Who is François Mauriac? Google knows: French novelist of the last century’s first half, long-beaked Nobel laureate in a taupe bowler hat. So does Wikipedia, one click away: leftist firebrand, Catholic penitent, biographerof de Gaulle, successor to Proust. Ten more clicks for the books, their themes; the descendants, their agonies; the rivals, their allegations.
But skimming isn’t reading, and, for that matter, Internet-skimming isn’t skimming: thirteen clicks into Mauriac and we’re so blanketed by information that it’s impossible to make distinctions—work versus life, trivial versus important. Mauriac is his Wikipedia page.
Now read “The Knot.” François Mauriac: a man with not a mind, but “minds”; not “minds,” but “coils”; not “coils,” but china plates stacked in “a pinewood country cupboard.” Whose mind centripetally orders the most distant “territory”; who surveys from within that dark, clawed spiral—now figured as an eye resting on the knotted shelf—the endless curves of rivers and jagged depths of quarries. Who becomes, at the heightened center of the poem, the hot, groaning station from which the train cars of his ideas issue—poised,improbably, to climb the mountain of his ambition. This is a man of tortured, obsessive control.
But the life is not the work. Ideas are not constrained, finally, but released; are not trains gripping a rack with their pinions, but rabbits that, freed from their “hutch,” run “through poplars towards the world.” At the brink of which the rabbit wheels around on its master, whose “stern-hand” (the character inseparable from the form), which used to cosset it or “crush [it] into meal,” is now taken into “the whirling creature’s mouth.” The idea consumes the mind that created it,and keeps on moving. The idea is the mind’s macrocosm; the mind’s errors—”we say you mistook / weakness for centuries”—the idea’s fretwork. The mind whirls in, but the idea whirls out.
So “The Knot” will tell you who Mauriac is—and, in the same breath (this is a poem with syntax but without period), it will tell you that Mauriac doesn’t matter. Creators intrigue us, but it’s their creations that sustain the interest. In that sense, “The Knot” is about learning to read. Which is something that all good poems are metonyms for, all of them stemming the Wikiquote tide.