My Habit / My Habitrail -- Convention Notes, part one
I’ve been reading around in some particularly challenging poems lately, Laura Moriarty’s Self-Destruction, John Wilkinson’s two Salt books, Effigies Against the Light and Contrivances, Rob Halpern’s Rumored Place, etc. I suppose what I’m finding so difficult, and so breath-taking, about these poems is a paradox of the extreme clarity they sometimes make evident. In all three instances, though in quite different ways, this clarity stems from what a reader who values the “experimental,” the “formally innovative,” the “difficult,” might be tempted to dismiss as conventions – whether of lyric syntax, the stock of poetic common topoi (songs to the moon, for example), or the isolation of the luminous moment of epiphany. And in a way this dismissive reading is at least half right: in brightly-lit, foregrounded moments throughout all these works, the movement of the poem hangs again and again on a turn of phrase, a form, a mode of address that is thoroughly conventional. It’s the second half, though, the dismissive judgment of that reading, that I think comes up short in the face of work like this. What these books have been opening up to me is the vast, murky strangeness of convention, its tendency to turn against itself or to turn itself outward into weird, convoluted shapes whose familiarity most often indexes the paucity of our own real thinking about them. Another judgment might emerge at the end of this reading: that my own notions of the strange, the original, the unprecedented, are themselves pretty thoroughly conventional.
Laura’s book is the first place I encountered this, reading it in manuscript a few years ago and having a great deal of difficulty with its often unadorned plainness that somehow never resolves into reassuring simplicity, then re-opening it in published form last month to experience the same difficulties along with a growing certainty that what I was running up against was not a limit of the poem but a limit of my reading, which is to say, of the relation then pertaining between myself and the work. In this way, the book has been one of those rare instances of poetic education – I’ve had to learn to read differently in a more general sense in order to read Self-Destruction in particular. It’s also the one case of the three I’ve listed above in which “convention” gets explicitly thematized as such. In a way, my attempts to read this whole range of work starts there. But for that reason, I’ll be working back to Self-Destruction. I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to do this: it’s conceivable that the day job’s demands will continue to be insane well into February. Really, I’m not sure that I’ll finish this project at all, or that it’s even a project. So I’m giving in, right up front, to the tendency of blogs to become holding pens for indications of things the writer intends one day to write about. Gentle readers (all three of you) – you’ve been warned, and I hope all expectations are suitably lowered.
Anyway, I thought I’d start with a poem by John Wilkinson, reading in particular his overamplification of some of the conventional possibilities for stylized, “heightened” syntax in the lyric poem. This is, of course, a partial reading, and there are many other things of note in this particular piece, and in the two books of his I’ve been reading. It does, I think reveal something about the work, though, and so it seems worth doing – rather like constructing a generalizing description of a place through a small polling sample, keeping in mind that something is there, but that the margin of error is likely to be quite high.
When the psychic system fails its subordinate shall think,
lengthening out of no-way-
disowning, rides the brilliant lanyard given its head, slots
the whole into the first place,
busying though it slacken. A spindle hauls its puny scope
circled by hygienic blossom:
this way reports, measures the light saturation underfoot.
Its inventory upholds the stained glass when motes fizzle
through the atrium dominates
the HQ building. Chunky steel-frame chairs were drawn
away by servants white-clad.
Inside an access tunnel, children doze with scorched feet.
Don’t neglect the edifice
whose nearness to collapse has an organism waiting on it…
(John Wilkinson, Saccades,in Contrivances, p. 45)
I’ve chosen this passage from a much longer poem in part because a characteristic movement of Wilkinson’s syntax here coincides with a thematic development that can be taken as a direct commentary on it. What I suggested above as an unscientifically small sample turns out to be even less reliable: a push poll. Such is reading.
Wilkinson’s repeated suppression of the relative pronoun at moments throughout this poem – “that,” “which,” “who,” see especially, in the cited excerpt, the first sentence of the second stanza – of course echoes a long-established convention in the English lyric tradition, as do many of Saccades’ other prominent syntactical maneuvers (adjectives nominalized, inverted noun-phrases, etc.). What distinguishes their use in this work is, at first glance, simply a matter of quantity, or perhaps density. Is there a point, though, at which this rather more emphatic leaning-on the conventions of lyric performance breaks out of the contractual frame of normative lyric? Is the latent possibility of a lyric undoing scripted into the conventional elevation of lyric poiesis itself? (I’ve written on this same head with regard to narrative prose in my essay “Narrative Occupation and Uneven Enclosure,” now in print in Biting the Error, with reference to the capacity of long sentences in English to become unhinged, not through a deliberate departure from grammatical order, but from an excess of that order. Lack of declension in English creates a syntactical space in which, at some arbitrary point, an excess of grammatical subordination produces a series of insurbordinate clauses that only a recursive reading-for-grammar will reveal to cohere as a sentence. (Sorry for the plug, but the book arrived by mail yesterday, coupled with a reading last night by some of the other contributors, so I’m feeling a bit giddy)).
The cautionary note, the real work done by Wilkinson’s accumulation of lyric conventions that come to undo themselves, seems to me an insistence that such formal self-destruction of structural determination is not a simple equivalent for liberation, either of the reader, the writer, the text, or the social relations which mediate their exchange. In a poem like Saccades, subordination, once negated thematically in the first stanza quoted above (“its subordinate shall think”), and in the process of its performative negation as grammar by the incomplete or short-circuited relativity of clauses in the second (“when motes fizzle / through the atrium dominates / the HQ building”), returns as precisely the insubordinate, thinking subject’s “inventory” of its objects severed from externally produced relation. The self-same bureaucratic architecture whose structural overdetermination leads to the rupture of insubordination, though, is here rebuilt out of the need to enumerate and measure these fragments in their liberated state. The eye flits among them, seemingly without regard to any command of the object-world over its choice of focus, literally a saccade. Alighting freely here and there, it builds as if by fate the very structure of command whose sublation its untethered roving was supposed to have been.
The reader who adheres to the parsimony principle (nb: Nada has a suggestive comment on the shortcomings of this chestnut, in her comment box to today’s post) becomes fully complicit in this re-emergence of oppressive positive structure, recognizing as he or she does the “correct” solution to the difficulty posed by the elision of relative pronouns. He or she reads relativity back in and supplies the missing “that,” “who,” or “which,” according to a well-established convention of lyric compression and elevation. Here, though, is where another convention is activated by negation, and this one bears more directly and witheringly on some of my own rather too-cursorily examined poetic commitments. What had looked at first like a neat dialectical hip-toss – Wilkinson demonstrating that the free multiplicity of vectors produced/encountered by the fabled active reader could be located in the heart of lyric convention itself – encounters contradiction displaced to this new, higher level. The argument being made here, if one could characterize this as argument, is that the reader’s discovery of his or her freedom in the secret undoing of textual subordination from within, is simply the rediscovery of rule. The freedom of the active reader is precisely the forced sovereign choice of a legible structure. Bureaucratic architectures impose themselves on our attentions not from without, but from within the experience of an “inventory” of liberated particulars that was held out to us as a line of escape. All our shaky political claims for a liberated language practice are given a nasty jerk back toward the path of their own production of power. (The other dictionary meaning of “saccade” is germane here: a sharp jerk on the reins to change a horse’s direction, or the movement of a horse resulting from such a jerk).
This discovery of a higher order of contradiction – a return not of the repressed, but of repression – could easily lapse into a gloating cynicism over foreclosed possibilities for either politics or poetics. If one were to locate an imagination of a less constrained, less baleful poetic and historical order here (thanks to Rob Halpern’s reading last night for those “baleful historical orders”), one would have to inquire along a somewhat more difficult path. This reading would need to short-circuit the logic that proceeds as if by fate from the return of the same to the mute fact of the same-which-has-returned, a final stasis in which the end of the poem and the end of history set up shop in the HQ building. The possibility of such an imagined stall or lapse – a deferral of specificity-as-fact by specificity-of-relation, to riff on Nada a bit more – gets positioned again and again in this poem of Wilkinson’s by keeping the “insubordination machine” (or, as I’ve said, the “over-subordination machine”) of his syntax operative throughout the poem, never letting it become exemplary or productive of the moment in which the reader has definitively failed to grasp freedom. Rather, in returning over and over again to the sore spot where the non-choice between active-readerly insubordination and bureaucratic stability is forced, the poem calls a reader to recognize him/herself in the object-world thus built at that site of impasse. (Interestingly, mirrors play a major role in other sections of the poem than the one I’ve quoted here. "Look at what you’re doing here").
Transcending this recurrent cusp of bad politics – the politics we all know, the bifurcation-point where we choose without other recourse either to submit to rule or to become rule ourselves – shall have been founded on an ethical and social act of non-recognition, not on an aesthetic shape. That is, it shall have been a refusal of that which in ourselves resembles and confirms the shape of the world and the text. Reading, we come to the place where the possibility of anything being otherwise rests in our acknowledging our incapacity for reading, where our activation as readers will need to be a refusal to produce legibility that stops, in a way, before the text does. We have to stop congratulating ourselves on seeing through to the “real crux of things” – this, taken as an end in itself, is a ruse of rule, Ahab’s injunction to “strike through the mask.”
If we are to make our way out of this poem, we readers will need to traduce what is most ourselves in it.