- From The New World
- P L A C E
- Sea Change
- The Errancy
- The Dream of the Unified Field
- Region of Unlikeness
- The End of Beauty
- Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts
- Earth Took of Earth
- The Best of American Poetry 1990
- All Things
- The Lives of the Poems
- Photographs & Poems
- To A Friend Going Blind
- In the Pasture
- international editions
- FAST (UK)
- il Posto (IT)
- Rompiente (ES)
- The Taken-Down God (UK)
- P L A C E (UK)
- Prześwity (PL)
- Shënime nga realiteti i vetes (Albanian)
- FRAZA (PL)
- L'angelo custode della piccola utopia (IT)
- Sea Change (UK)
- Region der Unähnlichkeit (D)
- La Errancia (ES)
- Zwischen den Zeilen (D)
- Overlord (UK)
- Never (UK)
- Swarm (UK)
- The Errancy (UK)
- The Dream of the Unified Field (UK)
- Interview :: PRAC CRIT
- The Art of Poetry No. 85 :: Paris Review
- The Glorious Thing :: American Poet
- Interview :: phillyBurbs.com
- Poets Q & A :: A Smartish Pace
- Daring to Live in the Details :: CSMonitor
- Katia Grubisic :: The Fiddlehead
- Interview :: Poetry Magazine
- Interview :: Thomas Gardner
- Nothing Mystical About It :: Lumina
- Interview with Jorie Graham :: Earthlines
Publication Type:Journal Article
Source:Contemporary Literature, Volume 33, Issue 4, p.712-735 (1992)
Keywords:Region of Unlikeness; review
Abstract:Reviews Flow Chart by John Ashbery, Selves by Philip Booth, Region of Unlikeness by Jorie Graham, and The Sacraments of Desire by Linda Gregg
John Ashbery, Flow Chart.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
216 pp. $19.50.
Philip Booth, Selves.
New York: Viking-Penguin, 1991.
xii + 75 pp. $9.95 paper.
Jorie Graham, Region of Unlikeness.
New York: Ecco Press, 1991.
xiii + 130 pp. $17.95.
Linda Gregg, The Sacraments of Desire.
Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1991.
86 pp. $14.95.
To my mind, two of the most important recent contributions to American poetry's ongoing conversation weren't, in fact, books of poetry at all. They were deeply challenging prose meditations: John Koethe's essay in Critical Inquiry, "Contrary Impulses: The Tension between Poetry and Theory," and the latest installment of Allen Grossman's extended "Conversations on the Theory and Practice of Poetry with Mark Halliday," just out in his The Sighted Singer. Koethe asks a bracing question: if, in recent decades, poetry has lost some of its claims on our attention by leaving to theory the task of articulating the tensions underlying the representational system within which we operate, then what might a more charged sort of writing-its "poetics informed by theoretical reflection" (74) - look like?
Although the question isn't a new one, Koethe frames the problem in a way that helps us see what a number of our most important poets are thinking about. Koethe senses a certain complacency in poetry's most visible responses to theory's "obsessions with the possibilities and limitations of the expression of thought and experience, and with the status of the subjective self" (66). One response, in refusing to accept that "a certain poetic mode or stance is a linguistic or social construction, . . . valorizes authenticity and fidelity to its origins in prepoetic experience or emotion"-call it poetry of the "individual voice" (70). The opposite response agrees "that our ordinary notions of meaning, that we take to be inevitable, are really social constructions constituted by contingent conventions" and makes poetry out of "deploying words in ways that focus attention on them and dispel the aura of transparency with which poems usually invest them" (75)-we've come to call that "language-centered poetry." Stated this baldly, the distinction is close to caricature, but it sets up Koethe's challenge: rather than simply ignoring or straightforwardly illustrating what we know about "the contingent basis of human communicative practices" (72), might poetry not more powerfully develop by "contesting" or engaging those pressures brought to visibility by theory? Such a poetry, "enacting the demands of subjectivity" (74) by "exploring and exploiting all the expressive possibilities afforded by language, however socially constituted these may be" (71), might keep the office of poet alive by grappling with those pressures we now see on the medium itself.
Although Koethe laments that "this kind of poetics remains largely unformulated," Allen Grossman, one of the writers he exempts from that charge, has made some forceful moves in that direction. In his interview with Mark Halliday, Grossman describes the task of the poet as having two parts: first, bringing to mind the "laws" or "rules" or "constraints upon" the "medium of representation" within which he or she operates (164, 175, 192); and second, speculatively entering or "dwelling in" (174) that much-contested area and, fully aware of the implications and dangers of that act, performing a "momentary overcoming of those laws ... which resist us whenever we undertake to meet and love" (164). For Grossman, a critique of representation makes visible forces which, resisted, might bring a charged use of language-"voice"-back into being.
As I read the poetry of 1991, that voiced, speculative resistance seems everywhere stirring. Grossman's call for engagement-"The question ... is what must the poet do in the light of what the poet knows about his art in America, in this new decade" (172)-seems a pressure many of our writers, in light of representation's now visible political, social, and gender-based implications, are responding to. What I'd like to do here is to trace two different directions that the struggle to "do" something with what one "knows" about the limits of expression has begun to take. The first, for which I'll use Philip Booth's Selves and Linda Gregg's The Sacraments of Desire as examples, takes these problems and their implications as something to write about, the ideas engaged only indirectly in the writing itself. I'll sketch readings of these two forceful books, suggesting that they offer, in their descriptions of how we speak and laugh and mourn, models of engaging limits. The second direction, exemplified this year by Jorie Graham's Region of Unlikeness and John Ashbery's Flow Chart, addresses these problems in the writing itself, letting the pressures to mean and speak come uneasily alive on the page. I'll read these books more thoroughly, since they haven't yet been clearly framed in the reviews they've received, and since the claims to be made for their darting, drifting styles of engagement become clearer and of more use when the books are described at length.
Booth's book is an account of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called those "Strokes of havoc [that] unselve" us (qtd. in Booth xi). Poem after poem acknowledges the constraints or limits-Grossman's "rules"-under which all attempts to know the world and place ourselves in it operate. There is "nothing that we here and now / can perfectly know" (47), he writes, in that tone Elizabeth Bishop described as "half groan, half acceptance": "Rule One of all / rules one: / No one ever knows / how much another hurts" (29; emphasis added). Booth's laconic sentences are attempts at "seeing what gets said" under these constraints; they want to describe "the feel of words" (54) there. In fact, as I've suggested by italicizing the phrase "how much," they are particularly concerned with displaying the texture and implications of the word "how." As one title has it, this is a book about "figuring how." How do we feel, love, hold, choose, the poems ask, desperate to know. How does it work? How does it go? The rule is that it's "hard to figure how," as in these lines where Booth presents himself as trying to match a nut to a hidden "enginemount stud," failing, then returning with metric sizes:
Took a 12 and 14,
fine thread and coarse,
clean as the whistle
of two pairs of loons,
fishing out in the channel.
Hard to figure how they
stay paired. But they
do. The stainless nuts
warm in infinite
sunlight, my head
warms to morning;
I climb back topside
and dive again into
the dark, my hand
fishing aft to feel
the rear mount.
In this poem, and in the book as a whole, the dream of knowing how things stay paired-projected from the broken-loose engine to the distant loons-is always deferred. The nut that fits (a 13) is always between the sizes even the most resourceful have at hand, and it is what goes on in that misfit, the space between, that these poemsfeeling, musing, banging around in the dark-describe.
At the same time, to go back to Grossman and Koethe, one begins to see that the poems are also about "figuring how." They are meditations on the ways we figure-give imaginative shape to-our questions. To figure how is to display the tentative, dissolving arrangements through which we ask about and engage the world. These figures-laughter, conversation, marriage, gossip, readingbecome, for Booth, momentary acts of resistance. No one in these poems is able to say fully how it goes or how we feel, but in figuring
(fingering?) the question, a new sort of music-what Booth calls an intimate, "inconstant music" (51)-is heard:
I'm in the kitchen, belonging
with what doesn't know me, so far
as I know: pots and pans that
heat up and cool, belonging by how
I feel about them, not how they
maybe feel about me.
No guaranteed bond, figuring how, claims Booth, is, "so far as I know," how one might belong.
Linda Gregg also struggles to refigure those arrangements that no longer seem natural or guaranteed. "Perhaps poetry replaces something / in me that others receive more naturally" (12), she writes. That "something," we soon realize in her radically stylized, timeworn accounts of "sand and dirt, rocks / and heat, life and death, love and this other thing" (65), is what Booth calls belonging. Hers is a poetry of exile and longing, one that often positions itself as having just lost a lover or not yet being at home in a landscape. Like Booth, she writes that limited space into visibility: "Between the past and future, without a life, / writing on the line I walk between death / and youth, between having and loss" (48).
Gregg works this space between with a style that, as she puts it, zigzags between quick accounts of herself ("I live in that silence. Everything, / every noun, is surrounded by it") and the world ("That poverty makes the bountiful real" ). What happens, as often in Wallace Stevens, is that as the border or space between the poet and the world widens-the rule her poems confront-the world becomes more visible, or acute:
When I was a child at Playland, we cranked
the old movies by hand. When we paused, a man
stopped. If we turned more, the man walked out
into the ordinary night of a small town
and a few cars. (I imagined cricket sounds.)
The stuttering of the scene, the constant
jerking made it somehow more real, made it more seeable.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Do we pass from loneliness to beyond without
hovering between? Leda remembered nothing
but the ecstasy. Not the gradations of tenderness
and muscle. She remembered just before, remembered
spreading her knees and ecstasy raining down.
But not the border, not the zig-zagging back
and forth between the visible and the invisible.
Not the moment between the natural and unnatural.
The "gradations" that Gregg's poems insist upon produce not the "sacraments of desire" that her title leads us to expect but, in the same way that Booth refuses us the easily accessible "selves" of his title, the more difficult sacrament of writing:
The world does not sing,
but we do. I sing to lessen the suffering,
thinking of the factory girl Hopkins said
lived a long time on the sacrament alone.
But I also sing to inhabit this abundance.
Perhaps the clearest way to distinguish between Booth and Gregg on this problem and Ashbery and Graham is to pause for a moment on Gregg's word "inhabit." Essentially, her poems "sing" about ways of inhabiting a world in which one is ultimately homeless and without any way of guaranteeing a position of rest or belonging. So do Booth's. Both poets pay close attention to how we walk, and talk, and argue, and make love; and they see clearly (and reproduce in the rhythms of their sentences) the way the limitations of such acts become rich and generative. Ashbery and Graham, to simplify, seem intent on demonstrating how one dwells in language-the medium they are responsible for-seeing in its misfits, its silences between words, a similar sort of richness. At issue in their poems, as also in Booth and Gregg and our culture as a whole, is what sort of claims to make for that speculative awareness.
Thirty years ago, in a piece for ArtNews on the murmuring intimacy of Henri Michaux's work, John Ashbery singled out this statement of Michaux's aims:
“Instead of one vision which excludes others, I would have liked to draw the moments that, placed side by side, go to make up a life. To express the interior phrase for people to see, the phrase that has no words, a rope which uncoils sinuously, and intimately accompanies everything that impinges from the outside or inside. I wanted to draw the consciousness of existence and the flow of time. As you would take your pulse.”
One of the many remarkable things about this passage, reprinted just this year in Ashbery's collected art criticism, is the hold it must have had on his imagination. Years later, I can think of no better description of what drives his new Flow Chart. It's a poem-written over the course of six months, in six sections, each composed of a series of almost daily, one-to-four-page uncoilings of thoughtdesigned to record what Ashbery has called elsewhere "the visible precipitations of the moment-to-moment awareness that is lifetesting, questioning but persisting."3 That "awareness"-call it "the interior phrase" playing responsively against what "impinges from the outside or the inside," or simply "consciousness of existence"is not itself visible. It is wordless and intimate. How, then, to record its "precipitations"?
Whitman, of course, most famously framed this problem for us, seeking in Song of Myself to express "what is in me" but "without name ... a word unsaid." "Loafe with me on the grass," Whitman's "I" says to that silent awareness, hoping that by "using" and "touching" and making guesses about the grass that inner phrase might "loose the stop" of its voice and begin to "lull" and "hum." Whitman's invitation was based on a memory of the wordless soul once actually embracing the speaking "I": "I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, / How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd over upon me." Perhaps, suggests Song of Myself, in handling the external medium of the grass, the soul might be coaxed back to visibility. Ashbery's invitation is based on less-something closer to sheer nerve and desperation:
Which reminds me:
when are we going to get together? I mean really-not just for a
drink and smoke, but really
invade each other's privacy in a significant way that will make sense
and later amends to both of us for having done so, for I am
short of the mark despite my bluster and my swaggering,
have no real home and no one to inhabit it except you
whom I am in danger of losing permanently as a bluefish slips off
the deck of a ship, as a tuna flounders, but say, you know all that.
What's most significant about Flow Chart, I think, is the way it takes our current realization that much of what passes for the union of speech and the wordless is in fact "bluster and ... swaggering," takes our awareness that the "interior phrase" has "no real home," and finds in that a generative problem to be struggled with. Flow Chart, Grossman would have it, engages what constrains the "medium of representation" itself in order to demonstrate a new way to "make sense," promising, if we hold ourselves in that area, "amends ... for having done so."
The poem's first section is quite clear about these issues. If not a real home, what might the "I" expect of its uneasy appeal to that wordless "you"?
It seems we must
stay in an uneasy relationship, not quite fitting
together, not precisely friends or lovers though certainly not enemies, if
the buoyancy of the spongy terrain on which we exist is to be experienced
as an ichor, not a commentary on all that is missing from the reflection
in the mirror. Did I say that? Can this be me? Otherwise the treaty will
seem premature, the peace unearned, and one might as well slink back
into the solitude of the kennel, for the blunder to be read as anything
but willful, self-indulgent.
What the "I" can expect, if it keeps the uneasiness of its relationship with the "you" constantly before its eyes-the raised eyebrow at what has just passed for expression ("Can this be me?")-is that the "spongy terrain" of language where the relationship is conducted can be experienced as something live, life-giving. Emerson, who in "The Poet" looked forward to a writer who would be able to step back from and "articulate" the tropes we inhabit, described the "strange and beautiful" results of such a project as an "immortal ichor." Though Ashbery's tongue is firmly in his cheek when he picks up this word, he means it as well, for in handling language, in uneasily working the terrain, "awareness" or "consciousness" has something to test and question. What precipitates from that charged encounter with the spongy terrain-Frost's frozen swamp in "The Wood-Pile" where no labor of the mind holds for long-is not consciousness but, as this new book suggests, a "chart" of its momentto-moment "flow." The trick, Ashbery realizes, is to keep that terrain uneasy. As Koethe and Grossman suggest, we are late enough in the twentieth century to know that the real threat to our experiencing language's buoyancy isn't the easy assumption of linguistic mastery-that time has passed. Rather, as Stanley Cavell and others have shown, the threat lies in the equally easy retreat from uneasiness offered by reducing language to "a commentary on all that is missing from the reflection / in the mirror." What Flow Chart manages to do is keep that uneasy edge-what the poem calls its "tangled hope" in language-alive.
Repeatedly, in the poem, what keeps the uneasiness of words in view is the experience of linguistic drift. That, I take it, is the distinction that the book's first page makes between "those who ... /... know enough not to look up / from the page they are reading, the plaited lines that extend / like a bronze chain into eternity" and someone else who acknowledges, "It seems I was reading something; I I have forgotten the sense of it or what the small / role of the central poem made me want to feel. No matter" (3). Letting language go its own way, Ashbery continually describes himself watching or listening as his sentences "untie / gently, like a knotted shoelace, and then little expressions of relief occur in the whorls" (37). In those pockets of relief, "the subject / going off on its own again" (20), language itself, and not its "sense" or content, might be entered. This is not free play, for language raises all sorts of questions and problems that must be very specifically addressed, but it is an ungrounded, nonguaranteed investigation. Language's drift denies both writer and reader the comfort of a small, assigned "role." Instead, we are both reduced to "brows[ing] through this catalog and, who knows, perhaps com[ing] up with a solution that will apply / to your complicated case" (40). Neither party, it becomes clear "know[s] someone better informed / in the higher echelons where the view is distant and severe, / the ground blue as steel" (40). And because of that, knowing put aside, Flow Chart establishes an area where, as we "pause and inspect / the still-fertile ground of our once-valid compact / with the ordinary and the true" (9), "precipitations of the moment-to-moment awareness that is life" are coaxed into visibility.
Such is the position we find ourselves in as the poem begins within expression, aware of its eventual collapse, but still free to question and handle it:
Still in the published city but not yet
overtaken by a new form of despair, I ask
the diagram: is it the foretaste of pain
it might easily be? Or an emptiness
so sudden it leaves the girders
whanging in the absence of wind,
the sky milk-blue and astringent?
These questions, alive in those whorls where language has been freed of the responsibility of proceeding toward an end, produce exploratory runs of speech whose authority has been "delegated" and dispersed into a myriad of such investigations:
Oh I'm so sorry, golly, how
nothing ever really comes to fruition. But by the same token I am
relieved of manifold responsibilities,
am allowed to delegate authority, and before I know it, my mood
has changed, like a torn circus poster that becomes pristine again
in reverse cinematography,
and these moments of course matter, and fall by the wayside in a
These quotations have all been drawn from the poem's first section. It seems to me that one might legitimately argue that the other sections of the poem simply rework these concerns, on one "channel" or "frequency" and then another. To go on and argue, as I would, that these repeated concerns are raised in order to keep the relationship between "I" and "you" uneasy, the terrain they share "spongy" and "fertile," is to see that it's not the problem which is of real interest in the poem but the various responses to it. What is most striking about Flow Chart, finally, is that, as Ashbery puts it in an essay on Jane Freilicher, although "there is one story and one story only" (Robert Graves), "it is the minute variations in the telling that make this situation bearable and finally infinitely rich, richer than all the anxious inventions of Scheherazade." Let me browse and demonstrate.
The second section, for example, takes up this uneasiness by constantly touching on the notion of "place." Where are you if your words never rest, if your "fog-shrouded destination," under scrutiny, always recedes?
A sore spot in my memory undoes what I
have just written
as fast as I can write; weave, and it shall be unraveled; talk, and
the listener response
will take your breath away, so it is decreed. And I shall be
a little farther to a favorite spot of mine, O you'd like it, but no one
can go there.
Where you are, I suppose, is in a place where the idea of destination has become irrelevant, miniaturized, and, in giving way, has opened a larger and more interesting problem:
taking a wrong turning and then after a fretful period emerging in
place we didn't know existed, and would never have found
without being misled
by the distracted look in someone's eyes. It's mostly green then;
the waves are peaceful;
rabbits hop here and there. And the landscape you saw from afar,
from the tower,
really is miniature, it wasn't the laws of perspective that made it
but for now one must forgo it in the interests of finding an open,
which isn't going to be easy. In fact it's the big problem one was
all along under the guise of being obliged to look out for oneself....
Authority delegated, following the promptings of a "distracted look" rather than a map-Ashbery's spills of language continually take their fretful, attentive ways down a myriad of "wrong turnings." In each case, as destination (the view from afar) is dismissed, these runs find themselves worrying the same "big problem": how to find an "open space" where "I" and "you" can dwell. And just as continually, it becomes clear that that open space is in fact the act of questioning-the detour, which of course always threatens to cease being a wrong turn and get us somewhere:
I was appointed to meet you
and bring you to this place, locus of many diagonals
without beginning or end except for the sense of them a place of confluence
provides. So, as is the custom here, I pulled the hood down to cover most of my face.
In a twinkling the mood had changed. The hiatus in the manuscript
buttoned itself up.
(79; emphasis added)
The third section suggests that the way you inhabit these hiatuses, these fretful skids of language where many vectors and slants are visible, is by watching yourself in the medium:
one was forced to make snap judgments, though the norms
unfolded naturally enough,
constructing themselves, and it wasn't until you found yourself
inside a huge pen
or panopticon that you realized the story had disappeared like
water into desert sand,
although it still continued. I guess that was the time I understood
enough to seize one of the roles and make it mine, and knew what I heard
myself saying ...
(84; emphasis added)
all the porters have shuffled away, under the erroneous
impression we haven't the coin
to pay them no doubt, yet it's not true, we would pay them if we
could, but just look
how they have left the funhouse mirror clearly visible for perhaps the
first time and we can at last admire our billowing hips and hourglass
(86; emphasis added)
Once one starts to develop an ear, this pattern sounds everywhere in the poem's middle sections: forward movement has disappeared (the story line vanishes, the wind takes over, porters misunderstand and leave us unable to travel, writing is laid aside), leaving one, uneasily, with the language itself in one's hands-distorted and blown, variously, into visibility.
Becoming aware of texture, says section 4, introducing yet another repeated term, is how we establish a "home" where there is no real one. Dwelling in language, it becomes clear, is different from using or mastering it. Such a home is both hauntingly familiar ("The beloved home with its misted windows, its teakettle, its worn places on the ceiling" ) and oddly unsettled: "I walked in, not at all sure of myself... /... [those before me] departed to seek out others and compare notes / on the battle of time being waged in spiral notebooks" (113). Such a home is built, in fact, out of familiarizing oneself with, even exploiting, that uneasiness. Ashbery calls this, at one point, buying in bulk-building not out of language's drive to get somewhere, but out of what's simply there in the territory poised to be handled and tasted and worked: "it's something you can build with. You need no longer inspect the materials / when you buy them in bulk; they are as a territory. What gets built happens / to be in that territory, though beside it" (134). We can call such an attitude toward language poetry-perhaps this poem's most important claim:
Any day now you must start to dwell in it,
the poetry, and for this, grave preparations must be made, the
walks of sand
raked, the rubble wall picked clean of dead vine stems, but what
if poetry were something else entirely, not this purple weather
with the eye of a god attached, that sees
inward and outward? What if it were only a small, other way of
like being in the wind? or letting the various settling sounds we
rest and record the effort any creature has to put forth to summon
its spirits for a moment and then
fall silent, hoping that enough has happened?
This, of course, is another sort of poetry than we expect-not "purple weather" and the "eye of a god," but something smaller in its ambitions. It's an "other way of living," one in which you record "effort," not vision. Effort, an alive awareness of the attempt to "summon . . . spirits" to visibility, can be heard and recordedoften, as Ashbery shows, in the creaks and groans of its settling and abandoned structures. What it takes to make poetry out of such a settling is the ability not to force these attempts back on track, but rather to listen: "to let things, finally, be."
As in many Ashbery poems, the last two sections of Flow Chart are extended summaries-evaluations in which the poet looks back over his words and listens as they fall silent. "So that's it, really," he writes, "the proper walk must be aborted / and tangled hope restored to its rightful place in the hierarchy of dutiful devotions" (168). That restoration, that tangled letting be of language offers not a real home for what's interior, but a rich record of awareness:
your house or my house,
I really think it's my turn,
but the variations don't let you proceed along one footpath
normally; there are
too many ways to go. I guess that's what I meant. Why I was
all along, I mean, though I knew it was superfluous and that
you'd love me for it
or for anything else as long as I could sort out the strands that
brought us together
and dye them for identification purposes further on, but you
didn't have to remain that generalized.
All of that tangle is loose and at play here. The "I" invites "you" to its house, conscious that there is no direct way there. The richness of that tangled space between-let's call it language-is a source of worry (will we get lost?), and yet it's "what I meant." Worry and what it produces-that relationship alive and no longer "generalized"-is what is meant. This is language not as a poet "normally" moves through it, generating a few strands of complication to be dyed and separated by the figure in charge, but language allowed to itself be "normal" (168). And that, I take it, can only be generated and made visible by the sort of "tangled hope" that drives this poem-at the same time "wanting to know" and accepting "colorful inroads":
If you can think constructively, cogently,
on a spring morning like this and really want to know the result in
advance, and can
accept the inroads colorful difficulties can sometimes make as well
as all the
fortunate happening, the unexpected pleasures and all that ....
Both desires engaged, hope tangles, language spreads, and effort is recorded. Something "exterior" forms and slides and "twists" into visibility.
Finally, then, Ashbery's poem is a celebration of language-a demonstration, by means of slides and reversals, of the particular rules and requirements it imposes on all its players. But more than that, in the way the medium has been bent and tested, its limits suffered and engaged, an alertness has been coaxed to say something, for the record. That is to say, Koethe's "demands of subjectivity" have been enacted. If Whitman's impulse to merge "I" and "you" is never "realized here," the medium itself has been rendered charged and almost erotically alive:
And though the armature
that supports all these varied and indeed desperate initiatives has
to exhibit signs of metal fatigue it is nonetheless sound and
beautiful in its capacity to perform
functions and imagine new ones when appropriate, the best
model anyone has thought up
so far, like a poplar that bends and bends and is always capable of
after the wind has gone; in short it is my home, and you are
welcome in it
for as long as you wish to stay and abide by the rules. Still,
the doubling impulse that draws me toward it like some insane
sexual attraction can
not be realized here.
Jorie Graham inhabits the same uneasy place; she calls it, after Augustine, the "region of unlikeness." She, too, asks what comes alive in the weakness of the sentence, though in contrast to Ashbery she seems more fiercely alert than bemusedly adrift. The quotations that form her foreword make this difference in tone clear. Ashbery's "uneasy relationship" becomes, in Graham, Augustine's trembling awareness of his distance from the "whole," Heidegger's "drawing toward what withdraws," Isaiah's inability to find a proper equivalent for God, or John's "wilderness" of waiting in Revelation. In a sense, her work brings some of the more painful implications of Ashbery closer to the surface-and for what seems, finally, a slightly different purpose. If Ashbery asks what can be handled and engaged in the "spongy terrain" where language's straightforward drive has been allowed to go off track, Graham comes to grips with "the sentence in its hole, its cavity / of listening" (114). She, too, finds that breaking language's momentum allows the pressures to mean and speak to come uneasily alive, awakening the possibility of what she calls an "other utterance, the inaudible one" (114). But she goes on to ask whether what is listened to there is not simply language but being itself, unmastered, hissing "is is is is" (44).
"Fission," the book's opening poem, sets up many of these concerns. The title itself, our sorry awareness of the breaking apart that knowing has put into our hands, is an example of Graham's heightened take on Ashbery's issues. What unravels in this poem, a memory of being in a movie theater and hearing the news of Kennedy's shooting, is art-art understood as the way we describe to ourselves our desires to shape and have and find a story line. As the poem begins, the movie's soundtrack is suddenly shut off, the houselights come on, a skylight opens, and a man runs down the aisle trying "to somehow get / our attention" (5). The movie continues, however, and this call to attention echoes through the entire book-a call to attend to this space where the "magic" story we've rested in frays and is almost whited out:
I watch the light from our real place
suck the arm of screen-building light into itself
until the gesture of the magic forearm frays,
and the story up there grays, pales-them almost lepers now,
white on their flesh in
patches-her thighs like receipts slapped down on a
slim silver tray,
her eyes as she lowers the heart-shaped shades,
as the glance glides over what used to be the open,
the free ....
The movie is Stanley Kubrick's Lolita. This is the moment when the sunbathing girl, roused from a shapeless slumber by her mother's call and the flaring desire of Humbert Humbert, comes to consciousness. Now object of desire, her face dominates the screen, her world yanked into a plot and "aflame with being-seen." What we are called to attend to is the region of unlikeness we find ourselves in when Lolita's screen-filling face (call it, as Graham does, the possibility of "expression") is reduced to
a roiling up of graynesses,
vague stutterings of
light with motion in them, bits of moving zeros
in the infinite virtuality of light,
some likeness in it but not particulate,
a grave of possible shapes called likeness-see it?-something
scrawling up there ....
It's crucial, for both Ashbery and Graham, that expression and likeness and story line aren't eliminated. The last poem in the book has it that both writers put us in a place "(Where the hurry is stopped) (and held) (but not extinguished) (no)" (125) and where, likeness's automatic hold being suspended, a new sort of "scrawling" emerges. The theater, then, becomes what Ashbery calls a "hiatus"-where the taste and texture of language come forcefully alive. That is no easy place in which to dwell, this poem suggests, ending as it does by remembering and almost returning to the attractions of aimless "immobilism"-the freedom from movement offered by going back to a world before the implications of expression became charged and loaded:
choice the thing that wrecks the sensuous here the glorious here –
that wrecks the beauty,
choice the move that rips the wrappings of light, the
of the layers of the real . ...
Along with the voice up front calling us to attention, notes Graham, is the one that whispers "Don't move, don't / wreck the shroud, don't move-" (8). The tug between these positions shapes the poems that follow.
Another early poem, "From the New World," frames the question of speaking in this roiled-up space even more uneasily. What the poem works through is an event related during the trial of the Cleveland steelworker accused of being the Nazi executioner Ivan the Terrible-the story "about the girl who didn't die / in the gas chamber, who came back out asking / for her mother" (12). What bothers the poet isn't simply the brutality of Ivan ordering a man "on his way in to rape her" and start the stalled story back up ("the narrowing, the tightening") but the girl's frail, agonized voice in that "unmoored" space, asking for her world back. What to make of that? Graham responds by calling attention to the way she herself, in taking up and struggling with this story, is complicit in the guard's brutal desire to move events toward an ending: "I too want the poem to continue, / want the silky swerve into shapeliness / and then the click shut" (12). In the uneasy space this acknowledgment opens in her poem, Graham makes a number of almost desperate attempts to find equivalents for the girl's pleading. Was it like the poet realizing, as a child, that her grandmother had so lost her faculties that she could no longer recognize her granddaughter, the child locking herself in a bathroom to confront that erasure? Or like, some years later, the grandmother herself, now in a nursing home, pleading to be returned to a world that no longer existed?
The point of these comparisons isn't their fit-the bathroom, the strain of making a comparison showing through, is a "chamber" that she is "held in ... as by a gas" along with the "coiling and uncoiling / billions"-but rather the way the resistance of the terrible story has forced her to enter the "grave of possible shapes called likeness" while yet calling her to speak out of that uneasiness. For, Graham realizes, "At the point where she comes back out something begins, yes, / something new, something completely new, but what-there underneath the screaming-what?" Graham's unmanageable question, pleading in this space where the straightforward business of language has broken down, is equally desperate and charged:
like what, I whisper,
like which is the last new world, like, like, which is the thin
young body (before it's made to go back in) whispering please.
A third early poem begins with story's arm having already been whited out. "Manifest Destiny," as the poem's title has it, has been reduced to dust thrown up by a car into a shaft of sunlight:
slapped round, falling, a thick curiosity, shabby but
extravagant, crazy pulverized soliloquy, furled up, feathery,
metronome, raking, as if to transfuse itself onto what won't be
a thick precipitate, feudal, a glossary of possible entrances
replete with every conceivable version of
The car, we gradually realize as the poem worries this image, is on its way to a train station, the poet having just spent a disturbing time with a friend in Rome. Walking the streets, eating in restaurants and slapping "dusty money" down on "gleaming platters," Graham has watched her friend start to slip away. Her friend's gaze goes vacant, expression, "in the dusty air," threatening to no longer hold or, worse, to become obscured, as in her friend's face discovered resting on two arms, "one holding the needle into the other-." More disturbingly, if I'm reading this right, the poet has, herself, felt the attraction of letting form and expression simply slip away, as she stands before a women's jail, all hands and arms waving out of windows ("-no face/ all stone and fingerclutch, white, raking the air" ) and leans with her soon-to-be-dead friend toward that uncoiling, erasure of form.
What's extraordinarily moving about this poem is how Graham enters this dissolved, dust-thick space and, like the girl at the death camp, attempts to voice her grief. If everything seems to suggest that it's only a matter of time until, her own words another plume of dust, "the blazing gaze is dulled, the wide / need, bristling with light" (23), the poem fights that slide. Borrowing from another scene in the city (a vender, "singing the price out-loud, clear"), Graham forces herself to pay the price of language. What she sees, a switch from the memory of the drive to the station to a charged, presenttense account of waiting there suggests, is that the very inadequacy of her language ("what will my coin repair? what does my meaning mend?") forces her alert and puts payment within reach. Handling language's terrible coin, feeling exposed and inadequate as her words strain and break, she offers those shreds of words as a way to "pay her now ... pay her again. Again. / Gold open mouth hovering-no face" (28). Rather than manage the grief or dull it, she, by testifying to the failures of her language, "keep[s] the hole open. / The zero."
Essentially, these early poems set up a version of the same situation: the need to write or choose or pay in an uneasy, eroded space. Most of the poems that follow fight to actually speak there. They enter a language alive with unsettled responsibilities. The book's title poem, for example, uses its speaker's memory of waking, as a thirteen year old, in a man's room, to establish yet another moment of suspension-this time between sleep and waking:
You wake up and you don't know who is there breathing
beside you (the world is a different place from what it
seems) and then you do. The window is open, it is raining, then it has just
ceased. What is the purpose of poetry, friend?
The purpose, as in Ashbery, is to enter and feel something in that space, to inhabit it. What is the texture of remembering? How can you watch yourself in that medium? Pushed one way by a desire, like the young girl's, simply to flee these questions and leave the past stable and fixed-"He turns in his sleep. / You want to get out of here. / The stalls going up in the street below now for market. / Don't wake up. Keep this in black and white" (37)-the poet responds to the rival desire as well. Between these two pulls, the act of remembering comes as acutely alive as the girl's long ago "step, step, across to the window":
If I am responsible, it is for what? the field at the
end? the woman weeping in the row of colors? the exact
shades of color? the actions of the night before?
Is there a way to move through which makes it hard
membered? Push. Push through with this girl.
The tug of these demands wakes her language as she writes, so that there seems to be "Something moving through the air now, something in the ground that / waits." She holds herself there by letting them go at each other, in her.
"Waiting" is one of the book's repeated terms for that hiatus where language's drive to master and sort and go on have been checked. In the space of waiting, these drives themselves, their textures and responsibilities and implications, can be held and examined. "Picnic," for example, gets at the term by approaching the memory of her father's betrayal, "near the very end of childhood": "Then someone's laugh, although they are lying, / and X who will sleep with father / later this afternoon" (42). It's clear, as the poem begins, that although the poet would like to "Pay attention" to this break in her childhood, the memory has become so "inaudible" over the years that it has been dismissed as a probable lie, like all the others: "The light shone down taking the shape of each lie, / lifting each outline up, making it wear a name / . . . (so does it matter that this be true?)" (41). Such a world seems dead or, as Graham puts it, "sated, exhausted." What she does is mess with the memory, pushing at the device itself until she finds a part that's thorny and difficult-in this case, the distance which memory uneasily bridges. Allowing memory's authority to be sucked away, she finds, in the craning throat of a whirlpool's suction, a fascinating image for her uneasiness about the device: "one of me here and one of me there and in between / this thing, watery, / like a neck rising and craning out." Entering that uneasy area, attempting to speak there, in "the breaks in the image where the suction shows, / where the underneath is pointed and its tip shows through" (43), she suddenly finds her language moving again. Painfully, she peers in, remembering sitting in the bathroom later that day and, staring into a mirror, watching as her mother took the young girl's head in her hands and applied makeup. That, she now sees, was a way of entering, risking that "opening which is waiting, I the not living you can keep alive in you":
We painted that alive,
mother with her hands
fixing the outline clear-eyeholes, mouthhole –
forcing the expression on.
Until it was the only thing in the day that seemed
and the issue of candor coming awake, there,
one face behind the other peering in,
and the issue of freedom ...
In a way, all of us peer into this ungrounded, charged space-the child, her mother, the poet now over their shoulders, we readers over hers. All of us watch ourselves in the medium.
What's gained, it seems to me, by painting not a way of knowing but the "issue[s]" charged and alive there is a language both alert and motionless. No longer able to move on and summarize, it be comes an instrument of bristling readiness, alive to what another poem calls the strangeness, the unmasterability, of being:
I wait. Wait. We are all waiting now.
The shadows of the birds play over us.
Everything is choked with being to the quick beat called
I close my eyes to feel the strange
slice over me,
"Holy Shroud" finds an image for such a language in a flock of birds-"such waiting / as these birds inhabit, / their readiness where one strain of [matter's prayer] / is finally / heard" (71)-as, like a cloth (or the beautiful shroud of language), it lifts and then comes to rest over a tree full of berries:
they fold down again now,
down over the whole
barrenness, limb by bony
limb, seeking the almost invisible stickiness out,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
down over the whole barrenness
This shroud, though, in contrast to the one referred to in the movie theater, is broken and alive, wrecked and engaged; it shows something rather than just covering what has been left for dead. It becomes, in some way, holy-if by holy we mean able to feel the strange. Thinking of the tattered shroud in which Christ's face seems to show through, Graham pushes us toward a use of language in which waiting (as with Linda Gregg, the space between almost nothing and almost something) becomes rich with expressive capacity. The poet's job, like the birds' or the churchmen's in the cathedral, is to hold such a use of language-shroud and face, texture and expression-up before us:
-When they held it up to us
we saw nothing, we saw the delay, we saw
the minutes on it, spots here and there,
we tried to see something, little by little we could almost see,
almost nothing was visible,
already something other than nothing
was visible in the almost.
In what seems to me the strongest poem in the book, "The Phase after History," Graham describes such a use of language as a "house like a head with nothing inside" (111). The unmasterable nothing in this poem is a junco loose in the house, its panic turning the house's "diagram" senseless, revealing it to be a "wilderness / of materialized / meaning." In that wilderness, the poet, all other tricks exhausted, is reduced to waiting and, head on her knees, listening, the house becoming not a place of order but "a place of attention" (114). This is where many of us know ourselves to be with language. But, she reminds herself, going back over a story of a friend in a "Psych Hospital" who tried to cut his face off ("an exterior / destroyed by mismanagement") and found that "nonetheless it stayed on," there is still something crucially important in the act of expression. Maybe, she speculates, we are at the point where, having blotted out our confidence in "the forward-pointing of it, history" and having been "returned to the faceless / attention," we can now begin to ask "How I would get it back / sitting here on the second-floor landing, / one flight above me one flight below, / listening for the one notch / on the listening which isn't me / listening-" (119-20). And perhaps what's important about Graham and Ashbery, then, is that they teach us how and where to "ask" and handle such issues and textures. They suggest that language might be both wilderness and home-a home in which, as forward momentum is stalled, "emptiness [is] housed" and our sentences are bent back to sheer, nonsatisfied alertness. That seems to me our strongest current answer to Grossman's "What must the poet do in light of what the poet knows about his or her art in America?" "Which America are we in here?" (114), Graham asks, all four of these poets ask with different degrees of urgency. Can we move there from here?
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University