The Poetry Project

On Feelings of And by Barry Schwabsky

Marjorie Welish

Feelings of And—how can one resist a book of poems entitled thus? The phrase gives rise to the consideration of lyric subjectivity, and predicts that whatever else the book expresses, or may be about, its poems gather a modest yet varied collection of the lyric condition as an open question.

The concept “And” here in this assortment of poems differs from a logical conjunction which would bring things together analytically for common cause. Rather, from poem to poem, and within each poem, are thoughts related but tenuously—discrete, detached from any necessity:

Wrong Number

Here’s what passes for poetry

in one passersby unreliable account

the sea flaps its nets

of futility.

who’s there, who’s there

images pay no rent

but the echo carries

from what distance

could a cloud of dust

look that hard

With not much by way of necessity, the movement forward across breaks here is so tenuous in association that atomization of sense prevails: a world without conclusiveness. Experience here is rendered as mental representation—piecemeal and discontinuous, quixotic in itself. In this way, gaps between verbalized thoughts are as important to capturing experience as any words might be.

So, if the nature of “And” is to bring matters into conjunction, for the poem “Wrong Number” grammatical dislocation keeps elements worlds apart, keeps apart individual features of a world in the manner of a de Chirico, yet not as sinister as is typical of the Metaphysical master painter, for “Wrong Number” is rather more neutral.

Kinds and degrees of conjunction have had their own literature. The psychologist William James bothered to calibrate these kinds and degrees, and determined that relative to “And,” the psychological weight of “With” is yet more neutral and generic. “The Thing and Its Relations,” published in 1905, is his sketch for the argument against rationalistic dialectics and for a kind of pragmatic affective gradient. James’s sliding scale of affective relations attempted to establish the subjectivity of relations as objects for consideration in themselves: “I tried my own hand sketchily resisting certain first steps of dialectics by insisting that the immediately experienced conjunctive relations are as real as anything else.”

The reflective mind, writes James, becomes aware that experience does not flow smoothly. Or, at least, its perturbations enter into the experiential flow:

Prepositions, copulas, and conjunctions—‘isn’t,’ ‘then,’ ‘before,’ ‘in,’ ‘on,’

‘beside,’ ‘between,’ ‘next,’ ‘like,’ ‘unlike,’ ‘as,’ ‘but’—flower out of

the stream of pure experience, the stream of concretes or the sensa-

tional stream, as naturally as nouns and adjectives do, and they

melt into it again as fluidly when we apply them to a new portion of the stream.

Furthermore, whatever the affective relations apparently given, experience is mutable, and constantly being readjusted, reframed even. So, in Feelings of And stanza breaks are consonant with the readjustment that goes on, which reevaluate observations. Moreover, in Schwabsky’s poems not all stanza breaks are created equal: his breaks inducing discontinuities are more like gulfs, and spacing as yet to be found measurable. But just when the reader comes to believe that the poetics of infinite deferral is the rule, something else is presented. Then, too, turning the page also does not allow for predicting the sort of poetic gesture that will come next. As we read here:

The Bourgeois Poet

Her parents had eccentric expectations. While their friends

destined their offspring for the law, finance, good marriages, they

hoped for a poet in the family. But she rebelled and became, despite

everything, a poet.

This gives new meaning to the logic of identity, wittily. Transferred to the progress of maturity as here, the child becomes his or herself by rebelling against parental expectation not by becoming other but by being the same as the identity hoped for. Elsewhere in Schwabsky’s poems such wit—some, one-liners merely, others, savvy in social relations as this is—is worthy of inscription. There is an ethics to this game of identity negatively derived though; not everything is given over to a relativist mise en abyme. Feelings of And does loiter in the possibility of poetry of a sort that differs from that of a flaneur in the New York School wherein decadence or its counterfeit is the mask of the poet flouting any and all propriety in social relations.

Feelings of And assumes that the debris of one’s mind is the very stuff of poetry. Stray thoughts and self-commentary issuing in excess of what one ought to be doing of a determinate and productive nature, are discontinuously ever-present and ever-ready to be intuited, so by no means wasted. Schwabsky, attuned to this intuitive zone, does not overstate the case for its significance, but in effect displays these intuited by-products of mental representation for possible consideration: is this a poem? If so, on what grounds?

Feelings, then, are the subjective remainders of experience as yet to be categorized, let alone anointed as literature. No larger-than-life theatrics here, nor emphasized significance; the feelings here come about through the merest indications of experience, for which the first-person singular is co-present. Attentive to properties and their relationships, but with no expectation of entailment, the poet gives assent to matters that strike him as peculiar. Here, for instance, is the close of the poem “My Bad”:


If only I glimpse it for a moment

Your secret safest in me

Figure ground down to scratches

Of those I most regret missing

At the close, Schwabsky pulls back from feelings to something material, which is symptomatic of a tendency that matters to the poetics of Feelings of And. Noteworthy and indexical of the core of feelings: that humans are irritable creatures. Their sensible awareness begins in an irritation of neurophysiological origin, whether or not this irritability conveys sensibility to self-awareness. Irritants of the merest kind, the equivalent of scuffs and scratches, are not ignored; rather, they are acknowledged as intrinsic to human expression. If polymath Henri Poincaré is known for having observed wasps react to slight changes in barometric pressure, James is notable for dilating on human irritability:

Sentiments of rationality operate not just in logic or science, but in ordinary life. When we first move into a room, for example, “we do not know what draughts may blow in upon our back, what doors may open, what forms may enter, what interesting objects may be found in cupboards and corners.” These uncertainties, minor as they may be, act as “mental irritant[s]” (WB 67–8), which disappear when we know our way around the room and come to “feel at home” there. These feelings of confident expectation, of knowing how certain things will turn out, are another form of the sentiment of rationality.

In irritability as a psychological expansion of physiological irritants, *Feelings of And* finds poetic potential.

#271 – Winter 2023