My Marine Counterpart

A very precious perishing

Tabitha Vevers, MERMAID: After the Song Departs. 2016, oil and gold leaf on Ivorine. 7 3/4" x 9 5/8". tabithavevers.com.

I. Drowned Towns

For reasons that don’t matter in the slightest, I walk the city at those hollow hours when it’s hardest to tell sea from sky: grisaille, silent, set of keys in one hand, in the other, a map that hazards how the waters will rise. Left: the blades between curled fingers, impromptu, washi-taped brass knuckles, gaudy with cattleya and gilt geometry. Right: the illuminated flood. Enough of this drifting about under sign of key and map could foster in a person a faculty like another sense: a proprioception of topography, doubling dry and drowned.

Down along low corridors of Red Hook where, not so many years ago, soaked sandbags mounted paltry labyrinths against a “privilege of hurricane;” haunt, perhaps, a stretch of boardwalk down at Brighton Beach around Grimaldo’s Chair, to which the lifeguard comes no more to keep his watch, though swimmers still meet there for pas de deux with salt-silk frequencies of wave; settle with, one day, the ferryman who charons you across the chop to Hart Island’s potter’s field; ascending, then, some other time, to heights of Green-Wood Cemetery or else Mount Prospect Park as it shades into the margins of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, places that will grow more intimate—and more—with panoply of rising ocean-scent—the sweet of it and sour-unto-sour—even as (just now) the body, cloaked in an invisible diving bell, grows intimate with the perception of resistance—ludicrous, proleptic and imaginary—of tons of water listless on its conquests.

Already, so many need not imagine it, the king tide at the fraying levee: Alexandria, Dar es Salaam, Dhaka, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Manila, Miami, New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, San Juan. A “slow violence”1 of mass environmental catastrophe, the ravages already with us and before us are not and have never been caused or borne equally. At least one contingency plan for the next assault of the waters on New Orleans imagines the city as a maze of canals. Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, New York 2140, envisions the lower parts of flooded Manhattan, now called SuperVenice, lousy with strange gondolas. In Venice Preserv’d, by the late seventeenth-century dramatist Thomas Otway, poor Belvidera (the she of the “she-tragedy”), driven to madness by her husband’s suicide, stranded in the city on the lagoon, raves of “lutes, laurels, seas of milk, and ships of amber.” Much later, Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria will mondegreen the line as “lutes, lobsters, seas of milk, and ships of amber,” augmenting the marine absurdity already breaking the surface in seas of milk and ships of amber. Coleridge, littoral, forgets the “laurels,” which succeed lutes as the mark of the true poet succeeds music, in favor of “lobsters,” far more common to the waters than the froth of human poetry. And so the city is saved. But the damage is irreversible.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, even the dreamer whose dreams can reweave the fabric of reality cannot imagine a single world in which the lingering consequences of the Greenhouse Effect are not “a permanent legacy,” no matter how the world may change in the meanwhile.2 How to get on? Anna Tsing advocates for the reality of “pleasures amidst the terrors of indeterminacy.”3 In Donna Haraway’s gestes spéculatifs, the Camille stories, generations of human-butterfly hybrids ask “how to live in the ruins . . . still inhabited . . . with ghosts and with the living, too.”4 Firstly, do what you can’t help doing: proceed from a position of ruin. Here and now and always post-diluvian, unarked, unrainbowed, unpromised.

Nonetheless, there is also the particular kind of idiot, a little touched, Touchstone in truth, who is unable to walk the dry town without the drowned town geysering up to meet the tread. At these times, This Touchstone responds with frivolous poetry. To This Touchstone come selkies and barnacle geese, the Mermaid Parade and the Cingalese fishermen who caught seven mermen in their nets in 1560, the siren appeared in the port of Copenhagen in 1669, the femme marine exhibited in Paris in 1758, and the merwoman carried by flood to Edam, got the tricks of wearing clothes and sewing but would not or could not learn language and “always retained an instinct which led her towards water.”5 To This Touchstone come old sunken city parables of Kitezh and Tyno Helig, Ys, Atlantis (in a pinch), Herzog’s Bells from the Deep. To This Touchstone come the historical facts of flash flood and studied submersion: Coldwater, Corydon, Dana, Hetch Hetchy, Kennett, Monte Ne, Neversink, Monument City, Port Royal, Potosi, Villa Epecuén, Shi Cheng, Sopris, Vilarinho das Furnas . . . .

To This Touchstone comes a reflexive romance and a reflexive resistance to romance, misty memory of a French television show of recent vintage: the dead are revenants. At the edge of things, a drowned town keeps its counsel, sends back the lost ones (or something does). The lightning rods of houses stipple the reservoir-surface like the antennae of intricate insects. The more the dead talk, the less they say of what they are. Over and over and over, they climb the embankment, pristine in funeral suits and jean jackets, the yellow collar of a favorite dress (only a little grave dirt riming the beds of their nails, nearly indistinguishable from the quick). Like children, really—and some are—making careless ruin of the mourning, more or less diligent, over which the living have labored, as if it were a terrible cake never meant to be eaten, only ceremoniously preserved. Who envies the dead? cries the oracular stranger whose heart stopped six months ago. A red-headed girl, gone these three years, hungrier than gods are, doesn’t even know to ask, goes home in the ordinary way to make a sandwich in her kitchen while stunned mother looks on, hideous with hope, as the refrigerator door hisses shut and daughter’s hair burns through the evening like the fringes of the Southern Crab Nebula. The dead are constant. The dead have demands. The dead are your twin, now younger than you, unageing, come for a visit. Before long, they will renounce their beauty and vow to love you forever. Thin mists waft up from the reservoir and the chorus of—what (?)—maybe “Unchained Melody”—haunts the radio to stupidity. In the taxidermy galleries, shivers stir in the glass eyes of the rabbits and the wolves. Pins unharrow their butterflies, who find the lingering fumes from the killing jar are more like a rare, new form of oxygen. Air whistles through their pierced wings in such a way as to curse them with a language resembling birdsong and sirens. Waters hurtle over the side of the dam in units of body running an endless vertical footrace. I waited for you, says the little boy who never speaks, though not in so many words.

II. My marine counterpart

What else comes to This Touchstone inundated on dry salvages whose name—Brooklyn—may or may not come from the Dutch for “broken land”? (Salvages, hot deeds, and bloody thefts, the Lenape know.) Even there in the broken places, frivolous little inventions school about her shoulders: translucent submersibles modeled after moon jellies, imaginary fish possessing a special organ for converting local toxins to bioluminescence, maybe “shipwreck in my lap” (wisp of song), the celestial thing called “earthshine” or “ashen glow” or “the old moon in the young moon’s arms,” just palpable to the gaze in the chary passages when morning does not know whether to be morning. In the long history of the senses, where violence and wonder share an uneasy corridor, have there not been—de profundis—a thousand, thousand fools, and one or two as shallow as This Touchstone for a cloud shadow on an upturned face? Fresh from the beginning of time comes Tramontana, the north wind, who might bear a little lightning in his courier’s pack but to This Touchstone, illiterate, the letter is dead; his breath at the nape of the neck is an anemone.

Comes, then, at such an hour as this, a companion resembling This Touchstone, This Touchstone made wiser and stranger and a little more obscure. Call this figure: My Marine Counterpart. My Marine Counterpart announces their presence with a little Marvell:

What wond’rous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.6

In Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden,” sua sponte—by their own will—apples leap into the speaker’s hand; callipygian melons flirt with the feet; lucent grapes “crush” themselves into wine on that mouth with erotic fervor; the peaches are curious as Eve; blossoms embrace, entrap: A fall on grass is also a sort of Fortunate Fall, Edenic Temptation, an Original of something, though not forthrightly of Sin. Absurd to the point of cartoon ribaldry in its verdant surfeit, the stanza’s fantasy is of a world of abundance that could supply, in itself, every kind of want for a single garden-stumbler, every kind of libidinal and sensuous and social desire. Even the cantering verse, an iambic tetrameter complemented by the rigorous scheme of heroic couplets, invites the ear or the voice to the formal pleasures of a musical or metrical contract fulfilled to satisfaction.

—pay attention, says My Marine Counterpart, with tender exasperation playing about their mouth, to the “Meanwhile”—. This Touchstone tries to attend.

The next stanza culminates in famous lines: the green thought in the green shade. A dualist who did not love his dualism, Marvell, the author of such poems as “A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body,” opposes to the hedonistic paradise plot of the “fall on grass” the action of the mind, less pleased or somehow displeased—frightened or censorious—by the body’s vulnerability to physical pleasure. Set to flight by the lotus-eating eros of the plants in the garden, the mind recoils into itself and generates from its recoil a sublime proof of its own powers: the imagination of “other worlds” and “other seas” whose reality obliterates the overwhelm of the material world to “mere” color, a single physical quality that might yet be wily against a stricture in the way of all colors. A green thought is, in a green shade, indistinguishable from its surrounds: the thought does not exist and neither does the shade. They do not exist in exactly the same degree and color. Or is it that the stanza reverses the solidity of ordinary sense experience and imagination’s work so that physical life becomes the flat shadow to the mental life’s rounded body? So that sensuous existence becomes the shade to the immediate living precedence of the mind? Annihilation of “the made” to a “green thought in a green shade” seems to come as an unfathomable relief, sweeping away all competing claims to the real. It is also a menacing solipsism: a green thought in—thought by, that is—a green shade—an idealist extremism, as if the reality of other thoughts and those who think them could be no more than a fantasy of companionate interiority. The mind’s lust for transcendent creation also resists one possible workaday experience of thought, which can be lived as a passive or semi-passive medium, responsive to a determinative reality rather than a saggital engine of experience in its own right—the poem’s trial, not entirely successful, to cut the material down to size.

Sick of human love, as in Song of Songs, the one who cries out in “The Garden” pleads, after a fashion, to be “stay[ed] . . . with flagons, comfort[ed] with apples,” is granted this—wholly, extravagantly—finds the satiation of the senses insufficient but not entirely friable: the poem has to go on for another three stanzas after the “annihilation of the made” in order to try on the position of the soul as a self-sufficient, silver-winged bird, liberated from the body’s cage, involved, omphaloskeptic, in its own grooming to perfection. The crowning desire of the poem is bitter bitter, as (much later) will be the heart of Stephen Crane’s self-consuming, species-indeterminate creature, who squats, naked, bestial, on the ground, and eats the muscle of his own quick pulse and likes it (though that was in the desert, which remembers the garden only in verse inverse); Marvell’s poem wants, in short, to be liberated from dependence on a world that threatens to be too present, too real, too interested—a world in which other people must be relied on, dealt with, sinned against or sinning. The wist is for a condition in which unalienated solitude in the cornucopian garden really would suffice to all needs and the promise or the demand of the social would be the immaterial thing: “Two paradises ’twere in one / To live in paradise alone.”7

iii. The sad Marvells

—My Marine Counterpart interrupts, here, because things are getting serious, to ask if we shouldn’t laugh more, to pun on George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous”:

—“the sad Marvells, oh yes“There are things/We live among ‘and to see them/Is to know ourselves’”—ah, but you’ve missed something— 

This Touchstone: —have I—?


Oh: “The mind, that ocean where each kind / Does straight its own resemblance find”—is that what you—

—(laughter, then, not entirely heartless)—it’s for you to explain ourselves, this time around 

—sometimes I do desire we may be better strangers—

 —and if already the best—?

IV. Seahorses and land horses

This Touchstone’s exceedingly infuriating Marine Counterpart must mean: marine counterparts, a commonplace of medieval bestiaries, deriving from a fallacy of analogical antiquity, in which, as T.H. White puts it,

everything on the earth had its counterpart in the sea. The horse and the sea-horse, the dog and the dog-fish, the snake and the eel, the spider and the spider-crab: these led the extremists to extend their classifications to the air, and even platonically to the metaphysical heaven itself, so that the Physiologus who could revisit our planet today would probably construct a parallelism between the ideal Leviathan in the Eternal Ocean, a barrage balloon, an elephant and a whale.8

The bestiary’s theory is, in short, that for every species on land, there exists an analogical sort of creature in the water. (Melville, among others, had objections.) By Marvell’s reckoning, which tucks its marine counterparts into the succinct berth of a single line, the mind is an ocean and so, each “kind” of thing on land “its own resemblance find[s]” in the mental expanse. But is the mind the place of “mere” resemblances, images and imitations of the material world, or the originator of them? Do the thing and its reflection come into being simultaneously, as (shades of Lacan) a child encountering its first mirror? Or is mind/body the wrong comparative entirely: it’s not entirely clear that the “kinds” of the theater of the ocean-mind are not also mental constructs, so that the imagination might be both sea and mirror at once, reality as its own mime.

Despite the ambiguity of the terms, it is, at first blush, tempting to take the metaphor straight in the sense that it’s using a concept from natural philosophy to illustrate, forthrightly, some proposition it genuinely believes about the creative force of imaginative analogy. Things are rarely so simple in the conceits of metaphysical poetry. By the time Marvell wrote “The Garden,” probably sometime in the 1650s or 1660s, the theory of marine counterparts had fallen out of intellectual fashion.9 The pop-science blockbuster of its age, Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), a compendious attempt to debunk common superstitions, would cleave to its disdain for the theory of marine counterparts through six successively revised and expanded editions. Sea-horses, for example, “are but Grotesco deliniations which fill up empty spaces in Maps, and meer pictorial inventions, not any Physical shapes” and (concession) “although it be not denied that some in the water do carry a justifiable resemblance to some at Land, yet are the major part which bear their names unlike; nor do they otherwise resemble the creatures on earth, then [sic] they on earth the constellations which pass under animal names in heaven.” Mere cartographers’ fancies, designed to ornament a map or an eddy of the Milky Way, marine counterparts fulfill a desire for aesthetic balance more than they do a utility of accurate description.

And, too, the theory of marine counterparts denies several of Browne’s pet premises about the natural world: that “watery productions” actually precede the existence of “terrestuous animals” and that God does not analogize. When humans resort to the comparative linking of analogy in order to make sense of the world, we employ (by Browne’s lights) a logic very different from divinity’s, one that often produces uncanny limit cases—prodigies and marvels—as much as it domesticates the world to reason. Analogy has no necessary effect, domestic or feral. And counterpart is, more properly speaking, a subset of analogy that depends on a narrow logic of inverse proportion: the terms bound in the analogy are as important as the binding, dog to dog-fish, snake to eel. But for Browne, as invested in religion as in the heady accelerations of the early Scientific Revolution, the analogical mistake

abridge[s] the variety of the creation; making the creatures of one Element, but an acting over those of another, and conjoyning as it were the species of things which stood at distance in the intellect of God . . . although we say the world was made in six days, yet was there as it were a world in every one; that is, a distinct creation of distinguisht creatures; a distinction in time of creatures divided in nature[.]10

In other words, analogy binds together what in the mind of God is separate, the discrete world in each day of the creation. Indiscrete, analogy makes an order of things but an order of things decidedly mortal, at odds with a perfect grasp of reality, which does not need a rule of comparison in order to mock-up a provisional, shade-green understanding. To analogize is human, to distinguish divine.

And so Marvell’s linkage of the mind to an ocean of marine counterparts presages Samuel Johnson’s notorious critique of Marvell and his metaphysical coevals, as mere verse-making wits rather than true poets, regarding human folly from Epicurean heights, combining, at the expense of “the pains and the pleasure[s] of other minds,” tangled skeins of “dissimilar images . . . occult resemblances in things apparently unlike . . . heterogeneous ideas . . . yoked by violence together.”11 So the poem’s strategy of dialectical analogy—the best it can do on the terms it sets for itself—also suggests its limits. The coupling of heterogeneous ideas gives you an order you can live with—a set of lively effects much like, as Wallace Stevens puts it, “the prismatic formations that occur about us in nature in the case of reflections and refractions . . . prismatic crystallizations”—but analogy cannot pretend to the omniscient order of unqualified distinction.

The question might be, then, how to get by on the premise that analogy, one of the best instruments—the most enchanting—that reason and imagination give for making sense of the world, cannot deliver a view from nowhere.12 However ridiculous a yearning it seems, this longing for the terrible neutrality of omniscience is, in among the thickets of “The Garden”’s irony, a silver-wingèd sincerity. So Johnson underestimates, thinks This Touchstone, the potential pathos of a metaphysical conceit—its debt to the “pains and the pleasure[s] of other minds—underestimates the motive for a violent yoke, the tortuous elongation of a thorny extended metaphor, which can sometimes resemble a staying-with, a farewell prolonged in reaction to the feeling that “til the next time” is really “goodbye forever,” the eye following a bird in flight until it vanishes into horizon.

 One anxiety of “The Garden” is about a poetics that is not merely at odds with a God’s-eye accuracy of description but also out of step with other minds and their desires: this awkwardness is built into its invocation of the fallacy of marine counterparts. The mind-as-the-ocean-of-resemblances is at once a wish that the method of analogy could be a total—transcendent—way of knowing the world—and an acknowledgement of the appeal of analogy’s immanent mode, which delivers a communicative means for sifting through material chaos and also, like a happy accident in the kitchen, gives us luscious, unheimlich follies, hybrids like merpeople and myrmecoleons. What would it be like—one thing “The Garden” asks—to love, however reluctantly, the strategy of your error, which is also that which gives you the knowledge you can know, the pleasure that can already please?

It would make you the sincerest kind of ironist, for one thing. It would make you the fool who wants to be talked into your folly. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, those who act Hippolyta and Theseus, the King and Queen of Athens, often play Titania and Oberon, the fairy monarchs in the wild wood. The complex and the simple, city and forest, are thereby spelled to fall into one another’s arms (universe inverse in verse) so that it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends, double vision, as if under the influence of juice of love-in-idleness. It is, in this analogical scenario, the easiest, the most plausible thing in the world to fall in and out of love with an ass. Whether Marvell understood his own poem as an expression of this kind of half-satirical potential is, of course, a senseless question and unanswerable.

V. My marine counterpoint

My Marine Counterpart: —who’s there—?

This Touchstone: —“nay, stand and unfold”oh, you’re serious—

My Marine Counterpart: —I am never serious—who’s there—?

This Touchstone: —let me reflect a moment—

My Marine Counterpart: —do you ever stop—?

Gardens, as the scene of analogical failure, are not incidental for Marvell, who can’t seem to forgive an earthly paradise for analogizing so badly the Unfallen paradise of Eden, perfuming the air with a lesser bliss. As human transformations of nature “plain and pure,” gardens yield only the poisoned fruit of appetitive pleasure: “a more luscious earth . . . [w]hich stupefied them while it fed,” as his irascible Mower puts it.13 Marvell was not, of course, aware of himself as living in the wind-up to the Anthropocene, any more than a merman is aware of himself as a strawman in a chapter of Thomas Browne. The scholar Anahid Nersessian marks the Anthropocene as an example of “dynamic nominalism” in which categories and categories of people co-constitute one another, so that someone gathers up some actually existing phenomena under the category of a name, and that name—once it’s in circulation—coalesces, gains force, pushes back so that subjects begin to know their knowledge—historical, flowing, and flown—according to the contours of the name. It becomes tempting, then, because our knowledge knows us, too, to render the past fully continuous with the present instead of seeing the ways it bridles against contemporary categories, which often apply unevenly or unexpectedly to time lived.14 Historical analogy, though not without its uses, is less the complete symmetry of marine counterpart and more a kind of—

My Marine Counterpart: —marine counterpoint

This Touchstone: —fugue form—

My Marine Counterpoint: —fugue state

 This Touchstone: —sigh figure—

My Marine Counterpoint: —cheer up

Analogy is good, so far as it goes—anyway, This Touchstone, who has never pretended to a view from nowhere, couldn’t do without it—but perhaps it could stand a dancing partner on occasion; perhaps counterpoint, a musical technique of interdependent harmonic relation between rhythm-and-contour-independent voices (characteristic of fugue), might succeed where the symmetry-desire of counterpart has come up short. In the Baroque period, when fugue was still in vogue, composers played with the idea of Affektenlehre, a doctrine of the affects in which different formal elements of the music were meant to mirror particular passions: airy, expanded intervals for joy, perhaps, diminished chords for sorrow, a laggardly tempo for melancholic states, a ponderous, ascending line for pride.15 The second movement of Bach’s Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (My heart swims in blood), BWV 199, turns on a phrase written by a German poet and novelist who went by the pseudonym Pallidor: “Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen” (“Unspoken sighs, silent cries”). The word Seufzer, or “sighs,” is couched in “slurred semitones” and ornamented by the agitation of a grace note that slips into melody (a trick called an appoggiatura), so that the little phrase makes—

alright, sigh figure, says My Marine Counterpoint (dynamically nominalized)

—and assumes the face of a dear friend who recently chided This Touchstone (correctly) for an insufficient philosophy of time, fitted for the clock and not a theory of history. (“There’s no clock in the forest,” replied This Witless Touchstone.)16 The point of contention concerned that inexistent entity the future, how to talk about it without turning from the present, a pressing concern for any viable politics of the Anthropocene. This Touchstone is still deep in the blind alleys of the hedge maze when it comes to a future conceived neither in terms of formless, receding horizon, nor seamless continuity, nor abstract, determinist rupture, nor totalizing contingency; nonetheless, This Stubborn Touchstone is still unwilling to sacrifice the term and cannot say why—

My Marine Counterpoint: —you can—say why

 This Touchstone: —something in the given, still ungiven—can’t unsee that—not now—

My Marine Counterpoint: —in the given, still ungiven—impossible to take alive

VI. Sea unicorns and land unicorns

So wary as to disappear for centuries and reappear,
yet never to be caught,
the unicorn has been preserved
by an unmatched device
wrought like the work of expert blacksmiths,
this animal of that one horn
throwing itself upon which head foremost from a cliff,
it walks away unharmed;
proficient in this feat which, like Herodotus,
I have not seen except in pictures.
Thus this strange animal with its miraculous elusiveness,
has come to be unique,
“impossible to take alive[.]”17

Marianne Moore’s sprawling “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns” (1924) is as florid and symbolically ambiguous as the unicorn tapestries that hang in the Cloisters, a folly of a museum where Manhattan throws itself decisively into the ruminating mouth of the Hudson. A monument to seclusion (likely to be islanded when the ocean rises), The Cloisters have been remixed, much like Moore’s poem, from the spolia of European abbeys and churches. In Moore’s case, these borrowed architectural elements take the form of allusion and unattributed quotation; bits of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (“mighty monoceroses with immeasured tayles”); the Elizabethan slave trader John Hawkyns on Florida (“abounding in land unicorns and lions; / since where the one is, its arch-enemy cannot be missing”); Thomas Cavendish (another colonizing captain), who brought to Queen Elizabeth I a unicorn’s horn (probably a narwhal tusk); Henry James on the tricky business of the places where unanimity can be achieved by (Moore’s phrase) “personalities by nature much opposed”; Bulfinch’s Mythology; Herodotus; Pliny (“impossible to take alive”); and anonymous Medieval poetry (“upon her lap,” its “mild wild head doth lie.”).18

The poem’s baroque-pearl plethora, which This Touchstone cannot claim to understand in full, demonstrates Moore’s interest in enigmatic juxtapositions and her resistance to explicit transitions. In this, it reflects the uneasy picture of empire in the poem, which recurs to the lion and the unicorn of the British crest as a symbol of colonial unity under a ruling power: a false picture of full unity among heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence. It is also a picture of analogy at the edge of itself.

Like Marvell’s “The Garden,” “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns” ironizes the theory of marine counterparts, though the reasons and the strategies of that irony share little else except, perhaps, a sense of horror vacui. Sea unicorns (they might be narwhals) and land unicorns emerge not as perfectly symmetrical analogues of each other but as their unruly, animal selves, which refuse to be brought into symbolic harness. Symbolic harness a subtending preoccupation for Moore at this point in her career: in the bejeweled garden of “Marriage,” for instance, you will find a meditation on the wedded condition as the testing ground of a “strange paradise,” a “crystal-fine experiment” in which “amalgamation . . . can never be more / than an interesting impossibility,” with “ways out but no way in,” because in marriage, conceived as analogy, the terms of comparison—the spouses—have such a small probability of finding their way into a viable synthesis. At its best, Moore suggests, marriage is a kind of extreme analogical comparison, a “striking grasp of opposites / opposed each to the other, not to unity,” partners committed to the third effect that arises from the private thing ratified by a public promise. For Moore, in marriage, as in monoceroses, this is a qualified optimism.

Slant likenesses, anxious likenesses—or the refusal of things to be completely balanced in the frame of analogy—those places where the analogical frays or produces unexpected results are much more congenial to her interests. They make way for ornate, poetic proliferation, new forms of imaginative life that look askance at the desire for total unity, total alignment, total symmetry—and the power of analogy to effect these things. The unicorn is an “unmatched device” in that the British crest represents it across from a lion, its “arch-enemy,” rather than a symmetrical land or sea unicorn. But the unicorn is also an unmatched device in several other respects. In it is a yearning for self-sufficiency—release from the demand to bear the analogizing yoke of marriage, to remain “unmatched” in that way. And, when it comes to poetry, the device of the unicorn is a matchless representative contraption because it is a specific and specifically muscular generator of images, “impossible to take alive.”

And if you take it dead? What you’ve taken is not the thing you wanted, the marvel of it, which was in the life of it and not in the death. The unicorn and its meanings always elude full capture, cannot be tamed by analogy, historical hearsay (Moore’s quotations), the partial evidence of a slender, whorling horn, a circular fence (as in the famous tapestry), the dogs of the hunt, or by poetry itself. Though there is, of course, the sly, wistful suggestion that perhaps a young woman whose qualities resonate with those of the unicorn—matchless and unmatched—might be the one to tame it without killing it, make it companionate, discover a poetics capable of preserving the living wonder. Moore is, perhaps, also thinking of what it is like to be no longer so young as you have been but coming, nonetheless, into a new kind of unmatched mastery. Then again, maybe this too is a blind: the hubris it takes to understand yourself as “miraculously elusive,” “impossible to take alive,” absolved from damage, the capture-to-kill, the dumb astonishment of the error it might be to kneel for that “mild wild head,” so eager, for once, to betray itself in likeness—

vii. By me you shall be often missed, deep within the woods

 My Marine Counterpoint: —to betray itself in likeness

 This Touchstone: —not that you’d know anything about that—

My Marine Counterpoint: —well, not anymore

This Touchstone: —precisely—

By now, they have wended their way through the southern reaches of Prospect Park. This Touchstone and My Marine Counterpoint—looking so much less alike than they did even an hour ago, more alike than they will an hour from now—amble past the Nethermead and the Boat House, past the Camperdown Elm, which Marianne Moore wanted so badly to save, “still leafing; / still there; mortal though . . . our crowning curio.”19 High and centrally located (This Touchstone’s flood map is still open), Prospect Park is likely to be, by and large, topographically resistant to the threat of rising water for a little while longer, though the Elm, sometimes delicate in the way of a person who requires many props to confront an ordinary day, may yet become, unexpectedly, its own funeral monument.

Stumbling a little at a wide, verdant swathe, This Touchstone remembers why: a day in the park, not so very long ago, the day after the man had immolated himself. On his own account, he hoped (if he hoped for anything, at the last) to reflect in the microcosm of his gasoline-soaked death, the effects of burning fossil fuels en masse. The morning of that death, This Unwitting Touchstone had gone out to buy a bougie thatch of French tulips (bougie: the French for candle) and collect a copy of the Incendium Amoris from the library. Next day, This Touchstone had walked deliberately past the place where he’d set himself ablaze, found the there more or less—so close—not hard—cryptic sequin of burn, scattering of bedraggled floral tributes. This Touchstone promptly and comprehensively sick against the roots of a nearby linden, to which she apologized out loud in reflex, annoying a chic old man in tweed (difficult to tell whether the emetic episode or the indecorum of an address to the hamadryad repulsed him more). Buzz of a drone flying overhead, which appeared to belong to a father-son dyad just visible over the next rise—a registration of ambient crisis, the bad joke of the event, writ in water, writ in flame, that goes to sea change or ash as soon as you look it in the eyes.

No joke, his death, the fact of it, not for the people he knew and had evolved into feeling for and who had evolved into feeling for him. No joke for them, ever, only the form of its public, narrative afterlife: the predictable attempts to couch the desperate affair comfortably and entirely in the terms of exemplar or heroism or ideological martyrdom, to make its meaning singular and reasonable or singular and unreasonable, legible, square, disposably pat, at any rate, neatly translatable into galvanic force or quiescence. The latter was the more reasonable bet: dust-bin burial. Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love—or a perfection of laws—even if you did believe in some pure conversion from flesh to flame (that unique horror), an efficient transformation of a single, burning body to the material resources, mass movements, drastic policy measures that might mitigate even an infinitesimal fraction of future damage. The weight of what’s come before won’t lift and the sea, the sea, the sea grows old in it—

Two messages, he left, both brief, both ways of calling his act a protest suicide. He apologized for the mess. A longed-for ritual purity—to be recused from damage, a position, as in most cases, not afforded equally. (But perhaps he was aware of this irony and that explains the timing, if nothing else; the site of his death is usually, mercifully empty at half past six in the morning.) In the warm seasons, picnics largely composed of Latinx and working-class families, festivals like improvised coral reefs, never the same from hour to hour, day to day, unfurl their colors and scents over the section of the park where he did it and, among all the rest, there is this act of fire, now, in the memory and the uses of that space.

Not protest alone, the cause, in all probability. It never is, thinks This Touchstone. And still, the most accurate way of putting it might be the most frustrating one, a tautology: the meaning of your death is your death. And what a senseless impulse (senseless in the strictest sense, though not beyond the realm of imagining) to want your death’s meaning fully congruent to your life’s, as if life’s own meaning could ever be congruent even to itself. This is a way of wanting your death to be beautiful, beautiful in the sense of parsimonious, in the sense of elegant, in the sense of aesthetic. And the descriptions of this burning death that afterwards flaked and flittered into the news complied, by and large, with the demand for beauty, rapturous with adjectives for a park in bloom. (This Touchstone understands it, that compliance; a form of coping to which she is most intensely vulnerable, this among many weaknesses.) Wittgenstein, as if in anguish: “but isn’t the same at least the same?”20 Nachträglichkeit, a backwards glance, an aftermath—

My Marine Counterpoint: ah, you remember the day we met

This Touchstone: —I had just insulted the linden—

My Marine Counterpoint: you wore violet, the linden wore green

This Touchstone: —I had to make repairs to my appearance—

 My Marine Counterpoint: —you had a train to catch

This Touchstone: —yes, of course, The Cloisters—

My Marine Counterpoint: troubadour songs

This Touchstone: —in the room with the Unicorn Tapestries—

My Marine Counterpoint: harp and lute, vielle and rebec (my favorite)

This Touchstone: —had you been waiting long—?

My Marine Counterpoint: —not long, all your life

This Touchstone: —oh—but do you remember the singer—?

My Marine Counterpoint: countertenor, arrogance of a Farinelli

This Touchstone: —reduced you, so Rational, Sad, and Serious, to a drop of hot honey—and you forgave—

My Marine Counterpoint: —well, I am never seriousarrogance, yes, and yet dispensed with such good humorreal skill

This Touchstone: —skill of someone who can make you think your life—

My Marine Counterpoint: —think your life the smallest thing in his hands, chooses, at the last moment, not to take advantageand were you moved?

This Touchstone: —oh, I was moved—and you—

My Marine Counterpoint: —you cried

This Touchstone: —is it kind to mention that—?

My Marine Counterpoint: I am not kind

This Touchstone: —your hand light on my shoulder, an apex of me, acromion—

My Marine Counterpoint: bony process

This Touchstone: —terms of art—the welcome weight of your fingers, mine lifting, airborne on hilarity, to cover the marvelous surprise—the first of you—and someday the last? They were playing our song—

My Marine Counterpoint: remind me how it goes?

This Touchstone: —unkind, yes, sing to me anyway—

My Marine Conterpoint: (after long hesitation)

I find myself searching for nuts,
For I cannot find beans nor peas,
At which my heart feels constant annoyance.
By me you shall be often missed
Deep within the woods
 . . .21

yes, constant annoyance

This Touchstone: —and the woods, too—thank you, I didn’t think you would—

My Marine Counterpoint: the woods, too, despite everythingdo you know? I didnt think I would eitheryou hated yourself a little, there by the unicorn in captivity

This Touchstone: —for being so excessively capable of pleasure, yes—I don’t now—

My Marine Counterpoint: Im gladbecause

This Touchstone: —because I reach for beauty?—knee-jerk impulse—and ugly, sometimes, ugly as Socrates, as our bodies are, as mine is—

My Marine Counterpoint: and mine, sometimesyou thought the anger was for the music

This Touchstone: —mending a heart unready to mend—

My Marine Counterpoint: and what kind of

This Touchstone: —what kind of fool—

My Marine Counterpoint: what kind of fools so avid for the cicatrix, proof of the wound?what you really resented

This Touchstone: —this one I know like my own name—resented my heart under the sign of music—

My Marine Counterpoint: so much tenderized meat

This Touchstone: —the treacher heart that knits itself for concord of sweet sounds—

My Marine Counterpoint: I wouldnt worry

This Touchstone: —the sutures tear easily—you’ve always known the score—

My Marine Counterpoint: and the sea rises

This Touchstone: —it’s the last time, isn’t it—?

My Marine Counterpoint: I didnt know you knew

viii. The parrot in flight

My Marine Counterpoint: —things might go easier with you if you could stop seeing how they are and how they might be other than they are at once—if you could choose

This Touchstone: —easier, maybe—not better?—drowned towns, yes, but also the gondolas—

My Marine Counterpoint: —after everything—are you going to ruin this by speaking sense—?

This Touchstone: —I never speak sense—do you think parrots teach their children language—?

My Marine Counterpoint: —tame ones teach the wild sometimes, I know

This Touchstone: —that, I believe—“mild, wild”—are you really going—?

My Marine Counterpoint: —something amazing

This Touchstone: —impossible to take alive—?

My Marine Counterpoint: —ensnar’d with flow’rs

This Touchstone: —I fall on grass— 

My Marine Counterpoint: —expensive, delicate ships

This Touchstone: —passing in the night—

My Marine Counterpoint: —are you crying—?

This Touchstone: —yes, but it doesn’t matter—“by me you shall be often missed”—

My Marine Counterpoint: —deep within the woods

From their pocket, My Marine Counterpoint draws an ark shell, gold-hinged like a locket. Out falls old photograph—black and white, 35mm film, edges rounded by a velvet erosion. In the little frame, a fence to hedge about an ordinary marvel for a while, the statue of Minerva, and a pair of figures at her feet, faces indistinct, occluded shine, two pieces of sea-glass, long acquainted with a watery alteration.

This Touchstone: —(weak attempt at humor) the one on the left is the time-traveler—

My Marine Counterpoint: —(seriously, for once) the one on the left is always the time-traveler(sets the vexed image aflame)—

At this, harsh note of parrot sounds, rising, rising with unsentimental singer, haze of hyaline green on the wing—dissatisfied, suddenly with mere shoulder of Reason? Swift spangle of mint—follow with the eye, which has to travel, too—downdiving to the harbor, intermittent midst green and violet, arc like an arrow’s, barely mirrored in opaque ocean—as-is-and-might-be—crest to crest and trough to trough, froth to leaplight froth.

  1. Rob Nixon’s phrase. 

  2. 246, Diversion Books Digital Edition. 

  3. The Mushroom at the End of the World, 1. 

  4. Staying with the Trouble, 138. 

  5. A.O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, 271–272. 

  6. Andrew Marvell, “The Garden,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44682/the-garden-56d223dec2ced 

  7. Stephen Crane, “In the Desert,” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46457/in-the-desert-56d2265793693 

  8. The Book of Beasts, 250–251. 

  9. Derek Hirst and Steven N. Zwicker, “Appendix: Chronology and the Lyric Career of Andrew Marvell” in Andrew Marvell: Orphan of the Hurricane, pp. 164–177. 

  10. Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Chapter XXIV, “That All Animals of the Land are in their kind in the Sea” https://penelope.uchicago.edu/pseudodoxia/pseudo324.html 

  11. Lives of the English Poets: Cowley – Dryden (ed. Harold Spencer Scott), 20. 

  12. “The Effects of Analogy” in The Necessary Angel, 109. 

  13. “The Mower against Gardens” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48333/the-mower-against-gardens

  14. Nersessian, “Two Gardens: An Experiment in Calamity Form,” Modern Language Quarterly 74:3 (September 2013), 309–310. 

  15. Danuta Mirka, “Music and Affects” in The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory, 10. 

  16. As You Like It, III.ii http://shakespeare.mit.edu/asyoulikeit/

  17. “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns,” The Complete Poems, 89–91. 

  18. “Sea Unicorns and Land Unicorns,” The Complete Poems, 89–91 and Becoming Marianne Moore: The Early Poems, 1907-1924, 133–135. 

  19. “The Camperdown Elm,” The Complete Poems, 243. 

  20. Philosophical Investigations, §215. 

  21. “Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys,” Guillaume Dufay in, David Fallows, The Songs of Guillaume Dufay, 104. 

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles