Every once and a while, I take careful notes on a poem I wrote. They are not exhaustive so much as reflective. Here are the notes I made for “The Law of Contingent Being.” The poem is given, with endnotes as commentary. (Note: the links to the endnotes don’t actually work, but they do make them easy to find and read.)
The world is consumed in invisible flame, devoured[i]
by an inward law: the indivisible eternal hour[ii]
of eternal death. Life is ruins.[iii]
Swallowed by the earth,
whose growing vines clutch and draw
the living toward its open jaws.[iv]
Can you see?[v]
The living fire that endures, the never-ending[vi]
blaze—forge-work of a decaying heart?[vii]
All the world is flame.
Persisting, consisting, in always-death;
bearing mortal sons to fuel its perseverance.[viii]
We, we sons, with our terrible desire.[ix]
The breathless need, the airless heat, learned[x]
in a subterranean hearth. The dark fire that burns[xi]
beneath the ribcage of the blood-soaked earth.
Blood in our veins, circulating the physical want—[xii]
blood animating the flesh, keeping it hot.[xiii]
We who eat to sustain the heat, who break flesh[xiv]
and bone on white teeth. Who must eat[xv]
— can we be blamed?—
who must consume with ashen faces.[xvi]
Death offered from open hands to open mouths;
death in libation to the uncompromising law.[xvii]
Dread law, appalling logic.
The marrow of the earth is death—
a pale flame. And we daily take[xviii]
the deadly turn. Participate
in the mysterious familiar rite.
We who daily die: covered in blood.[xix]
We, clothed in the flesh of the sustaining fire,[xx]
comprised of life’s unfailing promise to end,
and glittering in the soft angles of desire.[xxi]
Draw me close and see—touch and taste, beneath[xxii]
the skin, the cauterizing wound, felt in heat.
Consuming measure that shivers and seethes.[xxiii]
We do not rise (you and I).[xxiv]
We with patient gestures slowly descend,[xxv]
and caress the waking death that lives within,
the knotted fire, the ancient covenant,
sinking deeper with palatable nearness.[xxvi]
All the world is fire.[xxvii]
[i] The first line, “The world is consumed in invisible flame,” was in fact one of the most difficult to discern. It had to set the tone of the piece, and I at the time was still feeling out the proper mood. The first line endured at least half a dozen revisions – receiving motives and images I cannot now recall – before I was satisfied enough to move forward. And this was in the first draft alone, as I refused to continue the poem before it had an effective first line.
The “invisible flame” guides the poem, serving as its cohesive image. In many ways, the poem functions as an extended meditation on an unseen fire that the poet observes. Nor is the image too far from what finally drove me to write the piece (despite severe reticence), as that morning I had experienced a strange imaginary landscape of fire. I saw – and it is difficult to say how I saw, except that I suddenly imagined it – the street before me on fire. I sat in a half-trance and began to picture even the lampposts as if they were made of flames—though it was in reality raining hard. I thought I had imagined hell on earth.
In the opening line, the world is “consumed,” which is repeated in “devoured,” and this sentiment is the second of the twin images (the first being fire) that link the poem together. Consuming – the very fact that we eat – was one of the first disturbing thoughts that invaded my mind some time before the poem was written. Even at the time, months prior to writing, I understood that the insight would become something poetic.
[ii] The fire, and its consuming nature, is precisely what the life of the world consists in – it is its “inward law.” Death is that by which the world subsists, or so the poet surmises. Death is thus inescapable and constant, an “indivisible eternal hour.”
[iii] I liked the abrupt and blunt quality of the quick statement: “Life is ruins.” It is a sharp turn in imagery, too, as we move from vague talk of fire and laws to the image of a ruin. The movement is linked by the fact that a ruin is a destroyed version of a thing: fire – and death – destroys.
[iv] The poet does not stray from contemplating “the world,” here called “the earth,” and now the consuming fire – note how the concept lingers – is expanded to an almost anthropomorphic vision of the earth reaching out with vines to ruined buildings (life) and swallowing them up. This happens in real life with the decay of human structures, even the Acropolis, except the image here is not one of a slow and natural process, but of menacing inevitability. The two major tropes are thus firmly established, and will not be for a minute forgotten through the rest of the poem: FIRE and CONSUMPTION.
[v] This line began life as a plaintive introduction to the poet’s protests to the reader. There were drafted stanzas of complaint from the poet, who openly loathed and resisted the vision in discussion. This original intent was as much my own shyness and shame for the dark topic – openly admitting my horror as if that would wash my hands of it – as it was a poor poetic device. Now transformed, the line functions as a precursor to the shift in address later in the poem, where the poet begins to request the reader’s interaction.
[vi] Eternity appears again, and it is clear that the poet does not foresee an ending to life’s continual death. Not, at least, in terms of the world’s “inward law,” which remains the focus of the poem. Anything else is left aside, neither refuted nor spoken.
[vii] “Forge-work” and “heart” are perhaps the key phrases in this line, since the images link the formative power of life’s living-by-death (that is, it is death that makes it live and in which it lives) and such a power’s absolutely central quality (death is at the heart of all life). This presages the next line, which describes how the world is “persisting…in always-death.”
“Heart” also points forward to further anthropomorphized language about the world in the next stanza, as well as the shift to considerations of the human body and human existence in particular.
[viii] The earth, of course, gives life and the poet is not blind to this reality. Here it is described in such a way that the earth gives birth to (“bears”) sons simply to sustain itself through their death – since they are “mortal sons” who are “fuel.” Original versions of these lines were much less subtle, and for that reason less effective.
[ix] The emerging conversation with the reader is further pressed, as if it were a play building to an explicit soliloquy with the audience, with the use of “we.” The reader may not notice at all, taking the “we” as a typical general statement, a tad more lifeless but no less ordinary than the poetic “I.”
Fire and consumption are further nuanced in this stanza with the concept of desire. This is not a unique connection, though the poet clearly has something a little more unusual in mind when discussing desire. Certainly nothing like pretty musings about hearts that burn with love.
I kept “sons” – as in the final line of the previous stanza – instead of more neutered language, since the phrase hinted at the primordial relationship between a mother and her son (here, earth and humanity). This seemed to me to be most chilling. I also have an abiding softness for older English phrases such as “man” or “men,” when substituted for “humanity” or “human nature,” as this in my mind serves as a latent Adamic reference. This I preferred as much personally as for the sake of the poem, which asks after the nature of human life – clearly mortal, returning to the earth whence Adam came, after Adam’s fall. The earth from which we were formed consumes us.
[x] Desire, the newly introduced theme, is described in terms of fire – which saps all the oxygen from the air, leaving us breathless like desire does.
[xi] We learn our desire from the earth, imitating that desire identically, and this is more subtly stated than in the original draft, which insisted on an all too obvious: “All the world is flame./ And we are just the same.” The images as they now stand, referencing the underground hearth, recollect the previous stanza’s description of the earth’s forge-heart. A forge of course forms things (as does a home and hearth!), just as we are formed with the earth’s desire (that is, all contingent nature bears these qualities, in which we are “educated”). The forge-heart, in the next line, is described as existing beneath the earth’s “ribcage,” an image that serves to shift the focus directly to human beings and what they bear in their own ribcages.
[xii] Blood—pumped by the heart in the ribcage, “circulating”—now links ideas together as the poem descends to more and more explicit bodily language. The poet observes the way blood sustains us, as it sustains the earth, and the way it fuels our hunger as much as it keeps us alive.
Instead of the word “want,” a happy discovery of a simple and true vocabulary, I had in an early edit inserted the word besoin. Pronounced: bezwah. It means “need.” I loved the obscurity of the word, and favored its breathless pronunciation. I thought the sound imitated the stanza’s previous lines about “the breathless need, the airless heat.” Though “want” does not quite have the same hissing pronunciation, it does still form a half-rhyme with “hot,” and this – coupled with its clarity – is sufficient for me. Also less irritatingly pretentious.
[xiii] Blood keeps us warm, heated as if by fire, just as we are animated by want and desire. I was, for my part, fascinated by the possibility of returning to the “invisible fire” in as many ways as I could imagine. Here it appears in the form of the very warmth of our bodies, all its average 98 degrees.
[xiv] Consuming now takes center stage, and the hunger alluded to previously in the poem becomes blisteringly explicit. The fact that human beings eat – that this is a strange prospect, and indeed in its way highly disturbing – is the originating insight of the poem (its cause before it was written). It serves here as the great chain linking a slow and massive shift in the poem as a whole. Moving, that is, more and more to unite the distinct concepts of “fire/yearning,” “consuming/hunger,” and “love/desire” as a single reality. The first and the third (fire and love) are typical pairs; the second (consuming) is the monster that gives the poem its ghastly tinge, giving the other images strange and macabre colors.
“Sustain the heat” was a slightly later edition to the line, one I remember well for the force with which it cleaved itself to the previous stanza and resurrected the idea of fire.
[xv] I use this line only to indicate that there are several internal rhymes throughout the whole poem, rhymes within lines and rhymes between lines that extend beyond the very last word of a line. This is something of a new development, a better awareness on my part.
[xvi] Of course we must eat, or we would die. Never mind that eating always kills something else, animal or not. Eating animal flesh is obviously referenced, as that is the more explicit example of the necessary death involved in keeping ourselves alive. The line in fact turns its gaze to all forms of eating, meat or otherwise. The “law” is involved either way. As far as the poet is concerned, we are vaguely aware of the law of destruction involved in our eating – or, if not that, we nevertheless imbibe death and thus are touched by it – since we eat with “ashen faces.” This is both a manner of describing paleness (as if we were made sick, or even made dead) and again a reference to fire.
[xvii] So now the poet makes no game about the fact that we consume the dead to live, and casts it in language of an ancient sacrifice – food/death “offered” in “libation.” This refers us explicitly to the uncompromising “law” of our existence, to which we must hold or else die, but also in its way references the moment I experienced my original horror at eating. I was at Mass, and became suddenly terrified as we walked to the Eucharist and sang of a feast (for God himself has involved himself in this law of consuming death). But these religious insights never come to clear light, and deliberately so, as they function on a horizon that the poet is at least for the moment blind to considering. The question here is what sort of law God has deigned to partake in, not what emerges once God does partake (and we with him). That would be a completely different poem.
With the end of this fourth stanza, we have the effective end of anything resembling the original draft. (The first two received cosmetic changes; the second two more concerted revisions.) Everything else from the original was eliminated and completely reworked.
[xviii] The stanza here bends itself in consideration of the “dread logic” or “pale flame” to which we make constant offerings. Indeed, these are daily offerings, as we daily die. The “daily” phrase cannot but be an opaque reference to the “daily bread” of the Our Father and the Eucharist, again almost buried beyond recognition.
[xix] “Covered in blood” was originally être en sa, a French phrase that means the same thing. It was a complete pretension, and works much better in English. Not only because it refers again to previous images of blood, but also because “covered” links with the “clothed” of the next stanza – a link planned with the French version, but much more obvious in English.
The phrase itself, “covered in blood,” references both the fact that we are literally sustained by blood, and that we live a “bloody” existence – one whereby we subsist through multiple deaths at once. Of course, its context (“the familiar rite”) lends it a hidden liturgical emphasis, as when the Israelites were sprinkled with blood in Exodus 24 or when Christians are “washed in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:15).
[xx] This line in many ways recapitulates the sentiments in the third stanza (desire, the airless heat, fueled by blood, keeping us warm and enflamed). In other words, it repeats the third stanza in the space of one line.
[xxi] The third stanza, re-treated, receives conceptual expansion. It is moved forward from the oft-repeated meditations on life’s end (death) to a much more concerted treatment of desire, this time erotic desire (with its “glittering angles” that only hide death). This desire is the “other” hunger.
[xxii] “We,” the poet had repeated at the opening of the stanza. “We” – remember that this was the foreshadowing of a conversation. Now this “we” becomes a discussion between a pair, though only one of the two speaks, and it is implied that the two are lovers. The strange and disturbing turn of the address is that it is between the poet and the reader. The reader is perhaps caught a bit unaware, and wrenched to a new responsiveness: Ah – you are talking to me?
“Draw me close,” the poet asks, almost as if requesting comfort for everything observed, though in fact the physical nearness only makes the problem of death and hunger more dissatisfying and haunting. The hunger is never far, and after discussions of eating flesh and of mysterious rites in previous stanzas, the reader is now asked to “touch and taste” the hunger that lives in the poet’s own body (and therefore awakens, too, in the reader’s). The poet, speaking in erotic terms, asks to be consumed by the reader – for love also consumes.
The choice to shift the narrative into this personal address – and it not really the same as me personally asking the reader to draw near to me, so much as it functions in that strange, distinct “I” of the poet – was hard-fought before employed. Original stanzas, no longer in the poem at all, addressed lovers from the place of bitter indictment. “You, you lovers,” the poet spat, derisively pointing out how they consumed one another with a kiss. This original version was, at best, ham-fisted. It lacked every sort of subtlety, and no loyalty whatsoever to previous images in the poem. But when it came to re-introducing lovers to the poem, as I re-wrote the stanzas, I found myself standing at an open chasm. Lovers had to be included, as the other death-hunger. But how? I did not know what to do at first, though I decided early that I could not simply address lovers as a third party, as that would remove them somewhat from my earlier meditations. Could I act as if “I” were trying to reach for my lover, finding only this consuming heat? No – that would make the narrative disjointed, and jumble the voice of the poet/speaker. Could I address my reader instead of some nameless third person, and make my poetic “I” the subject of the insight, drawing likewise out of the reader? I had not read many poems that turned their gaze toward the reader, a gaze that became something like an allusion to an erotic encounter. It felt a bit like breaking the fourth wall. Yet it seemed to me to work, to fit the voice of the other stanzas, and to introduce every element of the intimate and disturbing that I desired to describe. So I tried it.
[xxiii] I will say only that this last pair of lines, especially the final one, was difficult to conceive. I had wanted to retain the eroticism, and retain the reference to the flame (my theme), yet without falling into cliché as I had in the original version. Fire and love are deeply problematic pairs, too well-worn for effective use. This was an immensely difficult tightrope to walk, and I think it works at least marginally well now. Certainly much better than the original.
The flame “shivers and seethes” in the very skin of the poet, “felt” when drawn near, and the shivering-seething works both as a description of fire (which flickers and moves) and to the heights of bodily pleasure (with much the same characteristic shivering-in-warmth).
[xxiv] This line reinforces the real nature of the “we” in the poem, which is in its way humanity, but really only by extension of the two lovers in address (the poet and the reader). The “we” is “you and I,” which can be taken generally, though the next lines do not as much permit it because the erotic encounter continues (“patient gestures” that “caress”). I very deliberately wanted to keep my hold on my reader, and designed the poetic voice to nudge the reader into remembering that this was indeed a most intimate address – regardless of where the reader’s imagination would rather wander.
[xxv] The poem continues its very physical “descent” into death – referenced, after all, in the very first stanza, when the earth is described as swallowing the living – and explicitly refuses any rapturous rise. It takes a typical meaning of an image (fire and desire “rising”) and refutes it (you and I descend). So instead we see the way desire fills us (“waking”) with every “caress” and brings us downward. This occurs as indeed the poet and the reader are still in some kind of embrace, an embrace of “patient gestures.” And this act of being filled with desire – to the brim, with desire – is likened to death, as one falling downward into a grave, a death made more urgent and more real the more desire is felt. It is not given the soft angelic light of simpering self-sacrifice, as that already has been denied with the refusal of rapture – or rather, with rapture’s inversion into a descent. I felt adamant about refusing my reader this comfort, or the whole effort of the poem would be lost in sentimentality.
[xxvi] Fire returns explicitly now, as the “covenant” that comprises the world. The “knotted fire” is “palatable,” since hunger has not faded from the poetic succession of images. And since lovers kiss.
[xxvii] The poem ends where it began, repeating an early line (though modified). The world is composed of fire, as was said in at least a dozen ways, though this apparently identical sentiment now bears with it a whole host of new meanings now that the poem has closed. If effective, it both means the same thing – the obvious – and means everything developed through the poem, making it completely different than it was at first.