Escaping the Infinite: An Omnibus Review of Four Contemporary Works of Poetry

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I.

The question of the infinite is a great one. Possessing no limits and no prospect of extinction, infinity runs antithetically counter to our own experience. It is by considering these absences (of limits, of ends) we might better understand our own. That is the hope of the present work. What follows is a review of four books of poetry addressing both the infinite and human limits: the limits of the self, the limits of time and space, and the limits of these concepts. To provide firmer ground for this tremendous subject, we begin with a short essay explicating infinity and its many forms. The specter of the infinite is pressing down upon us constantly. It is, after all, the infinite that we are writing against.

 

II.

Of the many delineating characteristics of human beings, it is the fact of our finitude that brings us the most disquiet and terror. And oh, what a terror it is.

Having endured through a fifth of the 21st century, we are nevertheless unsettled by an awareness of our finitude, which is as existentially present as it has ever been. The remains of the 20th century rest pallid in our mouths; what began with Auschwitz and Hiroshima has continued unabatingly in the destabilization and destruction of our environmental equilibrium. All to distract ourselves from the horror of our mortality and capacity to realize it at scale. For although the human being is characterized by its finitude, we believe, surely, that humanity will exist indefinitely; we cannot imagine a future absent our progeny. No, says we, we will press on—birthing and re-birthing ad infinitum. But the separation of human finitude from humanity’s purported perpetual existence is where we first experience the crushing burden of infinity.

The human being is an expert at guarding against its finitude. In the West, we take up arms with our conceptual creations, a strategy that began with the Greeks and found its modern force in the Enlightenment. From the outset, our weapon of choice has been the transcendental: the infinite concept said to ground us and our reality—Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, Descartes’ God, Hegel’s Absolute. But just as set theory teaches there are different sizes of infinity, the transcendental also unveils the different kinds of infinity acting upon our lives. Whereas human finitude is bound to death, the transcendental is a question of the un-/limited. The result: The West grotesquely attempts to exchange its mortality for an infinite ideal that can never be limited, yet somehow limits everything.

The interplay of these two limiting concepts—the transcendental and human mortality—creates a specter that haunts humanity at every turn. Modern problems are an extension of intrinsic difficulties. What generation has not faced some crisis of ecology, of physiology, of translation, each understood as a crisis of the political, which is just another amongst a myriad of distractions from our limitations?

Indeed, there are too many limiting factors at play. Take, for example, Sigmund Freud’s ruminations in his 1915 essay, “On Transience.” On a summer’s day, Freud took a walk in the countryside with a friend and a poet believed to be Rainer Rilke. Though Rilke admired the beauty of the scene, he found no joy in it, for he knew all was fated to perish with the arrival of winter—that beauty is never without its limits. Freud rebuked this view, asserting on the contrary that limits are what bring value to our lives. Analyzing Rilke, he submitted that the poet harbored a desire for the world to mirror the transcendental essence, that is, a yearning for beauty to escape the auspices of the specter.

The summer walk occurred a year before the Great War, making it, in many ways, a herald for the current age. It is worth considering the stakes: In “On Transience,” Freud contemplates the character of mourning and offers a prognosis that, by the end of the War, his generation would unearth new beauty to attach themselves to. From our historical vantage point, we might think of that war and agree with Freud. However, as Martin Hägglund details in his work Dying for Time, Rilke was not longing for the seductive immortality of the transcendental. Instead, he was mourning the temporal world and everything he had attached himself to. Each of us is limited by everything we love.

But consider this: Beyond Freud’s smiling countryside, there stretched a horizon yet to be encumbered by the physical world. Horizons are not limited by spacetime; as such, they cannot die. Ah, if only human beings could reach such horizons—

We meet our limits all the time, everywhere, every day. Our language mediates our everyday experience, giving rise to Wittgenstein’ proposal in his Tractatus: The limits of our language are the limits of our world. That is, our relation to the world and to ourselves is tied to our ability to represent various states of affairs. And yet, these affairs are always changing—there are, presumably, an infinite number of possibilities through which the world can present itself. When we reflect upon the world, we are merely capturing one of an infinite set of states. And so while language is not limited in its ability to represent this set, it is limited in another: We will never have a final language.

And yet—we are called to overcome our limits, to find expression in the face of our mortality. One way we do this is by writing. Unbinding ourselves through the bound text, we are like Prometheus unveiling a new future for humanity. This limited act of poesis intertwines with the unlimited subject to create art. It is, therefore, a challenge to the infinite limit; like sending up flares in the dark.

 

III.

Bestiary Dark begins with a quotation from Pliny the Elder, a Roman inheritor to Greek logocentricism and the author of the proto-bestiary, Naturalis historia—an effort to index the Earth’s animals: “The world, is it finite?”

Immediately we are cast back in time. Bestiary Dark is an attempt at a rejoinder to this question; the invocation of Pliny gives way to Marianne Boruch, who is traveling the expanse of Australia prior to the beginning of the end of our finitude.

Of course Pliny got here first with this bestiary thing
world turned CE, two years pre-Pompeii, his
collecting, recollecting
every blur and fine point.

*

Despair. The word has a history and I’m wrong,
no afterlife in it.

The bestiary is an unusual work, tasked with the prospect of a never-ending compilation, limited as all texts are. In Boruch’s hands, it becomes a bridge through time; as readers, we are made to consider Pliny’s death in Pompeii while Boruch recalls the burning landscape she has barely escaped. Mortality plagues this text—why, then, revive the bestiary? A simple answer: There must be a witness to the entries ripped from its pages, seemingly every day.

Beyond Boruch, many others appear in this collection: biologists, artists, civilians, animals upon animals. There are three “Others,” however, who define the text: Pliny the Elder (of the past), an Indigenous Elder (of the present), and an archangel who wanders the landscape. They remind Boruch that she is no witness—she is merely an observer, a transitory outsider. Across five books (this bestiary is structured like Pliny’s), we leaf through these recorded observations. Often, they lead us to further questions.

What a mess. Poetry. Just a lot of questions
answered the dumb way, the muddy hard way
via the silence it comes from…

…Be careful what you predict, poet,

what you hang on to
like a prophet does. Be careful of
that ever-distant dot on the horizon in you
as you walk into fire and flood.

The bestiary is haunted: by the infinite and the finite, by the past and the present. In 77CE, Pliny could not prove whether the world is finite; in Boruch’s collection, we experience dying emus, koalas falling from trees, fires ravaging the landscape. And although Pliny could not foresee his death, both he and Boruch are mirrored in their helplessness. No amount of poetry can change the existential threat looming over us. No bestiary can track all that we have lost.

You think this world doesn’t know things? I asked the fires
from a distance. Did you think you can
do any damn thing you want?

The flames will come. The world will shrink. We will ask again: whether transient value is scarcity value in time. Whether beauty can ever be saved from extinction.

 

IV.

Get up, he says, there’s a ship that’s getting out.

With this imperative, we transition from contemplating our literal, impending finitude to a speculative novella-in verse that imperils the mortality of our species.

Outside of Sleeping Hollow, New York, bombs drop from unmarked planes; bridges are decimated, tunnels collapse; and ecological detritus washes in while our speaker (that is, survivor), Val, lies prone on her basement floor. Within pages, she is rescued by her UPS delivery man and taken to a container ship headed for Greenland. As a condition of her boarding, she must watch over (that is, mother) an erratic prepubescent mathematical prodigy who will calculate the ship to safety, provided he does not first break free from his leash and throw himself overboard.

Characterized as a “poetic retelling of Noah’s Ark set in the near future,” Ceive is the alternating meditation of geographic coordination and poetic verse. But just as in Bestiary Dark, we must draw a crucial distinction between this collection and its source text. For when God sent the biblical flood, he did so to restore the world anew: as such, its limits remained the same. However, as Fischer’s speculative flood propels the last of humanity toward Greenland, the world shrinks in size to 18° of total latitude. Fischer imposes drastic limits upon our already limited world.

With no comedy to speak of, God sees
human behavior, regrets he made humans, overwhelms them
with a flood, changes his mind about how to manage

human behavior, and needs the rainbow as a reminder
not to fly off the divine handle at them in the future.

Accordingly, this collection explores the limits of its speaker and her limited environment. Questions arise: What would the effect of such an experience have on the human constitution? To be one of the final members of your species? For the boy you mother to become Euclid? For the girls before you to bear the repopulation of what little is left of Earth?

You look from face to face, from girl to girl, from head to
head—none red. You say, I thought the sons only got one wife each. Nadia
says, That’s just a story.

And what effect would this have on a woman, appraised while boarding for her (bygone) birthing age, tasked with watching over a boy while mourning the death of her own daughter? What new limit arises when we remove the biological belief of our species’ persistence, leaving only our inevitable mortality?

You should hate
yourself for being alive, for

not being able to stop liking
being alive.

Who among us is ready to become Noah or his wife? Which is neither the hapless man nor the defiant woman Linda Gregerson once conceived. No, B.K. Fischer’s is an altogether different future.

 

V.

Having considered different kinds of infinity, we are now presented with a collection of limits: What Is Otherwise Infinite. A curious title. The phrase contains no subject (unless, of course, we were to admit the collection’s contents), and the predicate gives pause with the presence of “otherwise.” Is this “otherwise” functioning as an adverb or an adjective? Well, which limit would you prefer?

It seems lately that everything is nearing its end.
Everyone keeps saying so.

What Is Otherwise Infinite contains four sections: Monad, Dyad, Triad, Tetrad. Monad deals primarily with God and Christianity writ large. Dyad with the failing body. Triad with finite life. Tetrad with mother/daughterhood. As the collection progresses, its focus turns from the unlimited (God) toward what the unlimited limits. However, this can be to the collection’s detriment. This work is at its best when it is exploring the paradox of the infinite; it falters when we experience the finite struggling with the finite—that is, the struggle of the speaker against herself.

I don’t know if it is necessary

to crucify oneself every single day
or only when reaching the very bottom—

Here, infinite concepts abound: Archangels, the liminally limited, limping around in never-ending Paradise; an unlimited God instantiating His limiting power within us; the body—fragile and broken—suppressing an otherwise unlimited mind; our culture, choked by its development, embracing the limited supplement; familial relationships: the psychoanalytic realities of the ever-looming parental figure and the child caught in endless repetition. The eternal march of infinity.

Every daughter
has a cage around her head
and a mother on the cross.

I always hope to take it off, and rarely do.
Instead, I climb up, like a child into the bed.
I nail myself beside you.

*

It is hard for mothers to be like this.
It is hard for mothers to be sick
like this.

As for limits, we are still left with a title. For “otherwise” to function as an adverb, “What Is Otherwise Infinite” must be a modal claim: That is, the finite would be infinite, if present circumstances were different. To function as an adjective, the title must be a claim of essence: That is, the infinite is experiencing some limiting presence, such that it is currently finite. Is Bianca Stone’s collection the expression of a speaker who could be infinite, or an examination of a limited speaker with an infinite nature? Perhaps the title ought to have been “What Will Never Be Infinite” instead.

 

VI.

And so it is in our last moments that we arrive, finally, back at the beginning: What motivates us to consider the infinite? The answer shifts with our relative position in the world. Through three collections we have watched our collective experience of human mortality come to bear. Now, the fourth collection appears. Just in The Nick of Time. This work is a careful work, crafted by a poet who knows her limits—a poet who encounters them again and again.

But I am worried that there’s something I ought to be doing. Afraid I’ll die without having done anything. ‘Realized’ myself, you call it, but wouldn’t that just mean limited myself?

*

I don’t doubt that I’ll die. I doubt, at least if I remain in Providence, there will be good weather for the funeral.

We neither end nor perish in the space we vacate but rather in the absence of time. This absence sets our limits; therefore, every time we manage—as if by magical force—to overcome these limits, absence arrives again, paradoxically, in the nick of time. Unable to escape this arrival, the poet, then, is tasked with finding the right time. For Waldrop, this time is the present: She acknowledges her existential limitations just as she attempts to write herself out of them. It is as if she believes she can overcome these limits with the right word, the right sentence—be it English or German—and she is not willing to surrender this belief.

We experience this most in Waldrop’s style, staccato across the line. Clipped sentences that force the reader to closely consider the subject. At hand. Creating a rhythm that does not afford comfort but comfortably flows. As Waldrop moves from image to image, concept to concept, we are left with the overwhelming impression that this writer has thought. A lot. Perhaps more than any of us. And perhaps it is also the case that, in all that time, Rosmarie Waldrop knew this moment was coming.

Time passes with infinite resources of slowness and is its own project
of erasure.

While waiting, she turned her thoughts to the intersection of the physical world and language. Waldrop talks openly and often about Wittgenstein, language games, forms of life, the impossibility of translation. She debates with an interlocuter the question of infinity in spacetime. That is to say, Waldrop understands the manner in which human beings are mediated and how this mediation affects our relation to the world. And so with mortality bearing down, Waldrop has employed her considerable talents to confront those conceptual monstrosities from which we suffer endlessly.

Or else this dark could be our shelter in the
time of long dominion. And though we are not well suited to the per-
spectives it opens it is an awesome thing to see. Once you can see it.

Our poets are tasked with the impossible: to overcome human limit through verse until the very end. Then we are left with the remains of finitude scattered in language—a terror we are paralyzed in the face of. It is a terror that Rosmarie Waldrop has spent the last decade writing against. The Nick of Time is not a model, nor a manual. It is a reminder of our task as limited, mortal beings. To send up one more flare against the dark.

“So everything should be very clear.”


Z. L. Nickels' writing has previously appeared with The Hopkins Review, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, SPIN, and others. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst while working on his first novel about the death of the Great God Pan. More from this author →