By Martha Serpas
Featured Art: Rushing Water by Kayla Holdgreve
I used to joke that Simone Weil could write, “It is better to say, ‘I am suffering’ than to say ‘this landscape is ugly,’” because she wasn’t a poet. Poets create images and metaphors that readers can recognize and make meaning from. But Weil means to move us past projection toward greater self-awareness and vulnerability and away from the aesthetic and moral judgments that destroy our world. Rather than become acquainted with our inmost selves, we ascribe our pain to what we believe is other and treat it as expendable.
I admit a related struggle with the marshes and ridges of southeastern Louisiana, between the Cajun settlement where I was born and the Gulf of Mexico. Very little separates me and the Gulf now: ripped patches of shorn marshgrass, flotante, and snapped telephone poles. Agricultural run-off, oil industry dredging, and leveeing have taken thousands of square miles of ecos, homes for thousands of species. Crossing the long overpass to the last human-inhabited barrier island, my GPS reads, “You are now half a mile away from your current location.” Indeed.
In Brian Teare’s poem “When you come to the end of all ideas, you will still have no definitive knowledge on the subject,” equilibrium is found through meditative attention and acceptance of the kind Weil proffers throughout her writings. Teare describes leaving behind voices of his education that equate illness with failure. What an odd expression: “fell ill.” “Fall” at its root means “to sin,” and the poet rejects that he is complicit in his own banishment from the “delight” (Eden) that is health. Freeing oneself from the Fall—the myth of human disobedience, hubris, and failure from which death and all suffering come—allows equanimity. He rests on his back, but in repose, not as the consequence of a tumble.
This poem concludes Teare’s collection The End of the Form Goes All the Way to Heaven. Its title is taken from the writings of Agnes Martin, the minimalist/abstract expressionist painter, and refers to her last painting, Untitled (2004). The painting, as Teare describes it in the poem, is:
bands of dark and light grey acrylic
on linen the darker bands textured
uneven weather she passed through
on her way somewhere else
The visual and semantic gullies (“throats”) shown above run roughly down the center of the poem. They spill and then rise, embodying the poem’s inward-facing perspective. The description conjures for me a slightly turbid Gulf and an indistinguishable overcast sky, a horizontal gray that elicits not aesthetic judgment or gloom, but a sense of peace and dissolution into the pure flux of a “somewhere else.”
Alone on a desert island, I would ask for the first three chapters of Genesis. There are themes of hubris, sexuality, disobedience, among others in this complicated text; but most resonant for me is the representation of consciousness as differentiation, followed by a turn toward discrimination and judgment. To be fully human must one perceive one fruit (a pomegranate, presumably) more desirable than another? Is it necessary to full humanity to create hierarchies? Is the sin (or “missing the mark”) separating oneself from the harmony of life? Teare and Martin share Christian backgrounds—Catholic and Presbyterian respectively—and have Buddhist sensibilities. Catholic in my bones, I am syncretic in my approach to poetry and spirituality. I like to think innocence may be transcended, not necessarily lost and replaced by manual work, patriarchy, and unrequited desire.
In contrast to its use in Teare’s title, “the end,” in Western teleological terms, will bring the fruition of logos, a knowledge inextricable from a time, a then, toward which we have been directed. Consider the Christian adage of First Corinthians. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (New Revised Standard Version, 1 Cor. 13.12) The title of Teare’s poem refutes Western ideas of time, of a revelatory Second Coming, and of any “definitive,” that is, any claim of fixity.
In line 9, “suffering” makes overt the subject as it is particularized by Martin (diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic) and by the speaker who has an unnamed illness, an illness “untitled” therefore acknowledged as perhaps uncontrollable. The description of the painting divides/unites the opening and closing passages. As if we are reading the I Ching, the whole poem is a hexagram of sorts, and the throat down the middle is the broken line of Yin, the receptive earth, drinking in the experience.
“there’s no salvation in it.” Neither suffering nor the painting are salvific.
But is there salvation elsewhere (somewhere other than “in it”) or has the concept of salvation been dismissed? Perhaps the very rejection of suffering as a
means of redemption is salvific. All things pass.
“it’s hard not to see clouds when looking/at clouds . . .” Perhaps when one has achieved spiritual clarity, it is actually more difficult to turn the flux of existence into “definitive knowledge” rather than allow it to simply “pass through,” the way weather might move on the horizon. The ending lines are broken in a way that encourages a chiastic reading: “without falling” and “there’s no salvation in it.” The cross centers “I’m happy” as if contentment is now the center of the Garden, the Tree of Life. Without logos and the pursuit of a why, the poet can rest in the fullness of his experience with the canvas and with the landscape.
without falling I’m happy I really like
this painting there’s no salvation in it
Ecological poetry need not be limited to anthropogenic documentation, animated by anxiety and solastalgia, which can, ironically, become anthropocentric. Teare’s “when you come to the end of all ideas you will still have no definitive knowledge on the subject” embodies the wisdom it conveys. It grounds me in a renewed sense of right relation with my disappearing home. A sensory gnosis comes through weather, art, and body: clouds as clouds. Here “being” replaces “falling,” replaces hierarchy and judgment. No conclusions or “knowledge” can be inscripted (or “titled”) onto this indivisibility.
Martha Serpas has written four volumes of poetry, including The Dirty Side of the Storm and Double Effect. Active in efforts to restore Louisiana’s wetlands, she co-produced Veins in the Gulf, a documentary about coastal erosion. She teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, oversees narrative health programs at the university’s College of Medicine, and serves as a hospital trauma chaplain.