As a glance over any of the preceding posts shows, I’m interested in “limit situations” in language, where what it seeks to do is at odds with its acknowledged capacities. We know what language does well: limns, defines, and clarifies; it stays confusion. Recall the famous passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”
But I wonder: Isn’t giving “airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” a misrepresentation of that “nothing,” with the poet’s pen imposing a level of detail/specificity it cannot have? John Ruskin discusses this sort of inaccurate (over)accuracy in painting, pointing out that one of Hobbema’s landscapes “involves a contradiction in terms; it states a distance by perspective, which it contradicts by distinctness of detail.”
So what happens when we want to describe in words something dark, confusing, blurred, or unresolved? Words aren’t charcoal; they can’t be smudged with a blending stick. And simply calling something “confused” imposes an interpretive layer: it doesn’t allow the reader to inhabit the confusion. It’s the verbal equivalent of the contradiction Ruskin describes.
Poet Laura Kasischke has attempted to address this representational conundrum. One way she accomplishes what I’d call an appropriate vagueness is through the accumulation of similes. Consider this poem from her book Space, in Chains, in which the poet describes her dying father’s last day:
The similes follow one another, without transitions, and it’s not clear if the process is supposed to be cumulative or corrective. Some are so obvious that they’re almost redundant: “like desperation / in a dying eye.” Some are mystifying (at least to me): “Like science.” In any case, the traces of the preceding simile haunt our reading of the next one, creating the blurred richness of a Giacometti drawing. The effect seems appropriate to the uncertainty and difficulty of the death of a loved one.
In some poems, Kasischke follows the attempted similes with an “or,” explicitly calling into question previous similes, and emphasizing the provisional/tentative nature of the whole endeavor:
The poem depicts the struggle for a sort of clarity, and the clarity itself is fleeting, no sooner achieved than reduced to analogical “as if” in triplicate.
Kasischke also expertly employs indefinite pronouns—especially “something”—as well as “thing,” that misty noun anathematized by the gods of good writing (“The word ‘thing’ is a shortcut and a sign of vague, watered-down writing,” admonishes one website). Her most recent book, The Infinitesimals, opens with a straightforward but effective example, with an indefinite “thing” offset by a single sharp and eerie detail:
The Infinitesimals contains several poems called “Beast of the Sea” (the repetition of the title creates its own suggestive confusion). The one on page 89 combines all the techniques I’ve described: the multiple similes (the “like” is implied here); the corrective “or”s; and two “somethings” whose referents are never clarified: