Tom Beckett, a first-generation Language Poet who has appeared in various major anthologies like In the American Tree, has been known as editor of the journal The Difficulties and as an excellent interviewer of other poets. These days, younger poets and readers may know him as a blogger, but it is high time for his own poetic production to command attention.
In a conversation conducted by Richard Lopez called ‘Unprotected Text’ in Jacket 25, Beckett describes Vanishing Points of Resemblance, which started out as an attempt on his part to write a novel, as ‘a hybrid text — combining elements of fiction, autobiography, philosophy, poetry and prose.’ Three passages in the book are distinctly constituted as verse, numerous paragraphs are present, and often, there are single-line or single-sentence paragraphs that resemble Wittgenstein’s numbered aphorisms in Philosophical Investigations. It is possible, though, to say that the philosophical drift in Beckett’s text is an integral part of all of the other modes he lists.
While Beckett tells Lopez that he ‘tried to show some genuine nakedness’ and ‘to take the quotation mark handcuffs off “self,”‘ he maintains that the text ‘is still “about” mistaken identity.’ Indeed, not only is it often difficult to tell where ‘autobiography’ departs and ‘fiction’ takes command, but ‘nakedness’ may involve telling anxiety-filled stories of how ‘mistaken identity’ shapes much of actual existence and makes ‘genuine’ self-identification problematic.
Vanishing Points of Resemblance begins with a single-sentence paragraph: ‘Life’s defining moments are about contingency, accident, and choice.’ An example of the first two-thirds of this claim comes in the next sentence: ‘I am one of those people who looks like a million other people and am often mistaken for someone else.’ Others’ repeated misrecognition has influenced the writer ‘to alter [his] life as may be required....’
Near the end of the book, Beckett recounts a different kind of accident, a childhood car crash, that caused him to become ‘extremely uncoordinated,’ someone, not ‘typical,’ but ‘different,’ and in fact, he speaks of another ‘accident’ — of becoming ‘ridiculously tall’ (6’7”). (In the conversation with Lopez, while the crash is not mentioned, the other details are cited as autobiographical truth.)
Even if someone so far beyond average height can be mistaken for another person, the disjunction between seeming anonymous and exaggeratedly individualistic is striking; it forces the perception of ‘resemblance’ between ‘self’ and representation to confront a ‘point’ of instability, at which it might ‘vanish.’ Further, someone’s physical clumsiness can deflect attention from linguistic adroitness. Gaps are produced by the observer and the observed: ‘The Subject is stepping carefully through an environment which is full of holes. These are holes of the Subject’s and of others’ making. The holes increase the circulation of air.’
Beckett agrees with ‘those ubiquitous real estate people... that location is everything’ in the sense that ‘the relationships one establishes with one’s surroundings (that one’s surroundings establish) determine what one is — what one can be.’ The words in the parenthesis anxiously correct those preceding it, just as the concept of possibility after the dash corrects the previous notion of fixed identity.
Such ‘contingency’ or ‘accident’ has major deterministic force, and the ironically titled ‘Equipoise,’ one of the three poems in Beckett’s text, dramatizes this with a brief nightmare, in which disabling substances (and ‘darkness’) invade ‘the subject’s’ physical openings: ‘Head filled with cotton/ / Ears filled with static/ / Eyes filled with darkness/ / Mouth filled with tacks / / / Arms filled with water/ / Breasts filled with nettles/ / Cock filled with needles/ / Ass filled with glass.’ Despite the very slight difference in sound, ‘nettles’ and ‘needles’ have a similar stinging function, but oddly, a stinging from within. In this lyric of surreal simplicity, the ‘equipoise’ is both the state of ‘filling’ and the balanced use of eight four-word lines.
As ‘a poet,’ Beckett thinks ‘in fragments.’ Thus, he suggests that his process of memory is dependent upon contingency: he tends to ‘remember objects,’ ‘body parts (freckled breasts, a dimpled ass),’ and ‘passages from books,’ but not ‘people.’ However, this Prufrock-like fragmentation is transformed into something fuller when he comes ‘upon a phrase of speech, a tone of voice, that is idiosyncratic to a particular person.’ Such metonymic action — not taste, as in Proust, but auditory prompting — can elicit a ‘flooding’ of ‘memories’ about that person.
If the movement of metonymy applies to perception and memory in general, it surely applies to ‘the subject’s’ attempts at self-representation, which involve a tracing of self-division: ‘I’m the guy who’s always standing outside of myself like a shadow.’ A dream-transcript parodies the real estate agent’s ‘location, location, location’ with a Yeatsian death-in-life and life-in-death doubling: ‘Once I dreamt I was watching myself standing apart from myself while dying in a mirror. Gradually, I realized that I was, indeed, dead and that no one could see me anymore. I moved into a small ranch house where all the windows were closed and curtained, where the air conditioner was turned up high to dial down the smell of my decomposing flesh.’
How can ‘choice,’ the third element in Beckett’s opening triad, exert a positive counter-pressure when the negative impact of ‘contingency’ and ‘accident’ are often so powerful, when ‘the subject’ is ‘colonized or/ Colorized, eyed/ Or dyed’ so routinely? The expression of disenchantment with constraints is a palpable alternative to passive compliance with ‘fate,’ and it is an accomplishment to embody a ‘recognition of dichotomies’ and, defiantly, to ‘go where [one] knows [s/ he is] not welcome.’
The poet can choose to name ambiguity as a relative freedom from single-minded misrecognition: ‘The Subject may be having a convulsion or an orgasm or dancing or in his or her death throes. Who can tell the difference? Sometimes it is impossible to know.’ This reminds me of Lacan and others’ reading of Bernini’s statue of St. Theresa. In ambiguity’s uncertain realm, even within the grip of contingency and accident, multiple possibilities may hint at satisfaction: ‘One is,/ I don’t know,/ Hologram or door,/ Dolorous or grammatical,/ / The problem/ Of other minds.’
The ‘hologram’ is a kind of ghost that affords intriguing light but refuses useful contact, whereas ‘a door’ is a metonym for opportunities for such contact. Can ‘grammar’ organize self-fashioning in such a way that ‘dolor’ is unnecessary? Perhaps this is unlikely, but the identification of ‘other minds’ as a ‘problem’ is not the same as calling it a permanent impasse; problems are ripe for investigation and interaction: ‘A body edits the space it inhabits (even as it is being edited by that space): the reciprocity of being (t)here.’ The ‘body’ of Beckett’s hybrid text keeps ‘editing’ and soliciting the reader’s ‘reciprocity.’