Though all of these Rapture poets move toward a spiritual "awakening," they are also drawn to a sensuality expressive of a "shadow" self: historically we've identified this sensual/spiritual approach with writers who reach out toward a humanistic eschatology. But the rapture poets move away from a broad humanism; their spiritual work pares back the extraneous; their vision is that of the gnostic hermits--not the nursemaid saints of Christianity; a millennia in caretaker roles as mothers and midwives to Christs and Buddhas has driven them toward spiritual introspection at the expense of the external world.
This emerging feminine figure offers no less than an alternative to the dualistic Virgin/Temptress prototype established by Homer's Circe and Dante's Beatrice--who occupy extremes of the paradigm. She's neither Temptress or Virgin, or a synthesis of the two, but is both self-consuming and self-celebrating; she needs neither to "eat men like air," nor to provide physical/spiritual nurturing: she exhudes a less than benign narcicisstic indifference and taunts us with her self-intoxication.
Language in such poetry, as Tony Hoagland, coining the term "the poetry of rapture" in his astute remarks on Susan Mitchell's work, often borders on glossalalia, and one suspects the act of making such language--such sounds--is a form of self-intoxication.
The god of ecstacy is Dionysus, the irrational blissed-out deity who at birth was torn apart and reborn; this rending is itself analogous to the rending apart of the rational and linear by intoxication. The poetry of rapture embraces categorical confusion; it desires to lose control and enter vertical movement, to lose balance and escape from time and the self.
Susan Mitchell's Rapture, surely one of the most exciting collections published in 1992, is full of titled perspectives and beautifully written, unconventionally proportioned passages. One thing that unifies the collection is a fascination with loss of control, both perceptual and linguistic. In Rapture, the sustained tension is between Mitchell's desire to be consumed by experience and the guarded indifference required by life in the material world. In a style alternately swooning with verbal sensuality and withdrawing into arch skepticism, Mitchell makes rapture believable and contemporary.
Though one theme of the collection is the poverty of words to register emotional complexity, the poems delve deep into language in a quest for ultimate articulation, pushing the speech envelope towards incoherence and glossalalia.
Here's the passage Hoagland quotes from Susan Mitchell's poem "The Cities" from her collection Rapture. I've included an additional two verse paragraphs from the poem:
I want something else in my mouth
Bread and butter, coffee and cream, blink and
In the city where I was born
but not so fast--
I want something other
the cough in coffee and the dawg in dog, not god
but gawd. Forget gaudeamus igitur. I want
the gutter in guttural and syllables like crates
onto barges rusted, planks swollen,
as iodine and its ignomies, the conglomerates
into my mouth before my tongue
was pulled out by the roots, I want my crooked
before orthodontia, the sounds unbarred, the
and buckle and overlap, Bunny Mouth. Weasel
face, Crocodile Kid
tongue crushed, slummed in, no room to turn.
pointed straight out at, the famous legs kicked
forward and back, enfilade, chorus line,
not a heartbeat slipped: spank fire waves
toward shore--sync or sink--tasseled, fringed
foam flung behind
and on the esplanade the women softly aglow,
transversed with lights, the cars in slow motion
was tossed from windows scattering sparks, its
portals open to the sea and
the languages undressed to lamb's wool and
The quoted segment begins with the speaker telling us hers is a search for the onomonopoeiac "roots" of language. "I want/ the gutter in guttural, and syllables like crates loaded onto barges." Accompanying the poem's alliterative orality, there's an exhibitionist chutzpah challenging us to make sense of her wordplay: she tries for a kind of pre-oedipal naughtiness--an anally expulsive messiness and petulance--underscored by the whiny repetition of "I want." I imagine the speaker transformed into a spoiled foot-stamping six year-old spitting chunks of phrases, trochaic coughings and heapings of gasping glotals and gutturals, wrenching us from our expectations for coherence and rationality, in poetry.
But artless as this segment appears, note the crafted sprung-rhythm lines--"spank fire waves strutting/ toward shore--sync or sink--tasseled, fringed foam flung/ behind"--that drop us into the sleek extended phrasing of the last quoted verse paragraph. If the infantile self-amazement (if not self-celebration) of this segment catches our attention, the final paragraph's strength attracts because of its sophistication, its implicit praise of an indulged labial sensuality not unlike what her speaker vaunts in her celebration of the nonsense syllables of childhood.
Mitchell's strong suit isn't story-telling or analysis here but a juxtaposing of incomplete narrative fragments. This requires in her meta-narrative a collision of energies derived from a dialectic of opposed language modes. For some readers much of Mitchell's posing--her varied speaker masks--becomes a kind of elaborate fakery, a fan dance. Clearly, she intends an alchemical synthesis of voices, tones, textures--in the case of the quoted segment from "The Cities," a synthesis of adult and infantile, worldly and naive; in many poems, she superimposes a formal language over third-rate motel settings, airliners in mid-flight, and sleazo bars so that her rich word-overlays might redeem her troubled subjects. A variation of this technique is displayed in Mitchell's "False Etymologies of Saint Isidore of Seville," another transformation-of-the-psyche through language piece whose core is encircled by rapturous word play.
From, that's what he said, from. This one
from that, eyrie from air, so ear from airy,
a nest that hears in air its own name.
Only those weren't the words he used.
I'm translating, his Latin swung like a censor,
birds over my head, their names out of reach
in the fragrant shadows, his chanting
what murmurs and luffs, clef on clef, major
minor, augmented from diminished.
The way we pigged Latin I'm making this up,
we cupped the listener's ear, mushing
and watering the sounds, dotting and double
dotting the buzz and babble
sacheting our partners with a breeze of gossip.
Of Isidore little is known. When I see him
he's swallowing the pages of a book,
he's chewing the vellum, the illuminated leters
he's taking it from the hands of an angel
like a bird, soon he'll be a bird and fly away.
See, the interlaced letters of the alphabet
are tearing, word breaking from word, smudges
on his fingers where he blotted ink.
But no, I'm improvising. He stands untouched
in the florid zone where words
foam on the breath of saints, world
sanctified, as when we rubbed out feet
on carpet and plucked sparks from our arms.
Twenty books of etymologies. The scriptorium
is cool in the morning, the marble
floors like a pool in which sandaled feet swim.
When he comes on the words, it's always
He touches to his tongue the golden powders
from which a fantastic initial F
for Fall, with mazy fluorishes of plated leaves.
Why couldn't he have been there when it
all hung on the rim of the unsayable like
of rain, a humidity he had only to wipe from his
He wants to follow the initial S for Salvation,
pursue the long curve of the swan's
song back up the winding throat
and dab the first fruit with his own saliva.
I'm struck in these lines comprising the first two-thirds of Mitchell's poem by her ability to appropriate an "Isidorian" language. Note a curvy sinuosity that's enhanced by her wraparound enjambments, the effect of which is a melding of secular and profane rhetoric, of a kind of "pig Latin" babble and illuminated manuscript ornateness--the same mix of the demotic and hieratic we find in "The Cities."
The very fact that "of Isidore (himself) little is known," makes the poet's act of imagining--of saying him into being--on the page all the more compelling. In this world, "a world/ sanctified, as when we rubbed our feet/ on carpet and plucked stars from our arms," words (and the elusive concepts, the material objects, they spark, into existence) are traced back by their speaker in a "pilgrimage," like the saint before her, to their etymological--and onomonopoeiac--origins, a theme present in many other poems in this volume.
The poem's speaker boldly likens her own search for her origins in language to that of the Saint who "stands untoched/ in the florid zone where words/ foam on the breath of saints." But in the end that search is self reflexive. Where other portraits of saints focus on attaining rapture through self-sacrifice and redemptive suffering, Mitchell's Saint Isidore gets his through a sensuous devouring of text, a theme appropriate for a book about the erotics of language. The spiritual antecedents of this and other poems in Rapture are rooted more in a neo-Platonism celebrating the logos of St. John of Patmos than in the ecstatics of the Christian martyr-saints. St. Isidore's rapture--not unlike the gnostic hermits' rapture, and, finally, that of late post-Modernism--is single-mindedly narcissistic and is bound to an external world that only vaguely backdrops its screening of real pain, real heartbreak.
Paradoxically, Mitchell's avoidance of pain in these poems about rapture--a subject, a state-of-mind, that in Christianity requires a crash course in Suffering--creates an aura of discomfort, of dynamic disequilibrium (or, as Tony Hoagland would have it, "disproportion"): the reader might argue that while Mitchell's extended "dionysian" moments don't feel rooted in any reasonable cause-and-effect, Rapture's whacky charm derives from its unreasonableness, its flaunting of conventional story-telling for an associatively driven narrative. Unfortunately, her loose-jointed poems yaw and sag under so much digression. Immersed in an airbrushed world where what's vital is the speaker's ecstacy--her self-enclosed rapture--we tire of speakers who set us up for stories, but who deliver narrative stance, not narrative.
Susan Mitchell's divigations and oblique transitions, her jump-cuts and slice-of-life cameos, divert us from the fact that save for her poems' protagonists there are no real people on the page; her more unsettling work misguides us by pretending compassion for make-believe friends and dim-witted lovers--but hers is a loveless landscape: if the love poem in millennial America is dying, these poems bury even an inkling of love. With the exception of one or two pieces about her speaker's mother, love is replaced by a poetry of desire which is at once expansive and explosive, spreading in eddies and splotches, spilling outward, inky, undifferentiated, neutralizing and blurring all it encounters.
Though rapture-poetry might seem a high-risk art, challenging staid workshop concepts of the self, in many rapture poems, no big emotional risks are taken, no psychic rivers are forded. Such work often confutes rapture with a retro-glamour and decadence: its setting can be baroquely noirish, jazzy-decadent; or mannered and exotically ascetic--adjectives I attach with no value put on the quality of the poetry they characterize.
This move toward the exotic reflects some impatience with the bourgeoise realism, the middle-style ethos, of much recent academic poetry and fiction. In this respect, rapture-poetry (I include some fiction here) is more literary, more richly allusive, than usual litmag fare; the speaker here needs to validate experience, to claim a precedence, because misery--and its companion, intense pleasure--loves company.
Though rapture poetry is one of margins, of psychic frontiers, it doesn't follow that these borderlands are unpatrolled or that forays into the territory haven't been attempted before. Much new jazz writing (in theme and subject matter it's not very new) explores the demi-monde of soon-to-be defunct musicians; it concentrates on lifting rapturous moments from musicians' lives as though--through a kind of talismanic invocation--to osmose some of their subjects' musical talent.
Here's second half of Lynda Hull's "Lost Fugue for Chet."
Let's get lost. Why court the brink & then step
After surviving, what arrives? So what's the
when there are so many women, creamy callas
furled petals turning in & in upon themselves like variations, nights when the horn's coming
genius riffs, metal & spit, that rich consuming rush
of good dope, a brief langour burnishing the groin. Fuck Death.
In the audience, there's always this gaunt man, cigarette
in hand, black Maserati at the curb, waiting,
the fast ride through mountains passes, descending with
no rails between asphalt & precipice. Inside, magnetic
whispering take me there, take me. April lindens
& horse chestnuts flowering, cold white blossoms
on the canal. He's lost as he hears those inner voicings,
a slurred veneer of chords, molten, fingering
articulate. His glance below Dutch headlines, the fall
"accidental" from a hotel sill. Too loaded. What do you do
at the brink? Stepping back in time, I can only
imagine the last hit, lillies insinuating themselves
up your arms, leaves around your face, one hand vanishing
sabled to shadow. The newsprint photo & I'm trying
to recall names, songs, the sinuous figures, but facts
don't matter, what counts is out of pained dissonance,
the sick vivid green of backstage ballrooms, out of
broken rhythms--and I've never forgotten, never-
this is the tied-off vein, this is 3 A. M. terror
thrumming, this is the carnation of blood clouding
the syringe, you shaped summer rains across the quays
of Paris, flame suffusing jade against a girl's
dark ear. From the trumpet, pawned, redeemed, pawned again
you formed one wrenching blue arrangement, a phrase endlessly
complicated as that twilit dive through smoke, applause,
the pale haunted rooms. Cold chestnuts flowering April
& you're falling from heaven in a shower of eighth notes
to the cobbled street below & foaming dappled horses
plunge beneath the still green waters of the Grand Canal.
The poem's a moving recreation of Chet Baker's final ravished moments in Amsterdam. There's a dark richness to Hull's language, a jazzy lushness to her elegiac parallel-structured lines. The thanatoerotic image of the Angel of Death personified in "this gaunt man, cigarette/ in hand, black Maserati at the curb" has both a glitzy cheapness and a Faustian resonance.
The poem's title is meant, surely, as a pun on a musical form and on a disturbed state of mind, on the cycle of addiction, and its continual--but finally terminal--return to the moment of fixing-up. Punctuating that circularity are fragmented phrases that undercut the unfurling regularity--the cumulative inevitability--of the "Lost Fugue's" predominantly periodic sentences.
Hull's genius lay in her ability, like Mitchell's, to be both exquisitely mannered and straight-talking; her tonal-shifts from elegant into funky language mimic Baker's intermittently slurred, lyrically extended figures. The floral imagery of "creamy callas with single furled petals," and "cold white petals on the canal," her "April lindens/ & horse chestnuts flowering, cold white blossoms/ on the (Amsterdam) canal," reinforces our sense of disintegration and decay mingled with spring renewal, recalling Baker's decadent boy-girlishness and the naughty aura--captured in Baker photographs and in his singing and playing--of a man locked, self-pityingly, into an infantile self.
Chet Baker, the Peter Pan and Pied Piper of jazz, had an allure derived as much from his vocalized invitation in songs like "Let's Get Lost" for us to join him in his jazz "never-never land," as from the youthful clarity and simplicity of his melodic lines. But I wonder how attentively Hull listened to Baker's last recordings. Had she heard how poor his intonation was? Did she notice how the Dutch Radio Big Band covered for his mistakes? And beyond Baker's ruinous performance, did she know--since this poem is more an ode to the man's addiction than an appreciation of his music--the sorry stories about missed club dates and stolen goods, the rumored--though credible--tale about the fatally overdosed young piano genius Richard Twarzig whom Baker had introduced (shades of "Let's Get Los"!) to heroin on another 'European tour? Had she heard a no less apocryphal rumor that Baker was shoved from that legendary balcony because of a botched smack transaction?
Baker was in his early sixties when he died. Addicted to heroin most of his life, no doubt the romance had gone out of his habit and he was "maintaining." Someone suffering long addiction knows there's scant pleasure in her drug during the habit's final stages and that efforts to withstand the pain of withdrawal outweigh the desire to get high.
But the reader protests I'm imagining another poem, that Hull's-purpose isn't biography but a kind of hip hagiography: she aims to communicate Chet Baker's rapture-his suicidal rapture-and to lift from the ruins of his life some poetic inspiration. But at the cost of a stronger poem she omits the costs of his addiction to Baker's music and to others around him.
If Baker, indeed, committed suicide and wasn't tossed from that balcony, I assume it was because there simply wasn't any fun in it left.
Though jazz is the vehicle in this last poem, it isn't about jazz so much as about a kind of self-imploding rapture. One might substitute a Chopin, a Keats or Van Gogh for a Baker or Holiday; one might adjust the setting to arrive at the same poem, just as one might substitute a romantically wasting disease for drug addiction.
What fuels Hull's jazz-rapture poem isn't so much its subject's individualized realization as an enactment-of Baker's self-destruction. Of course, the poem identifies autobiographically--there's an explicit "I've been there" here. There's also a blurring of distinction between poet and subject accompanied by an implicit assumption that anyone who "burns out" rather than "fades away" does so with religious conviction. Our imploding artist endures a final rapturous initiation/transformation, just as readers are privileged voyeurs participating in a shamanic ritual of self-immolation.
In a more credulous age, this poet/shaman might be a stigmatized saint, wasted away from the facsimile-wounds of her martyrdom. In almost all rapture poetry her suffering is willing, passive, submissive. Her wasting away--or burning away--embodies a shedding of the ego and requires turning from her dominant sexual characteristics (note Chet Baker's aggressively feminine vocal style, Billie Holiday's legendary masculine sexual appetite, Arthur Rimbaud's firecesome androgyny). But while there's an androgynous aspect to her transformation, and a shifting of gender identification, out poet--or the speaker in these poems--experiences a kind of orgasmic pleasure as she slips to the "other side." She seeks out the margins, the "bardo," between male and female, life and death, violence and tenderness; as she does so, the poem often drops time, place, and narrative--it shifts into an undifferentiated synesthesic world, some times, as in the case of Jane Mendelsohn's new hovel I Was Amelia Earhart occupying the antipo des of both the psyche and of geography.
It was demented trip. The entire journey, flying as fast as possible like fugitive angels, took more than a month, during which time we spent our days feverish from the flaming sun-or lost in the artillery of monsoon rains and almost always astonished by the unearthly architecture of the sky. In spite of the hazardous conditions, or perhaps because of them, Noonan drank and I flew with reckless, melodramatic abandon, and as the voyage progressed we carelessly flung overboard any pretense of civility. Much later, when I looked back on the flight; it seemed to me that we had been two lost souls in an immense nether-world, traveling toward an arbitrary goal-wondering which of us was more forsaken: the navigator who didn't care where we were going, or the-pilot who didn't care if we got there.
We must have both known that we shared something, a secret craving for oblivion. But there is no such thing as oblivion. Oblivion is a lie.
They climb-slowly. For thirteen minutes, they climb slowly, and then they swing in the direction of Puerto Rico. Underneath them the water is a pale, pure green, and underneath that the sand is white. The gauzy shapes of giant fish swim over the sand like clouds above the desert.
At six o'clock she-tunes to WQAM. They will be broadcasting the weather every half hour. When she tunes in they are sending out a description of her takeoff. She listens in suspense and smiles. It is hot in the cockpit and so she takes off her jacket. She hears that she has gotten off safely.
Dawn turns to day and the light's grows hazy. A few clouds glide under the Electra's wings, like swans under a bridge. The shadows of the clouds draw giant petals and paw prints on the surface of the pale green sea.
Mendelsohn's novel adapts a mosaic style used most successfully in the experimental fiction of Marguerite Duras's The Lover, Colette's Cheri novels and Andre Gide's Strait is the Gate. Though Mendelsohn is American, the mosaic is especially appropriate to the acerbic ironies of a French conscious--ness. A form well-suited to the poetry-and prose--of rapture, mosaics work through chunks and fragments and move from scene to scene in jump cuts, rather than through smooth transitions; they abandon--save in short informational blips--any pretense at exposition.
A hybrid from, the mosaic borrows from fiction and poetry, though it has little of the murky vagueness of prose poems. Mosaic novels also share with novellas a predilection for virtuoso performance; like novellas, mosaic plots work interiorally and have a strong psychological focus. Both novellas and mosaics exhibit formal elements analogous to those in other arts--the novella emphasizes the tour de force of the nineteenth-century concerto and showcases a central protagonist's tragic heroism; like the concerto, the novella dramatizes a conflict between its doomed "soloist" and his/her environment. And like mosaics, novellas are textural; but while the layered visual impasto of the novella resembles the exhuberant--if muddy--detail of Romantic painting, mosaics gain power through piling up shimmeringly fragmented detail.
The mosaic is Post-Impressionist in its juxtaposition of contrasting elements. In its use of quickcut transitions, its emphasis on half-scenes, the mosaic is both cinematic and resembles--as much as it does the novella--the French novelette, a form fusing wry humor and a lyrically economical style. As in the above-quoted passage from I Was Amelia Earhart, mosaics are quilts of times, places and shifting points of view. Narrative coherence in the mosaic works jigsawlike--through contrasting iconic shards, repetition of thematic motifs; through a wreckless, though reined-in, rhetoric.
Mendelsohn's novel swoons the way mosaic writing swoons--spasmodically, in fits and starts, rather than in eddies and swirls, like the poetry of rapture which rushes on in aural and imagistic sweeps of association. But we recognize in the passage's hyperbolic rhetoric and its synesthetic imagery the trappings of rapture poetry: the exotic setting ("the immense netherworld"), the emphasis on atmospheric detail ("the artillery of monsoon rains"), and Mendelsohn's boldly shifting syntax establish a dreamlike mood also found in the poems I've cited by Mitchell and Hull. That mood is further enhanced through a build up of similes and a mix of floral and aquatic imagery--"The shadows of the clouds draw giant petals and paw prints on the surface of the pale green sea" (shades of Elizabeth Bishop!)--and by dislocative shifts of point of view.
Mosaics are like notebooks, logbooks: chronicling the pioneer pilot's journey from her embarcation in the United States to her crash-landing on a Pacific atoll, I Was Amelia Earhart reports everything the real-life Earhart would have kept out of public scrutiny. Anne Morrow Lindberg's A Gift from the Sea, a mosaic written as journal, a sort of eco-journal, was an early--though perhaps unintentional--prototype for Mendelsohn's form and includes every moment of rapture her pilot husband would have eliminated from his flight-book.
Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek continues the tradition in a montage of scientific observation and mystical rumination; I mention Dillard's essays because of their logbook method, their celebration of excess in nature and their search for those "spots in time" that burn through the fabric of the Cartesian world. There's no space to excerpt Dillard's brilliant essay "The Death of a Moth," but her meditation on solitude, self-immoloation and rapture--with its centrally juxtaposed figures of "Rimbaud burning out his brains in Paris," and a moth toasting itself on a guttering candle--is mosaic-like in its pyrotechnically (pun intended) leaping logic and--especially relevent to this essay--its focus on drug-induced rapture.
Dillard, Rimbaud and Mendelsohn's Earhart share a willingness to be swept away by "arbitrary goals." Rimbaud's abandoning his public role as a poet for a gun-running life in Africa is similar to Earhart's--at least Mendelsohn's Earhart's--relinquishment of her role as a public heroine for "a demented trip[ldots] flying as fast as possible like (a) fugitive angel." Suffusing Earhart's headlong flight into the tropics of her imagination is her knowledge both she and her alcoholic navigator "shared something, a secret craving for oblivion. But there is no such thing as oblivion. Oblivion is a lie."
Earhart's craving for oblivion manifests in her quest for a world where time idyllically stops outside lineal history. This quest claims precedence in both Romantic literature's pursuit of the sublime and in the mystic's search for erasure of the self; but there are huge differences between rapturous experience and sublimity. The Sublime's guide, its Virgil--Garcia Lorca's "bloodless muse"--is guardian of poetic tradition. As a celestial presence, she inspires us intellectually while Rapture is that smelly, half-dwarf/half-gargoyle Lorca celebrates in his essay on the Duende. More devil than god, more incubus than sentimental literary angel, rather than stimulating historical memory the Duende compels us to forget.
But we easily mistake Duende for its antithesis--what I call "Havoc"--a bogus--and bloodless--Duende look-alike who spreads mayhem and suffering: the inspiration behind Mitchell's poem "Hotel by the Sea," the god of Lear and Caliban--of Falkner's Snopes, Conrad's Kurtz, Plath's "Daddy"--Havoc's identified with Jealosy and Malice. His energies often inspire genius. But if Duende is the Daddy of Desire, Havoc is the Progenitor of Neediness and Resentment. Havoc appears in the ranting anti-Semitic Pound of the Cantos; he screeches through vengeful and self-pitying performances in the Inferno and the Nigger of the Narcissus; Havoc's at war with Duende in Goya's Capprichio etchings (he's Saturn Devouring his Child in Goya's painting), and is responsible for the babble of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano.
Though Havoc pretends to a kind of transcendent wisdom, he actually obliterates the ethical world for the sake of an oblivious "Inner Child." But as the protagonist of Mendelsohn's novel asserts: "there is no such thing as oblivion. Oblivion is a lie."
To achieve this dubious "oblivion," Havoc and the Sublime express themselves in two musical modes: the language of the Sublime is melody and harmony; Havoc communicates cacaphonously, disonantly. But neither states of mind--or poetic consciousnesses--are graced with a developed sense of rhythm: the Sublime's traditional metrics and Havoc's arhythmical--or dithyrambic--digressions belie their disassociation from the imperatives of the blood.
With roots in Flamenco and mambo, Duende's double is Chango, a prancing, gender-leaping saint of self-transformation. (Interestingly, Chango, himself, is an Afro-Cuban incarnation of Catholicism's Santa Barbara!) Even though Havoc fabricates a funky glands-empowered syntax, he lacks a sense of time; he's incapable of articulating those pulsing polyrhythms we feel in Duende's music.
Duende shows up in the title poem of Deborah Digges's 1995 collection, Rough Music, as a noisy pots-and-pans thunking dibbuk who might have materialized from an Isaac Bashevis Singer novel. Despite Digges's tempestuously paced lines, there's a meatiness, a chunky sensuality here that offsets "Rough Music"'s savagery.
This is how it's done.
The villagers surround the house,
Beat pots and pans, beat shovels to drain spouts,
cowbars to shutters, rakes
raining, rake tines on corrugated washtubs, or wire
whips or pitchforks, or horseshoes.
At first they keep their distance
as if to wake you like blackbirds, though the birds
have long since fled, flown deep into the field.
And for a while you lie still, you stand it,
even smile up at your crimes
accompanying each one, the sunrise stuttering across the ceiling
like the sounds within sounds,
like lightening inside thrum-tink, woman-in- shoes-fall-
down-wooden-stairs, like wrong-wrong inside rung-rung,
brick-smacking-brick housing ice-breaking-ice-
I mention this since this is what my dreams
are lately, rough music,
as if all the boys-to-women I have been, the muses, ghost-
girls and the shadows of the ancestors
circled my bed in their cheap accoutrements
and banged my silver spoons on iron skillets, moor
rock on moor rock, thrust-yardsticks into the fans.
Though I wake and dress and try
to go about my day,
room to room they follow me.
By evening, believe me, I'd give back everything,
throw open my closets, pull out my drawers spilling my hoard
of dance cards, full for the afterlife,
but my ears are bleeding.
I'm trapped in the bell tower during wind,
or I'm the wind itself against the furious, unmetered,
anarchical applause of leaves late autumns
in the topmost branches.
Now the orchestra at once throws down its instruments.
The doors in the house of God tear off their hinges--
I'm the child's fist drumming its mother's back,
rock that hits the skull that silences the martyr,
or I'm the martyr's tongue cut out, fire inside fire,
clapper back to ore, ore into mountain.
I'm gone, glad, empty, good
riddance, some shoulder to the sea, a likeness
of a wing, or the horizon, merely, the weird mirage, stone-
skipping moon, the night filled up with crows.
I clap my hands.
They scatter, scatter, fistful after
fistful of sand on water, desert for desert, far from here.
Consciously or not, Digges's poem reflects the anti-shapeliness aesthetic we find in Susan Mitchell's "The Cities" and the "Hotel by the Sea." Despite the possible Rapture influence in Digges's choice of a self-absorbed narrrator--not to mention her quick cut transitions and incantative anaphorae--Digges's poem is more viscerally focussed than Mitchell's work. The latter's mannered syntax is replaced here by a madcap jitterbug, a slam-dunk aplomb. We jump into the poem in media res--and we exit from it with a jolt: the poem's rough music feels hurled, vomitted; its irregular design emblemizes primitive utterance. At first glance, "Rough Music" seems to sport an offhand spontaneity, but on examining Digges's jagged lineation, her truncated phrasing and punchy monosyllables, one senses a chiseled--if somewhat overworked--precision and exactitude. Even so, there's an impetuous heedlessness here, a haunting carousal hiding the speaker's loneliness.
The poem's first twenty lines, in second person, describe in hyphenated bursts the dithering racket of a violent and chaotic world; whereas the last two-thirds of the poem, written in a close-up first person, is more internal, more introspective. There the speaker is "trapped in the bell tower during wind,/ or (she's) the wind itself against the furious ummetered,/ anarchical applause of leaves in late autumn/ in the uppermost branches"--lines that have a breathy assonance I miss in the word-jammed repetends of the poem's first section.
With its devilish villagers whose tools are turned into musical instruments, its blackbirds and "women-in-shoes-fall-/ down-wooden-stairs" crimped into the opening segment, "Rough Music" seems lifted from Grimms' fairytales. The fabulously mysterious "they" plagueing the speaker--that demonic orchestra which finally "throws down its instruments"--drives her in the poem's closing moments back to childhood where "the doors in the house of God tear off their hinges." All this--the pain Digges's speaker endures, her androgynous regression from "all the boys and women I have been" into a "child's first drumming its mother's have back" and finally, synechdochally, into a "martyr's tongue cut out, fire into fire"--points toward a sort of backwards metamorphosis, an apotheosis of the speaker into a symbol--"some shoulder to the sea,/ the likeness of a wing, or the horizon, merely."
I'm fascinated with how Digges's speaker's disassociation clicks in after an abrupt point of view shift from second to first person; traumatized by the villager's violence she withdraws into a lonely martyrdom. Meantime, the villagers--now "angels (who) flee the earth holding their ears"--also withdraw, leaving her in an inorganic nature where the "trees [ldots] are longing to be stone" and "the lilacs give up their color to be stone." On one level, this desire for a return to the elements might be an. evasion of the hardscrabble realities of village life; but less literally, skewed by a hazing of boundaries between self and other, the speaker escapes into an inhuman chaos as she "wake(s) and dress(es) and go(es) about her day."
Digges's leaves open whether her speaker is mad or enlightened although one might argue since "Rough Music" isn't a psychological poem but a kind of musical vehicle for rapture that such questions are irrelevent: while sharing with more meditative poetry a liking for interior rumination, referentless symbols and free-floating metaphor, the poem's shouty style' makes me read. it as a reeling dirge where interiors become exteriors, rumination becomes lamentation. In the last segment Digges's syntax becomes even more fragmented. Here the poem devolves to those final non-sequitored lines of painful self-transformation; the wind-driven language' of the poem's opening segment reasserts itself, filled with a bitter plaintiveness as the speaker. flees into her reductive imagination.
As I've suggested, part of Digges's poem's power comes from mixing a jaggedly pounding syntax with sense impressions that turn hermetic and abstract. These contrasts in imagery and sound are subliminally reinforced by connections Digges makes between rapture and suffering. I came to this essay believing rapture is preceded, and/or accompanied by suffering; I was inclined to like poems that articulated connections between the two. But as I read more work with a rapture theme, I notice two approaches to my subject--one celebrating an unbuttoned hedonism; another focussed on painful efforts to attain ecstacy. Despite myself, I begin to like work that doesn't fit into neat categories. I like how Digges's poem doesn't separate rapture from suffering but views both states as interdependant: "Rough Music"'s throbbing repetitions slosh into its refined imagery, Digges's shamanic expressions of pain leak into her frenetic lyricism.'
As in Mitchell's volume, the poems in Rough Music reveal a rapture stimulated by a projection of their speaker's madness into inanimate objects. The result of this projection, combined with other contrasts and antitheses underscored in "Rough Music" and in many Mitchell poems where people often seem less real than the objects and atmosphere surrounding them, is a day-for-night pentimento of texture, tone' and theme: while the inanimate world in these poems seems charged with numinousness, their people live flickeringly illusory--if not Dantean -- half-lives; they are spirits sparked into momentary existence by the over-aestheticized sensibilities of their creators. On one level, we might view their incorporeality as embodiments of a post-modern weltanschaung where scientific indeterminacy-hence, philosphical relativism--substitutes for blind faith; on another level, the people--these shady caricatures, these sketchy shades--seem real as some compulsion-driven folks we know.
You'd expect a poetry playing at the edge of the illusory and the real to be structureless, gelatinous--its vitality leached by chimerical tangents, disassociated phantoms. But Mitchell and Digges's poems seem fueled by the chaos they create: at times they merely bubble with inchoate feeling; but at best their momentum sweeps us into something that resembles rapture. Actually, a self-consuming fire--"fire into fire," a swirling Heraclitean fire, a burning insatiability carrying us centrifugally back to divinely or demonically sparked origins, seems central to their poetry.
To paraphrase a Larry Levis poem, it's so American, fire--this desire to burn up--tear down, disassemble. Even sometime-expatriot Linda Gregg, an ecstatic poet of Hellenic and Hermetic Christian influences, is a poetry fire-bug. But if Digges's and Mitchell's poems burn with a ragtime rapture, Gregg's work, consumed with a longing for a lost lover, are Saphic torch songs.
In several poems in her collection Chosen by the Lion Gregg invokes Hephaestus who, like the poet, fashions beautiful images from his forge: while Digges's. and Mitchell's poems unreel before us in cinematic swatches, Gregg's are branded onto the page in vulcanized friezes.
Indeed, many of her poems feel Pompeian--her fragrances are Mediterreanean; the images in her sonnet "Ravenous" come out of a reliquary of myth-charged memory.
Dear God, who are my mountain, my kissing birds
my steady Christ, hear me. Thou who are
soft Aphrodite lifting the cotton sheet
to show old Hephaestus that she has given
her body to Ares that very hour, in the sine light.
O Leisurely, Hair-in-an-envelope,
leaf that is all spine and bones with fragments of flesh from time of being, Blue Heron in the dark breaking open the woods, help me. I lie here lost, hidden, pushed away from the core of things. Endanger me if necessary, if not in my body then by words hammered into
the core of things. Endanger me if necessary, if not in my body then by words hammered into
if not in my body then by words hammered into
my brain, or death as fire, as slow flaying,
of flesh from time of being, Blue Heron
in the dark breaking open the woods, help me.
I lie here lost, hidden, pushed away from
as bloody lilies. But please, not this nothing
Like those "fragments/ of flesh from time and being" Gregg apostrophizes in her poem; "Ravenous"'s cumulative and periodic sentences are comprised of shards and segments--hanging gardens of half-complete pharses. One image refracts another; Gregg's shattered mythic figures fuse into a boneyard of Greco-Christian iconography.
Despite the dynamism of the juxtaposed figures of Christ and Aphrodite, God and Hephaestus, and despite the burning urgency in the sonnet's supplicative tone, like others in Gregg's collection, "Ravenous" transmits a Keatsian quietness: in keeping with the frieze conceit, Gregg's poem-sequence proceeds through moments of arrested action--like the metopes on a Doric temple. In "Ravenous," specifically, what the poet omits--the story leading to Hephaestus discovering his wife Aphrodite "has given/ her body to Ares"--is as significant as what she includes. Likewise, her anomalies, those syntax units not fitting into, her metopic puzzle--"the Blue Heron/ in the dark breaking open the woods"--enhance the sense we've stumbled onto a ruin.
The poem's webb of images and symbols, its imbedded conceit, is far too complex to more than touch on here save to remark on how she exploits the sonnet's laconicism to image the inseparability of pain and pleasure, the dualism of fecundity and sterility the speaker experiences. The compressed quality of Gregg's poem is intensified by the way she both draws out and fragments--truncates--her mosaicly structured sentences: each fragment seems a gasp of longing for connectedness, for rapturous release.
I heard Billy Holiday when I was sixteen at a jazz festival on Long Island. Though she was at the end of her own career, Holiday stood at the microphone and simply breathed--and the audience breathed with her. What I experienced at that bittersweet moment listening to Holiday's ravaged voice was a vicarious rapture: I had no way of knowing what she communicated--not exactly, anyway--but I felt privileged. And though I couldn't identify those pathos-filled lines from "Gloomy Sunday" and "Strange Fruit" with what I now know as rapture, I felt Holiday's intense sadness, I understood the irony in her double -inflected syllables; I knew there was more to her than just singing, for--especially in late-career, her voice almost gone--Holiday's songs depended on the rapture beneath the often pedestrian lyrics of popular music.
The poets I've discussed surely are acquainted--intimately acquinted--not only with Holiday's music, but with her life-story. They are drawn to her--as I was, I'm sure--because no other artist states so well the uneasy alliance between pain and and pleasure: for many Holiday's music also expresses a larger-than-life narrative that displaces our own private agonies.
It's too easy to say that the rapture the speakers endure in the poems I've discussed is a vicarious one, but, certainly, a kind of objectification, a deflecting of emotion, takes place. This is not to say that their authors are incapable of telling their own painful stories. But the subject of rapture requires a distancing either through irony--as in Mitchell's "The Cities" and Mendelsohn's "I was Amelia Earhart"--or through the supeimposition of myth--as in Digges's "Rough Music" and in Gregg's "Ravenous."
The truth is, we want to see people suffer in poetry--and we want them to suffer rapturous agonies that by degree and psychic distancing are exquisitely different from our own. But in the spirit of the age, a spirit of acquiescence, of resignation, we want these figures to suffer passively: Chet Baker's drug-induced agonies--and his raptures--move us because he submits so willingly, so earnestly, to them. While an epic hero goes down fighting against his fate, the post-modern protagonist of the lyric poems I've discussed surrenders to his/her circumstances; in psycho-jargon, she. "relinquishes control," and gives into the libido (i.e., the will of the gods). Such-lyrical passivity doesn't make for engaging narrative--much less epic--poetry, but encourages a kind of hypertrophic mannerism characterized by the jump cuts, scene-splicings and lingustic excess I've observed.
The anti-heroes of contemporary Rapture Poetry have in common with epic hercies their inclination to draw the gods' wrath. But their defining difference is they don't go down fighting.
TONY WHEDON has essays forthcoming in Agni, American Literary Review, Brilliant Corners, Sewanee Review, and other journals. This is his fifth essay-appearance in APR. He teaches at Johnson State College, where he co-edits the Green Mountains Review.