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Sine Qua Non

July 15, 2013

Sine Qua Non

Your absence, father, is nothing. It is naught–
The factor by which nothing will multiply,
The gap of a dropped stitch, the needle’s eye
Weeping its black thread. It is the spot
Blindly spreading behind the looking glass.
It is the startled silences that come
When the refrigerator stops its hum,
And crickets pause to let the winter pass.

Your absence, father, is nothing–for it is
Omega’s long last O, memory’s elision,
The fraction of impossible division,
The element I move through, emptiness,
The void stars hang in, the interstice of lace,
The zero that still holds the sum in place.

–A.E. Stallings 2010

COMMENTARY: Sine qua non, Latin for indispensable which is Latinate for…(curiously no Germanic words exist for this concept), “without this nothing,” might, in this poem, be playfully rephrased as “sine non non,” without nothing nothing, since Stallings’s point seems to be that her father’s absence brings presences into sharper distinction. The black thread is needful (there’s a Germanic word) of the needle hole. The noise of the refrigerator, like the chirping of crickets, is brought into focus by the startling silence when it stops. Lastly, the zeros in mathematics are necessary for the proper reading of the sum. These analogies sharpen the cliche that “absence makes the heart grow fonder;” we truly love and miss and appreciate something when it isn’t there.

Stallings deploys a very graceful formalism–unusual for contemporary poets. Nevertheless, a number of lines are beautiful in a raw, unaffected kind of way. I love the needle “weeping its black thread”  and “crickets pause to let the winter pass,” where I visualize winter like a big, slow wagon in some crowded 19th century street. I also like, for a different reason, the lines “Omega’s long last O, memory’s elision/ the fraction of impossible division.” I have always thought it to be interesting that zero, in math, goes into any number an infinite number of times.

The concept of “nothing” has been fruitful terrain (or space) for poetry. Joe Brodsky has an essay where he compares poets to lace-makers whose craft consists of making the holes rather than the fabric. Seamus Heaney quotes Brodsky somewhere but changes the “fabric” to a doughnut. Czeslaw Milosz, in his book, The Roadside Dog, has a poem about a sect of hole worshipers in Russia who go around all day chanting, “O holy hole.” Finally, I like what the philosopher Robert Nozic said when asked to define nothing: “the present continuous of the verb ‘to noth.'”

One Comment
  1. richibi permalink

    your comments are always insightful, moonbeam, but I don’t get the German connection here, please explain – thanks, Richard

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