A Twining: Ancient Circles, Cycles, Wheels
Parmenides, Anaximander (twice), Empedocles, Thales,
translated by Dan Beachy-Quick
Horses carried me off. As far as my blood-beating mind wanted,
They brought me. They took me down that road of many songs,
The goddess’s road, that brings the knowing man shining to all towns.
So I came here: horses with heads full-of-thoughts strained full-speed
To bring me—budding girls leading the way.
From the axle in the axle-box a note as if played by a flute
Blazed out, and two wheels, whirling circles, pressed hard
On either side. The daughters of the Sun were in a hurry
To escort me, leaving behind their house of Night
For the light, their hands casting the veils from their faces.
…the earth, is like a chariot’s wheel with a curving, hollow rim full of fire, and one part flames out as fire would through the holes drilled in a flute—and this is the sun.
The stars are circles of fire, set apart from the cosmic flames, enveloped by air. There are vents, like certain holes in a musical pipe, through which the stars appear—and when these are stopped up, as a finger presses down to play a note, an eclipse comes to be.
And these transformations, all through each, never cease—
now Love gathers all things into one,
then each is torn apart again by Strife’s hatred.
This they’ve learned: from many to grow into one
and what is one breaks back into many. Coming to an end
and coming to be, their life is no eon-root gripped firm in the ground,
but these changes, all through each, never stop,
are endless, eternal, a cycle that cannot be broken.
Come, listen to the words that leap from my lips,
learning strengthens the mind’s heart, heart’s mind.
They say Thales was first to show that a circle is cut in two by its diameter…
Kylan Rice: In an essay from Of Silence and Song (2017), you refer briefly to ‘the circle of the urn itself.’ I know that the form of the circle is of special importance to you, having written Circle’s Apprentice, which takes for its epigraph a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.’
If the circle is an urn, it seems to me that it is saturated with dimension, a form that emerges in space as a result of circling, or being spun on the potter’s wheel. Circling (with the hand in the mouth of the forming pot) produces this swelling out, this rondure, space to be filled. Just as infinity is hard to think about, there is something frustrating or at least literally unfulfilling in Emerson’s claim that there ‘is no end in nature.’ But perhaps frustration as a result of circling, and the feeling of emptiness or unfulfillment that this involves, can be said to give rise to forms of holding, retention. Does this seem right to you? Is there a relationship between circles or circling and emptiness? And is there also a relationship between emptiness and holding? If so, what does this look like in practice, your practice?
Dan Beachy-Quick: For a long time I’ve felt that something in the nature of the urge and the urgency toward making a work of art—be it poem, be it pot, whatever form it might be—resides in the replication of the primordial processes by which existence came to be. At that dark anonymous depth in which poems might be written, this gesture is a participation in (because it’s a recovery of) the very powers by which we explain to ourselves the possibility of our own being something rather than nothing. I think that’s what Emily Dickinson’s notion of the ‘business of circumference’ eventually means. It understands that all of us are pressed against some existential blank that should, by all rights and purposes, make null the possibility of our life: a kind of infinite blankness evermore blank. The universe itself seems a curious proof of Emerson’s claim in ‘Circles’, drawing eternally a next circle around itself, centre nowhere and everywhere. But those circles, that circling, thinking even of the Sufi leftward spin toward the heart, is for me a kind of sacred ritual that brings me back to what Stevens pursued his whole poetic career: that one bears a responsibility to the wondrous verb is. To make a poem is to conduct an experiment inside the possibility of being, not by saying what being is, but by making the shape in which being becomes possible. For me that shape is just a circle, a circle made just—and what that circle circles is an emptiness that suddenly becomes rife with cosmic possibility, that promises where chaos had been, order is possible. Something strange and deep inside our nature occurs when we allow ourselves to make a circle.
Paradox abounds on the potter’s wheel. For instance, centring as a motion that stands still. And there is the difficulty of raising the wall, widening the volume, where any distortion in that spinning stillness threatens to destroy the whole vessel. But that clay-wall between thumb and fingers also describes principles one could think of as cosmic. How to trace the hand against the material in such a way that the result is more emptiness, more useful emptiness, for the pot can contain more. There is in the work some experiment in Emerson’s sense of ‘compensation’ or reciprocity as the primary law of the universe. How matter in motion responds to a force not in motion—the seeming stillness of the potter’s hand. It’s hard, maybe impossible to discern, but the work of a poem feels similar. As with the potter’s wheel, it combines opposites—the passive and the active. I keep thinking of the strange passivity of the clay—it responds to every force we put to it, but spinning, the potter’s hand is passively responding to the nature of the clay. Some fine balance between action and reception is profoundly in play, something I hear in John Keats’s letter where he speaks of a ‘diligent indolence’, something I find in ancient Greek, its ‘middle voice’, where the action the verb performs is performed against itself, and where certain words change their meaning in stunning ways: where the verb of poetry itself, poieow, ‘to do, to make’, becomes poiesthai, ‘to consider’. The poem must be made before its thought can be thought. The pot must be made before it can contain what it contains. The creation of emptiness that is the throwing of a pot parallels the hidden emptiness we make when we make a poem. The emptiness of Dickinson’s circumference or circle. This beautiful question: what can the poem contain? And how profoundly it alters how we might imagine a poem, that feels always so full of the thing it is. That the words, the lines, just mark a boundary, a wall, and nothing more. To be able to think that the poem is a form of emptiness—this is what I worry about now. What I try to teach. That the lifelong practice of making poems is also the lifelong practice of making yourself ever more empty—that what poetry does is create more emptiness inside us. I obviously don’t mean that in a pejorative way. I mean that reading poems, writing poems, those co-creative activities, the gathering of all that’s gathered in order to make a poem whatever it is a poem is, is a kind of swelling, the swelling a larger form of gathering needs. You spend a life getting more empty exactly so you can hold more life. Poetry might be this practice: around the circle you’ve drawn, to draw a larger circle. To be apprentice to the circle.
then as water fills a bootprint in an irrigated field the mind
floods in to saturate the circle on the page a poem is
with depth and if not heft then mesh of tessellating planes
and polygons in simulated space that gives a rendered pear
the look of modelled objecthood, as if it might be held
inside the hand its lo-fi facets felt for ripeness my mouth
bitter less with loss than with the airless taste of self the fair
youth on the surface of the urn might say if he could
lift his lips from syrinx-pipes that make no sound
and sound the sweeter for that fact the silent self-insistent
fact the sweetest dream that labour knows, that labour sings
itself to sleep so as to know what comes without the field
-work that actuates by means of bitmap image-composites
an object of desire equal to the mind’s desire for an object-
urn it makes the poem on the page that circles back
upon itself to shut the way a flute-hole fills with finger-tip
before a breath is forced through reed from lung
to mouth my bitter mouth the blood that beats inside
the head with nowhere else to go
Circularities is an excerpt taken from a series of conversations between Dan Beachy-Quick and Kylan Rice, forthcoming from Free Poetry Press as part of its Poetry and Poetics Series.
Images by Del Harrow
Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and translator, author most recently of a collection of poems, Arrows (Tupelo 2020) and Stone-Garland, a collection of translations from the ancient Greek lyric tradition. Some of his other books include North True South Bright (2003); Spell (2004); Mulberry (2006), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for poetry; This Nest, Swift Passerine (2009); Circle’s Apprentice (2011); Of Silence and Song (2017); and Variations on Dawn and Dusk (2019). Long-listed for the National Book Award in 2019, his work has been supported by the Monfort, Lannan, and Guggenheim Foundations. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Colorado State University, where he is an University Distinguished Teaching Scholar.
Kylan Rice lives in North Carolina. His writing has been published in a variety of literary journals, including Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review Online, Tupelo Quarterly, Quarterly West, and West Branch, among others. He is the author of Incryptions (Spuyten Duyvil 2021) and An Image Not a Book (Free Verse Editions / Parlor Press, forthcoming in October 2023).
Del Harrow lives and works in Fort Collins, CO where he is Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Colorado State University. Harrow’s work is included in the permanent collections of the Arizona State University Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. Harrow was a recipient of a 2020 United States Artist Fellowship in Craft and is represented by Haw Contemporary Gallery in Kansas City, MO and Harvey Preston Gallery in Aspen, CO.