Monday, July 06, 2009

`There is No Nothingness'

“Nature has no nothing. To feel that it has is what we call the devil, the enemy. In Blakean words, our predicament is that we can exist and still not be, for being requires an awakeness from the dream of custom and of ourselves. The self is by nature turned outward to connect with the harmony of things. The eyes cannot see themselves, but something other. The strange and paradoxical rule of nature is that we are fullest in our being by forgetting our being. To love nothing is to be nothing, to give is to have.”

These sentences by Guy Davenport come near the conclusion of his essay about the American poet Ronald Johnson. Despite repeated tries I’ve been unable to share Davenport’s enthusiasm for Johnson’s work. It leaves me cold. I would never have made even a second attempt to enjoy and understand the poems had a critic other than Davenport spoken so admiringly of them. Even in disagreement, he’s a critic – a reader and teacher – one listens to and learns from. The passage above, which seems quite remarkable in its spirited refutation of solipsism, the postmodern epidemic, is almost an aside, a digression in what is, after all, merely a book review. Davenport could afford to be profligate with his gifts.

The paragraph jibes with everything I know about Davenport the man, his generosity, casual kindness and availability to others. It also resonates with his familiar themes and sources, Herakleitos in particular. Davenport translated the fragments left by the pre-Socratic thinker (in Herakleitos and Diogenes, 1979; later included in 7 Greeks, 1995), and much of his work is suffused with what he calls the “astuteness and comprehensiveness of [Herakleitos’] insight into the order of nature.” One fragment says: “The unseen design of things is more harmonious than the seen.”

The passage from the Johnson essay reminds me of J.V. Cunningham’s “For a Woman with Child”:

“We are ourselves but carriers. Life
Incipient grows to separateness
And is its own meaning. Life is,
And not; there is no nothingness.”

The choice of a pregnant woman is astute. At no other time is our moral connectedness to the separateness of another so dramatized: “we are fullest in our being by forgetting our being.” Having a child ought to signal the beginning of the end of self-absorption in both mother and father. The entry of a child into the world forever changes that world. Davenport says, “Nature has no nothing;” Cunningham, “there is no nothingness.”

Elsewhere, Davenport writes that Cunningham’s poems “are as well made as wristwatches.”

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