Friday, December 12, 2008


I swear, the last (and first) time I was at Mt. Rainer, the park signs had hieroglyphics for "saxifrage." I called the park ranger to confirm this memory, but all I got were dead answering machines (of course they are not at their phones, they are in the wild!) I usually take pictures of these things, so I feel addled having no evidence to back me up, but I'm not going to drive all the way back to the great mountain on the near horizon just for this one post. Believe me when I say that saxifrage is plentiful enough that even if a hieroglyphic for this flower were not to be found, it should be there in some imagined guide. Because the word has a hieroglyphic nature that Williams would have appreciated. From the Latin, "saxi" and "frage" combines two favorite Williams concepts: fragmentation and rock. That no flower appears in the etymology is perhaps also what drew Williams to it as he inspiration for "no ideas but in things." For the flower emerges, invisible as it were to the object pieces of language, but indebted to them nevertheless, in the same way that meaning breaks between elements of montage rather than in separate film cells. Both breaking (of the rock) and building (of the flower) are combined here in a single, slow geologic complex. Here is Williams' poem about saxifrage, the original locus for Paterson's "no ideas but in things." It is a deceptively simple poem, somewhat pastoral, but so much about writing itself that one is unsure where the metaphors stop and where things begin.

A Sort of a Song

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
-- through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

When Williams says "let the snake wait under/his weed" it seems like he's saying: give that to the snake, it don't interest me none. Does that carry over to writing with words? Is Williams NOT writing with words (my interpretation above that the poetry happens BETWEEN the words might carry this out)? In this case, a metaphor that reconciles people to the stones would be the problem with metaphor. However, the "let" could also be a kind of laissez-faire attitude, a benediction even. This is what snake does. Amen. This is what words do. Amen. Yet, is this the natural order of things? "Let" could also announce the trope of hysteron proteron (since the snake is waiting and the words are striking: a distinct reversal). If all these are true, he's caught in a kind of disabling polysemy. So he returns to simple commands (to himself or to the reader). Compose. (but then he takes it a step further, and hits upon the mot juste.) Invent! He is not reconciled to writing and metaphor, but is split from it (even as it does the splitting, but in splitting it himself he (sort of) makes a song of it, or at least emerges as a kind of unified being, one, not two (although there is a two within the one.)

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