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  • Misquotations from Reality
  • Ann Lauterbach (bio)

In the girdle of Aphrodite, in the crown, in the body of Helen and her phantom, beauty is superimposed over necessity, cloaking it in deceit. The necessary has a certain splendor, and behind any splendor one senses a metallic coldness, as though of a weapon poised to strike. The real split in Greek consciousness, like all other irreversible steps it took, comes when Plato for the first time affirms, ‘How very different is the nature of the necessary from the nature of the good.’ And he means an immense, an unbridgeable distance—the same distance that made atheists of ‘those who study astronomy and other sciences of the necessary, when they see that what is, is so out of necessity and not out of any plan conceived by some will to accomplish the good.’ The Beautiful, in this scenario, must either be quickly reabsorbed into the Good—as its agent, instrument, and pedagogue—or left up in the air, like a malignant spell (goeteuma) bewitching the mind only to subject it even more helplessly to the fiat of necessity.

—Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

l. The Stranger’s Hand

Once at the circus, when I was young we were strolling around in a throng of clowns and cotton candy, bright sun, I looked up to find that the hand I was holding was that of a stranger.

Just before dawn, ejected from sleep, I am unraveled into another condition.

The place between these two conditions is complex and difficult, a peculiar suspension between two exclusive frames for which there is no dialogue box. The familiar crosses into the unfamiliar and back again.

What separates works of art from the fallible empirical world is not their higher degree of perfection but their ability to actualize themselves in a brilliant and expressive appearance just like fireworks. 1

Fireworks! Temporality construed as ephemeral vision.

And so: In every work of art something appears that does not exist. 2

And so: The question of the truth of art comes into view when a non-existent is seen to rise as if it were real. In terms of its form, art promises what is not real. Objectively, it raises the claim, however obliquely this may come out, that just because something appears, it [End Page 143] must be possible to imbue it with being. The unquenchable longing excited by the beautiful is the longing for the fulfillment of a promise. 3

The promise of meaning.

One of my students writes, “We deem beautiful that which offers meaning to our meaningless lives.”

I failed to draw a map and you followed it perfectly because the word for ‘cannot’ inscribes itself here to define an atmosphere of absolute trust which both fastens and unfastens us. 4

Day unblooms into insatiable prerogatives vetoed

sustained in their august sudden ramifications as if saying so

Every frame is danger and security. Poems that interest me are poems that show me how to proceed, not where to go or what to look at. They assuage the panic of the Stranger’s Hand by awakening curiosity rather than fear. The poem attests to the mobility of the frame, not to the totality of the picture.

Thus the grip of realism has found a picture chosen to cover the space occupied by another picture establishing a flexibility so we are not immobile like a car that spends its night outside a window, but mobile like a spirit. 5

* * * but we were not, we are not shadows; as we walk, heel and sole leave our sandal-prints in the sand, though the wounded heel treads lightly and more lightly follow, the purple sandals. 6 [End Page 144]

2. The Real Thing

A poet too has constantly to ask himself: “but is what I am writing really true?”—and this does not necessarily mean: “Is this how it happens in reality?” 7

I do not remember when or why I became interested in looking at the ways in which notions of the truth and notions of the real had become blurred. Perhaps in the slogans of advertising. Perhaps it was the political discourse around the Vietnam...