Skip to main content

Emma Mason

To Field Any Reserve

to field any reserve before a sieve of exfiltration how abundant
prayer moves through the brittle shepherding of its texture its sizing-
at, arising at a common asymmetry of rarities

awaits a gentler ecology
of mission at this un-
ripe upcoding
of the woods

do not pray
in the guise of another
instilment let the
firs be their own
surplus of salience

this gives a numinous dis-
enclosure at the pull of
newly contingent enclave

Of Larkin’s three epigraphs to “praying // firs \\ attenuate”, Alice Oswald’s “Think of ten quiet trees with their nerves in the air” connects most visually to the supplicate, doubled back and forward slashes that hold up his title. Cuts between the trinity of words with which the poem commences, these slashes also line out the poem’s work (and through its readers, the liturgical leitourgia or “people’s work”), to reconnect this trinity through a gathered thinking of the human, non-human and more-than-human. In doing so, Larkin, like Oswald, gestures to a religious thinking in relation to nature that is at once in reserve and hypersensitive to that towards which it rises. The stilled trees of Oswald’s “The Apple Shed” are not just quiet but quietist: like upturned jellyfish caught in a storm, their nervy branches taper skyward, tentacles swept up by the wind’s force. These antrorse limbs meet Larkin’s praying firs, their thinning reach attenuated and elevated into his “gentler ecology / of mission”, in which they are sent out and up for the purpose of an unspecified but inclusive salvation. While Oswald’s narrator is “knocked … blind” by the “impact of the thought” she visually and acoustically experiences from inside the storm (“a light from heaven” that issues a pastoral sound of dropping apples), Larkin’s thinking incarnates a “spiritual-political resistance” to our severance from the non-human and sacral without materializing, nor leaving vulnerable to consumption, the mystery inherent to both.

How the passage tasks its material to enable such thinking is brought into play through Larkin’s ecological and ontological “riffs”, which tune in language’s potential to embody praise and devotion. Yet there is no institutional authority to direct such prayer here: “do not pray / in the guise of another / instilment”, Larkin writes, refusing as he does the gradual drip of religious ideology that stealthily imbues and instils. Instead, the reader is liberated to take off from his words into a thinking able to register a continually happening world through the unknowable and scarce, as well as the familiar and present. His “let the”, which acoustically and theologically echoes Christopher Smart’s “let” lines in Jubilate Agno, is an invocation to let “the firs be”, as well an acknowledgement of “their own / surplus of salience”, their leaping out and standing above a gift that exceeds human categories and so blocks “any totality of demystification”. Prayer too is “abundant” when it “moves through” and beyond those regulatory structures that appear to tend and guard its words, but do so only through an at once hard and breakable “brittle” reading of its complex fabric. The weave of Larkin’s language, by contrast, is stretchable and ductile, re-sizing and filtering prayer to “sieve” out the generic into a “common asymmetry of rarities”. Against the neat and so dangerous complacencies of symmetry, harmony and measure, “asymmetry of rarities” conjures an uneven correspondence (human kinship with the other is frequently discordant), one in which prayer is re-thought as something exceptional, infrequent, and unusual. Larkin’s prayer issues no demands, but waits patiently for a “gentler ecology”, relationship and settlement inside the prolonged intervals between the infrequent and scarce pulses of the poem’s rhythm.

Scarcity acknowledges shortage for Larkin, one that pertains to consumable goods and their exhaustion in the face of unlimited growth, but also to sources of belief, devotion or inspiration. While markets produce an ever-more desperate dependence on the world to meet a seemingly insatiable desire for things and experiences, Larkin reads scarcity as a diminished gift that unconditionally “gives”, but under the conditions of lessness or loss. The poem, for example, offers to give to the reader by promising to relate to her even as its text cannot demonstrate such a connection. For Larkin this creates a ‘tensionality’, and so potentiality, of being in relation to through “a reservoir of accompaniment” that goes deep but is not easily heard. This companionable soundtrack has a trace in prayer’s untimely abundance, an encrypted obbligato held at bay by a woodland that holds all in reserve by “up” coding its promise in a closed-off cipher that hints at transcendence. The “surplus of salience” the firs bring into being relies on a standing reserve that refuses human greed through a “numinous dis- / enclosure”, wherein the numen is set free from attempts to fence it off from public attention. Countering both land enclosure and privatized religiosity, Larkin’s numinous of the commons grants the divine through a poetic “giving”, his language opening up a path leading to a nature that is neither nostalgically or proveniently whole, but rather dovetails into “horizons of hope and transformation” with God. This “strong incompleteness” demarcates the edge of our perception even as it makes audible poetry as “an exploration of what must not be allowed to be lost”. While we long to make sense of our world by dividing its territory into parts that we name, identify and catalogue, Larkin exposes this impulse as absolutist and violent. As our desire to capitalize on and control morphs into brutality, we denounce the outcome as accidental, “newly contingent”, refusing responsibility for our crimes.

Larkin, however, peacefully meets the “pull of / newly contingent enclave” with grace through nature, the firs “giving” to us a chance to speak through a call Jean-Louis Chrétien specifies as sacred and primordial. Intoning through Larkin’s scarce, dense and compressed language, this numinous cry orients the reader’s attention to referents that allow for relational imaginings. Communally confirmed by the fir’s gift, our damaged engagement with the non-human and more-than-human begins its repair: “The human imagination makes up or makes good the difference suffered within such an insecure connection, a scarcity which can prove innovative to the imagination itself”. Larkin’s words, shape into both essay and poetic form, witness a transformation of poetry’s phenomenological limits into sensory clues through which we are relieved of the burdens of religion as magic into a “spirituality of hiddenness” or “attenuation of the transcendent”. Removed from its negation as add-on metaphysics, the divine becomes, as William Desmond writes, a “more than the whole that lacks nothing”. Through his own poetizing of scarcity, Larkin locates the reader at the border of revelation to keep her at a distance from those counterfeit deities forged “in the guise of another” that, caught in their own fiction, crumble into base authority or empty emotion. It is the reverie we experience at this “hospitable horizon” that “gives” to us “a numinous dis- / enclosure”, or as Larkin writes elsewhere, “a dedication arising out of the incompleteness of the bond between a graced imagination and nature”. That this dedication is relational, partial and mysterious for Larkin, as it was for Smart, or Hopkins, or David Jones, is to secure it as the ground of an “environment of union” whereon “everything that rises must converge”.

mason