More often than not, we envision a moment of transcendence as pure wonder, what John Dewey described as a moving “beyond” mundane experience, an “intentional arrow” indicating something grand just beyond our reach. Yet this fixation on what is majestic fails to acknowledge a rich tradition of Romantic poetry in which beauty and suffering are inextricably linked. Throughout the work of Keats, Shelley, and many of their contemporaries, these rare glimpses of the sublime are frightening, even devastating, in the desire they instill for the ineffable, the unattainable, and the ethereal. We wish for the world to inspire in us a sense of awe, only to cleave straight through with a strange longing, the ice along the trellis already ravaged by light.
Two recent collections of poetry engage the tension, conflict, and ambivalence inherent in our experience of beauty, reminding us that aesthetic appreciation is more complex than simple joy or astonishment. Gillian Conoley’s The Plot Genie and Brian Teare’s The Empty Form Goes All The Way To Heaven each present us with a different vision of the dark sublime, offering divergent possibilities for conceptualizing the kind of experience that exists at the interstices of the wondrous and the unspeakable. Though wide-ranging in their formal strategies and overall approaches to the subject, these writers share an investment in restoring complexity to our thinking about spectatorship and the relationship between beauty, desire, and the imagination.
After all, what is more difficult than waiting for that little flash of light in the window? And what is lovelier than a glittering arrow poised just above your heart?
how we wish
overlap a red taffeta dress a cutaway coat be all across the ballroom
in his sharp-shoulder high style tweed coat
Gillian Conoley’s The Plot Genie considers the relationship between distance, unattainability, and the exquisite imaginative topographies in which her characters (E and R) frequently situate themselves. Indeed, the grand romance depicted in the book is only possible when one or more of the major characters are absent. Conoley shows us, as she evokes only the shadow of conventional narrative structures, that some degree of remove immediately instills a desire for proximity. Indeed, this critical distance is merely a spark, which starts the series of small fires we find in The Plot Genie.
For Conoley, this necessary and incendiary detachment can take many forms. Throughout the collection, we find literal, metaphorical, and narrative ruptures, the spaces between things multiplying and proliferating. Because the lines themselves are gorgeously fractured, filled with light and open spaces, the reader, too, is implicated in this wish for an impossible intimacy. We are invited (and made conscious of our efforts) to create unity, to reassemble the beautiful ruins with which we are presented. What’s more, Conoley reveals the very impossibility of attaining this ideal of proximity, unity, and moving just beyond the self. Once we have come closer, the object of one’s desire is already, irrevocably changed:
It was failed spring. The sound was unfixed, the distance, the shortest...The fog was like a pause before other weather, leaving before it was leaving. Keats could feel all this in his lungs…
Now the room is quiet. What happens after the miracle? If my hands won’t stop trembling, how will I unlock the door?
“How sorry I am!
forced to live there!—
Conoley’s The Plot Genie is (fittingly) punctuated with erasures, often created by taking whiteout to canonical texts. By excavating fragments from such works as Jane Austen’s Emma, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Illuminations, Conoley complicates her discussion of detachment and the sublime, allowing the questions she has posed to refract and multiply.
Through her provocative formal gestures, she suggests that this remove, this distance, can be intentional, productive, and fruitful. In much the same way that her erasures carefully clear space for the reader’s imagination, allowing them to participate in the imaginative work of the text, the characters in her spare and sparkling narrative cultivate distance as it necessary to transcend the mundane things that surround them. Just as the white space on the page invites the reader to finish the story in a way that grants their wish, it is their respective absences that allow the E and R to maintain a relationship that is at once transcendent and fictive, sublime and devastating.
I’ve had to find a form able to do what I mean
I mean I’ve had to fashion a form that pains
Brian Teare’s The Empty Form Goes All The Way To Heaven engages similar questions of distance, suffering, and the beautiful impossibility of transcendence. Written during a time of chronic illness, the poems frequently turn to the work of painter Agnes Martin in a search for sublimity amidst the various disruptions of the human body. For Teare, this physical suffering frequently allows the loveliness of pure thought to appear in sharper relief, a light made visible the dimness of a room. And so the body, and its imperfections, are what allow us to imagine the sublime, as it exists entirely outside of the material boundaries of the self.
With that in mind, Teare engages similar questions of beauty, transcendence and proximity, proving somewhat reminiscent of Conoley in his preoccupation with distance as a necessary condition of sublime experience. Much like Conoley’s fated romantic narrative, Teare builds a vision of transcendence which has impossibility built into its very making. It is the physical body that allows us to see what lies just beyond perception, as the boundaries appear in sharper relief. Yet it is also the body that anchors us, contains us, and keeps us from flight.
the grain of the page softened
by cotton the hand-drawn
line like the poetic line implies
a law of perspective a body
a strangely spacious framework...
Throughout the collection, Teare calls our attention to the myriad ways that a literary text resembles the physical body. Not only is the poem, with its gorgeously fractured lines, a metaphor for the human form and its discontents, but language and the body maintain a similar relationship to sublime experience. Much like the empty signifier that gestures to an imaginative topography beyond the printed page, our material being is not an end in itself, but rather, it invites one to imagine what lies beyond its boundaries.
With that in mind, Teare’s stylistic choices carefully facilitate this imaginative work, embodying and enacting the book’s depictions of transcendence. Though offering a veritable procession of forms ranging from one-line stanzas to works that utilize the space of the page as a visual field, the poems in this stunning collection balance the solitary dreaming inherent in sublime experience with the task of guiding the reader, and providing a conceptual framework for even their wildest flights of imagination.
A flash of light in the distance, the landscape around us forever changed.
We know that to escape the boundaries of the body is both impossible and inevitable. These books show us that language can give rise to what is perhaps most majestic within the self. This, undoubtedly, is the beginning of what we think of as transcendence.
As we become more and more luminous, these books show us that our own imaginative work is what makes possible the sublime.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry. Her awards include two Yaddo residencies, a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, and a Visiting Artist Fellowship from the American Academy in Rome, as well as grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems and essays appear in The Gettysburg Review, New American Writing, The Mid-American Review, The Iowa Review, The Columbia Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She is currently working toward both a Ph.D. in Literature at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo and an M.F.A. in Poetry at New York University.