] ] deep sound ] — Sappho (fragment 29a), trans. Anne Carson
After a good day of writing, it’s like I’ve emerged out of a dream. I can’t remember where I’ve been or what I’ve written. As if rain had washed away my footprints.
I climb out of my red chair, eat a bowl of cereal, drink a coffee. I go for a walk around Clark Park. Later, returning to the writing, it’s like stairs appearing in the mist. Stairs that lead from the literal space of West Philadelphia back into the grotesque figurative landscape of the imagination. I spend my life moving between, at the edges of, these two spaces.
Jack Gilbert, in his poem “Beyond Pleasure,” describes how writing can lead us back, step by step, to an experience outside the boundaries of everyday life.
Gradually we realize what is felt is not so important (however lovely or cruel) as what the feeling contains. Not what happens to us in childhood, but what was inside what happened. Ken Kesey sitting in the woods, beyond his fence of whitewashed motorcycles, said when he was writing on acid he was not writing about it. He used what he wrote as blazes to find his way back to what he knew then.
Having taken a powerful hallucinogen, Kesey—the famous beatnik author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—finds himself in a space beyond language. When he sobers up, he won’t remember what happened. He might recall details, but the language will be different.
What’s true of Kesey is true of all artists, stoned or sober. Our artworks act as blazes that lead us across a threshold, from conscious to unconscious, from thought to feeling, from “real life” to the deepest cave of ourselves. Gilbert’s poem, which describes Kesey going through this process, encourages us to do it ourselves.
Threshold-crossing. That precarious border. Like Orpheus, or Lot’s Wife, we should not look back. Just go where you are going, without hesitation. Then, for god’s sake, come back.
Gilbert, later in the poem, claims that the best poetry “searches / out what is beyond pleasure, is outside process.” Such poetry leaves markers along the overgrown trails that lead us inward, into our own dark hearts. Ariadne knew this. According to Hesiod, Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of thread so he could find his way back out of the maze after fighting the Minotaur. Theseus was the hero, but Ariadne was the artist. She knew the cave, the dark that exists “outside process.” She’d used the thread before, to find the middle of the labyrinth. And, crucially, to return intact.
But some accounts say that Ariadne died by suicide. So perhaps she did not, in fact, return from all that threshold-crossing unscathed?
Threshold: A piece of wood, stone, or other material forming the bottom of a doorway, crossed as we enter a house, building, or room; the sill of a doorway. Old English þrescold: “door-sill, point of entering.”
A threshold, in other words, is a doorway separating where the family eats and sleeps from where they do work. Work, for certain farmers, meant threshing: separating the grain of a cereal crop from the husks and straw, the seed from the chaff, by shaking, trampling, and beating. Such work would have been done in a threshing area, beside the house.
Symbolically, a threshold—this doorway, separating inside from outside—indicates a possible transformation. We cross the door-sill, take a left out of our parents’ house, toward the bus station; then, minutes or years later, we return. But the true threshold is within the house; we cross from inside to deeper inside. To a box under some photographs; to the hard drive of a family member’s computer. Into the pocket of the person sitting beside you at dinner.
We cross back and forth, all day long, from a conscious space (room) through a threshold (limen) into an unconscious space (inner room).
The room is where we live our days: our mental state when we wake up, take the bus, go to the bank, make plans, socialize. The realm of language, articulation, performance, time. The not-dream.
The inner room is inside the inside of the house: a space of secrets, reverie, deep song, trance. The inarticulate, unconscious, subconscious. When we see a bird dying and feel something. When we dream or daydream. When we’re immersed in work or lust or play, and we lose time. Think of an M.C. Escher house within a house. Or Kafka’s court offices in The Trial. So many spiraling rooms, so few windows. A basement: location of so many horror movies, like Nightmare on Elm Street. And of real-life horrors: John Wayne Gacy buried dozens of teenage boys under the floorboards of his house in Norwood Park Township, a suburb of Chicago.
In the Paradiso, Dante envisions the Virgin Mary as a flaming brightness: “while smiling down upon their sports and songs / a Beauty I beheld, who was the joy / within the eyes of all the other Saints. // And even if I in utterance were as rich / as in imagination, I’d not dare / attempt to tell the least of its delight” (canto 31, trans. Courtney Langdon). He can approximate her beauty, but ultimately admits that it’s beyond language.
“The highest levels of consciousness,” Charles Simic says, “are wordless.”
The inner room—although ineffable, sacred even—is common, not precious. It’s that feeling when we read a book and are immersed in an alternate world. All day—as we climb in and out of cars, sing a song in the shower, watch a film—we drift back and forth from room to inner room. From, as Gilbert says, “what happens to us in childhood” to “what was / inside what happened.”
Kesey knew during his hallucinatory reverie that he was having an experience which would not transfer back to his rational mind, or room. He—lucid enough, apparently, to hold a pen—wrote down his mind-altering knowledge so that later, in his room, the realm of language, he might remember. The blazes—which “He used . . . to find his way back / to what he knew then”—are markers leading him, gradually, back across the limen into the inner room.
In my metaphor, we’re lost in our own home. A disorienting, nightmarish notion. Perhaps—rather than burning the house down with blazes—Hansel-and-Gretel-like breadcrumbs would suffice to find our way from room to room.
The limen (Latin: “threshold, cross-piece, sill,” related to liminal) separates room from inner room. A transition moment, a flash, a blink; a psychic door-sill, stairwell, Haruki Murakami portal, Tarkovsky tunnel. In the Poetic Edda, it’s the Yggdrasil tree that Ratatoskr the squirrel climbs up and down, carrying messages between worlds. In Ringu, it’s the well the vengeful spirit climbs out of. In Beowulf, it’s the lake the hero dives into to fight Grendel’s mother.
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) is a kind of reboot of The Wizard of Oz (1939). Like Oz, Mulholland Drive takes place primarily in a dream space, in the mind of one of the characters. Lynch’s ending, like the ending of Oz (Dorothy, back in Kansas: “But it wasn’t a dream. It was a place. And you and you and you . . . and you were there . . .”), articulates the protagonist’s real-life connection to the dream.
Kansas is the room. When Dorothy’s house is caught in the twister, swirling through the air, that’s the limen. The witch and her monkeys, the poppy field, the dwarves, the glittering kingdom of Oz, are all the inner room.
In the back-in-Kansas non-dream room of Mulholland Drive—which, unlike Oz, Lynch only reveals to us briefly at the end, implying that everything to that point has been a dream, or inner room—the protagonist, Diane, is a heartbroken woman torn apart by guilt because she hired a hitman to murder her ex, Camilla.
In the dream, Betty (Diane in real life) rescues an amnesiac named Rita (Camilla in real life). The two women search, Nancy Drew-style, for clues to Rita’s identity. Toward the end, Betty and Rita enter what feels like the center of the maze, or a gate of hell: a theater called Club Silencio.
They watch a performance, a mind-blowing sleight of hand which reminds us why we love Lynch as a director. A goateed magician, in front of tall crimson curtains, pulls sound out of the air while telling the audience, “It’s all recorded.” A woman sings Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish, heartbreakingly; she faints, her singing continues. We don’t believe it’s been a recording. It isn’t! It emanates from nowhere; from the air, which is film. Betty and Rita recoil, weep.
Diane might be lucid dreaming in Club Silencio, her downward spiral finally bubbling forth into her waking mind. While listening to “Crying,” she convulses, choking on tears. As if she’s suddenly realized what she’d done: murdered the woman next to her, whom she loves.
After the performance in Club Silencio, the film shifts abruptly to “Kansas,” the non-dream. Diane is a struggling actress, rejected by Camilla. She has Camilla killed, and shoots herself.
The film ends back at the theater with a blue-haired lady in a box seat whispering, “Silencio.”
Lynch’s films, by thrusting us into the surreal without warning, blur the line between room and inner room. As with Blake, Stein, Buñuel, Borges, Murakami, and countless others, dream and reality intersect constantly. These are not mind states with clearly marked borders, but twinkling gates all around us.
Lynch enjoys constant ontological instability, indicated through “weirdness” like stilted dialogue. In fact, for Lynch, limina are ubiquitous. Everywhere we look are red curtains or fog or a flickering lamp or a rusted stairwell to indicate that a character is crossing from one psychic space into another. In Mulholland Drive, from a “normal” scene of two friends eating in a booth at a diner called Winkie’s (room), we cross a parking lot toward an ominous dumpster (limen) where a nightmarish figure lurks (inner room).
Like the poems of Jack Gilbert, Lynch’s films are lined with blazes leading the viewer inward. If we follow the clues implicit in his impossible performances, we find our way into the very middle of ourselves.
As we write poems we pause on the limen, as on the median of a busy street. On one side of us, where poems come from; on the other, where poems go.
Setting a poem down in language is a constantly unbearable process, because the thing that came to us originally—feeling, inspiration, impulse—never remains intact. The end result is always (I’ll speak for myself) a disappointment.
To me, a good poem is not a reported description of a real-world thing. It’s an approximation, using words (room) to describe non-words (inner room). T.S. Eliot, in his 1919 essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” famously named this approximation: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
So, for example, I see a dog limping in traffic, cars swerving around it, and feel an emotion: a pang. With that pang, which happens in my inner room, comes the idea of a poem, a hazy inarticulate wisp of a poem. When I jot the word “pang” into my notebook, it materializes in the room. Passing through the limen, the image transforms, distorts. Specifically, the pang I felt while watching a dog in traffic ended up—significantly altered, many drafts later—in an actual poem of mine called “How to Float”: “I mean, why don’t we / drown every time we see a photo / of an elephant, face hacked off / by poachers?”
The objective correlative for my pang ended up being an elephant. It’s a messy process, dragging precious objects back and forth across the limen. Very imprecise. Like slathering an angel with mud.
But there’s also a kind of sorcery in it. A metamorphosis.
That’s why I value poems that admit an incapacity to name. Donika Kelly’s The Renunciations, addressing familial abuse, asks: “Did Daddy [ ]?” Such a poem, rather than articulating directly, acts as an arrow pointing within us as readers: an invitation to follow the blazes into our own murky psyches.
As Mary Ruefle says, “The great lunacy of most lyric poems is that they attempt to use words to convey what cannot be put into words.”
Many of us, uncomfortable with approximating, try to simplify poems: making them overly literal, expository, newsworthy, inspirational, confessional. A great poem can be these things, within limits. I admit I prefer stubborn, weird, unwieldy poems that won’t be told what they are. Such poems speak their minds of their own volition, I think. Or they can do so, if we who write them trust the very intuitive process which comes from spending time, a lifetime, on that limen bridge between outside and inside.
Rilke, in his poem “Pont Du Carrousel,” describes such a bridge:
That blind man, standing on the bridge, as gray as some abandoned empire’s boundary stone, perhaps he is the one thing that never shifts, around which the stars move in their hours, and the motionless hub of the constellations. For the city drifts and rushes and struts around him. He is the just man, the immovable set down here in many tangled streets; the dark opening to the underworld among a superficial generation. (trans. Robert Bly)
Perhaps the gray blind man is Louis Petitot’s statue (“Industry,” 1846) on the titular Paris bridge: a giant “immovable” seated figure, above the gyring traffic. The statue, with its winged hat, resembles Mercury, god of messages (and travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery, thieves), who guided souls to the underworld.
Or perhaps the figure on the bridge is a poet. Standing—listening, uncertain, separate, lonesome—at a cosmic intersection between worlds. Motionless, hushed. Like Keats, at dusk, outside Fanny Brawne’s house. Poem in his pocket. Message-bearer.
Yes, poetry misses the mark—always!—but that’s part of its power. Poetry never quite captures what it tries to refer to. Pang is never “pang.” The poem, a thing of language, is permanently severed from the dream where it originated. Umbilicus cut.
If a poet accepts that a poem is just a thing of language, this awareness—like Neo’s awareness in The Matrix (1999) that the Matrix is an operating system and not real, so while he’s inside it he has the powers of a god—allows the poem to be deliciously free from the logical constraints of the “real” world. A poem can be impossible, limitless. Free to follow rhythm or sound or metaphor down whatever rabbit hole opens up in front of it.
Jacques Derrida famously argued that there’s no center, or presence, to language, and therefore nothing to keep the limitless “play of substitutions” at bay. There’s never, he thought, a reducible signified, or transcendental meaning, that cannot be continually divided or displaced. This means that between words and objects is an irreconcilable disconnect, and this play of “différance” is the meaning we receive from language. Language, uncentered, is subject to manifold variations: freeplay.
But are words and objects really irreconcilable? Does language (such as a poem) really refer only to language?
Derrida’s freeplay seems to describe a kind of nihilism—or Tower-of-Babel gibberish—where our thoughts constantly slide off of the words, with no clear reference to the world of objects. I like this idea, in part. But to me, language’s disconnect from the real world feels partial, not complete. We search through language for traces of the world, trapped as we are between signifier and signified. Not entirely lost, or found. “The world is not a prison house,” E.A. Robinson says, “but a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.”
We who live on the limen, that middle space, are the living tissue between dream and flesh.
Poems attain liftoff when their language lets go of its compulsive desire to refer to the real world. When poems revel in the play of substitutions, they find their frenzied radiance. It’s the slippery, not-quite-earth-logic feeling of being inside a John Ashbery poem: “No sighs like Russian music, only a vast unravelling / Out toward the junctions and to the darkness beyond / To these bare fields, built at today’s expense” (“Pyrography”).
The middle space is a reverie. We’re on the bridge between dream and waking. With access to both worlds. On the dream side, we see images sliding off each other, and hear gobbledygook words. On the waking side, we see solid forms, and hear words with solid referents. Lynch’s movies occupy the middle space: Diane is sitting next to Camilla who is both dead and not dead. Poetic metaphors also exist in that space: Neruda simultaneously sees both “waves of fire” and horses.
This between-space might be nihilism, but feels like freedom!
Poems abandon conventional reality and embrace freeplay in order to point to what I think of as a deeper reality. Zen Buddhism has helpful language for broaching this spiritual terrain: a Zen practitioner sits in silence in order to experience the deep truth of existence, or the world as it truly is. This, Dōgen said, is No-Self. Paradoxically, our truest self is No-Self, or emptiness.
I’m drawn to that liminal poetic space because I can intuit something underneath language that I want to be in contact with. It feels more real.
What I think of as freeplay—the dream-dance of signifier and signified in the inner room—is not nihilism but non-dualism. It’s the language of myth and poems, which sees the world as chimeric, shimmying, shifting. The irrational language of Zen koans. It’s the sense that the objects around us are too big and unwieldy to be held by language, too shimmering and strange. Too empty.
The Heart Sutra says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” While poems don’t exactly offer us No-Self, they point to it by drawing attention to the ephemerality of existence.
If we’re meditating, or absorbed in a poem, or in the dark watching a movie, or asleep, we have access to a world of forms which approximates my idea of how the fluid, interconnected cosmos actually moves, and how it’s actually made up.
The truest approximation of myself is silence.
Poetry is, I think, a more apt form than essays—at least the kind of essays that rely on strict rules of reasoning—for demonstrating what language can do.
We humans are these limited embodied creatures that have developed different ways of making sense of the world: one way is reasoning, and another is through our bodies. Feelings link the physical body and the conscious mind in mysterious ways.
Poetry is tapped into the mystery. Like Ratatoskr the squirrel trotting up and down the world-tree, poetry flashes from body to mind, mind to body, bearing its message.
Reasoning is important, of course. But I think we might put too much importance on the type of thinking that tells us the world is limited, dualistic, logical, and so on. Perhaps we need practice developing and trusting—not fearing—other kinds of thinking. I feel, in my clearest moments, that the space around me is wilder than that. In fact, when I look inside myself, beyond my ego and masks, I see very little, or nothing: no name, or identity, or self. On a dusk walk, my hold over who I am is beautifully tenuous. Is this what Blake meant in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell when he asked, “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?”
Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, by ending in Club Silencio, points beyond language and away from the tidier connect-the-dots ending of Oz. Lynch leaves us in the potentially-uncomfortable inner room. He doesn’t place the reality of forms higher than freeplay.
Yet the ending of Oz is also satisfying, perhaps, because we’ve just experienced how much richer and more colorful the world of freeplay is.
The dream has brought color to “Kansas.”
One of Charles Simic’s prose poems from The World Doesn’t End begins with a tangible image which seems real enough, but as we read on a feeling of freeplay creeps into the picture.
The hundred-year-old china doll’s head the sea washes up on its gray beach. One would like to know the story. One would like to make it up, make up many stories. It’s been so long in the sea, the eyes and nose have been erased, its faint smile is even fainter. With the night coming, one would like to see oneself walking the empty beach and bending down to it.
The opening, with the doll’s head in the sand, seems real enough. We can imagine ourselves there, physically, leaning down to investigate the weird doll, breathing in the scene. The next sentence, “One would like to know the story,” also feels real; we let our minds wander, curious about the origin of the doll, still on that literal beach. But what follows makes us scratch our heads. Why would we like to make it up? Here the real somehow recedes. The next part—“It’s been so long in the sea”—now sounds made-up, like a fiction being invented in the moment, because it was framed that way in the preceding line. And then come clues (“faint smile is even fainter,” “night coming”) that the poem exists solely in the imagination, liminal territory. The last image—“one would like to see oneself”—is clearly hypothetical: distinctly not-reality.
Simic starts with a literal-sounding scene and then, winking at us time and again, slowly reveals that it is surreal, freeplay. His poem exists in a realm of imagination, dreams, interiority.
It describes a thing-not-made-of words (qualia, in philosophy: the internal and subjective part of sense perceptions) that has, I think, always interested Simic: a kind of grotesque, haunted nostalgia. A match lit in Simic’s inner room. He seems to have found an objective correlative (doll’s head on a beach) to describe the uncanny vibe he’s after. By the end of the poem we feel that it, in the Derridean sense, is just language. Unmoored, unleashed from reality. A space where, figuratively speaking, anything can happen.
When I begin to read a poem in my room—sitting in my chair, gulping coffee that makes my fingers and toes tingle—I don’t immediately feel the inner room. I seek, through the poem, a limen that can lead me to the markers, the blazes, the thread. I long to go back in.
Simone Weil: “If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.”
If Dōgen is right and No-Self is our essential nature, then there is no me. That is, at my base I am not substance, but silence. If the ecosystem of my inner room is silence, then moving from room to inner room is to go from body to no body, or from body to silence. It’s the process of seeing a landscape without me in it.
Passing from inner room to room, my beating heart disturbs the serenity of No-Self. The body imposes itself on silence.
As Derrida perhaps helps us to see, we learn to threshold-cross through continual creative exploration. Over and over—separating seed from chaff, a process that reveals the inner core—we crack the pod and find the seed missing, which can be profoundly liberating. To discover that all the little petty parts of myself are illusory. My ego-inflated desire to be a “great poet,” my jealousy of others’ success, my desire for posterity, unreal!
I find myself asking, is room any more real than inner room? Surely not. Somehow, like nesting dolls, we’ve contained all the rooms the whole time.
You stand on a bridge in the mist. Stars above, black lagoon below.
Water splashes both shores. You breathe the mist.
One side: tall forests, snarling creatures. The other side: a city, burning.
You are in each world and neither. Feeling both on the skin.
Step forward (which way?) one of the ways.
To the burning city. Not burning, glimmering. In sunlight.
Philadelphia. Not glimmering. Crumbling, ash.