JOSHUA COREY

THE MOTHS

It is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true.[1]

Begin again. In a spirit of pragmatism, taking language and the creatures of the imagination as things that obtain, that exist, fully as much as the pebble, the oyster, the cigarette; the high-pressure zone, the Precambrian, a bubble in the housing market. I am inter-ested in these things, the beings-between, that they are a matter of my temperament, its line or lines of flight. Asking now what this assemblage of interests can do.

The idea has come to me that I want to do now is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes.[2]

In my poetry this assemblage may empower a new practice, a practical poetics to be lived with and explored. Such a poetics undermines the impulse toward the made and returns attention to making. To be always beginning again, with the reader, asking what it is in the moment of making that poems do.

Say that the moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea.[3]

Poetry is a practice of magic, of incantation, “a matter of disturbance, entrance and passion, rather than abracadabra.”[4] A speech in which the speaker embeds himself, to which he is committed. A first person that gathers the moment, creating and being created by the otherness of what the poem includes. Call it naiveté. Call it nature.

Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don’t belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional.[5]

It is false, unreal, merely conventional; this appalling poetic business of the poet: how many poems merely encase and thwart experience? By their insistences poems obscure our vision of the actual, what William James called “pure experience.”[6] The actual may be a poem; it may be the western black rhino, declared extinct last week; it may be my daughter; it may be a feeling or a lure for feeling. We lose the actual when we lose the adventure of imagination.

The world of wonders is limited at last to the parent’s will (for will prospers where imagination is thwarted); intellectual appetites become no more than ambitions; curious minds become consciences; love, hatred, affection, and cruelty cease to be responses and become convictions. And the adventure of life becomes a self-improvement course.[7]

We can, in other words, know nothing in advance. The poem lies before us. We choose implication when we write it, when we read it. We are willing subjects in the wrong.

There is a stone chair on a dais. Seeing it is the King’s chair or, even, in some dreamings of this dream, finding myself a lonely king in that chair, there is no one rightly there. A wave of fear seizes me. All things have gone wrong and I am in the wrong. Great doors break from their bars and hinges, and, under pressure, a wall of water floods the cavern.[8]

All writing in its will to expel what drives it outward tends toward Oedipus, noir. In a noir narrative the protagonist plunges more or less confidently into the heart of the expanding darkness of a bad collectivity, only to discover that the darkness is inside himself—that he is indistinguishable from its origin. Noir reverses the dialectic of innocence and experience. The detective is undone by his adventure, confronted with his own complicity in evil. He detects himself at the origin of the bad collectivity and a terrible innocence is born. This terrible moment, the moment at the very end of the noir narrative, is our age.

I discover myself on the verge of the usual mistake.[9]

But we can bear in, imagining the darkness rather than willing it. Discovering fragility instead of frolicking in the ruins. Instead of a survivalist, a vulnerabilist. Utopia of wounds.

Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry—by which I mean saturated? Is that not my grudge against novelists? that they select nothing?[10]

I betrayed poetry and wrote a novel called Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy. It is a sentimental title for a narrative that struggles to emerge on the other side of sentimentality, as the protagonist, in her struggle with the past (the Holocaust, the Sixties) that composes her, tries to survive her own willed innocence of that past. The phrase “beautiful soul” is Hegelian (schöne Seele): “The beautiful soul maintains a split between self and world, an irresolvable chasm created by the call of conscience…. [it] cannot see that the evil it condemns is intrinsic to its existence—indeed, its very form as pure subjectivity is this evil.”[11] Pure subjectivity, unable to appear.

Medicine can cure the body. But soul, poetry, is capable of living in, longing for, choosing illness. Only the most fanatic researcher upon cancer could share with the poet the concept that cancer is a flower, an adventure, an intrigue with life.[12]

“Ecological politics has a noir form,” Timothy Morton writes. “We start by thinking we can ‘save’ something called ‘the world’ ‘over there,’ but end up realizing that we ourselves are implicated. This is the solution to beautiful soul syndrome: reframing our field of activity as one for which we ourselves are formally responsible, even guilty.”[13] We are or ought to be fanatic cancer researchers, and the cancer is in us. Is us. We are caught up in the bad collectivity, capital, the Anthropocene. We are caught up in an intrigue with life.

The poets succeeding by simplifying: practically everything is left out.[14]

Poems are not mimetic; they do not represent; they show nothing of states of affairs or states of mind. Poetry is the by-product of what Karen Barad calls “intra-action,” “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies… the notion of intra-action recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action.”[15] The poet is one agent entangled with innumerable other agents: black rhinos, Congressional Republicans, tornadoes, John Keats, Ebola, words. The particular moment of entanglement is the poet’s experience. The record of that experience is the poem; liable, as Ezra Pound said of The Cantos, to be marked by “the defects inherent in a record of struggle.”[16]

The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but to imagine it: what if Shakespeare had opposed Iago, or Dostoyevsky opposed Raskolnikov—the vital thing is that they created Iago and Raskolnikov.[17]

The poem itself is not mimetic but the struggle to produce it is microcosmic; as Whitehead says, “Each task of creation is a social effort, employing the whole universe.” The defects of the poem mark its suffering of incompatible facts: “Insistence on birth at the wrong season is the trick of evil.” Whitehead follows this claim with a gimcrack theodicy, assuring us that “in the advance of the world, particular evil facts are finally transcended.”[18] I can accept this only in the spirit of Kafka’s mordant remark that in this universe there is plenty of hope, but not for us. Yet what Keats calls “the poetical Character” must participate this hope if is not to be overwhelmed, or to retreat to the guilty uncommitment of the beautiful soul.

…it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys life and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.[19]

The I is embedded in, produces, and is produced by what it sees. “Environment” does not exist. There is a vibration and an overlapping and a revision. The poem ends, but the adventure does not. If the adventurer encounters evil, she tarries with it and becomes it for a while. “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine.”[20] That is her obedience to the struggle.

A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.[21]

Keats is wrong about the unchangeable attributes of things, since all things are themselves entangled and intra-acting agents. He is right that a poet is willing to enter consciously and of her own free will into the contract of intra-action that binds the rest of us all unwilling, since we are blind to it. That blindness is what makes us poetical creatures of impulse. The poet’s vision makes blindness palpable. Choosing what Duncan called, “a little endarkenment.”[22]

I want to put practically everything in: yet to saturate. That is what I want to do in “The Moths.” It must include nonsense fact, sordidity: but made transparent.[23]

Moths are nocturnal insects, except when they are not. There is nothing so strange nor seemingly nonsensical as the life cycle of the luna moth, which molts five times in caterpillar form, eating the leaves of black walnut trees, until finally cocooning and emerging with a wingspan of four and a half inches. The luna moth has no mouth; its career as a gourmand is done. It lives for about a week, flying only by night (unlike the diurnal sphinx moth, the infant moth, the Panamanian tiger moth), the females releasing a chemical that attracts the males to mate with them. Then they lay several hundred eggs, and then they die. Moths are very common, except when they are not. Luna moths are endangered in many areas due to pollution from herbicides and insectisides, as well as habitat loss. Is this saturated? Is this transparent? Is the luna moth, selected for the purposes of this essay very nearly at random, something with which I am entangled in 2013, on a November night after a day of unseasonable warmth and torrential rain, during which at least seventy-seven tornadoes caused five reported deaths and untold property damage in the state of Illinois where I live? The lives of moths are fantastically brief. Does this writing bear the defects of a record of my struggle to imagine an order that is not an illusion or bad faith but an order of intra-action, of noir, of innocence trying to organize?

For she [H.D.] stood upon the threshold of an art where she was to take her place with Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in the adventure of the higher imagination, in the full risk of the poem in which divine, human, and animal orders must be revealed.[24]

The lives of moths are fantastically brief.

Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body.[25]

Translating Ponge, I discover that the French papillon does not distinguish between butterfly and moth. “Mangy moths attack the candle when the moon, having vaporized the woods, flies too high.” Beckett calls them les papillons de nuit in L’Innomable.

Les papillons miteux l’assaillent de preference à la lune trop haute, qui vaporise les bois.[26]

Innocence survives experience, through experience. The innocence of the moth in its mouthless struggle for life. Millions of moths and the single life. The split nocturnal lyric. The poem:

Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead.[27]

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, pg. 244.

[2] Virginia Woolf, diary entry of 28 September 1928.

[3] Woolf, op. cit.

[4] Robin Blaser quoted in Lisa Jarnot, Robert Duncan: The Ambassador from Venus, pg. 165.

[5] Woolf, op. cit.

[6] William James, “Does ‘Consciousness’ Exist?,” Essays in Radical Empiricism, pg. 4.

[7] Robert Duncan, “Pages from a Notebook,” A Selected Prose, pg. 16.

[8] Duncan, The H.D. Book, pg. 151.

[9] Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855).

[10] Woolf, op. cit.

[11] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, pg. 118.

[12] Duncan, “Pages from a Notebook,” A Selected Prose, pg. 15.

[13] Morton, pg. 187.

[14] Woolf, op. cit.

[15] Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, pg. 33.

[16] Pound, Guide to Kulchur, pg. 135.

[17] Duncan, The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, pg. 669.

[18] Whitehead, Process and Reality, pg. 223.

[19] John Keats, Selected Letters, pgs. 147-148

[20] Shakespeare, The Tempest, 5.1.

[21] Keats, pg. 148.

[22] C.f. Stephen Collis and Graham Lyons, eds., Reading Duncan Reading: Robert Duncan and the Poetics of Derivation, pg. 64.

[23] Woolf, op. cit.

[24] Duncan, The H.D. Book, pg. 210.

[25] Woolf, “The Death of the Moth,” The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, pg. 4.

[26] Francis Ponge, “La Bougie,” Les parti pris des choses, pg. 39.

[27] Woolf, “The Death of the Moth,” pg. 6.

Joshua Corey is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently The Barons (Omnidawn Publishing, 2014), and a novel, Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy (Spuyten Duyvill Press, 2014). With G.C. Waldrep he co-edited The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012). He lives in Evanston, Illinois and teaches English at Lake Forest College.
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