The Sacrament

Heather King

I say Mother. And my thoughts are of you, oh, House.
House of the lovely dark summers of my childhood.
—O.V. de Milosz (1877-1939)

Let’s put it like this: my mother goes her own way. She once went twenty-nine years without seeing a doctor. She braves New England winters in a beige rayon windbreaker and a pair of Rich’s Discount sneakers. She rinses out plastic garbage bags, hangs them out on the line, and “re-purposes” them.

Mom plods, I’m a hummingbird; Mom minimizes, I exaggerate; Mom keeps stoic silence, I emote. One year, along with her birthday check, I sent a poem by (the at this point admittedly way over-exposed) Rumi, which ran in part:

Bring a hundred sacks of gold and God will say, ‘Bring the heart.’

And if you bring a dead heart carried like a coffin on your shoulders, God will say, ‘Oh, cheat! is this a graveyard? Bring the live heart! Bring the live heart!’ . . .

“Did you like the poem?” I asked shyly next time I called. “No,” Mom replied.

Everything with Mom is played down, minimized, euphemized. A stroke is a “spell,” a gangrenous ulcer a “spot,” a person in the psych ward after a suicide attempt “feels low.” When my father was dying in 1999, we all came home and sat vigil for a week, hanging around his chair saying all the sappy things we’d always been too embarrassed to say when he was well: “You’re the best father in the world.” “I love you.” One day, as things looked truly dire, I realized Mom hadn’t had her turn. “Let’s clear out and give Mom some time to say goodbye,” I told the others, my voice trembling. “Go ahead, Mom,” we urged. “Take as long as you want.”

My little sister Meredith and I went out to the breezeway and huddled together, sobbing. “What could she be saying to him?” we wondered. “Forty-eight years together . . . oh my God, it’s so sad. . . .” Two minutes later Mom appeared, dry-eyed, at the door. “So,” she said, briskly tying an apron around her waist, “what does everyone want for supper?”

Mom’s way is to spend as little, use as little, and take up as little space as possible. Within weeks of my father’s death, she gave away all his belongings, sold the family homestead, and bought a condo the next town over, at the far end of a complex that backed right up to the woods. Since moving to L.A. in 1990, I’d fly home once a year, usually in summer, staying first at the old place, then for the last few years, here at the condo. A stand of old evergreens casts the living room in perpetual shadow (this was fine with Mom: she’s always hot; I’m always cold), and inside, the place is as still and spare as a mausoleum.

She’s always been so self-sufficient that even I, the alarmist, had been slow to acknowledge that Mom’s memory was failing. Her handwriting was increasingly wavery, her memory increasingly sketchy. “That place where people like to go” turned out to mean Las Vegas. “That business with Nita” transpired to be Nita’s funeral. I found myself talking loudly to her over the phone, the way you do to people who don’t speak English. “Taxes,” I’d almost yell, or “yogurt,” filling in the words she could no longer find herself.

One of the reasons I’d moved to the West Coast had been to put thousands of miles between me and the place where I was raised: not because there was anything wrong with the place I’d been raised, or the sainted people who’d raised me: I was simply too weak to flourish there. The wounds would have been forever fresh; my longing to see the rest of the world, if thwarted, would have crushed me. I’d always felt guilty, torn, as if I were shirking responsibility, never more so than now, as she began to fail in earnest. True to form, she was steadfastly refusing to admit anything and refusing all help, but clearly she wouldn’t be able to manage on her own much longer. As the executor of her estate, the caretaker of her money, and the oldest of her six biological kids—my older brother, Allen, and older sister, Jeanne, from my father’s first marriage, made us eight—I felt compelled to go home and see if there was anything I could do. Also, when and if she moved, there would no longer be a physical “home” to be sent out from or go back to. Especially living so far away, “home” was a vital, urgent image.

So in the early fall of 2007, spurred by an almost atavistic urge, I started out from L.A. on a cross-country road trip. In fact, to myself I styled the trip a pilgrimage of sorts, ordered by my attendance at daily Mass. Outwardly, nothing special: featureless freeways, Motel 6-es, unremarkable churches—but a church doesn’t need to be remarkable. As Flannery O’Connor once observed, “Mass could be said out of a suitcase in a furnace room, and the sacrifice would be the same.” The most ordinary Mass is a re-enactment of the most stupendous event the world has known. And my ordinary road trip signified a blind, almost frantic urge to transcend my puny limitations: to do something hard for my mother that she would not understand or even know about, for which I would not be recognized or thanked. For once in my life, I would try to be the competent, self-sacrificing daughter my mother had always deserved.

Finding a church that offered Mass each day was more difficult than I’d expected. Some days I drove 500, 600 miles at a stretch. The trip was difficult for other reasons. I was 57 years old, divorced, childless. A sense that my life was not bearing fruit had gouged deeper the abandonment wound I’d suffered since childhood. But why? I kept wondering. Why such an intense sense I’d been abandoned, when as the oldest of the kids my father had had with my mother I’d gotten, if anything, more than my share of attention, validation, love?

I stopped frequently along the way, to visit with friends, to stay at monasteries and retreat houses: San Antonio, Texas; Hot Springs, Arkansas; Spencer, West Virginia. I reached New Hampshire three weeks later, in the middle of an August heat wave. At Seabrook, the first town over the state line, I pulled into the Welcome Center, collapsed into a bathroom stall, and cried. I drove the remaining back-roads stretch in the fugue state of mingled excitement and dread with which I always approached home, intensified out of all proportion by the 3500-mile buildup.

Mom was upstairs when I arrived, which gave me time to case the joint. The shades were drawn to a precise six inches above the windowsill. The table was bare save for a salt-and-pepper set placed neatly on a plastic Old Man of the Mountain placemat. The fridge held a block of Velveeta cheese and a half-head of browning iceberg lettuce. Stashed among the “good” china was a lone can of Planters peanuts (three-quarters empty, so I’d feel too guilty to eat any myself) to ration out for good behavior, for having deprived herself, for a treat.

And then there She was, coming down the stairs. Mom. My mother. Patient, slow, steady, though not as steady as she used to be. Her hair snow white now, in a straight bob, parted on the side. Blue cotton pants, neatly pressed, her shrunken legs lost in the folds. A cotton blouse, also neatly ironed. A vest she liked, beige with red and blue flowers down the front. Now that I’d done my big ritual of driving thousands of miles and made it “home,” possibly for the last time—because surely she was going to have to move, soon, into “assisted living” or “senior retirement,” places which, up till now, had remained shadowy netherworlds in our collective unconscious—I considered doing something totally weird, like breaking down in hysterical sobs, falling to my knees, and wailing, “Mom, would you hold me for a minute?”

Instead, she greeted me as if I’d blown in from next door, rebuffed my proffered embrace—“Don’t, my hair’s wet”—and over lunch, gave me instructions for her funeral. No flowers (people might have to spend money). No cortège to the gravesite, just family (people might have to waste time). No eulogy, just a simple service (people might have to think of something nice to say about her). Cremation, naturally: why waste money on a casket?

All my life, I’d sensed a secret grief in my mother I’d wanted to ease but couldn’t; a gap between us that no amount of straining on my part could bridge. I couldn’t remember my mother ever touching me, or caressing me, or telling me I was pretty. I knew as surely as the sun rose in the east and set in the west that she loved me, but when it came to expressing feelings, she was like a blank wall that afforded no purchase.

Mom “did” for the other person in a way that made it almost impossible to do anything for her. She was no annoying faux martyr; she just habitually made things easier for you, and if it was at her expense, so be it. She insisted I have her room that night, for example, which I truly appreciated, but I kept thinking of her in the smaller guest bed; plus, not a breath of air stirred; trying to sleep, I felt as if I were choking. The blinds were drawn, the sliding glass doors wedged shut with a wooden dowel, the screens behind them patched with hundreds of pieces of browning scotch tape where Honey had clawed.

Honey was an indoor cat who desperately wished to be an outdoor cat. Every time I opened the front door she was there like a shot, trying to escape, and she spent the rest of her days gazing hungrily out at the birds and shredding the screens.

I knew just how she felt. I’d spent half my adolescence looking out at the sky through my bedroom window, and the other half sneaking down to the beach looking for booze, drugs, and sex.

Mass the next morning was at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, where all my childhood lapsed-Catholic friends had attended school and, by their lights, been ruined for all time. For my own part, as a convert I related to the protagonist in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King: “I realized, on some level, that whatever a potentially ‘lost soul’ was, I was one—and it wasn’t cool or funny.”

The atmosphere in the sanctuary seemed slightly strange, a little subdued; after I minute I figured out why: everyone was white. I was used to attending Mass among squalling Hispanic babies, Filipino clans, three generations of Koreans, so to look across the sanctuary and see the guy who used to work at Aubuchon’s Hardware, or my high-school biology teacher, or the sister of a half-remembered grade-school friend was jarring, as if heaven had intersected with earth in a whole weird new way.

Afterward, I drove to the beach, parked at Rye on the Rocks, where the surfers hang out, and set out on foot for the fish houses in North Hampton. Beach plums, goldenrod, the horizon and marshes in mist. Yarrow and hydrangeas. The overheard New England accents—baath for bath, gahden for garden. A girl sitting with her back against a rock, looking out at the waves. Gulls wheeling overhead, their feathers the color of ash.

My older half-sister Jeanne lived in the adjacent town of Portsmouth, and she wasn’t doing well. The lung cancer with which she’d been diagnosed a few years ago and metastasized to her bones, and I’d offered to take her and Mom out to lunch—or to drive anyway: I loved using Mom’s credit card when I was home.

When I returned from my walk all seemed well–Mom was nicely dressed in a green and blue pleated skirt and pretty white sweater–except that she was wandering around looking for her comb. She had one comb, an ancient yellow plastic comb I swear we all remembered from high school, and she was constantly losing it. I finally found it sitting on the window ledge at the bottom of the stairs.

After that, she started walking around with one hand trying to hold back a hank of hair—she had long white hair that was no longer all that kempt and looked eerie and ghostlike—saying, “Where’s my . . . my . . . my . . .?”

“Bobby pin?” She has this one bobby pin with a little fake pale pink jewel at the crook of it.

“Yeah,” she replied, and started scrounging around in the drawer where she keeps her pens and Elmer’s glue and stamps.

“Mom, if it’s anywhere, it’s gonna be upstairs, not with your office supplies.” After I found the bobby pin, she “misplaced” her glasses, and after I found her glasses, we had to search for her wallet. She’d given up on a purse and taken to toting around a dingy turquoise nylon “wallet” in one hand and her keys in the other. Every once in a while she’d look up and ask, “What day is it now?”

The day was humid, the light gloomy, and by the time we set out for Jeanne’s, the sky had opened and begun pouring down warm rain. Jeanne and her brother Allen were my late father’s children from his first marriage, a subject that to this day, though we’d all grown up together in the same house, my entire family still studiously skirted. Until the previous year in fact, when Jeanne’s son, Rick, had thrown a “Celebration of Life” party for Jeanne, none of us six kids from my father’s marriage with my mother had ever laid eyes on Marjorie, Dad’s first wife.

I’d always felt deeply the failure of my father’s first marriage, Jeanne and Skip’s loss of their “real” mother, the fact that when my own mother was fourteen, her father had left one day for work and never returned. But feeling deeply doesn’t translate into action. Why couldn’t I have ever done something: consoled us, healed us, saved us? Then again, why did I think that was my job?

At this late stage of the game, I was still looking for a parent. Instead, glancing over at Mom, shrunk down like an aged doll in the passenger seat, I realized I was poised to become a parent myself.

Jeanne was staying at her son Rick’s place in Portsmouth along with her daughter-in-law Tracy and a houseful of fashionconscious teenage girls. “Hi dahlin,” Jeanne greeted me. She moved stiffly, and though she’d clearly not stinted on the pain meds that morning, insisted on driving us to the restaurant in her van. So we maneuvered Mom into the back and proceeded at breakneck speed down Lafayette Road, the fuzz-buster loudly bleating, to Lamie’s Tavern in Hampton. Jeanne’s response to the “scarcity mentality” of our childhood had been to over-spend, over-shop, and become basically one of the most generous people I knew. Year after year, she’d worked double shifts, then taken Rick, Tracy, and the grandkids to Disneyland. She was notorious for buying Christmas presents for all seven of her siblings; I, on the other hand, was usually either too broke, too strung out on booze and drugs, or too fearful to buy anything back: exchanging presents was too much intimacy, too much of an inroad upon relationships that experience had shown very well might not sustain. When I’d had cancer myself, she’d sent me a card, often accompanied by a stuffed animal or a scented candle or bath salts, every day for a month.

Everyone who knew Jeanne knew that the love of her life was a guy she’d dated decades ago, forever referred to as “Steve the Drummer.” To his everlasting credit, he’d shown up at her Celebration of Life party, and over chowder now at Lamie’s, I asked her about him now.

“Broke my haaht,” she said, taking a swill from her “vodker” tonic, then with a little secret smile added: “The bastid.”

Beside me, Mom sipped at her onion soup: her spoon hand trembling, the other clutching the threadbare turquoise wallet.

For comic relief, I made the rounds of family and friends. At the pier in Portsmouth, my commercial fisherman brother Geordie showed me his new boat, then said of a crewmate, “He’s a good guy but he can also be such a pain in the ass that you want to gouge out his eyes and behead him.”
My friends Marynia and Richie live in Exeter with their two teenage daughters and Richie’s brother Larry. Larry has Down Syndrome, is deeply religious, and, he informed me over ginger ales on the back deck, prayed constantly. “For what, Larry?” I asked, thinking World peace? Your benefactors Richie and Marynia? “Th— . . . th— . . . ,” he stammered, “that the girls will pick up the bathroom.”

Then there was dinner with my ex-husband Tim. “Do you even remember being married?” I asked him.

He rolled his eyes—we’d spent sixteen years together—and made a sawing motion over his wrists.

Every time I brought up the subject of Mom’s failing memory or health or living situation, she came out fighting, doddering about looking for her comb until I raised the possibility of, say, hiring someone to “look in” a few days a week, at which point her mind suddenly snapped into adamantine focus. “For heaven’s sake,” she’d say, “I’m not ready for that,” or if she was really pissed, “I do not wish anyone to look in on me,” in the exact same tone Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener might have said, “I would prefer not to.” During the course of my visit, three separate neighbors and several of her friends took me aside and asked, “What are you going to do about your mother?” Clearly, almost as soon as I returned to L.A. I was going to have to turn around, fly back again, and spend some real time trying to square things away. This was a symbolic trip—a bird flying north not for the winter but for summer, something hard but not practical. Hard but not practical was my specialty.

The whole visit, an indescribable stench that Mom obviously couldn’t smell hung over the condo. It wasn’t the cat box: Mom could stretch a buck-ninety-nine bag of kitty litter farther than anyone I know, but she was also fastidious to a fault. The kitchen was so clean you could have performed surgery in it, and before going to bed each night she’d lay a section of fresh newspaper over the top of the wastebasket to ward off ants.

My next-to-last day the source of the odor was revealed to be a bag of thoroughly rotted potatoes, which were in the shoe closet in a plastic bucket with about an inch of rancid brown water in the bottom. How long had they been sitting there? Why had no one closer by noticed? I’d been holding together pretty well but that was when I snapped. “Things can’t go on like this, Mom!” I told her. “You don’t know what day it is. You don’t remember your kids’ names. You shouldn’t be driving.”

Immediately I felt terrible and offered to make her a chicken sandwich. Ever mindful of waste, “Let’s split one,” she said.

“Sorry I got upset, Mom,” I said, as I laid her meager half on one of the green melamine plates off which we’d been eating for the last fifty years. Before we sat down, I even went so far as to put my arms around her. I could feel the bones in her back. “I’m just afraid.”

“I’ll be okay,” she replied, but I couldn’t see how.

Should I give up my life in L.A.? Should I move back to New Hampshire, with its frigid, suicide-evoking winters? Would I have to live in Mom’s condo, way back under the dark trees, and feed her, give her a bath, change her diapers? Maybe I’d get used to my new assignment, maybe I’d come to enjoy spending time with Mom, the afternoon sun slanting in through the windows, reliving the childhood in which I’d always felt something had gone wrong I couldn’t remember, in the presence of the very person whose unworked-through sorrows had trickled down to me. Maybe we could listen to Beethoven’s late quartets together. Maybe I could fill the refrigerator with decent food, strew things around, talk loudly to my friends—swearing and cracking jokes—on the phone.

Maybe I could thank her for what she gave me: something to fight against, to struggle with. A distaste for social lies and the wrong kind of small talk. A love for music and books and silence.

The next night, I watched her make her laborious way up the cellar stairs with a pile of freshly folded laundry: each step, stopping to drag up first her right foot, then the left. Knowing she’d wave me off if I offered to help, my brain began to run in its usual rut: Why does she do this to herself? Why not get help, why not move to a place with no stairs, why not live a different life? And suddenly, I thought, Who the hell are you to purport to know one single thing about another’s life? For all I knew, my mother dragging her foot up the stairs was saving some other sick person from dragging his or her foot; for all I knew my mother dragging her foot up the stairs was keeping me alive.

I went to bed knowing this could very well be the last night the two of us ever slept together under her roof. Honey clawed the screen; the trees soughed; every ion of the summer night—so familiar, so beloved: the summer nights of my childhood that smelled of pine and hay and the sea—was charged with the construct of “home.”

I’d spent a lifetime constructing a false way of relating to people: saying yes when I meant no; being what I thought the other wanted me to be, then resenting the person; tamping down the holy longing of my heart, all out of terror of being abandoned. I’d spent a lifetime trying not to blame—the fault was mine; no wonder my mother hadn’t shown more warmth, I’d been an alcoholic: a nuisance, a bother; I should have had more compassion for her childhood—but you can observe without blaming. You can see what happened and mourn for you and your mother.

And I could also see that my mother had set herself an impossible, noble task: to be selfless and self-renunciating when she’d never had a foundation of abundance or nurturing or sanity from her own childhood. She was like the widow who’d given her last two mites; she’d given more than any “rich” person because she’d given from her poverty. Someday things would be made right. I could hear Mom puttering to the bathroom, bumping into things, calling for Honey.

I’d become a writer because of my mother.

They were right this very second. They were right now.

The next morning I drank a last cup of weak Maxwell House, ate a last bowl of generic Wheaties, stripped the uncomfortable bed Mom had sacrificed for me.

She came to the door to see me off as—faithfully, steadfastly—she had all my life. As we hugged goodbye, I felt the same tension I had all my life.

I gripped my keys.

“Okay, Mom.”

The words didn’t come easily. She spoke as if a bone were lodged in her throat.

“Love you.”

When she died all the light would go out of the world.

I bit the inside of my mouth till I drew blood. So I wouldn’t cry.

I left it at this—for once, for her: “Thanks for everything, Mom. Love you, too.”

Refiner’s Fire

Shannon Berry

After

In the Old Testament, fire was a purifying element. The sacrifices were burnt because the Jews believed that their sins were transferred to the animal on the altar, and the burning devoured these sins and sent the aroma of repentance to the God above. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul takes this idea a step further, adapts it to fit Christianity and says that we should offer our bodies as living sacrifices, making our very lives offerings to God, making our lives blazing, constant, purifying fires. Fires that burn, spark, and glow. Fires within. This same fire urged Teresa of Avila to reform her religious order, which had fallen into laziness and wealth. It drove her to sit for hours praying whether she felt anything or not. It’s a fire that isn’t extinguished unless we kill it, heaping buckets of lukewarm water on the blaze. [Read more…]

Who is the Artist?

Eileen Cunis

An artist is a human person who, like all persons, is marked by his Creator with an ultimate purpose. He pursues his unique vocation by power of certain characteristics shared by all humans, and in addition, if the artist is to fulfill this vocation well, enjoys special gifts of the intellect and the body that dispose him for his work. An accurate portrayal of the artist’s identity must develop out of the context of his human purpose; there can be no setting aside of his fundamental being without a drastic warping of his secondary calling. As critic Amanda Coomaraswamy writes, “the artist can be separated from the man in logic and for purposes of understanding; but actually, the artist can only be divorced from his humanity by what is called a disintegration of personality.” [Read more…]

A Tribute to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)

Mary Angelita Ruiz

Richard John Neuhaus sang “Come Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing,” that stalwart American hymn, as though it were a rollicking drinking song, the rhythm swinging like a full tankard in a fist. His voice was rumbling and huge and pleasantly out of tune and his eyes lit up as he sang:

COME thou fount-of EV’RY ble-ssing
Tune my HEEAART to singthygrace!
STREAMS of mer-cy NE-VER cea-sing
Call for SOOONGS of loudestpraise!

It was a favorite hymn of the Community of Christ in the City, the little ecumenical community in Manhattan that was Father’s home for over thirty years, and my home for almost three while I worked for his journal, First Things. [Read more…]

The Splendor of Form

James Matthew Wilson

In his recent short essay, “Lisping in Numbers,” David J. Rothman has made an attractive and well-founded argument not merely for the centrality of verse to poetry, but for its constituting the formal property that makes a given matter to be poetry rather than prose.1 Rehearsing a familiar qualification, Rothman tells us that verse, while not the sole essence of poetry, is essential nonetheless. The practitioner of free verse, who inevitably has a bad conscience about his avocation, may immediately hear the integrity of his art called into question. But, exercising both charity and a knowledge of literary history, Rothman comes, at the end of his essay, to indicate that a great deal of what is called “free verse,” and is sometimes belittled as “prose,” in fact conforms to something like a principle of versification. For, he proposes, any aural element in a poem that can be understood in terms of number, anything that can be counted, may conceivably be used as the foundation for verse.

In a list that attempts to include the span of what might be counted, and so count as verse, he begins with the “anaphoric versicles” of Whitman and ends with the “projective verse” of Williams and Olson. In this first choice, he is just and points out what is evident but not always obvious: verse, at minimum, entails formal repetition, including possibly the repetition of syntactical structures. The parallelism of the Psalms instances this most clearly:

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever;
Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his mercy endures forever

We find here a movement that can be understood in terms of quantity, with words and sentence rhythms repeating in a readily discernible manner. English verse normally entails the repetition of metrical feet, but any kind of repetition governing expression may conceivably constitute verse. If this is the case, we should nonetheless note, as the poet Timothy Steele has on many occasions, that such a concession does not really help us to account for the indiscernible formal principles of much of what is called free verse in our day. For the language of such poems seem to be ordered to no quantitative scheme whatsoever. And thus, Rothman is less happy in his latter example, which seems an act of mercy at the expense of just reasoning. What repetitions are to be found in Williams—and there are many—disappear as soon as one’s eyes turn from the page. To make a Williams poem seem like poetry entails making it look like poetry, in the sense of typographically arranging it on the page so that one can see it thus. We can see these lines of Williams as verses:

Two W.P.A. men
stood in the new
sluiceway

overlooking
the river—
One was pissing

But in pronouncing them aloud—especially in the breathless fashion Williams favored—they lose anything that would distinguish them from prose. Whatever measurement the lines conform to evaporates in the speaking. While contemporary avant-garde poets, such as Charles Bernstein, and their academic masters have sought to celebrate the typographic as a hardnosed realm of freedom and class struggle, in some parochial last gasp of Marxist historical materialism, most of us wish there to be some rationale behind, and beyond, the arrangement of words on paper. When the enigma of such arrangement dissolves, it leaves nothing behind. One may call it nice language, even impassioned speech, but the appearance would seem an idle pretense—what was called, in the Augustan age, “false wit.” The printed text does not help us to discern a measurement of words, but seems a visual substitute for one.

If this is the case, then there must be more to verse than simply any kind of repetition. The repetitions and the zany line-breaks of Williams can be prescinded from the language of a Williams poem without changing the language itself. The syntactic repetitions of a psalm cannot; those repetitions are the language. We see that Williams’ formal repetitions, at first glance anyway, allow much more freedom than the psalm, because the repetitions such as they are do not do anything to the language, but only to the characters on the page. We see also that the syntactic repetitions of the Psalm do almost everything: what can be said in the psalm is closely determined by the form in ways that can make it seem formulaic—so much so, that even those who have never actually read a psalm tend to find its aural patterns familiar. Is there a way in which language can be informed by repetition without its being circumscribed in what it can say or in its range of expression?

Once again, an evident but not always obvious answer presents itself. A psalm might say, “Give thanks” six times, and we would clearly have the sort of repetition that might be described as verse. But what properties of language are, as properties, present in every verbal phrase regardless of what kind of phrase it is? They are two in number: syllables and relative stress, both of which can be discerned in terms of metrical feet. Rothman therefore has rightly directed us to the great quality verse, even if he has not adequately defined it. It is numbered, counted, or measured speech wherein the measure remains regardless of what the language says. Here lies the virtue that recommends accentual-syllabic stress (metrical feet) for the writing of English verse. By means of it, we may give language precise and discernible (audible) measure, ordering it, giving it proportion or form, without in any way limiting what that language can say. Number and measurement allows the form of verse to exist in perfect harmony with any matter of language.

Because the strict measurement of versification is entirely compatible with a complete freedom in regards to language and content, I am doubtful of the wisdom of those contemporary poets who engage in what Marilyn Taylor has called “semi-formal” prosody. According to Taylor, such poetry loosely adheres to the measurement of syllable and stress, but only in order to suggest that measurement before, in the words of T.S. Eliot, withdrawing from it. The poet hopes to gain a freedom or flexibility thereby without completely surrendering the aural qualities of verse. Is it not the case, though, that one only would need “semi-formality” if accentual-syllabic verse actually stunted the sort of language a properly formal poem might contain? But as a numerical abstraction, metrical feet do nothing of the kind. Does not the semi-formal un-measure the measured, rendering what meter remains as a kind of allusion to rather than instantiation of? If that is the case, then meter ceases to be a formal property and becomes part of the matter of the poem; it no longer affords us a way of ordering speech, but is reduced to a particular sort of language. Far from being an ingenious solution for those who would write poetry in an age of prose, semi-formal verse at once hints at and despoils the central mystery of poetry.

Allow me to restate my last claim. In the measuring of language and rhythm according to an abstract principle of number, we are in the presence of a mystery, and it is one that does not dissolve as soon as we learn to count a line of iambs: indeed, a mystery that has beguiled Western man since the time of the pre-Socratic philosophers. I do not mean specifically the meter of poetry, but the idea of number and measure as such, which may help us “see into the life of things.” I would like to explain why this mystery is so central to our history, and why Rothman’s essay reminds us that it is one particularly central to poetry. And yet, in conclusion, I would also like to suggest why his essay seems destined to convince few in an age such as ours.

We begin with the Philosopher. When Aristotle delivered the lectures whose notes we call the Metaphysics, his chief ambition was to correct the errors of three competing theories about the nature of reality. He began with the materialists, because he believed they were, in most respects, right. The materialists claimed that only that was real which was matter, and, indeed, it was matter that constituted the reality of a given thing. Aristotle replied, while all or most substances (real, separately existing things) are material, they are not merely material, but composites of form and matter. A rock is a rock and a tree is a tree because of some differentia. “Sure,” says the materialist, “the differentia is the shape of the matter.” “Exactly,” replies Aristotle. A tree contains matter in a given form, and a rock in another; this form is therefore other than the matter and is what defines a given quantum of matter as being in its nature arboreal or mineral. All material beings that have the arboreal form are trees; those that do not, have some other form, are something else. But, again, the materialists were mostly right: matter “matters.”

Bearing this in mind, he turned to another school, that of the Platonists, who said that essential form constituted what is real, and the particular beings of this tree or that rock were individual expressions of that essential reality. As everyone knows, Plato intended that the idea “arboreal” or “mineral” was itself an eternal substance that shared the reality proper to itself alone with this or that individual specimen by way of participation. This was an implausible theory, explained Aristotle. He recognized that forms were real and that without them there would be no things, material or otherwise, but he did not see why a form need be separately substantial. The form of a tree constitutes the essence of all given trees; it may be abstracted by the intellect from any given tree and therefore come into virtual being as an accident in the mind of another existing substance (the human being). But it explained nothing, he thought, to say that the form subsisted separately, and it even created a new problem: a given tree has myriad attributes, and so which attributes, exactly, would exist as separate, subsistent forms? In answering this question, we multiply to infinity the number of forms without getting any closer to what causes a real thing to be at all, or to be one thing rather than another.2

But here arises a curious turn in Aristotle’s dispute. Materialists recognize differences between one thing and another, even though they deny the theory of forms. Platonists, conversely, recognized some relationship between forms. “Tree” and “rock” do not just float in the heavens, but are intelligible in relation to each other as forms, independently of their individuals’ all sharing in matter. What principle exists beyond this material thing and another that allows us to distinguish them? “Why,” says the materialist, “number.” A tree’s matter may be quantified as “atomic ratio X” and a rock as “atomic ratio Y.”

One may similarly ask the Platonist, what principle exists beyond the forms themselves that allows us to relate them? The answer to this varies in different parts of the Platonic tradition and within Plato’s own dialogues, but one possibility introduced in his Timaeus is—number. The diverse ideal forms might ultimately be understood as diverse mathematical structures, which would seem plausible, since an actual pyramid is evidently a material expression of the ideal geometrical form of a pyramid. Perhaps the forms were rooted in a complex geometry. After all, numbers seem everywhere in material nature, and yet everyone knows that mathematics is itself highly abstract, finding its perfection only once removed from the contingencies of nature.

Materialists and Platonists alike were beguiled by what Aristotle understood as the Pythagorean temptation: number seems to be so ubiquitous that it may account for everything. Number gives us the recipe for forms or for material things, but it is itself always present; thus the Pythagoreans give us a third theory of the nature of reality: number, rather than matter or idea, is the first principle of what is.

But Aristotle demurs. Number is itself an abstraction from something and so cannot be a first principle. What, then, is first? Being. Far from number’s explaining and causing being, being evidently occasions the existence of number. This becomes plain when we consider the following: were I to say, suddenly, “two,” to a fellow on the train, it will lead him, if he is not frightened off, to ask, “Two what?

Being is the most abstract term we can think in reality. Number helps to make that reality intelligible by allowing us to conceive the relations between things: the ratio of number becomes the principle of all relation and distinction, whether between forms-as-ideas or forms-in-matter. Number at its simplest—i.e. the distinction between zero and one—makes it possible to describe the presence of difference within nature. But, being always comes first and stands beneath everything, stands even beneath the idea of difference, as that which makes anything a thing at all.

For Aristotle and for the western tradition writ large, this debate was not a zero-sum game. In the descendants of Plato and Aristotle, being and number jostled and combined in a fruitful intellectual synthesis. For St. Augustine, the highest reality was That Which Is, Being Itself—the God who named Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14. And yet, St. Augustine also believed that a knowledge of number was the means by which we created beings born into a world of difference rise intellectually to the inviolable simplicity of being. In de Musica, he outlines a hierarchy of seven kinds of number that, in the words of St. Bonaventure, “ascend step by step from sensible things to the Maker of all so that God may be seen in all things.” We begin with the dazzling but sensible infinity of created things, abstract from them the numbers of mathematics, and proceed on up an admittedly arcane ladder until we arrive at that Unity of Unities, which, because absolutely indivisible and immutable, is beyond all number.

As Umberto Eco detailed many years ago, this synthesis of number and supernumerary unity led, in the Middle Ages, to two ostensibly competing theories of beauty. The Aesthetics of Proportion contended that something was beautiful to the extent that it comprised perfect quantitative ratios. Weight, measure, and order were the conditions of beauty, and beauty was merely a “certain fitting relation.” In contrast, the Aesthetics of Light proposed that that was beautiful which showed forth the perfect unity of what Plotinus had called the “Idea-Form” and what Pseudo-Dionysius called “the Good,” a pure radiance “uncontained” by form. Just as pure light seems to illuminate all without limiting itself to a particular shape, so did beauty show forth in a pretty face, a well-turned phrase, a heroic virtue—or, in the mind, as Beauty Itself.

Is an artwork beautiful because all the pieces are in place, or because the pieces themselves manifest something infinitely beyond themselves? In fact, this is a false alternative. The western tradition has generally concluded, not “either/or,” but “both/and” to this proposition. Being’s light gives form and number to all things; number makes light “visible.” Number helps make the perception of being possible; the abstraction of number makes even that which is beyond all division intelligible and pleasing to us. And yet, number neither defines nor exhausts the refulgence of reality; it rather serves as a guide as we enter into being’s mystery and fullness. St. Thomas Aquinas provides the most pithy definition of beauty we may know: splendor formae, the splendor (intelligible radiance) of form (proportion).

Aristotle synthesized form and matter, number and being. Before him, Plato’s dialogues articulated both light and number as first principles. Indeed, variations on these propositions speckle the whole history of western thought, sometimes in surprising or less obvious terms, down to the present moment. How unsurprising, then, that, for a poem to be a poem, it must be measured, proportioned by number; and yet, it must also show forth a radiance beyond mere meter. And, how fitting that Rothman’s defense of verse should restore Pythagoras to his proper place, near the center of any discussion of art and beauty. The splendor of a poem must be given form—it must be counted.

But we are moderns, and modernity does not permit us to end on such a harmonious note. Our world is absolutely saturated in number and talk of number—as much as was the world of Plato and Aristotle. But ours lacks their synthesizing genius. In the public realm, only matter and motion are counted as real, and these, only because they are resolvable into numbers we can manipulate. Behavior is processed as statistics; thought as quantifiable chemical processes; society as the mere sum of economic transactions; morality as incarceration rates; education as graduation rates; wedded bliss as divorce rates; and the course of history as so many measurable biological modifications. In a world so beholden to the spirit of the Pythagoreans, it is curious the arts should be so patently typified by their explicit rejection of all number.

In Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, existential searcher Binx Bolling speculates that “romanticism” and “1930’s science” killed his father. He asks himself, “Does a scientifically minded person become a romantic because he is leftover from his own science?” Quantification is the key to the modern physical sciences. We are subordinate to it in the scientific method and in everyday life far more than we are to “empirical observation”—that phrase with which the supposed rationalist among us flatters himself. We do not believe in what we see or experience; we believe in what others can count and calculate, so much so that we readily dismiss our own experiences, if they seem to conflict with some publicly established measurement. And so, though nearly all of us have turned the reins of health and history over to the powers of the numeric, we nearly all feel something “leftover” that cannot be entirely dismissed, but which cannot be counted either, and therefore seems not to count as real. The leftover is us.

Like those ancients prey to the Pythagorean temptation, most of us only accept the numeric as real; and, while our world of quantity may overwhelm, it does not satisfy either intellect or will. The typical fallout of this unhappy circumstance is for one to turn “romantic,” that is, to elect for a conception of the beautiful or the “poetic,” as light without form, love without reason, being without quantity. If the quotidian world must be a quantified world, then we want our art to be a refuge of inarticulate unity, of light and color without matter. Our view of the arts is romantic, even when it lacks the divinization of imagination and emotion typical of the romantics of the Nineteenth Century.

To be a romantic, in brief, means to be one who accepts the Aesthetics of Light in opposition to the Aesthetic of Proportion. Rather than availing themselves of the venerable and fruitful synthesis of being and number, romantics cling to some species of the former in vehement opposition to the latter. Even materialists of the avant-garde, such as Bernstein, think of their typographical high jinks as a resistance to absorption within the orders of modern rationality and the accounting of modern “capital.” And so, while I understand the dismay many writers and artists in our day feel about counting, I think their works tend to display a pathetic resistance to, rather than a successful transcendence of, the maniacal quantification of modern life. If resistance is all we may have, then so be it; but I think the hoary examples of Aristotle, St. Augustine, and indeed the broader western tradition provide us resources for correcting-by-transcending the worst excesses of our age.

Unfortunately, when an artist or a poet sees through the partiality of this romantic love of radiance without form, he sometimes resorts to a mere aesthetics of proportion, as the neo-classicism of Seventeenth-Century or the academicism of Nineteenth-Century France is often thought to have done—and as contemporary metrical poets from Steele to Dana Gioia are sometimes accused of doing. This can result in an austere formalism that may be preferable to the meaningless and anti-intellectual “lights” of many modern romantics, but it may also confirm those romantics yearning after a greater artistic fullness in their resistance to the rational beauty of measure. They may come to believe, contrary to Augustine and Bonaventure, that number take us nowhere—and certainly it cannot help us ascend to That Which Is.

I am sensitive to the warning against “classicizing” reductions of true art to the conscientious obedience of formal conventions found no less in the Art and Scholasticism of Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain than it is in the criticism of a contemporary poet such as Deborah Warren. Such writers would de-emphasize the centrality of numbers to poetry in specific response to those historical moments in which poetry has been almost reduced to a mere courtly calculation. If one judges a work of art only by what can be counted in it, then one has left aesthetics behind and entered into mathematics. And yet, the records of poets themselves through literary history suggest that there is great virtue and joy in the mastering of difficult “numbers,” and that this virtue makes possible a still greater discovery and achievement. We should not merely identify number with form but, following Plato, recognize it as a readily intelligible principle within a larger formal pattern. On this point, it worth noting that St. Augustine thought the understanding of meter more proper to the scholar of liberal arts seeking true knowledge than to the musician seeking only to practice an art: the counting of verses is always an act of abstraction that helps us to understand what ought to be a rich totality.

I suspect that, at present, most of those who take an interest in poetry are too anxious to see poetry as a therapeutic refuge from the mechanical and rationalistic regime of everyday life—one which really has gone off its hinges!—to avail themselves of the fuller tradition to which they are heirs. Nevertheless, for those of us who continue to see poetry as a means to truth, and truth as a property of being and reason, it is heartening to hear a defense such as Rothman’s. We are reminded that the equipoise of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas is still ours to accept. Poetry is an expression of number, that is, of those orders and proportions that make the world and the works of man intelligible. And poetry is more than that. But the counting of metrical feet is one rung on the great ladder by which we ascend to That Which Is. The innermost need of human nature is just such an ascent. To recognize the role of meter—of number and measure—in art is to put the beautiful back in conscious contact with our human need and the highest reality alike; it renews art and beauty even as art and beauty come once more to play a role in our fulfillment and in the revelation to us of a reality they can only intimate.


1. [Rothman’s essay appeared as part of the Symposium on Form published as a complete issue of Think Journal 3.4 (Spring 2011). A version of the present essay was originally published as a part of that symposium.]
2. [St. Thomas Aquinas rightly explains that Plato’s theory of forms does indeed explain something, though it does not solve the problems that most concern Aristotle. Namely, the theory is one solution to how knowledge is possible when there is an absolute difference between matter and intellect. If, as Plato believed, the intellect could only properly know ideas and, therefore, could not know the material in itself, then some theory of forms is inevitable. For Aristotle and Aquinas, the mind can convert the matter into intelligible ideas through the intellect’s acting upon what is received from the senses. This does not reduce the absolute difference between matter and intellect, but indeed is part of a larger explanation of how spirit and intellect are not only superior to matter, but have an easy commerce with it, as does a potter with his clay. Intellectual forms precede material things, giving them form and purpose. In turn, the form and purpose in material things remains always potentially intelligible to the perceiving intellect.]

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