Sunday, March 15, 2015

Quick Takes: Void and Compensation

In the Subjunctive Mood

Void and Compensation is a book filled with absences. That is, “filled” in the sense of the Beatles’ “How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall?” Some of the holes include but are not limited to mothers, fathers, lovers, friends, and children. There is one mother in one of the poems who’s actually physically present, but the only thing she says is, “Pretend I’m not here.”

This is a warm book, though, not despite the absences but because of them. The “void” here—in Michael Morse’s title and throughout his poems—is Tsimtsum. As he describes it, “The concept of Tsimtsum…considers how God, who is everywhere, needed to withdraw in order to make the space in which the world could then be made.” Or as it’s described elsewhere, “Tsimtsum is a way of being present in your absence.” 

You don’t have to know anything about grammar to see the subjunctive everywhere in this book—not only in the syntax but even the word itself is everywhere. This makes sense. The subjunctive is, after all, the term for how we talk about something that’s not there in terms of what might be. Webster’s 1913 edition has it this way:

Subjunctive \Sub*junc"tive\, a. [L. subjunctivus, fr. subjungere, subjunctum, to subjoin: cf. F. subjonctif.
See {Subjoin}.] Subjoined or added to something before said or written. 
{Subjunctive mood} (Gram.), that form of a verb which express the action or state not as a fact, but only as a conception of the mind still contingent and dependent. It is commonly subjoined, or added as subordinate, to some other verb, and in English is often connected with it by if, that, though, lest, unless, except, until, etc. 

It’s the form used in wishes, commands, and exhortations—words that try to call into being. “Let there be light,” is how one version of the world begins. “Where there is nothing, let there be this.” Or, as Michael Morse has it, “where there is void, let there be compensation.” This is not the poet as Adam, namer of that which is there, but instead it is the poet as one apart, who longs for that which is not. “I can’t name it,” Morse writes. “As in it’s raining.” There’s a continuous discontinuity in these poems. Where there is a subject there is no action. Where there is action, there is no subject. 

Most of the book’s poems are set in a kind of eternal spring, which after our bitterly ice-ridden February might sound pretty good. But consider a spring that doesn’t know summer, a subjunctive season when things are always about to happen but don’t quite ever occur. It’s a reminder that spring hurts a little: “Brave subjunctive bird. What on earth will do?” For Keats, the bird is the figure of a saving knowledge, of being present, a momentary grace. But for Morse, the bird is just as caught as any speaker in the subjunctive. Morse gets the most out of every phrase, so when he says, “What on earth will do?,” it’s “will do” not only as in Will anything suffice?, but also as in the infinitive “to do”: Will anything be present enough to act? Wallace Stevens is a profound influence throughout—in the poems' structures of thought, their active modes of solitude, and in their ways of words. But this is not the realm of Stevens’ “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” “in which being there together is enough.” There is no being together, only the wanting to.

While Morse, like Stevens, makes poems of the mind, it’s a mind that wants action. This makes for a moving tension between the ephemeral mind and the physical presence it craves—played out hilariously in several of Morse’s poems through the language of sports, the most now-focused language in our repertoire. There’s a lot of glorious horseshit energetically spewed on ESPN and WFAN to the effect that the only thing that matters in a game is what happens on the field and in the moment. But the sports heroes we meet in Void and Compensation don’t follow that narrative. Perhaps most prominent among them is Stephon Marbury, the star who promised to transform the Nets and Knicks into winners, but never did quite come through despite all his talent and talk (and in the process broke my heart). “I need a Mr. Make-It-Happen,” says the speaker in “Stephon Marbury” (which is exactly what I said as a woe-betide New Jersey Nets fan), but Marbury never could quite turn any team around. Later, Morse name-checks Ruffian, the 3-year old filly who promised to outrun all the colts of her day, but broke her leg on the way to history and never made the finish line. Not even sports can provide a hero who makes things happen. 

There’s a discordance throughout the book between mind and place, perhaps made most explicit in the title of a poem set at a race track: “Reading Beckett in Saratoga.” No simple past nor simple present. This is the land of the subjunctive. In poem after poem, Void and Compensation expertly puts to work this metaphysics of grammar, the tense through which a subject lives and acts in a place that doesn’t exist.

The drama between thought and action is played out throughout the book, but perhaps most centrally in “Poem as Aporia Between Lighthouses”—a lovely, long meditation filled with intent and wit and errancy on this stateless state of being. The title immediately puts us in a realm as rhetorical as it is physical. Here’s the 1913 Webster’s on “aporia”:   

Aporia \A*po"ri*a\, n.; pl. {Aporias}. [L., doubt, Gr. ?, fr. ? without passage, at a loss; 'a priv. + ? passage.]
(Rhet.) A figure in which the speaker professes to be at a loss what course to pursue, where to begin to end, what to say, etc.

So from the very title we are in a directionless and positionless rhetorical space. Not even lighthouses—those real, practical structures built to provide direction and location—can point the way. Dante begins the Commedia, “In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself lost in a dark wood.” Morse begins there too, in the middle of the dark “would” (sorry, couldn’t resist; is it an admissible defense to say that Morse's wry way with puns drove me to it?). But there’s no Virgil to point the way. Here in the middle of the poem that’s in the middle of the book comes the central statement:

If I’ve only found faith in loss  
and measured commitments in distance, 

I still have thoughts of reconciliation:  
that I might speak as the houses would, 

that I might stutter love and make it fluent.

Grammatically, the lines are structured as an “if-then” statement—among the most grounded and logical structures in rhetoric. But the “then” in this case leaves us nowhere solid, only in “thoughts of reconciliation.” So how to speak of love, that ephemeral verb with physical consequences, the connector, the bridge? It’s a question with a quest in it, one that reveals the longing inherent in love. How do you move from a solitary self all the way to the real shore of your beloved? Not so easy a move as an if-then statement:

I’m sorry that I keep you at bay.

For the monotony of what if? beamed out  
as a broadside for living. You and me,

even if you or I are impossible . . . 

In these lines the metaphysics of grammar reveals—and even enacts—the problem of connection between two speaking beings. The relationship of “you and me” is possible only when the subject (the “I”) is pushed into the mode of an object (the “me”). In a gesture echoed throughout the book, the poem ends, where it began, in the space between a question and a longing:

Are you lonely there? Yes, I want you here.

Out of the most radically contingent and provisional language, Morse has made a book filled with a sustained and deeply grounded connection delivered with a light touch. It’s an apparent contradiction, but one that makes these poems, filled with so much loss and longing, a rich pleasure to read.