Burton Hatlen: On "To my wash-stand"

In the attempt to show what a "poetics of absence" might look like in practice, I turn now to some specific poems by Zukofsky. My principal exhibit is the well-known "To My Wash-stand" (All, pp. 59-60). This poem, written in 1932, antedates the writing of Bottom by at least twenty years. Yet as early as this poem we can already see Zukofsky passing through a poetics of presence, into something quite different. The poem begins by invoking one of those homely but potentially numinous "things" that so richly populate the poetry of Williams and Zukofsky's other immediate predecessors:


            To my wash-stand

in which I wash

            my left hand

and my right hand


            To my wash-stand

whose base is Greek

            whose shaft

is marble and is fluted


            To my wash-stand

whose wash-bowl

            is an oval

in a square


            To my wash-stand

whose square is marble

            and inscribes two

smaller ovals to left and right for soap


These opening lines immediately locate us in a world of "presence," by establishing at the center of our attention a concrete object (the wash-stand), the poet himself as "seer," and an everyday action (the poet is washing his hands). Why make a poem out of such mundane materials? If this were a Williams poem we would have a simple answer. Williams relishes such everyday objects and actions because for him everything is numinous. Yet this poem does something else (or something more) than simply salute a numinous object. For Zukofsky asks us not only to look at the objects and actions here at issue but also to recognize how strange and wonderful it is that, as he washes his hands, he is also composing (in his head, presumably) a poem about washing his hands. We have here, we might say, two levels of existence, which I shall call the "given" and the "gratuitous." The given is what is simply there: objects like wash-stands, actions like washing one's hands, etc. The gratuitous includes actions like "decorating" a wash-stand or making up a poem. What is the relationship between the given and the gratuitous? And since (more particularly) all words are gratuitous, what is the relationship between words and things? These are the questions which this poem asks.

In the poem we sense the gratuitous pulling against the given almost immediately, as the words of the poem assert themselves as no less solid and if anything even more present than the wash-stand. In Williams's poetry the syntactic dislocations result from an attempt to keep the words close to the surface of things, but Zukofsky's dislocations instead force our attention onto the surface of his words. One half of the reader’s brain wants to read the opening line as a quasi-title—as in "To a Skylark," etc. But by the time that the "To . . . " construction has been repeated four times, the conventional poetic associations of the phrase begin to dissolve, and we hear a manic chant that might go on forever. The sensory details that we are here offered also evoke some dissonant echoes. Is it somehow important that the poet washes his left hand before his right hand? Is some sort of ritual going on here? If not, doesn't the pedantic distinction—"my left hand / and my right hand"—seem a little mannered, even mocking? And if so, who is being mocked? In the second stanza a mocking note seems more audible still, as the poet pretends to locate this object within history: the base of the wash-stand "is Greek," and in fact the wash-stand would appear to be a truncated column ("marble," "fluted"). Now the gratuitous manifests itself not only in the poet's apparently absurd decision to write a poem about washing his hands, but in the wash-stand itself: someone, not the poet, has decided to conceal the function of the wash-stand behind a purely gratuitous and indeed quite absurd stylistic gesture, by disguising the wash-stand as a piece of a column from a Greek temple. (The poet recognizes the absurdity of the gesture. But is his own poem any less absurd?) Not only is the wash-stand no less a gratuitous gesture than Zukofsky's poem, but it is also in some ways a specifically verbal gesture: for the "square " of the "marble" "inscribes"—i.e., etches, writes into itself—the "two / smaller ovals . . . for soap." In the third and fourth stanzas the note of mockery audible in the allusion to the Greek column fades, but the wash-stand itself now seems to break up into a more or less cubist cluster of abstract shapes—specifically, squares and ovals-within-squares. Even this early in the poem, then, we begin to suspect that something other than a simple celebration of the being-there of an object is here going on. If the poet wants to celebrate the givenness of things, he also wants to affirm the gratuitous, the play of the mind over the surface of things, the endless self-invention of language. Can the poem bring the given and the gratuitous into an intelligible relationship? To find out we must plunge on.

The next section of the poem quickly complicates matters by introducing a new variable, the imagination:


            Comes a song of

water from the right faucet and the left

            my left and my

right hand mixing hot and cold.


            Comes a flow which

if I have called a song

            is a song

entirely in my head


The calculated placement of the verb at the beginning of the fifth stanza, made possible in part by a self-conscious subject-verb inversion, forces us to revise all the syntactic expectations we have been operating on up to this point in the poem. The "To . . . " phrase, we now discover, was not (or not entirely) an indication that the poem is addressed to the wash-stand; rather the first four stanzas now become a giant prepositional construction modifying the verb "comes." This deliberate, almost Miltonic toying with our syntactic expectations helps to keep our attention on the linguistic surface of the poem. But the verb "comes," while reversing our assumptions about the syntactic role of the opening "To . . . " phrases, paradoxically confirms our sense that we have been listening to some sort of invocation. The muse has been summoned, and she does not refuse: "comes a song of / water." ("Veni, creator acqua"?) Yet is it not strange that the muse should come, not to the poet, but to his wash-stand? That it, not he, should sing? Initially, the word "song" gives off a re-assuring aura. We are, it would seem, still in a world of presence, where things sing to us the song of themselves. But immediately Zukofsky splits the song into two distinct melodic lines, one from each faucet, one played by the right hand and the other by the left hand, one hot and one cold. By thus disassembling his own metaphor, the poet implicitly admits that he has momentarily allowed the gratuitous—specifically, the metaphor-making powers of the imagination—to take over the poem, thereby obscuring the simple givenness of the water, the wash-stand, etc. Accordingly, in the sixth stanza the poet allows the "song" to become merely a "flow," as he now grants that the song has sounded only in his own head. But in momentarily metamorphising the world within his imagination, has the poet perhaps admitted that the imagination is all we've got? Is it possible that "things" manifest themselves to us only as an obstinate multiplicity? Can it be that we know nothing except the gratuitous play of our own minds? Is the dream of "presence," of an immediate experience of the givenness of things, merely a dream and a delusion? And is this poem on the verge of becoming a meditation on the power of the imagination to create meaning in an otherwise empty universe?

Yet if the poem has at this point come to a recognition of the ultimate impossibility of a grasping "things" in their immediacy, Zukofsky also adroitly avoids the symbolist temptation a well, as we can see in the next two dizzying stanzas:


            a song out of imagining

modillions descried above

            my head a frieze

of stone completing what no longer


            is my wash-stand

since its marble has completed

            my getting up each morning

my washing before going to bed


In these lines Zukofsky loads double and triple functions onto virtually every word, to undermine the distinction between the given and the gratuitous, between "things"' and the imagination, between the outer and the inner. Should we, for example, read "imagining" as an adjective that modifies "modillions"? If so these lines would be ascribing to the modillions themselves the ability to imagine, and the song would be coming "out of" the modillions. (A modillion, my American Heritage dictionary tells me, is "an ornamental bracket used in series under the cornice of the Corinthian, Composite, or Roman Ionic orders.") Or should we read "imagining" as a gerund, with "modillions" as its direct object? Now the song would come "out of" the poet's imagination, as he envisions a set of (imaginary) modillions ranged above his head. (In this reading, the poet has in his imagination extended the truncated column of the wash-stand on up to the ceiling, and has added at the top a cornice supported by modillions.) Or should we read an implied period after "imagining"? Now "out of" would mean "beyond," and we would have "a song / entirely in my head / // , a song [beyond] imagining." All these readings are possible. In fact, Zukofsky seems to twist his syntax just enough so that we are unable to establish one of these readings as "right" and the others as "wrong." As a result, three things seem to be happening here. First, the poet's mind has imaginatively transformed a wash-stand in his rented room into a column in a Greek temple. That is, the poet has created a "song" by moving at the same time inward into, the imagination and upward (for the modillions are "above" his head) into a visionary realm. Yet at the same time the modillions (not imaginary now) are themselves singing. And at the same time yet again, a song from beyond all possible ranges of the imagination can be heard echoing behind the scenes.

Somewhere up there with the modillions (perhaps supported by them?) is, we next learn, a "frieze of stone" which "completes" what "no longer // is my wash-stand." The key word here is "completes." The frieze "completes" the wash-stand first of all by carrying the truncated column all the way to the ceiling. But two additional meanings of "completes" are also pertinent here. "To complete" may mean "to bring to perfection"; it can also mean "to end, to conclude." The (imaginary? real? at this point we don't know) frieze has brought the wash-stand to a state of ideal perfection, but in the process has also obliterated it: it is "no longer" the poet's wash-stand but something else—what, we do not know. And just as the "frieze" "completes" the wash-stand, so too it also "completes" (brings to perfection, but also ends, effaces) the poet's daily ritual of getting up and going to bed. But the pronoun "its" turns out to be slippery. Does the pronoun refer to the frieze or to "what used to be my wash-stand"? The wash-stand itself, we should note, also "completes" the poet's life by bracketing it: the ritual of the wash-stand begins and completes each day. Yet it is not the "real" wash-stand but "what used to be the wash-stand," the wash-stand that the gratuitous gesture of the imagination has effaced, which so punctuates the poet's day. What is the effect of all these syntactic and lexical slips and slides? Primarily to completely confound any neat division of the world into the inner and the outer, the imaginary and the real. The "song," by the end of the eighth stanza, is neither "in " the wash-stand nor in the poet's head; rather it is at once everywhere and nowhere.

The breakdown of outer/inner distinctions in the central stanzas of this poem in turn prepares us for the pivotal moment of the poem, in which we plunge into a world in which the outer is inner, and vice versa:


            my look into a mirror

to glimpse half an oval

            as if its half

were half-oval in my head    and the


            climates of many

inscriptions human heads shapes'

            horses' elephants' (tusks) others'

scratched in marble tile


            so my wash-stand

in one particular breaking of the

            tile at which I have

looked and looked


            has opposed to my head

the inscription of a head

            whose coinage is the

coinage of the poor


The sudden introduction of a mirror at this point (we've heard nothing about it previously) changes all the terms within the poem. Are mirrors "given" or "gratuitous"? Is an image in a mirror "real" or "symbolic"? There are no answers to these questions, and this is why the reflected image of the wash-stand—not the wash-stand in itself (which has, indeed, now disappeared) nor the poet's imaginative transformation of it—can serve to resolve the polarities in the poem. Looking into the mirror where he might plausibly expect to see his own head, the poet sees instead half of the oval of the wash-bowl, as if the wash-bowl (or half of it!) were "in" his head, or perhaps has even replaced his head. And in the mirror too he discovers—not now as imagined by the poet's mind but rather as simply given to his eyes—the "frieze" he had longed for to "complete" the wash-stand, as he sees "inscriptions" of human heads et al. "scratched in marble tile." "Things" have now clearly begun to speak. The marble tiles on (or around?) the wash- stand are etched with signs, messages, words. Once the outer/inner distinction has been broken down, everything here becomes language. The wash-stand itself can now become another mirror, as it gives back to the poet an image of a head that both reflects the poet's own head and is irreducibly alien; for in the end it is simply there, a crack in the tile. The gap in the tile opens up the impenetrable surface of things, so that the tile becomes in effect a word. But as the wash-stand disappears into language, so too the poet disappears into his own act of attention. Everything becomes "inscription " (from scribo, scribere, to write in to) and "coinage" ("the process of making coins," and "a system of metal currency," says my dictionary, but also "the invention of new words"). "Coinage" also implies value, but the coinage here at issue is the "coinage of the poor," to whom value comes not as money but in the pure good of seeing, as Zukofsky emphasizes in the concluding stanzas of this poem :


            . . . a head

            whose coinage is the

coinage of the poor


            observant in waiting

in their getting up mornings

            and in their waiting

going to bed


            carefully attentive

to what they have

            and to what they do not



when a flow of water

            doubled in narrow folds

occasions invertible counterpoints

            over a head          and


            and age in a wash-stand

and in their own heads


Having met the "Other" in the head that accident has inscribed upon a wash-stand title, the poet now finds himself also within a community. "I" gives way to "they," a "they" that by implication includes the poet himself, since he has within the poem already performed all the actions here ascribed to "the poor." The impacted syntactic ambiguities of the middle sections of the poem diminish in these concluding stanzas, but the syntax still takes at least one or two unexpected twists. Should we read "observant" and "attentive" as modifying "the poor" or as modifying "a head"? Both possibilities again seem plausible, even necessary. The poor are attentive to their wash-stands—they have the time for such ritual observances. But this attention does not go unreciprocated, for the inscriptions carved into the wash-stand also observe patiently and attentively the comings and goings of the poor. Again the inner/outer distinction has been eradicated. The two places are, it seems, inter-changeable—or rather there is only one place, the place of inscription, which is also the place of meeting. At this meeting place there comes into being a community that includes poets and wash-stands and all the rest of us too, if we will only admit to our utter poverty, admit that we have nothing, neither a self nor a world—for at that moment all is returned to us, and we find ourselves in a world that is both "given" and "gratuitous," both inescapably there when we open our eyes and a free and utterly arbitrary event. (In this respect Carroll Terrell's suggestion that "To My Wash-stand" offers a kind of "Zen insight" seems to me accurate.) For only the poor themselves and the things that populate their world know how poor and rich we are, what we do and do not have when the "flow of water" surges from the faucet, not now a "song" but still a column of sorts ("doubled in narrow folds," as—apparently—the cold and the warm streams run together, to create for the first time a whole) and still able to occasion "invertible" ("to invert" means both "to turn inside out" and "to turn upside down," and Zukofsky has here done both, by demonstrating that the high and the low, the inner and the outer can be flipped ad infinitum) "counterpoints" (because we can if we know how to listen still hear a song, two—maybe more—melodic lines interweaving to create an unexpected harmony, counterpoints both within the head and within the wash-stand and between the two). And now in the final lines of his poem, having defined language as the place of meeting, and having collapsed all false dichotomies of outer and inner, "things" "and the imagination, the given and the gratuitous into the event of meaning/meeting, Zukofsky can graciously allow the "head" to assume once again the illusion of autonomy. Now the counterpoints ascend once again, into a "higher" realm: they are "over a head." (The poet's head? But is it perhaps safe at this point to raise the possibility that "head" can also be read as a pun? Is there not probably a toilet in this bathroom too?) Yet if the counterpoints are in one sense "overhead," above the concrete historical moment, the "age" that poet and wash-stand must share, in another sense the counterpoints are in the wash-stand and in the heads of the poor. (Again we should note the syntactic ambiguities: the phrases "in a wash-stand" and "in their own heads" modify both "counterpoints" and "age.") And in the end these counterpoints enact themselves—can enact themselves—in the only place where heads and wash-stands meet, the place of language.

Where, then, in the end, has "To My Wash-stand" gotten us to? The fact that this question asserts itself might first be underscored. Zukofsky has not given us a "verbal icon," a static object. Rather the poem acts upon us. Specifically, it seeks to lead us to a point where we will see the world in a new way. In seeking to bring the reader to a new kind of awareness, "To My Wash-stand" locates itself within a long tradition of meditative poetry that includes such august texts as "Lycidas," Marvell's "The Garden," "Tintem Abbey," "Ode to a Nightingale," and "Among School Children." In all of these poems, the poetic persona finds himself in some way out of harmony with the scene before him, and in all of these poems the poet seeks a way of resolving this disharmony. In all of them, finally, the poet ultimately counsels himself (and indirectly counsels us) to see the gap between self and world not simply as a wound but as a potential source of new strengths. The American poets of presence (Pound, Williams, Reznikoff, and company) reject what they see as the overtones of resignation in this meditative tradition. Instead they demand a total interpenetration of self and world. Zukofsky, rejecting both these options, here offers a third option. Like the great poets of the meditative tradition, and unlike the American poets of presence, Zukofsky recognizes a gap between the self and the world. (In this respect his late-blooming admiration for Wallace Stevens comes as no surprise.) But rather than simply dramatizing this gap or trying to find in it a source of spiritual and imaginative strength, Zukofsky has in "To My Wash-stand" allowed self and world to "deconstruct" (if I may shift for a moment to a currently fashionable vocabulary) one another. The poem begins with the poet washing his hands, but by the end he has disappeared, becoming merely a limit point, an occasion for the verbal events that enact themselves before us. Yet the world too has dissolved by the end of the poem, leaving a few inscriptions, a few ever vanishing "traces," which we and the poet together try to read. The "wholeness" of the world, the "thingness" of things, the autonomy of the knowing "subject"—all these are, by the end of the poem, present only in their absence. Yet as the poem deliberately disassembles these various metaphysical presences, the inscriptions that we find ourselves reading do "show" ( to revert to a Wittgensteinian vocabulary) what they cannot "say," do point toward these absent modes of "wholeness." The moment of recognition that this poem seeks to carry us toward is thus truly radical, and absolutely of our century: namely, a recognition that self and world are both only limit points, and that between the two is the only space where we can meet, the space of language.


Title Burton Hatlen: On "To my wash-stand" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Burton Hatlen Criticism Target Louis Zukofsky
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 10 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Zukovsky, Wittgenstein, and the Poetics of Absence
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