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Journal, Day Four
With their lack of subtlety and inability either to see or apply nuance, both Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have been seeking to promulgate a kind of militant, proselytizing atheism of late. I’d like to suggest that both should read more poetry. An atheist myself, I’m uncomfortable with their anti-religious stance for a number of reasons—not least both scientists inability to get to grips with the persistence of religious thought, its ubiquity, its breadth and its beauty.
Critics like the literary theorist Terry Eagleton, and the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, have both recently done great jobs puncturing the hubris of Dawkins’ clumsy and provocative The God Delusion. I won’t repeat their arguments, instead I want to talk about the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. A world-renowned writer, Tranströmer lets us think about all our delusions and what they make us susceptible to and perceptive of.
On the back of my copy of the New Collected Poems the blurb says Tranströmer “sees the world from a height, in a mystic dimension.” On Robin Robertson’s recent versions, The Deleted World, the back-cover copy reads, “a deeply spiritual but secular writer.” I argued yesterday the proffering any definition of poetry was foolhardy, but one way to think about poetry can be to work through the seeming contradiction of a form of writing that seeks to say something about the sacred without being religious. A poem should resonate, and the note that it sounds deep in your mind is transcendent, uncanny and inexplicable.
It is autumn or winter, cold certainly. The light is fading or it is, now, fully dark. There are figures over there, and we can just make them out stark against the bleak countryside. The land seems strange to them although they have always lived here. Then we zoom in. This is us: this is our world, the surreal world that we all inhabit, and reach beyond. And this is Tranströmer’s poetry, his silent world, in “Midwinter”:
A blue light
streams out of my clothes.
Ringing tambourines of ice.
I close my eyes.
There is a silent world,
there is a crack
where the dead
are smuggled over the border.
Literature writes knowing that the blank page is where we all return to. Foucault famously remarked (at the end of The Order of Things) that Man will be erased “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” I’m taking his image out of context, but all poetry is written with, against, in the face of such erasure. The book will close and the poem will lie unread, the reader may read on, but never for very much longer. We draw our strength from death: without it, everything would be absurd: “the calendar is full but the future is blank,” Tranströmer says in “Black Postcards.” But this is neither reason to despair nor to proselytize. Neither science nor religion, which can both be equally knuckle-headed, help us face up to the absurdity of our meagerness and yet negotiate our insignificance by attending to ourselves and to the words that we can write about ourselves: “So many things I have liked, have they any weight?”
It is always a winter night, but a small kind of sense is made, if we are lucky, and if we listen, with and from each other:
Throughout those dismal months my life was only sparked alight
when I made love to you.
In “Solitude,” the poet speaks of a concrete event, of a car crash. “I was nearly killed here, one night in February,” he says. His world nearly ended and then he realized what we all know and live denying:
I almost felt that I could rest
and take a breath
before the crash.