Jan Zwicky’s poem, "The Geology of Norway," is about the discovery of material metaphoricity through "lyric thinking." The poem takes place in time between Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and his Philosophical Investigations, and begins by looking back to the Tractatus and its interest in defined parameters and orderly relationships. The entire text of the Tractatus is set up in numbered arguments extending from each of its seven central propositions. It is an integrated form, a virtual crystallography in its geometric design. As Zwicky notes in her preface to the poem (the preface accompanied the poem’s first publication in The Harvard Review of Philosophy), we pick up on the imagined voice of Ludwig Wittgenstein in Norway amidst a reassessment of his work in logic and amidst the early drafts of his later publications. This later work, as Zwicky acknowledges, is generally held by critics to be discontinuous with the Tractatus.
Bertrand Russell remarks in the Introduction to the Tractatus that Wittgenstein "is concerned with the conditions which would have to be fulfilled by a logically perfect language" (ix). This concern with logic is emphasized at the beginning of the poem where we are presented with the compression of the world into facts, into an objectified, totalized matter: "a geologic epoch / rendered to a slice of rock you hold between / your finger and your thumb. / That is a fact." Matter here is circumscribable, delineable, and logical. The poem proceeds in a way that is not simply critical of this earlier, logic-centred thinking; rather, the narrator enacts his own self-reflexive "seeing-as," his own attempt at understanding by way of articulation between the different logical contexts of language games (in the following [Page 43]case, the world of facts and the world of light).6 "That’s what I wanted," he decides among different ways to see facts, "words made of that: language / that could bend light." Moreover, it is not simply what things mean but that they mean and do so elusively that provokes such wonder in the speaker: "This is the mystery: meaning. / Not that these folds of rock exist / but that their beauty, here, / now, nails us to the sky." The "thisness" of things inspires an awareness of meaningful resonant relation.
This wonder, this "bewilderment / by beauty," that distracts the speaker from the logical work he had sought, that makes him stand beside his own system of thinking, becomes the central issue of the poem. The speaker recognizes the interruption of his materialist thinking: "I wanted to become rock myself. I thought / if I could find, and say, / the perfect word, I’d nail / mind to world, and find / release." However, what we encounter in the last part of the poem is the mystery of meaning "seen as" the mystery of material origin. The last three stanzas of the poem are taken up with a description of the geological origins of Norway, the plate tectonics that have shaped it over the ages.7 There was a time, the speaker notes, when "you could hike from Norway / down through Greenland to the peaks / of Appalachia." Things move, they are dynamic, their relationships are not discrete totalities. The speaker admits that he cannot reduce the materiality of the world systematically; rather at the end of the poem he is engaged in a lyrical relationship to the landscape, a metaphorical relationship with the end of the world, the stillness therein that cannot be the product of a linear time.
So I was wrong.
This doesn’t mean
that meaning is a bluff.
History, that’s what
confuses us. Time
is not linear, but it’s real.
The rock beneath us drifts,
and will, until the slow cacophony of magma
cools and locks the continents in place.
Then weather, light,
will be the only things that move.
And will they understand?
Will they have a name for us?—Those
perfect changeless plains,
the beach that was this mountain, [Page 44] and the tide that rolls for miles across
its vacant slope.
The end of things cannot be locked into the expectations of time the way the meaning of matter cannot be locked into language, into facts; yet it is the "thisness" of the mountain, its geology, that inspires this resonant thinking, this question which is itself a response to an implied address from the geography. This is an example of how coming to think lyrically, metaphorically, about matter allows one to stand in relation to difference. It is precisely this relationship with difference, with error, that is given an ethical inflection at the end of the poem: "So I was wrong," the speaker exclaims, "This doesn’t mean / that meaning is a bluff. / …the rock beneath us drifts." Meaning is not a fake and neither is it a precipice (depending on one’s metaphorical take). It is the ecology of one’s relationships with the world. This poem, hinged between the geometrics of the Tractatus and the wonder of the Investigations, is itself a relation of metaphoricity between the two. It enacts in its formal structure the metaphoricity of its lyric apprehension of materiality.
Adam Dickinson, from http://uwo.ca/english/canadianpoetry/cpjrn/vol55/dickinson.htm