An interview with Andrew Zawacki by Brian Teare (page 3)
BT: By Reason of Breakings begins with an epigraph from Augustine’s Confessions—“yet not so broken and cut off from”—and its first poem is a version of “Vespers”; later in the book, the poem “Lessons in Chiaroscuro” posits the idea that “posture, resisting speed, / might pose as prayer.” On the one hand, much of Breakings seems engaged with phenomenological alienation, an estrangement from places “where we / because we lived there, were never at home,” as you write in “Wherefrom the Shadows that Are Forms.” On the other, the poem “Isotopes” proclaims, “Let us concern ourselves,” and the book’s final section offers a selection “From the Book of Divine Consolation” as well as a series of “Ascension Provisos.” Could you speak to this paradoxical tension in the book between the assumption of a theological posture and a time when “a god, / having been there before, / is already too late”?
AZ: Actually, the book ends with that epigraph, in a way, since it was appended rather late in the game, as a sort of sayonara to many of the spiritual forms that had inflected the poems as they were under construction. As you note, estrangement has been fundamental to my experience of what poetry is, what it’s for—and what anxiety simply cannot allay, because it invites, the moment it’s underway, its own ellipsis or open parenthesis—, and Augustine had been a major informant along the way. But almost against him: Augustine for me was less the teleological theologian of “…until they rest in You,” although I’d loved to have believed that impending consolation, than an exilic elegist who begins a famous sentence, “Our hearts will not rest…,” and does not, for me, ever close it. By the time I’d reached the end of writing Breakings, it was only his sense of the interminable, the incessant trying and failing and hoping, that still lingered with me as relevant and worth keeping. That aligned him, in my mind, to the various efforts of Beckett, Celan, Stein, Cage, and Blanchot especially—the anatomist of “writing” as “dying,” as opposed to “death”—to think the aporia of an infinity felt as both terrifying freedom and unsustainable claustrophobia.
I’d long been interested in apophatic, or negative, theology, and only partly because its paradigms for eviscerating the self run parallel—albeit within a very different horizon—to post-structuralist and psychoanalytical engagements with de-centered subjectivity. What began for me as an attempt to think ridding the self of the self, through the lens of classical theologians such as Dionysius the Aereopagite, St. John of the Cross, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, morphed into a re-contextualization of these strategies—again, in a separate domain, untainted by theological assumptions or aspirations—in the work of philosophers like Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. What I needed from that pair was their pursuit of such questions as “singular-plurality” and “community,” or the self’s status as always already involved in an ontological milieu (the Heideggerian Mitsein) that renders the subject not original, intact, and active, but rather responsive, legion, passive, where “mimesis” becomes the subject’s constitutive involvement in an unending series of reifications that cannot, of course, be anything but the phenomenological work of others. The negative theologies that do away with the ego, however, as the only legitimate posture of prayer (and here we could include Simone Weil’s “decreation,” as well as Dickinson’s quasi-ironic description of herself as “Nobody” and Celan’s “no one”), are also committed to tearing apart all logical constraints on the deity, but without letting God plunge into sheer vagueness. So Meister Ekhart, for example, paradoxically asks God to rid him of God.
Similar structures, as we know, arise in deconstruction, in its attacks on unity, logos, light, the Book, and that apocryphal center the spoken word pretends to be borne by and return to. Barthes’ essay on Loyola, which I read as an undergrad for a thesis on mysticism and contemporary American poetry, was one of the earliest moments I began trying to get my head around the idea (not foreign to Heraclitus, whom I didn’t read until later: the oracle does not explain, but only offers a sign) that God’s non-response, his silence, is itself responsive—that the absence of a sign, in short, is the sign. I’m now better equipped to understand this dynamic, under the heading of le rapport sans rapport, or “relation without relation,” as Lévinas builds it in Totality and Infinity and, more relevant to my recent academic research, as Blanchot recodes it, for aesthetics and communication, throughout his work. If for Lévinas the other is “exorbitant”— tout autre est tout autre, or every other is wholly other, always temporally and spatially “before” me—it’s because he has transferred the privilege held by God onto the neighbor, has reset theology in ethical terms. Blanchot, in turn, while concerned with the other human being and with socio-political arrangements, relays the assignation of “exorbitance” to the work of art. The relation without relation might be the best phrase for what you call in your question the “tension” of some of my poems: to be held in relation to what does not, reciprocally, hold itself in relation to me. That is the condition of prayer, certainly, but for my purposes it is also the posture of all “writing.”
The works that have had the most profound effect on me, in this arena, are those of Heidegger, particularly his many commentaries on Hölderlin, and especially those of Blanchot, as a reader of Heidegger’s readings. What Blanchot refers to as the “sacred” begins in Heidegger’s account of the default of the gods—not Nietzsche’s celebrated death of God, but closer to Wallace Stevens’s argument, in The Necessary Angel, that the gods vanished, simply came to nothing—and takes it a further, more radical step. The sacred, chez Blanchot, is the invigilation of a space between the gods, who have turned away from humankind, and human beings, who have in turn turned from the gods: this distance has to remain open, rather than converging on a communion, in order that it can be continually traversed. While this reciprocity of absconding and of absence may, or may not, be legitimate as a way of thinking God, it is certainly a powerful mode for conceptualizing poetic communication: the preservation of an essential lack, the guarding of a secret that refuses to surface, the desire to convert an “oeuvre” into a “book,” the soldering of oneself to an impossibility while being broken by it. The tension you ask me about is akin to that: the god is gone, already too late, but the poet’s very attendance upon that disappearance is structurally similar to a pious mode. Again, “god” would be a figure here for the work, the poem, and the writer seeks to realize that work only to watch it escape the moment she, well, watches it. The work resists the writer’s impatient desire to just have done with, to hand it in, to “see” it, to confine it to this script as opposed to the infinite, other possible utterances inherent to it. We’re far from theology, perhaps, but not from the murmur that language “is,” without cessation or the signature of “someone.”