Start with one of the buzzwords of our time: globalization. In speaking of the parts that go missing in translation, M. Norbese Philip reminds us of the increasing homogenization of place as it goes the way of pure display, whether corporate or artistic. In our everyday world amid the contemporary cathedrals of cash, from Safeway to the local mall, we’re used to passing in and out of an artificial sense of place. Increasingly too, this phenomena is what we as Americans export as culture to the rest of the world. One effect is that the most common experience of “the vast” now includes the unidentifiable forces of capital or the seemingly infinite multinational excesses of wealth and power, with the mysteries of economic “magic” beyond the control of any one individual.

As the commodification of the human being merges with the commercialization of the spiritual, the sublime survives in highly skeptical and parodic form. Here is a short prose poem by Harryette Mullen, a poet known for an astringent but playfully punning style in which she tries to recast our commonplace productions of “reality.”

With eternal welcome mats omniscient doors swing open offering temptation, redemption, thrilling confessions. The state of Grace is Monaco. A shrine in Memphis, colossal savings. A single serving after-work lives. In sanctuaries of the sublime subliminal mobius soundtrack backs spatial mnemonics, radiant stations of the crass. When you see it, you remember what you came for.

There is an implicit Oedipal psychology of the sublime, where the vastness at hand is associated with the powers of the archetypal father. This father figure can take the form of the written text, a linguistic paternal order that comes to us through Lacan’s retooling of Freud. In the paradigm, the poet figure is at first overcome by the sublime power’s greatness, but later rises to that same level of greatness upon recovery of his equilibrium. In Mullen’s work, it’s as if the all-encompassing text is that of capitalism itself, a sign-glutted, unmappable, vast terrain that indeed threatens the integrity of the self and never seems to end, swallowing up all that comes before it. Both her fragments and the use of prose mimic the tabloid-ese she speaks of, generating a peculiar sense of isolation as Elvis in Memphis and Grace Kelly in Monaco take on biblical attributes. And if memory, that hallmark of the traditional sublime’s ritualistic return to consciousness, is key here it serves as a reminder that memory itself is part of this environment of a manufactured past, as mysteriously powerful and lacking in agency as the “subliminal . . . soundtrack” that urges our passive, massive buying.

On another track then, Srikanth Reddy is a younger poet whose restraint could be seen as harkening back to a South Asian tradition of the sublime. His first book is called Facts for Visitors, and though he is a multi-homelanded writer who has worked in south India, he draws on an otherworldly sense of travel, where fabrication and fable knit together in strangely ritualistic scenes witnessed by an almost alien persona. Here he gives us this rigorously hushed lyric, “Waiting For The Eclipse In The Black Garden.”

It takes long.
A wind comes worrying the candle-tip.
Our servant’s teeth flicker.
His jawbone flickers.
Once I watched him cut open a goat.
Now no one can breathe.
The black disc locks into place.
Listen. Listen.
Under that box is a snake.
Listen while the unlit places hollow you out.

Action comes slow and deliberate in this ceremony of silence which is further endorsed by the muted end-stopped, double-spaced lines. Reddy includes his servant and there is a tradition of the poet’s including a secondary figure in the sublime, like Wordsworth’s address to his sister in “Tintern Abbey,” or the peasant guide in the Simplon Pass episode of The Prelude. In this poem, Reddy’s servant figure seems to function as a stand-in for the poet in a kind of ritualistic substitution. The servant is further along in an initiation into the mysteries at hand, ominously associated with the wind and the candle’s fluctuations of light, having already acted out the archetypal violence of animal sacrifice. Like the goat whose throat was cut, the human beings of the scene now cannot breathe. As the light is eclipsed, so seemingly is the possibility of whatever has passed for freedom in this enigmatic world, as the sun “locks” into place like a key closing a door forever.

At the final, surprising close the poem, there is that sublime invocation of erasure, a penetrating emptying out of the self which is the culmination of all that has been threatened thus far. Fear, in fact, has driven the piece forward all along. And if it is a commonplace of spiritual transformation that the self-preserving, desire-ridden mind fears its own annihilation, it is also a necessary component of an expanded freedom.

Reddy locates the poem in a mythic rather than a geological setting. Like many poets of his generation and mind, he eschews the old labels and burdens of identity politics. Perhaps as a result, his notion of place/no place is expansive and mysterious beyond the need for explicit references to Indian or American landscapes. The emptiness, the hollowing out, he speaks of at the end has a transpersonal quality to it, even as the poem evolves, so to speak, moving from the personal pronoun “I” toward the universal one of “you.” Of course, the notion of enabling negative space in the self has both eastern and western roots, from Keats’ conception of negative capability to the Buddhist sublime of a radical emptiness that removes the false veneer inherent to an unenlightened existence.

If there are those among us who would lose themselves, if they could, wholly into some single, most beloved place, there are many who carry a jerry-rigged sense of home from here to there. From the vastness of the American freeways laid flat across horizontal reaches of desert, to the sweeping verticalities, the flying buttressed buildings of New York City, the sublime still tells about place in the form of an impossible debt. Clearly some poems are part of paying the balance.

Originally Published: February 15th, 2007

Pimone Triplett is the author of The Price of Light (Four Way Books, 2005) and Ruining the Picture (Triquarterly / Northwestern, 1998). She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa. Currently, she teaches at the University of Washington and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.