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Critical Essay by D. R. Fosso
SOURCE: "Poetic Metaphysic in A. R. Ammons," in Pembroke Magazine, No. 18, 1986, pp. 158-63.
In the following essay, Fosso analyzes the ontological and cosmological concerns in Ammons's poetry.
His poems witness that A. R. Ammons knows what he is about and we who relish reading him are finding him out. Take a small poem of 1975, scarcely even one of his "rondures":
Because I am
here I am
A "metaphysic," of course, is one whose epistemological concerns are especially with ontology and cosmology. If one reads "Because I am / here I am," the statement is reflexive and ontological, doubly recalling the familiar causality of "I think; therefore I am." On the other hand, if one reads "Because I am here / I am (nowhere) else," the statement is relational and squints toward the enlargingly cosmologic. Since "(nowhere)" isn't anywhere, it gets shunted into parentheses and the word quickens in the eye with an assertion of immediacy, "(now/here)," while, if read that way, its homonymic pun on "hear" demands attention. Finally, the syllabic diminuendo of the lines, 4-3-2-1, makes the form an exercise in getting down to "one," the self ontologically understood and that ever-present "One/many" problem cosmologically understood. The problem is how to put the two together and the poem does just that when it reads two ways at the same time.
Ommateum, the first book, opens with "So I Said I Am Ezra" and rightfully so, for everything that Ammons has published originates from and returns to that poem. Its 27 lines are five sentences without punctuation as though the statements "said" dissolve uncertainly. Something happens to the personal pronouns as well. The first sentence, lines 1-3, has four of them while the last, lines 21-27, has only one stated and one understood. Increasingly, the speaker's attempt to find a relation "here" is thwarted by a hostile setting where "the wind whipped my throat / gaming for the sounds of my voice," that "gaming" making even more edgily unsettling the cruel "whipped." When in lines 4-5 the speaker "listened to the wind / go over my head and up into the night," we sense he means not just spatially, but also cognitively as when we say of something we don't understand, "that's over my head."
To assert so simply that "I am Ezra" and then to find no response, "he echoes from the waves," is a frightening condition of reflexiveness, so frightening indeed that it is "as if the wind were taking me away," that "me" not only in the sense of carrying me off but also in the full sense of "meness," being itself. And that is what is happening when, after three assertions of "I am Ezra," two of them isolated lines without relation, we come to line 23, "so I Ezra went out into the night." The verb of being has disappeared, an articulation without attribution, and "went out" is resonant with familiar idiom as in our saying "the light just went out," here "into the night." Ending with "the windy oats / that clutch the dunes of unremembered seas," the speaker's desperate clutching at a relation that is denied him, at an identity, at a being that "falls out of being," makes the poem a poignant ontological crisis in a cosmology wherein there are no bearings from which one can take assurance about the nature of self and other.
How different and how similar is the voice in "Corsons Inlet," that utterance, so familiar, to which one returns with renewing wonder. It begins:
I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning to the sea,
not the night of Ezra with his "dunes / of unremembered seas," for here the "I" is conscious, in "again," of his return to these dunes that modify but stay as well. He continues:
then turned right along
rounded a naked headland
along the inlet shore:
Note an altered tonality here, the playfulness of not only turning to the "right" but also of moving "right along" and then doubleness of "returned" turning into "returned." The pattern of the speaker's movement is important ("turned" "rounded" "returned"), for his circulation through the inlet's seascape is a circle. This perceiving eye/I makes a circumference in his passages, and to know a circumference enables a center to be known. Hence, the "Inlet" stroll is an avenue into ontological understanding.
Refusing "forms," "perpendiculars," "straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds / of thought," refusing definitions ("shutting out and shutting in, separating inside / from outside"), this speaker is "willing to go along" (both in the sense of moving and of accepting), "To accept / the becoming thought" (both in the sense of handsomely attractive and of what is as a state of continuing), willing "to stake off no beginnings or ends," this last an assertion that experience is not a narrative with its linear assumptions of causality and its endorsement of purposiveness, of the existence of a telos ("ends"). Earlier, in lines 30-32, the speaker declared:
but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events
I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting
beyond the account.
"Overall" being that cosmologic transcendent telos that would make of experience a boxed in narrative, something "beyond me" (not only spatially too high but also cognitively out of one's reach as when we say, "that's beyond me"). The accounting ledger he "cannot keep" (both hold on to and keep in order); it will not be neatly quantified, tallied up, for it is "the accounting / beyond the account," what he cannot give an account of, though, of course, the poem does do just that, superbly.
Line 64 of this 128 line poem, a center around which the circling field of the speaker's perceptions make their arc, stations central concerns:
caught always in the event of change:
"Caught" is the boxing in of linear cause and effect narrative that defines and thereby limits; "change" is the circling "field of action" animating ontologic and cosmologic possibilities. "Always" means "forever" but then slips freeingly into the simultaneous possibility of "all ways" just as "in the event of" signals the important occurrence of "the event" while also working as a phrase meaning "in the case of." This poem, so richly textured in word and phrase, destabilizes secure meanings into resonating possibilities. In such a world, in such a self, we, like Ammons, could well assert, "there is serenity," because, while "terror pervades," it "is not arranged, all possibilities / of escape open."
At the end, content to "see narrow orders, limited tightness," understanding his place in the proximate "now/here," the speaker refuses "that easy victory" wherein we would humble "reality to precept" by positing a linear narrative both ontologic and cosmologic, fraught with the purposive clarity of a telelogic Oneness. Rather, he will "try / to fasten into order," that is, into the order of this and his other poems, "enlarging grasps of disorder," thereby "widening / scope, but enjoying the freedom that / Scope eludes my grasp." The first "scope" is like the scope of a book, how much it covers, as well as that liberating domain when we say, "you have free scope." But that second "Scope" (like "Overall is beyond me" earlier) refers to what one can know or encompass or understand as when we say, "that's beyond my scope."
Finally, consider the last two lines:
that I have perceived nothing completely,
that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.
What astonishes here is "nothing" which we receive two ways, both as "nothing at all" and as the state of "nothingness" absolutely conceived, that unutterable, unspeakable, unknowable, that One known so "completely" out of the many perceivings at "Corsons Inlet" where again the speaker will endlessly circle assured in his serenity "that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk."
In the dedicatory poem to Sphere: the Form of a Motion, "for Harold Bloom," "nothing" uneasingly rings evasive astonishments while forming the backbone for the four-part development. Unlike Ezra at the shore of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the speaker here stands at a high "Summit" of perception, but like Ezra's "whipped" and "ripped" surroundings, the wind here "tore about this / way and that in confusion." Ezra found no voice to echo his own, nothing relational, and the speaker here finds that the wind's "speech could not / get through to me nor could I address it." Ezra's yearning for relatedness is set forth even more poignantly here, and just as "nothing" appears four times, so, too, does the speaker's italicized "Longing" well up four times.
Seeking a distanced relation beyond the proximate, the speaker stands at a mastering summit of lengthened, spacious perspectives, a center surveying peripheries. Without, however, that cosmologic relationship, he feels ontologically as if he were "the alien in myself" and later "as foreign here as I had landed, a visitor." The cause of his disjunction is that "having been brought this far by nature I have been / brought out of nature" where "nature" means by his own inclination as well as by nature's evolutionary development to the point where he has a consciousness and a "longing" separate and apart from nature and which nature cannot respond to. The words of his conscious mind, "tree" "rock" "stream" "cloud" "star," signify only positivist realities drained of any transcendental import. That "nature so grand" of the nineteenth century Emersonian sublime here is "reticent," uncommunicatively withholding.
In the third movement beginning in line 24 (each section introduced by "so I" phrasing), the speaker, like God in Eden, "gathered mud / and with my hands made an image for longing." Failing to find its place in relation to that summit where "it completed / nothing," he returns to the city, builds "a house to set / the image in," and, for the first time, hears voices other than just his own, voices which, in concord with him, agree "that is an image for longing," an image not of "nature so grand," that cosmologic and distanced image of "nothing" viewed from the summit. The ontologic ground for being, enclosed in the house of the proximate and the "now/here," is defined in respect to a "longing" for what cannot be but can be recognized in the relational longings of other men who know it when they feel it.
The poem ends in line 34 with the fourth use of the word "nothing" which by this time, through iteration and development, has hauntingly gathered complex meaning:
and nothing will ever be the same again
On the one hand, everything is changed from what it was. On the other hand, "nothingness" absolutely conceived will be itself eternally. Just as in "Corsons Inlet," we have mysteriously entered into the absent presence of the unspeakable whose hushed reticence enlarges the human sense of longing for what is not.
An exemplary composing of Ammons' cognitive quest is the 1971 poem, "The Arc Inside and Out," its title playing with our familiar sense of knowing something "inside out," the "inside" being in this case the ontologic, the "outside" being the cosmologic. Fifteen stanzas organize three movements of approximately five stanzas each. In the first, lines 1-16, the speaker's epistemological method is that of "whittler and dumper," a method that is subtractive and reductive, seeking an ontologic essentiality, "the face-brilliant core / stone." In the second movement, lines 16-31, the method is opposite, that of an "amasser, heap shoveler," additive and comprehensive, to arrive at a cosmologic "plenitude / brought to center and extent." But in the third movement, both "ways to dream" are cognitive fictions rejected as "bumfuzzlement," the second to "the heterogeneous abundance / starved into oneness." Hence, at the end, there is the communing sustenance of what simply "is," "The apple an apple" and "the drink of water, the drink" as well as the restorative and easing "falling into sleep, dream, dream" ever renewing with possibilities beyond what simply "is." Serene assurance ends the poem:
every morning the sun comes, the sun
comes in its apparent transcribing of an arc of circulation, "inside which is nothing, / outside which is nothing," that "nothing" which is again so hauntingly the known unknowable that is everything.
"Singling and Doubling Together," from his most recent book, Lake Effect Country, is a remarkable work that in epitome focuses and resolves for a moment central concerns of this poetic metaphysic, A. R. Ammons. Given the title and the first line,
My nature singing in me is your nature singing,
we expect the possibility of "my" and "your" doubling in their song. The speaker's "nature" is to be a poetic singer of "your nature" voiced expressively in nature:
you have means to veer down, filter through,
and, coming in,
harden into vines that break back with leaves,
so that when the wind stirs
I know you are there and I hear you in leafspeech,
In a book whose title is playfully drawn from the nature poets of the "lake country" as well as from the "lake effect" of dumping heavy snow on New York state when winter weather systems pass over the Great Lakes, one might recognize in the lines just cited the presence of precise meteorologic diction. "Veer down" is what the wind does when it shifts to a clockwise direction, in this case, when the "you" enters our finite world of time. "Filter through" is, in reference to physics, what permits certain electric frequencies to pass while preventing others. "Coming in" reminds of radio waves as when we say that "transmission is coming in good." In line 4, the "vines that break back with leaves," in respect to wind direction, suggest a shift to counter-clockwise. Hence, the high and unheard wind comes clockwise into leaves that turn it to a backwind, thereby, like a radio transmitter, making the unheard heard, the "leafspeech" of "your nature singing."
In stanza two, the "you" who sings arrives from "there beyond / tracings flesh can take" and cosmologically, like a great circle of transcendent immanence, from where it is "surrounding and informing the systems." This distanced unknowable is "as if nothing, and / where you are least knowable I celebrate you most," celebrate joyously as in this poem, a privately public testimonial singing.
While in stanza two the speaker could not follow "back into your heightenings" (both into your risings and your intensifyings and "back" in the sense of counter-clockwise, into your timelessness beyond our time and finiteness), follow to where "you" are "beyond / tracings" (tracings meaning to track as well as to find the source or origin), in stanzas three and four the direction of cognitive awareness is toward the "now/here." "Your nature" is manifest in the "heightening" angle of exactitude of a pheasant's ascent "to the roost cedar," a beautifully balancing movement of contrast to the "veer down" of line 2. Likewise, "when dusk settles," sounds of creaking and snapping in bushes turn the speaker into a transmitter of "your creaking / and snapping nature": "I catch the impact and turn / it back" (balancingly as the leaves that "break back" had done in line 2).
This "you" who is "least knowable" and is a "great high otherness" has "risked all the way into the taking on of shape / and time" to "fail and fail with me, as me," the transmitter whose frequencies are unsteady. When "you are incarnated into finite and temporal transmitters, then there is a "doubling together" in the last two stanzas as
in the cries of that pain it is you crying and
you know of it and it is my pain, my tears, my loss—
In this and because of this "doubling together," there is bestowed a "grace" "to bear in every motion." Against the shifting relativisms of the speaker's "embracing or turning away, staggering or standing still," there is firmly poised "your settled kingdom" that "sways in the distillations of light," a settledness in the closing lines that
plunders down into the darkness with me
and comes up nowhere again but changed into your
singing nature when I need sing my nature
The "doubling together" has become "nowhere" and "now/here," a wondrous alchemy of transformation wherein a union of doubling oneness, fulfilled and fulfilling, celebrates, in a change from the beginning, not "your nature singing" but "your / singing nature," yet another doubling together into oneness.
That double concern of the metaphysic, ontologic and cosmologic, has singled out here into the cognitive testimonial of a poetic episteme. What Ezra "said" and, finding no responding, reflexively experienced as an ontological crisis "taking me away," becomes here an ontologic assurance firmly knit to a cosmologic relatedness. In "Corsons Inlet," the speaker, travelling a circumference, finds access to a center where "there is serenity," but here there is more, there is personal and public ritual of celebratory song. In "for Harold Bloom," the quadruple "nothing" and "longing" arrive here at a filling up of both in a concordant "together." "Metaphysic" with its doubleness of reading posing the question of the nature of self and other turns here to an answering and melodious "doubling together." And, finally, "The Arc Inside and Out" is heard here in a composure of song that is no "bumfuzzlement," as if the "dream" of discovered essentiality and plenitude has become a cognitive perception of the conscious self, this poetic metaphysic that is A. R. Ammons.
This section contains 2,854 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)