• Lesley Saunders

There is a theme, or tendency, or tone across the several books of mine published by Two Rivers Press: something to do with the half-seen, the partially-buried, the not quite there, the deliberately concealed, the misremembered or dismembered. This paper has required me to attend a bit more carefully to that tendency, and to think about the paradoxical and protean presence of absence, in other poets’ work as well as my own—even though it’s like trying to tread on the tail of a dream just in that liminal moment as you wake. You think you’ve grasped it but already in that intention you’ve lost it.


The kinds of shapes absence can take


Inevitably, then, I’ll begin by not knowing quite where to begin. Many books and articles have already been written about the significance of absence as a literary trope (for example Morris 2006), and countless poems take absence, disappearance, loss, as their subject. But as a practitioner rather than a scholar I think I’m more interested in exploring the kind of shapes ‘absence’ can take in poetry, and in the work it does for poetry.

One of the first thoughts that came to me was not about my poems, but about the photographs I have taken over the years: I realised that my pictures folder contains recurrent images of rooms or buildings that are open to the sky—the church with no roof, for example; and there’s a whole other cluster of images of distorted, blurred and/or superimposed reflections in shop windows or foxed mirrors, where I as the camera-wielder sometimes appear as a faint shadow in the distance, which is actually the foreground.

These visual prompts might be a helpful place to start thinking about a few of the multifarious ways in which the presence of absence reveals itself. I think, for example, of:

  • absence as abandonment, emptiness, loss, omission;
  • absence as sky-like, infinite and full of potential;
  • absence as resisting fixity: ambiguity, ambivalence, elusiveness; avoidance of resolution, refusal of reliability.

These absences inevitably evoke, or turn themselves into, spectral presences:

  • impossible not to see with one’s mind’s eye the ghost of that roof, the trace of the thing that once was but no longer is—a way of seeing and being that has perhaps captured in the Portuguese word saudade;
  • impossible not to begin (and impossible to finish) filling that infinity with something, even just a floating bluish-greyish aura;
  • impossible not to look harder or deeper into the infinitely-regressing space and try to seek out its occupants, even though they may be nothing more than traces left by the passage of some itinerant reality.

Perhaps this preliminary conjuring of beings and worlds-beyond begins to suggest other summonings—poetry as séance, maybe? I can’t help thinking of the Roman arch-poet Virgil and that passage in Book VI of the Aeneid:

Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram

perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna …

[On they went darkly beneath the lonely night in the gloom

through the vacant halls of Hades and his bodiless realm …]

Let’s briefly consider that pair of transferred epithets: obscuri [dark] should literally refer to the night, not to Aeneas and his eerie priestess companion; conversely, sola [alone] belongs not to the night but to Aeneas and the sense of abandonment he is feeling. The double transference serves, by the severing of the normal attachment between descriptor and described, to generate the absence that characterises, that indeed is, the domain of the dead. A literary convention has thereby been transformed into realised experience, present emotion; the sonorous metrical requirements of the epic form have been tempered by a tender lyric intuition.


What kind of work does absence do in, and for, poetry?


That’s one way of creating absence; later, I’ll propose some other conscious stratagems or instinctive manoeuvres through which absence may be presented—the poetics of absence, one might say.

But first I’d like to ask: what kind of work does absence do in, and for, poetry? Or, to put it another way, what would it be like to read a poem in which everything was already present, explicit, fully accessible to the consciousness of the poet as well as the reader? (Even to pose the question reveals the unlikelihood of there being a useful answer.)

This feels like the kind of psycho-linguistic territory which Adam Phillips traverses with such grace and agility in his book In Writing, where, in the chapter on TS Eliot and the soul of man under psychoanalysis, he writes:

We never wholly understand our words …; and we are never in a position to authoritatively interpret them. Because of the unconscious, one could say crudely, we never quite know what we are on about. (Phillips 2017)

And this reminds me of something the poet Philip Gross wrote recently: ‘For a writer to say “What I meant to say was …” is of passing interest; what the writing itself seems to have been doing—what we can catch it up to—is the point’ (Gross 2017: 31).

Earlier in his chapter, Adam Phillips argues that, for TS Eliot, ‘excessive clarity’ in someone’s writing was one sign of an experience being treated with insufficient seriousness, without appropriate gravity. Because what we struggle to find the language for—‘the suitable, the sufficient language’—is, in Eliot’s words, ‘the atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery in which our life is passed’.

For Eliot’s inspired speaker or writer, as for Freud’s ideal patient, this duty or process is best approached, if not achieved, writes Phillips, by not straining to be intelligible, even or especially to ourselves: ‘The words that matter most are the words we don’t understand’. The chapter ends with the gnomic claim that ‘all we can go on doing is describing what it [i.e. the atmosphere of unknown terror and mystery] is like, in all its unlikeness’.

And the best a writer can do, I think he’s suggesting, is to find one’s ‘own voice in ignorance and inadequacy’, as Fintan O’Toole describes Samuel Beckett’s search for a way to write, out of the shadow of James Joyce’s ‘magisterial grandeur’ (O’Toole 2018); and his effort to make images of the human creature that are ‘subtractive, bare, intensive and generic’ (O’Donnell 2015: 90).

This almost-voicelessness in the face of terror and mystery seems to me to have strong religious and metaphysical correlatives. Absence has, or is, a huge theological as well as literary presence; we could almost posit absence as god, since the non-presence of god to our senses is the impetus for prayer and the liturgical rituals, notably mass. How to distinguish this from the absence of god?

Some theological strategies offer a way of making the divine absence noetically if not ontologically present, as in:

  • kenosis or self-emptying—becoming utterly receptive, renouncing and letting go of the ego so the self can be filled with spirit or divine inspiration; sometimes linked to asceticism, sacramental fasting, the disappearing body, wasted flesh;
  • via negativa/apophasis—thinking/speaking in terms of what something (god) is not, because we cannot put into words the transcendent unknowable reality that lies beyond ordinary finite perception (and yet which is also immanent and intelligible); the idea, in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, that ‘god’ has no predicates; also in a philosophical sense, a cleansing away of culture-dependent concepts and presumptions;
  • eremitism—entering the desert, absenting oneself from ordinary human life and society to live in prayerful solitude: ‘The desert in its absence of the things of this world manifests the presence of the next’, as Rebecca Solnit wrote in Savage Dreams (2014: 62);
  • (the doctrine of) fallibility/fragmentedness—believing that no human form can be fully adequate to the reality of the divine; what we can ever be, and know, in this broken world is merely a fragment of cosmic truth, a remnant of the Eden from which we are always already exiled.

And, though not expressly theological, I’d naturally want to include:

  • negative capability—first used by Keats, of course, in a letter to his brothers: ‘Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’; and now the basis of various ideas in psychology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, literary criticism and radical politics, as well as a way of comprehending faith.

One could argue that poetry—both reading and writing it—has come to occupy, or to aspire to, a portion of the sacramental space vacated by traditional religious practices and beliefs. Accordingly, might it be possible to transpose the above strategies into poetic theory-and-practice, something like the following?

  • kenosis—deliberate ‘absent-minded’-ness, absenteeism, getting out of the way of the poem; a ‘metaphysics of negativity’ as Paul Kane (1996: 160) put it talking of Judith Wright’s poetry;
  • via negativa/apophasis—‘the unsaid’ in poetry, which is composed of taciturnity/white space/rest & release as much as of sounds/marks on the page/word-work; and which therefore expresses itself through pauses, white space, etc.; or even writing that borders on aphasia as in Tomas Tranströmer’s writing after his stroke (Iniesta 2016);
  • eremitism—the poet as wanderer in the desert, seeking the minimalist identity of the poem through a paring-away of excess matter; according to Kevin Gordon, the emptiness of the desert is the emptiness of the blank page, a space of ‘productive disorientation’ which instils ‘an inspiring awareness of the text’s infinite renewal’ (Gordon 2014: vi). Or, as the poet Edmond Jabès wrote, ‘The origin is an abyss’ (1991: 166);
  • fallibility/fragmentedness—words themselves as mere fragments (‘gravestones’ as William Gass called them) of reality; yet also as remnants of something more or beyond, and as forms peculiarly suited to challenging what Edward Upton (2016: 30) calls ‘totality systems’: Woolf’s ‘lucid moments’, Joyce’s ‘epiphanies’, TS Eliot’s ‘Hints followed by guesses … The hint half guessed, the gift half understood’ (1943: 44);
  • negative capability—pretty much exactly as conceived by Keats (though I think his ‘irritable’ is a crucial qualification);

—but (when) does any of this collapse into a mere mess of words and/or reduce itself to mystical pointing?


Towards a poetics of absence


Most poets choose their words very carefully (however much like free association the resultant poem may look) in order to be able to hold absence and presence in some kind of creative and aesthetic tension. For that reason I will assume it’s possible to say something about, or towards, a poetics of absence. I am well aware that the ideas I’m putting forward need a lot more work, but perhaps they open up some of that roof-space.

I’ll select just a few provisional illustrations of how poets might be making the presence of absence felt in their work; and, because my own new book Nominy-Dominy (Saunders 2018) is concerned with the fragmentary and irrecoverable nature of the past, especially the classical past which we tend to take so much for granted, I’ll allow myself the liberty of choosing examples that treat the same subject matter.

That this subject matter is particularly amenable, or susceptible, to being conceptualised in terms of ‘absence’ was brought home to me by a radio program I heard a couple of years ago in which Dr Edmund Richardson, an academic at Durham University who specialises in how people relate to history and ‘the fragility and wonder of those relationships’, said something that touched me deeply; he suggested that classical scholarship:

is driven by this desire that can never be fulfilled. Ninety-seven per cent of ancient literature is lost; we work with fragments, we work with dreams, we work with the longing for lost texts to be discovered, for every broken thing to be repaired.

I have chosen one work by one poet to exemplify each of the shapes or forms of absence I listed at the start; though of course each poet’s work could well exemplify other kinds of absence, and the categories of absence I’ve offered are not mutually exclusive either.  

First, for absence as loss and omission I have chosen Memorial by Alice Oswald (2011), her award-winning book-length poem. Alice Oswald has said about Homer’s Odyssey that:

it is after all an oral poem, composed in performance, like snow, perfectly formed and ready to vanish. It is not a spatial text, but something temporal and sounded, which can only proceed as it were by melting. (Oswald 2014)

Memorial is Alice Oswald’s take on the other Homeric epic, the Iliad. The poem omits the central story, Achilles’ anger at Agamemnon and all that followed, in order to lament more poignantly the loss of ordinary soldiers’ lives on both sides of the Trojan War. That’s a breathtakingly daring deletion—which, incidentally, Oswald says she decided to make in order to reclaim Homer from the English public school version of the epic (see Crown 2011); and the resultant work has the feel of an amputation, or of something skeletal that’s survived an unspeakable catastrophe.

Oswald chose to retain (and repeat) the similes, which are so characteristic of Homer, as being a pause in the relentless listing of the dead; but even these are shot through with the performance of absence:


Like a wind-murmur

Begins a rumour of waves

One long note getting louder

The water breathes a deep sigh

Like a land-ripple

When the west wind runs through a field

Wishing and searching

Nothing to be found

The corn-stalks shake their green heads


Like a wind-murmur

Begins a rumour of waves

One long note getting louder

The water breathes a deep sigh

Like a land-ripple

When the west wind runs through a field

Wishing and searching

Nothing to be found

The corn-stalks shake their green heads


Second is absence as sky-like, full of luminous potential; my choice for this is John Keats’ ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ (1816). For me, it is the way the poem stops, rather than concludes, at:

Silent, upon a peak in Darien

which pans back to the ‘one wide expanse’ and ‘its pure serene’, opening up the skies—or the vast ocean—for us to stare at too, as if we’ve been lent the ‘eagle eyes’ of Cortez. These images, full of potent vacancy, of transcendence, tell us nothing about the Homeric epic but everything about its effect on that particular reader.

Third is absence as elusiveness, avoidance of reliability, resolution—this kind of absence is deeply associated for me with Anne Carson’s oeuvre, and specifically her book-lament Nox (2009).

The majority of Carson’s books of poetry and essays question (or ‘queer’) basic cultural assumptions about identity, and propose instead that we each have multiple and unstable personae, identities, life-worlds. In much of Carson’s work, part of this instability comes from deliberately mixing the ancient past and the lived present, and the most moving example of this is Nox, Carson’s elegy to her dead brother, expressed as a series of glosses on every single one of the words of Carmen 101, ‘Ave atque vale’ by the Roman poet Catullus; which was written for his dead brother. Andrew Motion says that ‘an entire remembered lifetime of silences, uncertainties and withholdings’ hangs over Carson’s book:

Nox is a brilliantly curated collection of fragments, which analyses and manifests the elusiveness that all human beings detect in one another, no matter how much they love them. (Motion 2010)

Throughout the book (which folds into, and out of, a cardboard casket), the elusiveness of human relationships is deeply connected to the intrinsically mournful challenges of translation. Thus the glosses turn out, despite their neutral and scholarly form, not to be reliable lexical elucidations: Carson is mimicking the semantic glosses of scholars with glosses of an evocative/associative and/or emotional kind. For example, her ‘definition’ of ‘vale’—the last word of the Latin poem—ends like this:

parum valent Graeci verbo the Greeks have no precise word for this (but we call it ‘night’)

At some point we understand that the whole book is composed as a major piece of deconstruction, of dismantling, which simultaneously creates, in Andrew Motion’s words, ‘a recognisable and touching portrait of a disappearing man’: ‘No one knew him’, writes Carson.

The fourth example is absence as generative of (fragile, fragmented) presence. The obvious choice for me here is The Paths of Survival by Josephine Balmer. Balmer has said that she wanted to write about ‘how a text becomes a fragment’. The tragic drama The Myrmidons is generally agreed to be the first play in the lost Achilleis trilogy by Aeschylus, and it is the few surviving fragments of this drama that Balmer exhumes, in order to celebrate their existence as well as, by implication, to commemorate the original tragedy’s destruction. The loss of the play mirrors the loss in the play—Achilles’ refusal to take part in the battle against the Trojans causes the killing of his beloved Patroclus. Achilles is broken by his lover’s death, and his despairing rage becomes his motive to return to battle. The poems in the book recreate the extraordinary history of how and why the fragments of The Myrmidons managed to negotiate their way through all kinds of material and ideological vicissitudes, and to be available for us to read and appreciate in the twenty-first century. Moreover, we cannot help relating the book’s theme to the losses that are being inflicted—by time, neglect and outright destructive intent—on the cultures of the Arabic world, which was instrumental in preserving so much of the classical corpus when the western world was in chaos.

The book’s cover prepares us beautifully for what we will read and try to comprehend within; it is a photograph, taken from the left side, of the helmet of Miltiades the Younger that shows both the spare elegance of the head armour and also its alarming frailty, the skull protection completely missing and the metal oxidised and dented.

This damaged artefact reminds me that David Morris has something interesting to say about the ruin, as distinct from the void or abyss, as an image of absence:

Ruins are the trace of something that has vanished … a ruin is less the sign of a distinct past, like the famous monument commemorating the London fire, than an evocation of something lost beyond recovery while nonetheless still persisting in fragments, remnants, and flashes of recollection. The ruin gives absence, so to speak, a material dwelling: a rock-solid site that, paradoxically, embodies a sense that the world is also porous, uncertain, and insubstantial. (Morris 2006: 225)

Fifth, and finally, absence as exile, separation, unbelonging, for which I am shamelessly putting forward my own book Nominy-Dominy (2018). It’s a book that is about calling up the past in two senses: the past of the classical world, which is literary and public; and the personal and subjective past of my schooldays, when I began learning Latin and Greek. As I re-read it, I see that it’s full of absences of one kind and another, which flow in and out of the ‘presentness’ of any given poem. The poems as word-shapes seem to be temporary edifices, or rather facades, behind which exists a dazzling darkness.

And so I conclude with a short piece from the book, an extract from a long poem which imagines that the poet Sappho, now in her old age, has left her own island of Lesbos and sailed to the island of Inishbofin off the coast of Ireland, where she has come to die:


iv.  She Meets the Bog People


She’s looking through glass

at the barley-eaters,

the ginger-haired, the slain,


staring at their shut faces,

the tanned hide of their thighs,

their perfect nails.  Her gaze


makes sons and husbands of them,

these ruined bridegrooms

wedded to the wet heart of the bog.


O, she has sailed all the way for this –

such cold enthralment,

such terrible splendours.


Works cited: 

Balmer, Josephine 2017 The Paths of Survival, Bristol: Shearsman Books

Carson, Anne 2009 Nox, New York: New Directions

Crown, Sarah 2011 ‘Alice Oswald: haunted by Homer’, The Guardian, 9 October, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/09/alice-oswald-homer-iliad-interview

Eliot, TS 1943 Four Quartets, London: Harcourt

Gordon, Kevin Andrew 2014 Traces in the Desert: The Poetics of Sand, Dust and Ash in German Literature, PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley

Gross, Philip 2017 ‘Halfway-to-whole things: Ecologies of writing and collaboration’, in Peter Barry and William Welstead (eds), Extending Ecocriticism: Crisis, Collaboration and Challenges in the Environmental Humanities, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 30–46

Iniesta, Ivan 2016 ‘Music and poetry in the absence of speech: Tomas Tranströmer’s great enigma and a language, but no words after the stroke’, Neurosciences and History, 4.2: 51–60

Jabès, Edmond 1991 From the Book to the ‘Book’: An Edmond Jabès Reader (trans Rosmarie Waldrop), Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press

Kane, Paul 1996 Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Morris, David B 2006 ‘A poetry of absence’, in John Sitter (ed), The Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 225-248

Motion, Andrew 2010 ‘Nox by Anne Carson’, The Guardian, 3 July

Oswald, Alice 2011 Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad, London: Faber & Faber

Oswald, Alice 2014 ‘How to read Homer’, The Telegraph, 17 May

O’Donnell, Aislinn 2015 ‘Another relationship to failure: reflections on Beckett and education’, in Morwenna Griffiths, Marit Honerød Hoveid, Sharon Todd, Christine Winter (eds), Re-imagining Relationships in Education: Ethics, Politics and Practices, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 89–106

O’Toole, Fintan 2018 ‘Where lost bodies roam’, New York Review of Books, 7 June

Phillips, Adam 2017 In Writing: Essays on Literature, London: Hamish Hamilton

Saunders, Lesley 2018 Nominy-Dominy, Reading: Two Rivers Press

Solnit, Rebecca 2014 Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press

Upton, Edward 2016 ‘Translation, comparison, and the hermeneutics of the fragment in The Waste Land’, The Journal of Religion 96.1: 29–52