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If I had to pinpoint the moment when I stopped feeling lonely as a poet, it would have to be the day I picked up Susan Stewart’s Poetry and the Fate of the Senses at the St. Mark’s Bookshop five years or so ago. Perhaps I am reminded of it because, looking back at my previous three posts, I feel an unacknowledged debt to it. Or perhaps because of the unusual flood of sensation that accompanies the change of seasons. The eruption of molars–my son’s—could be part of it. One can’t avoid reflecting on bodies, pain, and intersubjectivity when a baby lifts his grimacing face to you for comfort, and the burden is on you to figure out the trouble when right through the O of his groan you see the startling white gleam breaking on the swollen gums.
ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French enfant, from Latin infant- “unable to speak”
A blog hardly seems the right venue to discuss a 400-page opus of literary criticism, and I can’t possibly do justice to it as a critic. But as a poet I can offer a kind of memoir of my encounter with it. It was after September 11, 2001. At the time I was living in Morningside Heights, commuting to a job on Wall Street on the local train because the express had been knocked out by the “event” (that was how my husband’s law school friends referred to it). So it was taking me about an hour and a half each way to go to and from work, a job I didn’t particularly like, at a time when trains were being regularly evacuated for “white powder” scares, and the short walk from the subway to my building was thick with the scent of burning debris for months, through Christmas. On the sealed window sill of my cubicle were scraps of paper; the glass itself was filthy with ash.
So it was inevitable that I would respond to a book about poetry whose first chapter is called “In the Darkness…” and whose last is entitled “Afterborn.”
In between was a trove of information about the body and the senses, culled from neurology and psychology, poets, artists, and musicians. In addition to the five senses, Stewart talked about the kinesthetic sense and vertigo; the time sense, and the sense of possession. All the evidence of our senses, as told (and enacted, and fed back) through poetry, shows a history of change, of expansion (but now possibly, through technology and capitalism, a diminuition). Our senses provide some ground of universality; sympathy and understanding derive from our ability to individuate ourselves and others. It’s aesthetics as a ground for ethics, not vice versa.
Around this time, too, I went to a general practitioner who, it turned out, had spent three days at Ground Zero in the aftermath, and explained to me that I was not to feel foolish for being upset although I knew nobody that died. He said we all have a chemical bond with one another, and when that many of us die, our bodies know it. We feel it. Communication occurs at the molecular level.
This doctor was corroborating what Stewart’s book would soon be telling me, chapter by chapter, reading by reading. I wish this could be a review, but it’s just a memoir. Posting is fragmentary, provisional. As A.E. Stallings says here, it’s thinking aloud.
And here I sit, in a fortuitous moment: one child is across the street at preschool, the other is napping. It seems he’s found a respite from his aching mouth. And October steals in on silvery skies, but no rain; the light breaks through; roses are still growing; a slow effacement is at work in the sound of the still-green trees at the cusp of autumn.