Thursday, July 07, 2011

`Certitude Shall Require the More Illusion'

A previous occupant of my office hung a reproduction of Audubon’s “Mallard Duck” on the wall above the file cabinet. It’s space-filler, inoffensive motel art, but I’ll probably take it down and have it removed with the lamp, camera equipment and stuffed owl. The room was vacant for almost three months and turned into a storage closet. Besides, Audubon has always meant less to me as an artist than as an unapologetically anthropomorphic observer of nature. Of mallards he writes:

“The cackling they keep up would almost deafen you, were you near them; but it is suddenly stopped by the approach of some unusual enemy, and at once all are silent. With heads erected on out-stretched necks, they anxiously look around. It is nothing, however, but a bear, who being, like themselves, fond of mast, is ploughing up the newly fallen leaves with his muzzle, or removing an old rotting log in search of worms.”

This is charming, but less Thoreau than Joel Chandler Harris. When writing about the natural world, it’s best to observe closely and stick to precise description. The temptation is to interpret, to impose half-digested Descartes, Darwin or Disney, which is how intelligent people can turn nature into denatured abstraction. Consider Descartes and the ducks in the first stanza of Edgar Bowers’ The Devereux Slough” (For Louis Pasteur, 1990):

“I have read that for Descartes all things alive
Or not alive are solid void, except
Equations. So these ducks, green bill and head,
Are graphs on blanks of subjectivity,
Their quacks some numbers searching for an ear
Itself a motion thin as light. And since
All void is gravity, it obligates
The farthest fleeing cluster to their flight,
The light year to their anniversary,
The measured naught, the measure variation.
Our cosmic Heraclitus never rests!”

Bowers is being satirical, wittily condescending to Descartes’ refusal to accept the evidence presented by his eyes – and ear, “a motion thin as light.” I wonder if Bowers, who was fluent in French, had in mind canard – in French, duck; in English, a false or misleading report. Here is the rest of the poem:

“Behold this book between us on our knees,
The idiosyncratic pictures, the descriptions
Of how, from pools reflective of the skies
And clouds in Manitoba, the memory
Of this slough like a pinpoint on a map
Is expert navigation by the stars;
Of Chanticleer and Pertelote, design
Symmetrically precise, colors repeated
As formally as their migration’s course—
Behavior for the Muses! As before,
You read to me of warmer, richer waters
Along my thought’s equator, where they swim
Until the season to look for them again.

"Behind us is the school for children who
In letters cannot find their way, who read
The b before the a. Listen to them
Laugh when the snowy egret from its perch
In bushes by the shore suddenly rises.
The fear and greed of the ducks! The children
Run crying on the sand to where the wave beats.
In the pale winter day the hills are pale
Shades of more color than there is alphabet.
By such excitements moved to say I love you,
I know from both our doubts how much the greater
Certitude shall require the more illusion.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Thanks for posting that wide-ranging poem by Bowers. It starts off not so much a tweaking of Descartes as the "measured naught" of science in general (or at least the popular variety circa the 1980's). But then it goes on to challenge the reality described by books, knowledge so seemingly comprehensive yet certain, so marvelously attuned to human needs. The final stanza pulls away these "sumptous trappings of knowledge" (De Man) to reveal the beating heart beyond these creations: the need for the illusion of certitude in the face of constant doubt, specifically about how we connect with others. This is recognized by even children who can't quite read, in "the fear and greed of ducks" (nice echo of your Audubon quote here).

Of course, this too is but a provisional glyph, a setting down of order to mask the uncertainty locked away inside another's head. Maybe, given the dedication to Louis Pasteur, the poet had a bad experience with milk that he's forever grateful to have recovered from.