JANUARY 12, 2017
RECALL WHEN, in Waiting for Godot, Pozzo cracks his whip and commands the man-donkey Lucky to “think.” The abused creature unleashes a torrent of theological collage, his only lines in the play. The desperate proliferation of arch language reminds us (once again) that the established taxonomy of deep truth does not always attach to anything very deep, or to anything at all. The immediate and total ironizing of intellectual labor carries for the reader an anxious recognition: our own efforts are probably better only by degree.
A measure of jadedness suits this state of things, and yet, like Lucky, we are creatures occupying an incomplete state of grace and emancipation. Surely, thinking will be involved in any amelioration we’re able to work out. The engine of Sarah Schweig’s first collection of poems, Take Nothing With You, is an investment in the act of thinking (and its inherited vocabulary and modes) that holds this tension. Her angle is at once askance and deeply committed. “Thinking Machines” narrates her objective in deadpan:
Today I will make a machine called
Thinking Machines. It will be composed of
simple machines. If it goes think, think,
we will know that it is working.
If it speaks, I will see the point of speaking.
What Williams said of poetry applies no less to philosophy: it builds machines made of words. Machines make work easier, make things happen. Our arranged words always risk doing neither:
This is a treatise on BLANK.
Had the phrase OFFICES OF RAIN meant anything,
ALL THE LIGHTS ARE ON IN THE OFFICES OF RAIN
would have suggested that it is raining.
In this treatise, suggestion carries agency.
It is now raining. I am walking through it.
I would like to say AND THEN, but I am merely
continuing. That the rain will end, I’m fairly certain.
That the Merwin-like unit “OFFICES OF RAIN” is too portentous to yield to subtle use is the point. Elsewhere, the book deploys such cumbersome locutions as “Freedom,” “The Necessary Meaninglessness,” and “the Arbitrary.” Such words are likely to say both more and less than we mean by using them. We’ve inherited damaged materials.
If Dickinson’s capitals intensify (“when the King / Be witnessed – in the Room –”), Schweig’s capitals empty out. The terms become like the statues of venerable men on horseback in the center of public squares: we recognize the self-important pose but can’t quite recall who they were or what they were meant to have done. There’s a wry awareness that we may be trafficking in dead cargo. Few books of poetry so willingly acquiesce to the negative potential of their constituent words as empty signifiers. And yet the words gain something for what they lose, like containers which, by being emptied of contents, diminish in cash value while becoming more variously useful. If her materials are freighted with history and teetering always on obsolescence, if they are at once overloaded and hollow, no less are they things capable of redescription, of new and far-flung application. Indeed, it’s uniquely hard to represent Schweig’s poetry in brief quotation. Any words selected are likely to be repeated elsewhere in the poem, to new and cumulative effect. The mode is iterative, provisional, “a kind of demonstration of how one idea or image / can always follow from the last.”
Her lines sometimes mime the mundane rhythms of consciousness in routinized daily life. Take the opening of “Shift”:
We all have our jobs and we do them.
We have our lives and our rented rooms.
We pass through time. We are born with our mouths
open. The glass diminishes, the bartender fills it.
The broken clock, stuck, still ticks.
These lines burn a low flame. This is not writing desperate to flee banality; it does not feign a special capacity for feeling nor delude itself that all is radiant and thick with consequence. Schweig instead gleans force from her own ambivalence, from a sense of distance and divested attention. In the spirit of the book’s titular allusion to the Gospel of Luke, we travel light. There’s no grasping at cheap prizes (“Clarity over emotion, remember. Story over sentiment”). This renunciation makes space for surprise. What seems like the auto-piloted logic driving “Shift” doesn’t lead where expected. At the end of the stanza begun above, the speaker, apropos of we’re not quite sure what, crashes into an odd claim: “One thing I’ve learned, and it still needs work: / The stranger the lights the more arbitrary the lord.” Arriving at this aphorism-in-progress we realize that this person, however similar in outward action to the rest of us, however mired in the usual compromise and tedium, has, in her interior, been playing a different game all along.
In “Quelle Night,” we find a speaker fatigued from the strain of everyday life, but the strain is made worse by the expectation that everyday life might assimilate to philosophical understanding. This habit of mind adds to standard disquiet the disappointment of a failure of wisdom. She’s prompted to again ask herself,
What are you
searching for? As she strays
back home, the salt trucks salt
the dirt-sick snow:
In spite of, in spite of, in spite —
It’s possible to resent the incessant work that an unquiet mind demands. She claims once to “have tried to move through the world without thinking.” We’re certain it didn’t work.
A friend once remarked offhandedly that Schweig, an American woman, can sound in her poems as though she is ventriloquizing a German man. (Fragments of the taxonomic register feel vaguely mitteleuropa Romantic, and inquiry is often directed at acquisition: “Today I will obtain EVIL IN MODERN THOUGHT.”) About the speaker, I imagine someone who has endured a formal philosophical education which has come to feel like a burden, a useless but unshirkable encumbrance. This is someone who seems to have practiced intellectual scales that, once learned, never quite fall out of the hum of consciousness.
A kind of understanding remains the thing sought, but there’s a sense that intellectual discrimination is a morally equivocal operation. “Subdivisions” narrates a kind of primal scene in the imperative: “Line up the animals we housed / because we could house them. // Line up the animals we loved / behind glass.” This is an allegory of knowledge purchased by the shearing apart of creation, facts like so many butterflies pinned to the wall. It’s also the Adamic task: what these animals — captured, cordoned-off, ready-at-hand — become, of course, are names. Here, in Dickinsonian echoes, language abstracts Concept from perception, essence from experience: “Seasons were nothing then but sun-slant and orbit. / They passed. Understand, it was a matter of cheekbone and heirloom, / / of rain and doorframe.”
Her thinking can demand more of language than its architecture easily accommodates. Take the poem “Sehnsucht” (the German word for “longing” or “nostalgia”), which begins to tear through the constituent sounds of its title:
She’s cunt, chest,
cutest, sun-est. She stuns.
He’s thus: He’s tense, he’s uncut, he’s
nuts. He hunts. He shuns, he
cusses, he cuts nets, he cuts hens,
hunts. Tense? Tensest, he cuts
suns. Then, thus: He & She.
Thus, the “us” stunt.
Few poets put phonemes to such strenuous work. An easy flight into nonsense or the play of pure sound is denied us — the game is not only sonic but logical. Meaning, or its potential, is always at stake. But meaning is not sought here in experience itself (romantic entanglement, in this case) but in the language that the processing of experience forces on us. In the book’s next poem, “Schweig,” the poet must even consider what to make of her own name — related to the German schweigen, the command “say nothing” or “be silent” — which weighs like a judgment against her vocation (“She’s hush”). Maybe logos knows us before we know it: in the beginning was the word.
Schweig’s is not the thinking of the conquistador of knowledge, nor of dispassionate inquiry. It’s the enactment of thinking as working-through, as therapeutic maneuver made below the radars of certainty and world-historical system. Even if the speakers here often seem to have inherited the high diction of Western Thought, their investment is in the teleological program of holding shit together. The first test of wisdom is to span one day to the next, mitigating injury: “The only art left on Earth is the slow, patient study and meticulous / enumeration of suffering. I keep a tally on my wall.”
The emotional polestar of human life in groups is belonging. It’s sought first in a family, then in the village. When the exchanges of dependency work, we gain something like the solid ground from which the adjustments of the “well-adjusted” may be made. A self comes to seem like a natural possession. Ease in the presence of others is possible, and possibly joyful. We are capable of love and work. For the array of speakers in Justin Boening’s Not on the Last Day, but on the Very Last, something has come fundamentally unstuck in this staid narrative of health. These speakers careen through each placid scene, through every plausible life, knowing what everyone else has been acculturated out of knowing: that civilized life is still life in the wild.
The book churns through images culled from a biography come apart, a life trying to be pieced together in hopes of composing a usable history, of forging a coherent self from the wreck. In “My Mother Takes the Stand,” we find a bewildered boy in what feels like family court, arguing his side “like a child / crying down the dead limbs / of a backyard tree.” He vacillates through the fragments of an origin story, trying to tell the screen memories and trumped-up detail from the real:
No, a man on the side of the road
swaddled an infant and waved a flare.
No. In the field a prop plane
was burning the field, was yelling
at the sky.
Yes. In a muggy room a woman,
with the blinds clacking in a breeze, with the television
talking buzz on mute, packed a suitcase,
a photograph on top
The boy has been pulled back from the edge of some unspecified abandonment, some undefined rewilding, and is uneasily again in civilizational hands, where he’s expected to know who and what and why he is, where he’s required to speak for himself. But speech, identity, affiliation — at base these are survival strategies. Imagination makes them possible. In another poem, set in a child psychotherapist’s office, the boy is shown a Rorschach. In the image he recognizes “a scrawny jungle cat” sipping mud and feels kinship to the vulnerable animal he also is: “Thank god / our kind hasn’t yet died off.”
“The Opera Singer” narrates another vexed movement from unprovisioned isolation to identification: “My mother picked me / from a lineup, ill-shaven, sick / to my stomach. She caught me ravaging / a nunnery’s pantry.” What begins with recovery from privation, with parental reunion, ends in awkward theater — and public judgment. He finds himself on stage, performing personhood for the prize of acceptance:
There’s a moment
when I’m meant to sing,
when the music
slows, after the overture,
after a paper horse trots
my costar into a cellophane field,
and I’m ready (why am I afraid?),
and the paper horse
trots into the cellophane field
which is when I begin, only
out of turn, and the notes
“It doesn’t look right, / but the audience loves it.” So falseness works and love is contingent. The people speaking in these poems, whatever their resource or bravado, don’t recover from this wisdom. The tenable lives of others (everyone has an act) are untenable for them. Besides the boy(s) above, these speakers include a man behaving boorishly in a down-market diner, another holding forth on “how I came to rule the world,” and someone who decides, once and for all, to “do everything / as if I were a god.” These voices exist on a Freudian continuum: the child is the father of the man, and the man remains a child a long time. The book is a choral arrangement of one life.
The dance of personae is dizzying and obsessive. Checking into a hotel, the speaker feels he recognizes the bellhop:
“But Father —”
“I’m not your father,” [the bellhop] says,
“and haven’t been for some time.
Now let me show you to your room.
Everything is as you left it.”
In the genealogical drama, the speaker takes a turn in every role. Later, on a highway “long decommissioned, that used to host / caravans of families going to church,” he bumps “into a boy who swore to me he / was my son. I kissed him on the head, / told him, ‘Don’t run off like that.’” Even the poem of self-divinization, “To Be a God,” ends in the disappointments of family romance: “I’ll know your name / as a god knows your name, / as a father knows your name, / but you won’t recognize me.”
A current of melancholy and displacement runs under narrative events that swerve into any failure of tact available:
It was a snowy night in March.
I had nothing to do.
So I signed myself into the ER,
took a penknife from my jacket
pocket, and cut into the chest
of a sweet old man
who was clutching his heart
in the sweaty leather chair next to mine.
But we don’t get revved up like this for the sake of pyrotechnic storytelling; the payout is more often in decrescendo. The waves of bad behavior or ego fantasy wash out, and in their quiet wake our speaker finds himself more truly and strange. The impromptu surgery slides into the halcyon daydream of a former life. Still, it’s no coincidence that the question he asks himself is the question his conduct forces the world to ask of him: “Who the hell do you think you are?”
This is exhausting business, but “The Kind of Life I Always Wanted” brims with the promise of rest: “I’ve finished what I set out to, / given up / on desire, preferring the silent / commerce of unwinding wire / from a spool.” It’s a vision of resignation as refuge, some spun-out variation on tranquility, but he can’t stick it, can’t quit the paroxysms of departure and return. Before long he’s back in the weather, wending the damaged land, looking for any home that will have him, anyone who will tell him who he is, for that place Kafka called “away from here”: “The pickup / is burning gas, / I have no place to go. / I’m unpacking my luggage / and have no reason / to stay.” The two core plots — the hero returns, the hero sets out — are spun into cacophony. We are overwhelmed by wanting, and do not know what we want.
Boening is capable of a remarkable music of longing, and sometimes a music of the flailing and fantasy that screen for longing. Aside from Kafka, I sense kinship with Mark Levine’s cracked landscapes, Mark Strand’s serene self-effacement, and Lucie Brock-Broido’s extravagant menagerie. Extravagance — it’s worth pausing over, since the book has it in spades — can be a defense, a resistance to the confining fiction we call “what really happens.” He (the plural person speaking through these poems) wants to know what he belongs to, other than this rumble of desire, aside from these torsions of unmet need that keep repeating as contemporary experience. But any answer would reduce him, would be smaller than his quest has forced him — allowed him — to become.
The book exclusively uses the first-person, but its tales (however imagined or real their sources) are often driven to the pitch of parable. Parables suspend irreconcilable forces in tight forms. We feel the recognition of truth, even as our pretensions to knowledge are undone. This formulation returns us to Schweig, and to a reason we might return to poetry: to have our unwarranted and limiting certitude unwoven, to feel what we might come to know if we were less easily assured about what we knew. Or in Boening’s case: To have our constructions of self shown to be flimsy, revisable fictions composed from need; to fathom an experience of being less moored to conventional sublimation. The title of Boening’s book comes from one of Kafka’s shortest parables; “not on the last day, but on the very last” describes the moment the messiah is fated to arrive. It’s hard to say how “very last” qualifies “last,” except that it makes God feel farther. The messiah is coming, we’re assured, but only after he’s no longer needed. There’s a life to come, but it’s this one. We wait only on ourselves.
Brandon Kreitler’s poems have appeared in Boston Review, DIAGRAM, Web Conjunctions, Indiana Review, Eoagh, Sonora Review, and Maggy. His criticism has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Proximity, and Village Voice among others.