Friday, October 16, 2009

David Ignatow, the World, and the Last 15 Days


FB Tony Perkins introduced me recently to the following poem:
I wished for death often
but now that I am at its door
I have changed my mind about the world.
It should go on; it is beautiful,
even as a dream, filled with water and seed,
plants and animals, others like myself,
ships and buildings and messages
filling the air—a beauty,
if ever I have seen one.
In the next world, should I remember
this one, I will praise it
above everything.

David Ignatow, Whisper to the Earth: New Poems
It's an imperfect fit with my own work, but it's damned close, and at the very least, it resonates.
More than a year ago, I started thinking about the medieval eschatological tradition of the Fifteen Signs of the Last Days (for one example, see Aquinas). I turned my blog posts into a conference paper, and then into a short treatment for the inaugeral issue of postmedieval. In its current form, the paper ends by hearing the voices of animals in the last days as a rebuke to the human hope to abandon the world, its flux, and death:

Finally, [animal] voices, this rebuke, are defiantly not the voices of creatures mourning with humans. Ezekiel 38:19-20, although an influence on the Fifteen Signs tradition, differs from the tradition's eschatology in one key respect: by prophesying “in that day there shall be a great commotion upon the land of Israel: so that the fishes of the sea, and the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the ground, and all men that are upon the face of the earth, shall be moved at my presence,” the passage describes a commotion God directs at all life, human and animal alike. By contrast, in the Fifteen Signs tradition, as in the main lines of the Christian eschatological tradition, humans ultimately face judgment, while animals face death, their own death and the death of the world. The animals mourn along with the stars, the sea, the rocks, all that will be destroyed, all that will not be translated into an eternity freed of the material limitations of worldly existence. In the example in the Mystère d'Adam, “E de toz les fluves parleront / E voiz d'ome parler averont” (1150; and all the rivers will speak and they will have the voices of men to speak), and in another, “Every watyr shall crye þan, / Speke and have steven of man” (182). In its systematic attention to what makes up the world, in its counting off of days and recording of the world—to its stones, rivers, waters, trees, birds, beasts, and fish, each of which cries out and trembles in the last days—the Fifteen Signs tradition recalls the world in all its plenitude at the very moment humans hope finally to realize secure identities by abandoning it, by sealing themselves off from their involvement in it, or, to put this in our language, by uploading themselves. Against this hope, the tradition witnesses that what matters in the world is not only human, and that humans should understand that for life to be life, it must be intermeshed inseparably and precariously in the world. Understood this way, the voices of the Fifteen Signs tradition impart not scorn, but regret and longing for the rich worldly life that humans, believing themselves separate and immutable, will abandon for the empyrean sterility of the resurrection fantasy.
In the next world, should I remember
this one, I will praise it
above everything.
(But let's not get carried away: please do bear in mind what Julie Orlemanski wrote here on "world" last Spring.)

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