Review of Philosopher at the Skin Edge of Being

Philosopher at the Skin Edge of Being

Before I can judge a book of poems, I must meet it on its own ground.  Fortunately, Susan Andrews Grace, author of five books of poetry and essays  about visual art, provides an introduction to her latest book, Philosopher at the Skin Edge of Being, to set readers on the right path. Unlike many collections of poetry that  seem  to be disparate poems soldered together with little connection, this is an organic, narrative whole with a fictional modern protagonist. The intro explains, “Jai-li (…) represents the metaphysician in everyone: she wonders about being, existence, reality and beauty (…) Jai-li lives in a world shaped, in part, by two sages, Plotinus and Laozi, whom you will also meet in this book”. It turns out that Plotinus was a third-century, neo-Platonic philosopher and Laozi was the sixth-century BCE founder of Daoism and author of the Tao Te Ching. Though their philosophies shared much, these two never met, until now.

Each of the four sections begins with a pair of epigraphs, one from Plotinus and the other from Laozi, as if to couple them in the present to amend for them never meeting in their own time. Grace has said, “imagining how the philosopher imagines is one way to read and learn a philosophy and is especially suited to the practice of poetry. Sometimes poetry has the ability to be the reality when philosophy can only describe it.” The spare, quiet form seems  to fit the intent here, as the speaker remarks, “a philosopher learns from silence  / and  its consequences.”  So what is the relationship between the poet and the philosopher? According to Grace, “A philosopher / loves the poem, knows its danger resides in seduction. // Poems fly to the exact space where heaven / becomes earth and earth heaven.”

Formally similar and fluid, the poems in this book are spare, spacious, brief, haibun-like half-page interpretations of and musings on ancient philosophy and ideas about  beauty and the soul. These poems  have a haiku’s paused attention to external details: “An orchid in its black pot on an English oak chest, in a Plotian world, / as important  as the dandelion’s yellow crown of brilliant teeth.” Because this book is a condensation and interpretation of philosophy, the form is epigrammatic and aphoristic. Sometimes it’s even riddling and paradoxical: “what’s perfectly full seems empty / but you can’t use it up.” Moreover, the individual poems are numbered but not titled, which adds to the effect of reading this as one whole poem rather than an assortment flung together.

Grace, who is also a visual artist, weaves philosophy, poetry, narrative, and a feminine consciousness as she challenges the image of the male philosopher even while championing two ancient male sages. The power of the female pervades this book, as we are reminded time and again that “the presence of the mother came before all other fierceness”. Later, we get, “Plotinus and the Chinese sages agree: woman is the ‘root of the world’.” The book is full of mothers, birth, babies, and a kaleidoscope of female perspectives. In one of the untitled poems, the speaker tells us that Cleopatra loved silk, which was “new and scandalous in Rome” and “brought danger to the empire.” This silk acts as a revealing metaphor for the power and scandal and danger of the feminine as it challenges male-dominated worlds.

When these poems succeed, they find the slippery balance between abstraction and clarity, or at least between abstraction and engaging mystery, as some  assertions are interesting to puzzle out: “Mysticism arises out of misery. This remains a social fact. // The most destitute centuries produce the most seismic change.”  The juxtaposition of these assertions, which declare themselves as  facts, makes  them engaging: the reader seeks to wrestle toward agreement or disagreement and, more importantly, toward understanding.  At the same time they depend on craft: mysticism and misery don’t sound similar by accident, and while the speaker  at one point claims “[t]here is no opposite to music.” there are certainly phenomena, and modes of poetics, that  are darn close. In the end, all of these details, these  ten thousand things are “brighter for having been seen.” Not understood, not hypothesized  or interpreted, but seen. It’s in those moments of spare imagery and music that the experience brightens (and heightens)  for the reader.

— Bill Neumire Vallum

More Reviews of this title

Philosopher at the Skin Edge of Being

Laozi and Plotinus, two great ancient philosophers, had much in common. Their works, the eastern Daodejing and the western Neo-Platonism respectively, connect in such a way that when a world map is folded, in the shadowy creases, their philosophies meet and are reinforced to apply to concepts of goodness, beauty, and truth, and a broader sense of human "being."

In her latest collection of contemplative poetry, Philosopher at the Skin Edge of Being, Susan Andrews Grace occupies those overlapping folds that have helped to shape the modern world. Her titular philosopher is the imaginary Jia-li, "the poet whose imagining takes a turn into sound, which travels around corners."

Jia-li herself is a fold in the map, being a woman of Chinese heritage who lives in North America. Not only does she occupy two cultural realities, Grace considers Jia-li to be the ideal character for these poems for a greater purpose.

"When you think about it, one of the hardest things to be in the world right now is a Chinese girl because of the one-child policy and a preference for boys," she says.

There is a deep history of women being absent from the philosophical world, explains Grace, where access to texts such as Daodejing has been limited to men of elite social standing.

"We all know women think," she says. "It's just that they have not often been shown to do so. So this Jia-li scenario is a poetic optimism."

Jia-li is also an ideal and accessible entrance point for readers to both Laozi and Plotinus. As Jia-li immerses herself in their philosophies, she contemplates the bounty of nature, the beauty of moonlight, and the power of water. Readers become aware of more than her worldview but also of how she imagines herself into existence, both body and soul, as a woman and a feminist. There is a process and application present in Jia-li's contemplation, as her thoughts inhabit a "confederacy of incarnation" where she explores the deep meanings within the concreteness of skin, fruit, flowers, and clothing.

It is there at Jia-li's skin edge of being, where "heaven / becomes earth and earth heaven," that Grace offers readers a means to experience how a philosopher "imagines" through poetry. In this case, it's also through the filters of feminism and diaspora, which are absolutely fitting to a modern context.

Since the time of Laozi and Plotinus, the passing ages have allowed much dissemination and cross-pollination between the cultures of the world. Maps have been folded and re-folded to strengthen those connections, but ultimately, what have we learned about our universal truths? Our different ways of being? Grace contemplates the immensity of these questions by considering the division of medicinal practices between the East and West.

"Our human bodies are the same no matter where we were born, but people have thought about and healed them differently over the last six thousand years, depending on where they lived. I find that endlessly interesting. I wonder how we got to where we got.

"It must be our thinking that makes it so."

— Steve Locke Prairie books NOW

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