Lucille Medwick Memorial Award - 2008
I AND THOU
Must we cultivate our kindness?
Can webook a fellow-feeling for the sake of the fellow,
not the Ghost? Last night, for example, the whitehaired
girl told us singing was like praying; and that
iron of naturalized note in the bluegrass made me
want to say sublime, sublime to myself, in the Sapphic
sense that knows sublimity as love (O wash me
green as yonder field); and the girl's reed song did
light from the stage, articulating phrases like Heavens
divided in a quaver between forte and whisper, acute
supple wavers among syllables and slants: and now
may you keep me close within your ear; I can hear
the voice I loved when I wondered at its dialect—
you know, if I'm ever able to speak, I'll want
someone human to answer me.
Timothy Donnelly on Christina Pugh
Passionate and crafty, urgent yet meditative, "I and Thou" shares its title with the famous 1923 essay in which Martin Buber distinguishes between the subject's relation to an object that serves a practical function (the "I-It relation") and the relation between two subjects meeting in the fullness of their existence and without objectification (the "I-Thou" relation). True I-Thou relations are few, Buber claims, in part because so many of our relations to other human beings prove woefully motivated by the self-interest indicative of I-It relations. The spiritual repercussions of this condition are immense, especially since I-Thou relations ultimately serve to give our lives meaning and to bring us into contact with the divine ("in each Thou we address the eternal Thou," Buber writes.) To complicate matters, insofar as I-Thou relations might be thought to serve these spiritual functions, they come to resemble I-It relations, suggesting that the two categories of relation are ultimately not so dissimilar or incompatible as they may at first seem.
The speaker in "I and Thou" doesn't want to burn through her attachments to particular objects in order to attain some higher, less personal state. She wants instead to luxuriate in all their specificity, to bask in their hæccity, and to experience them with an attentiveness so ecstatic, so exacting ("articulating phrases like Heavens / divided in a quaver between forte and whisper, acute / supple wavers among syllables and slants") that it
leaves her speechless. Putting song on par with prayer, positing sublimity as erotic, not transcendent, she doesn't want her I-Thou relations to have to connect to divinity in order to attain their ultimate significance. If and when she regains speech, she writes, "I'll want someone human (italics mine) to answer me,"—not a deity, not some big idea, but a merely mortal individual, fully met, astonishing as is, and deserving unique worship.