Thursday, November 17, 2011

`Let Nothing Be a Toy Too Small'

Chris Arthur, an Irish essayist whose work I recently discovered, was born in Belfast in 1955 and is a literary descendant of the great Hubert Butler. His latest collection is Irish Elegies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). For the book’s epigraph Arthur uses the sestet of a sonnet by John Hewitt (1907-1987), also born in Belfast and previously unknown to me. Here is the complete poem, “Nourish Your Heart,” from The Collected Poems of John Hewitt (Blackstaff Press, 1991):

“Nourish your heart through all the ports of sense;
let sight’s salute constrain them to come in
that furtive lurk in shadow; let touch spin
her dragging spider-threads with diligence,
no anchor-cable these, a net to freight,
meshed close as flesh, from the reluctant tide
the veering atomies; let the rest provide
all they can bundle through each closing gate.

“See you miss nothing proffered. Name and store
and set in order all. Let nothing be
a toy too small, a trophy overpast
the weighing palm that reckons less or more;
for all you know, or I know, these must last
the slow attritions of eternity.”

Reading the final six lines unaccompanied even by title, with only the poet’s name and the dates of his birth and death, I recognized a voice I wanted to pursue. The diction is faintly old-fashioned – “proffered,” “overpast” – but charmingly so, finicky and unostentatiously wise. “Atomies” are minute particles, atoms or motes. Shakespeare writes in As You Like It: “It is as easie to count Atomies as to resolue the propositions of a Louer.” Soon it came to mean a fairy or mite, a diminutive being. Even “veering atomies” are worthy of perception.

“Nourish Your Heart” was first collected in Time Enough: Poems New and Revised, published in 1976 when Hewitt was almost seventy. Its title is off-putting, setting us up for pop medicine or New Age confections. Hewitt has sustenance in mind, but something substantial. In a word, attentiveness. Once a friend urged the Buddhist notion of mindfulness on me, openness, a refusal of dullness and sensory passivity: “Name and store / and set all in order.” It’s a Thoreauvian injunction. See this from the journal for June 13, 1851:

“We live but a fraction of our life. Why do we not let on the flood, raise the gates, and set all our wheels in motion? He that hath ears to hear, let him hear [Matthew 11:15, Mark 4:9]. Employ your senses.”

In Thoreau: The Poet-Naturalist (1873), William Ellery Channing writes that his friend’s “senses lived twice.” Like Hewitt, Channing resorts to gustatory metaphors:

“He loved the multum in parvo [much in little] or potluck; to boil up the little into the big. Thus, he was in the habit of saying,--Give me healthy senses, let me be thoroughly alive, and breathe freely in the very flood-tide of the living world. But this should have availed him little, if he had not been at the same time copiously endowed with the power of recording what he had imbibed. His senses truly lived twice.”

A writer lives everything twice, at least.

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