Sunday 3 April 2022

Nothing's Impossible

 I happened on this poem while browsing the other night in Thom Gunn's Poems 1950-1966. It's a brave poet who grapples with that slipperiest of notions, that great impossibility – Nothing. But Gunn is nothing if not a brave poet – and a technically resourceful one, here deploying terza rima to carry his theme forward. To be annihilated, Nothing must first exist, but can it exist without bounds of space or time? And if such bounds are there – to say nothing of the observer/poet – Nothing is no longer nothing. It must embrace everything: all or Nothing are perhaps the same thing. Gunn initially treats Nothing as an entity, something existent, defined by absence – 'a huge contagious absence' – something belonging to the timeless, unbounded world of sleep and dreams. Elsewhere, outside the realm of mathematics with its useful zero, Nothing is surely impossible. Or is it? I suspect I'm waffling – here's the poem, and very fine it is –

The Annihilation of Nothing

Nothing remained: Nothing, the wanton name
That nightly I rehearsed till led away
To a dark sleep, or sleep that held one dream.

In this a huge contagious absence lay,
More space than space, over the cloud and slime,
Defined but by the encroachments of its sway.

Stripped to indifference at the turns of time,
Whose end I knew, I woke without desire,
And welcomed zero as a paradigm.

But now it breaks—images burst with fire
Into the quiet sphere where I have bided,
Showing the landscape holding yet entire:

The power that I envisaged, that presided
Ultimate in its abstract devastations,
Is merely change, the atoms it divided

Complete, in ignorance, new combinations.
Only an infinite finitude I see
In those peculiar lovely variations.

It is despair that nothing cannot be
Flares in the mind and leaves a smoky mark
Of dread.
               Look upward. Neither firm nor free,

Purposeless matter hovers in the dark.

As with many of Gunn's poems, the memory of his mother's suicide (when Thom was a teenager) surely looms in the background here. Wikipedia notes that Gunn's 'best poems were said to have a compact philosophical elegance'. Quite so. 

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