The Winnowing Fan


This collection of poems explores various aspects of the relationship between poetry, philosophy, and literary theory. It takes up many topics from Christopher Norris’s earlier work in strikingly innovative ways, and uses a range of complex and challenging verse-forms to offer some uniquely inventive angles of approach. The longer poems are part of his project to revive a literary genre–the philosophical verse-essay–that has had very few serious or sustained practitioners since its eighteenth-century heyday. The poems thus signal a striking new direction in the work of this eminent literary theorist and philosopher.


Life, Love and Theory: ten reflections

(1) Descartes

“I am indeed amazed when I consider how weak my mind is and how prone to error”
—Descartes, Discourse on the Method

“It is only prudent never to place complete confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.”
—Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy

It stood to reason, but can reason stand?
All the best indicators say not so.
One thing’s for sure: it will not go as planned.

Time was when good solutions came to hand.
You searched, and when you found one, you would know.
It stood to reason, but can reason stand?

We fly on instruments but still crash-land.
They run for cover now who watched below.
One thing’s for sure: it will not go as planned.

Margins of error constantly expand
To show how far off-beam our flights can go.
It stood to reason, but can reason stand?

And you, whose finer instruments once scanned
My thoughts sky-wide, now track just those that show
One thing’s for sure: it will not go as planned.

The gap’s too large: Descartes’s pineal gland
Won’t help our minds and bodies say hello.
It stood to reason, but can reason stand?
One thing’s for sure: it will not go as planned.


(2) Heidegger

“‘What was Aristotle’s life?’ Well, the answer lay in a single sentence: ‘He was born, he thought, he died.’ And all the rest is pure anecdote.”

“Now the German people are in the process of rediscovering their own essence and making themselves worthy of their great destiny. Adolf Hitler, our great Führer, created . . .  a new state by which the people will assure itself anew of the duration and continuity of its history.”
—Martin Heidegger

Quite simply, ‘He was born, he thought, he died’.
These facts, you said, suffice to tell the tale.
All else is idle talk, best set aside.

Birth-dates and death-dates: these can be supplied,
Though thought alone sets out on Being’s trail.
Quite simply, ‘He was born, he thought, he died’.

Such is thought’s piety, so woe betide
Those whom it summons but to no avail.
All else is idle talk, best set aside.

They take your Daseinsfrage as their guide
To truth although its rudiments entail,
Quite simply, ‘He was born, he thought, he died’.

Should we enquire just how the rule applied
In your case, Herr Professor, we should fail
And fall to idle talk, best set aside

Since then we’d ask – for instance – why you tried
To cover Nazi thought-tracks so that they’ll
Show simply ‘he was born, he thought, he died’.

Let’s rather say the question’s bona-fide
Although addressed to you by surface mail
And rated ‘idle talk, best set aside’.

For while the factual-everyday may hide
Deep truths, yet deep-truth talk may serve to veil
All facts save ‘he was born, he thought, he died’
As yet more idle thought, best set aside.


(3) Adorno

“If negative dialectics calls for the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true — if it is to be true today, in any case — it must also be a thinking against itself.”
—Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics

“He who has loved and who betrays love does harm not only to the image of the past, but to the past itself.”
—Adorno, Minima Moralia

“He who integrates is lost.”
Minima Moralia

Particulars alone should rivet thought.
Let’s have no concept cast its abstract spell.
By each catastrophe the lesson’s taught.

Maybe it helps us get from is to ought,
Sets value free of its fact-hardened shell:
Particulars alone should rivet thought.

This pleads that haeccitas not go for naught,
No scheme of things its vibrant thinghood quell.
By each catastrophe the lesson’s taught.

All history shows that lesson dearly bought
When heavenly concepts conjured earthly hell.
Particulars alone should rivet thought.

So it was on negation’s side he fought
For space where exiled intellect might dwell.
By each catastrophe the lesson’s taught.

Forgive me if I cut this discourse short
Since it’s already bid that rule farewell:
Particulars alone should rivet thought.

One gift of yours was helping me to thwart
Such thoughts of you as habit might compel.
By each catastrophe the lesson’s taught.

To my conceptions came your swift retort,
Some gesture more exact than words could tell.
Particulars alone should rivet thought.

And now you’re gone how should I not resort
To idées fixes at which you’d soon rebel?
By each catastrophe the lesson’s taught.
Particulars alone should rivet thought.


(4) Benjamin

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Face backward where the wreckage piles sky-high.
That storm’s called ‘progress’, so his Theses said.
Unfold your wings, but do not think to fly.

No use now for your expert weather-eye,
Nor for your flying skills: you’d best instead
Face backward where the wreckage piles sky-high.

There’s too much debris cluttering the sky,
Along with parts by other angels shed.
Unfold your wings, but do not think to fly.

No second thoughts: however hard you try
To fold them down the gale keeps them outspread.
Face backward where the wreckage piles sky-high.

He says it blows from paradise, but I
Think that’s from some Kabbalah-text he read.
Unfold your wings, but do not think to fly.

No point postdating when things went awry
Though that’s the kind of myth we’re always fed.
Face backward where the wreckage piles sky-high.

On every scale this lesson must apply:
Be not by thoughts of Eden so misled;
Unfold your wings, but do not think to fly.

Paradise lost is our stock alibi;
It’s putting dates to break-ups that we dread.
Face backward where the wreckage piles sky-high.

No primal bliss, nor reason to ask why.
Back then catastrophe lay far ahead.
Unfold your wings, but do not think to fly.

The storm’s still raging, that we can’t deny.
Through wings it whistles fit to wake the dead.
Face backward where the wreckage piles sky-high.

No way our breaking-up can justify
This stretch of his fine parabolic thread:
Unfold your wings, but do not think to fly.

Applaud the exegetes when they decry
My lacking their angelic fear to tread:
Face backward where the wreckage piles sky-high.

Still you alone might see the point of my
Attempting such dissimilars to wed:
Unfold your wings, but do not think to fly.

Some hope things might make sense before we die
Is why these tales are here thus interbred.
Face backward where the wreckage piles sky-high;
Unfold your wings, but do not think to fly.


(5) Lacan

“In man, there’s already a crack, a profound perturbation of the regulation of life. That’s the importance of the death instinct . . . . [Freud] was forced to introduce it so as to remind us of a salient fact of his experience just when it was beginning to get lost.”

“Here there’s a radical difference between my non-satisfaction and the supposed satisfaction of the other. There is no image of identity, of reflexivity, but a relation of fundamental alterity.”
—Jacques Lacan, Seminar II (1954-55).

‘There id shall be’, is how the message goes.
Read Rimbaud (‘j’est un autre’) and concede:
Id knows the gaps in all that ego knows.

Theorists depend on Lacan to disclose
This truth though, if it’s true, then what’s the need?
‘There id shall be’, is how the message goes.

‘I’ may propose, but signifiers dispose.
The rule brooks no exception, since indeed
Id knows the gaps in all that ego knows.

Our gaps grow ever wider, and it shows.
Your silences are what I most should heed.
‘There id shall be’, is how the message goes.

Our case is not so hard to diagnose
Since Freud and Lacan taught us how to read.
Id knows the gaps in all that ego knows.

Quite simply, it’s the problem that arose
When Descartes pushed his ego-sponsored creed.
‘There id shall be’, is how the message goes.

What’s lost when poetry’s reduced to prose
Is crucial here, both masters seem agreed.
Id knows the gaps in all that ego knows.

For it’s in poetry that language slows
The rush to sense and non-sense takes a lead.
‘There id shall be’, is how the message goes.

So listen well, and with most care to those
Whose words mere sense-propriety exceed:
Id knows the gaps in all that ego knows.

Still gaps are gaps and this is one that throws
Us way off-course, no nostos guaranteed.
‘There id shall be’, is how the message goes.

Which hurts the more, to think that ego chose
The break-up or that it’s what id decreed?
Id knows the gaps in all that ego knows.

Though id-pressed ego begs we not foreclose
The case its voice sounds scarcely fit to plead.
‘There id shall be’, is how the message goes.

The iceberg’s tip may show yet still it froze;
How should lost warmth the permafrost impede?
Id knows the gaps in all that ego knows.

Should some small part unfreeze then this it owes
To what’s by lethal climate-change now freed.
‘There id shall be’, is how the message goes.
Id knows the gaps in all that ego knows.


(6) Derrida

“Prickly with spines, vulnerable and dangerous, calculating and ill-adapted (because it makes itself into a ball, sensing the danger on the autoroute, it exposes itself to an accident). No poem without accident, no poem that does not open itself like a wound, but no poem that is not also just as wounding.”
—Jacques Derrida, ‘Che cos’è la poesia?’ (‘What is poetry?’)

Each time headlights approach I curl up tight.
The roar of tyres crescendos, then recedes.
So I outlive your road-kill night by night.

My spines do splendid service in a fight
With any animal that wounds and bleeds,
But when the lights approach I curl up tight.

See here: my spines still bristle though the sight,
Mid-carriageway, is one no driver heeds.
Yet I outlive your road-kill night by night.

You tossed me from the verge; for you I write
This hedgehog-poem as you judge their speeds
So that when lights approach I curl up tight.

Let’s not pretend you don’t enjoy my plight
Out here where every near-miss surely pleads
I might outlive your road-kill night by night.

Should not such fluke longevity invite
Some greater care for my survival needs?
Yet still when lights approach I curl up tight.

Now they pass inches from me left and right
Where every speeding vehicle exceeds
The law. Outlive your road-kill night by night
I shall, but lights approach: I curl up tight.


(7) Lévinas

“The Other, whose exceptional presence is inscribed in the ethical impossibility of killing him, marks the end of powers.  If I can no longer have power over him it is because he overflows absolutely every idea I can have of him.”

“The calling in question of the I, coextensive with the manifestation of the Other in the face, we call language . . . . This voice coming from another shore teaches transcendence itself.”
—Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. A Lingis

An alter ego’s what the Other meant.
‘Tout autre est tout autre’ can’t be true.
Sheer Otherness would be a non-event.

Let’s then resist the segregating bent
That bids the moi haïssable shrink from you.
An alter ego’s what the other meant.

I’d say it’s too much otherness that went
To knock our fragile likenesses askew.
Sheer Otherness would be a non-event.

Though sometimes its reserves were overspent,
Still it’s the empathy that got us through.
An alter ego’s what the other meant.

What room for ethics if the dictate’s sent
Each time by who-knows-whom to who-knows-who?
Sheer Otherness would be a non-event.

Despite the Lévinasians intent
On letting no first-person spoil their view
An alter ego’s what the other meant.

Truth is, those over-ready to accent
Alterity give no event its due:
Sheer Otherness would be a non-event.

The law their tablets stonily present
Is apt to give mere humans little clue
An alter ego’s what the other meant.

Recall how it was growing discontent
Brought otherness, not egos we outgrew.
Sheer Otherness would be a non-event.

Real happenings spring from all that’s different
When one plus one’s both more and less than two.
An alter ego’s what the other meant.

Past tense, you’ll note, since everything that lent
That status once now ceases to accrue.
Sheer Otherness would be a non-event.

Alterity showed change was imminent
And warned those old self-comforts wouldn’t do:
‘An alter ego’s what the other meant’;
‘Sheer Otherness would be a non-event’.


(8) Deleuze

We’re tired of trees. We should stop believing in trees, roots, and radicles. They’ve made us suffer too much. All of arborescent culture is founded on them, from biology to linguistics. Nothing is beautiful or loving or political aside from underground stems and aerial root, adventitious growths and rhizomes.
—Gilles Deleuze, A Thousand Plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia

How should the rhizomes not destroy the trees?
Their growth is rank, it spreads from root to root.
What once stood strong must perish by degrees.

They blame it on some airborne bark disease,
Those experts, but their figures don’t compute:
How should the rhizomes not destroy the trees?

At times like this I feel the rhizomes squeeze
More tightly lest our branches yield good fruit.
What once stood strong must perish by degrees.

Come Winter they’ll survive the sharpest freeze
Deep down but up above kill each new shoot.
How should the rhizomes not destroy the trees?

Let’s grant, trees rot; yet nothing guarantees
Their death until root-sickness grows acute.
What once stood strong must perish by degrees.

Such, then, the grim prognosis we reprise
Each time some new root crisis strikes us mute:
How should the rhizomes not destroy the trees?

Time was when careful tending might appease
The threat, but now they find no cure to suit.
What once stood strong must perish by degrees.

The arborologists say ‘time to seize
Our chance’, but still they leave the question moot:
How should the rhizomes not destroy the trees?

Truth is, the rhizome-network’s one that she’s
Entangled with, like me, their forced recruit.
What once stood strong must perish by degrees.

If both of us are now part-time trainees
With rhizome’s army, what’s there to dispute?
How should the rhizomes not destroy the trees?

At least we’ll then do nothing to displease
Those who make trees their evil absolute.
What once stood strong must perish by degrees.

Best treat us two as shell-shocked refugees
Shot up at every crossing-point en route.
How should the rhizomes not destroy the trees?

Or maybe their assault will help us tease
Out finally which maxim’s more astute,
‘What once stood strong must perish by degrees’,

Or its brave opposite? You’re one who sees
To what new depth their pathogens pollute:
How should the rhizomes not destroy the trees?

And our dead branches shredding in the breeze
Yield one hard truth Deleuzeans can’t refute.
What once stood strong must perish by degrees
As rhizomes tangle roots of words, thoughts, trees.


(9) Agamben

“If poetry is defined precisely by the possibility of enjambement, it follows that the last verse of a poem is not a verse.”

” . . . . as if the poem as a formal structure could not and would not end . . . .”
—Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem

“The endings of the last verses are most beautiful if they fall into silence together with rhymes.”
—Dante, “On Eloquence in the Vernacular”

Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear.
With tensions unresolved it stays alive.
Signs of convergence mean the end is near.

Unrest’s endemic to the poem’s sphere.
When meter vies with syntax, then they thrive;
Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear.

If metric skill’s enabled us to steer
A crash-free course, still soon we’ll take a dive.
Signs of convergence mean the end is near.

Caesura and enjambement make it clear
These things are poems, till last lines arrive.
Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear.

That’s why, when synchronicities appear,
A dying fall’s what poets must contrive:
Signs of convergence mean the end is near.

And so it is with us when first we hear
Our cadences too perfectly connive:
Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear.

If only our two beats would interfere
We might some quick-fix counterpoint derive:
Signs of convergence mean the end is near.

As poetry declines to prose, so we’re
Flat-liners no caesura can revive:
Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear.

All that we know of this we know by ear
As accents lose their negentropic drive.
Signs of convergence mean the end is near.

Syntax and meter finally cohere
Though prosody requires they strain and rive.
Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear.

All options fail and yet we persevere
With forms that still for Dante’s blessing strive.
Signs of convergence mean the end is near.
Verse-closure throws the whole thing out of gear.


(10) Badiou

“A truth is always that which makes a hole in knowledge.”
—Alain Badiou, Being and Event

“Love can only consist in failure on the fallacious assumption that it is a relationship. But it is not. It is a production of truth.”
—Badiou, Conditions

“All resistance is a rupture with what is. And every rupture begins, for those engaged in it, through a rupture with oneself.”
—Badiou, Metapolitics

Where truth meets knowledge, it’s to punch a hole.
We thought we knew for sure but new truths say
All knowledge comes to play a walk-on role.

Old bits of it pile up: just take a stroll
Down science lane and relish the display.
Where truth meets knowledge, it’s to punch a hole.

Knights of the known look splendid on patrol
Till the giants Doubt and Error block their way.
All knowledge comes to play a walk-on role.

Some think that growth in wisdom should console
For knowing less, yet still these words dismay:
Where truth meets knowledge, it’s to punch a hole.

I steered by you like my magnetic pole
For years on end, but it led me astray.
All knowledge comes to play a walk-on role.

Each theory falsified exacts its toll;
Each time we up sticks there’s a price to pay.
Where truth meets knowledge, it’s to punch a hole.
All knowledge comes to play a walk-on role.