Because I need help beginning this, there’s a stack of books on the table in front of me, books that I gathered with a dull sense, fogged, of their connection to things being asked about here. I opened D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow randomly and glimpsed the sentence quoted above (it will serve as the title), and kept idly turning pages. Turned back to page 109 because “bird” and “butter” had stayed “in my mind”—feels more like “on my forehead”—and I wanted to see what the sentence was doing there, since I didn’t remember it from the novel I’ve read many times. The sentence just before it, which I read next, reading up the page, backward, made me laugh, in relation to my task: “And this was the question put by the customers during the next weeks” (109). The sentences refer to a butter stamper, a wood-carving made by Will for Anna: “[s]trange, the uncouth bird moulded there, in the cup-like hollow, with curious, thick waverings running inwards from a smooth rim” (109). Lawrence repeats the word “strange” twice more, and Anna’s parents’ responses—as different as they are from each other—precipitate the narrator’s account of the question repeated by customers:
Strange, to lift the stamp and see the eagle-beaked bird raising its breast to her.
She loved creating it over and over again. And every time she looked, it seemed a
new thing come to life. Every piece of butter became this strange, vital emblem.
She showed it to her mother and father.
“That is beautiful,” said her mother, a little light coming on to her
“Beautiful!” exclaimed the father, puzzled, fretted. “Why what sort
of bird does he call it?”
And this was the question put by the customers during the next weeks.
“What sort of a bird do you call that, as you’ve got on th’ butter?”
My reason for starting with that passage is not necessarily to suggest that the mother’s uncritical reception, her purely aesthetic or intuitive response, is superior to that of the father and the customers, who want the name of the thing as part of its justification for itself or as if in explanation of itself. Clearly, that’s how Lawrence’s irony and subtle humor are pitched, and I’m not unsympathetic. But there’s something else about the passage that makes me copy it here and because I don’t yet know why, I keep typing, this time “in order,” down the page from the last sentence quoted above. Here, Will and Anna are alone, after she has shown his gift to her parents.
When he came in the evening, she took him into the dairy to show him.
“Do you like it?” he asked, in his loud, vibrating voice that always
sounded strange, re-echoing in the dark places of her being.
I note in Will’s question a fourth occurrence of the word “strange,” linking the wood-carver’s voice to his handiwork, at least to the ear of the person for whom he made the work. (Let’s say “the dark places of her being” can be called “the ear.”) He cares about whether Anna likes it—in fact he cares a lot; this is all he says about it, this question to her—but it’s of no concern how others respond.
When a word or letter or activity of saying (such as a sentence) multiplies or changes before your very eyes, as the bird in the butter does, and when the construction of the line itself (if there are lines) emerges of the poem’s listening, without knowing where it’s going or without going anywhere (being right here)—this is when I think there may be a poem.
In 1960, Paul Celan wrote in a letter:
Craft means handiwork, a matter of hands. And these hands must belong to one
person, i.e. a unique, mortal soul searching for its way with its voice and its
dumbness. Only truthful hands write true poems. I cannot see any basic
difference between a handshake and a poem.
At the start of the letter, he says: “ [. . .] once the poem is really there, the poet is dismissed, is no longer privy” (25). Lots of terms to raise eyebrows here—“truthful hands,” “true poems,” “unique mortal soul.” However, the most important word in Celan’s letter is “dumbness”—and note the poet’s dismissal from the poem once the poem is there, unique mortal soul notwithstanding. As Lawrence heard in the dialogue between Will and Anna when Will gave Anna what he made for her, dumbness is the very thing that can’t be faked. How it is that muteness can be present in the work, sounding its recognition of the writing’s impossibility and the floundering within that recognition, and can also convey or embody the desire-full resistance to it and the pressing back against it, is hard to say. But it’s then that the work is fraught. Then it’s inherently paradoxical, in the very fact of its emergence. Then it has the potential to remain strange, to be “a new thing come to life” each time it’s encountered, whether or not it can be named, explained or assimilated.
Paul Celan, Collected Prose, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1986)
D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (London: Penguin Books, 1985), first published 1915