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"Behind the veil of things"

Behind the veil of things that were
Were hints that other things might be.
I looked for patterns in the blur,
Discovered possibility.  (“Behind the Veil the Dictionary” 8)


Cogswell’s poetry sought to express the ineffable presence or force that he repeatedly refers to as being beyond, beneath, or outside human comprehension. The only elements of that force that are discernable, he claims, are patterns of energy organized around animal need: sustenance, power, sex, and ideology, the primary constituents of a self-regulating planet that was termed Gaia by chemist James Lovelock in the 1970s. To the question “What choice have we whom time and space have hurled / As shifting energy throughout this ball?,” Cogswell answers, “All being’s shareable in Gaea’s world” (“Gaea’s World” 81).

Cogswell’s two-pronged reference to Gaea (spelling and inference [Gaia/Gaea]) is revealing for conflating classical and contemporary views of planet earth. The first view, from Greek mythology, holds that earth is the source of all generative energy from whose mingling dusts come mortal creatures of all types. The personification of earth as Mother Gaea stems from this still-held belief, and is observable in many early Cogswell poems that speak of earth as beneficent if unsympathetic, rather like his own mother. “After,” “Diana,” and “A Ballad of Orchard Evening” are such poems, their attentions not to be confused with the pantheism of Bliss Carman and the New England Transcendentalists, a definable stream in New Brunswick poetry, but with a Blakean tradition most notable in the early Blake of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Here is Cogswell’s “After” in its entirety:

With the sun’s kiss to warm
My body there,
And the wind’s cool charm
To finger my hair,

Still shall I lie,
And covet no lass –
Sky-loved . . . when I
Am sand and grass. (48)

The more contemporary post-Sputnik view of Gaia, also intimated in Cogswell’s “Gaea’s World,” holds that earth is a highly complex, self-regulating system (comprised of biosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere) in which the organic and inorganic are interdependent, their integration critical for planetary homeostasis. Though highly complex, the system and its biota are always in a delicate equipoise between optimal and menacing conditions, the latter resulting from the self-interest of organisms, usually human.[13] This more contemporary Gaia hypothesis has largely become the metaphor through which we understand and discuss climate change and population ecologies.

In his post-1990 work, Cogswell becomes increasingly focussed on what he terms the “poetry of energy” (“The Poetry of Energy” 74), that energy a Gaea-like force that “pulses through earth’s ceiling / And ranges under sea” (74). Because that energy “transcends both space and time” in a “universe [that] is adaptable,” all attempts to deny or subordinate it are vanity (“Between the Science-Sun” 45). “[A]ll selfhood’s a mistake,” he cautions, for “the mighty world” is much more vast “than all head and heart” and “always greater than the part” (“For Any Life to Have” 19). Our reality, as a result, is myopic because we glimpse only fragments: “we refract our world / through an invisible bowl – / gold-fish do the same” (“Reality” 9).

In these poems Cogswell is not commenting on the smallness of humans in a self-organizing realm more protobiotic than Christian, but instead expressing his belief in a unifying force that is homologous with the generative force of Gaia. That unifying force, manifest in love and creative imagination, parallels the generative energy that he sees as enlivening the planet. And though “love” and “imagination” as theme and metaphor appeared frequently in his early work, it is only in his later work that he begins to ruminate on the purposefulness of both in a system that is governed by impulse to stasis and longevity. Poems such as “Lovers Beneath the Rain” should be read in this context: “Hand in hand they go – / Gold threads tying together / Both earth and heaven” (47). Love, then, conjoins the known and the unknown as symmetrical equivalency, as does imagination: “Of all pleasures, the artist’s is most rare, . . . / It is akin to God’s as it draws from / Chaotic things to form a new creation” (“Joy” 26).

Cogswell’s quite-deliberate choice of the word “Chaotic” alludes to Hesiod’s Theogony, which describes Chaos, the first of the gods, as both followed and bettered by “Gaia of the broad breast, . . . the unshakeable foundation.” And following Gaia is Eros, who “overpowers the intelligence in the breast” (Lines 116-22). The point being made by Cogswell is that love and creation are the fullest expressions of Gaia, and the only means by which chaos is either negated or contested.

Cogswell came to this belief through the theology of George MacDonald, a Scottish fantasy writer he encountered during the war. Praised by C.S. Lewis as one of the great though unknown theologians of his time, MacDonald broke from the Calvinism of his tradition to proclaim what was considered a radical view of atonement, one that replaced the idea of a wrathful God with that of a commiserate one. Cogswell explains:

MacDonald emphasized an aspect of life – its goodness – [as being] a relationship that you had with the Universe. It was good because the Universe gave you everything that you had. You gave the Universe, in turn, everything that you had. If you appreciated that the Universe was good . . . the result would be an acquaintanceship which was more than hypocrisy or mere surface friendship but a real thing that was lasting . . . as long as you and the Universe remained constant partners. (qtd. in Forsythe, Vision 19).

In the appropriately titled In My Own Growing Cogswell develops this idea of fellowship by aligning it with Northrop Frye’s notion of art, specifically poetry, as revealing the Gaia-biota partnership. As the archetypal storehouse of pre-literate ritual and myth, poetry functions, says Frye, as the form/formula to discovering natural and organic cycles of life that are supra-linguistic. Cogswell expresses this seeming paradox in the poem “With No Fixed Truths”: “With no fixed truths dimly our brain-fires glow. . . . Hence from January to December / Our brains respond to how the seasons go” (2).

In exploring his own theory of a “fearful symmetry” between the generative (natural cycles) and the imaginative, Frye, too, looked to the early Blake, discovering in his work the archetypes or Zoas (literally “living ones” who pull the chariot of God’s spirit) that attempt to work through Chaos to awaken Albion, the human collective. For many poets after Frye, including the poet Adrienne Rich, the acknowledgement of such archetypes “can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, [and] recharge desire” (Rich xiv). In theorizing the presence of organic patterns unknown to us but manifest in imaginative creation, both Frye and Cogswell, following Blake and MacDonald, are seeking knowledge of the hidden outside the empirical (science) and the received (Gospel). Cogswell does not go as far as Frye or Yeats in entertaining the spiritual or occult dimensions of this gnosis, but locates the mystery of energy in light, tide, and gravity, the “mindless” movers of the universe. For him, “bacteria, silent worms, / Deep-rooted trees, the tides of sun and moon” move the universe (“Wasson’s Bluff” 14), each unstoppable in appetite. To live fully in that world is to move and create with equal appetite and equal energy. Hence, in “Mind: Con and Pro” he can write:

My mind is open day and night.
White virgin pages wait for choice,
And still I hear love’s urgent voice
Persist, “Take up your pen and write.” (87)

In parallel to MacDonald, this view eliminates the menace of a wrathful God and reconstitutes atonement as fellowship with the energies of the Universe, energies that, in movement, may destroy. It is this deeper understanding of the amoral nature of appetite – a force that “does not need words / To manifest itself in history” (“Mind: Con and Pro” 86) – that enables Cogswell to reconcile himself to his beloved daughter’s death:

I grieve her death; grieve life and death dependent
Upon each other’s form and scope for food;
But live because there’s murder in my blood. (“Sarcoma” 28)

Locating a prime mover in ceaseless, self-organizing energy instead of an avenging God brought Cogswell to a new acceptance of what he could not change, which allowed him to view his own thought as miniscule next to the “eons” that “time always has . . . to splurge” (“On the Stage of World Unity” 46). In acceptance he found euphony, that which was pleasing to his ear: “In birth, growth, decay, death lie euphony, / As energy moves at its required speed” (“Euphony” 48). “[R]equired,” of course, is the key word, suggestive of a self-regulating pulse that holds dominion. The contrast to the stiff orthodoxy of his formative religion is considerable, the “hope [those] forefathers gave / . . . much too narrow and too high” (“I Found the Hope” 34). St. Augustine’s “Either-or,” he concludes, “is too simple for my faith” (“More Than Anything” 33), and, in fact, Augustine becomes bugbear for institutional power, menace, and sacrilege.[14]

Cogswell’s submission to an ethics of energy sharpened his earlier Zen Buddhist beliefs and redoubled his commitment to living collectively and with the inevitability of pain, which he describes in the poem “Three Legs” as the irritant of change (32). The “homely wisdom” (125) that Levenson correctly identifies in Cogswell’s later work should be reconsidered in this light. That “wisdom” is not a marker of intellectual fatigue, as Levenson infers, but rather of the sage’s hard-won insight. “Truth is,” Cogswell writes, “the more we smell the rose, the more / We cannot forget to feel the bramble” (“To A Would-Be Writer” 44). And later, in sage-like address to “Good Prince,” his euphemism for “Dear Reader”:

Good Prince, the ways that all of us are on
Are mutual, where life and death convene
Gain-Loss; who views them as a battle drawn
Has but one view of a two-sided screen.  (“The Life That’s Left . . .” 53)

To see the world as universalized in energies – the “one food-chain involv[ing] both bird and worm” (“Ballade of Opportunity” 75) – is to give up dominion over that world, which Cogswell increasingly signals in his later work. What was Gaea’s benevolent greeting in 1983 – “The almighty sun / says good morning to the ant / as well as to me” (“Zen” 24) – becomes Gaia’s indifference in 2002: “The humming-bird / flies by here and flies by there / without seeing me” (“Snob” 46). Being reduced to just another point of energy enables him to see new life encircling his. Life is now “a green blade growing / out of a cleft in the rock, / defying time’s cold” (“Life Is” 65) and ego, as a result, is deposed: “I’m no older in my eightieth year / Than a mayfly in its twentieth hour” (“Mayfly Ballade” 21). Living in the moment becomes the poet’s goal, bringing him to the conclusion that “‘To be’ is far more vital than ‘To last’” (“Between the Science-Sun” 45). This is how we should read the final of Cogswell’s fifty meditations, the culmination of his thought:

I think the best of all the tales in Zen
Is that where a man clings to a cliff-edge
Between the snake that crawls up after him
And the fierce tiger lurking at the top,
But, finding there a bunch of sweet raisins,
He eats them, crying out, “How delicious!” . . . .

I abdicate the climb to reach the top.
Let tiger prowl and snake come chasing sins.
Today I heed the lesson taught by Zen
And pay for hunger with a grateful hymn . . .  (“Zen: The Epicure” 56)

“So I who fed the poets now feed / Birds,” Cogswell concludes,

[r]eal birds divorced from all mind’s sophistries. . . .
Once metaphor, now real as actions go:
Who feed the sparrows in a winter-snow
Bring living leaves to grace the barren trees.  (“The Ex-Poetry Editor . . .” 72)

Cogswell closes, then, with a wish that metaphor be turned to action; that we must “[t]ake no thought of self or state,” but take up the “raw unfathomed swarm,” giving “ordered form” to “syllables afire with living heat” (“Ballade of Opportunity” 76).


Next: Conclusion

[13] See Cogswell’s poem “Ironic Preview: 21st Century” on this point, particularly its last stanza: “Flesh and blood cannot pay the price / As earth exacts a clumsy death / To rid itself of noxious lice / That poison us with self-made breath” (69).

[14] See, especially, the poems “Augustine,” “An Atonement,” and “Inside the Chapel.”