This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini-interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Brian Teare’s Pleasure (Ahsahta, 2010).
H.L. Hix: As I was reading “To Other Light,” I stopped short at the lines, “not to suffer / more, but finally to suffer a clarity in language sufficient // to pain.” I wanted to steal that as a way of stating an ambition for my own work! Is it a way of stating an ambition of your work?
Brian Teare: The short answer: yes, absolutely.
But to say so at the close of 2011 isn’t the same as when, in 2005, I wrote those lines. I was at the tail end of my immersion in Gnosticism, a five-year obsession that began after I read and re-read Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates, Bright Existence and Loose Sugar. During my research, I had become particularly fond of James Robinson’s Nag Hammadi Library, Hans Jonas’ The Gnostic Religion, Simone Pétrement’s A Separate God, Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels and Peter O’Leary’s Gnostic Contagion. I returned to those books often, particularly to the third chapter of The Gnostic Religion, “Gnostic Imagery and Symbolic Language,” in which Jonas writes:
Since the gnostic message conceives itself as the counter-move to the design of the world, as the call intended to break its spell, the metaphor of sleep, or its equivalents, is a constant component of the typical gnostic appeals to man, which accordingly present themselves as calls of “awakening.” (71)
In 2005, I was too mired in matter’s metaphorical sleep to be able to imagine what a real call of spiritual “awakening” might be like—the idea must have functioned for me as more of a metaphor for the end of mourning than as a literal voice, an intra-psychic call to renew my bonds with the ranks of the living. I’m no longer nearly as immersed in the Gnostic imaginary as I once was, but re-reading passages from The Gnostic Religion makes me realize how much crystallized during my studies. Indeed, I remain particularly identified with 1) the sense of waiting for an extra-psychic call, 2) the strong suspicion that “If the ‘Life’ is originally alien, then its home is ‘outside’ or ‘beyond’ this world” (51) and 3) the idea that perception, cognition and embodiment serve as Being’s central, often painful ties to a world it doesn’t entirely belong to.
In 2011, the central question is: what kind of language offers clarity “sufficient to pain”? If I remain haunted by basic metaphysical questions and the self’s relationship to suffering, this is because, where others rely on set belief systems and/or philosophies, I have assembled an archive. This archive supplies a basic set of terms with which I can describe my position, though I can never quite adopt it as my own. I remain ever alien, even to the language games I am repeatedly drawn to participate in. Why?
As William James suggests in Varieties of Religious Experience, feeling is the deeper source of religion, and…philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like translations of a text into another tongue”(431). Attempting to translate my religious ambivalence into philosophy, I can turn to Heidegger, who in “What Are Poets For?” writes, “The poem makes no direct statement about the ground of all beings, that is, about Being as the venture pure and simple. . . Rilke likes to use the term ‘the Open’ to designate the whole draft to which all beings, as ventured beings, are given over” (102, 106). And thus I can also turn to Edward Snow’s dazzling translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, to the first lines of “The Eighth Elegy,” where he gives us a clear sense of the Open and its opposite:
With all its eyes the animal world
beholds the Open. Only ours
are as if inverted and set all around it
like traps at the doors to freedom.
What’s outside we know only from the animal’s
countenance: for almost from the first we take a child
and turn him around and force him to gaze
backward and take in structure, not the Open
that lies so deep in an animal’s face. Free from death.
Only we see death; the free animal has its demise
perpetually behind it and always before it
God, and when it moves, it moves into eternity,
the way brooks and running springs move.
We, though: never, not for one day, do we
have that pure space ahead of us into which flowers
endlessly open. What we have is World
and always World and never Nowhere without negation. . . (327)
I never fail to be moved by this passage, which imagines Being as a metaphysical space. Rilke is able to describe the limited way in which most of us inhabit Being by contrasting human habitation of the World with the way an idealized and generalized “animal” inhabits the Open. In the ideal, death is behind, God is in front, and the Open is the eternal present into which the animal always moves, “Free from death.” Humans, by contrast, live not in the Open but in the World; we have turned our backs to God and bounded our horizon with death, our eyes “set all around [the Open] / like traps at the doors to freedom.” Death acts for us as a kind of magnetic direction, a “never Nowhere” toward which consciousness faithfully swings like a compass needle: later in the poem Rilke calls this unfortunate orientation “what destiny is: being opposite / and nothing else and always opposite.”
In another attempt to translate my religious ambivalence into philosophy, I can also turn to Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, to the chapter in which he discusses the mind, which is two-fold: on the one hand, we have Sem, the ordinary mind which is “the discursive, dualistic, thinking mind…chaotic, confused, undisciplined and repetitive,” and on the other hand, we have Rigpa, the very nature of the mind, which is “absolutely and always untouched by change or death…intelligent, cognizant, radiant, and always awake” (46-7). When I first read this passage, I was struck by parallels between the Tibetan Buddhist terms and Rilke’s elegiac diction: Sem and World / Rigpa and the Open. While it is too neat to posit the terms as exactly analogous, certainly Buddhists would agree that our ordinary minds are set “like traps at the door to freedom,” and that it is our negative relationship to change and death that keeps us feeling that “What he have is World / and always World and never Nowhere without negation.”
I’d like to risk posing another analogy based on the Tibetan Buddhist terms: what if ordinary everyday language behaves for us as a kind of Sem, and what if poetic language can, at its best, function as a kind of Rigpa? I like to think that poetry can indeed function as a “counter-move to the design of the world, as the call intended to break its spell,” and that language de-familiarized can at once make us newly awake to the nature of the mind-in-language and thus the mind-in-the-world, an awareness as potentially revelatory of politics or ethics as of theology. If, as Sogyal Rinpoche suggests, successful meditation means that one’s mind is “attentive to…a state of Rigpa, free from all mental constructions, whilst remaining fully relaxed, without any distraction or grasping” (159), I like to think that a successful poem can likewise generate in its reader an analogous state of negative capability, “when a man [sic] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats, 43). I like to think that the one who thus returns from this kind of state does so with the ability “to suffer a clarity in language sufficient / to pain.”
If this is true, then a certain kind of successful poem might function somewhat like Buddhist meditation; it might encourage us to counter our immersion in Sem and urge us toward an encounter with the discursive limits of the ego and consciousness both. Take for example, the following poem from Red Pine’s translation of The Zen Works of Stonehouse. Though it begins with a somewhat dutiful rehearsal of Buddhist tropes concerning mind and illusion—the mind with its aimless ordinary thoughts = sky through which clouds move = water through which leaves drift—its unexpected closure cracks me up me every time:
The shame of dumb ideas is suffered by the best
but lack of perception means a fool for sure
among those who say it’s all illusion
who sees that wealth is due to luck
leaves in the stream moved without a plan
clouds in the valley drift without design
once I closed my eyes everything was fine
I opened them again because I love mountains (27)
Because we do love the World, don’t we, though it’s dumb to love our destroyer, and thus despite our meditative practice we open our eyes to the World. But at least at the end of this poem we open them knowing “the shame of dumb ideas,” as opposed to having a “lack of perception” about the end results of our attachment. Stonehouse’s poem highlights two of the things I like best about the practice of Buddhist meditation: 1) it allows me to experience embodied or cognitive states as though from without, sometimes even without suffering; 2) viewing embodiment or consciousness from the vantage point of detachment allows not just for potential insight but also for a kind of compassionate humor that is largely absent from Western religiosity. This is the reason why in 2011 I study Buddhist theology: it gives me hope that rather than remaining at the mercy of the World, there is after all possible access to the Open.
A former NEA Fellow, Brian Teare is the recipient of poetry fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the American Antiquarian Society. He is the author of four full-length books—The Room Where I Was Born, Sight Map, the Lambda-Award-winning Pleasure and Companion Grasses—as well as seven chapbooks, most recently Paradise Was Typeset, Helplessness, [ black sun crown ] and SORE EROS. An Assistant Professor at Temple University, he lives in Philadelphia, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.