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John Milbank

‘The Beckoning Obstruction’:[1] On the theme of scarcity in the poetry of Peter Larkin

 

Peter Larkin writes more and more about less and less. In this respect his poetic strategy is unique. The opposite to that of, say, Paul Celan, who wrote with supreme brevity about the overwhelming and the ineffable. Instead, Larkin writes always about specific woods, plantations and forests, and only about trees amongst the multiple flora within these woodlands, not to mention the ignored fauna. As to trees he writes only about particular trees or clumps of trees – almost never about named species.

 

What is more, he only ever writes precisely the same thing about trees, about their nature or what it is that they are doing. He has but one subject and one thing to say – trees abandon the horizontal ground and rise to the vertical by virtue of their refinement or scarcity: the ‘rarity of summons’.[2] What causes them to rise, also causes them to end or halt before a barrier: a wall or the sky. But in such ending, trees begin to call to each other – having deserted the horizontal of mere flux, they reveal a new, higher, horizontal of shade or shelter that lurks between their branches and between themselves: ‘From this lessening wells the possibility of a niche of dedication’[3] and a ‘fallout of symbolic litter’.[4]

 

In these very interstices is somehow pre-born the subjective cry – of meaning or signification or prayer: ‘I saw knots beat in the skimping-bout of trees at greeting’[5], as Larkin puts it in a rare Vaughan-like moment of specifically visionary intrusion. From the growth of trees from their hidden roots, a growth that is also an abandonment of origins in favour of celestial reception, is derived also the roots of words and of poetry itself. It is always in Larkin’s (usually) prose-verse the trees themselves who virtually speak, rendering his poetry in one sense uncannily inhuman and radically ecological. And yet any posthuman immanentism is still more radically countered by the overwhelming thematic of unaccountable verticality: the betraying of ground by a searching for height, even if this quest is doomed to a sacrificial termination that renders every tree indeed a cross.

 

As the natal cradle of meaning the woodlands always also suffer to relate; they win their proto-linguistic interceding just by virtue of their apparent organic stultification. In their very inability to reach each other, the branches begin to communicate: ‘Tall with stases in a silo of crosses, sown by no one ensign that clips that cradle except where one thinness beckons another’.[6] Thus in their ascetic abandonment of the inclusivity of terrestrial surface, trees lose the world to gain by grace the greater dilation of their own souls: ‘Reducing plenitude to a scarcity of receipt reveals again a fullness at the given but shares entering the poverty of the given-to’.[7] As such allegorical anticipations of faith trees already in some sense exercise it, such that they are (with all things) the natural preconditions of conscious faithful assent: ‘Faith is the spontaneous scarcity of the finite to itself, in that scarcity beckons a counter-absence always in a state of non-plenitude, what calls out the beforeness (horizon) of the prevention’.[8] (One can take this last word in the triple senses of limiting, sheltering and prevenience.) Therefore the tall firs both do not as yet pray and yet already do so: ‘among the unpleading branches/I hear refrains of my soliloquy/spare density of among’.[9]

 

Nothing else than this is ever said by Larkin, and if one fails to read here an intransigently (and yet wholly ecumenical) Catholic metaphysic that nevertheless cannot be prised apart from its poetic allegory of landscape, then one is surely not reading him at all. Hopkin’s haecceitas has been reconstrued by him in an era of ecological crisis as not just unique rarity but also scarcity, the irreplaceable. As the real which is finally manifest as vitality, and yet as life that escapes its differential continuity in order to express itself in endless entropic microcosms, the tree is most paradigmatically ‘the thing’ as such: trees ‘put rows in the no’.[10] Every tree is allegorically and yet really the world-tree, a microcosm, but the world itself exists as these endlessly precarious and threatened minutiae, which are only present at all in their eventual suffering at crest-top of the loss of their own essential life for the sake of a proclamation that they themselves are unable to make, like insensate Baldurs, victims of a branch blindly thrown. Only human beings are able to complete their growth beyond growth into utterance.

 

Yet in saying with near-monotony only ever one thing about one and the same cynosure of his uniquely inhabited world, Larkin utterly and ironically (it might seem), deserts the poetics of sparsity for one of unashamed plenitude. In this respect his virtuosity is quite simply unparalleled, in some ways beyond anything so far known to the poetic record. For he is able to say this same thing in seemingly infinite different new ways, on page after page of dazzling variation. Thereby his poetry itself constitutes a thicket: stunningly beautiful phrases are not allowed to stand out, or be given any space to breathe -- instead, with seeming poetic perversity, Larkin buries his own nuggets of talent like tangled shapes or blooms in a complex and even untidy ditch. Often, accordingly, one has to dig them out in order to let them shine.

 

This circumstance would almost seem performatively to contradict his constantly and unequivocally announced ontology. But in reality it does not, but rather witnesses to a deeper dialectic. Plenitude, Larkin is indicating, might seem to abide in the vital slither along the ground, as for Gilles Deleuze. But in reality, this always threatens to swallow particularity in what Tristan Garcia, in his Form and Object, deems ‘the compact’, the mere flat ‘givenness’ of univocal indifference where nothing asserts itself above anything else and so all is really the expression of the same, and variation is irrelevant.[11] Instead of this postmodern immanentist self-folding and unfolding, for Larkin there is always a ‘tear’ in the ‘Moebius strip’ – always (as for Garcia, in another way) a hidden real third thing or ‘between’ in any boundary that defines all given realities.[12] (William Desmond’s work is here epigraphically cited.) They are only there at all by virtue of this gulf that defines them and yet secretly escapes them and ‘arises’ beyond them, since as arriving event any thing is (as Garcia also affirms) in excess of any occasioning causation. Thus the forest-floor is inversely constituted by roots which escape to the height of trees – its firm foundation dissolves into a suspension from their very tops and its mere inert ‘givenness’ gives way to that inexplicable gift of which every tree proves to be truly the shaft or ‘brunt’ and channel: a secretion of hidden, intoxicating delight.

 

Thus frequently and quite clearly deliberately, Larkin echoes the set-theoretical terminology deployed by both Garcia and his teacher Alain Badiou: trees in their scarcity are ‘subtracted’ from the given quasi-plenitude; their definition, as with any particular thing whatsoever, even ‘the universe’, is only possible by virtue of a refusal of ‘everything else’. Equally, as also for Garcia, such removal is never mere diminishment as in the case of an instance of a genus. Rather, there is a certain ontological and trans-generic equality of all things beyond any instance of inclusion or exclusion. Thus, as with Badiou, a thing-event arises from the ‘diagonalising out’ of an item within a set from the very totality of the set itself which is thereby derided: ‘a greeter is more than/ the whole, we smart/in the common alls’.[13]

 

Yet unlike Garcia (and in what amounts to a Catholic challenge to his finally nihilistic metaphysics) Larkin does not see the irreducible ‘thing’ as wrenched away from the relationality and endless sub and super-inclusion of always indefinite given ‘objects’ (on the floor of the forest, as it were), but rather as now entering into a more genuine relationality of proto-signifying echo that escapes compositional immersion into the totalising flux: ‘Where a given unwraps beyond relation, gift redeals its care in what is full immersion slightened to commending on behalf of, with exposure admonished (accomplished) in the frank shade resparsed by what is shed’.[14] This is because, for Larkin, the tree or thing is not affirmed as for Garcia in its particularity by a ‘world’ which is a transcendental nullity that levels every branch with every containing tree and every abstraction or fantasy with every material reality – in what is but a new version, after all, of postmodern indifference. Instead, for Larkin, if the branch is equal to the tree, or a parasite to a host, or an aberrant growth from a root-stump to a fully-fledged plant,[15] or a mere bract to an entire flower or an entire forest (which he once compares itself to an instance of ‘bract’)[16] then this is because every reduction is a new making precise that permits both a new specificity of micro-growth and above all a new efflorescence of sense, whose specificity is the very precondition of verbal prolixity. Thus Larkin reveals that only about less and less is there always more and more to be said, even if it requires his unique creative gifts – perhaps unprecedented in their type -- in order to be able to demonstrate this by enacting it.

 

Or, to put all this another way, along lines which Larkin indicates,[17] one can only pay tribute to the rarity and uniqueness of the scarce by not appropriating it in a fraudulent poetic equivalence of pseudo-poverty, but rather by asymptotically approaching it, with genuine humility, from ever-new angles. This same poetic operation involves also not falsely trying to perfectly ape its concretion, but rather witnessing to this concretion by showing how it consists in an endlessly complex intersective fusion of multiple abstractions. Larkin’s adamant refusal of any nominalism at this point again could be taken as echoing that of Garcia: abstractions are also ‘things’, irreducible ingredients of the real and not just human imaginings or projections. His ability to turn the abstract into the metaphorical, and yet to continue to enunciate a philosophy – indeed to the point where his discourse is sometimes undecidably at once poetry and rigorous metaphysic – constantly demonstrates that this is the case.

 

Thus the plenitude and abundant rich tangle of Larkin’s writing, which the reader must constantly hack her way through, with often a sense of uncomfortable resistance and lack of any ordinary musical ease, is a necessary meta-sign of obeisance before the scarce and not at all its performative undoing. But at the same time, it is also a true witness to the performance in nature of genuinely joyful abundance and fruitfulness in ever recurrent due season only by the scarce, the trans-generically unique instance of being that outdoes in difference any merely generic or specific variety. That which is ‘sparse enough for generosity’[18] with its ‘skimp/to the heart of enorm-/ous least affordance’.[19]

 

Here one can distil from Larkin’s poetry a theology at once analogical and dialectical. All things indeed witness to and participate in the infinitely divine, to which he from time to time directly alludes. Yet participation in the real transcendent infinite is only by virtue of subtraction from the immanent indefinite:

 

‘where the tree itself pauses onset against any further vertical clawing

but the respite was always ascending via scarcity to height

 

 

crystallize enter stark anticipation, sclero-downsize but severely

does participate at the indented take on horizon………[20]

 

For this reason the limited thing is not the simple opposite of the unlimited as the transcendent. Echoing again and again a theme that is also intermittently paramount in the writings of Catherine Pickstock,[21] Larkin suggests that it is only by withdrawal from the extensive morass that anything is ever able genuinely to signify or to participate in the unlimited. The definite is not just a barrier to God – it is also most like God with respect to that which it is most unlike him. For its very limit testifies to the unlimit that it is not, just as only the treetops evidence the sky: those held within a clump are a ‘pool’ that is somehow further contained within the sky’s ‘bay’ like water within water, for this other logic of the celestial sea.[22] In this sense Larkin is always toying with the specifically modern thematic of the sublime as an aestheticised transcendence, as one still finds, for example, with Wordsworth. A halt at a circumscribing wall or a hilltop before the sky (or both at once as in the highly summatory ‘Wotton Clumps’) is a witness to the gulf of the unknown: ‘Slopes of wall in a ring……..where each grain’s pin falls into a stop of up…….’[23] Thus the ‘lift-off’ or ‘arrow-flight’ of pointed fir-trees is spiritual and not physical:

 

‘the small contemplative
dart flies into anything
narrowed undynamically
growth from grace
to fletched grist’[24]

 

 

But in contrast to Burke or Kant, there is for Larkin no inclusive boundary around all things, beyond which we cannot reach. On the contrary, the boundary that the trees touch (both horizontally and vertically) is the world-ocean in which the trees swim and whose lapping tides define them – a sublime margin that weaves in and out everywhere, thereby ensuring that the unknown and refused or subtracted-from precisely coincides with the defined and affirmed. Thus each thing is, with the uttermost exactitude, all that it is not, and if indeed we cannot fully know the latter, then just by that token we cannot know the entire bounds of the thing either, since it coincides with just the way that it is surrounded that is also its own unique vantage-point, even if the ‘interior’ habitual and habit-induced stability of this position remains a mystery of relative ‘substance’ (which category Garcia refuses but Larkin would appear to allow in this qualified sense). It is for this reason that, again, in contrast with Kant, Larkin is as much concerned with the specific gestures of the trees that reach beyond, most exemplified by the ‘praying firs’, as with the beyond itself, because this beyond is no mere void, but in some measure known as just that vastness which gives through definition this precise instance, just like any other: ‘A wall on the far side of trees shuts nothing off, but is openness most carefully vulnerable in division: that there can approach a to-be shaded for persistent obstructions of the finite, with a strong tapering of branch, conceding dedication at horizon’.[25] The true far side of the true wall which the real wall but allegorically indicates, is surely then most intimate to the trees’ separable beings, after all.

 

In this respect dialectical interruption remains overtaken by analogical paradox: something of the beyond ‘comes through’ in the trees’ unique hieratic and theurgic stances such that, if the unlimited can here only be shown by the limited, it is limit rather than the fantasy of the vague or unbounded (a valid dimension to Hegel’s refusal of ‘the bad infinite’) that seriously most resembles the unknown. Thus the tree gestures in its height beyond itself to the sky, but it also all the more gestures by remaining in its gesturing shape and concealed ‘bluntness’ of trunk and stalk; ‘from within that difference which abrades us towards it, welling up from a weakness of God before world: but as the divine overwhelms again through the scarcity of call.’[26] Prayer reaches beyond, but the beyond is most and already shown in the shape of the beseecher herself: ‘These intimate perfusions of semi-chaos (precipitates of wall), or a remaining open to the exposure inherent in that exposure, so far as its horizon of active dedication is a further entering (registered as a sort of stasis) of the world’s body as edge, suture, lip’.[27] God is also the kenotic act and not just the object of worship – ultimately this is why he is incarnate, which is only possible if he is transcendent and not immanently abstracted beyond vertical specificity back into the horizontal flux. Indeed he may well be himself ‘the common scarce source’, the hyper-particular, encountered only in our inversely finite emptiness ‘at an unscoured between’[28] that nevertheless only specific branches open to view and to viewing-through.

 

In respect of this horizontal-vertical balance and oscillation, Larkin, as he sometimes lexically indicates, strikes out on a ‘diagonal’ course.[29] His (usually) English walks are generally along and through, gazing upwards, but ultimately also on a slant, as when he ascends Wotton Hill, on the Cotswold way, at the edge of the Westridge woods, between North Nibley (where stands the monument to the Reformer William Tyndale on the same ridge) and Wotton-Under-Edge, above which the ringed clump was erected to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.

 

And just how is this diagonal also ecological? As I have already indicated, he appears at first sight to be a thoroughly posthuman poet. The trees themselves speak, the words rise from the ground more than they proceed from our mouths: the clump of firs on Wotton Hill is already in itself ‘an oval cell of summary’[30], of both self-inclusion and invocation. Yet the fact of a dated human walled-ringing of this clump (as recorded in a footnote by Larkin) should warn us here. As I have already tried to show, this radical refusal of all fallacious pathos of its very own logic tips over into a shockingly non-secular reverse: the world we can begin to speak about before humanity is never really a flat, re-rooting and given world, snaking along the unperilous bottom (like the deeply-incised valleys locally known as ‘bottoms’ near to the Wotton clump) but always a forested, gifted terrain and one always incipiently meaningful, spirited and human.

 

Beyond the postmodern, Larkin is a remorseless realist, in one mode of reversion to the modern: thus his insistence on the mystery of the vertical is in part an advertance to the fact that there is no conventionally biological explanation for the ‘inflection point’ of a branch, whereby its tapering and depleting energy nevertheless expresses itself as a further diminished and yet upward growth.[31] Equally, his descriptions of the mutations of from seed to shoot to bract to leaf to spathe to flower, would seem to be seriously meant in a scientifically heretical Goethian sense. But in another fashion he is equally an idealist, in that mode which refuses to reduce the subjective to structure, sign or flow. Yet still all the same beyond all modernism, Larkin persists (like Badiou or Garcia) with an attempted holistic embrace of both the irreducibly real material thing and of subjective ‘thinghood’. Our words, idioms and prayers are no fantasies, because they are the dreams of the trees themselves. One cannot speak of trees at all, in their given reality, without invoking that excess to which they aspire and equally give rise-to and sustain: thus surreptitiously Larkin lards his Gallic-leaning abstractions with endless concrete metaphors: often of the naval, the military, the political or the Teutonically archaic. Trees are located at ‘high seats’ where certain unnamed spectres meet in ‘moots’ (a gathering that is also conjecturally ‘mooted’) to offer ‘very high advice’; they march in ranks; they offer ‘flags’ ‘ensigns’ and ‘masts’ for their own and our celestial navigation.[32] Equally there is considerable use of piscatorial metaphors, as when ‘reeling’ is both a drawing in and a precessual tottering around a new pivot that such probing for celestial catch must risk;[33] of economic metaphors (clearly crucial to express ‘scarcity’) such as where rooting links have been ‘spent’ in favour of celestial prompting,[34] abandoning ‘Speculation starved of offer’[35], given the divine ‘need to adapt as less than any overall economy of living on’;[36] and finally of wounding and suffering: ‘Trees keenly to the smitten of themselves’. Here the double sense of ‘keen’ implies a strange shedding of tears with enthusiasm.[37]

 

Human beings are not, therefore, by Larkin displaced from the centre of nature; rather nature from its very deep roots displays this centrality: ‘among the unpleading branches/I hear refrains of my soliloquy/spare density of among’.[38] His ‘argument’ for this is a poetic one – the sheer wealth of clues as to this truth, which poetry alone can disinter and convert into descended evidence, including an abundant, cunning and sometimes obsessive use of ambivalence, assonance, internal rhyme and semantic echo which always appears in Larkin to spring, Cratylus-like, as much from the essential accidents of things as from the accidents of verbal formation, as in ‘taut capsular shortage of lessons for sources, the lightness of blatant gift’.[39] Likewise it is his plenitude of expression of always one and the same metaphysical theme (the escape and priority of the scarce as the vertical, and the vertical as the scarce) which tends to favour its objective truth. Seriously to grasp this one has generally to read Larkin three times over – once to savour the unlikely but sure music of his complex rhythms, twice to struggle to grasp the sense, and a third time to make both run together in order to try to render the poetic surplus of sense which all of Larkin’s meanings really require for their full (non)completion.

 

In another respect also, Larkin’s ecologism is ‘scarcely’ what one might expect. Of course he excoriates the extermination of all that is most rare. But always and even most pervasively he adds to this a dialectical twist. ‘Making scarce’ is not initially an instance of diabolical human agency; to the contrary, it is the device of life itself, its own sacrificial witness to its creativity and its very way of securing plenitude as not just real but meaningful, and of saving both specificity and relation from ‘compact’ absorption into a single flow that is always the same tedious trickle. Thus when nature suffers ecological predations, it is indeed reduced, but also further rarefied, rendered further ingenious and further able to re-express itself. Larkin celebrates the latter with respect to the way in which parks and other portions of nature intruding into cities tend to overtake them and manifest a new wildness lacking in the tamed countryside.[40]

 

For this reason, environmental reduction is not just damage but also ‘portent’. It may be (though it remains unlikely, at least in the second respect) that human beings have the power to remove their own natural preconditions of survival, along with the biosphere itself. However, for Larkin’s implicit ontology, to deprive the world of trees would be also to deprive reality of things, whereas there would appear to remain ‘deep down things’ as Hopkins put it, a ‘freshness’ which is simply reality itself. One can raze woods to the given, but then the given will vanish, whereas the suffering-solidarity of the woods will again reveal and re-give the gift beyond the given, arising from above beyond the flattening even of the given’s mere level.

 

Therefore the convinced reader, including the present one, may agree with Larkin that it is ‘impossible to stretch a treeless rarity, gently taut of the deprivation surpassing it’.[41] Instead we may flee to the precarious, shelled shelter of the ‘conviviality of trees in upright foam (rampart crosses field) of the normative horizon-storm, one site ample mantle per stretch’. [42] Under this canopy, the book of nature has been rendered by Peter Larkin once more articulate, and its coding (as once intimated by the Celtic cultures) in the alphabet of the trees has become once more, through his writings, somewhat decipherable. With him and by virtue of the firs, we may enter indeed into a ‘twilight wiry enough for gratitude’.[43]



[1] Peter Larkin, ‘At Wall with the Approach of Trees 3 (Inflections) III’ in Lessways Least Scarce Among (Bristol: Shearsman, 2012), 62.

[2] ‘Slights Agreeing Trees: 5. Wotton Hill Clump’ in Lessways Least Scarce Among 32.

[3] ‘At Wall with the Approach of Trees, 3, Lessways Least Scarce Among, 58.

[4] ‘At Wall with the Approach of Trees’, 3, Lessways Least Scarce Among, 62.

[5] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 32.

[6] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 35.

[7] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 63.

[8] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 64.

[9] Give Forest its Next Portent (Bristol: Shearsman, 2014), 165.

[10] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 36.

[11] Tristan Garcia, Form and Object: A Treatise on Things, trans. Mark Allen Ohm and Jon Cogburn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014).

[12] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 64.

[13] Give Forest its Next Portent, 166.

[14] Give Forest its Next Portent, 52.

[15] Give Forest its Next Portent’, 35-57.

[16] Give Forest Its Next Portent, 190.

[17] See the ‘Preface’ to Lessways Least Scarce Among, 8.

[18] Give Forest its Next Portent, 70.

[19] Give Forest Its Next Portent, 72.

[20] Give Forest its Next Portent, 45.

[21] See After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) passim.

[22] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 33.

[23] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 34.

[24] Give Forest Its Next Portent, 183.

[25] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 66.

[26] Lessways Least Scarce Among’, 60.

[27] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 60.

[28] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 173.

[29] See, for example, the ‘Note’ to ‘exposure (A Tree) presents’ in Give Forest its Next Portent, 37.

[30] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 33.

[31] Give Forest its Next Portent, Note, 9.

[32] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 32-38.

[33] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 33 and 35; trees ‘creel the air’.

[34] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 32.

[35] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 37.

[36] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 58.

[37] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 35.

[38] Give Forest its Next Portent, 165.

[39] Lessways Least Scarce Among, 76.

[40] See Imparkments (The Surrogate Has Settled) (University of Surrey: Vere Books, 2012).

[41] Give Forest Its Next Portent, 77.

[42] Give Forest Its Next Portent, 79.

[43]Give Forest Its Next Portent, 184.