Skip to content

Book Review: The Cloud Corporation by Timothy Donnelly

In our modernist greed for novelty, we sometimes forget the essential role that iteration has played in all lasting invention. How many times did the same earth go around the same sun in the same way before the right amino acids stumbled across each other and life began? And for biological evolution to have worked as well as it has, each generation must receive its genes by-and-large intact from its parents, and enter an environment that is mostly the same as their’s was. If there is to be betterment, there must be a balance between the against and the again, between deviation and repetition. Poets, in particular, often lean upon repetitions in sound and shape to give them the freedom to be more experimental with ideas and metaphors.

In the eponymous poem of this volume, a version of the phrase “the clouds part to reveal [something] of clouds” is repeated at least nine times. The words start to repeal old senses of words and explore new ones. The pattern provides an axis around which meaning can be churned. With the phrase itself, the reader will think first of the book’s epigraph, from Act III scene II of the Tempest:

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

One might go on to remember Shakespeare’s use of the word cloud in demonstrating the way language might succumb to power, as in Hamlet (toward the end of Act III Scene ii, “Do you see yon cloud that’s almost in the shape of a camel?”). Or the way language might become power – unless you think it is Cleopatra’s beauty and not her rhetoric that brings Antony to this point, in Act IV scene XIV of their play:

MARK ANTONY

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen
these signs;
They are black vesper’s pageants.

EROS

Ay, my lord,

MARK ANTONY

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

EROS

It does, my lord.

MARK ANTONY

My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.

Donnelly is struggling with precisely these questions about the dynamic between language and power, specifically power in its most important modern manifestation, that of the business corporation. From section six of “The Cloud Corporation:”

The clouds part revealing a congregation of bodies
united into one immaterial body, a fictive person
around whom the air is blurred with money, force

from which much harm will come, to whom my welfare
matters nothing.

And the efficiency of this modern economic system has crowded out the poet. She has been replaced (I suppose the narrator supposes) by the entertainer and the priest. From section four, which comes with a delightful bit of recursion:

The clouds part to reveal there’s no place left to sit
myself down except for a single wingback chair
backed into a corner to face the window in which

the clouds part revealing the insouciance of clouds…

In the Upanishads one also finds a symbol for the amorphous connection between language and world, but it isn’t clouds. From Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.1.4-5:

It is like this, son. By means of just one lump of clay one would perceive everything made of clay—the transformation is a verbal handle, a name—while the reality is just this: ‘It’s clay.’It is like this, son. By means of just one copper trinket one would perceive everything made of copper—the transformation is a verbal handle, a name—while the reality is just this: ‘It’s copper.’

There is a crucial difference between cloud and clay. Whether Polonius calls the cloud weasel or camel (or rabbit or duck), we’re not inclined to think it will have much effect on the cloud. However, whether Aruni’s son calls the clay cup or calendar, we are inclined to think it will effect what that clay becomes. One metaphor encourages us to see language and world drifting around, quite independent of each other, if the latter is not entirely illusory. The other metaphor encourages us to see a dynamic between language and world, where change in the relationship between the two changes both. The clay parts to reveal the future of the clay.

I am perhaps too fixated on this one image. These poems deserve to be more generally celebrated. They are subtle, conniving things, which are no doubt at work right now subverting any interpretation I’ve made of them. But I don’t have it in me not to try.

Inviting comparison with Wallace Stevens’ “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain,” Donnelly’s “The Malady that Took the Place of Thinking” speaks as though the playfulness of art and religion is a distraction from, and not a preparation for, life. And it speaks as though thought were possible without music and the madness of a temporary solipsism:

If it looks like I’m thinking, I’m not,
I’m waiting, and I can wait forever to find out why.

If it looks like I’m sorry to look at that photograph
of women and children shot down by an American
battalion on a bright clear day in March, look again:

with no world to adhere to, there can be no photograph,
no women, no children, and certainly no battalion
shooting when there was nothing there to begin with.

But tellingly, the volume continues with “To His Debt,” one of its most unabashedly playful and silly poems:

My phantom, my crevasse – my emphatically
unfunny hippopotamus, you take my last red cent

and drag it down into the muck of you, my
sassafras, my Timbuktu, you who put the kibosh

on fine dining and home theater, dentistry and work
my head into a lather, throw my ever-beaten

back against a mattress of intractable topography
and chew.

Next is “The New Hymns,” which expresses frustration with (if I’m not mistaken, and I’m often mistaken about this sort of thing) the easy-going-ness of contemporary poetry, ending with a longing for the Abrahamic comforts of an omnipotent justice:

Listen to them carry on
About gentleness when it’s inconceivable
that any kind or amount of it will ever be able to

balance the scales. I have been held down
by the throat and terrified, numb enough to know.
The temperature at which no bird can thrive –

a lifelong feeling that I feel now, remembering
down the highway half-hypnotized in the
backseat feeling what I feel now, and moderate

happiness has nothing to do with it: I want to press
my face against the cold black window until
there is a deity whose only purpose is to stop this.

Perhaps it is Taoism that has come closest to discovering how to strangle violence to death without being violent. WIthin its elaborate system of contradictions, Taoism’s radical acceptance becomes passive aggressive. In telling the world it is not what it is, it is telling the world it cannot be what it is. It is demanding change.

I have only discussed the first third of this book, but the discussion has left me excited enough, I feel that if I go on, whatever I have left of coherence will break down. Ah, the problem with good poetry is it keeps you up at night. If you’d like to be kept up at night, trembling with knowledge of our emanating impossibility, it is Wave Books that publishes The Cloud Corporation, Timothy Donnelly’s second volume of poetry. He is poetry editor at Boston Review and teaches the stuff at Columbia and Princeton.

Advertisements

Book Review: The Iron Key by James Longenbach

This volume begins with “Knowledge” and ends with “Beauty.” Buried in knowledge as we are today, how does Longenbach come to stand on beauty? By letting memories and descriptions drift through each other until the right juxtaposition is found, as in the opening of “Mercer Street”:

Elizabeth, called Betty, took to her bed in 1952.
She had five daughters: Gale, Mary, Jean, Roberta, and Fran.
Geraniums in the window box, dahlias at the fence.
Albert lived three houses down.

Betty had a dog named Fuzzy, who roamed free.
At 5:00, when Fuzzy followed Albert home, she'd say
There goes a very smart man and a very smart dog.

Albert published the General Theory of Relativity in 1916.
After sleeping beneath the bed, refusing to eat,
Fuzzy limped in front of a moving car.
Time tells matter to move, matter tells time to curve.

Often, I feel like we are waiting with Longenbach for such opportunities, at which times the poetry is merely (but very) pleasant and relaxing. From “Archipelago”:

An elegantly dressed woman standing in two inches of water to buy a loaf of bread.

The two arched windows, slightly lower than the other four, that break the symmetry of the doge’s palace.

A garbage collector tilting his wheelbarrow up the steps of a bridge.

A man pissing against the wall of a narrow calle.

The analytic philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine wrote that physical objects are myths in his From a Logical Point of View. This classification has been criticized as insulting to physical objects – which aren’t nearly so primitive and silly as myths. But I would sooner see it as unfair to myths – which aren’t nearly so drab and superficial as physical objects. Longenbach is proving Quine right, though in a way Quine may not have appreciated or understood. Or more accurately, he’s demonstrating that physical objects serve just as well as gods for the characters in a spiritual narrative. Take this line, again from “Archipelago”: “In some places, according to the run of the currents, the land has risen into islands.” This, to me, is an irrefutable fact, but with the feel of something supernatural being reported, like “In some places, according to local legend, the land is a giant fallen into the sea.”

Science wants us to believe in as little as possible – this is one of its primary objectives, its stated aim, whether given as Occam’s razor or some more modern update. The poet who wants to eat well can respond by ignoring or scorning the sack of facts science hands her. This was William Blake’s tack. Alternatively, she might humble science with her alchemy, transforming those facts into the food she needs. Longenbach is closer to the second kind. He treats gods and things in the same way, asking gods questions – from “After Tibullus”:

Tell me, Ceres, who invented the sword?
No wars when cups of beechwood stand at the feast?
No citadels, no palisades?

And praying to physical objects – from “Snow”:

Snow that covers us from above,
Cover us more deeply.
Whiten the city with its houses and churches,
The red house and the yellow house,
The port with its ships.

These palace-like poems break the asymmetry of our assumptions about what can be had from the daily and the divine. The Iron Key is published by W. W. Norton. James Longenbach teaches English at the University of Rochester. He also writes very engaging literary criticism; I recommend The Resistance to Poetry.

Book Review: A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon – New (Soma)Tics by CAConrad

           wondering how to love
    this world without
       sounding silly?
              ah, too late

A poet must be intimate with the world, must have a deep appreciation for her connected-ness, for her inter-dependency with everything that is. Most of us who write poems are content to display the products of that intimacy. CAConrad is not. He wants to guide his readers to achieving that intimacy themselves. A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon is not just a series of poems, but a series of opportunities for our own creativity. These opportunities, or poetry exercises, he calls (soma)tics, and here’s an excerpt from the first one in this volume, “Anoint Thyself:”

Visit the home of a deceased poet you admire and bring some natural thing back with you. I went to Emily Dickinson’s house the day after a reading with my friend Susie Timmons. I scraped dirt from the foot of huge trees in the backyard into a little pot. We then drove into the woods where we found miniature pears, apples, and cherries to eat. I meditated in the arms of an oak tree with the pot of Emily’s dirt, walking to the flutter of a red cardinal on a branch a foot or so from my face, starring, showing me his little tongue.

When we’re children, we take all associations seriously; all adjacencies in space or time, all similarities in the way two things strike the senses are considered important, are believed to hold something essential. As we get older, both as individuals and societies, we become more discriminatory, dismissing more and more as accidental. Few adults today, even among those who love her poetry, would be willing to attach any special significance to dirt having come from Emily Dickinson’s back yard. But CAConrad wants to bring us back to an earlier way of believing, an earlier way of perceiving and grasping connections. As readers and writers of poetry, we should be perfectly comfortable with this. It should seem the most natural, reasonable thing for us – we who look to find meaning in similarities of sound, a class of associations most philosophers would consider arbitrary and meaningless.

The (soma)tic exercises themselves often feel like ritualistic imitations of childhood. We’re being asked to again take fascination in our bodies, again explore ways in which our physical selves might connect with the physical world. (I’m sorry; I don’t know how to talk about this book without using the word “connect” a dozen times.) We’re being asked to give up the self-consciousness and insecurity that becomes so dominate after adolescence. Consider this (soma)tic “reading enhancement,” in this case the exercise is meant to be done while reading the book The Shunt by David Buuck:

Take your laundry to the laundromat… This is about reading poems while feeling machines in public. Set washer to the longest possible cycle. Sit on it… At some point OPEN THE DRYER and stick your head inside with your eyes closed and FEEL the intense heat and humidity, then close it and go back to reading.

It is by creating such a web of experiences that CAConrad means to guide us to “seeing the web of life that we are part of on this planet, forgoing the simpler Tree of Life model.” Though somewhat tangential, I cannot resist mentioning the work of biologists like Lynn Margulis. They have shown that a major part of evolution has been disparate species combining into a single species through one injecting its DNA into the cell of another. That is, the old view of species branching, never to come back together, no longer holds; species both separate and come back together. Life, as evolution has created it, is not a tree but a web. (Or an Ewok Village, if we want to be silly, and think it’s been established that we do in fact want to be silly.)

Hamlet’s lament at how much the body is shared, is passed around the world (“Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?”), becomes CAConrad’s cause for celebration. From “seperation is natural SHAKE WELL:”

I'm going to have
    my planet and
       eat it too
                it's rude saying
                pterodactyls are
                extinct their molecules
                eaten by something to be
eaten by something to be
             eaten by us
                at noon tomorrow
                let's squeeze
                our nipples to
                remember our
                pterodactyle flesh

The molecules, the molecules! Those are CAConrad’s words, but I want to use them without quotations, because it’s my celebration too.

It’s not just these obviously fun connections that are being considered, but we also confront those that we might initially recoil from, as in these lines from earlier in the same poem:

                  I saw my friend's 
                  turd in the toilet
                  I was amazed and
                  looked closely to see
                  the hard work as
                  amazing as my own our
   blood and muscles at the
   mercy of food to survive
 that's a good looking turd
   vitamin's absorbed by my
                  friend's healthy body
                  the turd discard floating
          we eat apples for
violent nutrient extraction
       it's a beautiful day
     apple trees everywhere

Also, these sentences from “The Right to Manifest Manifesto:”

It’s ALL collaboration. Anyone who ever fed you, loved you, anyone who ever made you feel unworthy, stupid, ugly, anyone who made you express doubt or assuredness, everyone of these helped make you.

Simultaneously, resistance plays a central role in CAConrad’s poetics – “resisting what is said by others has always been my strategy, so as not to build my life around THEIR ideas.” This is a paradox that is never directly confronted. Why should we need to resist in a world of perfect inter-connectedness and inter-dependency? After meditating on these poems for awhile, here is how I’ve some to understand it: Resistance promotes diversity, and diversity is what makes a deeper unity possible. Unity can only come about through diversity, for without distinction there would be mere nothingness. Unity and diversity are themselves interdependent. This is not so much said in the book as it is manifested.

CAConrad has written several volumes of poetry. New (soma)tics have their own blog. A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon is published by the wonderful Wave Books.

Book Review: Fjords vol. I by Zachary Schomburg

Like teeth, perhaps meaning should be considered an inalienable possession. Teeth are considered such because a sentence like “I have some missing teeth” sounds perfectly idiomatic, even though the speaker has something that’s missing. Compare this to a sentence like “I have a missing five-dollar bill,” which sounds a bit odd to most native English speakers. Thus it is with beautiful things – we know they possess meaning, even if it seems to be lost. From “The Wild Meaninglessness:”

The people here have all fallen in love with their own meaninglessness. But I’m not sure what that means. I mean, what else can we do but mean? Just the other day, for example, we threw strawberries from the roof at birds. We can’t help it. I mean, we can’t help anything at all.

So maybe we must swallow these poems without chewing. They are (already) tessellations of memory, fantasy, and fear that re-discover the missing beauty of the quotidian. Schomburg’s work differs from that of other surreal narrative prose-poets by the frequently didactic tone. He both assigns us dreams and instructs us on how to interpret them.  From “The Animal Spell:”

Someone once told me that animals are people under spells, and if you fall in love with them the spell will be lifted. I recently fell in love with a black trumpeter swan.

The truth is there is no such thing as spells. The world is always as it seems. And love is just our own kind voice that we whisper into our own blood.

Personally, I can’t hear about a black swan without understanding it as a symbol of something that could not have been anticipated. There are several such recurring images of considerable symbolic cache in our culture. Water is the nothingness that separates being and being. In particular, fjords are cliffs where land meets water; fjords are the places where we fall into nothingness; fjords are where we get our dying from. Wordsworth tried to assure us that we can always return to the shore. Stevens, that “all the world is a shore.” Schomburg seems to be adding “until it’s a cliff.”

Then there is the red balloon, which makes me think of Albert Lamorisse’s wonderful film “Le Ballon Rouge.” Perhaps it represents one’s youthful vitality, one’s strength and will in solitude, which we futilely try to share with those we love:

This is how you love: you try over and over again to throw a red balloon across the river from a tree.

When, then, three poems later I read the line “there is so much blood in the trees” I must think of this poem by Emily Dickinson. Perhaps it is the still point at the center of Schomburg’s turning imagination:

You’ve seen Balloons set — Haven’t You?
So stately they ascend —
It is as Swans — discarded You,
For Duties Diamond —

Their Liquid Feet go softly out
Upon a Sea of Blonde —
They spurn the Air, as t’were too mean
For Creatures so renowned —

Their Ribbons just beyond the eye —
They struggle — some — for Breath —
And yet the Crowd applaud, below —
They would not encore — Death —

The Gilded Creature strains — and spins —
Trips frantic in a Tree —
Tears open her imperial Veins —
And tumbles in the Sea —

The Crowd — retire with an Oath —
The Dust in Streets — go down —
And Clerks in Counting Rooms
Observe — “‘Twas only a Balloon” —

The imagery of Schomburg is densely but fluidly inter-connected. Swans become strawberries become red balloons become red rooms openning up to a field of dying swans. This a world where we live lonely lives on islands until we reach a cliff and then “nothing else happens.”

Even if we find a pony that can carry us over the river to new ground, somehow we are disappointed. From “Testy Pony:”

But the testy pony rears and approaches the river with unfettered bravery. Its leap is glorious. It clears the river with ease, not even getting its pony hooves wet. And then there we are on the other side of the river, the sun going down, the pony circling, looking for something to eat in the dirt. Real trust is to do so in the clear face of doubt, and to trust is to love. This is my failure, and for this I cannot be forgiven.

And this is why, personally, I like trees better than oceans. Islands, after all, are just the leaves of some giant underwater tree. The ocean is the process of branching. And this is why Zachary Schomburg’s poetry is so moving: It is written at the place where the branches come together. Language is a body yearning to reach past itself. And these poems succeed in doing so. They discover commonality in an age when that is an increasingly difficult task.They are able to do so because we all have dreams, and Schomburg knows how to make sense of them.

Fjords, vol I is Zachary Schomburg’s third book of poems, following The Man Suit and Scary, No Scary. It has been published by the most excellent Black Ocean Press. I encourage you to support your own imagination by purchasing a subscription to their books.

A Review of and Response to: Meaningful Games by Robin Clark

“Real-world language use is flexible; language is used to coordinate our mental lives in a process of constant negotiation.”

Robin Clark wants to convince us that the best way to model linguistic behavior is with game theory. As I began this book, I was thinking about the short-comings of these two fields of study. Linguistics has been dogged by accusations of poor falsifiability. You can have (so the argument goes) many competing models of the same phenomenon without any sort of clear sense as to what sort of empirical evidence would decide between these models. And game theory, as a means of modelling human behavior, certainly has its critics as well. There are games with identical strategic structures that people will play very differently. There are games where people simply will not land on a Nash equilibrium (even simple games when bounded rationality isn’t an issue), and the only way to correct the model is by a possibly ad-hoc adjustment of the utility functions. So when game theory and linguistics meet, will they exacerbate or ameliorate their respective problems? At the end of the book, I’m still not sure, but I do feel optimistic about the situation.

Clark assumes surprisingly little prior understanding, while still remaining interesting to someone who’s read around a bit in these areas. The first three chapters are a discussion of the dominant perspective on mind and meaning in the second half of the twentieth century (functionalism, though somehow that term never comes up); Clark argues that the social nature of meaning makes that philosophy impossible. I didn’t need any convincing here, though I do think I benefited from his particular articulation of the issues. Chapters four and five are overviews of game theory and game theoretic semantics, respectively. Chapter six a discussion of common knowledge. But the real meat of the book comes in the last three chapters, where the focus is on modelling linguistic behavior with games. In chapters seven and eight, people are the players and conversations are the games. In chapter nine, words become the players and meaning is the game. As words aren’t rational agents, but better thought of as randomly deviating populations, we appropriately switch from looking for Nash equilibria to looking for evolutionarily stable strategies.

Science works by looking at the behavior of systems and trying to figure out what that behavior is minimizing/maximizing; science is the backward induction of optimization problems. The innovation of game theory is dropping the assumption that the system is a single unit optimizing a single function; there may be multiple agents each trying to maximize a distinct utility function. It seems, however, that for any given game, you should be able to map to an equivalent system of the first type, with a single function being optimized. For example, suppose we have a generic two-player, two-strategy game that has a unique mixed-strategy Nash equilibrium (p_1, q_1), with player one playing row and player two playing column:

q_1 q_2(= 1-q_1)
p_1 (a_1, a_2) (b_1, b_2)
p_2 (c_1, c_2) (d_1, d_2)

Then player 1 maximizes her utility by taking the derivative with respect to q_1 of the equation p_1\cdot q_1\cdot a_2 + p_2\cdot q_1\cdot c_2 + p_1\cdot q_2\cdot b_2 + p_2\cdot q_2\cdot d_2 and setting it equal to zero. Player 2 acts analogously.

But we could suppose there is a single player, whose set of strategies is the four strategies in the cartesian product of two sets of strategies of players 1 and 2 above. For this system to be equivalent to the two player game, we would want the probabilities of these four choices to be r_1=p_1\cdot q_1, r_2=p_1\cdot q_2, r_3=p_2\cdot q_1, r_4=p_2\cdot q_2. One should be able to construct a a function of the variables r_i with constants a_i, b_i, c_i, d_i whose maximum takes those values.

The point is that what is being modeled in solving a formal game is not different from what could otherwise be modeled. We want to adopt game theory just in those cases when we believe there are distinct players acting autonomously – and what is counts as an autonomous player if not a human being. Thus it is very natural to think of language as a game. But we are still computing what could otherwise be computed; it still comes down to symbolic manipulation. One might have perfectly good reasons to exile oneself from platonism, but the introduction of game theory to linguistic analysis is, from a phenomenological perspective, a pragmatic move either way.

Ever since I first read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, I was convinced that meaning is use. So the primary question for me, than, is how far will game theory take us in that direction? Formal games differ in a fundamental way from his language games. For that giant of twentieth century philosophy, the rules of the game are determined by playing the game. Standard game theory has no mechanism for this sort of thing. I believe this is a major problem. If the social games we play build language, it’s equally true that language builds the social games we play. Language is a game; a game is a language.

There are three ways language might affect the parameters of games: By influencing the utility of outcomes; by changing how we decide our best strategy; by generating our possible strategies. I’ll briefly discuss how this might happen in each case.

Utility functions: We use language to understand the games we’re playing, and what language we use could affect the utility for a given outcome. If I’m playing a prisoner’s dilemma, I might think of “defecting” as “snitching” and “cooperating” as “being loyal to my partner.” My ability to describe my actions with those words might imbue the associated outcomes with increased/decreased utility.

The determination of optimal strategies: As mentioned at the beginning of this article, in the laboratory, human behavior often isn’t aligned with the Nash equilibria, and this can’t always be explained away by a systematic correction of the utility function. (See Goeree and Holt, 2001.) The reason for this may be precisely that language is the intermediary between our utility function and our possible strategies; we use language to compute our best bet, and the informal reasonings of natural language might be very different from the formal reasonings in a mathematical model.

The strategies themselves: This is, I think, the most important point I’d like to make. If the strategies of the games we’re using to model language are not themselves generated, then we’ve lost what’s been gained in the past sixty years linguistic inquiry. Games themselves must have a grammar. For example, in standard game theory, the introduction of new information might change the expected utility of a given strategy, but the set of strategies will not change. In an actual conversation between two people, when one speaker introduces new information, this will change the perceived strategies of the second speaker. (For example, speaker one informs speaker two that she just got back from Barcelona, then this will bring to speaker two’s mind thoughts and questions about traveling and the city of Barcelona.)

If you’re interested in language, this is a worthwhile book for both beginners and more advanced readers. I’m glad I read this one, and I’m glad the research discussed is being done. However, the introduction of game theory to linguistic analysis should be seen as only an initial stride toward a scientific understanding of language as a social phenomenon.

Robin Clark is Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Meaningful Games is published by the MIT Press.

Book Review: Butcher’s Tree by Feng Sun Chen

If, as Iris Murdoch may have said, “philosophy is often a matter of finding occasions on which to say the obvious,” perhaps poetry is often a matter of creating opportunities to mention our common, everyday experiences. As in Feng Sun Chen’s “Concerning Nothing,” whose seven sections each begin with an abstraction, which is then torn through until the emotion giving blood to the thought is exposed:

1.    By finite, I mean a thing caught in time, thing that changes

and eventually loses the original qualities that made it such.

Starfish, one might suspect, are not finite.

They move decisively through the lava of time.

The cat on my lap is finite.

I will watch it go through the various stages of adorability, change, fatten,

perhaps wither, definitely die; and its body will become the worm or it

may be cast into a blue flame and turned into dust.

My pet rock will remain itself longer then I or the cat, but it is also finite.

I am sad.

The phrase “caught in time” is surprisingly optimistic. It suggests the possibility of escape. I’m being told my cat and I have essences distinct from our movement through time; this is something Heidegger would disagree with, and is perhaps at odds with what’s being said in sections two and three:

2.    By infinite I do not mean unlimited, but a limitation incapable of change.

What is infinite is outside of time.

Our universe is not infinite.

Invisible things collide and this is called energy.

Souls are eardrums.

They vibrate and burst.

This noise that passes.

We hum an infinite number of times.

Love secretes reptile eggs into the ruptured drum nest.

This is what we hear.

“Souls are eardrums” brings to mind Blake’s words in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.” Feng Sun Chen has inverted Blake’s idea. For him, the body is an aspect of the soul; for Feng Sun Chen, the soul is an aspect of the body.

3.    If knowledge hears the mind and if the mind hears the brain,

then knowledge is not infinite.

The egg hatches and the bundles fall out and scream diamond-mouthed.

The bundles have heavy holes and the holes know something.

Don’t touch it.

Don’t take it apart.

I am afraid.

Her reasoning could have easily gone the other way around. Maybe something like:

If the brain spans the mind and if the mind spans knowledge,

then the brain is not finite.

But that’s not what Feng Sun Chen writes, perhaps because after the massive successes of the natural sciences, our present epistemic situation demands that we make the material world the foundation of any belief. The poet has been abandoned on those grounds and must forage for a spirituality:

7.    To mean is to entail is to intend.

The idea of this is

starfish begin to encroach  on trees.

I didn’t mean monsters.

I don’t believe in what I mean.

The talons are beaks.

I don’t mean anything I believe.

To desire, one must believe.

This is not strong desire.

It is the life of dust.

In spite of.

I mean to believe. I miss.

As a symbol for life, the tree has been co-opted by the theory of evolution, so that at every branching we see the death of a parent. When we look back, evolution has us see ourselves as living the deaths of billions of years of Others. But the narrator has declared a new symbol of the eternal – remember, “Starfish… are not finite/ They move deceivingly through the lava of time.” So while this poem ends with another negative emotion lacking the consolation of a larger something being served, it does cycle back to optimism with “starfish begin to encroach on trees.”

Feng Sun Chen enjoys a good non-sequitur as much as most poets these days (as do I, apparently).  These finite brains of ours are spread thin across distant parts of the world over the course of a few lines. From “Groceries:”

God was everywhere in Fern City. Browning declared him the perfect poet.

n smelled like baby powder and showered obsessively. God beamed upon him

with rays of golden light.

Leg of lamb: In lambda calculus, one cannot define a function which includes itself.

Nepenthe: I don’t know how this list became a theological query. I only wanted to say that n fell in love with someone else shortly before killing me because I was too much of a dreamer.

She has a face like Angelina. Big lips like a marine creature.

We go from 19th century literature to an obscure statement about formal logic to ancient Greece to contemporary pop culture.

A math major, I smiled at the mention of lambda calculus. Lambda calculus can be thought of as a way to study computer programs at a very abstract level. While it is true that functions in lambda calculus can’t directly call themselves, a function can indirectly do so by calling another function that, in turn, calls it. One way or another, every recursive system contains things that contain themselves. And one way or another, every system that makes limitless use of a finite means (to paraphrase Wilhelm von Humboldt) is recursive. Natural language, and in particular the poetry of Feng Sun Chen, depends upon functions that remember themselves.

Whereas nepenthe, or νηπενθές, cures grief through loss of memory. Maybe some of Feng Sun Chen’s non-sequiturs are not non-sequiturs after all.

When I read the line “she has a face like Angelina. Big lips like a marine creature” I didn’t know who or what was being referred to in the first sentence until I got to the second sentence. You might call this semantic cataphora. (Usually, cataphora is a pronoun that appears before the thing it refers to, as in “if you want it, here is the tape dispenser.”) This sort of thing, where there really is something to be deciphered, combined with the sincere use of ifs, thens, and therefores makes the experience of reading Feng Sun Chen as close to that of reading Donne as it is to reading Ashbery.

These poems contain a good deal of inquiry and scepticism. But poetry itself is a kind of superstition. Like the alchemist and tarot card reader, the poet believes that understanding can be had by meditating long and hard on coincidences. The poet is particularly concerned with coincidences of sound, words of disparate meaning (and usually no etymological link) that happen to sound similar. Feng Sun Chen likes to flesh out this experience, slow it down, observe it taking place. As in “Prometheus,” where through five uses of the word “liver” we incrementally become more aware of a second meaning of the word:

My livers could fill whole oceans, several planets worth.

Meaningless livers. Endless livers.

I can’t say it. The word is ripped from me daily.

I have become a huge liver. A liver of it.

Or in part sixteen of “Grendel is a Woman,” where the character Grendel literally cycles through similar looking words in the hopes of finding a better metaphor. Keep in mind that the sea water that blurs the word comes from Grendel himself:

Love is a hernia. The handbook said so. No, maybe not. Most of it had been blurred by spilt sea water maybe, love is a hermit. A hermit crab. A hearing. A herring.

These poems also have their hesitation about what we’ve been taught by the Romantics. Maybe it’s just me, but every second contemporary poet I read reminds me of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality:”

Hence in a season of calm weather

Though inland far we be,

Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea

Which brought us hither,

Can in a moment travel thither,

And see the Children sport upon the shore,

And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

But the he of this volume’s opening poem, “By the Dark,” isn’t sure what that travelling thither of the soul really counts for:

That his shame should come so far.

That none of this could release him.

The skin on his forehead is pulpy.

He could go back to the woods.

He could go back to the sea if he closed his eyes.

No going anywhere.

His two hearts are growing teeth.

And now that oceans have come up, I have to mention the appearance of that symbol again, towards the end of the volume, in section fifteen of “Grendel is a Woman.” This time, the narrator is wondering what, in our current epistemological situation, there is to get back to:

It seemed to Grendel that people hung onto secret without knowing

that it was only the hanging they wanted, and not the secret.

When he realized that he could move mountains, that it depended on the edema in his heart,

that the same building could be haunted

one day and not the next

due to the temperature of his skin, suddenly

the ocean froze. Identical took on a new outfit. Identity stripped for a living.

“The ocean froze” – these are poems I can dialogue with. My thoughts will be headed in one direction, but the poems will seem to have anticipated me, blocking my path, sending me in a different direction. Butcher’s Tree is Feng Sun Chen’s first full-length book. It’s published by the wonderful Black Ocean Press.

Book Review: Suicide – The Philosophical Dimensions by Michael Cholbi

The book concludes with:

It would be vain to hope that a single book could solve the puzzle that is suicide. I will have accomplished my goal if our philosophical inquiry has given us reason to be optimistic that a solution is nearer at hand.

As someone who had not much studied the ethical and conceptual issues surrounding suicide, I’m only now appreciating the complexities involved. So while I personally feel further from a solution than I felt before, it is only because I did not know where I was three days ago, when I started this book.

The first chapter looks for an explicit definition of suicide. The aim is to disentangle the concept from any value judgement. I still have some doubts as to whether or not this is even possible. Cholbi talks about ‘murder’ versus ‘homicide’. In using the word murder, not only are we saying that one person has killed another, but we are also stating that the act was morally wrong. If we want to leave open the possibility that the act was justified (for example, because it was in self-defense), we might call it homicide. However, it seems to me that where we draw the boundaries of the concept will still necessarily effect the way we make judgements on particular behaviors. Even with homicide, there is a default  judgement: If all we know is that there was a homicide, we assume it was morally wrong. That’s why it makes sense to talk about justified homicide, but the phrase “unjustified homicide” sounds rather odd. It seems plausible to imagine a culture that had two distinct words for killing, one meaning killing for personal gain and one meaning killing for self-defense. I imagine this would effect the way people judged particular instances of homicide.

In chapter three, on the permissibility of suicide, Cholbi discusses the idea of burden of proof: Do those who believe suicide is wrong have to demonstrate so, or vice versa? But this further belies the difficulty with assuming we can make definitions free of prejudice. How broadly I define behavior X will determine what percentage of instances seem intuitively wrong to me, and that will influence where I believe the burden of proof lies.

Cholbi asks whether a person giving “rational consent” to their own death should be thought of as committing suicide. “Rational consent” is illustrated by a “foxhole jumper:” An active grenade is thrown into a foxhole. A soldier jumps on the grenade to bear the brunt of the explosion, thereby saving the lives of several other soldiers. We assume the “foxhole jumper” does not want to die; death is neither a means nor an end of her behavior; it is, however, the most likely outcome. Should such instances of rational consent count as suicide? As evidence that the answer should be yes, Cholbi offers the following thought experiment:

Imagine describing Foxhole Jumper’s actions to a young military recruit and then asking the recruit if he would be prepared to do likewise. If the recruit were to answer, “No way – that’s suicidal!”, the recruit does not seem to be misspeaking in calling Foxhole Jumper suicidal, despite his death not being part of his intention. This indicates that acts are often thought of as suicidal even when they are intentional.

But I would argue the soldier calls the behavior ‘suicidal’ precisely in order to indicate a negative judgement of that behavior. He is calling it suicidal because he would not want to do it himself. We can just as easily imagine another soldier answering “absolutely – that’s heroic!”, and she would say so because she judges the behavior positively and hopes to act similarly in such a situation. Cholbi wants both to rely on common usage in justifying a definition, and to make that definition value neutral. However, to me it seems that the more we do the former, the more difficult it becomes to do the latter. Legal scholars and philosophers intentionally try to construct and use certain words (like homicide) in a way that doesn’t assume judgement. But most people often do just the opposite. So, we need ways other then common usage of assigning value to a definition, if we hope to make the definition itself value neutral.

Another question brought up is whether or not we have a duty to ourselves:

… many philosophers reject the notion that there even are duties to the self. Some philosophers see morality as essentially social, concerned solely with how we treat others.

But I think there may not be a conflict between seeing morality as essentially social and believing there are duties to the self. In other words, perhaps we should think of our future self as an Other – to a limited extend, of course. And I feel that to address this what we need is psychology: To what extend are the psychological processes we have for dealing with others the same as or similar to the ones we have for dealing with our future selves? For example, to what extend can fear and hope be understood as empathy that we have for our future self? If we are to avoid paternalism, it seems our evaluation of the ethics of suicide intervention will hinge on the extend to which we see one’s beliefs and intentions in a particular moment as unrepresentative of the self.

In extreme cases such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative identity disorder, beliefs and intentions are so unstable that it becomes obvious we can’t discover the individual by looking at them in a particular moment, but can only discover that individual by considering something like the “rolling average” of those beliefs and intentions through time. Even if someone prepares themselves for suicide  (for example, by accustoming themselves to physical pain and the idea of death) over a long period of time, they may only do that preparation in short bursts, and at most points in time have  no intention of killing themselves. By looking for such an “authentic self” in the average of beliefs and intentions, we may have a justification for certain suicide interventions that don’t depend on distinctions between rational and irrational thought. I’m very sceptical of anyone claiming someone is being irrational; it is too often merely a means of imposing one’s own beliefs and values on someone.

This book has given me a much better appreciation for the philosophical complexities involved with suicide, and I hope also an intuition better prepared to handle particle instances of such behavior. Suicide: The Philosophical Dimensions is published by Broadview Press. Michael Cholbi is Professor of Philosophy at California State Polytechnic University Pomona.