Poetic Investigations

Tom D'Evelyn on Poetry and Its Others (philosophy, theology, poetics)

Kathryn Maris

Kathryn Maris


This page contains several essays on poems taken from God Loves You by Kathryn Maris
See author’s comments on her poem “The Assembly” TK

“Knowledge is a Good Thing”

While searching for a way to talk about nihilism in one of her poems, I chanced upon “Knowledge is a Good Thing” (God Loves You, p. 38) and was startled by the music of those two-beat couplets.

It’s about another long afternoon just as time was getting going.

The poem is about Eve sitting around in Eden waiting for Adam to return and chatting idly with the Devil.author’s comments

It opens:’s

“My mind is open / So the devil can get in.”

Later we read:

“Will I despair / At what’s in there?”

I’ll analyze these two bits — there are 14 tiny boxes full of musical surprise.

This kind of counterpoint is among my favorite happenings in verse. It depends on two forms: the first iambic form — da DA da DA — and then whatever you want to do with it.

In the first example, we have: “my MIND is OPen” — so that’s cool. That’s a good start. Then we have: “SO the DEvi can GET IN.” Or something like that. Some syncopated version of da DA da DA.

If we follow Alfred Corn’s good idea, we will supply each syllable a number that is relative to the rest of the neighboring syllables:

3 (my) 4 (mind) 2 (is) 4 (O) 3 (pen)

2 (SO) 1 (the) 5 (De) 1 (il) 2 (can) 4 (Get) X (in)

The last one is a ghasp: I give it X value. It’s swallowed in horror (or delight). Or it is shouted: IN! Get IN!


Now for “Will I despair / At what’s in there?”

This has a wrinkle: despair leads quickly to “at” which completes it. 3 (will) 4 (I) 1 (de) 5 Spair

4 (at) 2 (what’s) 3 (in) 4 (there)

OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT. As in the first item, the emphasis RISES as the sentence completes itself. But note: All values are relative. The numbers give only a sense of the flow of energy in the syllables and syntax. There is something alive about these rhythms, isn’t there!

And yes, I do believe, and feel, and think, that this emphatic, various, jazzy music is appropriate to the subject of the poem. That is, it is somehow “mimetic” — answering to how we feel sitting in the Garden waiting for History to begin. The rhythms, so traditional (these short lines recall Medieval and Renaissance poetry) and yet so expressive — a whole lot of pleasure in those wee boxes. Lots of “play” in those sounds!



The Assembly

This will be the third blog essay I’ve posted about Maris’s poetry. Obviously I find her poems fascinating because they are complex enigmatic works that formally test the boundaries of the art without becoming precious.

I was trained at Berkeley in the 70’s by one of the great students of poetic form, Elroy Bundy, who figured out how Pindar’s famously obscure “odes” held together and held the attention of the audience all the way through. I’m still reading poems in terms of formal unity. But during the 70s the big change was taking place: the French invasion. Ultimately deconstruction. Cultural criticism. Philosophy. I practice both formal and cultural criticism. Maris’s modest looking poems repay close reading.

Maris’s “Assembly” is both formally and culturally fascinating.


for The Hall School

In lines the boys are perfect: what are they
in dreamy ranks, our babies or our men?
They pass us quickly when they hear This way!
and settle down in rows then rise to sing
Jesus lived here for men
strove and died,rose again
rules our hearts, now and then . . .
the voices die after they sing amen.

A teacher, newly wed, is smiling as
her pupil reads a poem and another
wins a cup for excellence in maths.
A boy behind a cello sees his mother
in the back, who wept at none can see
God above – and that concludes Assembly.
As a sonnet, this poem follows the intricate rules of development and change. It is ultimately shaped by the torque that makes the last several lines difficult, as if under pressure to transcend the original subject. (Helen Vendler writes well about this aspect of Yeat’s sonnets.) The formal decision about closure in the English sonnet must choose between Petrarchan tercets and Shakespearean couplets. Maris combines these structures, but she’s in the Shakespearean tradition concerning the sudden exposure of something raw and intimate at the very end that tends to revision the whole poem.

This is a poem about mothers and sons, about growing up going on, about cultural texts and personal fates. It is about creation, creativity, and finally the Creator. It has the whiff of actuality, as Maris’s poems sometimes do, and that can mislead the reader into relaxing.

Wouldn’t want to relax, now would we? Maris’s sonnet, like the other poems of her’s I’ve written about, are both intense of voice and tense of structure. The theme couldn’t be more traditional: mutability. The Christian inset texts, considered by many inert givens of public culture (and thereby to be resented), actually deepen the tenseness and the intensity. The tenseness because they are embedded in poems with the appearance of documentation, and that again lulls us into a feeling that this poem is just a mother’s memoir– but Intense because they dig ever more deeply into what what is inconsolable: the passing of the mortal over against the immortal. A great theme in a little room, as sonnets can be, should be.

You can’t have one — an appreciation of the passing moment — without the other — a sense of the transcendent. The cultural influences of the 70s turned us all into little atheists, a very happy and falsely courageous thing to be now as then. We historicized Christianity: we read Shakespeare “as if” the text were indebted to belief; the “as if” allowed us to be good scholars without buying into the sacred nonsense. For the past twenty years and more however Shakespeare’s religious background has become another academic battleground. Perhaps “religion” matters after all.

“Assembly” takes the sacred nonsense seriously. The religious texts that structure the occasion only make it more intense: this is a poem about witnessing a passing: the boys proceed, pass by, as if into another time. Their voices “die” after they perform the sacred song.

The public looks on. Teachers smile; parents hold back tears. And at the end — a stroke of genius demanded by the sonnet form but of course often flubbed — one of the boys watches his mother, “sees” her “in the back” weeping at the mention of the God who seems so far removed from the intensity of the moment, whose absence makes it all that more intense. Formally, this fulfills the sonnet form by turning away from the public situation and inward and UPWARD. Not “upward” in a doctrinaire sense, but away from the givens toward a deeper source of what we are experiencing. Upward as in downward.

The Christian God in the tradition of this poem cannot be “seen” or even “known” in the crude sense. None can see God above — because He IS above. He’s above all this. The Creator is above the creation, paring his nails, as Joyce once said. But not necessarily indifferent– who among us would in good conscience speculate about the transcendent one? As we are now becoming more and more aware, nihilism — the idea of the creation seen from the perspective of nothingness — is inherent in biblical faith, based as it is now on traditions of “creation out of nothing.” One must think this through.

Perhaps, in the words of the title of the book where this poem appears, God does love us. He may have a strange way of showing it, but . . .

But those tears are conclusive. The Assembly is concluded: closed off, finished, contained in the poem, but not really. The boy “behind a cello” (which is such a nice touch, some readers will have him playing the cello, others just craning to see his mother) saw his mother crying; she couldn’t contain her tears. He must wonder why. It will take him decades to understand why, if he ever does. The reader of this sonnet is well-positioned to understand those tears.

But isn’t all this Christian crap just tradition and isn’t it really time the schools got rid of it? Doesn’t the poem pay tribute to a tribal sense of belonging — this “assembly” that includes Jesus and God as living presences–or absent presences, or something? So many say. If the poet has her own reasons for writing it (I mean beyond the need for writing another poem), the poem doesn’t say what they are. We read it as form: and become swept into its vortex of emotions. The emotions seem appropriate, and the poem pulls no punches. It is beautifully made, generously assembled of all the crucial parts of this uplifting melancholy joyous occasion.


Comments by Kathryn Maris:

Thank you, Tom, for your typically articulate and generous take on my work.


‘Assembly’ took years to get right, and I’m still not sure it’s right. But sometimes I don’t know how to make the poem better and—given I don’t write that many poems—I sometimes settle for ‘almost right.’


When I write in traditional forms (e.g. sonnets) I’m all too aware that I can’t compete with masters of the form over so many centuries. So my more modest goal is to try to write a sonnet that doesn’t sound too much like other sonnets.


This sonnet, unpublishable for so many years, started out as unpunctuated. Omitting punctuation was the (misguided) way I tried to make this sonnet ‘distinctive’. I wanted a breathless, speedy sonnet that would accentuate the rapid passage of childhood.


After resisting the advice of friends/colleagues who suggested I try punctuating the poem, I finally relented and discovered they were correct: the poem works much better with punctuation.


Here’s an early draft of the poem, then called ‘The Boys’:



The Boys




In lines the boys are perfect what are they

in dreamy ranks our babies or our men

our soldiers dressed in grey their fate is on

the floor now when they sit the teachers say

Year 3 boys in the back not yet just stay

until it’s time the hymn today’s again

to Sing aloud     loud     loud     the song

once new to me is my heartbeat today


but also heartbreak look the fiancée

in reverie her pupil says a prayer

another wins a cup a taller boy

behind a cello doesn’t know the way

that all have here men to love his mother

sobs with loss at praise him and with joy



Though this draft is flawed in so many ways—and though many of the details subsequently changed, including the hymn—it does have a better answer to the question of why the mother is crying. She is crying with loss and with joy.


In the ‘finished’ version of the poem—that one that you have kindly posted—there is a suggestion that she is instead crying over the mystery of ‘God.’


Feelings of loss and joy are transcendent and terrible and even ‘religious’ to me. So I do not see a huge distinction between the reason for the mother’s tears in the early drafts (loss/joy) and in the final version (accepting that ‘none can see God above’.)


That said, it still doesn’t feel quite right—and perhaps even a bit disingenuous.


But how does one translate those transcendent moments? You’d have to be more skilled than I am.


I have really enjoyed reading you responses to this poem, Tom. I particularly loved your remark that it has the structure of the Petrarchan sonnet but the ‘feel’ of a Shakespearean sonnet, with its abrupt turn/epiphany. Yes: I think that’s probably right!


Thanks for your thoughts; as usual I learned a lot.



“This is a Confessional Poem”: Nihilism and the Art of Confession

I think a lot of contemporary poetry can best be understood in terms of nihilism. We are taught that poems don’t “mean” the way other uses of language mean. Since we normally think of words as referential, as saying something about something, as “meaning” something definite, this is pretty special.

As for “nihilism,” nihilism seems to rise from a similar anxiety about meaning. The “nihil” in “nihilism” — the “nothing” — refers to the idea that things, including people, just “are” what they are; their somethingness has no connection to ultimate questions or universals like truth or beauty. As things, they don’t need to be more than things. We can name them what we want to name them, but there’s no truth in the notion that the name unlocks any secret meaning about the thing/person. That is, they are “finite” — not connected to anything in-finite or absolute that would ground them in security forever.

We have grown to like the idea of our autonomy: we are free to be who we are. We live and die alone, but in between we live, and we like to think we can handle this alone. Nobody can impose a meaning on us from the outside. In that sense, each individual includes her own nothingness, that shadow thrown by the fact that she may not have been, may not have happened, at all. We just are who and what we are.

This is hard to argue with though it is rarely said aloud in the presence of children. Nihilism is a general name for this understanding of things, including people. There’s no God (or philosopher) saving the appearances; no God loving our very finite being. God is dead, as they say. But we still need to think about things, and in understanding what to think about particular finitudes, we tend to depend on dualisms: I understand myself as NOT X. Our language helps with this strategy. Language depends on that stability: I am I; I am not you. This is this, not that. And so on, ad infinitum. Speaking of infinity, infinity is the Not of finitude.

I am not You. Our finitude is grounded, if it is grounded, in this NOT.

These basic themes of nihilism (I draw on Conor Cunningham’s The Genealogy of Nihilism) help me understand Kathryn Maris’s poem “This is a Confessional Poem” (God Loves You, Seren, 2013). The title depends on our understanding that a “confessional” poem is NOT an “artificial” poem. The poet is pulling our leg, and not for the last time; she very well knows the conventional meaning of the term of art “confessional poem.” It is marked by a raw sincerity, or at least a rawness. It could well be that the rawness of confessional poetry is a stylistic dimension of nihilism. It’s not a stretch to see Robert Lowell in this light. The confessional self, from Augustine onwards, is self-aware of his lack of meaning, right? The experience goes from awareness of loss — something missing — to an awareness of BEING LOST. Abandoned by the transcendent other in whose presence we may find peace.

Something along those lines.

This is a Confessional Poem

I am guilty of so much destruction it hardly matters
anymore. There are so many thank-you notes I never wrote
that sometimes I’m relieved by the deaths of would-be
recipients, so I can finally let go of the shame.
I was awful to someone who was attached to the phrase
‘social polish,’ as though she’d acquire it through repetition.
I took an overdose at a child’s 6th birthday party.
I was born in a country which some have called
The Big Satan. I abandoned the country for one
that is called The Little Satan. I wished ill on a woman
who has known me for years and yet never remembers
who I am – and now she’s involved in a public scandal.
I have been at parties where I was boring.
I have been at parties where I was deadly boring.
I have worn the wrong clothes to sacraments, not
for lack of outfits, but for a temporary failure of taste.
I’m a terrible, terrible liar, and everything I say is full of
misrepresentation. I once knew a very sweet girl
who stabbed herself in the abdomen 7 times.
She believed she was evil and thought 7 was a holy number.
Besides that she was sane, and told me her tale
out of kindness—because guilt recognizes guilt,
the way a mother can identify her own child.
I met her in a class called ‘Poetry Therapy’
iln which the assignment was to complete this statement:
When one door closes, another opens.
I wrote At the end of my suffering there was a door,
making me gulty of both plagiarism and lack of imagination.
I was the vortex of suffering: present, future and retroactive
suffering. The girl tried to absolve me.
‘Don’t be Jesus,’ she said. ‘There are enough around here.’
I know I should thank her if she’s alive,
but I also know it’s unlikely I’ll rise to the task.
Maris is a really funny writer and she shakes you up and makes you laugh at the same time. There is something appallingly real about this person; we recognize ourselves in her. That’s reason enough to kill all the poets.

The poem is not only clever; it is, for all its feeling of spontaneity, a “well-made” poem. Notice that the middle is where the poem takes a turn, both formally and in intensity. We have a list of confessions (things of varying weight, including taking an overdose at a child’s birthday party), then at the middle we have a big confession — “I am a liar” — and this turning point clicks into the root of nihilism: how do we speak the truth out of our finitude? If we are free, autonomous selves, how do we speak the truth? How do we see ourselves as others? We are unique, individual, autonomous selves. How can we say things about ourselves that are true? This lying girl is confessing for all of us in confessing that she misrepresents everything she talks about.

This is what the clerisy calls an “aporia”: it is indeed the aporia of nihilism: how can we say anything true about nothing; how can a finite person ground herself outside herself to see herself and say something true about herself? We share in this confession.

But the poem comes to her/our rescue. And in the old hallowed way: it tells a story. The second half tells a story about another person, somewhat like the speaker, but better. This better person makes the speaker feel guilty, or guiltier. And that story, as a story rather than a list, brings the poem to a close. It seems to be a story about speaking the truth. What the very sweet girl in the poetry class tells the speaker seems to be the truth: “Don’t be Jesus. There are enough around here.” Lots of Jesus’s opening doors, BEING doors! Don’t be that! Be yourself!

The moment passes. The poem makes us laugh at the speaker yet again, in light of the help offered her. But of course she wasn’t trying to be a door for people, like Jesus was (or said he was). She was just writing, combining words in the shape we call a sentence. She was in a poetry class and doing the assignment; no harm in that. And the sentence worked mechanically and it may have worked for many in the poetry seminar. It didn’t work for the very sweet girl who had had an episode in which she stabbed herself 7 times because 7 is a magic number.

And whom we trust as NOT the speaker, whom we’ve come to have serious doubts about.

Maris puts us on the spot, doesn’t she?

That’s just the way the world is: full of things that seem to mean things to people, but of course we can’t or shouldn’t trust all those appearances. Stabbing yourself 7 times won’t get rid of your sense of your evil — your locked-in self, closed to all that is good, open to all the evil that is you — unless you do it right and it kills you.


“The End of Envy”  An Essay a Day for Five Days

First Day

I always ask my students to ask of a poem, “What sort of person would say this?” I will use my Diary to explore a poem by Kathryn Maris entitled “The End of Envy.” I am using the diary because this is a deceptively simple looking poem and it will take some time to answer the question, “What sort of person would say this.” Just reading it over superficially, one may hazard that the person speaking is a philosophical type of person, one who says “I” but doesn’t mean “I, Kathryn Maris” or even worse, does mean the very same.

Along with that initial ambivalence comes an alternative: the “I” of the poem may be a kind of not-self; not exactly an alter-ego, but a sort of transparency for absolute meaning as opposed to a “self” or residual identity in the usual human sense.

Although I don’t know how this will turn out, my gut tells me that in reading this poem for a while, I may come into phase with a range of possibilities the horizon of which is the “apophatic anthropology” suggested by Denys Turner in his book “The Darkness of God” (1995).

Or maybe not.

Tomorrow I’ll post some remarks about specifics — style, metaphor, that sort of thing. Here’s the poem — from The Book of Jobs (Four Way Press):

The end of envy

Is a staircase in midair.

From there,

There is nothing to want.

But there is wind to love.

I miss what the wind bent,

But I’m used to the bare world.

When I was sentenced to the stairs

For eternity, I didn’t know

I would climb them pregnant,

Or ill, or with the aim of soothing a cry

That would reappear

As soon as I was at the bottom.

In a way I am happy here on the stairs,

For the end of envy

Is the end of desire, the end of the edifice,

But not of elevation.


Yesterday we introduced “The End of Envy” by Kathryn Maris and said we’d be commenting on different aspects of it for a while because it is somewhat difficult. What sort of person would write about “the end of envy”? That’s the question we posed. Here’s the poem. After I quote it I will note some features that suggest an answer to the question.

The end of envy

Is a staircase in midair.

From there,

There is nothing to want.

But there is wind to love.

I miss what the wind bent,

But I’m used to the bare world.

When I was sentenced to the stairs

For eternity, I didn’t know

I would climb them pregnant,

Or ill, or with the aim of soothing a cry

That would reappear

As soon as I was at the bottom.

In a way I am happy here on the stairs,

For the end of envy

Is the end of desire, the end of the edifice,

But not of elevation.

Just looking at it we can begin to answer our question, “What sort of person would say such a thing?” The “thing” — some statements about the “end of envy” — is not exactly a statement of opinion. What we see looks like a poem. The lines don’t run all the way to the right margin. The lines are grouped in two’s. That LOOKS like a poem.

It also sounds like a poem. There are several sounds that are repeated: the “air” sound repeats itself in stair, air, there, there, bare. While these sounds don’t form a pattern at the end of the lines (as in traditional rhyming), they are still pretty obvious. They knit together the parts in a musical way which is rather pleasing to the mind’s ear, for this kind of “showing” is something we enjoy.

Those particular sounds stop a certain way down, reappear in a minor key in “reappear,” then after a bit take over again in “stairs” with another variation in the final set of lines (call it a couplet) in “desire.”

So it SOUNDS like a poem. We also noted repeated sounds at the end: end, end, end.

As in “reappear” and “end,” the sounds “appear” to comment on the meaning, sort of italicizing certain words, which adds a feeling of depth to the sounds. Rather clever!

So, we may tentatively say, without going any deeper (we will do that tomorrow), that the kind of person who would “say” this thing could well be a poet. Poets do odd things with words; they don’t just “say” things; they sing them, or something.

Day Three

Yesterday, Day Two of our commentary on Maris’s “The End of Envy” (see below) concluded with a provisional answer to the question: “What kind of person would say this?” The tentative answer: “a poet.” After today we may want to qualify that and say, “a philosophical poet.”

Today we will look at the basic building blocks of this poem (or any text), the nouns and verbs. When we read poetry closely, it is good to think about the basics; for one thing, it postpones emotional leaps that may dishonor the poem as something made by someone in particular with a specific desire to make something specific! Specification is the first obligation of the reader.

Poems are “made” even more than other texts, so we look at the parts with some care. It sometimes helps if you pretend you don’t know the language. Even though you may “speak” the language, you really don’t know the language this specific poet is using in this specific poem, such is the freedom with which poets play with language.

Before I give you a tabulation of nouns and verbs and their frequency, I can tell you that by counting the nouns and verbs, we discover that the poem may be said to be in three parts. Each part is marked by a different set of verbs and nouns. The third part begins in the middle of the penultimate couplet. This third, last part is signaled by a repetition of the key noun “stair.”

Nouns in order of appearance, (numbers in parens indicate more than one usage; I include the title): end (5) envy (4); stair(case) (3); nothing; wind; eternity; aim; cry; bottom; desire; ediface; elevation. That tool kit of nouns suggests a lot about the subject matter, as we would expect.

Verbs in order of appearance (numbrers in parens indicate more than one usage): is/am (6); was; sentenced; soothing; know; climb.

As I said, cataloguing the nouns and verbs shows us the structure. The first part involves us with “is”; the second part with action verbs; the third and last part returns to “is.” Verbs of identity and definition give way to verbs of action and then return to verbs of identity and definition.

Repetition of nouns reveals that “end” is a key word, along with “envy.” It is good to look up key words. “End” is ambiguous: end may mean purpose, intention, goal; or simply cut-off point. “End” shows up in the title; both meanings are possible. When we talk about the meaning of the sentences separately and together, we will explore the ambiguities of “end.” Envy is a complex word because it is both a noun and a verb. As a verb, it usually takes both an object and an indirect object: “I envy him his ability to chill.” Etymologically, envy is built of a prefix “in” and a form of “see” (Latin videre). Envy sees something it lacks and wants it. But the poem isn’t about an instance of envy; we don’t know what or who is being envied or even who is feeling envy.

The title preserves that ambiguity. The first couplet seems to name the “end” but it does so with an image, thus fulfilling one of the meanings of “end”: the point where envy is cut off, or ends. It ends “midair.” It doesn’t end with satisfaction.

A rather elegant if subtle-enough-to-be-overlooked beginning!

More anon . . . .

Here’s the poem again.

The end of envy

Is a staircase in midair.

From there,

There is nothing to want.

But there is wind to love.

I miss what the wind bent,

But I’m used to the bare world.

When I was sentenced to the stairs

For eternity, I didn’t know

I would climb them pregnant,

Or ill, or with the aim of soothing a cry

That would reappear

As soon as I was at the bottom.

In a way I am happy here on the stairs,

For the end of envy

Is the end of desire, the end of the edifice,

But not of elevation.


For a copy of the poem, see above.

Continuing to ask questions that could be asked of any text — we do this in order to separate the poem from other texts, for the answers will always be different — we may now ask an often overlooked question: how is this text punctuated? A moment’s reflection adds a reason to ask the question: this is a poem; perhaps the punctuation will help us see it as such. At first blush, this sounds unlikely.

Once we begin tabulating the types of punctuation, we become conscious of the relationship between punctuation and line-ending. The poem opens with two “neat” couplets, each ends with a full stop. The third couplet is different: the first line ends with a period, the second one ends with a comma, and so flows on to the next . . . couplet? No: single line. Based on expectation, this is unexpected: a wee surprise, but behold this makes a unit — a couplet — of the second line of the third couplet and the single line of the fourth stanza, which ends with a period.

Having noticed this pattern, read the first part of the poem aloud, pausing for increasingly long moments at the end of each line AND at the commas and, most drawn-out, at periods.

Read this section aloud several times. You should get better at it; or rather, you should begin to feel the pattern, which is after all a set of expectations. And your reading fulfills the expectations as a “realization” — and this is called “getting into it.” Making it your own, even “learning it by heart.” (Good for the heart, too.)

After the single line comes a series of clauses and phrases that don’t stop until three couplets have done. Stop at “the bottom,” which makes sense. Makes sense the way all aspects of poetry, including punctuation (syntax) MAKE sense (make perception, make feeling, make meaning).

If after practicing the first section, and then practicing the second section, with its more complex movements, you are not stirred, you need to practice more. Out loud. Preferably alone.

The final section features a triadic climax in the final couplet. This triad is introduced by an independent clause (“In a way I am happy here on the stairs”) that sounds like the conclusion of the poem, or marks the beginning of the end. That clause yields to a second clause, connected by “for” (which confirms the sense of the ending, to borrow from St Kermode); and the ending comes to an end. But not without feeling, perhaps enviable, given the circumstances. Having reached the end (not of envy, for it is growing apace if you are an onlooking poet), you may now really need to look up some big words: especially “desire,” perhaps the most important word in the world.

The rhythms of the poem, inscribed in/by the punctuation, once realized by the voice, become the “shape” of the poem, even before that shape is filled in with a mastery of the semantics, the meanings of the words (gads–“desire?”). Perhaps we could conclude that a firm grasp of this aspect of the poem gives us an “outline” of the poem, to be filled in as we learn more about it. But what a lovely outline! Not to say enviable, not to say much to be desired.


On this Day Five of our close reading of Kathryn Maris’s short poem “The End of Envy,” we can look back on the analysis so far and still ask the question, “What sort of person says such a thing?” We know by our analysis that the poem has three parts, that the parts are marked by different kinds of vocabulary and punctuation. Reading slowly, we have come to know the poem as a rhythmic unit composed of stops and starts, pauses and increasing complexity of syntax. It begins with statements of definition, moves through narrative, and returns to statements of definition, with a difference. This “shape” suggests something about the speaker that only emerges gradually: a depth of feeling.

Given the prominence of statement, even definition, as the mode, it is easy to feel unsure about this poet’s “voice.” Highly articulate, the voice seems both cold and passionate. If this were a poem from the English Renaissance, one would be forgiven for looking for a religious motivation. To speak of the end of envy would seem a proper ascetic issue for a religious. To speak of a stair would too, and of eternity. Even perhaps of an intervening pregnancy, of cries at the bottom. We are all human after all.

But this is not a Renaissance poem. We ask of our poets that they speak to us as contemporaries, even if they don’t feel very contemporary. We ask of our contemporary poets some fidelity to the value of the immediate.

This poem pays little heed to the contemporary value of the immediate – or does it? Certainly the cold diction of the opening feels abstract, or distant. The image of the “staircase in midair” may remind one of Escher, which is at least 20th century. But the substance of the statements in the first part — “little to want,” “wind to love,” “bare world” – seem extreme, highly general, perhaps deprived or repressed.

The narrative comes as something of a relief. Story mends all fences. We all have stories, even those of us given to extreme statements. This story opens strangely, unbelievably: “When I was sentenced to the stairs / For eternity.” We can’t believe it, we can’t trust this speaker, this can’t be.

Oh yes, this is a poem, and that is a metaphor! Stairs is a metaphor! But for what? We need to know; we want to like this person; we need to feel what they feel, but we don’t inhabit stairs, not for even a day.

The verbs help: that lovely four stanza sentence does convey imagery of a life, a woman’s life (pregnancy), a life of duty if not necessary, a life in limbo perhaps (because situated on a “staircase in midair”) but nevertheless . . . Can we exercise our default “negative capability” and hear her out?

Once we get past the difficulty of imagining the ups-and-downs of this life on the stairs, the climbing up and the climbing down – we will get to this tomorrow – and get past the period after the word “bottom,” we are relieved, perhaps, to hear this: “In a way I am happy” – we hadn’t seen any happiness so far, so we are grateful. Maybe we do all live with ups and downs, and so live on the stairs, metaphorically speaking. We are getting to “like” this poet’s voice, and maybe even the poet.

Then to its close the poem is like inhaling oxygen: “For the end of envy / Is the end of desire, the end of the edifice, / But not of elevation.” Our voice goes all squeaky: these words are hard to speak. We had been sympathizing with this poor woman, and here she goes again, all ascetic, pushing towards ultimacy at speed. And even if we hear a touch of Baudelaire in the very last word, we know we have to go back to the beginning and start over. We need to get Baudelaire out of there, don’t we?

DAY SIX: The End?

The end of poetic analysis is form. Over the past week or so I have read Kathryn Maris’s poem “The End of Envy” with attention to formal features. In the process, a deeper form has been revealed. That form remains to be discussed.

At the end of Day Five, I tried to convey the weird sense that this strange poem had a compelling voice. I ask the reader to reread the other pieces if you have not already done so. There are not many surprises there and there should not be much disagreement; there are no doubt omissions.

But now we must deal with that deeper form. The end of analysis is form, but the end of analysis is not the end of desire, to paraphrase the poem at hand.

This more mysterious, more equivocal form – not accounted for by syntactical and semantic analysis, but dyadic perhaps to it – is suggested by the image of the staircase. Mindful attention to that word in the contexts provided by the poem may encourage one to think of Wittgenstein’s “The world is everything that is the (stair)case.”

Certainly for this poem everything happens on the stair. For eternity. In eternity. The voice we listen to – listen as our incredulity mixes with desire to know it better — is “sentenced” to the staircase for eternity. Is “sentenced” another pun? Is “edifice” a pun in the final stanza? Is the edifice the poem? Is the staircase the poem?

If this be punning, what is the end of all this punning?

Reading at this level, after moving through the other dimensions of formal analysis, I keep thinking about the paradox of experience in Augustine: the way up is the way in, perhaps the way down to the bottom of the heart. God is more interior than the self. This is the crux of apophatic prayer.

Does that connect with my experience of this poem?

For now at least, it does seem that the “form” revealed to me by mindful analysis is that form. At the bottom of the stair one hears a cry – an infant’s cry? (The “I” of the poem has climbed these stairs “pregnant”!) A cry is not a word: it wants soothing. Soothing: is that a pun? Is there sooth in this soothing? If you are Augustine (and maybe later Wittgenstein) there IS sooth in that cry at the bottom of the stair.

Life on the staircase brings us to “the end of desire, the end of the edifice, / But not of elevation.” That word smarts. We must go up and down, eternally. We must go up.

This contextualization of the “form” of “The End of Envy” has a remainder. Is the poem right to say that the end of envy – objective want – is the end of desire? Perhaps the end of desire is unfathomable. Perhaps it ends in “Thee.” Perhaps this very strong, post-modern poem, is a faint echo of a greater poem, a greater form, the apophatic form which purifies our desires but does not extinguish desire?

Could the poet be wrong about that? Or, does the “voice” separate now from the “poet” given the ultimate equivocity of these big abstract terms? Is the final renunciation that of the voice of the poem? The poet is other to the voice of the poem’s edifice. The end of the edifice is not the end of elevation.

For me, for now, this is the final insight of the poem. Reading a poem engages us in all manner of forms, eventually in apophatic form, and mindful attention to apophatic form requires a greater act of attention, an attention embracing the differences revealed by elevation, including the smallness of the human self as it is fulfilled (ended) in a greater and eternal Self its true end. But that way of putting it makes me uncomfortable. I need soothing by the sooth promised, sort of, by the poem.

Is this the end? No. We will return to Maris’s deft, uncanny, unsparing spare but ultimately “happy” poem for a jolt of . . . poetry.


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This entry was posted on November 9, 2014 by in Maris.
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