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  Andrew Duncan
New European Poets
ed. Wayne Miller & Kevin Prufer
Graywolf (2008), $18.00


Reviewed by Andrew Duncan


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    John Welch


The Horizon

The horizon is a protective screen around the poem. The great feature of Europe is its localism, something every poet is aware of, the product of a geography broken up by mountains and seas which imposed diversity in the era of deep distance. In the era of good communications, and commerce, commerce itself encouraged diversity. We can only understand Europe by opening ourselves to the diversity of languages - something which dwarves the capacity of our brain and enforces the surrender of reason. As we cross the gulf between the knowledge of two or three languages and the concept of the whole range, we lose the clarity which allows us to understand any verbal utterance. We reach the notion of the whole only by losing knowledge, melting into the sublime plane of disembodied light. In prehistory, there was a single language, we understand, which on entry into the European condition met broken space and was broken by it: space was the dissolving medium adequate to destroy that fore-language, as the principle of diversification brought incomprehension.

Hans-Georg Gadamer says of the Horizon:

Alle endliche Gegenwart hat ihre Schranken. Wir bestimmen den Begriff der Situation eben dadurch, dass sie einen Standort darstellt, der die Möglichkeiten des Sehens beschränkt. Zum Begriff der Situation gehört daher wesenhaft der Begriff des Horizontes. Horizont ist der Gesichtskreis, der all das umfasst and umschliesst, was von einem Punkte aus sichtbar ist. (...) Wer Horizont hat, weiss die Bedeutung aller Dinge innerhalb dieses Horizontes richtig einzuschätzen nach Nähe und Ferne, Grüsse und Kleinheit.
Beyond the horizon is the borderland.

Krzysztof Czyzewski has written in 'A Time for the Province' about the Borderland as the doctrine behind his cultural centre in Sejny, in a borderland between Polish, Lithuanian, and Belorussian ethnic areas.

"After all, what is a provincial person? A person for whom the place where he lives gives him an inferiority complex. [...] Such a person is provincial because the world he or she has crated or accepted displaces the place in which he or she actually lives. However, this very space - with its unique landscape, its tapestry of love and experiences, of pettiness and mediocrity, of mystery and radiance - affords the opportunity to become unprovincial."
"But in order to locate a province one does not have to travel to distant borderlands or shy away from the big cities. New provinces are discovered today in the Market Square in Wroclaw, in Kazimierz in Krakow, in the Praga district of Warsaw, in Zizkov in Prague, and in Uzupio in Vilnius. In all those places one can find oneself as it were at the beginning, and can begin anew to cerate a space that is waiting to be set free and formed. The experience of the Borderland has also been linked to such a space in motion." Around Seyny, "In this beautiful area, with its hamlets of Old Believers and Ukrainians resettled here [...] one can find overgrown cemeteries - Jewish, Protestant, Russian Orthodox - ruined mansions and palaces, abandoned monasteries, bridges leading nowhere, and dirt roads that end at the border."

"All the province can offer is abandoned land, devastation, the wild, an atmosphere of dusk and anticipation. One can find a province in the elements of nature as yet untouched by civilisation, or in the ruins and scraps of a civilized world - but in both cases its specificity would be its virginity, its unique sense of taking the first steps along a freshly cleared path."

(original circa 2002, translation taken from Central Europe Review on-line) I see this beckoning wilderness as not only geographical and not only in east-central Europe (the former territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania), but as the twilight land which surrounds any artist who departs from convention and ventures out into unmapped territory. Our task is not to shed light on everything, reducing it to sober fact, but to evoke the province of glimpsed possibilities in which the artist found their creation, where the landscape can only partially be known because it does not fully exist yet. The ‘haze colour’ of the horizon corresponds to ‘haze objects’ which have no abiding form and cannot be damaged or used up.

Nietzsche spoke (in Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen) of a horizon: "anything living can only become healthy, strong, and fertile within a horizon; if it be unable to draw a horizon around itself, and then again too selfish to include its own outlook within that of something alien to it, then it pines, feebly or too hastily, to an early end." The Horizon is the point up to which assumptions are stabilised. All art is surrounded by a horizon which protects it from dissolving. Perhaps it is the artist who does not understand this, who has not got hard-won expertise in manipulating the horizon, and in analysing relationships within the bounded frame with perfect clarity, whose work leaves us dissatisfied. What is beyond the horizon will get closer, even if it is far away; all forms of possession are subject to seizure by a stronger opponent. What is to be conserved, cannot be conserved. The issue has to do with what happens before the intercept, before the form bursts and returns to the void.

We are trying to build a museum of the horizon, where we can approach a Welsh poem through the medium of Welshness and a Polish poem through the medium of Polishness. This is not primarily the weather of sounds which surrounds a poem, but the even less palpable atmosphere of cultural ideas and shared meanings.

Every site on the surface of the earth is surrounded by a sublime zone where physical contact is impossible and light is giving way to abstraction. The territory of the poet is surrounded by this horizon, and the poem tends to site itself at the horizon. Locked within the limits of physical contact, the poet yearns to break out and cross the horizon.
My impression is that poets express possibilities excluded by the dominant role and power orders of the society they belong to. In a nuclear family society like England, they are besotted with community: non-nuclearity is the condition of beauty. This compares with the “leer, farblose, unaufhellbare” (empty, colourless, unilluminable) sector described by Nietzsche as the field colours (banner) (colour code) of the horizon; what is forbidden is conditioned at the same time. Looking for social structure in poetry is fraught. Following an earlier tenet of aesthetics linking the timeless with the sublime, we can guess that what is undifferentiated (also, pristine, also, socially unreal) is the domain of the poetic.

The clarification of poetry needs to avoid insertion of poems into a system of comparison which constructs vast and splendid routes through the landscape at the cost of destroying the autonomy of the individual works of art, and destroys the horizon which surrounds the work and protects its internal time.

The clarification of poetry needs to stop short at the Unaufhellbare, the zone which cannot be clarified.

Light becomes corroded as it is stained with the details of objects and distances. At the zone where it is free of information because indistinct, it retains its sublimity. Starting from any functional field of distinctions, which form the substance of language and the small change of social functioning, we can extend to a zone where oppositions are neutralised and information is lost: the indeterminate, identified as the proper zone of the poetic by formalists. Thus all the fields of the semantic, the unit structures of a system of classifying the universe, can be broken down to reach the indeterminate: the very colour of the horizon. A poem which extends accuracy and precision up to the very edge of its own field is a monstrous thing. The zones of darkness, dazzle, and dullness play an essential role in the visual field of art, where all the adequate information is in the zone of light where gradations of colour tell the whole story.

In order to recover the European poem in its integrity we need to lose all our wonderful powers of speed and omniscience, and slow down to the point where a horizon three or four miles away seems an hour distant. Only thus can we retrieve the internal time of the poem. The precondition for detecting all the relationships within a poem is that our centre is in the centre of the poem and that we can see all other poems only as dim disturbances over the horizon. We cannot perceive European poetry although we can perceive European poems. We cannot understand poetry by freezing our own reactions and reducing the body of knowledge to something existing within one single framework of straight edges because the power of the subject resides in its power to change us. We can flatten out anything by treating it in a systematic way. The object of the present work is to restore each of the books of poems to its own horizon.

We need to know what the poet knows, but also to stand where he stands and so to be unable to see what he is unable to see. The most significant step in enjoying the poem is the initial loss of knowledge. At the outset we must lack the knowledge which the poem contains, or there is no setting out. Before becoming full with the stuff which the poem brings us in such abundance, we must become empty. Yet the book we are reading, you and I, is full of knowledge. We are trying to restore the poem to its horizon. The horizon is built of information; without which there is not even indeterminacy, or broken sound, but nothing -a cognitive blank.

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© Andrew Duncan 2009