“To be quiet in the hands of the marvellous”—an intra-active meditation on part of Ammons' poem, “Essay on Poetics”

READINGS/VIDEO:Three Minute Theory: What is Intra-Action?” by Stacey Kerr, Erin Adams, & Beth Pittard

Intra-action: a term that comes to us from feminist physicist Karen Barad. Barad describes intra-action as the mutual constitution of entangled agencies. 
And what’s agency again? Simply, we can understand agency as the ability to act. So, I other words, intra-action is the mingling of people and things and other stuff’s ability to act. 
Sort of sounds like ‘interaction’ though doesn’t it? Well, let’s break down the difference. 
First, let’s look at the prefixes ‘inter’ and ‘intra.’ ‘Inter’ means among or in the midst of, whereas ‘intra’ means within (from). When we add the word ‘action’ to these prefixes we get a whole, different meaning. 
When two bodies interact they each maintain a level of independence. Each entity exists before the encounter one another. 
However, when bodies intra-act they do so in co-constitutive ways. Individuals materialize through intra-actions and the ability to act emerges from within the relationship not outside of it.
So why is this distinction important? Well, interactions gives us a whole new way of thinking about our relationships with each other, with matter, with materials, with nature and with discourses. When these different things are in relationships with each other our ability to do stuff changes, transforms or emerges. Let’s take the recent Ebola phenomenon [or, of course, the SARS-CoV-2 phenomenon] as an example. 
We can say the Ebola phenomenon is not just the virus itself but is an intra-action of the actual virus, human, and non-human actors including human bodies, political discourses on Africa [China], pandemics, the role of politics, political pundits, news channels and fear. Ebola is not just a virus it’s a phenomenon that’s made and unmade through intra-actions between nature, culture and technology. Through intra-action we are all brought together into the Ebola phenomenon, and yet this intra-action separates us into new, co-constitutive subject positions. Through intra-actions we become, at least temporarily, the afflicted and non-afflicted, the at-risk and the not-at-risk, and the exposed and the non-exposed. So studying these inter-actions reveals how differences get made and unmade. It’s unlikely that many of us will intra-act with the Ebola virus but we will all intra-act with the Ebola phenomenon and, therefore, we are all responsible for the matter produced in these intra-actions: the discourses, the materials, and the subject positions. Interactions defer and deflect responsibility but, in intra-actions, responsibility is distributed among the constitutive entities. This is where agency comes into play. 
Agency is about action, reconfigurings, doing and being. It does not pre-exist separately but emerges in the relationships in these intra-actions. Thinking with intra-actions means giving up cause and effect relationships, individual agency, and subject/object dichotomies. We gain new understandings of ethics and justice as not things that are predetermined but always changing and unfolding. Intra-action calls into question steadfast boundaries and borders and linear time and, in turn, it helps us think in terms of   simultaneity. It tears down the walls that contains and disciplines thoughts and action to reveal the artificial boundaries we forgot we invented. 
‘Dunes’ by A. R. Ammons

Taking root in windy sand
    is not an easy
to go about
    finding a place to stay.

A ditchbank or wood's-edge
    has firmer ground.

In a loose world though
    something can be started—
a root touch water,
    a tip break sand—

Mounds from that can rise
    on held mounds,
a gesture of building, keeping,
    a trapping
into shape.

Firm ground is not available ground.

From “Essay on Poetics” by A. R. Ammons

I guess it’s a bit airy to get mixed up 
with an elm tree on anything
like a permanent basis: but I’ve had it
worse before—talking stones and bushes—and may
get it worse again: but in this one
the elm doesn’t talk: it’s just an object, albeit 
    hard to fix:
unfixed, constantly
influenced and influencing, still it hardens and enters 
    the ground at a fairly reliable point:
especially since it’s its
general unalterability that I need to define and stress
I ought to know its longitude and latitude,
so I could keep checking them out: after all, the ground drifts:
and rises: and maybe rises slanting—that would be 
difficult to keep track of, the angle
could be progressive or swaying or seasonal, underground rain
& “floating” a factor: in hilly country
the underground mantle, the
“float” bedrock is in, may be highly variable and variable  
in effect:
I ought to know the altitude, then, from some fixed point; 
I assume the fixed point would have to be 
the core center of the planet, though I’m perfectly 
prepared to admit the core’s involved 
in a slow—perhaps universal—slosh that would alter the 
center’s position
in terms of some other set of references I do not
think I will at the moment entertain
since to do so invites an outward, expanding 
too much to deal precisely with:

true, I really ought to know where the tree is: but I know 
it's in my backyard:
I’ve never found it anywhere else and am willing to accept
the precision of broadness: with over-precision
things tend to fade: but since I do need stability and want
to make the tree stand for that (among other things)
it seems to me I ought to be willing to learn enough about
theory and instrument
to take sights for a few days or weeks and see if anything
roundly agreeable could be winnowed out: that
ought to include altimeters (several of them, to average
instrumental variation), core theory and gravity waves: 
but I’m convinced I’m too awkward
and too set in some ways
to take all that on: if I am to celebrate multiplicity,
unity, and such
I’ll be obliged to free myself by accepting certain 

I am just going to take it for granted
that the tree is in the backyard:
it’s necessary to be quiet in the hands of the marvellous:

“To be quiet in the hands of the marvellous”—an intra-active meditation on part of Ammons' poem, “Essay on Poetics”
Reading Ammons & drinking beer in the shade of
the walnut tree in Unitarian Church back-yard 
If there is one thing I have realized (very strongly) so far during this pandemic and associated period of lockdown it is that I am by now wholly persuaded that what it is for anything to be the kind of thing it is, it is always-already to be in motion and intra-acting. Stacey Kerr, Erin Adams, & Beth Pittard’s marvellously helpful little film on the subject of intra-action will, I hope, have helped you see clearly why this pandemic has only deepened my commitment to this idea as being ‘foundational’ in some fashion, even though it is a strange kind of foundation that turns one of Jesus’ sayings (Matthew 7:24-27) wholly on its head. You all know what Jesus said about building on the firm, fixed foundation of rock but I say to you: ‘Everyone, therefore, who hears these sayings of mine and enacts them shall be likened to a prudent person who built their house upon (moving) sand.’ To return to a poem of A. R. Ammons that I have brought before you a number of times, ‘Dunes’ (and which I reproduce above), I realize that the only gospel I can bring you is one that is ‘founded’ on the realization that we live in a world constantly moving and changing and that, therefore, ‘firm ground is not available ground.’ 
Of course, it’s not new idea and we all know that back in the 5th century BCE Heraclitus famously (and controversially) insisted the world was best understood in terms of ever-present change, flux and becoming, something summed up in his famous saying that no one ever ‘steps in the same river twice’ and his assertion that everything flows (panta rhei). But our own age — especially thanks to contemporary physics — has indicated very strongly to us that Hereclitus was kind of right (as, too, was Lucretius in the 1st century BCE) and that the constant intra-action of flowing, fluxing and fielding matter is fundamental to how our world is and, of course, our place in it.      
However, persuaded as I am that the realization ‘firm ground is not available ground is something that needs to be embraced and creatively lived with, there can also be no doubt that this gospel is one that can seriously discombobulate, off-put, anger and even mortally offend many, many people — including, perhaps, some readers of this piece. What they want (or at the very least would prefer) — and I do understand this desire/preference — is not moving sand but solid rock, security and stability and not endless flow and flux. Not surprisingly, given this desire, there are a plethora of philosophies, religions and political positions out in the world that are prepared to claim they can provide just such security and stability (often in the form of race and/or nation and/or a future heaven and salvation) and I have little doubt, alas, that there will always be many, many customers eager to buy into them. 
Anyway, it goes without saying that I think the immediately aforementioned positions are utterly wrong-headed but, despite this, as a pastor (albeit a somewhat unconventional one) I have little choice but to take seriously and frankly acknowledge the desire for security and stability that always and everywhere abounds. 
So, is there any kind of appropriate security and stability available to a follower of the gospel of movement and intra-action with its interweaving four ‘fs’, namely its material fluxing and flowing, folding and fielding?
The answer is, I think, ‘yes’, but it’s a very modest, hubris-resisting, contingent and highly local (almost back yard) kind of answer. To give it a fancy name first, it is to acknowledge that a world of flux and flow, of folding and fielding is always-already creating all kinds of ‘meta-stable’ things, that is to say things which are only around for a while before dissolving back in the matter from which they are formed. Ammons’ sand dune is, of course, just a single example of a metastable thing. True, no sand dune will last forever but, as Ammons points out, on/in it   
something can be started—
a root touch water,
    a tip break sand—

Mounds from that can rise
    on held mounds,
a gesture of building, keeping,
    a trapping
into shape.

The coming and going of various human civilisations through history reveal this clearly as, too, do the coming and going of everything from the sublime to the ridiculous: stars, planets, plants, animals, weather, TV series, fashions and, of course, deadly pandemics. In short, the endless movement of matter is the condition for the only kind of security and stability there ever can be, namely a temporary, metastable kind that’s here for a while and gone tomorrow. As the Psalmist put it, our days (and indeed the days of everything in the world) ‘are as grass: as a flower of the field, so it flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more’ (Psalm 103:15-16). 
Acknowledging this as true is partly what Ammons was doing in his long poem of 1970, ‘Essay on Politics’, a short section from which you read earlier. Thanks to his poem ‘Dunes, and to the earlier lines of this, later, longer poem, we know that Ammons is a firm believer (pun intended) in the gospel of the four ‘f’s but, from time to time, even he feels the need to find a certain kind of stability and security. He explores his desire here through an intra-action with the elm tree in his back yard. He knows that it, like all things, is ‘hard to fix’, indeed it is ‘unfixed, constantly influenced and influencing’ but, despite this, Ammons can see that ‘still it hardens and enters the ground at a fairly reliable point:’ and that it ‘has’ a ‘general unalterability’ about it. It is seeing this that leads him to explore ways by which he might go on to try to talk about the (meta)stable nature of this elm tree. And so we find him firstly wondering about whether he should get its ‘longitude and latitude’ and then ‘keep checking them out’. He knows he needs to do this because he’s acutely aware that ‘the ground drifts: and rises: and maybe rises slanting.’ Of course, he fully understands this 'would be difficult to keep track of’ because ‘the angle could be progressive or swaying or seasonal’ and it is likely to be effected by ‘underground rain’ or the ‘“floating” a factor: in hilly country the underground mantle. These things are likely to be ‘highly variable and variable in effect:’ 
Ammons also realises that he ought, perhaps, to know its altitude, something which could only be measured ‘from some fixed point;’ and the only one of those generally thought to be available is ‘the core center of the planet’. But even as he proposes this he is immediately aware that he needs to be ‘perfectly prepared to admit the core’s involved in a slow—perhaps universal—slosh that would alter the center’s position in terms of some other set of references’. Knowing this he admits that this (and, we may presume, all the other foregoing scientific measurements that might, once upon a time, have been able more firmly fix the tree’s position) is something which, at the moment, he will not ‘entertain since to do so invites an outward, expanding reticulation too much to deal precisely with:’
In my book, this is the kind of moment that sends me back into the house to get out a cold beer from the fridge and then walk back into the yard to enjoy my cooling drink in the pleasant shade of the elm tree whilst thinking on some more . . .

It’s not impossible that this is exactly what Ammons did but, whatever he did, at this moment, his thoughts return to his feeling that, despite everything, and in some fashion, he still ‘really ought to know where the tree is:’ This is when he admits the one thing he feels he can assuredly say: 

but I know it's in my backyard:

And this, in turn, encourages him to state what, in other circumstances, might seem simply to be the bleedin’ obvious, namely that he’s 

never found it anywhere else 

In short, despite firm ground being unavailable ground Ammons realizes that in an important way he knows exactly where the tree is (and under which he might, perhaps, drink his beer) even though he can’t (and in fact cannot) accurately (and finally) fix the tree’s position using the scientific methods with which he began his poetic reflection. In connection with this he tells us he’s perfectly ‘willing to accept the precision of broadness:’ because he knows that ‘with over-precision things tend to fade:’. In other words, he can see that when he was trying to fix the location of the tree using scientific methods he became aware he could never, ever really locate the tree in any stable, fixed and final fashion. It’s not that his (imagined) measuring was achieving nothing because we (and he) can see that it helped him gain a deeper insight into the continual movements of the world (the tree, the wind, the tree’s leaves and branches, the birds in it’s branches, and the movement of the ground upon which it stands etc., etc.). However, the process was also clearly threatening to lead (were it taken too far) not to complete clarity but, instead, to the complete abstractization of the elm tree, turning it into a co-ordinate (or complex set of intra-acting co-ordinates) entangled with another complex set of intra-acting co-ordinates that all need to take the indeterminacy of matter fully into account. You can’t (easily) drink a beer in the shadow of such co-ordinates even though they (in a certain way) are in the same back yard as the elm tree!    

So, Ammons compromises (if that is the right word, and I’m not sure it is) by saying that, since he does ‘need stability’ of a kind, he wants ‘to make the tree stand for that (among other things)’. I think we can all agree that part of any full (and stable enough) understanding of the tree’s location does require him (and us)

to be willing to learn enough about
theory and instrument
to take sights for a few days or weeks and see if anything
roundly agreeable could be winnowed out: that
ought to include altimeters (several of them, to average
instrumental variation), core theory and gravity waves:

But, for all this, he tells us that he’s convinced he’s really ‘too awkward and too set in some ways to take all that on:’ — let’s not forget that, for all his deep love of science (he majored in biology at Wake Forest University), he’s more a poet and father than he is a practising, professional scientist. In consequence, Ammons knows he has to let something go and if, as he does, he wants ‘to celebrate multiplicity, unity, and such’ then he needs to be obliged to free himself ‘by accepting certain limitations:’ and so he concludes (if conclusion it is — which it isn’t because nothing is a conclusion (nor a definitive start) in an ever-moving intra-acting world): 

I am just going to take it for granted
that the tree is in the backyard:
it’s necessary to be quiet in the hands of the marvellous:

And here we arrive at one of the very, very few (quasi) ‘certainties’ I can honestly offer you as your minister, namely, that, at times, it is ‘necessary to be quiet in the hands of the marvellous’ and that it is in such moments one knows (or perhaps, à la Bergson, intuits) where (and perhaps something of what) the tree and oneself are. 
So, although it remains true that firm ground is unavailable ground, the prudent person who knows how properly to live out of this insight can still build a good (enough) life upon this or that piece of metastable ground, upon which a tree can grow in a back yard, and under which a cold beer can be drunk and where one can, now and then, be quiet in the hands of the marvellous and know/intuit sufficiently where and what one is.
Naturally, today, I haven’t been able to write this piece (nor drink a beer) under Ammons’ elm in his back yard (his metastable ‘sand dune’ is not mine) but I have been able to do these things under the walnut tree that shades the back yard of the Cambridge Unitarian Church outside my study window (my own metastable ‘sand dune’) . There today, I, too, suddenly found it necessary to be quiet in the hands of the marvellous and so came to know/intuit where I and the tree was even though, all around us the wild wind was moving ceaslessly and the fluxes, flows, folds and fields of matter that were constantly making and unfolding me, the wind, the yard, the tree, the beer, the chair and so on, never once stopped moving. For this groundless, infirm ground which is always-already gifting us the very possibility of there being anything at all including, of course, being here and now, under the sun in the shade of the walnut tree with a beer and a wonderful poem to hand, I give profound thanks.



David Kelly said…
Marvellous indeed!
Glad you concur!

Warmest wishes as always,