Essay on Knowledge | Tiger Hunting with Robert Lowell | The Reading Series


poems by Campbell McGrath


Essay on Knowledge


Yes, the darkness is vast and it surrounds us. Our lives compose slim
chapters of clarity bookended by the void.
Islanded within ourselves we slide across the surface of the infinite like
icebergs adrift on unplumbable waters,
and even to scale our own consciousness we must hack a ladder of
footholds into a wall of shimmering blue ice
with the very words that fail us precisely when we come to speak of
what underlies that scintillant Arctic sea.
And, yes, humility is a profound and appropriate response in the face of
the unknown, the intuited, the envisioned but unseen.
We have all been moved by strange auroras in the night skies of our
grief, felt ourselves lifted upon geysers of spiritual yearning,
desires inchoate as embryonic galaxies, forces so powerful we cry out to
understand them and so to understand ourselves.
Because understanding flows from and back toward knowledge, from
deep thought, contemplative analysis,
from the thirst for comprehension by which to order our lives toward
some coherent mold, some habitable form.
Knowledge gives shape to the streaming flux of existence like a magnet
beneath a table of iron filings.
Knowledge is a beacon at the edge of the fog-bound ocean as well as the
vessels we sail in, ark and carrack and coracle
alike constructed in accordance with our needs and abilities and the
limits to the human capacity for sense-making.
The mind resembles a lighthouse, then, a hearth for thought’s flame, as
much as it does a temple to magnetism or pure fire.
The mind is a complex, many-chambered organ, stone-hungry and
ruminative, like the stomach of an elk.
Like the heart it may atrophy, like the liver it regenerates, like the skin it
serves both to shelter and imprison.
The mind resembles an amoeba shuddering with Brownian motion,
vibrating its sensory apparatus against a disinterested world,
but unlike that organism it must record its data in the brain’s
repository of scrolls and inscribed wax cylinders,
a process fraught with mystery, imprecision, difficulty and loss, because
the means of transcription is the flawed stylus of language.
Language is like the tool-kit of a gem-cutter: it offers a dazzlingly fine
but finite array of chisels and gimlets, augers and saws,
it can only enhance the diamond’s inherent flame, only edge and bevel
what is held against its blade.
Yet to spend one’s time decrying its limitations is both futile and
petulant, while choosing to use it arbitrarily,
to inscribe graffiti on the plexiglass panels of a phone booth, say, may
be funny but remains sophomoric, and ultimately meaningless.
And for a poet to forsake meaning within language is like a high tower
aerialist in the midst of a swan-dive towards that turquoise pool
deciding to crash like a kamikaze instead because the water appears
murky, inadequate and historically-determined.
Yes, the parable of the high-diver is subject to alternative
interpretations—renunciation of the familiar may be a virtue
though alteriority is not in and of itself a moral triumph—and, yes, the
metaphor of the gem-cutter is imprecise,
the world is more granite than tiger’s eye opal, we must quarry cobbles
to pave with and cornerstones to build upon—
language is not a form of knowledge (the child stung by a bee needs no
word to understand pain) but an agent of its transmission,
a specialized, species-specific mode of communication, a socially-
constructed operating system, a semiotically-interactive meta-archive.
And, yes, all archives are full of redundant volumes, so many slates
over-written to erase out-dated truths.
But knowledge, like language, is organically adaptive; it is not a field of
eroded gravestones but a sheaf of palimpsests,
not a destination but a voyage of Odyssean perils—consider the science
of Aryan supremacy, or how the conquering Mexica
commenced the Aztec hegemony by burning their codices and
fabricating a history more appropriate to their glory.
Nor are the fruits of knowledge innocent of risk, so many rueful Fausts
and Oppenheimers marinating in regret.
Knowledge is replete with shibboleths and false gods: let us
acknowledge the solipsistic lure of pure intellect,
the egotistical oyster around the pearl of the idea, the self-perpetuating
think tanks and robotics labs of ideology.
Sometimes knowledge and ignorance seem like horses galloping
cinematically across a sagebrush plateau
dragging the stagecoach of humanity ever closer to the abyss— but it is
naïve or nihilistic to declare their contest a race between equals,
and we must acknowledge the moral and ethical consequences of which
animal we choose to place our bets upon.
And if our lives, to large degree, are a calculus of such decisions, then
the mechanism of their resolution must be the abacus of knowledge.
Are we merely accountants, then, button pushers, existential
technocrats? No, for knowledge is fluid, multiform, polyvalent—
taxonomists of butterflies and molecular chemists may live without
cognizance of generative phonology—
knowledge incorporates self-limitation, it admits lacunae and accepts
error even as it seeks to extend its dominion.
Are we intellectual imperialists, therefore, who assay and conquer on its
behalf? If we carry the natives away in chains, yes,
if we set fire to their villages and privatize their resources, if hubris
overwhelms empathy and common sense.
But self-criticism is itself an essential form of knowledge: the
recognition of past mistakes and the resolution to avoid their repetition.
Let us so resolve: if there must be an earthly polity let it be the kingdom
of knowledge, the empire of empirical inquiry,
founded upon the obdurate task of understanding, built by the labor of
brows creased in earnest contemplation.
And what of the untold mysteries beyond our ken, what of the blind
enveloping void of the universe, for the darkness is vast, the darkness surrounds us?
Let us abrogate its dire prerogative. Let us diminish the compass of its
terrestrial sway. Let us turn on the lights and say good night.


Tiger Hunting with Robert Lowell

We were several hours into our journey, traveling through a mixture of teak forest and open savannah, mounted on the Maharajah’s royal elephant with its fabulously jeweled livery, and I must have dozed off for awhile, because Lowell was suddenly holding forth on poetry, which had not, so far as I was aware, been the subject of our previous conversation. “Poets are like Marxists, consuming themselves in splinter-groups and petty factions, a nest of snakes contesting the minutiae of tactics and rhetoric while the world carries on in blissful ignorance of their monumental struggles and long-awaited triumphs. Much like the princes and rajas when the British arrived in India,” he continued professorially, “worried only about seizing advantage from their rivals, until before long every one of them was under the thumb of a fat woman named Victoria back in London.” Lowell wiped his forehead and took a swig from an emerald-crusted flask I had first noticed at the Maharajah’s palace. “And now,” he continued, beginning to emit a strange, strangled wail, “I will summon our prey using the secret call of the Bengal tiger— weelawaugh, we-ee-eelawaugh, weelawaugh!

“How is it you learned to hunt tigers, Cal,” I inquired, “in New England?”

“Same way I learned to harpoon a whale,” Lowell replied. “From Uncle Winslow, more or less. But wait!” He held up his hand for quiet, listening intently, and as he did I became aware of a clamorous hubbub coming along the trail behind us, and looking back observed a party of the Maharajah’s men making haste along it, greatly agitated, indeed, shouting and gesticulating in our direction. “The tiger will come this way,” Lowell said, seemingly unaware of our pursuers, motioning generally at the expanse of shoulder-high grass we had paused amidst. “Be ready.” My chances of shooting a tiger were nil, but luckily Lowell, who described himself as a crack shot, exhibited complete confidence in his abilities. “A natural sharpshooter,” he explained. “A child prodigy. Like something out of Fenimore Cooper.”

“Are those the trackers?” I asked, pointing to the excited throng now actually running towards us in their variously colored turbans and uniforms. “Because they’re in the wrong place.”

Taking notice, at last, of the approaching mob, Lowell appeared momentarily startled, then hitched his leg over the riding platform, clambered onto the elephant’s back and slid down its massive flank to the ground, where he began to disrobe. “We did have permission,” I began, a bit hesitant to bring up the unpleasantness back at the palace, “we did have permission to take the royal elephant, didn’t we, Cal?” “More or less,” he replied, rubbing mud across his neck and chest. He dropped his trousers and slapped clay-colored swaths of dirt across his pale calves and thighs. “At this time the hunt shall continue on foot. Precisely as Uncle Winslow would have wished!” Lowell saluted me crisply, then bowed formally from the waist. “Call me Ishmael,” he whispered, disappearing into the long grass just as the Maharajah’s men arrived in the clearing, swatting at my legs with their sticks, and pulled me from my perch on the back of that splendid beast, and the serious beatings began.


The Reading Series

We had come back that year to Chicago from New York,
living on the North Side three blocks from Wrigley Field,
and I was apprenticed as an adjunct wage-slave
hither and yon at sundry colleges across Chicagoland,
while Elizabeth caught the El to the Loop each morning
to work as a graphic designer with her aunt,
pasting together advertising circulars for power tools at Sears,
and I wanted to keep involved, to mimic some fraction
of the literary doings we’d known in Manhattan,
and so called up an old friend who managed a bookstore
and offered to run a reading series for him. It was nothing
too spectacular. We’d bring in local poets of various factions,
old friends come to visit, people passing through town
whose work came highly recommended,
anyone willing to read for fifty bucks and the chance
to sell a dozen books, and who, in those days,
desired anything more? I’m no longer certain precisely
who read for us, whether Yusef Komunyakaa
drove up from Indiana or if that was later, and elsewhere,
but I remember Li-Young Lee, Luis Rodriguez,
David Wojahn and Lynda Hull, the time Dean Young
turned metalinguistic handstands in his desperation
to evoke any response at all from the six or seven
recalcitrant catatonics who had wandered in to listen
in lieu of the enthusiastic crowd I had promised
and we had some pitchers of beer afterwards at Jimmy’s
and pondered the futility and injustice of our lives.
So much has changed since then it’s hard to recover
the sense of urgency and risk that swirled about those days
like tornadoes of cigarette smoke in a South Side taproom.
Which is another 20th Century peril laid to rest:
the chance of death from tobacco at one remove.
Not that I begrudge it or would look the gift horse
of these last two glittering decades in the kisser.
Why not, as Flaubert suggests, live a more common life
and save one’s madness for the unruled page?
Not that I advocate insanity of any stripe, but it is better
to domesticate the tiger than to be devoured by it.
Yet despite their stereotype as a caste of oddballs,
troubled souls and psychic yoyos, most poets nowadays
sport designer eyewear and can maintain
polite conversation with little or no drooling.
The problem is that the exceptions are so egregiously
self-aggrandizing as to condemn the long-suffering majority
to dwell in the shadows of their gargantuan neuroses—
think toxic sycophancy overlaid with Francophilia,
germ phobia combined with predatory philandering,
rampant elitism on a bed of Earth Mother greens.
To this day the most unabashedly narcissistic person
I have ever encountered remains a turtle-necked poet
who graced our reading series with his presence that year,
a man who was to vanity as the ostrich is
to flightlessness and eggs. Indeed, the shell of his ego
was so perfectly formed it shone like a pearl, and its embryo
no doubt would be the first of its kind to fly.
He began by describing in detail his youthful training
at a Midwestern state university, listing alphabetically
his teachers and peers, names I struggled to place
but he, mistaking my confusion for admiration, said:
“Yes, it was the Golden Age of poetry in Missouri.”
Or Ohio, or Wisconsin, I forget—though he most certainly
played some vital part in those golden ages, too.
“You could say,” he said, “that in those days
I was the Great White Hope of poetry, the next big thing.”
He smiled at the memory, and we smiled too,
partly out of reflex politeness, partly from mortification,
but also because it was impossible not to admire
the radiant purity of his self-absorption,
the Shakespearean grandeur of his self-regard,
as he told his astonishing tales not in the brash tones
of a braggart or a raconteur, but raptly and sincerely,
sure of the delight his words must inevitably spread,
like a kid sharing out bubblegum the day after Halloween.
Such as this one time he was invited to read
before the Union of People’s Writers or some such
august assembly deep in the old Soviet bloc,
and the audience, no less than twenty thousand strong,
rose as one to applaud as he emerged on stage,
and he turned to his translator to ask:
“But, Sergei, who are they applauding for?”
And the answer was: “For you, my friend—for you!
You are a hero to every writer in Bulgaria!”
Or Moldova, or Turkmenistan, or wherever.
And that was it, the whole story. You kept waiting
for the other shoe to drop but it was just the one shoe,
all by its lonesome, the sound of one shoe clapping,
or simply wagging its tongue with joy for its master.
And still I could not find it in myself to look askance,
or stop myself from merrily nodding along
as he segued into the saga of his triumphant wooing
of Hollywood starlets even while struggling
to pick up a grizzled cocktail waitress at the hotel bar,
she signifying the depths of her disinterest
by yawning dramatically while spilling change from her tray
in a silver cataract across our table and onto the floor.
This all took place before the reading.
It was autumn, and raining, and our days in Chicago
were numbered, though we didn’t know it then.
Elizabeth was four-months pregnant
and we had etched constellations on the pantry ceiling
and tacked down a carpet the color of buttered popcorn
to create a sparrow-sized nursery for the baby
we could not yet imagine to be Sam.
It was always raining, in my memory, those nights
of the reading series at the bookstore in Hyde Park.
Or snowing, or pelting down sleet, or the air aswim
with fog or falling leaves or pink and white petals storming
from the branches of some late-flowering ornamental.
Between poems I could see Elizabeth nodding off—
it was hot in the room, the baby made her so tired—
and we slipped outside for a breath of air as the great man
told again the story of the marvelous reading in Russia.
Looking back through the rain-puzzled window
as he worked the crowd of a dozen damp, incurious souls
slumped in metal folding chairs, each, to his vision,
an adoring fan, I said: “Think of it this way—
with that big turnout in Stalingrad, and this bunch tonight,
he’s still averaging more than ten thousand a show.”
Elizabeth smiled, eyelashes jeweled with mist,
and placed my hand upon the globe of her stomach.
“Yes,” she said. “But we all want to be loved.”



Campbell McGrath