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A Feeling of And, a Feeling of If

I’m reading Dan Beachy-Quick’s Mulberry and listening to Sergei Prokofiev’s first violin concerto in a carriage house on Vashon Island.

The violin string

begins a sentence in Mulberry, halfway through a poem called “Each dumb alone.” Prokofiev’s concerto lives in its transitions, its swells and chirps. From movement to movement, the violin is increasingly insubstantial: it sings and rises and thins out as it rises. In its final G minor moderato, it keens, it scrapes, it rests on a high B flat, and then, like ash or the blur a bird’s wing leaves, it’s gone: poof.

of one strand of silken hair sings

the sentence continues. 110 years ago, the wildhearted pragmatist William James compared the movement of thought to a bird’s “alternation of flights and perchings.”

the taut line at horizon

Our thoughts perch, James writes, at their moments of sensorial, substantive imagination– at nouns, verbs, and adjectives, “whose peculiarity is that they can be held before the mind for an indefinite time, and contemplated without changing.”

of the lake that will not end.

Whereas, James writes, our thoughts take flight in transitives– “thoughts of relations, static or dynamic, that for the most part obtain between the matters contemplated in the periods of comparative rest”: articles (an), prepositions (by), modals (may).

The lake edge’s whorl in finger

So, in James’s schema, are transitives dismissable gestures?–Do we seize, in thought, upon the primacy of the sensorial, substantive conclusion? Places like shoehorn, cocktail, dreary, oversleep?

print of thumb, the whole lake

Not really. To James, transitives matter. James, wrote the critic Dennis Donoghue in the January 2007 Harper’s, was “tender to the little words, because we owe them whatever sense we have of process, of time passing, of rich experience prior to conclusions.”

in the baby’s mouth, the window

Our transitive thoughts (in sentence or in consciousness) give us history, architecture, interrelation, experiences as real as our concrete sensory feeling. Without them, thought is a splendid, stultified isolation.

so bright, his mother’s face full

Or, to quote James, “We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. Yet we do not: so inveterate has our habit become of recognizing the existence of substantive parts alone, that language almost refuses to lend itself to any other use.”

with cloud, the thumb’s song

Dan Beachy-Quick’s poems join noun and noun mysteriously, in a kind of mounting preposition-hooked chant. His language is simple and his energy is transitive. Named into light, his nouns– thumbprint, hair, song, lake, violin string, mulberry leaf— deepen into ideal forms, and the mind goes leaping between them. Try brightly following the lines I’ve broken here, and you’ll start to feel like James’s fluttering bird.

dark on moth’s paper wing,

Of the cottage house here on Vashon, I could write: tonight I ate tacos by candelight. My girlfriend and I left salsa fingerprints on our glasses. Or (another form of thought) I could write: my here by may among still through on our around

the girl’s eyes are pigeon’s wings,

–But of course, who doesn’t love the absolute of a substantive image? In image, language approaches chemistry, fixed and dependable. Chemistry says certain colors are absolute. Photons shed by admixtures of strontium, cryolite, or barium chloride will always burn purple, yellow, or green– Purple, Yellow, or Green. Don’t we yearn for the same absoluteness from language?

and now I hear the violent now

But, James may suggest, a poetry without a love of subjective, process-sparked transitive brightness is untrue to the mind’s grammar (or its flightpath). Such poetry starts to sound weaker and weaker in its assertions; the biggest of its ideas become only phatic speech.

aria around me

Beachy-Quick’s changing, transitive incantations nod to James, but they nod, too, to Spicer, forty years back. As Jack Spicer wrote to the late Federico Garcia Lorca, “the perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.” In place of substantives, we can whistle Prokofiev or murmur Mulberry: a poem or song of process, straining, flight and rearrangement.