The poem takes us to a square, a setting somewhere in the world that people have turned into a meaningful, symbol-infused place. There is a cathedral on the square and, on the opposite site, a hotel. The speaker watches a group of women in stiff, elegant hairdos, waiting at the cathedral, perhaps for the service to commence. The speaker’s hair needs to be brushed away from her eyes, the gesture, incidentally, causing the light to change, bringing out the sharpness of colours in a whiplash of illumination. This difference in hairstyles mirrors a deeper difference – that between fixity and fluidity as they relate to contrasting notions of selfhood. The speaker might like to belong to the group – to the cluster, the herd – but finds it impossible to join the purposeful and carefully-coifed crowd. She remains outside.
If the cathedral stands for the presence of meaning, the hotel is a synecdoche of absence, its chandeliers and mirrors containing “the soaring empty space/ of the Symbolic.” The “yawning/ doors” open up to a revelation of a different sort than the one offered by sacred spaces. It is a disclosure of emptiness. But this emptiness is important as it signals a lack of closure, an openness to the possibilities of life. It is in that openness, on that threshold, in suspension between the two spaces, that the speaker lives in the “emotional body” that needs and receives “a simple” – a cure against absolutes.
The double negation in the description of the churchgoing women who are “not not beautiful” reminds us of the importance of negation, as a figure of speech but also as a spiritual tool, as in via negativa, or apophatic theology, which assumes that negative statements are primary in expressing human knowledge of God, as opposed to positive statements, which must necessarily fall short of the Mystery. Some approaches would consider negative theology as leading outside of theology – towards a non-theistic spirituality. Negative theology might even be considered as a certain attitude towards language, assuming that every predicative language is inadequate to the essence, or, as Jacques Derrida put it, to the “hyperessentiality” of that being beyond being what some traditions – some styles – refer to as ‘God’.
In “The Simple”, the openness of negation results in an unexpected tenderness: the women are “done up” but also “wounded”; they have “strength”, but it is a strength that “clutches”. Their “style” – that is to say, the language of their faith – is comprehensible but still strange. The ending of the poem feels ambivalent: could one be both genuinely attracted to absolutes and yet thankful for the simple that keeps one outside of the cluster of believers? That is exactly how I read the poem, and I think that the ambivalence also relates to speech. A well-known Zen saying warns: “open your mouth, and you have already made a mistake”, and yet not even Zen masters can avoid speaking. Speaking may be in vain, but as Derrida reminds us, even to speak for nothing is not to speak to no-one. The poem rejects the temptation of absolutes. Instead, it turns its attention to the world-in-process to offer us the tender mistake of its speech.
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