Four Fragments on Nothing

Let me take you back, briefly, to late 2010.

My 12th-grade AP English teacher, Mr. LoGiudice, is out of school for reasons I can’t remember now, but he told us the day before he’d be absent. He’s left the substitute with a prompt that we’re to spend the entire period writing about. We just finished the unit on Shakespeare, so I’m expecting something related to Bard.

The substitute grabs a piece of chalk and, with a slightly confused manner about her, writes the prompt on the board, which I quote now in full:

Nothing.

There’s some laughter around the room, with a bit of disbelief mixed in. Who can possibly take this prompt seriously? Who can write an essay, even an awful SAT-style essay, on “nothing”? So I’m not sure anyone does. Certainly I don’t.

By this point in my life I have fancied myself a poet, by which I mean I like writing ballad-esque song lyrics and have been reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Poetry. As such, I decide to write a poem on nothing, a poem that interrogates the very concept of nothing.

It is, in something approaching an irony, the longest poem I have ever written up to this point: two pages written out, split into four sections. (That’s not actually very long, but I tend to cap out around 20-30 lines.) I throw in every approach to nothing I can think of. Allusions to Seinfeld, that show about nothing. Quotes from King Lear, where we’re admonished: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” The brains of politicians, because nothing is easier than mocking politicians.

I turn it in. I feel good about it. I go on to include it in at least one of my college applications. And for the longest time, I think no more of it.

*     *     *

Now, the purpose of that prompt in the context of the class was to introduce the unit on existentialism and absurdism, on the search for meaning in a universe that has none. It was a way of transitioning us from Shakespeare to Sartre, from Edgar and Edmund to Vladimir and Estragon. We never, so far as I can recall, discussed what we wrote the day Mr. LoGiudice was absent.

Yet I feel that little poem I wrote must have had some impact on me, because “nothing” keeps popping up in my work. “Nothing” grows in the fields. Magicians hide “nothing” up their sleeves. I speak of “a thunderclap / that releases nothing.” There is “nothing” to be concerned about.

One construction, in particular, I’ve discovered I’m fond of: “nothing but.” It’s a curious phrase, highlighting the object being named by denying the reality of all other objects. It’s so brazen an approach that it always carries an air of absurdity. It also lends itself to undermining itself. One of my published poems, “Rural Sound Check,” begins like this:

Nothing but pebbles sliding
under my sneakers, nothing
but groundhogs and garter snakes
darting through leaves on the roadside…

These two phrases cannot be true simultaneously; each denies the other. The implication must be that what the speaker initially believes to be nothing is, in fact, something, many things even.

Compare that to John Brehm’s poem “Sound Check, Rural Manhattan,” which directly inspired mine. His begins not with a “Nothing but…,” but a “Just…”: “Just a jumble of songs and jackhammers and / roaring garbage trucks…” Brehm’s speaker does not necessarily deny the existence of other sounds, merely their apparent significance. It is, perhaps, a more honest and nuanced way to approach his subject than I take. After all, when you begin as nihilist, there’s only one direction to go.

*     *     *

In The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures of Mind and Landscape, David Hinton describes the poetry of Gustaf Sobin like so:

A Sobin poem opens a “talk of mysteries,” a force field of wonder and query and unknowing. It begins somewhere already in process (often marked by ellipses), as if its beginnings were lost, thereby suffusing itself in silent/unsayable origin. It is often fragmentary, or otherwise fully of empty interstice. The language is always provisional, decontextualized, conditional, incomplete, full of words like as if, might, would, could. It revels in a vocabulary of vanishing: vestige, relic, obfuscated, elision, obliterated, nothing, extinguished, dismantled, empty, dissolving, invisible, illegible, abolished, nothing. (p. 290)

I’m not sure why Hinton feels the need to list the word “nothing” twice, but it illustrates the difficulty in writing about that which is mysterious or absent: we lack a good vocabulary for it. We end up speaking in negations (nothing, invisible, illegible) or in terms of destruction (dismantledabolished), rather than the continuous, affirmative presence that we might mean.

Granted, a creative poet can find ways around this problem of language. Sobin, for example, uses the power of the line-break to separate the prefix from the base word, allowing the word and its negation to exist simultaneously. One can see this in the poem “Languedoc,” with the phrase “that thin / il- / legible tremor” (lines 19-21). The tremor’s illegibility is made its most legible trait, rather than a problem we have in perceiving it.

But more often than not, in attempting to describe that which we call nothing, we’re left with abstraction, reiteration, and frustration. We may, after a time, feel like Prufrock: “That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all.” Or, again, like Prufrock: “That is not it at all; / That is not what I meant, at all.”

*     *     *

I must confront the possibility that this post is a way of intellectualizing a personal fear of mine: have I nothing to say? Are my poems merely an excuse to string sounds and images together, with no recognizable end? Or do I have a subject, but lack the language to even think it, let alone record it?

A word I now realize is missing from Hinton’s analysis of Sobin: “doubt.” Why speak in a manner “provisional, decontextualized, conditional, incomplete,” why lead a poem with an “as if” or a “just,” why dismissively call these reflections “fragments,” why speak of “nothing” in the first place—if there is nothing to doubt?

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