Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The obscurity of an order

Few books in my personal library are as well-thumbed as my The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. When I was a young man trying to develop a coherent philosophy of life, Stevens' mid-career poems concerning the relationship of ideas to "the thing itself" were exceedingly useful, helping me create a bridge between the public knowledge of science and the personal knowledge of intuition. I am thinking of poems like "The Idea of Order at Key West" and "The Poems of Our Climate," poems that articulate the role of the perceiver in constructing reality.

The Collected Poems went onto the shelf for a long mid-life hiatus. Secure with the balance of public and personal knowledge in my life, Stevens then seemed to me excessively abstract, even deliberately obfuscating. The poetry I chose to read was more immediately sensual, celebratory, transparent. My most thumbed book, I suppose, was the New and Selected Poems of Mary Oliver.

But Stevens' big red volume was always close at hand, and as I enter the golden years his late poems to speak to me again as the balance in my life tips toward personal knowledge, from action to contemplation. All I want is what Stevens' asked of the lifelong body of his work -- that "in the poverty of their words" they contain some honest intuition of the world of which they were a part.

Was there in all my years of engaging with the natural world some firm perception of the real? Did the balance I achieved between public and personal knowledge rest aptly on its fulcrum. Did my words catch some kernel of the thing itself, some echo of that "scrawny cry from outside." I hope so. If not, it's too late to do anything about it now. It is time for "The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour":

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.