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The Limits of Poetry
Wolfgang Iser, the German theorist and critic, has shown how a text filled with blanks and absences or fragments — that is, with negations — works upon our “need for combination,” creating a force within the text that reveals the presence of another context — negativity:
Blanks and negations increase the density of fictional texts, for the omissions and cancellations indicate that practically all the formulations of the text refer to an unformulated background, and so the formulated text has a kind of unformulated double. This “double” we shall call negativity.
The poet Michael Brennan is fully aware of this process, steeped as he is in the play of negativity in literature: his doctoral thesis, The Impossible Gaze: Robert Adamson and the work of negativity, illuminates this mode in brilliant fashion, drawing on the work of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Yves Bonnefoy, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Luc Nancy. So it is no surprise that Brennan’s own poetry should display or even foreground characteristics of negativity, though it would be a mistake to suppose that the poems are merely programmatic or somehow versified theory. What we have, instead, is precisely what Iser proposes: an unformulated double that tracks these poems like Shelley’s “awful shadow of some unseen Power” in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” Now — if I may step back for a moment — I realize this proliferation of high cultural names — from Shelley to Iser to Derrida — may seem like heavy lifting for what is, in many ways, a delicately balanced verse and a supple ironic mind. But Brennan is a serious poet — even when comic — and it will be helpful as we go along to take stock of his deep interest in European philosophy — something he shares, by the way, with his namesake, the redoubtable poet and philosopher Christopher Brennan, who may be another sort of double here (and whose poems are also filled with shadows).
What I want to track here is the “unformulated background” to Michael Brennan’s poems because I think it is the phenomenon (or epiphenomenon) of negativity that motivates the verse, moving it beyond the simple manifesting of negation. But what are these negations? In the first instance, we have the title of this collection, since an “imageless world” would seem to be at odds with poetry itself, which is so bound to imagery as an aspect of imagination. But we quickly realize that Brennan is referring to a world that awaits images, that awaits its articulation (though, as we will see, this is a complex matter for Brennan). Next, we discover that half the book is made up of poems entitled either “Letter Home” (14 of them) or “Postcard” (6). This refusal to differentiate the poems by their titles tells us two things: first, that difference adheres even in sameness; and second — once we take cognizance of the titles themselves — that these poems recur from somewhere else — that is, from a place often unidentified and often clearly foreign. In itself, this is an image of absence and, in many cases, of bafflement and longing. “These are strange lands I barely understand,” he says, and in another poem, “Words fail me, where memory/ / Turns from words to things/ To their images to words again.”
A third case of what I’m calling negation is found in Brennan’s use of fragments. In the study, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism, Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe focus on the importance of the fragment (especially in the work of the Schlegel brothers in the Athenaeum) and show how it is crucial to the development of early romanticism (and hence modernism). To write a fragment is to imply a whole that lies behind or beyond, of which the fragment is a part; it also asks of the reader an imaginative and cognitive engagement to complete the fragmentary, to restore it to wholeness — on the basis of — to borrow Wolfgang Iser’s phrase again — the “need for combination.” In this regards, then, the fragment is a form of negation that points to an “unformulated background” — that is, to negativity. Thus, in Brennan’s poem “Ellipses,” we have thirty-five fragments (as for example “To allow the dark the dark but to save the name”), and in the final section of the book, “eye tasting light,” we have forty-two fragments (such as “And time passing now reminds me of rare moments free from time passing”). That such fragments at times read like aphorisms simply underscores the sense that there is a whole or complete perspective in the background, a unity that we may glimpse as a result of penetrating the mystery of the fragment. In a sense, the fragment is the most poetical of forms since it requires a firing of the imagination to complete its circuit.
Finally, there is the verse itself: Brennan’s poems often move by indirection or saltations, with the sense leaping from line to line, and while he can be discursive in a plain sense he is more often associative and even playful. Here, for example, is the first stanza of “The other”:
He has been drinking
in my father’s coat
slowly filling it with laughter.
There are histories he tells
I am no longer sure I have lived
or simply dreamt stretched in
the long grass of past summers.
These lines read like non sequiturs or random threads of sense, though to some extent they are raveled up in the next couplet: “Sometimes he murmurs/ in the dark, We dream the real.” To invoke dream is to imply a form of coherence or a process of cohering, but we are still a long way from consecutive thinking. Rather, the dream processes of compression and condensation, with their attendant qualities of brevity and substitution, are very close to the way this poetry operates, asking us to read between the lines as well as the lines themselves. The blank space that separates one line from the next turns out to be an image not of absence but of a fullness of meaning — meaning that seems overdetermined in signifying so much: “Moments so full,” he says elsewhere, “there is nowhere but emptiness to place them.” These poems negate meaning as we usually think of it, dislocating discursive sense from its central axis.
These, then, are some of the modes or methods of negation that Brennan employs: the book is framed as “imageless”; the titles refuse specificity; fragments explode poetic form; meaning is rendered problematic. But as we noted at the beginning, such negations can be seen as positing an “unformulated background,” which points to a more global coherence — if you will — than what is achieved at a local level. That unformulated coherence is what happens when we move from negation to negativity.
The key figure here is the one that Brennan invokes in the epigraph to his very first poem, “Letter home”: the French writer and thinker, Maurice Blanchot. In The Space of Literature, Blanchot argues that the beginning of the poem is not coterminous with its origin, is in fact a falling away from the origin — a process he characterizes as a “disaster.” Why? Because writing is always already a “non-experience,” in the sense that it is not the experience of the origin but rather only of its trace: “The origin is not the beginning: between the two there is an interval, and even an uncertainty.” For Blanchot there is a “space of literature,” a discourse that “does not speak, but is.” “The poet,” he says, “is someone who has heard the discourse, has become its interpreter and mediator and has reduced it to silence as he speaks it.” Every poem is a ruin of a poem because the poet cannot “make the pure speech of beginnings burst forth from that which is at the source.” There is an impossibility at work here, and poetry is an attestation to a source that functions as an “unformulated background” (in Iser’s terms) but which is an unattainable and unsayable negativity. Thus Brennan writes: “Begin with the unsayable if you are to make silence speak.”
Faced with this predicament, it is not surprising that many poets are attracted to the limits of experience, to the edge of the possible. This can also lead to a certain fascination with a via negativa, a path of negation that approaches the impossible as religious experience. In Brennan’s case, there is — it would appear — a fascination with negative theology, insofar as a religious vocabulary in some of the poems (the sequence “Excavation Series” in particular) suggests a probing of such limits. Here, for instance, is the poem “Salvage,” in which the divine is figured as negative, as a wounding:
Porous, a breathing membrane — I ask if we are
still bleeding some aspect of the divine. You laugh
divided by the play of light, a new moon the night
praises blackly. You scribble the words down:
the living are the wounds God cannot heal.
Or again, in “Tabula,” which begins with “God, existing here, as though landscape was enough,” and then modulates by way of a deep skepticism (and literally by way of a car trip) to the final lines:
Attraction of necessity draws us in, modulates
experience passing through circumstance.
Bodies rusting out there, back down the road,
a different sequence of events passed into extinction.
We gather the line of the road, a world taken in
the optic nerves’ smooth inversions.
Those “smooth inversions” of the optic nerve are a nice definition of Brennan’s poems themselves, as they startle and intrigue and even perhaps wound us — his readers — who travel by means of his negations to that limit we recognize as the horizon of poetry. It is the “imageless world” of negativity that has given us The Imageless World of Michael Brennan.
Paul Kane has published eight books, including two collections of poems and a critical study of Australian poetry. He is poetry editor of Antipodes (a North American journal of Australian studies) and artistic director of the Mildura Writers’ Festival in Australia. A recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the United States, he teaches at Vassar College in New York.
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