Athena Kildegaard:
“a safe, well-defined, acceptable unknown”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

In this poem, a quote from the artist René Magritte, “a safe, well-defined, acceptable unknown,” serves for a title. I don’t claim any expertise here, but my memory of an exhibit seen at MOMA in New York a few years ago, along with a little online research, suggests that Magritte himself might not have been much in favor of pursuing the kind of unknown that could be described in this way. On the other hand, perhaps that is precisely what he is doing in his work—using everyday objects to evoke an unknown otherwise too terrifying to contemplate.

The Son of Man (1964) by René Magritte (1898-1967).

A Belgian Surrealist artist, Magritte depicted ordinary objects in unusual contexts in order to challenge preconditioned perceptions of reality. One of his most well-known works is The Son of Man, a self-portrait of a man wearing an overcoat and bowler hat with his face obscured by a large green apple.

If you look closely at this painting, you’ll notice the man’s eyes peeking over the top of that apple and also that his left arm appears, oddly, to bend backwards at the elbow.

Another well-known Magritte painting, “The Treachery of Images,” depicts an ordinary smoking pipe and, painted below it, the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”). When questioned about it, Magritte replied that of course it was not a pipe; just try to fill it with tobacco and see what happens. His point: the image is not to be confused with the thing itself.

Magritte’s use of ordinary objects in unfamiliar settings may have stemmed from a desire to create poetic imagery that discards tired symbolic significance, an undertaking analogous to Pound’s maxim to “make it new”—use art to charge the familiar with fresh experience and meaning. Magritte described his paintings as “visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, ‘What does that mean?’ It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.” [Source here]

Reading about Magritte makes me recall Keats’s famous description of “Negative Capability” in a letter written in 1817:

several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason… [Source here]

Negative capability describes the capacity of the greatest writers (and I’d extend this to all artists) to pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty; it prioritizes beauty over certainty. Poets and philosophers use it to describe the ability to perceive, think, and operate beyond presupposition of the limits of human rational understanding. I have used the term in a previous column, here, to describe a way of approaching nonrepresentational art, specifically what we call “difficult” or “experimental” poetry.

All of this is part and parcel of what I bring to today’s poem even before reading its first line. Such is the power of allusion to bring in a universe of associations that can add layers—depth and resonance—to a piece of writing. As in the case of all good allusions, this one invites readers who know (or are willing to research) Magritte to import information about him into their reading of the poem, but does it without excluding readers who do not have that willingness or knowledge. That is, the quote can simply be taken at face value. And, for readers who do know anything about Magritte, it deepens the reading of the poem.

Anytime I see a 14-lines I have to ask myself whether I am looking at a sonnet, but in this case, I’d say no because today’s poem does not otherwise show traditional sonnet criteria like a rhyme pattern, regular meter, or a turn at the fourth or last couplet. It consists of six sentences broken across seven couplets: the first sentence comprises lines 1-5; the second, lines 5-6; the third, lines 7-9; the fourth, lines 10-12. The fifth sentence, “We are animals,” occurs in the second half of line 12, and the last is found in lines 13-14.

An element of strangeness enters with the very first couplet:

In the arranging of morning, something
gets lost, a comb or an idea

“Arranging of morning” is clear enough on its surface—it could refer to getting organized in the morning for one’s day, for example—but it’s one of those phrases that, the more you think about, the odder it becomes. How does one actually “arrange a morning”? It’s arguable that only God can do that, at least in the sense of “arrange for” the existence of morning. And really, how can we “arrange” any morning in any sense of the word? Mornings, like all time, just unfold. But for now, let’s take it at face value in the first sense mentioned above. In the course of organizing our mornings, then, things get lost. The first of those things, “a comb,” is something expected in this context, but the second—“an idea”—is not expected at all. This all reminds me very much of Magritte’s approach of depicting everyday objects in surprising contexts.

Another thing that gets lost in the business and busyness of arranging one’s morning is the memory of dreams experienced the night before. In this poem, though, it is not the whole memory of those dreams that is lost but just their “particulars.” The memory of the dream having happened remains, and it remains “all day,” albeit in a new form: the physical sensation of having a tick on one’s body. The sensation is subtle but still provocative, uncomfortable, and even (in this era of heightened awareness of Lyme Disease) somewhat frightening.

That the feeling is irrational and incapable of being explained is revealed in the next couplet, which tells us “You’ve been / nowhere near high grass” or, in another ordinary phrase that suddenly evokes an aura of mystery, “a solemn wood.” No chance to have picked up an actual tick then; these are imaginary creatures, as the next line makes clear: “The ticks leap into your imagination unbidden.” Ensuing lines clue us into the nature of this fear—it is the stuff of childhood terrors, like a witch from a German fairy tale (presumably the evil queen who sells Snow White a poisoned comb in Grimm, Number 53) or “a ghost someone else has promised.”

That last term is also strange, almost uncanny. The “ghost” sounds like an apparition from a horror story, something intended to frighten us. Regardless of our actual experience with ghosts (or ticks), we fear them—not just because we’ve been told they exist, but also because we’ve been assured (“promised”) that we will experience a visitation from them.

With the next line’s mention of “Neuroscientists,” the speaker seems to invoke science or medicine as a way to seek a return to rational thought, as if trying to get a grip on herself and her fears. I think it also refers to something like Keats’s “irritable reaching after fact and reason”—what we tend to do rather than just giving ourselves over to the mystery of what is not known. But this effort only makes things stranger as the scientists do not have an explanation. They “find no synapse / to explain” the phenomenon.

Neuroscientists have not been able to isolate what, in the human nervous system, creates the nervous apprehension that one has ticks on one’s body, fair enough. (There is in fact a scientific term for this phenomenon, “formication.”) But the mention of a “synapse”—something in the human nervous system that jumps a gap to make a neural connection—is more puzzling. The mystery deepens in the next lines: what cannot be explained is “this lack of fealty, this crevasse / between fear and desire.”

“Fealty” is an archaic word generally meaning loyalty or faithfulness and, more specifically, a vassal’s sworn oath of fidelity to a lord, something else we might expect to find in a German fairy tale. [Source here] Not used much in contemporary language, it grabs our attention and deepens the poem’s associations with folklore and myth. It also has the interesting quality, by its sound, of recalling us to the word “feel,” a word previously used in line four of the poem. Its subtle, sonic reiteration in “fealty” reminds us, in case we have forgotten, that the speaker in this poem “feels” as if ticks are crawling on her skin. But, on the semantic level, what “lack of fealty” is the speaker talking about here? Perhaps it is a lack of trust in the mystery, the thing that makes us fear rather than anticipate what we do not understand or know.

That is, I think, what is meant by “this crevasse / between fear and desire.” I think the phrase also refers to everything the poem has developed in previous lines. Literally speaking, we both want to find—and fear finding—that tick. Less literally, “this crevasse” refers to the nagging feeling that something is missing, is nibbling at the edges of our consciousness: the memory of a mostly-forgotten dream, perhaps, or of an idea that occurred to us and is now elusive, maybe the proverbial Answer To Everything. And, once again, there is a gap between our fear and our desire to find out.

You know that feeling, right? I’m thinking now of a story by James Salter, “Akhnilo,” in which the protagonist (Eddie) is haunted by the memory of four words he thinks he heard after being woken from sleep. The words acquire a supernatural urgency—”They had no meaning, no antecedents, but they were unmistakably a language, the first ever heard from an order vaster and more dense than our own”—but Eddie is only able to recall a few letters from each of them, coalescing in the nonsense word that is the story’s title. Failure to remember those words drives Eddie into a breakdown. Like today’s poem, the story introduces readers to, but does not solve, the mystery.

The speaker follows her description of the gap between fear and desire with this sentence, the shortest in the poem: “We are animals.” Animals are thought of as being animate and sensate but not cognitive, so perhaps the speaker is saying here that we experience something that is actually spiritual or larger than ourselves only so far as our limited physical senses can perceive it. We experience it as something like the sensation of ticks crawling on our skin—for which we both want and dread confirmation. As if to drive the point home, the poem concludes with an image of us—“you (I, we)”—searching under our clothes for what we think are ticks but that the speaker, more omniscient than us, understands to be “evidence of dreams.”

Management of point of view in this poem is crucial. It begins in the second person (“your dream,” “You’ve been,” “your imagination”), that slippery perspective that can refer either to someone else, or as is increasingly the case in contemporary writing, can designate the speaker herself. Some call this the “first-person you” or the “second-person I,” but we all do this in ordinary conversation—refer to ourselves as a “you.” It’s a powerful strategy in poetry, a way to bring the reader into the purview of the poem. We are permitted, at first, to assume the poem is about someone else, but the ending makes clear in that reference to “you (I, we)” that we are all in fact its subject.

In the poem’s last lines, “evidence” is a crucial word. Seeking “a safe, well-defined, acceptable unknown,” perhaps, we look for scientific validation of the mystery, a concept fundamentally not susceptible to this kind of metric. Something like what makes us write and read stories about witches and ghosts, and poems like this—something that terrifies and fascinates us in equal measure.

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