Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More Monsters

Review of Dorthea Lasky’s Black Life

In her first book, AWE, Dorthea Lasky investigates a world about which one thing is certain: “This is a world in which there are monsters.” According to the poetics set forth in this book, we (as a species) are haunted and spectacular; our existence is constellated by our intimate relationships—and thus by the psychic energy that binds us. Lasky’s monster—her “little one”— is close— he’s “in her bed,” he growls and demands her soul—and when she acquiesces, she becomes the monster. Lasky’s 2010 second collection, Black Life, delves even more deeply into this poetics of possession; her monsters are back with a (less precious) vengeance. In the title poem, Lasky writes,

You are born and it is to a black life
Full of abuse and strange things
Monsters come up to you as soon as you enter
Mouths asunder and fingers thrashing
Dark purple monsters that are so full of blood
They are a darkish red

You grow and it is to a black life
That you consider
All around you is death and atheism
All around you are people who have misinterpreted science
For their own gain
There are nuns, but they are nuns of the air

You die and it is from a black life
That you die from
You leave this one and go into the next
Where nothingness surrounds and evaporates
With the ease of something
That has done this sort of thing before

I leave and I am a black life
I leave you cause you didn’t need me after all
And I want to
Be what you made me to be
But you never really made me
This life made me
The thing that I am (43)

Indeed, Lasky’s speaker in Black Life fights perpetually against a kind of spirituality (or sacredness) which insists on a sense of calmness devoid of fear as she locates herself in the midst of this gloomy, black life removed from God or some kind of creator (in “Jakob,” she tells us that “live things are black”—black in that they’ve been burned, “forgotten where they came from”—but she has not, she continues to speak with the “flat words” which fail to fully convey the flames which have engulfed her in some of these moments; as a kind of supernova, then, she is mobile, enthralled) (7). She refuses to surrender the human capacity for terror in favor of pristine reverence or wonder. For Lasky, awe is bound up in fear; love and loneliness are part of the same restless vector in our constellated experiences and identities, which comprise our universe. Our positions along these constellations might be precarious. But Lasky wants neither stable mass nor ascension into the comfort of an afterlife (in “Tornado,” she writes, “It’s a black life, but I don’t want to die/ I don’t want to die, I don’t ever want to die/ Godamn you, don’t shoot me in my sleep/ Let me rot on this earth forever”) nor numbness (44).

Rather, voice—even a “rattly” one like hers—establishes a potent (perhaps even threatening) kind of presence; muscular undulations of emotions (from the joy of “confessing” an affair to the alienation inherent in all correspondences) along vocal cords mark the exuberant existence of a speaker who simultaneously relishes her reverberations and dreads her reflection in the eyes of others, who is both capricious and deadly serious, whose vulnerability is both a lifeline and a death wish—a source of power and suspension to be sure (17). Lasky explores the exhilarating effect(s) of this power in “Black Night”:

They say that the people love me out there
I can’t imagine
What me soaring in the black night as just a thing
I know that when they might get close to my face
They would stop their love
Ghoul I am when you are close to me
As my niceness does never end
That is the surprise
That the kindness was not an affect, but a choice
And that kindness is entirely very freakish
And weird, the real kind. (17)

And later:

I mean black, the darkness
That we all succumb to or if we don’t, never live
I mean love, the dark kind
That is so all-encompassing you can’t ever get away
When I speak to you, you can’t ever get away from me, my love
As much as you might want to, so you give in
Night of ghouls and spirits that I succumb to
So that you may succumb more fully
Black night I am in
Still soaring, by myself
The warm November lights
Glittering below me like a pale escape” (18)

Here Lasky asserts a deep conviction (if belief is figured as a kind of possession, which I might argue is the case) in the inevitability of succumbing to this “black life”; this conviction (or her articulation/presentation of it here) does not preclude loneliness or danger; her boldness relies on an opening up of the self (in an attempt to become vast, then, one risks becoming a ghoul). This embrace of vulnerability allows Lasky to foreground emotion rather than strict logic, which (self) damns her, in some respect, to a kind of eternal wandering or transience, an almost purgatorial state (in “Poem to My Ex-Husband,” she promises that her love won’t diminish: “My heart will yearn for yours through all eternity/ And you will never get away from me/ I will haunt you even when I am dead) (15). In “I Just Feel So Bad,” she writes, “I have no home/ No bread/ I am destitute/ But inside me/ Is a little voice/ That must speak/ It gets louder when you listen” (72).

Lasky’s voice—her talk—is in earnest; it compromises her existence in this liminal realm not through directed communication but rather through the pleasure (or perhaps pain) of self-representation (a kind of bodiless embodiment), a presence derived from/comprised of speech—which displays memories, people, and things (“I am no good/ Goodness is not the point anymore/ Holding on to things/ Now that’s the point,” she writes in “Ars Poetica”) (25).

For Lasky, poetry is the realm of the fearlessly fearful—a weirdness channeled through the simultaneous flatness and materiality of language (or rather, her interest lies in the “materiality of life,” as she says in a September Bookslut interview: “I think the materiality of life is very, very important and I think that these details in our memories, in our stories, are what make our stories alive. So, I feel like these details…are what contain the emotions of love” (1). Unabashed sentimentality or emotionality does not mean that wit or humor is impossible (indeed, her speaker treats Saint Puffy—as in P-Diddy—with sincere awe as she considers his gleaming, white-coated image in “How to Survive in This World”) though Lasky does (mostly) exclude irony from her repertoire (12). In “I Hate Irony,” Lasky tethers her voice to/with fear (and against irony): “If you have ever been truly scared there is no irony in your voice when you scream” (56).

In this poetic landscape where sentimental desires and impulses glisten in imperfection, fear occupies the emotional space/intimacy of belief. In “The Devil and the Infinite Night,” she writes,

Sometimes I get so scared I believe I have been possessed by the devil
So that I scream and holler and try to push him out of me
I wake up in bed and he is standing over me with his yellow eyes
He doesn’t know my name but he knows me

And later:

When I think of death by the devil
I only think of suns
Rising infinitely into space like some nightmare
But a nightmare you can’t get out of because it is the night
That is all encompassing
I get all encompassed by the night every day
People think I am very friendly and innocent
I spend every day inside this house being the creepy thing they couldn’t handle
If they really saw deep into my eyes they couldn’t handle me
Once they would see the darkest part of me surrounding them
The blackest part of my eyes in front of them, a sun that never sets” (39)

Just as the all-encompassing blackness makes the distinction between “good” and “evil” indecipherable, Lasky asserts the tenuousness of her connections to others here. Contained and uncontainable, she is what Elizabeth Grosz would call an object or thing “like no other” as bodies are “the centers of perspective, insight, reflection, desire, and agency” (xi). Lasky, too tempted not to revel in her desires—the possibilities of love, kindness, devilishness and horror, is bound to be too much. She is thoroughly and constantly creeped out by and scaring herself in her ability to be possessed (though I would argue, too, that this possession is different from the kind advocated by Kate Durbin in “A Teenage Girl Speaks As A Melodramatic, Hysterical Demon," as Lasky declares herself to be less invested in “affect”—and the energy of her impulses/emotions necessarily flatten out against the page). Lasky’s volatility is tempered, perhaps, by her inability to stave off connectivity (a God she considers with ambivalence)—and a brain glowing with the constant presence of imaginative elasticity. In “Memories,” she writes, “You can’t keep God away no matter how hard you try/ He is there to link it all together/ Things go away very fast/ Your brain is not what you take it for/ Let your brain look at everything/ I am so glad it came to save me/ That brain I didn’t even know was there to save me” (26).

The intrinsic knowledge of her own (secret) unwieldiness is a source of agency and brilliance (even as her lyric “I” is condemned to the insufficiency of language and subjectivity)—“I will never/ Be the speaking thing they made me to be/ I am not pronouns/ Nor am I all of them/ I am no I,” she writes in “None of this Matters,” it demands correspondence and reception, a trajectory within this constellation, “Hang me on the moon/ I am funny-shaped so far away/ Stick me where the bunnies go/ Let me lie there with them/ And those awful ears upon me/ Who knows within them/ The secrets I will tell” (73-75).

In refusing to eschew the potential for or potency of love and kindness in the midst of this black life, Lasky risks accusations of being naïve. Indeed, the poet is often criticized as sounding childish. Lasky notes this criticism in her recent interview with Bookslut, stating, “I noticed a lot when AWE came out that people often talked about my poems as if a little girl wrote them. Like there was something cute and young about them…I always thought that the concept of AWE was horrific, not child-like” (1). Although not all of the poems in Lasky’s second collection necessarily feel as imbued with the restless energy of pieces like “Black Night” and “The Devil in the Infinite Night,” the book feels anything but naïve; the (sometimes) implicit horror in AWE burns explicitly through Black Life. Lasky fights hard against the misconception that we must abandon our sense of abandon as we accumulate knowledge over the course of a lifetime, as she writes in “Ars Poetica,” “There is romantic abandon in me always” (25). This seems, to me, like something worth hanging on to.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Women Writers Festival & A Mash-up to Celebrate

Jenny Boully is reading here at Notre Dame tomorrow as part of the Women Writers Festival.


To celebrate, I thought I might share this strange monster (though I'm still not sure how to present it-- we wrote the essay as an essay, footnoting footnotes-- but the script seems to make the most sense. E. is the ventriloquized "body text").


an essay written by Ryan Downey and Jen Stockdale—and performed by Ryan Downey (R), Jen Stockdale (J), and Eliot Fackler (E) at The Open Light, a conference at Notre Dame, Spring 2010

E Jenny Boully’s The Body is a richly challenging text, one that has received much critical attention. 1

J 1 Indeed, the difficult and sometimes deliberately ambiguous nature of the language complicate the text as the poet explores issues of isolation and divine presence (or lack thereof) in inventive and striking ways.

R 1a Furthermore, in her Jacket review of The Body, Arielle Greenberg asks “are footnotes enough” and proceeds to answer this question saying “[…]yes and no: an appropriately ambiguous answer for an ambiguous, but admirably ambitious project.“(V.19) Here in these footnotes to footnotes we begin to dissect that question. “are footnotes enough”? Could the flesh of the body, flush with a false sense of unity be any more than it already is in the hollow carved out by its documentation? What kind of reportage is this?

E Boully’s book seems to anticipate critical response, as the form of the text demands it.2

J 2 The narrator recounts (in report fashion) an argument between Boully and playwright Lucia Del Vecchio, both of whom are cast as characters in Boully’s text (12). Here we see what Denise Riley describes in The Words of Selves as “the emergence of the theatrical self”—one that alleviates the “borderline inauthenticity of the lyric ‘I’” through participation in the “speaking world” (62). Boully recounts the participation of the ‘character’ Boully throughout the text—thus suggesting a kind of double awareness/removal of/from this sense of poetic self.

R 2a It strikes me that the self that we footnote is less the self than the perception of the perception of our self. That is to say, we are a mangle of language. Or else, that is to say, as Boully does in a 2007 interview for Coldfront Magazine “I was writing from a time when I had not yet developed the ability to speak on my behalf, if that makes sense. And, of course, I was quite in love with the notion of the metaphor of the footnote and the metaphysical questions it raises when a book is contrasted against an individual life.” It is no coincidence that production of the book-object takes as its chief term: Binding, Bound. A slight slippage brings us to bondage, where we are the detritus of documents that frame our life, our living. Boully, was aware of this in compiling the body: the compilation, and the finitude of such a documentation. To report, we might note, also means to bring to carry. Boully is carrying herself across these pages.

E The Body is an essay—an argument—which insists on asserting (and/or subverting) authority within or over or around the process of navigating textual/page space. If Boully’s text is a body, it is one comprised of appendages and digits. As readers, we are on the fingers that feel for a pulse or fish around in a wound (at times, this text seems concerned with issues of emotion/‘emoting’). 3

J 3 Riley writes, “But if there is no originality in emotion, there is none in language” (61).

E Boully’s voice is a murmur or a drum; she warns us that the scabs are made of paper, but we taste them anyway. We are hungry for Boully’s scabs and enchanted by the smell of bodily fluids—as one tends to be when expecting poetry—and Boully manages our expectations with the balance of precision and inexactness that footnotes allow. (cont.)

The footnotes serve as verification of absence (the body of text is missing), as well as a mode of exhumation (the body of poet is dead). 4

J 4 I should note, though, that I think Boully’s book argues against these conventional notions by disrupting our sense of temporality and embracing modes of layering and fracture.

R 4a The footnotes, as it were, necessitate an abandoning of linear models of reading in the essay form. Through their alternative account of narrative and their separate numeric delineation, footnotes carry (to report) us away from the body. For example, if our notion of normative reading (in the West) can be summed up by a left-right/top-bottom model of scanning, of consumption, then we must acknowledge that the footnote with its ability to pull our eyes down from the body (less a consumption than a nibbling, a cocktail party roaming) substantially alters our normative expectations of what it is to read, what it is to communicate.

E This form (—and thus the voice—) is at once authentic/official and artificial, authoritative and unconfident/unassuming. Footnotes tend to suggest documentation—and a kind of self-consciousness about accuracy, while providing a sense of (perhaps more artificial) transparency in terms of the author’s composition—one which is always unfinished in this space of afterthoughts, clarifications, amendments, and references. 5

J 5 Footnote 152 reads, “Of course we are unfinished” (75).

E Boully’s text, then, assumes this authoritative responsibility by operating solely in this realm; and yet, this is a space of marginality 6

J 6 In her essay “Otherhow,” Rachel Blau DuPlessis endorses a kind of “critical poetry,” which allows the poet to problematize the notion of a “bound self” by “writing several selves” (DuPlessis 582). DuPlessis calls for “a writing over the edge” that “sets questions into motion” and “evacuates the margins” as the poet/poem sets into motion “reverberating questions” (DuPlessis 581, 591). Here she sees feminist writing as an “otherhow”—“not otherness in a binary system but ‘otherhow’ as the multiple possibilities of praxis” (DuPlessis 591).

R 6a It seems that this concept of ‘otherhow’ with its rejection of binary modes (again, the normative linear) endorses a self-conception that necessitates an understanding of language (if that is what we might agree constitutes subjectivities) that is analogous to the Bakhtinian notion of heteroglossia. That is, multiple shades of I and multiple shades of other all forking, forming creole, dialect, nation-language, patois, adspeak, etc, etc. I never intended for shades to imply interment and underworlds (nor did I intend to be to cool for school). Whereas, Bakhtin largely acknowledged the novel as the primary form in which language could be comprised of such a multilayered linguistic register, poetry and other hybrid forms have broken the shackles of monglossia. This move is essentially one from a space of monologues to a space where dialogue can flourish. We might recall that report also means to fire (or rather to initiate the firing of) a ballistic device. The soundscape is punctuated by acts of claiming and exploding. We fragment the register.

E (and thus of endless possibilities—not contingent on logic or narrative). 7

J 7 Footnote 75 reads, “Because the weather and landscape was forever shifting and birds gave birth to new birds and new birds ad infinitum, this passage is, historically, inaccurate. The main argument, however, remains unaffected” (40). Later, Boully speaks through Joseph Campbell (or “allows” him to speak)—describing sleep as “the realm of magic”—a realm that exists within ourselves, thus within our bodies (Boully 55).

E The speaker’s location in this space allows her to serve as witness, 8

J 8 As Elisabeth Bronfen discusses in Over Her Dead Body, the body of the dead woman on display is never “real”—this body is entirely fantasy. Boully’s self-representation might be what Bronfen describes as a move toward identification with decay, as Boully’s speaker self-consciously participates in the violence of assuming the object/subject position of an “I” in this text. In playing with this idea of fragmentation and separation, Boully’s (textual) body resists ascension, thus resisting a return to some kind of whole (Bronfen 102).

E participant, and creator to the text (which seems to force the reader into a participatory position in imagining, I think)—a position that allows Boully to “pretend” to eschew control in some ways. 9

J 9 In The Words of Selves, Denise Riley argues that the lyric ‘I’ “advertises simulacrum of control under guise of form” and thus creates “profound artifice, of which both the writer and the reader are aware” (92). Riley suggests that “the less the poetic work is taken to be consciously generated by its author, the more archaic and dubious aspirations to technical control begin to sound, paradoxically, the more important the actual figure of the poet may become” (92). Boully’s text seems to speak to this problem (one which Riley describes as “the inverse relation between knowingness and confidence) of “orgininality” in self-presentation (an impossibility) by playing with the mode of confession (57-58). Boully’s confessions alert us to the fact that “private language” is, as Riley would suggest, “oxymoronic”—as categories and distinctions between self/other, inside/outside, speaker/reader/text/creator, margin/page disintegrate and/or blur in Boully’s text.

R 9a Earlier when I said "that the self we footnote is less the self than the perception of the perception of the self", I meant simulacra lazily. I meant we are wearing a simulacra suit (taut as lycra and seamless as well). We know ourselves to contain seams, fissures, and leaks, but we alone know where all of these fault lines lie. We lie. The lyric "I" is the sock puppet shows we staged in the den of our childhood nostalgia-factory.

E If footnotes are inherently excessive as commentary (spillage from the body of text), they are also minimalistic—particularly in this text, where we are presented with only these underpinnings. Boully’s footnotes delineate the borders of the absent body; they define (or disrupt) the boundaries of the page, accentuating the gaps in narrative and form rather than filling them in.[10]

J [10] See footnote 91, in which the “director” is unable to “recreate the crime scene.” Here the “outline of the body [has been] drawn in chalk before the collapse of the victim” (Boully 46).

E Boully plays with the notion that poetry must deal with a vulnerable self (an exchange dependent not on any kind of historical accuracy but rather emotional ‘truth’): she describes her “confessions” as “lies”—while lamenting her “true regrets,” a kind of double confession which we can barely trust (4).[11]

J [11] She writes that these should be “indexed under the subject heading “BUT EVERYONE DIES LIKE THIS”—suggesting perhaps that existence is only in text, though this move indicates a mode of authority exercised apart from it (Boully 10).

E These “confessions” allow Boully to simultaneously establish and subvert a kind of intimacy in the relationship(s) between poet (/speaker), reader, and text—though ultimately, this intimacy is artificial. I might argue that Boully’s authority comes from this kind of acknowledgment or awareness of artifice. If Boully’s footnotes operate as discrete material[12]

J [12] Footnote 141 reads, “The true crux of the matter had little to do with space and passages, but rather with the elements of scenery itself” (Boully 71).

E rather than solely referential or secondary to the absent (typically authoritative) body text, we are released as readers into an imaginative playscape.[13]

J [13] To amend my earlier point: maybe we are not on the fingers that pick the scab or fish around in the wound—maybe we are the fingers…

R 13a A few days ago on Facebook MM posted a status update about picking at scabs. It might have been a play on words about protests, picketing, and the more insidious form of scabs that that entails. Either way, I said I prefer to think we keep our fingers in sores so that we remember where the holes are. I might have meant argumentative holes. I might have meant narrative discontinuities. Mostly, I think I meant is "better to keep the hole fresh, that way we remember not to fall on sharp things again" Mostly, I think I meant, if we suck our thumb does the mouth constitute a wound?

E Here it might be possible for us to retain a sense of wonder[14]

J [14] In a letter to the “great poet” (after her death), the speaker writes, “I think I know now what you’ve been trying to teach me: poetry is an instant, an instant in which transcendence is achieved, where a miracle occurs and all of one’s knowledge, experiences, memories, etc. are obliterated into awe” (Boully 57). We cannot be certain whether this is the ‘right’ lesson—whether we trust this speaker, but this assertion might resonate with us—especially given coldness of some of the more “factual” language in the marginalia. Boully’s speaker asks of the great poet, “Is everything an attempt to procure love?” (57). Here I might suggest that we can read “love” as control, which might speak to the speaker’s ambivalence over assuming the role of desiring subject in the sense of a traditional narrative (a position from which, if a text deals in the exchange of ‘emotional truth,’ one would derive authority?). Boully’s “love” is a blank abstraction (having more to do with readerly expectations or projections than it does with the vulnerability of a desiring subject—a move toward artificiality which suggests that “emotion” cannot be the impetus for exhuming the body of the speaker—or orchestrating a kind of disappearance or self-abnegation (1). Boully “casts her voice a voice into a void,” but refuses interpellation. This voice assumes a body (see her discussion of “actual” and “commentative” sound in footnote 22) but refuses a story (Boully 14). She writes, “It is not the story I know or the story you tell me that matters; it is what I already know, what I don’t want to hear you say,” she writes (7). Her “casting” demands a characterization of the self (and Boully appears as a character in the text) as well as a separation from this self (the speaking “I” remains distant). Beyond that, this “casting” implies a need for exchange—or at least a kind of searching—a need which might be met by the openness of the text in its intertextuality. Boully imagines herself as corresponding with Ezra Pound, etc., and thus allows her to participate in and call into question the canon—one from which much writing by women has been excluded. The text already assumes a life beyond the poet, though she “allows” many figures/texts to speak as the “authoritative” voice(s).

R 14a I wanted to write a note about exchange of material and capital and the dissipation of such systems by the experience of the sublime (fleeting, fletting), but I got overwhelmed

E and privilege mystery in these accentuated gaps without experiencing an urge to decode, analyze, or solve for a logical meaning.[15]

J [15] In footnote 71, the speaker “lies” to the great poet, claiming she doesn’t keep a journal—a move which allows Boully to assert and destabilize issues of authority in (with) this relationship (the speaker is capable of “lying” to the great poet, but she then stops keeping a journal at all). The speaker says, “With no voice, I could not make tangible my obsession, thereby ignoring it, thereby not having to live with the physical proof of the shame of it” (38). The text/page space in this book, though, is not a documentation of daily experience (one that would demand a consistent, “trust-worthy” speaker-self. Instead, Boully’s use of footnotes/margins allows for the possibility of multiple voices and realities. While the great poet concerns herself with constructing “an original semblance of reality” (and thus meets her death—her body is “set afloat), Boully’s “I” remains distant from any attempt to do this—which allows for the blurring of boundaries between ‘life’ and ‘death’—and, maybe more importantly, disrupts notions of power/control by allowing silence/white space to speak definitively against the ability to ‘know’ and using language not to assert control or convey knowledge—but rather to generate possibilities of meaning. The margin, the page, and maybe the book, then, become infinite—well beyond the ‘grasp’ of an author’s/writer’s (or reader’s) control.

E The referentiality and intertextuality of Boully’s text, then, should not distract us from or really determine our reading (as in understanding)—but rather these aspects might give the body a pulse with the resonances and reverberations[16]

J [16] Denise Riley argues that “linguistic materiality,” like that of the body, takes its place in “reiteration—and historicity—echoes, reflexivity, cadences, the automatic self-parodies and self-monumentalizing which, constituting both being called and calling oneself, constitute the formations of categories of persons” (111). Here is the real weight or authority of Boully’s text—her mode of (self-) representation and manipulation of form—both of which insist on self-conscious artifice—allow her to call into question traditional modes of reading (representation, interpretation, and meaning making).

E they signal and create.[17]

J [17] Note, too, that (the removed-removed) Robert Kelly reminds us in footnote 43: “dreams are footnotes,” but “not to life” (Boully 72).

R 17a In Nikolai Gogol's short story "The Nose" ("Nos" when transliterated from the Cyrillic + substituting alphabet characters that do not exist even in the basic transliteration), our protagonist awakens to find his nose has gone missing (and how--that is the question). He launches a search, only to find that his nose has been representing his body throughout the city (and has been making social waves if I recall correctly). Forget the obvious statements about synecdoche and the role of footnotes to the body of a text (even though we have been imploring you all along to not forget this). Forget the importance the sensorial systems of the nose play in our everyday perception of the other, whose smells permeate our mucous membranes and flood our olfactory. Remember that "Son" (the reversed version of the transliterated title) means dream in Russian. These are the points of light in a constellation. In taking a cue from Boully, I will leave you to connect the dots (as you see fit, as you see them fitting).


A blog: why not.