David Mutschlecner, author of three books with Ahsahta Press, lives in Los Alamos. He is a devoted reader of poetry and philosophy and a careful viewer of art. In “Martin Heidegger / Ezra Pound,” he links an existentialist philosopher and an American poet in a meditation on being and meaning and art.
I was first drawn to this poem by the care-filled voice, the subtle musical effects, the questioning and self-questioning that move the poem forward. Among the many questions lurking in the background is Martin Heidegger’s question from “The Origin of the Work of Art”: “Is art still an essential and necessary way in which that truth happens which is decisive for our historical existence?”
The poem is beautifully made, and I could write an entire column about the musical effects, but it’s also highly-allusive and subject-driven, so probably the best thing I can do in this small space is provide some background information.
Martin Heidegger was a German existentialist philosopher whose philosophical masterwork was Being and Time. Poets, though, love Heidegger’s late work, especially Poetry, Language, and Thought. And why wouldn’t they? In that book, he places poets at the center of the human endeavor to connect meaningfully with the world.
The subtitle is a quote from Heidegger taken from a much-annotated and discussed passage in Being and Time, the meaning of which probably involves the complexities of defining the abstract term Being in relation to the individual beings in the world. Or simply to complicate the notion of Being and beings, to suggest that we don’t know how we are in the world, that it is a point of discussion, this being-in-the-world, that there is a deep unresolvable puzzle, an enigma. (Enigma’s roots in the word for “fable” suggest that an enigma cannot be spoken about in the direct, propositional language of science and reason.)
The poem begins with the poet apparently looking out his window at a parking lot, casually observing at first, until the scene begins to take on a metaphorical charge. Time passes quickly in this poem—one month between stanza one and stanza two, when Heidegger arrives. By stanza three, Heidegger’s question—“what is the Being of [human] beings?—has been “taken down” like the lupins in stanza one. His question “jetties,” metaphorically, from its beginnings in continental philosophy. The visual metaphor established in the opening stanza undergoes its first of several transformations. But how have Heidegger’s questions about Being been cut off? By what the psychologist Jerome Bruner called “the age of epistemology,” this postmodern age that does not interrogate Being but instead interrogates the questions we ask, where knowledge comes from, and how knowledge is authorized. All questions that arise in the wake of Existentialism and of Heidegger himself, who hoped to end metaphysics and ground life in the physical world.
The “isolation” of the lupin is mirrored twice more in the poem, in the isolated Heidegger, whose question has been sidestepped for a century and in the isolated rock singer, who walks out on his own jetty. The singer seems to enact, in his public isolation, the existential dilemma. On own hand we find ourselves “thrown” into the world, already in a context in which we must try to construct a self and an ethics. On the other hand, we must become “authentic” in private, since, for Heidegger (in an ultimately ironic prouncement vis a vis Heidegger's own complicity with the Nazis), to accept the mass's values--to fall into what Heidegger calls the "they"-- is to fail to be authentic.
Dasein is Heidegger’s term, more or less, for “the Being of human beings” or, according to other accounts, “the being for whom Being is a question.” The one who has an enigmatic relation with Being (that which is) itself. The singer from a “heavy band” is a “self-/searcher,” Muchslecner writes, using the line break to intimate an entire philosophy: Is he a self? A self who searches? A searcher of himself? Or all of the above?
Here we have the “front man,” “dasein,” “the being for whom Being is a question,” “thrown” into the audience, but his true audience, his true hearer, is himself. “He is wireless, // without connection."
In stanza ten, Muchslecner takes an ironic turn. “We have done our best,” he writes, to “sever being from meaning.” What would it mean to sever being from meaning? This statement of the problem suggests that meaning is outside us, either in a deity or in the world. The poet’s job, according to Heidegger, is to use language to call things into revealingness, into a relationship with human beings, to enact “the undistorted / presencing of the thing.”
But this stage’s “meaning is exhausted in constructed charisma.” Charisma, originally related to grace, a gift of power or talent, lately come to mean “a compelling attractiveness.” “Constructed” charisma, then, so not divinely gifted. A modern charisma.
Once again the image of the jetty returns, this time as something going past the voice into the audience. “Stillness reclaims us,” he writes, “even while the solo sears us.” By stanza sixteen, though, something has survived despite or because of the searing. Mutschlecner plays on the word “mass,” the “mass of sound,” and the word “missa,” meaning “mass” or “liturgy.” Could there be a “mass” here, a sacredness? It seems so. Heidegger’s theories turn around a sense of implicit sacredness, and a calling into the open, into presence, of the sacred world—this world—through language. The way a flower opens (the way a flower’s name opens, also), revealing itself, Mutschlecner writes, is alethia.
The flower that opens into unconcealedness leads us by association to the second figure behind the poem, the poet Ezra Pound, who wrote “In a Station of the Metro,” a two line poem based on his study of Asian poetry: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” “The surge of the irrational” leads us to Ezra Pound’s poem, which leads us to the faces in the Metro, which lead us to the “faces in [the] crowd” at the concert. (Interestingly, both Pound and Heidegger (in his late works) were influenced by what they knew of Asian poetry and philosophy.)
By stanza nineteen, it’s dark. Presumably the speaker is returning from the concert. Mutschlecner asks us to imagine a “beginningless beginning.” Heidegger himself was fascinated by origins, whether “art can be an origin” or only “a cultural phenomenon that has become routine.” (As in “the metal posture” that becomes “reflex.”) This is where Heidegger joins hands with Pound’s “make it new.” The poem ends with “a far nub of thought / where late headlights turn over lupin.” The poem suggests that art can be “a nub of thought,” an origin. A “nub”—both a small protruberance suggesting growth and the crux of the matter.
[NOTE: In Michael North’s Novelty: A History of the New, there’s a fascinating account of Pound’s phrase “make it new,” the phrase that is often seen as the slogan that instigated Modernism’s pursuit of novelty. In the account, North traces the phrase to Pound’s willful mistranslation of an inscription on a Shang Dynasty washbasin that dates from 1766-1753 BC!]
(NOTE: Heidegger’s complicity with the Nazis has made an asterisk necessary every time one discusses him, but his failures as a human being should not cancel his fascinating writings on language--though I suppose his writings on responsibility and ethics are fair game. Ditto Ezra Pound, whose broadcast rantings on economic policy on behalf of the Italian fascists landed him, ultimately, in a mental hospital. His work, especially his prose, is often marred by his mad, wrongheaded brilliance.)
[NOTE: I use the word “crux” deliberately here to hint at a mysterious sacredness, one which also haunts Poetry, Language, and Thought:
Crux, n. 1814, "cross," from Latin crux "cross." Figurative use for "a central difficulty," is older, from 1718; perhaps from Latin crux interpretum "a point in a text that is impossible to interpret," in which the literal sense is something like "crossroads of interpreters." Extended sense of "central point" is from 1888.]
The poem can be found at The Santa Fe Reporter's website: The Yawp Barbaric
The poem can be found at The Santa Fe Reporter's website: The Yawp Barbaric
David Muschlecner will give a rare reading at Collected Works on Sunday, March 30, at 4 pm in the Muse Times Two series.