Aletheia: Reflections on Poetic Knowing by Andrea Applebee



Aletheia is a Greek word often translated as ‘truth’, ‘unforgetting’, ‘unconcealedness.’ While in modern greek, it is used to confirm or express agreement, as in its rueful English parallels, ‘so true’ or ‘really?’, its etymological source is layered and elusive: combining the privative «A» (un-) with «lethe», a mythological river of the underworld, the water of which brings forgetfulness. Aletheia stages truth against oblivion, and knowing of truth as an act of undoing any covering over of experience. It carries with it a sense of opening. It is a profoundly finite liberation.

Heidegger traces back an understanding of aletheia that precedes notions of truth as correctness of vision, as correspondence or conformity between things and ideas. Those later claims about truth carry the aftertaste of living wills or certificates of authenticity. In the end they lack something. In pre-Socratic thought, aletheia connotes a wresting from obscurity into disclosure, a conditional shining-forth, an unlayering manifestation.

We will take a moment to consider what aletheia is positioned within and in tension with. Forgetfulness, oblivion. There are many ways this state is the unspoken quest of most people in the time available to them in response to the suffering, confusion, violence, uncertainty, loss, and limitation that surounds them. Since we’re estranged from what we have constant intercourse with. There might be those—in the dead of night, in traffic, in the hour of their most profound solitude—who never turn to oblivion because they have nothing to forget. But I haven’t met them. For the rest, addiction, fantasy, sexual conquest, social media, random objects of ambition, dull the ordinary but staggering strife that is being. And the more refined ways….you know, whatever those are.

But nothing works. These means are like purifying oneself with blood.

Given these preoccupations and their ubiquity, the opposite impulse—to afffirm suffering, address violence, to press into uncertainty—stands out in wild contrast. But this kind of resistence doesn’t need to negate its counterpart, it just has to emerge from it. It is a dance improvised against disaster. Aletheia describes knowing as an emergent experience: Kafka’s axe to break our frozen interior seas, Rilke’s unfolding rose of ever-renewed depth. But it is kindled and put out like a light in the darkness. How could reawakening this struggle between concealment and unconcealment take shape in language and life, what is its ordinary bearing, what are its signs? Is it a promise that can be kept by poetry?

Maybe it is useful to consider the circumstances that favor such knowing. Acceptance, patience, watchful regard….persistence in trying to discern its possibility, a state of openness and calm that is almost hopeful, without the content common to hope.

If you do not expect the unexpected you cannot find it. Aletheia is not trapped like a hunted animal after bait, or tracked as birds are monitered by a careful scientist mapping territories. What is needed is not more sense experience or information; unconcealment needs only what has already been lived but not noticed, what has been experienced but not known.

It is hard to know all we have experienced, in the way it is hard to understand what we hear for the first time. One witnesses poetic knowing more like the weather over the sea, from the side of a boat just pulled to shore. Or catches it, as if over the shoulder, as you would the call of a friend in an unfamiliar street. Like the dead to the dreamer, it stands in the middle of your room and speaks at length of what seems like ordinary things before departing for the last time.

There are a few disturbing conditions around such disclosure. It’s inextricably caught up in its context of having been hidden. So, it could never be complete. It doesn’t fix anything. It comes, by some standards, too late. It may bring with it intense pain without offering the balm of explanation. It’s not for everyone. And it can be a lot of work. It doesn’t pay. Also, this kind of poetic knowing doesn’t give a fuck about whether or not it is a good time to bring its ‘this’ up—there’s no appropriate time for it. Then there is the aftermath to deal with.

It is better not to get caught up in such concerns. It is no good for people to have all they wish to have. One thing is sure. Aletheia rises trustingly out of necessity and desire, favored by the generous rhythms of its source. And it has their inevitability. We crave such knowledge—and pay in soul what we crave when deprived of it.

Consider hauling up something from deep water, or how a voice betrays what a face does not. A scent, that places you somewhere past with uncanny precision. Sounding a long silent instrument. Luminous, dramatic gestures, like breaking open fruit.
Andrea Applebee is a poet, editor, and teacher living in Athens, Greece. Her work has appeared in Absent, Ditch, Lute&Drum, and other magazines. Her book Aletheia is forthcoming from Black Square Editions in 2017.