Write Something on My Wall: Body, Identity and Poetry
When Kara Thrace first appeared on the screen and it became clear to the audience of the new Battlestar Galactica that Starbuck was a woman, one first looked at the new version and thought this character is still “coded” as a “male” character—the same old wise-cracking, cigar-smoking, hard drinking sexual predator he/she/ze always was. Like the Cylon enemies, the body of Starbuck in the past—in this case Dirk Benedict’s body—had been downloaded into a theoretically identical body; in this case, her gender, though nothing else, was switched. One’s second thought was to look back at the original Starbuck character and ask was the sexual tension between Apollo and Starbuck always there? If you look at those old episodes, you will agree that it was. The past writes the present, for sure, but the present always returns the favor.
A body, duplicatable and so actually bodiless is thus like the signature Dickinson sealed away, written on a separate card and included with her first otherwise unsigned letter to Thomas Higginson. There are a dozen different versions of the body unfolding around the self, written and overwritten. Dickinson herself was of course over-written—deleted and edited into limbo. She has, in a fashion, been restored, though Susan Howe’s complaint that the relineation of Dickinson continues has been largely ignored—except in the Paris Press edition of Dickinson’s letters to her sister-in-law Susan—and of course the bowdlerized Dickinsons of Bianchi, Todd/Higginson, and Bingham are all in the public realm and continue to be widely republished; at least one edition of those by a well respected publisher carries a foreword by a former U.S. Poet Laureate.
Of all the crew on the Pequod it is Starbuck who most wishes to disobey his captain. Both like and unlike his galactic counterpart, Melville’s Starbuck has a strong streak of rebellion but is fundamentally part of the larger social order and continues to support it. Standing before the sleeping Ahab with a gun in his hand, for all his Christian values, he is unable to make the brutal decision that needs making—by murdering Ahab he will save both the ship and all her crew. Does the population of the ship—hence the world—die by Ahab’s madness or by Starbuck’s inability to act? The future Starbuck, in space and newly female, does not choose a different fate; still driven by her gut passions rather than intellect, she becomes a new Ahab complete with her own salvation complex, visions and Starbuck-figure/enabler.
Higginson himself, known to us as the pompous editor, literary muck-up, distorter of genius, was actually hard at work the whole time on another issue. A dedicated abolitionist, Dickinson’s correspondent was one of the “Secret Six” who raised money for John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and later tried to raise funds for his defense; he later put together and led into combat the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally recognized all African-American regiment in the U.S. Army. Neither scholar nor mentor has managed to speak themselves clearly through the shadows of history.
Is the individual body—whether Higginson’s, Dickinson’s, Layla Al-Attar’s or Rachel Corrie’s—hopeless against the tidal wave of history, the universal social action of the mind? One is reminded of Neo’s dilemma from The Matrix. He wants to know if he has individual will at all or whether he, like those who preceded him, is condemned to make a choice based solely on his experiences and previous circumstances in his life. In other words, is “identity” an actual spiritual concept grounded in an “individual soul”? Or is it shaped like the body is shaped by its DNA and lineage and physical activities in its present life?
The machinery of identity-creation seems even a bit more clear now; it doesn’t need to be rehearsed or sung over and over again but rather can be cleanly assembled from do-it-yourself parts in the infinite rooms of Myspace or Facebook. And one doesn’t have to engage in such creation alone; it’s nearly a collaborative process, since after all: “You have 2,142 friends.” In other words, the mind, having always had the ability to travel at the speed of light, is finally bringing the body along for the ride. Having transcended its corporeal limitations, the body flies apart in immaterial ecstasy. The electronic locus offers not only sensual interaction, in the form of photos, conversations via wall, message or chat, but also a form of memory, both short-term and long-term.
This may be a particularly American or Western dysfunction gone global. Paul Virilio writes in The Information Bomb, “From the beginning, the dimensions of the American state were unstable because they were more astronomical than political.” Ships were sent adrift across the ocean in search any living thing and they did not find what they thought they found. The horizon that stretched before them became then, a national obsession—to move past sight, move past what the body could experience, to move in “manifest destiny” until it simply became impossible to move further.
Where we once thought of the mind in terms of metaphors of the body—which is to say the understanding of corpus was the grounding experience, the anima a poetical (or “astronomical”) consideration—we are now moving in the other direction, that is to say, considering the body in terms of metaphors of the mind. As Virilio writes it, the screen has become the new version of the horizon, the limits of sight and perception. Unlike the horizon, however, the screen is the lip of the infinite through which anything can be seen. And of course, since “anything” can be seen, information in its infinite and supersaturated sense, it’s “nothing” not “everything” that we are actually looking it. Or to carry it further, as Jean Baudrillard explains it, if everything means something then nothing means anything.
The bodiless mind just as dangerous in this case as the mindless body, and where does it leave us but half-way to “nowhere?”
When once a person sent a letter, signed and sealed—or in Dickinson’s case unsigned and sealed—now one gets electronic messages, instantly replied to, without what Anne Carson called the eros of distance in between. Imagine the difference between the pencil’s mark on the paper, the sound of it moving, the licking of the strip of envelope, the sealing. There is only the tactile touch of fingertips on keys to send someone a message or better yet, that odd performance of intimacy, to “write” on “their” “wall.” A wall which is not a wall, and not theirs—it is public, and if you write on anyone’s wall, helpful announcements race around the world at the speed of information to alert hundreds or thousands of others that you have done so.
The incorporeal corps (or is that “corpse?”) of your “profile” is not a private body any longer but a public one, one with its own sophisticated apparatus for sensing public movement and information in the slightest of degrees. Alex has written on your wall. Farrah has tagged you in a photo. Chelsey and Bernard are now friends.
Can we carry the metaphor of this back into the corporeal world? Why not speak a line of poetry, a single line—hold it in your memory, in your body and mouth and then to sing it in the world? There is a line I carry in my head from Sappho’s Gymnasium by T Begley and Olga Broumas—perhaps it is even closer to my point that it is a line written by two people, a line that has passed between bodies, a communal line. The poem in its entirety, from the sequence “Vowel Imprint,” runs like this:
transitive body this fresco amen I mouth
Don’t just look at it on the page; say it. Say it now, I beg you. And say it the way I’ve heard Broumas recite it: the consonants mere excuses, tent pegs; open your mouth on the vowels and let your breath into the universe. The body is a functioning unit, a machine in service of energy that is neither created nor dispersed but is in eternal state of transfer. On this point a poet, a vedantic philosopher and a physicist would each be in harmonious agreement. It’s not science fiction after all but a fact of the physical universe: matter—dark matter and anti-matter included—is neither created nor destroyed.
I wonder if the purest expression of poetry is in sound and not sense. Poetry might be able to tell you something you don’t even know but only if you dare not to know it. Robert Hass said it, “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry,” but his was a physical response to a primarily intellectual drama. In a Michael Waters poem the break-up of a marriage necessitates three mantras, meant for different moments in the process, “green ash, red maple, black gum.” They are like the bhij mantras of ancient yoga practice in which the interior of the body can be cleaned, heightened, by the sound of the mantra itself resonating through the internal cavities.
If the purest expression of poetry is in sound and not sense, maybe the purest way of experiencing it is in a single line—a line you can chant and understand to yourself and your self. A last line like Waters’ “black gum, black gum, black gum,” final syllable of which is actually one of the seven bhij mantras, a syllable that pulls the sound and thus the energy internally and down into the root of the spine, so opposite in its aural qualities and expiation of breath than Hass’ line, flooding out into the world, starting with the aspiration of the second “b” and flooding from the breath to the mouth and beyond by virtue of the liquid middles consonant “r” and the final released vowel.
What is breath after all? Not the inhale and the exhale only but also the moments in between each. Say aloud here:
transitive body this fresco amen I mouth.
After the initial cluster of short syllables the line turns on the word “this”—totally empty, yet fully directive—to all the long and open spaces that follow. To me the line is out of order with regular poetic syntax. The speaking “I” comes very close to the end of the sentence. It is not fully clear what the subject, main verb, and object of this line are. Is the fresco being mouthed or the body or is the mouth an open space at the end of the line, mere descriptor for the I? Can you diagram this line? Send all attempts plus commentary to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll tattoo the most ecstatic answer somewhere on my body’s blank. It will be up to you to find it.
The body is both transitive here, a passage, a bridge of flesh for breath between states of before and after, but also a fresco, made of pieces from all eras of time and all places throughout the universe. Once more, a poetic metaphor that scientists can agree upon. The word “amen” here, from Christian and Muslim prayers both, does not conclude but is rather surrounded by the present of the body and the action of the personality within it.
The line itself to me holds the best parts of poetry—music and energy that moves through both the body and the intellect as energy, poetry that depends on the body for its expression, word arrangement that works against or outside grammar, and for an extra bonus the word “I.” Rimbaud may have said “I is an other,” which is very provocative, but the real problem is that I really isn’t an other, is it?
Dickinson’s textual body was literally broken to pieces by the hands of two women, her brother’s wife and her brother’s lover. The daughters of these women continued the practice. No matter what kind of work R.W. Franklin did in matching ragged paper edges and watermarks to one another, some secrets keep themselves. More interesting perhaps is Marta Werner’s textual work with the scraps and fragments that remain. What Werner does is read the surfaces—the actual body as it exists today.
In fragment A638a in Werner’s cataloging, on a small bit of paper Dickinson writes a shocking manifesto to the future of the body of poetry:
We do not think
enough of the
Dead as Exhili
rants they are
Keepers of that
still to us fore
closed – while
we Envy their
wisdom [ ]
Coveting their wis
dom we lament
Grace is still
The untranscribed word following the first wisdom, to my eye, is either “made” or “nude,” interesting in either case, though I’d rather it “nude.” Still the spacing, the lack of hyphens in the cut words, the stumble and stutter and re-start are things I love the most about both this Dickinson text and about the practical existence of the individual human body.
But it gets better than this, better than I can adequately reproduce here, because written vertically in the gaps between words in the text are two additional couplets. The first, running down the left portion of the page, reads: “That they still exist/ is a/trust so/daring.” It cuts the Dickinson text in two vertical columns to create a subsection along the left margin that reads:
Even cut to pieces, when it is by her own hand and her text left otherwise unedited, Dickinson is brilliant. Along the extreme right margin of the paper is another couplet that reads, “that they have existed—none/can take away.” Indeed, the human body holds its own suppressed experiences, its own revisions, deep even the cells of its very flesh, even when the sophisticated mind plays every trick in order to forget.
In the secret and confused texts of Dickinson’s fragments one can be lost in the language, be dizzied in it, seduced by it, distressed, or dreamed of. To quote Broumas and Begley’s “Vowel Imprint” one more time, “where I unbind my hair light’s first blue witness.” As in Dickinson, I begin to suspect it is the lack of punctuation and its determination to lock down the syntax of a phrase that allows the language in these scraps to sing.
I suppose what makes Broumas and Begley’s work in Sappho’s Gymnasium so compelling is that the fragments are intentional and they are oral. As such they bridge the gap between the irretrievable lost history of the woman writer and embodied present in which the scraps and fragments that remain still live and blazingly so. Fragments spoken like this carry the height of meaning, a space between the reader and writer that is so dizzyingly intense one—whether reader or writer—has no choice but to stutter or moan.
What was it Icarus saw on his way plummeting down to the ocean’s surface? Or Pip the cabin-boy, in Moby-Dick, hanging on to the tarred-up barrel for a day and a night, a castaway, inch by inch going silently mad? What made Pip mad was his vision of the absolute horizon through the day and the night—he came to perceive the dizzying infinite, God’s foot on the treadle of the loom of creation, but what he saw was the vastness of nothingness.
The horizon of nothing is what we, in American obsession, came to the edge of eventually. In fact, once this occurred, once we had fulfilled our ‘manifest destiny,’ it seemed, as Virilio wrote, that “the history of the United States seemed to be completed, seemed halted at the outer limit of the continent, on the horizon of the Pacific.” Did it seem inevitable then that we would eventually push further, occupying territories in the Pacific, and Alaska? The occupation of the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century marked the beginning of this imperialist project, one that continues today. America, as Virilio continues, was “still hungry—not so much for territories as for trajectories; hungry to deploy its compulsive desire for movement, hungry to carry on moving so as to carry on being American.” One could infer also that this American restlessness within the polity is mirrored by restlessness in the individual body. As Jean Baudrillard writes in his book America, “All these track-suits and jogging suits, these loose-fitting shorts and baggy cotton shirts, these “easy clothes” are actually old bits of nightwear, and all these relaxed walkers and runners have not yet left the night behind. As a result of wearing these billowing clothes, their bodies have come to float in their clothes and they themselves float in their own bodies.”
What’s happened is the end of locality, the end of the body, the end of actual physical existence in the world and the beginning of pure concept—how can we even be where we are? One extreme are the human bodies in The Matrix, not at all where they are, but stacked like eggs at the supermarket, plugged in like the batteries for consumption that they are. Is this significantly different from the hyperreality of Facebook? At the other extreme you have the lost exile adrift in a world without place; as Edmond Jabès explained it you are never really anywhere, because everywhere you go you have brought all the places you have left with you. In an increasingly electronic world, where information is in a constant feedback with events themselves unfolding, Virilio even argues, “Here no longer exists. Everything is now.”
When Pip looked out at the horizon he saw nothing and went mad. The American empire itself continues to thrust its hands out, reaching, reaching to infinity. But the globe, cyberspace not withstanding, is not infinite. At some point, arms reaching out will meet one another. No one on the ship bemoaned the loss of Pip, remember. He was found by accident and once he displayed his eerie poetic rants, no one wanted anything more to do with him. It was Ahab who was alone ultimately able to take the gibbering child under his wing and in a fashion, rehabilitates Pip by ushering him into an embrace of his madness.
Of course Pip did not see “nothingness” on the horizon. On the contrary the horizon led him to the new horizon in his own delirium, Virilio’s ‘screen.’ Pip imagined himself sinking below the surface of the ocean into the unknown depths where he saw not nothingness but the wondrous shapes of infinity. It was the infinite of the screen, not the absolute absence of the horizon that revealed to him the figure of God and ultimately drove him out of his mind. “Man man’s insanity is heaven’s sense,” Ishmael remarks, and then slyly reminds the reader that these visions are not merely the province of the mad, but that Ishmael himself, before the novel’s close, will likewise be abandoned.
- Will we, obsessed with the screen/horizon, be abandoned to ‘madness,’ a permanent suspension in ‘now,’ eternally ‘space-less’ like the humans plugged into the Matrix? Though to go inside one’s mind, through visions and sound, is also a great gift. In Andrew Joron’s poem “Materialism, his vowels fold and unfold into and out of one another, all along maintaining the greatest intellectual engagement. The poem opens “Failed fold/ makes the cut continuous—//Unclosed is/Unclothed/ in the drama that Thou art// outward the word (outside// —interstellar costume—// the fits of a dress).” What he enabled the poetic line to do is have a thousand lives, combining and recombining in sound, sometimes being echoed several lines later. It’s Steinian in its treatment of language as plastic material, Dickinsonian in its creepy inquiry into the nature of the relationship between individual identity and the outer world, and Barbara Guest-like in its sheer playfulness and joy in poetry (who would have expected that “interstellar costume” to show up?).
Though the sound pattern does nothing but repeat, Joron continues, “Unrepeating pattern// where/X relaxes relation, where//X licks the elixir of/ night’s rhyme with light.” X here perhaps means the unknowable in the equation of identity—where does it come from, how is it constructed? In the first mathematical guess, the unknowable of ‘identity’ might release the stress of knowing the difference; but in the second, the X know the answer is found in pure ecstatic engagement with the senses.
It’s the senses we’ve stopped depending on. As our information-gathering facilities slowly transform from biological and internal to technological and external (and threaten now to transform again to technological but internal—a chip in my hand, a chip on my heart!) it is our corporeal form itself, the human body, that Virilio argues is the last frontier “which has at all costs to be invaded or captured through the industrialization of living matter.” Small wonder then, that while the science fiction of the forties, fifties and sixties was obsessed with the political cold war, that of the seventies and eighties and early nineties obsessed with disasters on a global scale (Zizek argues in Welcome to the Desert of the Real that a society in such extreme excess as ours actually dreams of the disaster, is secretly just waiting for it to happen), science fiction of the late nineties and new millennium is obsessed with the individual human body, how it can be colonized, changed, subsumed. Whether a Terminator, a Cylon, or hapless human caught in The Matrix, we are not who we say we are, are unable to assert our own human existence as tender bodies in the face of technological expansion.
In fact, this human panic is built into all of the science fiction dealing with the trauma of the clash between technology and civilization. The Cylons, constructed by humans, believe in their own souls as created beings. In this they are a re-boot not of the original Galactica series, but actually of Victor Frankenstein’s creation, now so caught up in the destiny of his creator he has taken on even his name. The villainy of Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s novel is not in the creation of life itself but in his refusal to take responsibility for his creation and teach him. While his initial refusal results in the textually ambiguous—in terms of intention—death of William Frankenstein, it’s the later refusal to provide the creature with his companion that turns the creature truly murderous.
Even in science fiction—especially in science fiction, magnifier of our own anxieties—the racialized body, the queer body, are each particularly vulnerable. After all, the transformation of Starbuck to Starbuck engendered (forgive me) acres of critical and academic discourse as well as good old-fashioned outrage—check out Dirk Benedict’s reactionary blog post “Lt. Starbuck—Lost in Castration” as well Carla Kungl’s incisive critique of it, “Long Live Stardoe! Can a Female Starbuck Survive?”—the transformation of Boomer from Black male to Asian female barely made a blip on the screen. Is it because the Blackness of Boomer was less intrinsic to the character than the maleness of Starbuck? Is it because Herb Jefferson, Jr. had less a claim on his character than Dirk Benedict had on his? Is it because in the minds of viewers and critics Black and Asian were both “other” to the white and so the two Boomers, though of opposite genders, somehow equaled themselves and elided any gender difference?
Boomer, having switched genders and races, seems to be predestined to make the next step: she switches sides. Revealed as a stranger in her own body and abandoned by those she loved, she adapts to her situation by embracing her role as a betrayer. As if to even the karmic scales, another version of her own self, downloaded into a different body, switches allegiances also in addition to taking Boomer’s place on the Galactica crew. It’s this quid pro quo switch that makes Battlestar Galactica so compelling and so disturbing. Who is the enemy? Who is the noble one? As in the actual novel Frankenstein (and as opposed to the popular myth of the mad scientist and his monster) one can never quite make up one’s mind.
What Victor never manages to do is confront his own creature and accept responsibilities for his own actions. At the heart of the technological disaster is always the spark of human that made it so, because in poetry you can always speak in riddles, say one thing and then another, the chains of logic in poetry like the dual paths in the body, motion of inhale and exhale, talking out both sides of one’s mouth and offering a new way of understanding the flickering and mortal world.
To assert humanity and the validity of the human experience seems terribly important, otherwise the bodies of humans disappear into the drift of history and political events, the way Rachel Corrie’s body disappeared, or Layla Al-Attar’s—flesh and bone, destroyed physically, certainly, but also banished and vanished in the sea of information in constant production. Dickinson wrote her name on a small card and sealed it up in a tiny envelope, including this with her otherwise unsigned letter send to Higginson.
How small one can make oneself inside one’s own mind. In his sequence of poems “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-44,” Edward Hirsch makes several turns using sound and the line break to heighten the emotional intensity, as if he were delicately opening signatures sealed in an envelope. These were real children, kept in a concentration camp designed to prove to visiting officials that the Nazis were not persecuting Jews. The very unreality of the concept (the children were eventually all killed) represents the same disconnect between war and the individual body, death as represented in news reports and empty numbers and actual bodies on the ground. Hirsch writes in one section, “All night the girl/looked out the window/until the window disappeared/and there was no girl.”
Just as there is a confusion between what is real and what is imaginary, the children cannot remember their previous lives or experiences: “No one in dormitory L410 remembered/if the Talmud was written/in black letters on white fire/or in white letters on black fire.” The truth implicated in the confusion is more sinister than the merely poetic; in such an atmosphere of a prison camp, whether a “model camp” or no, has real import: “She painted herself light blue/when she felt like a flute//She painted herself dark blue/when she felt like a cello//She painted herself black and blue/when she was bruised into silence.”
Here in a camp where young Jewish children were given music lessons, dance lessons, art lessons, then ushered quickly to their deaths, even the imaginary holds real menace: “He drew a German shepherd inside a cage/and blacked the cage with a crayon//It was sealed shut/but he could hear the dog barking at night.”
Hirsch creates the sense of severe disconnect between what one can say and what can understand in two remarkable couplets near the end of the section. In the first, a simple word shift, as in Andrew Joron’s poem, opens up a new road to understanding: “We did not make graven images/we made images from the grave.” In the second he uses a line break in a repeated phrase to contradict the earlier message of hope:
Someone wrote in tiny letters in pencil
I don’t believe God forgot us
but someone else scrawled in thick letters in pen
I don’t believe
God forgot us
This one line in dialogue with itself takes an haunting and awful meaning here as manipulated by Hirsch, and to me this is the richness of the body—breath that moves into and out of itself, and words that move amongst each other, turn each other over to create new rooms of meaning. In this I am very attracted to the non-linearity and intertextuality the Internet has offered us. Icons open and lead into one another and after five minutes of wandering you are a million miles from where you started. Virilio’s screen is frightening, yes, but dizzy with possibilities as well.
In the hyperreal American century, our bodies are suddenly eternal and ethereal at once. I saw a reality show once about who was going to be interesting enough to get a reality show of their own. In sheer terms of semantic madness my favorite reality show title is Paris Hilton’s My New BFF. The final “F” is supposed to stand for “forever” which obviously doesn’t mean what it used to mean if the adjective assigned to it is “new.” One also presumed that if there is to be a second season of the program some conflict will tear Paris and her friend apart; however Hilton solved the problem by shooting the second season of the show in Great Britain. It’s title? My New BBF. You can sort out the acronym. I trust your ability.
And in fact, after his sexist and retro huffing and puffing, Benedict’s real criticism of the re-imagined Starbuck is that things—like Cylons, hamburgers, and Coca-Cola, to use three of Benedict’s examples—do not equal each other anymore. Hamburgers have fewer carbs, Coke has fewer calories, and the Cylons are no longer “alien and evil” but morally complex and conflicted beings. If Benedict’s lament for the simple connection between sign and signified feels like a reactionary throwback, where does that leave one with a resistance to the new possibilities of incorporeal as well as corporeal existence?
Though Hilton, hyperreal though she may be, not only reveals her core selfhood, but does so in a way that only a “reality star” could do. When she was used as an example of dumbness when John McCain used clips of her attacking Barack Obama’s energy policy, Paris created her own video in which she “played herself”—a naïve socialite, sitting poolside with a magazine. But then she flipped the script, outlining what she thought was a sane energy policy, a clearly explained proposal that articulated a third position in contrast to Obama’s and McCain’s. Having proven she could play the policy wonk, she then turned the tables on him again, drawing the discourse back onto her own semantic terms with her pithy warning to McCain and Obama, “See you at the debate, bitches.”
I find that I trust Paris Hilton and Jean Baudrillard equally—precisely because we have entered an age of true gaps and spaces between words and what they mean, the possibilities of poetry have increased a thousand-fold. It’s a dream to me to be lost in the space between a noun and the verb that goes with it, especially if those two are separated by several words or even a poetic line, though so dangerous to think of how separate from real human experience language can be.
In early 2007, I was at the railing of the cliff-beach at Santa Cruz, California. I had just learned the night before of the passing of Alice Coltrane. Shocked and feeling very lonely, I was watching the waves hit the red rocks and disappear instantly into tons of mist. Racing on the surface towards the rocks—who knows how they rescued themselves before striking them—where surfers, balancing on their boards, crazy in the wind. I loved the image of a human being—a soul inhabiting a body—as a surfer traveling on the very edge of the infinite; the joy of their experience was traveling atop it, not immersing themselves in it. One surfs the Internet as well and one feels this most modern of textual conglomerates has much more in common with the ancient forms of literature than we imagine.
Jonathan Rosen writes of the connection between, of all things, the Talmud and the Internet. “Vastness and an uncategorizable nature are in part what define them both…nothing is whole in itself but where icons and text boxes are doorways through which visitors pass into an infinity of cross-referenced texts and conversations.” Rosen goes on to describe the various conversations and arguments that emerge and re-emerge, cross-reference and continue a conversation “that began two thousand years ago” and “is still going on in pretty much unbroken form.”
We haven’t yet begun to explore what it means for our language and our sign-making processes to now have access to such meaning-making mechanisms as website home-pages, blogs, Facebook walls, YouTube, wikis and who knows what other democratic avenues will open themselves into the future. Will we continue to homogenize our language and culture in an as-yet unheard of manner, travel closer and closer to being humans plugged into the Matrix, or mere minds without corporeality simply “downloaded” into our bodies, or will we fracture into fabulous new Babel?
It is not new, this intertextuality, the moving of understanding from one locale to another, but perhaps what is new—and sinister—is the degree to which economic power determines access to new information media. The other problem that presents itself is the problem of “knowing.” While poets—the ones I love anyhow—have always eschewed certainty, the wide prevalence of mass media has only hardened the notion of fixed meanings, not dissolved it. Witness the frightening and soul-sickening ease with which the United States was ushered into the most brutal and disastrously pointless war. Our exit from it and a move back towards the centuries of peace-making that will be required in its aftermath depends solely on our releasing the notion that “we know best,” surrendering—at last!—the doctrine of American Exceptionalism.
Dickinson herself finished with “knowing” in her poem “I felt a Funeral in my Brain” but left that enticing “then” as the single word on the final manuscript line. Dickinson, typically cagey, doesn’t say what happens after “knowing” is finished. At least not right away. Dickinson, that gardener of plants and poems, takes a cutting from this poem and attempts to grow another poem from a variant line reading “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind.” It’s not the only time, of course, she’s subbed in nouns and verbs but left the syntactic structure intact.
Each concerns itself with “knowing”—the first is the narrative of how one dispenses with the requirement to know, the second a lyric that tells what the experience feels like. In another sense “I felt a Cleaving” in my mind is also a meditation on the ability of lyric to revisit its subjects. Dickinson sent the second stanza of this poem in a letter to Susan, though the first couplet in this version does not read “The thought behind I strove to join/unto the thought before,” but rather “the Dust behind I strove to join/unto the Disk before.”
Of course Dickinson was not the only one who subbed words for words in her poems. In the final couplet of the second stanza she writes:
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.
To me, the word “sound” is key here—meaning progresses from it, the word “ravelling” like the word “cleaving” meaning both a thing and its opposite. It’s this single word also that Dickinson’s editors subbed out for the 1896 edition of her poems, rendering the line instead “But sequence ravelled out of reach/like balls upon a floor.” Something that “ravels out of sound” might at first appear to be a fair definition of the poetry of Joron or Broumas and Begley. Sound, for Dickinson, has echoes of both the sources of poetry and unknowability. In a poem she wrote in between this pair of poems, Dickinson again considers the actual materiality of the mind, first as a metaphor but eventually actualized in a physical form, the chosen form again being “Sound”:
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
In this poem Dickinson compares the Brain to both the sky and the sea; in each case the brain is reckoned superior, not for its mass but for its ability to “contain.” “The Brain is just the weight of God,” Dickinson says, the two hefted physically and found to differ, “if they do” only as much as “Syllable from Sound.” “Syllable” is container by which humans expel the larger and more abstract “Sound.” Led by language, Dickinson does not allow the “funeral” in the brain to be the end, but rather only the beginning of an unreeling sequence of poetic thoughts that comment back, embellish and sometimes contradict what came before.
- The human body, as Virilio wrote, is the last frontier, and it’s the experiences of this body, like Pip’s adrift on the surface of the infinite ocean, that can lead us to greater understanding. Joron concludes his poem “Materialism” with these lines: “Possessor, picture/Bare chamber—/ stain instead of identity—// the plait of, the plaint of// simple.//Thou thousand, imitation/Shadow.” The argument he makes here about identity—being traces left behind, a “stain”—plays itself out in the arena of sound. Not only is the individual multiple, but is also barely there, barely real.
So is that it? Does the “transitive body” have any chance of actually existing in the world, understanding itself? For Neo and the others caught in the Matrix it is the simple matter of a pill. Our actual world is perhaps more complicated. There is a rapture in the movement of the mind and the body that can only be duplicated in language, not in spite of the stark gaps that have opened between word and meaning, but perhaps because of it. Subject to colonization, subjugation, invasion on every level, each body has only what it is made of.
The beautiful wisdom of Broumas and Begley’s line corsucates in and out of me as if it were breath: transitive body this fresco amen I mouth. The body here is a “fresco”—the eternal matter painted into the flesh and surface of the body; the paint and the wall are no longer separate but fuse into one another’s actual physical make-up. You can see creation as an alert flickering on your screen: “Someone has written on your wall,” but this line includes two further motions, one of the individual internal—“amen”—and one of the individual actualizing herself into the external world—“I mouth.”
As Dickinson found sequence ravelling out of sound, as Pip noticed in the infinity of space and in the timeless passage of a day and a night adrift, we may find our best spiritual, intellectual and emotional nourishment in the spaces between bodies and their existences, in the conflicted, confused, and vexed spaces of the oral and ecstatic, the profaned and profound, the queer and the difficult. Our very language of the intellect has assumed qualities of the body, and with perhaps our chance to become ourselves, to become human, has increased a thousandfold.
Friend me. Write something on my wall.