I’ve been thinking more about inhuman mentors (I’m kind of growing sick of the phrase, but I’ll keep using it for now, because admittedly I like its (for me, felt) weight and connotations) within the context of the work of two poets: Mark Strand, who passed away this year in late November, and who was the author of a profound and disarming and elegant body of work, and William Bronk, also deceased, a critically neglected poet (for interesting and in some ways understandable reasons, as Bronk is in some ways the deepest of skeptics, and this is hard sometimes to take) whose poems are also often profound and disarming and elegant. What do I mean by inhuman mentors? Why am I choosing these two poets to illustrate the meaning(s) and implications of the made-up phrase?
I’m still formulating what I mean by the phrase, but for now I mean ways in which the inhuman – taken here to mean less cruelty, and more the literally not human – mentors us, by which I mean that we learn not only from our interpersonal relationships, but also (I am attempting to argue) from various inhuman dimensions, things, qualities, phenomena. Like what, for example? Oh, think about how we learn something, even if its nonverbal, from time, or from the natural world, or maybe death, or certain objects, like books. These things might be inflected with the human – for example, the natural world formed into landscapes, or our phenomenological experience of time, or the way in which death is (duh) a human experience, or the obvious fact that books are written and produced by human beings…and yet they retain a quality of the inhuman, something that is strange, uncanny, unknowable, not human, something that seems to be prior to the human (the natural world, or time, or death) or that is built, like books, out of materials that are not human (say: trees). What do we learn from time? Anything? What do we learn from the natural world? From the looming fact of our own and loved one’s deaths?
I am aware that these are absurdly large questions. And I’m concerned that using words to talk about wordless things is rather odd, counter-intuitive, and perhaps futile. But I”m interested in posing it this way because I like how the questions hint at the edge of language, the way in which what we learn during our lives is not always something easily articulable. (Then is it worth trying to say?) In other words, sometimes I think what we learn from life is a kind of worldview, but worldviews are (arguably) not things that are so easily evoked or described, and they are constantly changing. We hear about worldviews occasionally – someone has a tragic worldview, a romantic worldview, a realistic worldview, a sunny worldview – but we don’t as often talk about how these worldviews are shaped, especially by things like the natural world or time, nor about how they change, and why.
Now I can imagine someone saying that this is a load of horseshit. We don’t learn from the inhuman! We learn from the social. We learn from culture, language, period. Learning itself is verbal through and through. To this imaginary but probably somewhere real person, I’d say that we are ourselves constructed out of nature. Our bodies are made from nature. Of course, nature doesn’t speak, but it seems deliberately obtuse to say that we don’t take something away from nature, which produced us in the first place. What we take isn’t verbal, nor maybe conceptual, but at some strange level I do think that these inhuman things do mentor us, although it’s hard to find the right words for this mentorship. Object-oriented ontology might be one place to look, but for now I’m sticking to poetry.
That’s where Strand and Bronk come in. For poets can be thought of (this is probably going to sound like a hopelessly obtuse critic-sounding assertion) as human beings who are bewildered by the relationship between mind and world, however you want to put that relationship, as “mind and world” sounds probably too philosophical and even technical and arbitrary. People obsessed with origins, people amazed at the fact that we are here, somehow, someway, and that someday we won’t be. People captivated by this mystery, this weirdness, this fearful, hopeful situation. And Strand and Bronk, each in their own way, explore the desire for inhuman mentorship, and what that might mean. What I’m saying: inhuman mentorship is a dream, at least verbalized. But as a dream it’s a pretty potent force. Let me try to put this into words.
Here is Bronk’s “The Marches Upstate,” from his collection The World, the Worldless.
Paint-flaken, it is paint-flaken,
and the barns are tense with sagging.
The broken orchards prop themselves.
Brush-wild, it is brush-wild
and elm-tangled, and the yards
are trashed with litter of many years
as the house fronts and the business blocks
are dowdy with bare pretensions
where pity jumbles shape and show.
Road-gashed, it is road-gashed
and wire-strung. What green,
what sun, shall flesh and warm the flesh?
Loved land, unlovely, none can fit
you, for you have no shape.
Mirror in March my human face.
The poem is about borderlands – “Marches” in the title. More specifically, the borderland between the human and the inhuman – in this context, between the natural and cultural worlds. It begins with a line with seemingly no referent – “Paint-flaken, it is paint-flaken” – that is said twice, as if Bronk’s speaker is attempting to convince himself of the reality of what he is seeing and saying, as if a note of incredulity or bafflement creeps into this oddly hanging description. What is paint-flaken? We want to say the barns in the following line, but the conjunction “and” in the second line is ambiguous, as if Bronk were implying that what is paint-flaken, what is worn or worn out, is the world, by which Bronk means our conceptions of the world. And then, as if to give this formulation a convincing particularity, Bronk gives us the barns and orchards, the former “tense with sagging,” the latter having to “prop themselves.” These are images of aging, as though the barns and orchards are metaphors for the aging body. Bronk cannot think outside of the human (who can?), and yet this very limitation will lead to a kind of dream for a language in which the inhuman might speak.
In the second stanza, Bronk continues with his metaphor of the world as constructed, and we hear of “Brush-wild,” a term that might mean the brush of bushes and trees but also suggests a sort of irresponsible paintbrush. We hear that the yards on these upstate borderlands are clogged with trash, and “the house fronts and the business blocks / are dowdy with bare pretensions”. What does it mean to describe house fronts and business blocks as “dowdy with bare pretensions”? It’s as though Bronk wants to simultaneously anthropomorphize these house fronts and business blocks, and at the same time call attention to the weakness of anthropomorphizing more generally, for these are places that are unfashionable, with “bare pretensions,” the bareness suggesting the fadedness of projecting onto things human meanings, pretensions suggesting the human desire to project. Although this has been written about quite extensively – I’m thinking of Guy Rotella’s Reading and Writing Nature and Bonnie Costello’s Shifting Ground – here, as in much modernist and postmodernist poetry, nature is a blank onto which the poet projects his or her desire. Bronk is projecting onto these surfaces and distances, and yet, unlike Wordsworth and like, say, Frost or Stevens or Bishop, he is aware that he is projecting, and therefore aware that his metaphors reflect just as much on what he is describing as how he is describing it. “What green, / what sun, shall flesh and warm the flesh?” Bronk asks. It’s as if Bronk doubts, to the nth degree, that any green or sun shall ever “flesh” or “warm the flesh.” In other words, here, before the final stanza, Bronk is arguing against the idea of inhuman mentors, against the idea that we can learn anything whatsoever from the natural world. I guess I have to reluctantly agree, if we are talking about verbal truth. And yet look at the final stanza. It reads:
Loved land, unlovely, none can fit
you, for you have no shape.
Mirror in March my human face.
Bronk argues against the idea of inhuman mentors. But at the same time, he cannot shake the impossible desire for it. “Mirror in March my human face” he says, as if hoping against hope that the inhuman might, just once, somehow speak to him, reflect his own face, and not the unknowability and blankness of nature. Here, while nature remains a blank, the desire for inhuman mentorship remains strong and almost desperate.
The desire for inhuman mentors is one way of thinking about language’s desire to not be itself, to be other than itself. Look at Strand’s “Winter in North Liberty”:
Snow falls, filling
The moonlit fields.
All night we hear
The wind on the drifts
And think of escaping
This room, this house,
The reaches of ourselves
That winter dulls.
Pale ferns and flowers
Form on the windows
Like grave reminders
Of a summer spent.
The walls close in.
We lie apart all night,
Thinking of where we are.
We have no place to go.
We have no place to go in large part because the inhuman doesn’t speak. This gives a new (somewhat unnerving) dimension to the truism that we are all fundamentally alone. We are alone in the sense that when we die, our deaths are absolutely particular, and even if we are surrounded by family and friends, only one of us in that moment is going somewhere much different. But we are also alone with the world. The desire for inhuman mentors is in large part the desire for communion with the impossible. Poetry that imagines that desire, then, is poetry that validates a rather disturbing and sobering truth at the heart of our lives.