Make It Newer

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blue powder on white table

Photograph of YInMn Blue as synthesized in the laboratory.

Not knowing then what I know now, in both cases so acutely, on the morning of November 8, 2016 I suggested “the unknown” as a wavy line of inquiry for my tenure at this blog. For a while now I’ve been thinking about the nature of unknowns as a whole, as well as about the different kinds of them—the actual, the false, the natural, the synthetic, and those that don’t exist yet. Have you heard about the new blue? As many of the best things are, like potato chips and Penicillin, it was created by accident. Is the unknown of that heretofore non-existent blue pigment only retrospective?

Early language developed in conjunction with our knowledge of the world, which, over time, has stretched, deepened and accelerated to degrees that can’t be caught by our sluggish tongues. If language is engine as well as imprint of human cognition, then does its resistance to change hold us back? Or does our inability to assimilate big notions of quantum mechanics and theoretical physics prevent their naturalization, holding them open for seeing and questioning?

Humans tend to assume that our brains are equipped to grasp whatever they have access to—that unknowns are just hidden from our perception. It is unknown whether our minds have the combinatoric potential to understand everything that is or might be the case, but it’s possible that a lot of unknowns are hidden in plain sight behind our language. So far, theories of the quantum and the cosmic are irreconcilable, and maybe what’s needed to bring them together is a mind-bending feat of poetry. Poets take our seemingly irreducible language and split, collide, fuse and decode it; not just to accommodate but to make new understandings of the world, including the physical one.

Are physical and cognitive frontiers symbiotic? Can we cross into one without also entering the other?

If I’ve wondered about the urgency of these questions since the election, it was only for a moment. The shallower our language, the shallower our field of vision, and if Donald Trump’s bad words and worse science call for anything, it’s not character-constrained blips or bullet points or boiling-it-down, but synthesis, open questions and juxtapositions. On November 9th I posted a George Oppen poem on Facebook:

The Founder

He lay late
As the privileged
Lie in bed

Yet here as he planned
Is his village

The astronomic light
That wakes a people
In the painful dawn.

Are we foundering? Is there an object to our enduring? Right now journalists, academics and historians are furiously looking for our moment’s place in a pattern, trying to fill in the awful unknown of it with the familiar, rather than keeping it open for fresh consideration.

The “astronomic light”:  does it white out or illuminate the dark of distance?

On the second day of this year we lost John Berger, the ultimate poet scientist, to my mind, whose open, schismatic ways of seeing forever changed my own. In And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos he compares events in time to stars, and historic categories to constellations:

The problem of time is like the darkness of the sky. Every event is inscribed in its own time. Events may cluster and their times overlap, but the time in common between events does not extend as law beyond the clustering.

“A famine,” he says, “is a tragic cluster of events.”

A developing area of research called “loop quantum gravity” brings together general relativity and quantum mechanics by proposing that space isn’t continuous, but made up of linked pieces of itself. In other words, there is a smallest unit of space, but the individual grains don’t exist in space because they are spacethe container is the contents. This too might apply to language, where meaning is the words for it and each word is made of all of the meaning. (Robert Creeley: “Speech is a mouth.”) By wavy extension, it also applies to me and the work of poetry: what it is is what I’m in it for.

Watch your language—rubrics, names. Let’s split hairs, resist the homogenizing effects of the global impetus with the local and specific, un-see the constellations of what we think we know. If that sounds vague, I know it is. And as stars are visibly defined by the darkness they white out and illuminate, our words only work with their negative space. In this case, I mean mind your silence. I need quiet and often make the choice not to say, but hold myself extra-accountable for it now. I want mine an active, radio silence—a rubbery cartoon speaker yawping into the cosmos:

dead air
that is all
but impossible.