Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The words of the prophet A.R. Ammons

A.R. Ammons, American poet, raised in North Carolina to poor parents, eventually won a National Book Award, and spent his last decades teaching at Cornell.

Here is his poem,

“Project” (1970)

My subject’s

still the wind still

difficult to


being invisible:

nevertheless should I

presume it not

I’d be compelled

to say

how the honeysuckle


wave themselves:


beyond presumption               

(From The Great American Poet of Daily Chores, Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker, November 27, 2017)

The quixotic pursuit of presenting ‘the wind’ all the while recognizing, acknowledging and confessing to the absolute impossibility of the task, and then to place it beside the even more “beyond presumption” of  ‘saying how the honeysuckle bushlimbs wave themselves’ is to confound the empirical absolutists, to elevate the spiritual through its only possible vehicle, the poem.

In another piece, “Garbage,” Ammons writes:

When we brawl over our

predicaments we merely accuse ourselves…(and)


where but in the very asshole of comedown is

redemption: as where but brought low, where


but in the grief of failure, loss, error do we

discern the savage afflictions that turn us around:


where but in the arrangements love crawls us

through, not a thing left in our self-display


unhumiliated, do we find the sweet seed of

new routes: but we are natural: nature, not


we, gave rise to us: we are not, though, though

natural, divorced from high finer configurations:


These “sprinkles” of word-gems, little pieces of the weeds that grow in all of our gardens, are never to be either over-looked or forgotten, for their capacity to ignite life itself….as in “where but in the arrangements love crawls us through” …not the prosaic and predictable “we crawl through love’s arrangements”…We all must acknowledge, with Ammons, that his truth legitimately over-rides our conventional, conversational, street talk. And it is that plucking truth from the refuse of detritus that comprises some of each of our lives, that ‘seeing into life’s gutters, ditches, sloughs, swamps and mud’ in which we have all spent time there is a halo of beauty, insight, candour and profound and private truth.

From Garbage too:

the new’s an angle of emphasis on the old:

new religions are surfaces, beliefs the shadows


of images trying to construe what needs no

belief: only born die, and if something is


born or new, then that is not it, that is not

the it: the it is the indifference of all the


differences, the nothingness of all the poised

somethings, the finest issue of energy in which


boulders and dead stars float;


This “indifference”, “the nothingness of all the poised somethings” is that ephemeral, ethereal, magic web that holds all things in some kind of pattern…far beyond the pattern of our rationality, far outside the scope of our micro-and-tele-and-peri-SCOPES, refusing confinement, squirming against all definitive diagnoses, and even definition itself.

And our herculean efforts to pin down our “situation” and our “circumstances” and the “context” of the January 6th insurrection, as our legal and political and accounting and security forces are charged with accomplishing, will likely remain blind and deaf to the indifference, the nothingness, while focusing on the “poised somethings”. It is the poised somethings that fill up our screens and our consciousness, and even our cognition, as our fledgling attempt to feed a hollow hunger of meaninglessness.

If our conscious sensibilities are fixated on the “poised somethings” and we have our own binoculars tethered to our foreheads as we devour enlarged, almost lasered images of destruction, how can and will we ever ‘see’ those indifferences, those inscrutable, imperceptible and ethereal winds that are at the heart of all life and the energy that generates and sustains all of life?

Increasingly we are living in a world determined to inflict accountability, responsibility and blame-and-shame on everyone who exhibits weakness of judgement, of indiscretion, of any abuse of power, defined by those “courageous” enough to come forward to tell their story. And while the victim’s integrity is to be credited, the public square’s capacity and willingness to suspend disbelief, without immediately rushing to judgement, seems imperiled. Big, loud, strong, dominating, winning, alpha, almost always male,….these stereotyped symbols of power, especially of “white” (not as in pure, holy, or sacred) are counter-poised, and given incarnation by such deplorables as trump and his cult, that we are left scouring the human landscape for the garbage we once sought and found in the landfill.

Is our lostness a sign of our having abandoned the “nothingness” of all the poised somethings?

Are we so afraid of our own “nothingness” that we have succumbed to the lie of “alternative facts” as proposed by Kelly Anne Conway?

Are we in danger of entering a burning planet without fire-fighters, water, strategy, water-bombers, and warning sirens, because we have ceased to belief there is even a fire and that all those calls coming into “the fire station” are merely robocalls, without merit, without a human in distress on the other end?

Succumbing to the absence of indifference, and rejecting our own nothingness, have we imposed a binary choice on all of us, one in which a perfectly defined morality is in an epic conflict with another perfectly defined evil?

Is my truth now pre-determined to be the veritable lie of those who disagree with me? And is my enemy’s truth pre-assigned to the garbage heap of all things Satanic?

There is much sinew in the notion of a human pursuit of purpose, meaning and the concomitant goals and objectives that attempt to define that identity. However, when that laser-nuclear-personal identity life goal is so flaming hot that it literally and metaphorically incinerates all other personal life goals, as if a pre-determined, pre-destined assignment of “religious determinism” holds sway over the body politic, that flame has not only obliterated others, it threatens to obliterate the playing field on which we are trying to seek and pursue a respectful and respected life.

Trying to construe, in a new and different way, language, rhetoric and stage-acting, what each of us “knows” deeply that some of the most important aspects of being alive are far beyond the scope of our cognition, and of our epistemology is a death march over a cliff of our own sentient embrace. And attempting to “fit” those unknowables into either a political or a ‘religious’ or a moral or ethical strait-jacket, to fit our narrow, narcissistic, and inevitably narcissistic emptiness is a collective act of self-sabotage.

We hear much talk about herd immunity as a term deployed to suggest boundaries around a ubiquitous, lethal, mutating, global pandemic, if and when a sufficient percentage of people have received a vaccination, then the spread of the virus will be slowed. It will, however, not necessarily be stopped or eliminated. Efficacious vaccines, effective vaccines, measured by their strength and capacity to mediate the sickness, reduce hospitalizations, and curtail mortality, while needed, are nevertheless, not going to crack the indifference about one’s potential allegiance to the public trust, to the community, to the nothingness that millions already fell in their bones and muscles, in the brains and hearts, and in their spirits and wills.

How we each “see” the nothingness, the indifference, the capacity and willingness to even consider such res horribilis (horrible things), is and will continue to be a “temperature” of the body politic for which we have no thermometer, no MRI, no CAT-SCAN, and certainly no vaccination. We all know that nature abhors a vacuum. (horror vacui), another of Aristotle’s legacy gifts, meaning that every space in nature needs to be filled with something. Over against this, we also know that “negative space” in art is the space around the between the subjects of an image. “Negative spaces are very important for creating compositions that are balanced and unified. Negative space in a composition can help identify toe focal point. Without enough negative space, a composition can look busy, with too many distracting elements (from And from, ‘the power of a negative space is in its capacity to disrupt your normal expectations of reality….Dismantle a whole room and the event is spectral. It is hard not to use the word ghostly to describe it, as the family itself appears to revise the very ambience of the space. With the furniture gone, a series of personal memories begins to overlay one another—nostalgia glimmering with a hundred facets—as the past life of the room is somehow amassed and dissolved in the same instant.

There is a case to be made that we are collectively, (and perhaps individually as well) committed to the notion, like nature, that all space must be filled: every nook and cranny in every room, and certainly every brain cell in every brain with the most momentous, sensational and ‘news-worthy’ information, as well as the garages, offices, desks, and trophy cases of our “academy award-winning performances.

We fear our own abyss; we are terrorized by any glimpse of nothingness, indifference, and collectively have mutated such notions into signs of lassitude, purposelessness, ‘driftiness’, shiftlessness, and untrustworthiness. And in doing so, whether consciously or not, we have effectively colonized all others who do not share that perspective.

We have so objectivized ourselves, our accomplishments, our enemies, and our work and our planet, that we have reached a tipping point (Gladwell) whereby, should we persist in denial of the indifference and the nothingness that surrounds us, (including the indifference of nature) we risk falling into a trap of our own design: these are just some of the many sine qua non(s) that North American culture has (allegedly) scorned, dismissed and effectively obliterated.

Just as there can be little to no balance in a painter’s canvas, without negative space, so too there can be little to no balance in the life of a culture (or an individual) without the beauty and the gift of noticing the energy and the life-giving impetus from indifference, nothingness and the quixotic purpose of “presenting the wind”….that blows in, around and through each of our universes.

Let’s abandon the vacuity of ideology, of zero-sum games, of the absolutes of war (of all sorts and varieties with all forms of weaponry) and accept the larger truth that each of us lives ‘in the wind’ surrounded by and infused by our own and others’ nothingness, indifference, and the pursuit of the quixotic.

In that light, perhaps, we might shed some of our finally acknowledged hubris, and the accompanying feint of “perfect control”. 

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