I live in poetry and this is some of my world. I’ve been repeatedly asking the question how is one contemporary with one’s time? And what does it mean to look unto the darkness of one’s time? Here are some of the results from a range of poets, artists, thinkers, as well as radical projects of innovation and archive. In the book Nudities, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests that the poet—the contemporary—must firmly hold his/ her and all attendant identities’ gaze on the time we live in so as to perceive not its light but rather its darkness. He posits that the contemporary is the person who perceives the darkness of the time as something deeply compelling, as “something that never ceases to engage.” And darkness turns directly towards all of us when we are receptive to its wisdom. He goes on to discourse, and I paraphrase, on how within the study of the neurophysiology of vision, the absence of light actually activates a series of peripheral cells in the retina called “off cells.” And when activated, these cells produce the particular kind of vision we call “darkness.” Thus, darkness is not a deprivation, a notion of absence or void, but rather the result of the off cells and a product of our own retina. Also in an expanding universe, as we know, remote galaxies move away from us at a speed so great that their light never reaches us. Thus what we intuit as the darkness of the heavens is this light that, though traveling toward us, cannot reach us, since the galaxies from which the light originates move away from us at a velocity greater than the speed of light. To gaze into this darkness of the present—this light that tries to reach us but cannot—this is what it means to be contemporary. Agamben says it is like an appointment that one cannot but miss. So that leaves us in a puzzling struggle to grasp our time with a form of “too early” or “too soon” that is also “too late,” and of an “already” that is also a “not yet.” I think poetry has to move and engage with some of this liminal and linguistic behavior, into an aporia, into the both both “negative capability,” an interstice of imagination. I would like to think this ability to be a seer of our own time helps us from becoming paralyzed: ethically, spiritually, artistically, politically. And one can cultivate one’s awareness and joy, and humor too, and sense of mystery in the face of a world wracked with suffering. An image from my own experience is that of a Balinese dancer poised under the Chandi Bentar or “gate,” eyes bulging with fear, face masked or naked, and arms and fingers splayed and fluttering, a state of extreme fear and paranoia. The actor might hold this kinetic stance for twenty minutes before proceeding to enter public space, breaking out of paralysis. I find myself invoking this artistic gesture as I move through time and space, as poet, as human animal again and again.
We have Gertrude Stein’s continuous present. We have Ezra Pound’s “In the mind of the poet all times are contemporaneous,” Robert Duncan’s allegiance to the beauties of “endarkenment,” and we have the Chaldeans’ sense that chaos meant “without a Library.” So this is a little library, for April Poetry Month and the readers of the Rail. I can’t imagine a world without poetry, its adjacent visual worlds and its Outriders being presented in public space.