Tom D'Evelyn on Poetry and Its Others (philosophy, theology, poetics)
With Kathryn Maris, Alice Oswald is among the contemporary poets who explore the paradox of nihilism in our time. As paradox, this is by nature a “difficult” topic; treating it mindfully is challenging; readers can enjoy their poems without confronting the paradox. Nihilism can suggest the waste land, devalued being after the death of God; and/or nihilism, understood theologically, makes possible an existential choice (see Richard Kearney, “Anatheism: returning to God after God” 2010). Nihilism offers a choice between determinism and freedom. For poets, the myth of creation from nothing (a theme taken up by Jewish, Arab, and Christian philosophers in the middle ages) has always provoked analogies with the making of a poem.
Oswald’s “Hymn to Iris” (in Woods etc. 2005) is a superb example of such making. In terms of genre (hymns are associated with prayers), it is a “kletic” hymn: it invokes the goddess and makes a request. (It would be interesting, in light of Oswald’s recent Memorial, her version of Homer’s Iliad, to compare this poem to the genre of the Homeric hymn.)
As an invocation of a rainbow it is quite lovely. Oswald’s “powers of description” — how meager that phrase sounds in this case! — can be startling. Indeed, the whole poem is packed with memorable phrases: “May two fields be bridged by a stile / And two hearts by the tilting footbridge of a glance.” There is “difficulty” here but there is also grace and finesse, turning mere words into prisms of meaning.
Her lines do have something of Homer’s preturnatural clarity.
Hymn to Iris
Quick moving goddess of the rainbow
You whose being is only an afterglow of a passing-through
Put your hands
Put your heaven-taken shape down
On the ground. Now. Anywhere
Like a bent- down bough of nothing
A bridge built out of the linked cells of thin air
And let there be instantly in its underlight –
At street corners, on swings, out of car windows –
A three-moment blessing for all bridges
May impossible rifts be often delicately crossed
By bridges of two thrown ropes or one dropped plank
May the unfixed forms of water be warily leaned over
On flexible high bridges, huge iron sketches of the mathematics of strain
And bridges of see-through stone, the living-space of drips and echoes
May two fields be bridged by a stile
And two hearts by the tilting footbridge of a glance
And may I often wake on the broken bridge of a word,
Like in the wind the trace of a web. Tethered to nothing
The final couplet raises the question of nothingness and makes it the heart of the matter. The phrase “broken bridge of a word” leads to the image of a spider’s web floating in the wind — or rather the “trace of a web” (the word “trace” recapitulating much post-modern theory about meaning). The final phrase, which goes unpunctuated, is heart-stopping: “Tethered to nothing”!
It is very hard to wrap one’s mind around the idea of “the broken bridge of a word.” It announces, late in the poem, that the ‘difficulty’ of belief involved in making this hymn poem has been faced squarely.
Yet while in this may be heard a desperate cry — the poet’s word not the Word — the poem is a prayer. The authority of the form has exerted considerable pressure on Oswald’s imagination. Oswald has configured a post-modern space within the framework of a poem genre profound in its antiquity. There are things to say about such space, things to believe and not believe. Is this a “religious” poem?
Today, as I read it and write about it, the whole poem invokes a “space” that can be read as the “metaxy” or the space between ultimate nothings; with the proviso that one mustn’t prejudge these nothings or nothingness! This space as conjured here is by tradition “divine” — Iris is a goddess. The poem invokes the presence of the divine goddess.
How irrelevant is that? The contemporary Irish philosopher William Desmond writes:
“The double sense of the meta as in the midst and yet beyond challenges us again. The difficulty for metaxological thought is of moving on the porous boundary that joins these two together, of attending the vein of intimacy that marks the communication between them, and not just in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary events of everyday life. There is no space of a privileged above. The above is below; the above is within; the above faces outwards; the above surfaces in the night dew of desert places. It is the most fluid of the enigmas that pass in and through the between.” (The William Desmond Reader, p 220).
This text alerts us to the substance of Oswald’s vision of Iris, this “above” creature seen — and I do mean “seen” — as ordinary. Oswald’s art makes palpable this between, and this goddess, this energy that charges with splendor the “meta” or betweenness of life on earth. As a messenger of/within the metaxy, Oswald’s Iris makes a fine goddess.