Aphorism 33: Life is a Flame That Burns Itself Out
John Blair has published six books, most recently Playful Song Called Beautiful (University of Iowa Press, 2016), as well as poems and stories in The Colorado Review, Poetry, New Letters, Reed Magazine, and elsewhere. His seventh book, The Aphelion Eclogues, is forthcoming this summer from Main Street Rag Press.
There’s a mirror burnished bright
onto the concave curve of bone inside
the back of a human skull and it holds
an image of the many qualia of ergo sum
upside down like a country doctor
dangling a baby by its ankles before
the slap and in one blink of a newborn’s
eye a strange loop burps fractal
from its own reflection into puzzles
of an eye for an I and the I
that wants and wants and never stops
emerges from chaos to rage
like a rat-king tangled with itself
inside the walls of a house that isn ’t
a house but an orb made of veins
and dirt as though every single thing
is alive in the way that this child’s
one inverted self is alive and all of it
is tinder dry and just beginning
in utter ecstasy to burst
into the raw blue flames of extinction.
To read “Aphorism 33: Life is a Flame That Burns Itself Out" and other poems, please order Reed Magazine Issue 155.
KAzim Ali's Commentary
“Aphorism 33” is a dense and dizzying lyric, which, in its crush of words and images, goes inside the skull, to the site of both mind and brain. Sight condenses not in eye but in "I," as the poem performs philosophical inquiry in a kind of disruptive music. Music that disrupts can open the ear as well as the mind, music that is unexpected shies away from traditional transitions or received forms; that is what happens in this poem. It isn’t chaos but a new kind of seeing. Or maybe that is all chaos is: as in the old myths, a state just before creation or formation. That is not to say there isn't form and control in this poem, because there certainly is; rather, the leaps and turns will catch you by surprise. It is a small poem, yes, but inside it there is an entire world.
in conversation with
UA: Your prize-winning poem, “Aphorism 33: Life is a Flame that Burns Itself Out,” compels readers to confront their own birth and extinction by examining the “tinder-dry” kindling that is human existence. In what ways does this slow burn manifest? How does it impact you and your writing?
JB: This particular poem started from a conflation of Heraclitus’ conception of existence as “an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out” with the central idea of the Adittapariyaya Sutta (the “Fire Sermon”) in which the Buddha asserts that the only possible liberation from the “fire” of suffering is through detachment from the physical senses and the mind. We didn’t start the fire, to appropriate Billy Joel, but we’re still bound to get burned so long as we keep stoking it with the kindling of our attachment and resistance. Better to accept the flames and their going out as a necessary but escapable element of our existence, and so take away the fire’s power over us. Much of my poetry is in some way or another concerned with this element of Buddhist philosophy.
UA: What do aphorisms represent to you, and are there any in particular by which you abide? What inspired your series of aphorism poems?
JB: Well, inspiration, at least in my case, is a bit tough to pin down. I suppose the first germ was thinking about Frost’s “Mending Wall,” a poem I’ve taught so many times I’ve unintentionally memorized large chunks of it. The “old-stone savage” neighbor and his comforting and mindless platitude about fences. The narrator in the poem clearly would like at some level to hold his neighbor’s nose to his tidy little “truth” and make him reconsider his easy satisfaction with it. Of course, the narrator also seems to suspect that a little of that same compulsive surrender to easy wisdom abides in himself as well. So, no, no particular aphorism I feel drawn to (though I do very much like the clever meta-aphorism of Nietzsche’s “an aphorism is an audacity,” but mostly just for its cleverness). I’m suspicious of glib. I want to deconstruct glib. Easier said than done, though. Glib is just so damned tempting.
UA: In his New York Times article “The Art of Aphorism” Adam Gopnik says, “We don’t absorb aphorisms as esoteric wisdom; we test them against our own experience. Aphorisms live because they contain human truth… can be compressed and self-contained wisdom, or can be broken fragments designed to show that ours is an already-shattered world.” Is “Aphorism 33” purely didactic, or is it a theory to be tested, as Gopnik proposes?
JB: Truthfully, neither. In some ways (I’m thinking “Mending Wall” again), aphorisms are a way to avoid deeper consideration. I’d disagree with Gopnik that aphorisms live because they contain human truth (and though I do like the “shattered world” metaphor, I’m a little suspicious of it, too); I think they live because they sound good and give us easy rationalizations for our beliefs. I think poetry is in a way the opposite of aphorism—the strongest moments are often metaphorical and gnomic (and so aphoristic), but the assertive confidence is undermined constantly by context and the poet’s careful attention. Nietzsche’s been accused of favoring aphorism because it makes it possible to write so esoterically that he can either hide his incoherence or shake off the Sunday drivers who would misunderstand him anyway. That might be okay for professional philosophers but it’s bad for poets, I think.
UA: In your winning piece, the eye rhyme (pun intended) cleverly juxtaposes “eye” against the personal, philosophical “I.” Can you talk about the distance between all three: “the newborn’s eye,” “the I that wants and wants and never stops,” and the philosophical “I” in ergo sum?
JB: Reality is of course an illusion of the senses, in the sense that we can’t have any direct knowledge of what is, only knowledge of what our senses report and what our minds identify and accept of that report. We make ego out of that second-hand news, starting with the tabula rasa of the newborn and slopping on perception until self-awareness pops out of the endless circular frequency-loop of perceptual feedback (I’m stealing from the mathematician-philosopher Douglas Hofstadter for that one). So “eye” (and “nose” and “tongue” and so on) equals “I” in a very direct, recursive way. As a Buddhist, I feel that that spontaneous and ephemeral “I” amounts to little more than desire, all that sad painful wanting that characterizes our existence.
UA: Your poems consider spirituality, the interiority of silence, and the human condition, set amidst the tangible minutiae of daily life. Yet, the diction in “Aphorism 33” and in other works is consistently concrete, meticulous, and fresh in its consideration of human existence. Can you discuss the language of “Aphorism 33?” Of your poetry in general? How do words like “qualia” and “fractal,” for example, find their way into a poem, and reconcile with the metaphorical movement within the piece?
JB: Lord, that’s a tough question. I’m teaching a seminar on Cormac McCarthy’s novels right now and that sort of question comes up constantly about his diction. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s Joker, “Where does he get all those marvelous toys?” I don’t know. You hear words and they tickle your word-bone, and you squirrel them away like a nut. My son is a physicist involved with the Fermi Lab’s NOvA neutrino project and I find myself browsing (usually with little comprehension) Scientific American articles on the web to try and keep up. Cool words those physicists have. Of course, they sometimes steal them from writerly types (I’m thinking of the origin of “quark” in Joyce’s Finnigan’s Wake), so it’s occasionally another one of those recursive loop things. Diction is all metaphor and the “other of language” anyway, if you believe Derrida and his ilk.
UA: Do you have a daily writing practice or schedule, or do you write only when the spirit moves you? Could you describe how this works for you?
JB: I write constantly and compulsively. It’s my default when I don’t have something more pressing to do. Poetry for me is a lot like Wordle or Sudoku or the Times Crossword for folks who are into those. Tinkery, challenging kind of fun that you look up from and wonder what happened to the last three hours.
UA: How has the pandemic affected your writing?
JB: Best thing that ever happened to my poetry, as awful as that might sound. Cut me off from so much distraction and eliminated commuting for nearly two years as face-to-face teaching went to Zoom. More time for tinkery fun. Very little effect so far as substance is concerned, though, I’m afraid. Like most poets, I was already deep into the whole mortality and veil of tears stuff that the pandemic has highlighted for us as a society.
UA: What advice do you have for budding poets in terms of finding their voice and sharpening their craft?
JB: The same old advice they’ll hear from everyone else, the writer’s version of real estate’s “location, location, location”: read, read, read. I’m always amazed at how few students in the average undergraduate poetry workshop have read much contemporary poetry. If you don’t read it, you can’t write it, at least not well.