Thomas L. Lynn, Jr reflects on Luke Austin Daugherty’s Low Shelf Angels discussing existentialism and its rehabilitation. The piece includes some poems re-printed with the author’s permission.
Luke Austin Daugherty, Low Shelf Angels (CreateSpace, 2016) 184pp.
The notion of existentialism has now fallen out of the vogue into which it was just coming some hundred or so years ago. For the most part, existentialism retains conscious relevance only for those who could be characterized as academic. Moreover, that particular relevance is often merely philological. Existentialism is identified as merely a passing mode of philosophical activity that has historical significance, but whose present currency is analogous that of an older Europe where Francs, Lira, and Deutschmarks were the tokens of commerce. To this state of affairs, Luke Austin Daugherty’s compact volume of poetry, Low Shelf Angels, is a welcome antidote looking to rehabilitate the relevance of existentialism today. In the course of its pages, the themes of existentialist orientation find recuperation: the apparent singularity of human experience, mortality, and freedom are variously explored in a common language which illumines their vital significance to all of our lives.
This trajectory of expression finds early articulation in the course of the volume’s seventy-two poems with a benediction, I Bless You My Fellow Man. This third poem of the collection recalls the commitment of Camus’ absurd man, namely, to live without appeal.
I bless you my fellow man
With no blessing other than I can give
I bless you by none higher than myself
I pray no gods to show you favor
Nor implore devils to stay their hands from harming you
I bless you only by myself
Praying you find not my benison wanting or having fallen short
Nothing I have to offer but my temporal frame
And good will
I hope it is enough
No reward to give, but my own
Unremarkable though it may be
I have no eternity to offer
So I must give but my life
No set destiny
We must find our own purpose together
And no promise from above
As we must be our own guarantee
Regarding the path to follow
The lines are not always drawn so straight
With Cartesian form
Or providing convenient demarcation
We will have to sort it out as we go
But, still I bless you
With all I have to give
And that only
I bless you my fellow man
(reprinted in the HKRB with permission)
It is notable that the poem does not specifically affirm or deny the transcendent, but simply seeks to reside in the value of the imminent, or, more plainly, to acknowledge that all that we know we can give is the action of our own person. In tandem with this point of departure, we see also an awareness of the indeterminacy of life, and with it the insufficiency of “overarching” or “meta-” narratives, even those with the compelling mathematical elegance found in a Cartesian vision. This indeterminacy is also a theme in Camus, for instance grounding his warnings against too rigid certainty in his L’Homme Revolte (The Rebel). And setting these themes in a light which marks their urgency is the quietly noted fact of death in Daugherty’s conveyance of what he has to offer, namely, a merely temporal frame. Along with these terms, we encounter another dimension of existential commitment which is often forgotten: that of solidarity, a solidarity which grows up from the conviction that we must forge our destiny together.
This last point recalls us of the defining essay of Sartre in which he relays the intimate connection between the imperative of responsibility at existentialism’s heart, and the sense of solidarity to which Daugherty poignantly reminds us. Sartre notes,
If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. The word “subjectivism” is to be understood in two senses, and our adversaries play upon only one of them. Subjectivism means, on the one hand, the freedom of the individual subject and, on the other, that man cannot pass beyond human subjectivity. It is the latter which is the deeper meaning of existentialism. When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be (from “Existentialism Is A Humanism”).
The concrete implications of these valuations find numerous testaments throughout the collection’s breadth. However, here, we may turn in particular to the work’s eponymous poem, Low Shelf Angels. The thirty-sixth entry, it is among the lengthier of the books’ poems, describing an encounter between the author and his son, and a beleaguered soul on a late autumn Saturday in an exurban Indiana town. Pulled from the course of their original destination (the kind of diner which occupies a place of archetypal resonance in the American imagination), Daugherty and his son Caleb are pulled into a minor adventure to aid a distressed and besotted stranger find some shelter on his own way home. For their help, the latter exhibits an effusive gratitude, leading to this verse:
“I can’t believe you guys are helping me! You guys are angels!” he yelled,
still half crying.
Moved more than I wanted to let on, I joked with him,
“Well… if we are, we’re low shelf angels.
My name is Luke. I’m just the muscle in this deal.
Caleb over there, he’s the brains of the outfit.”
From this point of humble response, the story in the poem rounds to a happy conclusion, inflected with a reflection on the morally mixed state of the world, and how, in consequence, a decision is placed before us with respect to that condition. How is one to respond with all of one’s evident imperfections in tow? Daugherty’s own response finds voice in the poem’s coda.
Sometimes in this life
It is hard to tell who the devils are
And who the angels are
As for us
We’ll be here on the low shelf
Dirty wings and broken
But still trying to fly
Watching over our brethren
The task of stepping into one’s own, however, as a low shelf angel, is not simply rainbows and unicorns as the expression goes. And as such, the thirty-seventh poem of the collection is, aptly enough, On Sadness, a concise but effective remark on sadness as an ineluctable component of our lives. Also, as such, the sixty-eighth entry is a blunt assessment, Death Is A Motherfucker. Artfully, that is not final poem. Rather the four pieces which ensue are respectively engagement of questions which arise from facing mortality more squarely. The sixty-ninth poem, My Worst Fears is a catalogue of the monsters under the bed which are shown out by noting our finitude. Number seventy, Never the Same Ocean, looks at the impermanence of our own personality. The penultimate poem, Put Your Hands To the Stone, calls us to act in a decisive way in the composition of our life’s narrative. And the concluding piece, When Your Clock Strikes Midnight, recapitulates the the threads we’ve drawn out above against the mystery of temporality.
Two other facets of Low Shelf Angels deserve remark. The one is in the plainness of its language, evocative in many ways of Hemingway in its stark or basic quality. Here, let me explicitly renounce any pejorative suggestion that such adjectives might evoke in certain quarters. Indeed, despite my own predilection for such more ornate flourishing as encountered in one such as Melville or Hardy, I was moved very much by the directness of Daugherty’s style, a style which brings one very quickly to the heart of the matter. The other facet of the work which I must also commend is its the humor. This suffuses the whole and is an index of a welcome sanenness that at times can fade in the aridity of too much abstraction. I want to conclude with one poem in particular that may exemplify its wry quality, number thirty-eight, Luis’ Padre Crashed A Witch:
Luis’ padre says there are witches – brujas
Who fly over the small towns in Mexico
They look like balls of fire
As they pass through the sky
Flying because they have no legs
Making all the country people afraid
Luis’ padre told him about the time
That he crashed a witch
Luis’ padre was angry because the witch was scaring the country people
In his town
So, one night when he was young
He took off his clothes
And turned them inside out
Laying them down in the field
(That is how you crash a witch you said)
And that night
When the evil, screaming
Ball of fire flew overhead
She crashed directly onto the spot
Where the inside-out clothes were on the furrowed dirt
The witch then asked for mercy
And writhed upon the cool earth
A trunk only
With no legs
Luis’ padre then warned her
Not to fly over his field anymore
And let her go
This all means one of two things
Either Luis’ padre is crazy
Or you should avoid small towns in Mexico.
(reprinted in the HKRB with permission)
I think there are a great many other meanings in the offing here. But regardless, this certainly has a good sense of humour. All said, I can only recommend Luke Austin Daugherty’s Low Shelf Angels in the warmest terms.
Thomas Lynn is a thinker currently situated in Cincinnati. Among his preoccupations are the ways in which phenomenology can inform questions in current philosophy of mind, the relations between the analytic and Continental traditions in philosophy, and off the beat thinkers such as Jacques Ellus, Paul Feyerabend, or Michael Polanyi. He is also the host of Thinking Thomas, a channel dedicated to critical theory and an interview series with authors in theory and philosophy.
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Some great images and phrases in these poems, including the title triad.