Thursday, April 25, 2013

Out of Ulro: Some thoughts on 'The Declarable Future' by Jennifer Boyden

Out of Ulro: Some thoughts on The Declarable Future by Jennifer Boyden (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).
 Near the end of a poem called ‘Night Pitch’ from Jennifer Boyden’s new collection The Declarable Future, the speaker, stumbling through the house after midnight, lurching forward to the pitiless conclusions of insomnia’s syllogisms, considers her neighbors across the street. “I have to admit it”, she says, “the neighbors look like hell” (p.10). And this is no mere sardonic slap at their artificial waterfalls and Toyota Sequoias; in their own way these people, like many people in the First World, are kept awake at night; they sense, however obscurely, that “oceanic despair” which erodes the contours of their seemingly unexamined suburban lifestyle just as surely as it erodes the hard edges of the speaker’s own certainties. They look like hell. We all look like hell. It means, in spite of all our evasions, we know that being awake is a symptom of a shared condition—being lost. But unlike Dante’s dark wood, the place of our lostness is a lit-up simulacrum of nature where we control the dimmer switch.
 What is so impressive about this poem, and so many of the poems in the book, is the deep sense of empathic alertness which attends the diagnosis of our contemporary global malaise, an understanding that we are all in this together; there is in the working of these poems a determined effort to see and see through our massively commoditized, denatured and desacralized world, and an equal determination not to stop there: these poems commit themselves to both the present and a future, a future where there’s a chance we might become authentic neighbors to each other and to the earth itself. So, even at their most melancholic these poems manage to achieve a hard-won victory over the temptations of cynicism and despair—they prise open a space for an ethic of compassion, and sometimes with a surprising leaven of humor, counsel us as to the route of our going on.
 And The Declarable Future makes large claims for poetry itself as a vital cultural force for navigating our way out of the dangerous straits of the postmodern condition.  Here is a poetry that is not content to simply describe an outer and inner world in the belief that such description is a kind of self-authenticating interpretation. Rather, Boyden’s poems,  with their gorgeous language, their parabolic narratives and bold associative leaps, are “thinking poems”. Individual poems and the book as a whole unfold a set of philosophical arguments about knowledge, language, experience, and time; at the same time, these arguments exfoliate from a sensuous life-world which the poetry unveils as marvellously complex, ambiguous, unnerving and perplexing. Together, these poems make a claim on the very process of thinking, enacting in a range of language registers a movement of the embodied mind that acknowledges and goes beyond the linear and the expository, the visible and the quantifiable.

 For me, Boyden’s poetry is thoroughly visionary in the strict Blakean sense. The Declarable Future imagines the universe in terms of allegorical figures whose partial visions are responsible for structuring different possibilities of meaning. She gives us “the giant”, “the woman”, “the person with the loupe”, “the lost man”, figures whose activities and contention dramatize our present-day condition and our salvation. She gives us an I, a she , and a he with fully realized lives, full of precarious understandings; she gives us a we in a dance of reaching out to and withdrawing from each other; she gives us sky and clouds and water and trees; she gives us angels; she gives us the gods. Stripped of any grandiose mythologizing diction, her poetry points us to a state analogous to what Blake called “the fourfold vision”.  What is this vision, and how does Jennifer Boyden give us a version that is convincingly contemporary?
 In a letter to Thomas Butts, Blake wrote the following verses:
Now I a fourfold vision see.
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah's night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton's sleep!

 Boyden’s version of the single vision and Newton’s sleep  begins with “the person with the loupe”. In the shadowy town where many of the book’s narratives unfold, this figure is the arbiter of what counts as knowledge: “For anything we needed to know, we were to ask / the person with the loupe.” (p.39) Neither male nor female, the person with the loupe has a kind of disinterestedness which renders the world colorless in the process of being scrutinized and ordered. The person with the loupe insists on the primacy of observable fact and deductive reason, reason uninformed by other human faculties; Blake would describe this “single vision” as a form of blindness characteristic of natural science as he knew it, and when we collectively assent to it we are party to the creation of “Ulro”, a sterile world of materialism, social atomism, and cynical manipulation of others,  “a planetary society of two-legged insects”, as Milosz once called it. Every generation produces its own Ulro, and Boyden’s is the world of ecological disaster, the big consequences of human-caused climate change, and the related, more intimate consequences of a homogenization driven by commerce:
                See how one thing is already so like
                the other? The tabloid blondes, the small-town,
                one-block crops of Starbucks, the Gap, TGIF,
                all pronounced good in this land of ours,
                these storefront windows where they force
                another tired bulb of desire. (p.68)
  One thing, however, which gives a subtler inflection to the figure of the person with the loupe is the pervasive sense in this book that Boyden deeply understands the impetus to such meticulous observation; it has much of value, but it cannot be an end in itself. She gets the difference between science and scientism (marvellously dramatized in the poem ‘The Book of Various Studies’ p.33), and sees that there are some ways in which the poet’s acts of imagination are congruent with those of science at its best. The person with the loupe says
                Each calendar day is a square
                the size of all the others.
 And we should be uneasy when we hear this:
                But the days we recall best seemed otherwise: some shifted long
                while others shadowed fast. (p.40)
  However, towards the end of the book, in an eerie poem called ‘The Person With The Loupe Confirms The Children’, where children are taken off by a convoy of trucks and later returned,
                                                The person with the loupe
                called out their names from memory,
                and we were grateful for this, as the list had gone missing,
                and no one else was sure of how to know them. (p.88)
 Knowledge and, later, understanding can start from here, but it is only a start and it can be blind to other kinds of experience which are decisively constitutive of our humanity. If  “The loupe cannot see dreams: they do not exist.” (p.46) But we know they do, that they are another door of perception, and we have to be on the alert for those places where the single vision wavers:
                The birds have proven more difficult,
                as they seem to exist but get both near and far.
                The loupe is still turning one way
                and then another to determine the whether-
                ness of birds.
                This takes some time, which we are grateful for,
                as until it is declared we will be free to wonder.


 It is the figure of “the lost man” which catches the peculiar dilemmas and paradoxes of living virtually anywhere at the beginning of the 21st century; but, equally it is the lost man who in recognizing his lostness asserts the possibility of frail, confused human beings disentangling  themselves from the disaster-producing, hyper-abstract systems that structure our relationships with each other and the earth. The lost man knows things in a way that the person with the loupe cannot know and his existence is impenetrable to the vision of the loupe: when the two meet in “our town”, the lost man seems drunk to the inhabitants, and when the person with the loupe is summoned,
                Who is he, we asked the person with the loupe.
                You assume he exists, the person with the loupe replied. First
                have him stick out his tongue.
But inside
                the man’s mouth flapped an emptiness
                we waited to understand.
                There is nothing here, said the person with the loupe,
                I cannot work with this.
 The lost man, in fact, is a way out of the single vision, unassimilable to the terrible geometry of Ulro, which is why he is lost in the first place. Since I’ve been using Blakean terms (and here Blake’s figure of Los comes quickly to mind) it’s easy for me to conceive of the lost man as Boyden’s version of a process of imaginative restoration which could bring us to what Blake called “organiz’d innocence”, a mature, adult innocence forged in the fires of experience.  And it is a process—Boyden’s lost man doesn’t represent some facile opposite of the person with the loupe (though he is his “contrary”); just as the latter is a beginning state (flawed but useful), so the lost man, while achieving  a genuinely wider vision, has his own limitiations which need to be transcended too; transience and the ephemeral are problems for him.
 What does the lost man know? The lost man knows the truths about the world which are revealed in imagination. He knows there is a time for darkness unsullied by artificial light when imagination can provide its own illumination of a world more multiform and strange than most suspect. And
The lost man understands the problem with the body
is that it exists. He has seen
that though the body is our own, it can be removed from us.
When he can see his body, it is what he is reduced to.
When it disappears, he owns where it might arrive.
Trees sweep stars into little bundles.
Grasses rise impossibly from the burn.
His children had slept with a light on
so their bodies would stay where they left them.  (p.55-56)
  In the everyday world the lost man’s imaginative agility can be disquieting, uncanny, even prophetic, because the unconscious fantasies embedded in things and language are always present to him, needing interpretation.  In ‘The Lost Man Interprets A Code’ when the speaker’s husband drops a knife on his toe there has to be something more going on, it has to mean something:
                My husband’s toe, I say, is injured.
                The lost man nods anxiously, wants to play along, looks
                for a correlating signal to key the code by.
                My husband moans in the kitchen, pointing down. Ah--
                the lost man winks to let me know he’s got it:
                my husband is pointing down. Therefore,
                toe means whatever-is-under-the-floor.
                Bleeding has yet to be established.
                The lost man awaits the clue. (p.77)
  A lesser poet might have remained enamoured of her own smart psychological satire, but Boyden lets us fall through the floorboards when the poem takes a darker turn and we suddenly see, as the lost man in all of us sees, what really lies beneath the surface of our domestic discourse:
                We should have seen the onslaught of these times coming:
                when the guard patted down my three-year old
                at the airport; when the people in the break rooms
                of information extraction stopped discussing
                whether the sound this time was more like the scraping
                of a chicken or the detangling of a root;
                when the leaders couldn’t recall. (p. 78)
  In this stanza we find a vital understanding of our condition and we see how crucially that understanding  is dependent on a philosophy of language itself. Poetry sets itself in fierce opposition to any idea of language as merely the transmission and reception of information: that would be to imprison oneself in the small world of the person with the loupe, where everything is unproblematically what it is, all concepts are clear and distinct, and words operate like labels. And concomitant with this simplification of language is the simplification of the world, of ourselves, of our experiences, of the animals and plants, of things. Our similes and metaphors are doorways to our deepest understandings of the world; given the condition the world finds itself in right now it is distinctly possible we’re “on a walk that took a bad turn / onto a very long road.” (p.28)
 Many of these themes come together, or better, collide in what to me is the most brilliant poem in the book, ‘Which Particle The Particle’, where Boyden meditates on the tiny possibility that the Large Hadron Collider could produce “strangelets” which theoretically could convert all matter into strange matter. “A flipped switch and—poof—Oneness. Just like that.” (p.61) The sardonic humor around instant at-oneness which seems to be what many people want (“Otherwise the plastic Buddhas and grass-like mats wouldn’t be / selling so fast...” p.61) flashes darkly in this poem which nakedly puts on display and worries its way through the peculiar postmodern inflections we’ve given to death and love, fate and choice, technology and self. So many dominant narratives today conspire to dehumanize us, as though the contingency of existence is a new kind of secular original sin of which we will be purged by Botox and Supercolliders. Boyden says, wait. What’s that monitory whisper you hear in your daughter puzzling over death in a Dylan Thomas poem, in your father’s illness, in the cool language of scientists who just might convert the world to one big uniform strange lump? It’s the suspicion that what keeps us truly human is what we can’t calculate, the discrete “thisness” of our specific lives and everything in them. We might have a chance if we are able to allow things to be themselves, to change our relationship of control, to let them speak with their own specific eloquence. “Cousins”, Boyden writes in the book’s title poem, “is it possible / we have misunderstood the mud?” (p.27) I’d say it’s certain.
  The Lost Man Leaves A Will is the book’s final poem. Our only genuinely moral choice in a broken historical situation where we can’t go on is precisely to go on. We need courage and will, we need to build a kind of difficult thinking which dwells in the place of our own undoing, and by dwelling there restores the connections we have cut. If there is to be a future that isn’t a plastic wasteland we have to live on the side of the leaves, the water, the deer, the very smallest, unconsidered things:
                To the worms, my thanks. I ask you to make me rich
                within yourselves: you stayed. While the earth
                was fleeing itself, I named you, and you answered
                to the place of my naming, and remain. (p.97)

 The poetry of The Declarable Future lives here.

© Ger Killeen