The Appetite for Dream.
University of Pittsburgh Press, 66 pp.
Self-Wolf poems by Mark Halliday,
Chicago University Press, 77 pp.
Science and Steepleflower, poems by
Forrest Gander, New Directions, 88 pp.
Erotikon, poems by Susan Mitchell,
Harper Collins, 79 pp.
Whatever your level of appreciation for the subversions, deconstructions; revisionings, fractures and spasms of recent American poetics, the "peeling back" and exposure of representation seems one of its primary features. In poems everywhere, one sees the referrential dream insistently denied. Here's one sample of what might be called a "self-reflexive text," from the poet Bruce Andrews:
Editing is composition lab pleasure
this vanished anticipation of enormous lights
to curve thought inflation siren indecency
actually precede by brinked out
lacking in hinges--I'm ashamed to deny this-
experience isn't always necessary,...
I Wed this Uncertainty agreeable to be your
Without trying to parse Andrews's passage, we can note how determinedly the poem reminds the reader of its status as vocabulary. It's not per se a mistrust of language that is accountable--after all, thousands of such poems are being written, and read. Rather, perhaps what is being rejected here are the, conventions of "wholeness," the claim of some poems to a vision so intact that it transcends textuality. By this aesthetic, to expose the partial is better than to manufacture the allegedly "finished." Thus, fracture and obliquity are among the most popular techniques of current poetry. As the saying goes, "brinked out/lacking in hinges."
Whatever the reasons, the new paradigm requires that some dismantling be part of any poetic project. Or, to put it in Marxist terms, the means of production are being insistently brought to the foreground of the consumer's attention.
But the desire to dream is an essential part of our appetite for language--the dream of sense, of story, of pretty pictures. And. the downside of the contemporary avante-garde often is a loss of simple poetic pleasure. Call, it a loss of sensuousness. Experimental poetics seem to require not just theoretical sophistication from its writers and readers, but an unintentional asceticism. When I read an issue of the Denver Quarterly, I sometimes feel that I have been served a meal of styrofoam peanuts, a drab, pleasureless repast of poetics rather than poems. It seems all headfood. Take the beginning of "Poise on Row" by Ann Lauterbach:
sutured to field
open your mouth an ocean is within
tribulations of a say ain't
centuries of dew.
And were we to annoit these commodious
the eagle would be
high over the perfect V
vintage/voyage hell's mermeronic clip.
Obscurity aside (big sigh), the experience of reading this, for me, is just not pleasureable enough to compensate my effort. Is this my reward for earning my GED? To be stretched on the rack of my inadequacy? It feels like one of those anxiety dreams in which a calculus exam is being administered--in Sumerian.
Of course, to the avant-garde, the vast legions of more "mainstream" writers are equally the stuff of comedy--a roomful of stenographic monkeys at typewriter tables, all writing the same poem called "The Death of Grandmother," convinced that it is an expression of their individuality. With their manufacture of chummy intimacy with the reader, their affectations of "sincerity" and "artlessness," these poor dreamers are a bunch of brainwashed factory workers with repetitive motion syndrome.
Yet, one wonders, isn't it possible to have both beauty and subyersion? To be self-conscious but not anorectically intellectual? To entertain as well as harass the reader? To elicit both dreaming and watching? To problematize the act of reading and writing in ways that aren't so specialized, and elitist?
In fact, some contemporary poets do complicate the relative roles of the reader and writer while at the same time preserving conventions of representational pleasure. Take, for example, this passage from Lynn Emanuel's poem, "Then, Suddenly," extremely conscious of its own text-ness, yet managing as well to have a good time:
I'm tired of the dark forest of this book
and the little trail of bread crumbs I have
to leave soreaders who say garsha lot
can get the hang of it and follow along.
And so I begin to erase the forest and
the trees because trees depress me,
even the idea of a tree depresses me...
I wind rivers back on their spools, I unplug
the bee from the socket of its honeysuckle
and the four Black Angus that just walked in
like a string quartet--get a life, I tell them.
If this is postmodernism, and it is, it is a saucy, somewhat surrealistic postmodernism. Emanuel, one of the more inventive poets of her generation, has made her third collection, Then. Suddenly, not just a collection of poems, but An Aesthetic Project, a concentrated exploration which seems designed to make the reader uncomfortably aware of r) the act of reading, and 2) the expectations one brings to poetry (Beauty, Meaning; Improvement, etc). In these poems, Emanuel both frustrates and satisfies the appetite for dream which is a fundamental component of literature.
The declared project of Emanuel's book seems to be to expose, dismantle, and mock poetic conventions of description and sense-making, to deconstruct poemness, and the idea of the author, while at the same time to entertain. Emanuel approaches the project with a swaggering, quotable cynicism:
Gertrude Stein said America was
a space filled with moving, but I hate being moving.
If you want to feel, go to the movies because poetry
has no intention of being moving; it is perhaps one
of the few things left in America that is not moving.
("In English in a Poem")
This aggressively skeptical relationship to the reader runs throughout Then, Suddenly--strident, even caustically anti-sentimental, relentles sly disenchanting, Emanuel allows the reader to sink only so far into an unreflective pleasure before yanking the chain. Why then, given all the refusals in these poems, are they so readable? What Emanuel has refused to throw away in her deconstructive gusto is a speaker's voice, and the precious ornament of image. Moreover, and most importantly, she has not thrown away the reader. Though her narrator is a slippery, hard-to-pin down character,--not just hard to locate, but hard to trust-that narrator is deeply relational.
Emanuel's writing is so clean, so clever and so full of metaphorical wizardry, that it is more interesting to hear her write about Writing than to hear most poets describe a sinking ocean liner. In "Dressing the Parts" the speaker, as often elsewhere, uses a textual eroticism to remind us of the voyeurism of literature:
So here we are.
I am wearing the
which is black,
tight as a stitch ...
Like you, my pig.
I'm your truffle and
reading is eating.
If we are to believe this insolent narrator (and whether we are is seriously in question), the declared mission of this book is to destroy the illusions of readology, of plot, of the fiction of the author, of sincerity,
because someone must be Gertrude Stein,
someone must save us from the literalists and
realists, and narratives of the beginning and
the end, someone must be a river that can
type, and why not I?
("Inside Gertrude Stein").
Yes, this is fetching, and very contemporary, but what else? Perhaps it is' old-fashioned or inappropriate to read a psychological dimension into such aesthetics. But we might, beneath these witty surfaces, consider the shadow .side of the transcendental urge. And after all, to completely become voice, to completely elude subject matter, a desire recurrently asserted here, does seem a transcendental yearning: to be bodiless and perfectly empty,. a pure, sheer voice. This intention/desire is one which Emanuel's speaker more than once makes explicit. In "Ode to Voice" she shows her awareness of the psychic origin of her textual allergy:
Perhaps there is no story;
there's just a narrator, a voice perched
like a finch on a leaf, between the end
and the beginning. I like that idea
and behind my eyes, so does my mind
which abhors it when
outside the glass-windowed
conservatory of the skull.
(from "Ode to Voice")
The ascetic urge to eliminate experience altogether (what is the goal of the postmodern disciple, if not to deconstruct entirely?), of course, is finally impossible, no matter how brilliantly rendered. The transcendentalist always plummets back to earth, a fact which Emanuel seems both to know and to deny. Then, Suddenly can be read as a struggle between the claims of body and mind, nature and textuality, between appetite and disgust for physical life, which referentiality itself represents. For, all their declared values, for all their denunciations of narrativity, these poems generate a fair amount of narrativity. And even in this dazzling, fetching evasiveness, this artful dodging, biography and emotion bleed through the page--pronouncedly, for example, in one of the book's most atypical poems, She, whose subject is explicitly the body:
and so/the body and I are like two people/arguing in a cafe about the way the story would go/I argue my position vis a vis/the end middle and beginning and the body argues hers yes she said but let's face it/no matter what you say/the body wins.
Ironically, this plaintively-expressed, sincere moment in Then, Suddenly, this fundamental mortal truth, seems incongruous coming from the mouth of the heretofore sassy and immaterial author. As a reader, I don't know if I trust this narrator to be so simple after all her twisty brilliance. Nor do I, on the other hand, entirely disbelieve her. Such are the liabilities of the artful dodger posture. As the poem says, beneath the intellect is the insubordinate biology. And beneath the theoretical, aesthetic project lingers the insubordinate life and psyche of the maker, with its own agenda.
For all the brilliance and entertainment of Emanuel's abstract, theoretical poems, I confess that for me the collection's most compelling poems are those about the poet's father's death, which she brings into the text and counterposes to' language in ways that are typically electric and playful. Even in comic reluctance at being biographical, Emanuel proves that she doesn't lack for nerve:
Halfway Through the Book I'm Writing
My father dies and is buried in his Brooks
but I can't seem to get him underground.
Suddenly, I turn around and there he is just
as I'm getting a handle on the train-pulls-
into-the station poem. 'What gives,"
I ask him. "I'm alone and dead," he says,
and I say, "Father, there's nothing I can do
all that. Get your mind off it. Help me with
about the train. "I hate the poem about the
Consider the plot: the postmodern poet challenged in her own text by what lies outside the text, and thank god. Then, Suddenly can be faulted for its hyper-literariness (which some will celebrate), but what do we want from poetry? Some tribute to human complexity and contradiction. Despite the expressed desire to flee, to convert life into pure textuality, to denature nature, Emanuel's poems are full of intellectual vigor, desire and self; they acknowledge the body and the shared life. What Emanuel has made, in her fanatically neat way, is a big, interesting mess, full of creative contradictions, and that is one of the best functions of a poet.
If Emanuel is slippery for readers in a very hip way, Mark Halliday's third book, Self-Wolf, is also a tricky read--maybe more so for its initial appearance of plaintiveness. Like Emanuel, Halliday's voice is accessible, clear, and direct; from his appealing narrative-discursive style the unnerving peculiarities only gradually emerge. Self-Wolf is a book both literary and anti-literary, romantic and anti-romantic, sincere and deeply ironic; living largely within familiar conventions; one gathers it is not entirely convinced of them.
In his first two books, Little Star and Tasker Street, Halliday established an identity as a quirky, likeable practitioner of the plain-style, a yakky, attractively neurotic but buoyant observer of pedestrian American life; an offspring of O'Hara and Williams, a surveryor of the romantic-demotic type. Yet within this casual, regular-guy mode, Halliday's poems have insistently represented some serious concerns, notably the collision between democracy and the romantic self. Halliday's poem "Seventh Avenue" (from Tasker Street) makes this issue wonderfully explicit:
Late Tuesday afternoon the romantic self
up Seventh Avenue amid too many lookers,
feelers: romance hates democracy
how can you be so great and golden inside
if your trunk is shouldered among other trunks,
block after block.
The passage effectively outlines one of Halliday's essential preoccupations: how can the romantic I, with its sense of election, heightened sensitivity and heroism, be reconciled with democracy? How can specialness and ordinariness accommodate each other? How can the objective perception of one's own unimportance (which, as "Seventh Avenue" makes clear, is part of urban knowledge) not smother the healthy subjective egotism of the individual? As the strange, aggressively coded title of Self-Wolf may suggest, Halliday both craves and
detests elitism, and his poems enact a confused strugg1e which altemately celebrates and denounces authorial narcissism. To take one especially weird example, consider the voice in the poem "Horrible":
Cod, yesterday in India there was a horrible.
earthquake. I just heard it on the radio,
they estimate 23,000 dead. That's interesting news.
I mean, 23,000, that's a hell of a lot.
I'm glad it's not 20,000 that would sound sort of
vague and rounded off and unreliable;
23,000 sounds more real and important and serious.
Just think, 23,000 people dying over there
while I was teaching poems by D. H. Lawrence
and having a cherry Danish with Irish cream coffee.
It was a nice day here, but over there, Jesus!
On first impression, "Horrible" looks like (and is) an obvious, even heavy-handed expose of its liberal, shallow yuppie-speaker ("I mean, 23,000 that's a hell of a lot"); what grows disconcerting as the poem goes on is the way in which the speaker never breaks character, and the poem ends "I go out for more coffee/and think, 'God, what a world, life is so fragile,/ things do happen, things are happening, seize the day and/ I am definitely not dead.'"
This air-headed but apparently sincere celebration of life leaves the reader with an imbalanced feeling. Is this speaker the author? Is this a portrait (self-portrait?) of disconcertingly shallow earnestness? Here, our reliance on the conventions of plain-style earnestness are confusing. Representations of sincerity and insincerity contaminate each other, and this monkeying with the reader's assumptions of sincerity is common in Self-Wolf.
Just as Emanuel's adamant speaker backhandedly implies that pure textuality is a fantasy, Halliday suggests that the problematic status of the self lies someplace in between grandiosity and utter anonymity. Though this is a familiar thematic implication of the plain-style, Halliday is atypically sneaky in his shifting degrees of commitment to his own stance.
Elsewhere, for example, Halliday is quite straightforward. If, in "Horrible," the speaker is, well, horrible, in a narrative meditation like "Pasco, Barabra," Halliday turns on the plaintive charm, both literary and disarming, weaving together his speaker's neuroses with aesthetical discussion:
I think of myself lonely in Syracuse
and my old poem about a detective who can't
solve his biggest case
and as a result I have feelings--but my teacher said
the future of American Poetry can't be merely
the notation of sensibility. When he said that I
a chilly fear at the edge of consc-consc-consc-consciousness
like an ice cube in the corner of my stomach.
That's how I felt. So then, consequently
I thought, "I must gather up some serious ideas."
Charmingly self-mocking and yet aesthetically serious (he prompts us to ask, Why can't poetry be the "notation of sensibility?"), Halliday deconstructs romanticism while at the same time stubbornly defending it. With typical doubleness, the academic pretentiousness of the teacher-character is mocked, even while the speaker yearns to emulate it.
Perhaps nothing represents Halliday's slipperiness better than the psychotically subversive blurb on the cover of his own book. Clearly written by the author himself, this "self-advertisement" brandishes a cartoon sword while holding up a shield with a bull's-eye on it: If you took the honesty of D. H. Lawrence, the courage of Robin Hood, the mordant incisiveness of William Empson, the ambivalent tension of Dostoevesky, the verve of Kenneth Koch and the pluck of next year's Wimbledon champion, and multiplied everything by seven, you might have one third the talent displayed in Self-Wolf Or you might have something else. . . . More readable than' Hart Crane, more candid than Jorie Graham, and more up-to-date than Alexander Pope, Mark Halliday is either a new colossus on the scene of post-contemporary poetry or an infinitessimal blip of male bourgeois anxiety. You be the judge.
Is this postmodern enough? Here, a deep hostility to representation is joined simultaneously with a deep. allegiance to entertainment, in a circus of passive-aggressive showmanship. Recurrent linguistic quirkinesses in Halliday's work further undermine an initial impression that he is a regulation plain-style poet. Halliday's ambivalence about poetry itself as a mode, about language itself, turns up repeatedly in poems, sometimes in stuttering or nonsense language--as here in "Fear of Concrete," an anxiety poem about what is after all a traditional Romantic theme: the encroach of matter on spirit:
Some nights I see that BOLT REALITY brunking outward
in blocks all through all, crunking in blitz vehicles
in all directions on mashed mud; so that then
I couldn't just keep on rubbing my cheek cool
along the smoothness of the right phrases
but that then the blocks would load my hands...
Plexi-fiber-laser-solder-nitro-chunking: target triangulation.
Huge coils of black wire, computerized rationing of food,
officers shaking their heads cancelled cancelled cancelled.
As these poems repeatedly encounter and grapple with the insubstantiality of the individual self, they respond frequently with sarcasm, resentment and anger, a kind of striking out in disbelief. But they also respond with the emotions of grief and wonder: grief that there is an end to us; wonder at the size, detail, and clarity of the reality which exists independently outside us: These responses constitute, in fact, a defense of subjectivity and an argument for the insecure legitimacy of the self. The elegy, "The Case Against Mist" for example, is a plaintive elegy about the frail ways in which information and memory constitute the temporary soul.
He could not be just particles of mist dispersing into the sky, he could not be only that
and there are many reasons...
For example, he paddled a canoe down the Housatonic River
for nineteen miles
and learned to keep up with some considerably stronger boys...
Also, he never forgot the pathos of sexual fear
which would always link a certain song by Fontella Bass
with a certain large girl in a stiff green dress
in an old Volvo on such a dark highway near Rowayton.
Clearly, thus, he could not be just particles of mist.
In such moments, Halliday reveals his true, humanist stripes, and even the sentimentality he elsewhere radically resists. Overall, Self-Wolf is a very war-like book. Sometimes, especially in its preoccupation with the literary life, it feels obsessive and cranky, petty and resentful. But Self-Wolf is also ample and various, full of quirkily ambitious poems--taking, at one moment, a page from Hardy, at another, a page from Koch or Ashbery. Halliday is one of our poets worth following, even in his perverse moments; his ingenuity in style, subject matter, and angle of attack make him consistently interesting, and perhaps even weirdly important, to American contemporary poetry.
Forrest Gander is another poet whose work reflects the mixed impulses of textual self-consciousness and naturalism. His collection, Science and Steeple-flower, seems positioned, not always easily, between the realms of experience and aesthetics, pleasure and difficulty.
Gander is recognizably a Southern writer--he comes enviably armed with rich local knowledge and sensuous vocabulary--alert to the verbal wealth of flora, the subtleties of season and weather. Some of the best poems in this collection are monologues of rural life, data-rich and full of feeling. In poems like "Edge-lit Scene," "Sinister," "The History of Veneration," and "The Ark Upon His Shoulders," Gander's meticulous love of detail and his instinct for the mystic physicality of language recall Faulkner and Dickey. Take the graceful, spatially adroit opening of "The Escaped Trees of Lynchburg":
Mostly, they live disagreeably amid volleys of far off barking
and a chalk lake, spring-fed, clear. Watercress and wild
celery in the current undulate. Trees, the central figures.
of their own originality, come bare down the slope
to bathe. Sudden raptus in the land, aborescing. The poplar
and its reflection are disturbing, like twins.
Just landscape, yes, but rendered with such austere precision of pacing and vocabulary as to announce a sensibility. Gander's love for formal, even archaic language (raptus, aborescing) and the quiet complexity of his syntax can build striking abstract landscapes in which the material and spiritual worlds seem equally intelligent. "Trees, the central figures of their own orginiality." for example, is wonderful in compression and peculiarity. Elsewhere, similarly, a narrative monologue like "The Ark on His Shoulders" is rich with understated feeling, along with (like "Escaped Trees") almost hidden tones of wit and ominousness:
My husband did all this. We used to live in a rambling kind of house with gossipy verandas.
Then he bought a stove, an iron stove with a reservoir to it.
He always insisted it was bad luck to come in that door
and go out the other. It's bad luck to pay back salt
if you borrow it. To the day he died he smelled pulled up from the dirt. He worked
the Norfolk Southern forty years walking on top
of freight trains. I've seen him up there and the wind just blowing-- you could see the wind
blowing his clothes.
Gander is also capable of a confident convincing didacticism, as in the almost clinical description at the end of "The History of Veneration," a poem which describes an old woman on her deathbed:
Each convulsive NOW, a locus of experience to which no one returns because the way rushes close and seals.
the past whelms, a humid space
she had, momentarily, displaced. What little,
Lives we don't know.
Yet for all the resources of these poems, Science and Steepleflower seems at times put together by more than one writer. Gander's alter-ego seems at times to be trying on the denatured mode of Charles Olsen or to be swayed by fashions in poetic form which seem laboriously intellectual. "Egg plants and Lotus Root," for example, is a long, sequenced poem which uses a confusing system of multiple titles and subtitles, placed above passages which are themselves collaged fragment. On one page we might find three separate operating titles. For example, take the section of "Eggplants" subtitled a macula of light, and then sub-subtitled (in a different font) Geometric Losses:
never so much as. an oblique angle. Primitive
oath, blood azimuth. Her light cholera and one
more questions. The dreamt achievement, an
audience. In the furrow weeds. Then double-
hair. Pallbearer's vintage. When the bird begins
the light. Its steady fillip into dream. Similarly
directed against telephone pole, its pizzle's
Absence propped in her chair to preach. Critical
Low man among stinging arachnids grips the
spade. Dawn's on him
In this Cormac McCarthy-esque material channeled through Gertrude Stein's style, form claims more than it delivers. The whole project feels elaborately abstract and pointlessly obscure; it has the feel of poetry infected by fashions of theory. The breathy import of using sentence fragments, at first dramatic, soon comes to seem an affectation. Then there are the hyper-scientific, inflated titles of many poems, like "Deflection Towards the Relative Minor," and "A Dissonance Leading towards a Modulation." At these times, I skeptically think aesthetics have harmed Gander, a poet who seems at his strongest when the natural and the linguistic enrich and support each other.
Not to say that there are two types of poem in this collection, Bad here and Good there--here, the ore is mixed in with the rock--it is not separable or easy even to judge when the poet has exceded his aim. A line like "Departure, its logarithms of description" seems painfully pretentious to me, but its equally grandiose cousin-phrase, "For who can become implicate with the brute matter of experience and still tender/ devotion to an invisible claimant?" strikes a chord, for me, of eccentric nobility.
Yet if Science and Steepleflower feels sometimes a little heavy-handed or off-target, it is because Gander takes the poetic vocation seriously, entering the mysteries of sex, death, language and science with a priestlike reverence and ceremony. I have been drawn back to this book repeatedly, magnetized by its mysterious freshness. Gander seems a bit of a Geiger counter, registering the mixed emissions of various aesthetic forces in our writing culture; when he collects them further into a single integrated style, it could be wonderful.
Susan Mitchell, in her stellar, landmark collection, Rapture (1992) proved herself a virtuoso at rendering process in the poem. She split the moment into its micro-units, feeling into fractions, and the verbal into the vocal, in sometimes remarkably new ways. Again and again in Rapture, Mitchell is tricky enough to make textuality not just intimate, but poignant. Here is a passage from the poem "Cities":
I want something other in my mouth...
I want something other
the cough in coffee and the cawf in cough
the dog in doggerel and the dawg in dog, not god
but gawd. Forget gaudy, forget gadeamus igitur.
the gutter in gutteral and syllables like crates
onto barges rusted, planks swollen,
as iodine and its ignominies, the
into my mouth before my tongue
was pulled out by the roots, I want my crooked
before orthodonture, the sounds unbarred,
and buckle and overlap.
Whitman and Hopkins can be seen collaborating here--Whitman's heroic, cataloguing appetite, Hopkins's ecstatic verbal intensity. In this kind of post modern scat-singing, Mitchell shows her specialty--cranking up the throttle on language, exposing the valves and pistons in the process, until it orgasmically overheats. What keeps such virtuosity from seeming merely showoffy is the wit and passion of the voice--plus the very simplicity of its recognizable message, I Want. That the speaker's lust is for language (not food or sex or love) is oddly unconfusing; the poet makes us recognize speech as a kind of sensuality, which therefore can provoke this kind of torchy heat. In fact, in the context of the myriad more cerebral postmodernisms, to testify to naked desire seems wonderfully frank and refreshing... practically humanistic. To want! Eros offers an antidote to ironic distance--even to cleverness itself.
Yearning and striving and rubbing are likewise central energies of Erotikon, Mitchell's muchanticipated third collection. Erotikon contains two long poems (the title poem twenty-four pages long) and nine shorter ones. In its ambitiousness, it is a worthy successor to the earlier book. In Erotikon Mitchell continues to break form, to push sound to its limits, and to open frontiers of content. Muscular, flashy, philosophical, adroit, challenging and grave, it displays Mitchell's large gifts. Yet though Erotikon is a remarkable show of talent and force, it is not as good or as readable a book as its predecessor: not only more stripped of narrative, but more forced; slicker, and more abstract, as though, in playing for high stakes, some original engagement has been lost.
In method and theme, Erotikon is continuous with Mitchell's earlier experiments: brilliantly and often, the speaker makes arias of her ravenous appetite for words, even while she protests, with paradoxical resourcefulness, that language is not adequate. Here, in the title poem, the poet rhapsodizes night:
the shade of a shadow, said Aeschylus
the palpable obscure,
said Milton ... but there aren't enough
words for night. Why is that? There aren't
enough words for the dark. Show me, said
darkness penetrable and darkness penile,
the darkness called skyscraper ...
What I want, I said, is a darkness not limited to
or twenty four. Swarthy, dusky--they don't do it
for me, they wash off like makeup. Bituminous?
The tongue is
barely stained. What I want is a dark that can
run lap after lap, it
doesn't give out, it lives on junk food and
nerves on dives and divas.
Both campy and elegant, this passage nonetheless gives voice to a primary frustration with language--mistrust of its dissemblances, its lack of capacity, its partialness--"there aren't enough words for night," she says. In some fundamental way, Mitchell's speaker feels the failure of language, that it is a kind of barrier which prevents.
What distinguishes Mitchell from most contemporaries is her speaker's heroic response to that proposition--a passionate conviction that language, assaulted with enough verve, fury and desire, will part its fabric and yield a kind of Eden, a realm of ecstatic union. In that orgasmic moment, the self will enter ecstasy of original sound; consciousness will taste undivided Being. Many believe in the Fall --Mitchell makes claims for Redemption. In this passage from "Bird: A Memoir," the speaker nostalgically hypothesizes the pre-finite:
What would it have been like to live before the
before words in columns, the rank and file
what would it have been like to nest in a
untamed, unfixed, even my name wobbling,
never the same? In the unanchored to build,
to weave and waver?
In its rushes to live unafraid
of the motion in emotion or the ocean in
Yet, as we know, longing doesn't necessarily add up to poetry, nor does intelligence. The passage above seems almost studious. But pushing the threshold, breaking the semantic speed barrier, is very much what Erotikon is about; in the high tradition of Hart Crane and Hopkins, and in ways which are often keenly innovative, in cascading riffs and rhetorical interruptions, Mitchell is trying to penetrate eternity. "Of all desires, song goes furthest," she says. Her premises are well stated in the wonderful. "Golden Fleece," one of the most shapely and inventive poems in the book:
Just like that, I decide to translate a poem that
been written, a poem that will be literal and
haughty and humble, ornate and spare.
As I work on the translation, I begin to feel
to its author, so close I can sense what
was in earlier drafts. There it is
like wreckage strewn across a beach.
It is difficult to convey in our language the
the animal energy of the original. All those
growls, leaps and bounds. To ride that
language bare-assed; no saddle.
The rider's fingers digging in, hanging on
for dear life. The rider giddy, terrified.
"Golden Fleece" manages, in its thirty-eight lines, to describe Mitchell's essential project--"to ride language bare-assed." "In my translation," she says, "the Golden Fleece is called English or American." Atypical in its linearity, the poem nonetheless is delightful and stirring because of the intense clarity of its conceit; Mitchell makes texuality a story, and she does so with both wit and naturalness.
In the long title poem, however, Mitchell's framing conceit is far more disorienting, and the performance far more exhausting. A jump-cutting collage of poetry and prose, staged in multiple sections, "Erotikon" is a sort of cosmic symposium with multiple characters (Tango, Speed, Darkness, Psyche, Wings, Forever, and others). Their conversations occur in a sort of cyberspace existing at a fictional interactive website called Erotikon. Admirably preposterous, full of scattered brilliances, the spilled wreckage of the poem enacts the postmodern notion of the broken-off, the fragmentariness of history, language and consciousness. But for all its discontinuity, smarts, and wildness, the poem is laborious, and its disorganization, albeit intentional, overwhelms.
Like so many hyperintelligent postmodern literary works, "Erotikon" comes with its own internal critical commentary--sometimes self-justifying, sometimes illuminating, sometimes even self-critical; the provocative codas are everywhere. Here are just a few:
In the beginning, Story said,
story held everything together, the darkness
and the light, the little pieces that would
have slipped away ...
Story is an illusion, says Plato, but necessary.
Without it nobody would have remembered
the sunsets and the great feasts.
All at once she realized that this was a story
in which even the story was lost ...
Have you noticed, said Tango, when you repeat
the same word over and over, it begins to
lose all meaning?
Stevens, that other cerebral sensualist with an agenda, comes to mind. He too proposed a poetry conjured solely out of the self-sufficient, self-gratifying imagination, poems with no subject but. singing itself. But when Stevens fails, his poem sounds like sermonic oompahpah music. And Mitchell, like Stevens, sometimes sounds methodical, as if she had commodified her talent, taken a patent out on rapture and was mass-producing it. The writing is often impressive, yet overall it seems too professional, willful, cerebral and slick; a living presence is missing. Really, as "Golden Fleece" suggests, maybe Mitchell's subject matter doesn't actually require a long poem; it is a dialogue of yearning and limitation, explosion and subsiding, anticipation, distraction and afterglow. Rhapsody is not innately novelistic or orchestral; it is more of a hit-and-run activity. Shorter poems might work better at packaging this dissheveled ecstasy.
But the failures of "Erotikon" are not a failure of making textuality lively--that, it does very well, with imagery and voice, and endless faux-pornographic promises of pleasure. Though Mitchell's poem promises that language is going to be stripped bare --deprived of the bodice of narrative, even of the chemise of sense--riding language bareback turns out to be a fantasy. In fact, such nakedness is only briefly interesting. Textuality, in itself, cannot be dramatic except as it incorporates elements of representation, except as the wrestling with text provides an analogue for the world of experience. Subject matter--in all its unpredictable variety of forms --provides resistence and creates interest. Without the contamination of subject matter, textuality is just a game of Scrabble, black and white noise on a page. It takes two to make one.
We live in a great moment in American poetry: charged, polymorphic and polyphonic, and no one knows what will happen. Conventions, old and new, are jostling and cross-pollinating each other. It's easy, maybe inevitable, and maybe even productive to polarize our aesthetic positions. Tribal antagonisms are not only part of artistic culture, they are part of what shapes and energizes culture as a whole. But surely common sense tells us that dream and language are inseparable, and that pleasure is a measure of poetry's success. To quote Frank O' Hara, one figure many can attend to, "We don't really love ideas, do we?" Poets like Emanuel, Mitchell, Halliday and Gander are collectively, hypervigilantly more aware of text and sign than most poetic generations before them. Yet they understand that Poetry, even if it is just text, needs a body. The intellect should wear fishnet stockings. Not be seen in public, gone to pieces.