Review of Greg Hewett’s Blindsight (USA: Coffee House Press, 2016)
by Ian Tan
Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?—O Earth: invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?
Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies
In his well-known Allegory of the Cave from Republic, to depict our illusory attachment to the phenomenal world of untrustworthy appearances, Plato visualizes us as spectators in a cave watching shadows projected on the wall. Tricked by the puppeteers behind us, who entice us into accepting the phantasmal procession of the images as the sum total of our reality, we remain ideologically enchained in our absorption to the false immanence and ubiquity of the ‘here-and-now’. Plato next asks what if a spectator could escape from this cave of illusions and behold the true source of illumination: would he not be struck blind by the brilliance of the sun, perceiving a world so utterly unlike his erstwhile prison-house? However, in paradoxical fashion, this blindness is the precursor to true sight, for the escaped spectator now stands for the philosopher who has transcended his blind attachment to the deceptive realm of the cave, discarding it in favour of the pursuit of truth, which for Plato lies beyond the ordinary world.
In similar fashion, the poems in Greg Hewett’s Blindsight announce themselves with the truth-bearing import accorded to paradox as it functions in poetic language. If ordinary sight cannot be depended upon to yield poetic insight, Hewitt draws the reader’s attention to the invisible structures that undergird the universe and our place within it – number, rhythm, and language:
The whole universe is made up
of just 2% visible matter, and I am
looking for something beyond the naked eye.
We sense numbers in our breath,
in a line of poetry, a measure of music
running through our heads.
(‘Seven Fish, Three Trees, Two Men’)
However, Hewett grounds the rhetorical force of these poems on his awareness of the fragility of sight and what it means to lose it. In the very first poem of the collection ‘Approaching Blindness’, Hewett wrestles with blindness as the condition of his being: ‘When I go out, I wear black/glasses to protect my eyes’. His anxiety modulates into regret for all that he cannot experience through sight and, by extension, for the dimming of poetic inspiration: ‘All that I cannot see, all/that I have never written’. Nowhere in the collection is the poet more aware of how the creative spirit is limited by the contingencies and frailties of the body. Questioning the relationship between the transcendent and earthy leads Hewett to a skeptical look at language itself (more precisely, poetic language) as metaphor, the intuiting of similarity between things that first might appear dissimilar:
but I say
take metaphor as blindness:
deforming life to get at
the idea behind life
It is this self-conscious look at the mechanisms of poetic expression that marks a decided ambivalence in the poems of Blindsight: whether language can rise above mere denotation and naming without falsifying and deforming reality. Hewett inherits the Romantic awareness of the absolute schism between the spirit and the body, but not its faith in the power of language to bridge the gap or sublimate the difference. It is instead the loneliness of prime numbers that allows us to come to terms with our fundamental solitude:
I’m writing these lines as if
primes could really be
metaphors for existence,
as if in such loneliness
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXwe discover our longing
and our attachments could be
explained by the right theorem,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXproven in this world or not.
(‘The Melancholy of Primes’)
If Hewett slips into a disingenuous use of the word ‘metaphor’ in this poem when he has seemingly disavowed it earlier, his implied point could be that the only metaphor for loneliness and isolation is indeed physical blindness. In the poem ‘Blindsight’, Hewett acknowledges his debt to the blind English poet John Milton and his poem ‘When I consider how my light is spent’, while also (modestly) staking his claim to join the lineage of blind poets extending backwards from Milton to Homer: ‘Once a blind poet saw war clear in stanzas,/weaving and unweaving heroes and horrors.’ While not quite matching the force of Milton’s use of enjambment and dramatic presentation, Hewett’s confident poem fleshes out the paradoxes between darkness and light, and blindness and sight, in this collection. Darkness opens up new vistas of discovery, and the superiority of inward sight over outward vision is affirmed:
Light denied, the physicist could see clearly
the structure of atoms, the complete absence
of empty space. How full the world looks beyond
the flickering tyranny of the visual.
It is this seeming lightness of the verse combined with the compactness of thought that makes the poems in this collection both readable and engaging. Conversant in his chosen medium with which to express truths, Hewett rarely strains to do more than what his language will allow. The reader is suitably won over.
If ‘Blindsight’ celebrates the richness of the inward vision, the later poems in the collection display a justified wariness against one of its richest manifestations – memory. Just as Hewett is skeptical about what language can achieve by way of representation, he is aware that memory can falsely sentimentalise, giving us not the truth of the memory, but an idealized projection of it. The self, Hewett insists, cannot innocently engage in a Proustian quest in search of lost time, as the significance of the past has irrevocably changed. The epistemological uncertainty of memory is thus foregrounded:
Memory tells me
I see us
XXXXat that same sidewalk table,
XXXXbut do I really
have that image or
(‘At the Same Table’)
Indeed, even if we could entirely reconstruct the past, ‘the past will never become completely clear’ (‘Against Nostalgia’). Hewitt squarely rejects the false comfort and superficial nostalgia that come with living in the past. The person trapped by memory recalls the spectator in Plato’s cave, for what he sees projected on the wall are images of himself, from which there is no escape:
hollow, as if rooms would miss the lives that had been lived within their
XXwalls, as if hollowness made memory more profound,
as if our cramped, crammed lives were not worth remembering
(‘My Grandmother’s House’)
Hewett’s most trenchant poem about the dangers of indulging in the comfort of memory is ‘The Village’, where a photograph of a girl laughing three days before her entire village was destroyed becomes part of a museum show commemorating the lost community. With an eloquent force and urgency uncharacteristic of the collection, the poem written in short stanzas points out that memory deadens and ultimately cheapens our attempts at coming to grips with questions about historical violence and responsibility:
In memory, pain returns,
domesticated, like geese,
like geese in a row sailing
shore to shore
as the dog that barks
in the metallic morning light
from the replacement village,
as the guide calls it,
built right across the valley.
Against ‘nostalgia’s wicked warp’ (Seeing Things’), Hewett offers the alternative of imaginative vision which transforms reality, offering us new possibilities and potentialities for conceptualizing the world and our place in it:
Look within the stones,
pine pollen floating there in fiery light
can become a forest deep
and cool as ocean.
XXXXXI can see your blue eyes flash
XXXXXin wavelight: accept this gift as horizon.
(‘A Gift for My New Daughter’)
We return once again to Hewett’s ambivalence about language, for how is this imagining to take place without treating language as image and metaphor? If Hewett is mistrustful of the deceitfulness of language and mnemonic imagery, he nonetheless surrenders to the unfolding of their associative force in his poems. To paraphrase the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the limits of our language are the limits of our world.
If, as the Old Testament teaches, paradox is the key rhetorical trope associated with wisdom, what wisdom does Blindsight have to teach us? I quote at length from the poem ‘Nowhere, Everywhere’:
If I could draw this world
in pen and ink, just as intricate as it exists—
draw it big as a mural—
will I at last discover
in the labyrinth
of patient labor
that there’s no greater vision
than in finally seeing
details reigning everywhere?
Poetic language generates its own form of ‘seeing’, one which celebrates contradiction, paradox, and complexity. If political rhetoric cynically obfuscates reality by relying on dead abstractions and clichés, poetry clarifies our collective vision by allowing us to see the particular in the general, the real toads in the imaginary gardens (to quote Marianne Moore). This grants us access into other cultures and worlds:
Through a dead language,
I can see cypress
trees lining a road,
clouds high overhead.
(‘Five Moments of Clarity’)
More importantly, it gives us insight into the singularity of the other person, a human being whose individuality is irreducible to systems of categorization and classification. Our sight is at last clarified when we see the world as it really is, a world that is, in Louis MacNeice’s words, crazier and more plural than we think. Although varied in subject matter and form, the poems in Blindsight ultimately come to rest on this singular but fundamental insight. It is thus fitting that the collection ends with ‘Rosewind’, a poem almost over-brimming with this euphoric sense of vision:
Petals carry the burden
of all that color.
heavier than so
The rose is victim
XXXXXXXtons of poetry.
In their brilliant film Notes on Blindness, inspired by the audio diaries of the blind theologian John Hull, the directors James Spinney and Peter Middleton emphasize the importance for blind and sighted people to see each other, through the medium of film. The poems in Hewett’s Blindsight suggest that such a shared vision of humanity is possible, and should be striven for.
Ian Tan is an educator based in Singapore, who teaches Literature at Raffles Institution. He is interested in the relationship between literature, philosophy, and film, and has written and spoken widely on these topics. His essays on film has been published in the journals Senses of Cinema, Offscreen, and Bright Lights Film Journal. He has also written two student guidebooks on Literature texts.