I’ve been in a silent streak these last few days. Is it because the fall is so exceptionally beautiful this year that I am feeling even more speechless than usual? Perhaps. But also I think it is because I’m deep in a dig. This time it is a new curiosity about shadow. You know, that incorrigibly vague term that can mean anything from our darker impulses to that which we cannot see or accept. What I’m looking for is vague but it has something to do with art making, creativity, sourcing, the interior archaeology. That’s about all I know so far.
Robert Bly’s slight volume, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, is a brisk short walk with Bly’s poetic sense on the topic. As is my usual response to Bly, there are times when his take on a thing grabs hold of me with its authenticity and won’t let go, and other times when his flailing just floats out of earshot. The chapter on Wallace Stevens has attached itself to me for several days. He has strong opinions about how my favorite (and extremely complex) poet navigated (or failed to navigate) the shadow in mining his poetic gifts. I’m still sorting through what I’ll keep and what I’ll give away on that subject. But here’s a passage that has resonated with me since I read it:
William James warned his students that a certain kind of mind-set was approaching the West—it could hardly be called a way of thought—in which no physical details are noticed. Fingernails are not noticed, trees in the plural are mentioned, but no particular tree is ever loved, nor where it stands; the air in the ear it not noticed…Since the immense range of color belongs to physical detail—the thatness—of the universe, it is the inability to see color. People with this mind-set have minds that resemble white nightgowns. For people with this mind-set, there’s not much difference between 3 and 742; the count of something is a detail. In fact the number they are most interested in, as James noted, is one. That’s a number without physical detail.
Bly turns to Steven’s poem, “Metaphors of a Magnifico” as a way of freeing one’s self from this mind set and avoid being “murdered” by it:
Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.
Trees. Tree. Leaves. Leaf. All. Nothing. Everything.