Troubled Water: Quietism in the Age of Performance

(an abridged version of this essay first appeared in the Fall, 2014 Trinacria)

by Norman Ball

 darkened rooms of summerIn Jared Carter’s latest collection of poetry The Darkened Rooms of Summer, the poem ‘Picking Stone’ is prefaced with the following passage from Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’:

“Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost…we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Carter’s poetry conducts the latent convictions of the earth with unwavering fealty. Latent conviction suggests oblique paradox as does a room darkened by summer (also, the “dark shining” in ‘Scryer’ and the “harsh glare billowing darkness” in ‘The Shriving’). The grand, ineluctable cycles that move across the earth, and in equal measure through Carter’s poetry, extinguish their ends in their beginnings. Everywhere, light appears out of the darkness, or does one interpenetrate the other? Both. Stones are regurgitated to the surface like bundled mysteries. Were they there last planting season? Yes and no. Each encroaches upon, or drains from, the other as though through a great quantum sieve. One well imagines how fevered entrances and sweeping bows—all that performative mumbo-jumbo—would overwhelm what arrives to Carter’s still eye as a, “…broken heave of light and dark” (from ‘Phoenix’). Animated readings seize the eyeballs in the room yet banish the clearing. Through it all, the world forever adulterates and falls, mostly onto the shoulders of those who labor, in brief intervals, atop its primordial cycle.

Carter is a contemplative poet, yes. But in the spirit of Wordworth’s wise passiveness (there are powers/Which of themselves our minds impress/That we can feed this mind of ours,/In wise passiveness – Expostulation and Reply ll.21-24). This contemplative state is metaphorically expressed in ‘Mississinewa Reservoir at Winter Pool’. Here, the townspeople, ‘as though/having risen from a deep sleep/and come at last to a place/no longer having anything in it/except themselves.’

Quietism has fallen on loud, hard times. No one wants to take a silent bullet and invoke the clearing. Every day across America, poetry jumpstarts a bright new career in readings. Ill-suited ovations are the rage. Bowling night hardly stands a chance. In ‘The Oddfellows’ Waiting Room at Glencove Cemetery’, Carter begs to differ. A resolute listener, he continues to hold the thin, quiet line: ‘There must always be a place like this/where the dimensions collapse inwardly/ like a telescope you slip into your pocket.’ This is a beautiful image echoing again the Emerson quote; a telescope, tasked with mapping the outer reaches of the universe, collapsing into and inward, to a place where the poet stands waiting.

A heretical notion from the earliest times, quietism was formalized as such by Pope Innocent XI in 1687. Thomas Merton referred to it as an inert ‘spiritual vacuum’. The Protestant work ethic was equally hostile to a movement that rejected faith’s role as a catalyst for striving, wrestling and capital formation. The fundamental objection was that a faith that lacked vigor and purpose in the world risked falling into listlessness and solipsism. Soon enough, God’s voice would be shouted down by the clatter of railroads and later the ubiquitous presence of handheld devices.

There’s even less escaping the world today. Poems arrive hyperlinked to position papers. Recently, poetry critic and identity politician Ron Silliman accused quietism (or as poetasters like to call it, The School of Quietude) of a sly tactical reticence aimed at “denial of self-identification” and a refusal to be named. State your business or lay down your pen. Resisting industrial barcodes is, for the poetry confab, a first-order sin of omission. Poets are expected today to ‘splain themselves on the way to a good internecine squabble. Wearing their schools on their sleeves, they hoist grievances with a gusto that would make Robert Frost’s politicians blanch.

Well offstage, heads down and dimly lit, Carter’s people are forever lifting bricks and stones, digging up roots, exhuming the dead, but not with the isolating despair of Sisyphus. Here is a passage from ‘Ginseng’:

But all of them together— hunters,

thieves, those who keep the old ways—

pass it from hand to hand along

a chain of those who know exactly

where it is going, what it is worth—

The continental malaise of self-absorption has never reached Mississinewa County. Carter’s people accept their sublimated roles as momentary caretakers of the land—from prior hands, into future hands. To paraphrase Frost, life is notable mostly for going on, albeit with a flitting cast of characters, which is another way of saying time has a way of standing still:

Nothing done well ever ends,

she said, touching my hand, not even land

built up one act at a time, so that all

that went before, and after, still waits

there. –from ‘Poem Written on a Line from the Walam Olum’

We lift stones at our appointed times, then drop them for the earth to reclaim, swallow up, to be expunged anew, rediscovered and lifted once again (‘the inmost in due time becomes the outmost’). This human bucket brigade treads a cosmic circle that may well harbor a far-off, though ultimately inhuman, coherence. Coleridge’s tail-eating serpent meets Eliot’s still-point in ‘Mourning Dove’ where, “all of their singing is circular, and comes back to the same stillness.” In ‘The Undertaker’, we find a similar acquiescence to a cycle larger than one generation’s labors:

Each man slowly recognized, like a combination of lost numbers,

that men younger than themselves had labored here,

grown old, and were gone, who had lifted this same earth,

who had put in what they now took out

As for this moment, for you and for me, the mind is a stone to be rolled away from the entrance of the soul. Only then can man and earth enjoy unmediated communion. The ubiquitous arrowheads, stones with a fashioned vengeance, are scattered about the landscape like long-discarded arguments “dropped from an empty sky”. At times even the dead must be lifted in order to deliver their stillness to higher ground. The new reservoir promises to round all edges. Who will save the dead? Few congregants are up to the task, as the undertaker soon learns:

Fell overcome with heat, one did, the first day;

another struck by the sun; two more threw down their tools

and walked away. The few who stayed till the job was done

rode together in the back of Sefe’s pickup each quitting time

to a tavern on the highway”—from ‘The Undertaker’

What happens when self-negating labor is abandoned for the seductive rush of slogans, movements, grand causes and petty, indulgent feuds, in short the usual “bed of fabrications” (from ‘Shaking the Peonies’)? In ‘Phoenix’, we find two soldiers in borrowed Napoleonic uniforms, trapped in a generational family feud not of their making, in a Shawnee war not of their bidding. Adding to the worldly layers of confusion and “alienated majesty”, they find themselves comrades in the same war. Seeking to resolve these bewildering allegiances, they end up fighting one another to the death. In perhaps the most comprehensively emblematic image in the collection (we have the water, the rocks, the rising darkness and the failing light), the two men venture down to the hollow with the General’s consent where a “dark presence/rose up— a basin of troubled water, seething/and boiling, surging over heaps of stones/catching the last light through the trees”.

In ‘Picking Stone’, these men seem to appear again, this time as boys, “still in baseball uniforms from a game at the Legion” Later they, “pry with an iron bar against a great gray rock. They will not quit, they begin to roar as they bear down on it.”

Those closest to the earth do not bear uniforms well; or else the organizing principle becomes, “…so smudged you can’t tell what army” they’re in (from ‘Covered Bridge’). Uniforms are regimenting colors that march us away from ourselves. The uniform du jour in poetry these days is the performance poet. In his struggle to be heard, this thoroughly modern bard finds his public voice only to lose his vocation. After all, his job is not to linger, but to vacate the clearing his contemplation ushers through. The limelight eludes the proper poet by design.

Carter’s quietude is a conscious and sustained act, hardly a feeble acquiescence. He resists polluting the stillness with gratuitous detail, resigning himself with poetic fatalism to Keats’ negative capabilities, that ‘part of your mind that cannot hurry, that has never learned to decide’ (from ‘Mississinewa County Road’). Forbearance is the bright shadow that guides his pen.

The poet advertises himself only on the rarest occasions. In ‘At the Sign-Painters’, he extolls the Depression-era sign painters who stoically accept being observed at their labors. We sense the poet’s calling slowly forming in a boy’s mind. The words are prefigured, waiting to be filled out with whispers. But no speeches please. The universe entrusts its signs to the artisan who stands, in ready quietude, brush in-hand:

for the slow sweep and whisper

of the brush— liked seeing the ghost letters in pencil

gradually filling out, fresh and wet and gleaming, words

forming out of all that darkness, that huge disorder.

Contemplatives are particularly maddening because they eschew textual impartations from ‘higher authorities’, be they clergymen or self-appointed poetry critics. At least meditation involves meditating upon something: a prayer, a papal bull, the new Tom Cruise movie, a political manifesto. The arrangers of the world seek indoctrinated readers, not divine listeners. In the absence of doctrinaires, the sway of earthly power is loosened. French Quietist Jeanne Marie Guyon called it ‘loosening the stays’. Or as Carter says in ‘The Shriving’, ‘‘Things got in the way of what he saw and heard.”

I can detect no earthly authority to which Jared Carter’s poetry answers, except perhaps the earth itself. No sooner did I fancy him brushing against Shaker sensibilities in Indiana, his lifelong home and the locale for most of these poems, than I fell across ‘The Believers’ inscribed to “Shakertown at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky” with appearances no less, from Mother Ann Lee, the “endless chain” and the “narrow path”.

There is, in his poetry, Mother Ann Lee’s ‘retirement’ from opinion and argument into the unitive state of divine contemplation. When the nervous chatter stops, the clearing is allowed and the universe bursts forth. While nature can be chronicled for the labors it performs beneath our feet, we are here not to move mountains but to occasionally move our dead to higher ground. The mind feeds nothing. Carter’s poems cannot be willed into existence. Rather, they find him at his workbench, bristling with craft and emptied of polemic.

This is a sprawling collection, nearly 200 pages, that assembles poems from Carter’s first five books. I confess to approaching this task with great trepidation, knowing I could never do the volume anywhere near full justice. For instance, I have barely touched upon his metrical verse and his astonishingly unlabored villanelles. Instead, I have kept things to where my own fascinations seemed to gravitate, mostly, as it turns out, in the earlier work. That would be stones, arrowheads, borrowed uniforms, adulterated light and the elevated dead. I note his latest work favors compression. I prefer the unhurried eccentricity of his longer lines. In the main, this poetry moves across the earth with understated majesty. The ultimate testament to craft is the poet’s polite absence. I applaud Carter for leaving well enough alone.

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Troubled Water: Quietism in the Age of Performance

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