James Agee’s Aperture of Awe

When a friend told me (late Thursday) it was National Punctuation Day I got upset.  I wished I’d known earlier; I would have done something.  When the knee-jerk regret wore off I realized I’d unknowingly celebrated punctuation in the best way I can think of.  I’d read, aloud with friends, from Permit me Voyage, the only book of poems James Agee prepared for publication.  The only book in which I’ve seen so many colons: between proper nouns; between items in lists of people and things that pile and pile upon each other; at the ends of lines and stanzas and paragraphs that seem never-ending.  And I wonder at so many colons, at what all they do, at what all they intimate between what comes before and after, below and beyond the two dots stacked, stark and elegant, on the page.

There: far, friends: ours: dear dominion:

This epigraph to Agee’s “Description of Elysium” is an evocative prelude my friends and I tried for too long to figure out.  A gesture pointing There: far, addressing friends: describing ours: calling or claiming or declaring dear dominion: Our care, perhaps, over the otherworld of afterlives we look to.  But “we can not come there,” the poet tells us.  He paints our looking-to in the one confessional sprawling sentence in the poem: “Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wandering far alone/ Of shadows on the stars.”  

Permit Me Voyage “is something that might be called preparation of spirit,” Agee’s friend and editor Robert Fitzerald writes in his introduction to The Collected Poems of James Agee.  Preparation for what? Fitzgerald discerns two “principle gifts” Agee realized in his prose work: A musical sensibility that sustains and shapes movement in time and “a raging awarenes of the sensory field in depth and in detail…A living prosody for him would govern the timing of camera shots, the speed and grain and hue of images, the cutting of sequences.”  How Agee punctuated his “preparation of spirit” is a grammar, I think, as unorthodox as his religiosity: “a most limpid purity and piety toward the good living of good people in the fathomless world of God.”

Perhaps in preparation for the literary documentary of Depression-era sharecroppers Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee makes a prose-poem “Dedication”

To those who have built this time in the earth in all its ways and who dwell in it variously as they may or must: farmers and workers and wandering men and builders and clerks and legislators and priests…and engineers and prisoners and servants and sailors and merchants and soldiers and airmen and artists: in cities amassed, and on wide water, and lonesome in the air, and dark under the earth, and laboring in the land, and in materials, and in the flesh, and in the mind, and in the heart: knowing little and less of great and little matters: enduring all things and most enduring living, each in his way of patience, who all, surely as a brook slopes into a deep cave and is lost, must die, into what destiny not one may know: to all these who live and who must die and those whom they breed to follow them in the earth to live and endure and breed and die: to the earth itself in its loveliness, and in all this race has done to it: and to its substance, and to its children every one, quick or quiet:

Colon by colon, we enter into Agee’s thickening and thickening description of his communion of “saints unsainted.”  We behold the texture of respect, as fellow KtBnik Nathan Schneider describes Agee’s tender and scrupulous relation to those whose lives he labored to document. We move deeply through the thicket of our Elysium, only to be surprised by a clearing, an aperture of awe in a singular moment of dedication “to an unknown sculptor of China, for his god’s head.”

Agee is a heretic and poet of colon usage.  The rules of Strunk and White cannot contain his shape-and-sound-shifting intimations of eternal life.  There: far, friends: He helps us see shadows on the stars. 

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.