I started Susan Mitchell's book Rapture in this state of unknowing. With no pressure to understand, during the first few readings I could afford to feel I understood less and less. This was a great luxury, particularly here, here, where the poems are very rich in all the news the five senses can find. The fabric alone is abundant, fantastic, and sensual.
In Greece too I was immersed in a world of pleasure and contrasts beyond any I had known or imagined. After swimming, I'd read on the vine-covered porch of the taverna overlooking the beach, drinking tea as black as coffee. At the table next to mine there were three young bucks from Athens, their speedy urban earthiness unleashed on holiday. Everything was washed in that famous Greek light, even their thoughtless cruelty to the old waiter, the way they mimicked his apologetic country ways well before he'd turned his back. The desert hills and tumbleweed slanted down to the wide blue-green bay below, bound by rock coves on two sides, and by an almost untouched beach on the third. The world around me was fresh and fantastic, and as I read, I didn't worry about the unknowns, the strange currents, the questions I had about the poems.
Then I came back to my own shores. After I returned home, to our stolid brick house in a midwestern town, the poems looked different. Rapture, a book of voracious appetite, is filled with luscious things, but nothing in it stays still, and this posed an odd contrast to my own relatively settled life.
In front of me now there's an oak desk so heavy it has not been moved for twelve years, since the day two walls were put up and this room appeared, a small study which was once the corner of an impossibly long dormer room, big enough to sleep eight children. The bookcases which line three walls are made from cement blocks pile up, I keep an eye on not been moved in a long time, and as the books pile up, I keep an eye on the kitchen ceiling below in case it should start to sag. I seemed to have gathered here the heaviest things I could find to weigh down this room, to make it hold against change, movement, confusion, erosion, dissolution. Is it possible with so much baggage around me to penetrate this "history of the transitory, a history of flittings and fleetings, spray blown from the fingers and other mutabilia"?(1)
I remember a standard I found once reading Pound, one that made me stiffen in opposition at the time: "Poetry is a centaur. The thinking, word-arranging, clarifying faculty must move and leap with the energizing, sentient, musical faculties. It is precisely the difficulty of this amphibious existance that keeps down the census record of good poets....I dare say there are very good marksmen who just can't shoot from a moving horse."(2) At the time this seemed to me an alien, masculine standard that cut out entire swatches of diffuseness I was interested in.
When I began to think about Susan Mitchell's work, which has both extraordinary diffuseness and an instinctual ability to hit the mark (like the unwavering birds of prey in some of these poems), I remembered that this same idea had been expressed by Osip Mandelstam in a less autocratic way in his essay an Dante. "The quality of poetry is determined by the speed and decisiveness with which it embodies its schemes and commands its diction....One must traverse the full width of a river crammed with Chinese junks moving simultaneously in various directions - this is how the meaning of poetic discourse is created....Its itinerary cannot be reconstructed by interrogating the boatmen: they will not be able to tell how and why we were skipping from junk to junk"(3) Mandelstam goes on to "imagine an airplane which in full flight constructs and launches another machine," then a third, a fourth and so on. Mandelstam says that in the light of Dante's talent for convertibility," talk of an image's "development" becomes an outmoded convention.(4)
I came up against a similar difficulty in discussing Susan Mitchell's swiftly changing images and the speed she is able to sustain throughout long progressions and long poems. Going the distance of a poem like "Self-Portrait with Two Faces" or "Diluvial" is like being part of a current "which carries you...alarming fast out into confusion where the river pours into the sea."(5)
There is a passage in the middle of "Self-portrait with Two Faces" which I think mirrors succinctly the larger movements whole poems make and the book itself makes. It shows the poet "so in touch with instability and flux" that the poem "melts or changes as it is read."(6) In "Self-Portrait," the poet is talking about the "slur and slop of the unexpressed" in any life, the steady rise and fall of something almost abstract - the tie-dyed silks a life slips on and off, the brailles when no one spoke and only the rain started up with its sound of someone peeing in a vacant lot.
The book's opening poem, "Havana Birth," says, "The world is wily, and doesn't want to be held for long," and Mitchell's senses move in full adherence to this aphoristic line. Airy silk condenses into raised bumps on a page, then into silence broken by a rain which brings no relief but only deepens the atmosphere of vacancy.
Not all the poems in this book ring with the restlessness of "Self-Portrait with Two Faces." A happier poem is "Sky of Clouds," which closes the book. It begins with a "ritual dressing up, " the poet dancing with a man in drag and the comedy of that - both figures with breasts, their shades of lipstick almost the same - a sensational, oddly celebratory image. In "Leaves That Grow Inward," a darker poem, Mitchell begins with the even more shocking scene of bathing as a child with a friend named Clara, a girl whose arm "ended abruptly at the elbow." But in both cases these attention-getting strategies are soon confessed and the poems move on to their real subjects:
Only, to tell the truth, there never was a Clara... At school, there was a girl like her, but her arm terrified me I withdrew from it. Which is quite another thing, isn't it?
There is an enigmatic use of masks and levels of concealment her which work in the book to nurture and reveal a multitude of selves. I "The New Spirit," Ashbery says: "Comes a time when what is to be revealed actually conceals itself in casting off the mask of its identity when the identity itself is revealed as another mask ... antecedent t what we had come to know and accept."(7) In "Leaves That Grow Inward, " Mitchell makes exactly this kind of confession:
So, you see, I am not the person you thought I was, the one you had grown comfortable with, maybe even liked a little.
In "Rainbow," there is a more elaborate deception involving an incident in which a shocked husband discovers a hairshirt on the body of his wife, who has been found dead in a collapsed building. In the poem this complicated story is being told to a friend. At the same time, in a sort of aside to the reader, Mitchell confesses to a wacky but adroit strategy she is using to maneuver her friend away from an area where she feels vulnerable:
I was afraid my feelings might get the best of me. You know how it is when you're speaking and you begin to feel something enter your voice, your voice is always the first clue. To get this quaver or catch out of my voice as quickly as possible, I asked her if irony was the word to describe this situation, though I knew it wasn't I just wanted to put miles between me and what I had said.
If this seems unclear, I think it was meant to be. The book is sometimes a pentimento, as in painting, when a shadow of the painter's first choice can still be seen through the outer layer of paint as it grows transparent with age: "I have let the girl with chartreuse/eye shadow, with topaz nails paint a new face/ over the face I painted earlier" ("Mosaic, Probably Narcissus.")
In several of Rapture's core poems - "Leaves That Grow Inward," "Sky of Clouds," "Self-Portrait," "Rainbow" - the frankness with which Mitchell sometimes reveals her masks suggests that, in the process of writing, she has bee surprised by them also. What's striking here is that these reshiftings, these new faces, thrill rather than scare her. The book, enigmatic though it is, takes its story from these unpredictable rhythms of self-discovery:
Currents swing against one another, impeding each other's progress through a channel my thinking drugged under, drowning in its desire to be everywhere at once, the rhythms overlapping in the improvised sections, like a crowd stampeding out of a burning nightclub, pushed up against the other crowd struggling to get in. ("Self-Portrait")
For some people, the complications of the self are too exhausting and divisive to live with. Parts that don't fit must remain unexpressed, kept under a lid or put out to pasture where they eventually go slack. But for Mitchell, this complex is not a hopeless tangle, but cause for a kind of contained flamboyance, a climate in which contradictory selves may grow bolder, more realized, better able to coexist without taking sides.
Mitchell has a keen eye far the fantastic, and through most of the book, I trusted it completely, sensing behind it what Robert Duncan calls "evidence of the real." But there are places in the book where the thrill of the fantastic and the imagination's ability, as Shelley says, "to create what it sees," left me behind, excluded, confronted with a gorgeous nervosity I could not enter. In "Child Bride," a poem that takes place primarily in a children's hospital, there is a progression that unfolds like this:
Mainly, the language they died in was Spanish. But sometimes they died in transistor. Sometimes in window, a transparency that looks out on the world, leading the tongue to new adventures
like a good lover.
I'm not disturbed by the implicit connection drawn here between eros and death, but in the context of a children's hospital, this juxtaposition offends my moral and psychological sense. And the sexual stageyness which ends the progression seems a wrong turn, one of the rare places where the poet underestimates her audience, tossing out this concession to our prurience, while the real inner logic of the series is abruptly cut off, at least from our hearing.
The poem moves fast and is so dense with images that it's airless, leaving no room for a listener. Edgar Allen Poe and his child bride dominate the beginning and end of the poem. Poe's haughty, "I could not bring my passions from a common spring," is quoted and the atmosphere is self-enclosed, feverish, onanistic. There is nothing the reader can do but look on, disturbed and helpless. The understanding of the listener is willfully overestimated, and in the end, this amounts to the kind of underestimation I mentioned earlier.
Gaston Bachelard calls this "literary opium." Speaking about writers who want to fascinate us with extraordinary psychological exploits," he says their works become "just so many documents which are too big for us, just so many experiences in which we are not participating."(8) (There are also sections of "Mosaic, Probably Narcissus" where the turns are too private, but there the wry self-knowledge is mitigating and the poem remains open to others.) In "Childbride," Mitchell has lost that faculty she has so much of elsewhere, "the maintenance of an intelligent sobriety in the utilization of imaginary drugs.(9)
Mitchell doesn't succumb to this kind of impatience very often. Though the poet says to the reader, "you ... exist like tinsel ... at the periphery of my hearing" ("Sky of Clouds"), I wouldn't take her at her word. One of the uncanny things about this poet is that, while she sustains a marked inward intimacy, she is able simultaneously to "dream in public," driven by a strong desire to speak to others unlike herself. I am assured of communicability by the remarkable naturalness of her style, which approaches prose in many places, without losing music. She has a strong feeling for the sentence, and I think often these are poems in which there is more poetry in the sentence than in the line.
In the book's final section, the writer's desire to sing from the,fragment, not from the whole, moves into full, celebratory song. Elsewhere, Mitchell calls this desire the postmodernist's "greater willingness, even a need, to let conflicts and contradictions remain unresolved.(10) The sense that the center no longer holds is not a threatening realization but a tremendously liberating one. It opens the flood-gates and lets in a ruthless tide of random material, "with no regard for inventory ... no regard for merchandise ... no understanding of containment . . . " ("Diluvial"). Not a trace of nostalgia for humanistic wholeness remains.
In the last section of Rapture there is an explosion of debris and rubble, of "song unanchored." In the poem, " Diluvial," objects are uprooted, glued, spilled, eaten, pierced, dragged, broken, scattered, split, knocked, sucked, congealed, cracked, tumbled, polished, melted. We hear the music of the sirens "pulling in different directions ... poured like water through a sieve. . . . " The end of the poem invokes a holocaust, but this happens with so much music that you end enraptured, "still listening," asking for more like the psalmist who says "Let the floods clap their hands. "
Martin Heidegger says that "the vocation of the poet is homecoming:"(11) but Mitchell is not "coming home" in any conventional sense. She says "The language of pleasure is makeshift, leaves and branches/hastily thrown. Of mud and dribble./Of huff and puff and higgledy-piggledy./Of rampage, ruckus. Of blow your house down" ("The False Etymologies of Isidore of Seville"). What is remarkable is her passionate sense of belonging amid the wash, suck, and slap of mutabilia. Negative capability - the ability to forget oneself and follow an image - is no longer an occasional experience, but an underwater pavilion Mitchell plans to move into permanently, learning, in the meantime, "to breathe under water for longer and longer intervals" ("Cities"). Rilke had something of this same feeling in the presence of Tolstoy and Rodin. "The great men have all let their lives become overgrown like an old road and have carried everything into their art."(12)
Rilke had a long apprenticeship to Rodin. Early on he went to visit the sculptor's studio in Meudon, where there were many rooms - rooms for baking clay, rooms for stonecutters, and a garden completely fined by a pavilion brought back from an exposition. Trying to absorb the quantity and quality of the work in these rooms, Rilke is overwhelmed: "There it lies, yard upon yard, only fragments, one beside the other. Figures the size of my hand and larger ... but ... hardly one that is whole.... [I saw] the torso of a figure with the head of another pressed against it, with the arm of a third ... as if an unspeakable storm, an unparalleled destruction had passed over this work. And yet, the more closely one looks, the more deeply one feels that all this would be less of a whole if the individual bodies were whole.... One forgets these are only parts, and often parts of different bodies that cling to each other so passionately here."(13)
Mitchell would have felt at home in this jumble, but to Rilke, Rodin's disregard for wholeness was disturbing as well as exhilarating. His descriptions of Rodin's work have a compulsive, urgent quality: "A piece of an arm and leg and body is for Rodin a whole, an entity, because he no longer thinks of arm, leg, body (that would seem to him too much like subject matter)." By "subject matter," Rilke meant any preconceived notion of what a work of art will be. His sense of discovery circled around the opposite of this idea, what he called "a plastic work of art"(14) (italics mine).
Rapture is a book permeated with a similar malleability. Consciousness is home, and in it, all is flux, nothing is fixed. When the poet gives us an exterior context, it is often something moving, an airplane, car, or bus, or a place inhabited temporarily - a bar, restaurant, hotel, an empty lot or beach. Rapture's interiors are almost exclusively non-domestic, like the high rise in "Leaves That Grow Inward," which talks to itself, "moaning like the sea,/or like someone stumbling in and out/ of sleep." No child abuse or domestic violence is evident in these pages, but it's as though home as we know it never existed.
Apart from a few notable exceptions, relationships do not endure. They are like clouds that form, reform, and dissolve, governed by the wind. In "Leaves That Grow Inward" and "A Story, " union is described in "knots," and these knots are not emblems of security but of pain and contraction. Safety and a sense of expansion are possible only when the poet is alone. I'm reminded of what Robert Hass said about Rilke's deeply androgynous nature: "His own being was otherness to him. It compelled him in the way that sexual otherness compels lovers."(15)
My own life has been marked by an unusual degree of human continuity from childhood on. This has its own problems, but for me, experiencing a radical sensibility like Mitchell's feels something like doing a headstand, all my organs being pulled the opposite way. This is good for them - the laws of gravity are wearing - but I'm glad when I come back to a normal position. There are few poems in this book which affected this way, as a return to a world I know.
These poems are not representative; they are exceptions in the book's story. Three of them, "A Story," "Bus Trip," and "Rainbow," are grouped together near the beginning of section two. Coming on these poems, especially after the long, forcefully unresolved poem, "Cities," where holes, gaps, and silences widen continually, I felt a sense of relief.
In "Rainbow," the connection between the writer and her mother is secure and far-reaching: "How many miles it spanned/before it sank at either end into the ocean/like the pylons of a bridge or how deep/under the waves I couldn't say." This rainbow, which opens the poem, is echoed later by a long and involved telephone call between the two women, on wires that run between Florida and Connecticut, an arc that holds in so much space.
"Rainbow" tells a long family story, intricate, complex, its meaning realize over time. Unlike this grounded relationship, those in "A Story" and "Bus Trip" are random encounters with street people. In part it is the anonymity and fleeting kind of unconditional love these travelers offer which free the poet and allow her to expand and reciprocate:
All across America children are learning to fly. On a bus leaving New Hampshire, on a bus leaving Colorado, I sat next to a child who had learned how to fly and she carried her flying clenched inside both fists....
... In a bathroom she buys a comb with a quarter borrowed from me and insists I write down my name and address so she can return it from L.A. or from Chicago or from wherever it is someone she hasn't met yet is waiting for her. In the dark of the bus she combs her hair. And what she says to me is a song that take only three minutes to hear, which I accept like a stick of gum. Now you tell me the songs you like best, the songs you like best, she says, and I do.
The fourth poem appears later in the book. "Fragment of a Woman from Kos" is full of direct lyric feeling, written to a female figure who seems both maternal and erotic. This loved figure dissolves just when the memory of her reaches its ripest point, cut back in that moment to the fragment of a ruin kneeling in the grass. At first glance, this might seem a poem about loss, but the radiance of its short lines suggests recovery rather than loss,and in the end, nothing clouds this daringly simple lyric:
You were told finches lived there, red-winged, tipsy, upside down their hold on the reeds, even so they sang, trilling over and over your outstretched hands song a bowl, water.
These poems are welcome in a book marked by a gorgeous remoteness of being that takes little or no interest in the ongoing human world. In writing about Rapture, I'm troubled by a question I can't answer. Is it fair to hold this book up to a standard that clearly doesn't interest the poet, especially when, in all other respects that matter, this is a poet with very high standards?
What does call to the poet from the outside world is sound. I have the feeling that Mitchell not only knows more words than most people, but that even raw or humdrum sounds rise above the level of irritation and become music. In "Aviary," the white noise of a radio left droning by a pool becomes "static worthy of remembrance." The sounds are transcribed: "els letz/becs/dels auzels ramenczs" - which is actually a fragment from Old Provencal.
Mitchell's ear is also attuned to the sounds that bubble up between silence and speech, and this gives the book a kind of double years, like bread made with beer. Mandelstam wrote that Dante made "a careful study of all speech defects, listening closely to stutterers and lispers, to nasal twangs and inarticulate pronunciation, and that he learned much from them."(16) Mitchell is similarly fascinated by "that slur when the deaf wind up to speak" ("Aviary"). Her respect for these sounds arises partly from a deep awareness of the betrayals of speech, of the ways in which language is untrue to experience. (Mitchell's contribution to Behn and Twichell's new collection of writing exercises, The Practice of Poetry, is entitled "Experience Falls Through Language like Water Through a Sieve.")
In "Self-Portrait," one of the book's central poems, three stories are attempted but then broken off. "Whenever I try to tell about those nights, the acoustics go bad." (The word "acoustics" is worth noticing. It's an indication of the strong aural life of the whole book. For Mitchell, finding the right sound can be more pressing than finding the right word.) In the book's title poem, Mitchell imagines that Caedmon's initial refusal to sing grows from an inner allegiance, a conviction that his vision cannot be translated into language without great loss. Caedmon's inner acoustics seem to be good, but when he opens the window in his head, he hears what seems like a nonsensical word, "hwaethwugu," which sounds like "another language, like gibberish, like talking in his sleep." (The word is actually Anglo-Saxon. Mitchell is playing with a complicated conceit here. To most of us today, the word "hwaethwugu" is gibberish.) The effort to speak is compared to the trials of the eensy-wensy spider who keeps crawling up the water spout, only to get washed down again by the rain. But in a more expansive scene, sound has time alone before speech, and there it stretches luxuriously, "blowing out like bubble gum Silly Putty."