Updated: Aug 9, 2022
My current research focuses on the relationship between language and nature. I’m experimenting with new ways of writing, because I’m working on how language shapes our ways of being in the world (and of course that makes it in some sense Heidegerrian). As a writer, I want to talk the talk as well as walk the walk, because ultimately I believe the way we walk through life is inseparable from the way life talks through us.
The research is for a book contracted by Oxford University Press, reflecting on gender, language, and desire, and taking Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’as a partner in dialogue. The style I seek is shaped by a comment made by my dear friend, environmentalist Mary Colwell, about Pope Francis’s language. She quotes his words:
Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. (para 84)
Here is what Mary said, in a talk she gave in Rome in 2018:
Love, affection, God, caress—four words I have never heard in any environmental meeting. Please, please, environmental world, can you only use words that are used in poems, because actually, love of the earth is all about love—it’s all about our emotional response to what’s around us, to what we’re part of.
I’m at an experimental stage with this linguistic quest, so from time to time, and with some trepidation, I’ve decided to put a blog out, trying different forms of expression. I write from the heart and read back with the head, but I can’t quite fit the two together. I have little capacity for objectivity when it comes to my own work (I suspect that’s true for many writers), and I’m unable to judge how much the writing needs to be edited to make it interesting for others to read. For published works I rely on professional editors, but for blogs and occasional musings I rely on the responses of readers to shape my ideas and my language. Random readings of literature, poetry and ideas, listening to music, podcasts and other media, often inspire me to write at length. I have boxes of such writings that I tell myself one day I’ll go back to and edit—but I never do. Often I find myself looking for music and images that connect with ideas, not necessarily in any direct or obvious way, but which offer different forms of expressiveness and ways of approaching similar questions. Language is not only about words, but also about the eloquence that finds expression in all works of human creativity, and in all the gestures by way of which we communicate. So thank you if you take time to read this, and thank you too for any comments which will help me to channel these random writings into a more communicable and engaging form.
The following reflection was inspired by listening to one of Pádraig Ó Tuama’s “Poetry Unbound” podcasts. Pádraig’s approach to poetry and his ways of reading and interpreting poems are for me a rich source of inspiration and creativity:
To do a close reading of a poem is to look at its techniques and to look at what it’s saying, but it’s also to be closely read by the poem, that the poem reads you back as you read it. And in this way it can function somewhat like a call to pay attention to your life in a new way. (Pádraig Ó Tuama)
This is “The Truceless Wars” by Marilyn Nelson:
“The Truceless Wars”
among beasts, and among men, are worlds apart. The pigeon lays down fluttering life to flash a russet tail. The haddock becomes harp seal, then polar bear. The squirming termite licked from a sharp stick awakes to invent tools. The lamb lies down within the lion, yawns yellow-fanged, and sleeps. Life struggles to evolve higher in us, through questioning, toward hope. But we sow salt. We leave a ground-zero wake of futurelessness. Take the way a life devolves from thought to blind mouths in the dust wasted by semiautomatic fire. This flesh is foolscap. We think we’re so smart, but we create nothing, nothing. Nothing.
In reading this poem I allowed myself to be read by it, and to respond. Here is what I wrote.
Victoria Topping, “Moth”, from the ArtRepublic website
That struggle of life towards future becoming—“through questioning, towards hope”—pushes against the barriers of finitude that would confine us to the instinctive existence of animals—an existence that is by no means lacking in the fullness of grace and dignity appropriate to each species and every kind of created being.
Through aeons of evolution, we broke through the barriers of consciousness and everything seemed possible to the godlike species we became, no longer confined by the raw appetites and impulses of animal life. Appetite became desire, suffused with memory and imagination, shaped by loss and promise, twisting through vertiginous labyrinths of terror and joy. There were no limits to knowledge, no forbidden fruits, no laws of prohibition, and our capacity to express this evolutionary leap from human finitude to divine possibility found its culmination in the acquisition of language. But in seeking to know everything, we discovered that we must die. The knowledge of death thus became the shadow that stalks our existence, driving us up against the fact of our own mortality as the last frontier. In terror and violent resistance we sought to rise above the fragility and finitude of bodily life through the hubristic power of the infinite mind.
Thus we lost ourselves in the abysmal chatter of insatiable desire and consumption without end—life evolving through violence towards “nothing, nothing. Nothing”. This is the negation, the lie that betrays the creative purpose for which language evolved and makes it instead a breeding ground for the rhetoric of destruction and annihilation. It doesn’t matter what we call it, for nothing has no name. Some say evil. Others say sin. I say nothing.
We flew from the garden ever upwards towards the sun on wings of desire, steered by imagination and memory, shaping words around the abyss, carrying ourselves onwards and upwards, onwards and upwards, towards the light.
Keratin is a crucial protein in human nails, rhinoceros horns, whale baleen, turtle shells, pangolin scales, and of course, bird feathers. The way it’s structured allows light to twist and turn and separate into a rainbow of iridescence. In essence, keratin allows feathers to act like a prism by scattering the longer wavelengths of light and reflecting shorter ones to emit gorgeous blues, violets, purples, and greens. Sometimes the feathers have air pockets, which allow them to display only one color at a time. That's how jays get their bright, tell-tale blue appearance. The light-bending protein can also be layered onto other pigments: for instance, mixing blue light with underlying yellow carotenoids makes green feathers. It's not all too different from your old-school color wheel. from the Audubon website)
The wings of desire are feathered with words, each one a prism, changing, glistening, catching the light and softening its dazzling glare, asking us to be at peace in a luminous world and to be content with its intimations of a fullness of light that would blind us and burn us if we came too close. In order to fly with our desire we must keep our feathers clean and ruffle our downy breasts so that as speaking beasts we learn to listen and speak for and with the suffering and desire of all beasts. But not content with the finitude of life among the glistening colours beneath the sun, we sought to reach the sun itself, beyond the capacities of our mortal, beasted lives.
And now, to borrow from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
The “ooze of oil” has clogged our feathers, stripped our language of its luminescence, and we are plunging, plunging into the darkness. Some call it evil, some call it sin. I call it nothing. Nothing.
At this point, there is a strong temptation to end this reflection on a note of hope, by quoting the last verse of that poem, God’s Grandeur:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
But I'm going to give the last words to Pádraig Ó Tuama, because if there are happy endings, they are in that wordless beyond towards which we struggle in sorrow and lamentation—sustained by hope. If we “pay attention to the middle”, it is surely the broken middle which philosopher Gillian Rose describes as the impossible ground between the universal and the particular, law and ethics, the ground on which we ourselves come to be. Here there is no resting place, and so we struggle constantly to keep our balance, resisting the abstraction of law’s transcendence, transcending the violence of imploding immanence, rising on the luminescence of language when it retains its prismatic relationship to truth.
This poem ends on the threefold repetition of “nothing, nothing. Nothing.” And it’s arresting, and it’s hard to feel happy at the end of this poem. And I don’t know that this poem is wanting people to feel happy by the end of it. But one of the things that I think the poem does want is to pay attention to the middle. “Life struggles to evolve / higher in us, through questioning, toward hope” — here Marilyn Nelson is saying: this is the point of being human — to evolve, to struggle with questions, towards hope; that hope is the possibility that calls humanity into continually evolving and paying attention.
And hope isn’t something abstract. She’s finding hope in the way that animals are part of a sustaining ecosystem, rather than engaging in wars, because the wars of animals, she says, are worlds apart from the wars among men. And in this way hope is found in the most present reality and awareness of nature and recognizing that human nature can sometimes be an aberration from what we might call “unconscious” animals, who aren’t aware of themselves but who nonetheless are demonstrating a way of being in the world, evolving in the world, that is sustainable, unlike ourselves. (Pádraig Ó Tuama)