by Dan Beachy-Quick | Contributing Writer
My youngest daughter’s name is Iris. Kristy and I chose it for all its meanings: she was born at the end of May when the irises in our yard bloom, the colored ring of the eye, and that ancient goddess, first messenger of the Olympians, who also bore the responsibility of watering the clouds and so, so it is said, her wings were made of rainbows. But I never knew her lineage until recently, returning to Plato’s dialog on the nature of knowledge, the Theaetetus. It comes after Theaetetus admits that the conversation confuses him. The young man says, “I am lost in wonder when I think of all these things, and sometimes when I regard them it really makes my head swim.” Socrates responds, “. . . this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy, and he who has said that Iris is the child of Thaumos made a good genealogy.” Thaumos is the god of Wonder. And so it seems that the very child who speeds the gods’ messages from lip to ear, from heaven to earth, accomplishes something Wonder cannot achieve himself—she can put to words what stuns the mind to silence, can give image to what so strikes the mind that the mind stands agape and astonished, lets us imagine that beauty that obliterates consideration, and so consider it, in the words of the message.
These days I have been wondering about images. My oldest daughter Hana takes photos of herself on her phone and finds herself there looking back. My students update the image of their status in the middle of class. Going to buy apples at the grocery store I find me hovering above myself on the surveillance screen. The magazines at check-out consider the consequences of lives lived out in reality-based television shows. Real housewives of—. Dancing with stars—. Conspiracy theories of the new Tsar—. A President that likes to watch himself watch himself on TV, as in the dizzying, eternal repetitions, each image smaller than the last as it extends out to infinity, of standing between two mirrors facing one another—.
Another image—. I imagine it like this: at day, the voice speaks out a column of smoke; at night, the voice speaks out a column of flame. These are the years of desert wandering, of manna eating, of having escaped by walking through a divided sea. God says: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” That command for many years felt to me base and cruel, evidence of some God I wanted no part of, jealous and vindictive. What is there to fear, I thought, when you are yourself fear absolute and absolute love, power and knowledge and presence complete? But now I hear that voice speak out the dark smoke about something deep in human nature; now I hear the voice speak out from flame not a threat, but warning us against ourselves. The image that turns idol. Baal’s golden ram. Oscar’s golden man. The fate inside the image, I mean, it’s fatality: stilling infinite forces into a token, making of power a coin for exchange, replacing the lost face of the loved one with an amulet on a chain, and of any life lost—the animal hunted or the animal sacrificed, the child put on an altar at demand of the goddess, the poet panting above the poem—how it is we worship the thing our own hands made, and put the object of our faith in the place of faith, and desire most to possess that by which we should ourselves be possessed. We love to feel ourselves love. But is that love? Or is it just a category, listed somewhere in the endless annals of the museum library, simply titled, “The Forms of Love,” a treatise in many volumes, illustrated throughout, that we can borrow for a while, a few months or years, or for a life entire? A book one doesn’t even read. Just cherishes. Just holds. Just carries around. I wonder.
Other stories from other traditions clasp on to the warning in Exodus, a kind of charm bracelet in the head. Socrates who at first admired the winged madness of poets, later bans them from his Republic, for the poems paint false images of the gods, and worse, teach us to love falsehoods more than we love truth; then, centuries later, a young man named Cleombrotus says goodbye to the Sun, and jumps from a wall down into Hades, for he had read just once Plato’s treatise On the Soul. King Midas wanders through the mind, and any thought he touches turns to gold. There is the Gorgon there, too—to be caught by her gaze is to turn into stone. Save now we are the ones that want to be seen; we are the ones trying to catch Medusa’s eye. Save now each of us is King Midas, but we only touch ourselves. Outside my window the storm clouds come in over the mountains, dark as smoke. Is that laughter, or is that thunder, in the cloud?
The horror of the Gorgon’s gaze may not be the death she causes, but the astonished accuracy of the life stilled into stone, so life-like you might convince yourself any breeze is a breath from marble lips, so life-like you might see a pulse in the press of the vein beneath the alabaster skin. So, too, of Midas: the gold seems alive. But of Baal’s ram and other idols, the error isn’t their uncanny accuracy (according to ancient sources now lost so that only the rumor exists, Baal’s golden ram was no more than a lump of clay whose silica content made it shine golden in the sun, and whose shape was made by the imprint of the hand that clenched it), but some other sense of definition. It is, after all, the “graven” image that is forbidden. The word’s root digs literally down: to dig, to bury. Hearing it so reveals the threat. Not God’s forbidding warning. But that the graven image is one of death’s most subtle forms: the death that mimics life, the death that acts like life. It says: the consequence of form is mortality. What’s strangest, you might well have to build the obscurity yourself, build the maze and build the darkness. You might have to teach yourself how to get lost. It is a fool’s path, I know; but I like to think my relationship to anything could be infinite. It is a foolish thought, but an age-old one, that poetry traffics in eternity. The question becomes a simple-seeming one, but I fear it’s simple in the way the center of a maze is simple—a clearing, yes; a clarity, yes; but there are still the obscure paths. What’s strangest, you might well have to build the obscurity yourself, build the maze and build the darkness. You might have to teach yourself how to get lost.
One way to begin, is to begin in error:
By my Window have I for scenery
Just a Sea—with a Stem—
If the Bird and the Farmer—deem it a “Pine”—
The opinion will serve—for them—
It has no Port, nor a “Line”—but the Jays—
That split their route to the Sky—
Or a Squirrel, whose giddy Peninsula
May be easier reached—this way—
For Inlands—the Earth is the under side—
And the upper side—is the Sun—
And its Commerce—if Commerce it have—
Of Spice—I infer from the Odors borne—
Miracle here is mistake’s dearest form. A world forms within the world and upends the inherited order. Now the sea perches on a stem, and the ocean that to the Bird or Farmer must stretch out horizontal to the horizon, is outside the poet’s window a vertical presence linking its inland earth to the sun. A breeze brings the scent of the spicy isles, and should the wind become a gale, the waves will shake loose their spray of pollen. Dickinson lets her senses bewilder her rationality, accepts the accident of eye and nose for an insight into the world that also radically redefines it. The effort isn’t to deem the pine recognizable. The hope is to betray the ease of our definition, and so short-circuit that idolatrous turn within the human urge to represent, to categorize, to replace presence with an image, to pack infinity into a frame. Listen to Dickinson listen:
Of its Voice—to affirm—when the Wind is within—
Can the Dumb—define the Divine?
The Definition of Melody—is—
That Definition is none—
Her every sense works not to dispel error, but to dwell more deeply within it. That “Wind within” is more than inspiration; it is that pneuma, that spiritus, that coursing through creation entire ignores the boundaries that make any given object singular, undoing that illusion of solitude to make a wilder claim. What is the claim? I don’t exactly know. It’s a world that leaves me wordless; a melody or a music hard to hear because it isn’t played to me—I’m just one of the instruments the wind blows through. That’s why I have a reed for a tongue. That’s why my mind is just a set of holes that change the pitch of the tune.
So it may be, Dickinson suggests, that the best way to see clearly is to close one’s eyes:
It—suggests to our Faith—
They—suggest to our Sight—
When the latter—is put away
I shall meet with Conviction I somewhere met
Putting sight away creates an image of a different kind, one not graven into that form of vision that confuses seeing with knowing, and knowing with possessing. Don’t deem this “Sea—with a stem” a “Pine” tree. To do so is faithless certainty. There is another economy the cost of which is no bond or debt, unless breathing is a debt; unless inspiration is currency; and then the resin-scent reveals what should have always been obvious, save the fact had been hidden in the maze of our habitual definitions, and we could not see it because we kept seeing it—the pine as a pine—that in our own yard the sea stands up straight, making a new economy between sun and soil, heaven and earth. Then the real question can be asked:
Was the Pine at my Window a “Fellow
Of the Royal” Infinity?
Apprehensions—are God’s introductions—
To be hallowed—accordingly—
For many years those last two lines have repeated themselves in my mind. Even when I forgot to say them to myself, they spoke themselves in me. Maybe that’s thinking, what says itself in you, what uses you to say itself and cannot be said in any other way: “Apprehensions—are God’s introductions— / To be hallowed—accordingly—”. Apprehension is a curious word, and Dickinson means it in all its simultaneous curiosity: to fear, to grasp, to understand. It gives to knowing a trembling complexity that does not seem like knowing. It makes thinking feel like something other than thinking—the hand reaching out, desiring and afraid of what it might find, wanting to grasp or to be grasped; in other words, the gesture of introduction. Among the various verbs for “knowing” in Greek, the most instructive I’ve found is apprehensive in its nature. The word is λαμβάνω, and it means to take hold of, grasp, seize (bodily and emotionally); to overtake; to apprehend by the senses; to apprehend with the mind, to understand; to take in hand, to receive. More than reciprocity informs the word. As true as it is to suggest it implies that the hand reaching out to take is also reaching out to receive, it also suggests the senses work as the mind’s ever-opening hands, it also hints that passion is an epistemology, and that the mind isn’t that ratio behind the eyes comparing the names one to another, but the mind drifts down to open palm, and the mind drifts through the heart, and the mind is a vessel adrift in the current of the pine tree’s scent. Then thinking makes of the mind that form of apprehensiveness called threshold, that gap in definition, that hole in boundary, that door in dwelling, that marks the very place of introduction—not simply a greeting, but the realization that each of us is always at the beginning of our relation to each other and to world. Always initial, initiating. Always being introduced.
What it is to write within the space of such hallowed introduction, to work in words so as to become apprehensive, means thinking itself must be thought about—a riddling proposition the maze of which is propositional itself, occurring sentence by sentence, word by word. Heidegger, in his beautiful and bewildering essay, “What Calls for Thinking?,” begins with a simple enough point: “We learn to think by giving heed to what there is to think about.” Thinking here aligns itself with existence in lovely echo of Parmenides—that the path we can speak of is the one that is there. Heidegger posits that fundamental reality at the core of thinking differently than as a road and the teleology inherent in the image—that there is a place to arrive at, a determined point, a fated knowing, destiny or destination. Instead, he describes what we seek to hold in the mind as a protective instinct, as “letting a herd graze at pasture.” The grass, I guess, is food enough for thought. But Heidegger knows, too, that as with the herd at pasture, the creatures turn away to other meadows when one steps near or, as he puts it, “what must be thought about turns away.” The question about thinking is not how to find an answer, but how to “be admitted into questions that seek what no inventiveness can find.” We are drawn along by what draws away, pointing after the departure, and that gesture is no cleverness of intellect, but the necessary image of thought itself. It points; but pointing is not enough. The eyes reach farther along the line the finger points out, and the mind thinks further than sight, but neither finger nor mind can beckon back that herd grazing now at the distant meadow called horizon. For that hope—so simple as to dismantle the pride a person might feel in being “smart”—that one can learn to think about what is there to be thought about, what calls out for our thinking, that meadow that, as the poet Robert Duncan has it, is a “scene made-up by the mind, / that is not mine, but is a made place, // that is mine, it is so near to the heart, / an eternal pasture folded in all thought.” Fold is a thoughtful word—a gentle curve in the ground; a pen or enclosure for animals; a crease in a page—and a word it seems is what’s needed. A word that, like the arrow shot from the bow’s string, is cast out by the taut lyre-string of mind not to wound the animal aimed at by thinking toward it, but to call back to what calls out to us, and so make a fold, a patch of grass right near the heart, where whatever thinking is, whatever that herd is, can graze and in grazing be. Then we are in the proper alignment to the words we use. Not inventors, not creators. Then it is as Heidegger says, “it is not we who play with words; rather, the essence of language plays with us.”
To be in the hands of language, to be the object of its apprehension, obliterates consideration as we used to know it—we say to ourselves, I do not know how to think, I just think I’ve been thinking. To be in the apprehension of language is realize that thinking isn’t something I do, but something that happens to me. It is to be struck—not as the creature by the arrow is struck, but as the string of the lyre is. Struck so that a note plays—a vibration in air and mind, in memory and myth, in moment and slow time, whose grace is to draw into sympathy radically different realms of experience. Heidegger casts this hope to “radically unlearn what thinking has been” in ancient terms—that we must learn to keep intact the relation of μύθος (muthos) to λόγος (logos). Μύθος Heidegger defines in a simple and lovely way: “what has its essence in its telling.” Λόγος is a word of such complexity it bears offering a portion of its meanings: accounting, reckoning; measure, tale; esteem, consideration, value; relation, correspondence, proportion, ratio; statement of theory, argument, proposition, rule; thesis, hypothesis, provisional ground . . . and the list goes much farther on, bringing into relief a subtle but overwhelming sense that λόγος is a word hovering above or beside reality, thinking of or apart from rather than thinking within, theorizing life and world rather than apprehending them. Λόγος needs no “introductions” in Dickinson’s sense, for it assumes that whatever God is, that God has left, and what was hallowed is now hollowed, and that god-like/un-godlike thing can take its place, that thing we call thinking.
But to keep μύθος and λόγος twinned and twined ravels again the untwisted tendrils sprung out the root of the mind. Words drop from their ratios into their essential telling—a fecund and fearsome speaking, where Memory herself sows the field, where the grazing herd wanders into being even as it wanders away, and nothing knows how to keep itself pure and apart—not the animal from Aesop’s tale, not the goddess and her name-sake child, not the raindrop from the prism, not light from bow. Here the world reclaims its symbolic nature in the midst of its daily reality, here in this meadow—where sometimes I permitted to return. The cost of that permission? A kind of leap, as Heidegger says, that takes us to what “will confound us”—a leap, I might say, into that fold that is the apprehensive page. The words that fill that page, the furrows of those lines and sentences, proceed along laws different than those λόγος alone establishes. Argument withers. Theory’s husk winnows away. Reason grows wary of its own ratios. In place of those various logics a mind takes root. It is in part the mind of the one who writes the essay or poem; but it also the mind held by the bounds of the meadow, the bounds of the fold, a thinking thing that thinks itself, and in so doing, unfurls a leaf that so catches the eye with its bright green that we think along with it, an aspect of the thought itself. All those thoughts that gather what light they can. All those eyes that are leaves. Lyric consciousness plays its tune along the grass harp when the wind blows and makes of song, sense. Those are the pages I want to read, those that invite everything in to think, and in listening, in feeling that we ourselves don’t know how to think, not exactly, begin to learn to do so. This page, this field, is the very region of what is most thought-provoking where, as Heidegger says, we learn “that we still are not thinking; none of us, including me who speaks to you, me first of all.”
Listen to me. I’m finishing this essay I’ve spent many weeks on sitting in the gazebo in my backyard. Behind me, just today, the first iris has bloomed. It is a flower comprised of six purple tongues that grow yellow at the throat, and hidden inside them are three more tongues the color of pale dawn. I had my fingers in its mouth, so I know. Though its mid-May heavy snow is predicted tomorrow. Who will tell the iris if not Iris herself? Daughter or goddess, either will do. Her father lives deep inside some blankness, sleeps between white sheets, wakes to cloud and sky, spends his days wondering; her father, Wonder. I know there’s something to say. Some words to speak. But I also know they must speak themselves. Imagine themselves.
Then Midas can touch what he touches without it turning to gold.
Then the Gorgon can watch the children play.
Then the image isn’t graven—and the fire goes calm, and the smoke stays quiet.
For then the essay is no idol of knowledge, thinking it knows how to think. It just thinks. I think it thinks. But I’m dizzy, and lost in wonder when I think of all these things, and sometimes when I regard them it really makes my head swim. Just like Theaetetus working so hard to think about thinking that he hardly knows what he knows. He and Socrates try so hard. They come up with a beautiful image—an image of apprehension. They imagine the mind as an aviary, and each bird there is a kind of knowledge. Which one you grab, you learn, you know. Hold enough birds in your hands, and you end up knowledgeable. I suppose those birds in flight are what I might call thinking. I like to think if you hold out your hand long enough a bird might simply perch there, or make of your palm a kind of nest. I can imagine it that way, thinking coming to the open hand.
I like that image. It makes me happy.
But there is one more aspect to apprehension I’d like to add, one more aspect to thinking and how it relates to knowledge. Theaetetus makes a wonderful suggestion to Socrates. “Perhaps, Socrates,” he says, “we were not right in making birds represent kinds of knowledge only, but we ought to have imagined kinds of ignorance also flying about in the soul with the others; then the hunter would catch sometimes knowledge and sometimes ignorance of the same thing…” In one hand knowledge; in the other oblivion. So it is I’ve learned the writer is one who walks with both hands stretched out before her, learning how to know and also not know what she knows—how to forget to think, how to discover in the hand not an image of truth or beauty, but a bird, a bird, whose name I can almost remember, a name I know, that name I can’t recall.
Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet and essayist, author most recently of a collection of essays, fragments, and poems, Of Silence and Song (Milkweed Editions, 2017). His work has been supported by the Lannan and Guggenheim Foundations, and he teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Colorado State University.