Reviewed by Thomas Simmons
In the way that remarkable texts call forth other remarkable texts, sometimes in subterranean ways, Kevin McGrath’s EROS for me immediately called two texts to mind––the first unsurprising, Diotima’s instructions to Socrates on how to move from love of a single beautiful body to the totality of love in the Form of beauty. One of the finest two pages of Plato’s Dialogues, this upward motion of the questing spirit deeply resonates in McGrath’s collection, as he moves from a profound devotion to his partner and the life they have formed to the ways in which the world at large reflects that love and also invites new themes and variations.
McGrath explains this in his afterword: “The book’s narrative moves from a singular individual distinction toward the increasingly social and synoptic, for such is the nature of the transition which occurs in the human psyche….” Divided into four sections, with numbers instead of words as titles, as in the great religious traditions from which McGrath teaches, this book is a long practice of deep devotion, in which in the end, however we configure the end, there is nothing left for us to remember because all the remembering has already been accomplished.
Consider this remarkable stanza, the opening stanza of II-14:
In paradise there are no mirrors
For none need to reflect,
Nor are there any memories
Life and days are complete
And nothing is forgotten
The use here of “reflect” is ingenious, as it signals a massive change in the philosophy of mind: “We” exist individually in the totality of our love, but we no longer exist as separate minds, nor are our memories required: “Mind” is everywhere and elsewhere, the ancient idea of “ether” coming suddenly anew, “and nothing is forgotten.”
To the extent that the second section of Eros is about ontological identity in relation—“ours” in confluence with “others”—II-34 and II-35 stand out to the extent that they deserve to be fully cited, though the first is considerably longer than the second:
The immortals are all about us
Yet they do not know their names,
Sometimes it is their suffering
Their loneliness and remorse
That releases them from being
The desperation of this place.
Then they perform their worth
Their music and their words,
With vision and compassion, love
Pacifying and conceiving for
We who live and walk the earth
Remain obscured by flames.
Their genius and their lightness go
Sovereignly and easily,
The quietness and softness of
Their joy is for us so firm,
Beautiful and kindly as
They reflect their force upon us.
Inscrutable and undestined
Enduring darkness in the world,
Their despair for an earthly void
Illuminates our hesitation
With signs of slowest passion:
Then one day they are gone
And we recall them in human prayer.
It is not what we leave
But what we go towards
That counts in the end:
For nothing is ever still
There is no unmoving,
In each other’s eyes
We only breathe and dwell.
Accomplishment is nil
If it does not send us on
Towards what we do not
Know or cannot gain:
For nothing is ever lost
In our recollection.
It might seem, in II-14, that McGrath has worked out with exceptional conciseness a complete philosophy of mind, but clearly from his perspective that is not so: there is not one theory, nor is there in fact a totalizing “mind”—or, if there is one, it is so multifarious that it most resembles the multifoliate rose in the 33rd stanza of Dante’s Paradiso. In McGrath’s two poems here what matters is eternal contact, consolation: the dead do not leave us, however immortal.
They require our mortality to affirm what we imagine to be unimaginable and, on the whole, enviable, that different state. But no: the immortals too crave love. And because it is here within the mortal world that we (as far as we know) first learn love, that our grief and sorrow confirm the intensities of our love as McGrath observes in his afterword.
That which we consider a curse—broken love and loss—is for the “immortals” as our most common objects are to Wallace Stevens in “Large Red Man Reading,” late in Stevens’ career—the things we see however reluctantly as part of our landscape, furnishings of the soul that McGrath’s immortals consigned to another realm upon their departure yet desperately need, to assuage the immaterial weight of the All. And thus we fulfill ourselves, in McGrath’s book, however lonely, and we fulfill those who would console us and not fail us as they once did, living, if only they had known.
This brings me around to the other remarkable text hovering behind Eros, and the brief story behind it. In the tumultuous spring of 1970––when McGrath himself may have been in the audience at Harvard––Lionel Trilling came up from Columbia to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that year on “Sincerity and Authenticity.”
Trilling’s remarkable book, even more meaningful today than then, charts the rise and fall of sincerity in the west, its necessary replacement with a theory of authenticity that then itself began to disintegrate under the pressures of Freudian psychoanalysis. By the end of the final lecture, one might be forgiven, for thinking that Trilling was charting the beginning of the end of the west, and so most people read over the last clause of the very last sentence of the lecture-book-to-be, which is this:
“. . .each one of us a Christ––but with none of the inconveniences of undertaking to intercede, of being a sacrifice, of reasoning with rabbis, of making sermons, of having disciples, of going to weddings and to funerals, of beginning something and at a certain point remarking that it is finished.”
Stunning–in this final clause Trilling reverses the entire book by insisting that what we (as the poet Marie Howe says), “What the living do,” is precisely what we are called to do in this incarnation. It is what McGrath does in his incarnation in this remarkable book.
THOMAS SIMMONS served as an associate professor for the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT, and for over two decades in the Department of English at the University of Iowa. He was a doctoral student in English at the University of California, Berkeley, a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford, and a Stanford University undergraduate. He is the author of seven previous books; one, The Unseen Shore: Memories of a Christi- an Science Childhood, Beacon Press, 1991, which may have caused some offense in Boston. He presently resides in either Grinnell, Iowa, or on a boat on Lake Michigan out of Chicago.