We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more.
I first heard the poem “Donal Og” in a cottage by the sea. I was visiting an Irish poet at a time when I would probably have boasted that I knew something of Irish poetry. He asked me if I knew “Donal Og.” I said no. He asked if I had Heaney’s Rattle Bag anthology and, again, the answer was no. Out came the book. It was late, quiet out and dark; the kind of blackness that settles along the northwest edge of the country, away from other houses, busy roads. There was a fire, coal I think, we’d been drinking and there was an ease in the room. The talk was mostly poetry, a bit of history. I was young in writing terms, and eager to learn. My host read the poem. He read it the way it is meant to be read–as a kind of spell. The first line–“It is late last night the dog was speaking of you”–is immediately unsettling, the “you” making the listener complicit. The alliterative sounds, loping rhythm and the repetition of “you” as the poem progresses pull you, the listener, in, as if you were at the end of a rope and being reeled steadily closer. On first reading the poem seems like a plain-spoken questioning of what went wrong between two lovers. But there is magic in it: dogs “speak,” cries are numbered, ships are made of gold and silver, impossible gifts are conjured. There is enchantment (in multiple senses of the word). But this poem is also an inventory of loss. Hearing it for the first time was like looking into a wound. But not a wound that could be ascribed to any one person, not like Raymond Carver’s work where we can say, “Oh well, Carver, he knew loss, there was the drink, the first marriage…” Rather, this wound sounded out of the past, and went on and on, unresolved and unclaimed.
What I love about Anon is its opacity. Anon, to me anyway, has no face, no speaking voice. Anon is genderless, ageless, timeless and sometimes without country. I read poems by Anon and enjoy the sensation that comes from the way the poem is forced to stand as a-thing-in-itself, like a present left for you in a quiet room, all trace of the giver gone. Anon reminds us that the poem isn’t just the concepts we bring to it–how mired I can get, for example, in Carver’s biography whenever I read him–but that rather, it is its own declarative self. Anon comes to us without skirt-tails, heavy boots or sandals, without a window in which we imagine “X” sitting for years and writing. Anon’s landscape is the landscape of the poem. In a poem like “Donal Og,” we know the landscape because Anon tells us it is Ireland and that there are sheep and churches and blackthorns, but that doesn’t mean Anon is the “me” of the poem any more than it means he or she was from that location. If we credit writers in general with imaginations, then we must credit Anon with the same. Anon, for lack of any other evidence, must always be regarded as an individual of the instance of a poem’s creation. Anon, by virtue of his or her anon-ness, could be anyone from anywhere.
In his essay, Phenomenology of Reading, Georges Poulet suggests that in reading, “I am thinking the thoughts of another.” But as Poulet knew, reading is more than that: you are often, in fact, thinking the thoughts of another as if they were your own. With Anon, the “other” whose work you are reading does not exist–at least not in the traditional Cartesian sense of the word. You read Anon and the ideas and stories sail about, attached to no one in particular. But then–and this, to me, is Anon’s magical quality–perhaps because the mind needs some hook, some anchor, the poems settle, attaching themselves finally to the reader. Poulet states: “Ideas belong to no one.” I think he means that once out-in-the-world they belong only to themselves. If this is true, this is especially true when reading Anon. With Anon there is nothing (and no one) to hang our preconceptions on. Poulet understands writer-centricity; he argues that while biographical information is valuable, it does not, as a kind of knowledge, “coincide with the internal knowledge of the work.” For him, biography does not “suffice to illuminate” a work’s own inner meaning. This illumination, one that comes out of all great writing, is what makes Anon, in all of Anon’s incarnations, so powerful. We don’t have to distinguish or draw boundaries or weigh out or temper or discern one kind of knowledge from another with Anon. There is only the text, like a scrap of paper found on a café table written in a hand that could be anyone’s.
When the Irish poet read the poem, the poem became his. It is his voice that reads the poem to me now. I have gone on to read it aloud to others, so vital does it seem to me, so honest. It’s possible these others may be reading the poem from time to time and hearing my voice or the voices of any and all the people they’ve heard read it. “Donal Og” is a fairly famous poem. It’s been translated numerous times (my favourite version is Lady Gregory’s, the translation I first fell in love with) and, as one of the great Irish ballads, it’s been sung and recorded over a good few generations. The poem in its original Irish has been dated to the 8th Century. We know “Donal Og” means “Young Donald”; we assume the speaker is a she. But Anon? Anon is a fabulous mystery. Anon is the poet who let loose the poem. Thinking about Anon this past month I’ve imagined what it would be like to publish a whole book as Anon, what things it might free me up to say, how unaccountable I’d be to anyone or anything. Sitting down with yourself and working as a poet is a privilege, but imagine, just imagine, saying something so well, so powerfully, that as a thing-in-itself the poem might go on speaking crucially: outlasting its need for a name and that name’s claim on an interval in history.
|an Arc Essay [read more essays]
Published in Arc 61: Winter 2009