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Fall 2015

Table Talk

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Tomas Unger


This is the telegram Beckett sent to his close friend Thomas MacGreevy on hearing that Jack Yeats—painter, friend, brother of the poet—had died. I’ve been trying to account for its unlikely effect: not only of the opening sentiment, that is, but, now that the telegram is an archaism, the form as a whole. Though we have a weird analogue in Twitter (by whose strict standards the above still passes for rare economy, at a character-count of 65 / 140), I’ve never read anything quite like this string of nine words: minute and immense, headlong and deliberate.

“A piece of life”: Matthew Arnold celebrated realism as offering us this. George Steiner takes up the phrase and finds it, like the art Arnold means to champion, wanting. Steiner points to the quality of deadness unwittingly implied by “a piece”: strict realism, he means us to see, is life not reflected but concentrated out of existence, life too severed from itself to count as itself.

But the pathos of the above telegram is exactly this: it lives, paradoxically, in seeming so manifestly, so frustratingly and frustratedly, a “piece of life” in the impoverished sense, nothing more. All breathing human passion is shut out, even as the language speaks unambiguously to its existence—on some other plane, in some other place. A mode which treats every letter as a like expense; a mode in which the preposition “to” and the subject “I” can only be dispensed with as unnecessary costs, for all the dogged and disproportionately touching civility of PLEASE—such a mode is, we feel (another word disallowed), one that conspires to make nothing of human emotion, even as it militates, clarifyingly, against sentimentality and excess.

So we have the plight of The Speaker, the plight of every turner-to-words, in miniature. GREAT SORROW: these are words that know exactly how insufficient words are on this bitch of an earth (the phrase isn’t mine). Only artful compression can count. This too is very nearly nothing. Only (ARRANGE WORDS) never nothing.

Tomas Unger lives and works in New York. His poetry has appeared in The Threepenny Review.


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