman is Wright. She is the personification of what Wright and the wheat sense – “shadow from/a mirror,//shadow from breathing” – the spirit’s lifting the shadows, and then departing from matter. To quote Jung, “From the psychological point of view, the phenomenon of spirit, like every autonomous complex, appears as an intention of the unconscious superior to, or at least on a par with, intentions of the ego.” What unfolds with the woman is what Wright is listening into to the point of desiring: the act of creation as liberation. The poem continues, “I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe/Or move./I listen.” I do not dare breathe – for Wright’s spirit has already left in the form of disappearing vision of the woman. “The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,/And I lean toward mine.” Here the wheat and Wright return to their respective darknesses, resting in it, reflecting in it on what has transpired. This poem is Wright’s Genesis myth. Even its title “Beginning” denotes the creation of something (or someone) important in Wright’s cosmos – or, rather, to look at “creation” as not an act that is making something, but freeing something. In this scenario, Wright is creating/freeing his spirit by fabricating for it a body (that of the woman) ex nihilo which then is free to fulfill its will (to vanish into the ether). Once the creation is complete, Wright and the wheat, his spiritual collaborator, occupy their sabbath. Indeed, Wright and the wheat in this poem are the two creators, as Marie-Louise von Franz maintains in their differences. “One is more active. One is more passive…One is more human. One is less human…One is male. One is female.” Wright, of course, is of the first set of attributes (active, human, male) and the wheat is of the second set (passive, less human, female) but both are parts of what Von Franz calls “the preconscious totality.” Specific to the Gnostic interpretation of the Genesis myth, this poem acts out the belief that “there was Elohim, a high God who was good and completely spiritual and who was not involved in creation, which was brought about by the evil Yahweh, whom they interpreted as being a Luciferian, devilish figure.” The wheat is the purity represented by Elohim and Wright is the activity with manifestation-sullied hands represented by Yahweh who brought forth a character of spirit to emancipate it. And then, on their figurative seventh day, they both lean back on their darknesses, otherwise known in this parallelism as the preconscious totality. Darkness here serves as both source and rest.