In Part ii. of “Universally Accepted Definition,” Frances Richard reveals the poem’s conceit in a question: “Is this a landscape or a portrait?” There is also an implied question throughout: what are the social functions of our languages, the conditions under which we proceed? Or, how can we love unconditionally when there are always agreed conditions, accepted definitions? Richards is so close to love here. Pinpoint. We leave ourselves concrete markers (“I know according // to this cliff”) and likenesses (“like crashing” or “Like soapy water emptied // on the ground” or “like a mountain”), but these too are relative, these too entrench their biases, the erasure of which leads to shifts in definition. “I thought you might.” Yes, the answer “can or used to be” accepted. But that takes exercise. What follows are several guidelines for responding to “Universally Accepted Definition.”
You will need a good night’s sleep not a both-ends-burnt candle (sleep in a bed. Sleep as form of both acquisition and erasure. “in the midst of electricity” the pulsations of dolphins. Are you awake? I am on the verge of the sensate, “sucking stellar wind”). Or you can stay up. This may rob you of your certainty. This may reveal you to be instinct-impaired.
Commandeer a dictionary not a computer (veracity of print versus dynamic qualities of the hypertextual. Set in stone. Set in ink. Lingering on the breath. Echo ripping through spacetime. That doesn’t mean what you think it means. Not any more. We are surrounded by electricity in bed and at sea. What power outage means dead monitor discredits. Are you whispering, grass?). Look up these words’ definitions (1959 copyright. Locked down in print):
- shirred – (this is a sewing term) – to make a series of close parallel runnings which are drawn up so as to make the material between them set full by gathers.
- quondam – former; sometime.
- stellate – resembling a star.
- Mountain – any part of a land mass which projects conspicuously above its surroundings; in general, an elevation higher than a hill, with comparatively steep slopes, a base rounded rather than greatly elongate, and relatively small summit area. More or less. If we agree. Refusal to measure how high, how deep. Is that ocean or sea? By whose consent? Is that mountain at the foot of the ocean? Who views it in profile? Who circles in space redefining our permeated atmospheres via photomontage? How violently porous are we when in love, at sea?
Insert Wildlife in forms of dolphin. Goblin. Heron. Moss. Burr. Lilies. Swamp-bred prehistoric fish. Blade of grass. Gnats. Phytoplankton. Leaves. Measure these against determined landscapes: at least one ocean (Rising tide. Weather pattern. Prevailing winds permeating membranes. Container ship. Satellite with sensitive camera lens. The camera never lies, but it tends to discredit through omission, through its ability to obscure). Also Mountain. Hummock. Cliff. Marsh. Freeway. Swamp. Bed.
If aspects of portraiture include revelation of character (hollow dolphin, partial heron, disappearing phytoplankton bloom), how does the unseemly explain our good side? Also the evocation of light, filter, allowance, soap, ashen cloud, fog, egg-yolk, mediate surge. I can see you from space, therefore you are (what?)… impossibly large universe. Universally accepted ocean. Disputed salt-marsh. Disputed dolphin. Disputed landscape pocked by mountains, “mountains” or their likenesses.
Ultimately “last night” is an object as “portal” is an object, though both are disputed, negative spaces, both immaterial, as electricity itself, as rhetorical questions are despite their parceled objects: a billion dollars; a billion leaves. Richard carries us through the process of unlocking arguments, of filling in and obscuring the portrait, addressing our shifting uncertainties, our hubris, the porous happiness at the bottom of things.