The Impalpabilities

by Charles Tomlinson

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

“The Impalpabilities” is a short lyric in one stanza of twenty-two lines, written in free verse. It does not have a traditional lyric subject, such as a person, place, or object. Instead, it is concerned with the subtleties involved in the way what is outside oneself is perceived.

The poem is written in an impersonal mode. It uses the first-person plural “we” in order to include the reader in the statements it makes about the nature of experience. By describing shades and tones of his perceptions in as detailed a manner as possible, the poet hopes to remind readers of moments in their own experience that are similar to his.

The poem starts by directing readers to the “things we must include/ because we do not understand them.” It is the impalpable things that cannot immediately be grasped and molded into shape by humanity that will concern the poet. Not being able to understand impalpable things with the ease and readiness with which one knows the palpable, does not mean that the impalpable can merely be passed by. That which is beyond one’s knowledge is still encountered, and its mystery is tempting rather than daunting.

The impalpabilities, as one would expect, never take final form in the poem, but the poet finds suggestions of them in various half-realized events or objects. In the fifth line of the poem, the impalpabilities linger in the “marine dark” like an uncanny sea creature. In the nine lines that follow, there is a sustained evocation of musical chords. These chords do not end in a harmonious closure. Instead, they remain suspended in a kind of frozen, perpetual dissolution. This dissolution does not mean, however, that the chords vanish into nothingness. They may be impalpable, but they are still there, exacting and requiring one’s attention.

The next image in the poem is unfolded in the succeeding four lines: It is a wood which “advances before the evening takes it”—a forest glimpsed at twilight. After the sun has set, the wood is no longer illuminated as an independent and palpable phenomenon. Yet, as long as the dark has not fully advanced, it retains a distinct atmosphere of identity. This identity is not merely a vestige of its daylight one, but possesses shadowy, fascinating meanings of its own.

In the final lines, the branches of the trees in the forest are compared to “extended fingers” dipped in water that seem to become detached from the rest of the body, supporting “the cool immensity” of the external shadows and not the human form of which they were originally a part. They have passed into a distant and foreign sphere of perception, yet they are never completely separated from the human.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

Much of the poem’s formal effects are embodied in its appearance on the page. This is a poem whose visual aspect is not only in the images within the poem but in the poem’s external shape. It is composed of short lines that are organized in groups of three apiece. In each group of three, the first line is fixed in the standard left-hand margin, while the next two lines each begin with a sharp indentation to the right. This form mirrors the subject matter of the poem, where the possibility of different perceptual shapes for different varieties of experience is acknowledged. The poet uses another device as a counterpoint to the formal organization of the lines. By varying the length of each line (from as short as only two syllables to as long as nine), he supports the poem’s assertion of the whirling patterns of experience.

The poem is recognizable as a product of modern free verse, yet its agenda is not as much to depict chaos or disorder as to show ideas of order existing where one ordinarily would not suspect them to be. The poem filters its impalpable content through a tightly organized network of form. The two parentheses that appear in the eleventh and nineteenth lines remind one of the author’s presence and display a layer of conscious awareness against the inchoate areas that the poem chronicles. The potential for chaos is also held in by the eloquence and reserve of the poet’s language. His language is exact while being austere and reflective. Words are displayed in a way that maximizes their force. When, for example, the poem speaks of the chords that “hang/ in an orchestral undertow,” the position of the word “hang” at the end of a two-word line is subtly suggestive of the action of hanging performed by the chords themselves.

Charles Tomlinson, a musician and an artist as well as a poet, skillfully combines different sense and sensory processes. Although the dominant motif in the poem is a visual one, much space is also given to hearing and to touch. The idea of the impalpable refers to something not amenable to touch, yet the powerful concluding image of the fingerlike branches implies that there is as much of a tangible sensation in failing to grasp something as in fully seizing it. The tableau of the wood standing in near darkness is a visual one, as is the previous image of the marine dark. The central orchestral metaphor brings in the element of sound. Yet these senses often seem to merge into each other, as in the previously quoted image of the “orchestral undertow.” Here sound and touch are gathered together, yoked with one another in meaning, yet never merged or dissolved into a shapeless mass. By holding different senses in poised juxtaposition, the poet creates the impression of complexity and ambiguity without collapsing into confusion. Ironically, the language of sensory perception is used to convey a quantity—the impalpable—that is inherently beyond the senses. The sensory language can never hope to convey fully what is beyond us, yet it can depict this very effort at understanding.

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