This piece is about 27 printed pages long.
It is copyright © Thomas Fink and Jacket magazine 2007.
Five contemporary American poets, three men and two women, have boldly utilized an unusual device: they have written poems entirely (or in two cases, almost entirely) composed of fragments and/or sentences readable as questions. The pioneering “question poet,” Ron Silliman, wrote his interrogative text in 1975-1976 and published it several years later, whereas the four other poets — Tom Beckett, Steve Benson, Brenda Iijima and Eileen Tabios — published theirs between 1997 and 2004. We will explore whether the opportunities and constraints of this format encourage particular kinds of thematic material and speculative activity and whether, in other respects, the poets have been able to develop significantly different effects with this odd resource.
In his 1985 interview with Tom Beckett for the Ron Silliman issue of The Difficulties, Silliman explains that in “Sunset Debris,” he intended “to explore the social contract between writer and reader.” The “relationship” involved in such “communication,” he asserts, much include a “dimension of . . .power,” and “the author gets to do the talking.” Although “the reader can shut the book,” s/he cannot respond, and “the process of consuming information is an act of submission. To have read these words is to have had these thoughts, which were not your own.” For Silliman, “the constant punctuation of the question mark” signifies the reader’s “inability to respond”; “rhythmically, . . . more of a full stop than a simple period, it hammers this point home within a long textual body, . . . that, being one continuous paragraph, is a solid wall of words.” “The effect,” he admits, “can be disturbing and felt as violent by some readers,” but that it only differs from most other texts in calling “attention to that dimension of its existence.”
Indeed, an aggressive tone seems to inhabit many of Silliman’s questions: “Must you always pop your knuckles, chew on pencils, get up and walk around?” (111); “Did you say please? Did you say thank you?” (112). Such passages answer the question, “When does a question become a command?” (111), with examples; the child is warned to cease the irritating behavior and to rectify the impolite omission. “Are you listening?” (110) demands attention, while “Aren’t you somebody?” (115) may insist that the hearer prove his/her status in a community (even if “aren’t” is more positive than “are” would be). On one page, there are brutal put-downs (“Do you want everyone to see what an asshole you are? Do you understand that you are simply jealous, selfish, and small?. . . . Don’t you know that everyone laughs at you?”); a possibly threatening effort at identifying (outing) an “other” followed by an obvious but disorienting pun (“Isn’t what you need a threat? Are you gay? Are you cheerful?”); a glaring refusal of welcome (“When will this writing be rid of you?”); a reinforcement of ill will in a left-handed compliment and an accusation showing insensitivity to the speaker’s own communication patterns (“Don’t you know how hard it is to belittle you? Don’t you know how paranoid you are?”); and bullying of a seemingly passive person (“What is your excuse for putting up with this bullshit?”) (135). Even a rare instance of self-loathing has a viscerally creepy effect: “Am I not simply a balding, bearded, fat, half-toothless, farting excuse for a poet?” (139).
Marjorie Perloff, citing Wittgenstein’s utterances on problems of verbal and syntactical ambiguity, follows the poet’s interpretation of “Sunset Debris,” when she asserts that the prose-poem forces the reader “into submission” by playing with his/her “expectations”: “Consider the pairs ‘Has the mail come? Have you come yet?’ or ‘Do you prefer ballpoints? Do you know which insect you most resemble?,’ where a neutral question suddenly gives way to a very personal and, in the second case, nasty one.” In her view, “Since the questions remain entirely uncontextualized, the ‘you’ continually shifting from self to lover to friend to reader — a reader who cannot know what language game is being played.”
The question, “Is this question specific to its context?” (127) humorously makes Perloff’s point. Without a way of finding out what “this context” is (much less the remote chance that this rangy poem of “new sentences” has one), “this question’s” “specificity” cannot be ascertained. If “How many ways can that question be taken?” (118) is asked of many sentences in the text, the answer will often be more than one. An ungovernable proliferation of contexts ensues, thanks to the idea that “terms” in signifying equations cannot be sufficiently stabilized: “Isn’t the problem of the question that it locates us, places us in a relation, some tangible formulation, to the text or the act of the text, as if to test meaning, to see if it will exist if we can thus somehow fix all of the other terms in our equation?” (140).
The interrogative form adds further difficulties to an inherent problem of communication built into how language works: “Doesn’t the very fact of a question indicate the distance between the words we use and their meaning?” (139). Wittgenstein’s analyses of “language games” come to mind, but so does Paul de Man’s deconstructive questioning of “an apparent symbiosis between a grammatical and a rhetorical structure, the. . . rhetorical question, in which the figure is conveyed directly by means of a synctactical device” (9).
When TV sitcom character Edith Bunker asks her husband Archie “whether he wants to have his bowling shoes laced over. . . or under,” his response, “What’s the difference?” is met with her (unwanted) literal explanation. De Man explains: “A perfectly clear synctactical paradigm (the question) engenders a sentence that has at least two meanings, of which the one asserts and the other denies its own illocutionary mode,” and “it is impossible to decide by grammatical or other linguistic devices which of the two meanings (that can be entirely incompatible) prevails” (10). Only further dialogue between Archie and Edith would clarify his intention. Archie could add “What makes you think this is a question?” (“Sunset Debris,” 127), to support his sarcastic rhetoric. In Silliman’s sentence, “When is this not an assertion?” (126), I take “this” as a synecdoche for any question; he asks “when” (whether) rhetorical (assertive) possibility can be removed so that it does not “contaminate” interrogative sincerity. De Man would hold contamination inevitable. When the poet asks, “In what way is every question a proposition? Is it simply one without a truth function?” (137), he suggests that he perceives propositional content within a question-form, which, taken literally, does not include a “truth-function.”
In a de Manian vein, Silliman writes: “Isn’t it true that what we know is that we won’t ever be able to pose the question correctly?” (140). Correctness would entail a way for a questioner to pose his/her utterance in a way that makes it inescapably either a literal or a rhetorical question. In a variation on the literal/rhetorical binary, when Silliman quotes from “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and cites the title of a novel made into a popular movie — “Do I dare to eat a peach?” (108); “They shoot horses, don’t they?” (123) — he illustrates that, even if questions are meant literally, many readers will take them as allusions, drained of sincere curiosity.
While what Silliman and Perloff call “Sunset Debris’” assault on the reader is augmented or intensified by the undecidability involving the literal/rhetorical binary, I built my earlier argument about the aggressive tone in many of Silliman’s sentences on an ability to read those questions as rhetorical on the basis of a prior awareness of typical patterns of communication in the modern U.S. (outside the realm of grammar and syntax). To take undecidability to its “logical” conclusion would be to find aggressiveness no more authoritative than a desire to learn through actual questions. Although Silliman’s says to Beckett that, stressing the “intensely intimate and erotic” aspect of “writing,” he filled “Sunset Debris” with “explicitly to draw parallels between writing/reading and unequal sexual power relations — “To write is to fuck. To read is to be fucked. There is a pleasure to be taken in each, but it is not the same” — must the sexual language reflect the writer’s desire to dominate the reader? And don’t theoretical works of the Language writers in the seventies — “Sunset Debris” was written in 1975-1976 — frequently demystify authorial dominance and the passivity of the reader? Let us look at some relevant questions:
Has the mail come? Have you come yet? (105). . . . Do you find black gays exotic? (107). . . . Did professional sex force her to alter emotions? . . . . How far can you take it in? (109). . . . Why, at this late point in her life, did bisexuality so suddenly pose itself as a question? (110). . . . Did you ever meet the woman whose dream was being balled on newly laid blacktop? Did you ever watch fist fuckers drive their arms in, to the elbow? (111). . . . Did you come? (114). . . . How can I know that what you feel is pain, orgasm, satisfaction?. . . . What does he mean by getting more ass than a toilet seat? (119). . . . Is there a more significant distance than that between the clit and the edge of the vagina? (126). . . . Would it be different, reversed, if I could imagine that you could get me pregnant? (140). . . . What does it mean to be inside you, with you?. . . . Did he come? Did you ever, as he came, just hold it, not swallow it, then lean forward to kiss him, letting his own come spill into his mouth, from one tongue onto another? Are we getting close? (145).
As opposed to the first sentence above, where “mail” evokes “male,” the second is generally read as expression of a male’s impatience and perhaps an implicit command for a woman to have an orgasm. However, the omission of “yet” in the sentence culled from page 114 might be read as a woman’s actual curiosity about a man’s climax, and it debunks the myth that women “feel” men’s orgasms within the vagina. Situated on the prose-poem’s last page, the third to last sentence, with the pronoun switched to “he,” is hard to contextualize. Since we do not know whether a man or woman asks the question and whether the addressee is male or female, and further, motivation for asking is unclear; perhaps “come” merely signifies to arrive at a location.
Various questions appear to be voyeuristic invasions of privacy posed by etiquette-free men (less likely, women) who desire to expand their repertoire of fantasy and dominate others by “plucking their mysteries.” A heterosexual man might want to “contain” the threat of a woman’s late-emerging “bisexuality,” of (what he considers) a prostitute’s emotional duplicity, or of “fist fuckers’” “outlaw” sexual activities. The most brazen aura of exploitation probably involves the woman with the “blacktop” fantasy, yet, if a sociologist is examining effects of “professional sex” work or a poet is expanding imaginative capacity through contact with experiences that are not or cannot be his/her own, is it fair to insist that s/he must be practicing Foucauldian surveillance to “discipline” the wayward? If a psychologist determines whether and why a client finds “black gays exotic,” it can be helpful. Conflicting contexts can be posited for one utterance — and this can be messier than de Man’s rhetorical/literal binary.
These sentences above are not necessarily “spoken” by an adult heterosexual male stand-in for Ron Silliman. (A child could be curious about the trope, “more ass than a toilet seat.”) The fourth question, which only marginally pivots on a trope for metaphysical speculation, could be of practical concern to a man wishing to engage in vaginal or anal intercourse and not a matter of idle curiosity, but the recipient (whether woman or man) might well read it as a prelude to a rough sexual assault, an unwanted invasion of space. Then again, a woman might desire to insert an object into someone’s orifice. The first question from page 119 involves pragmatic communication about sexual activity that implicitly recognizes potential for error in assuming that the speaker can correctly decipher the physical “text” of the “you” without asking for her/his own interpretation, and the utterance might be an articulation of respect for the other’s right to pleasure, not a bid for domination. The pregnancy “reversal” question from page 140 could engender a degree of feminist consciousness in a man, and the graphic penultimate question on page 145 might be a parable of a woman engaged in a submissive sex act redirecting the tropological gesture in a way that both enables the man to experience submission and both of them to reach a “conclusion” of mutuality.
Although Silliman and Perloff’s readings of the writer’s aggression vis-à-vis the reader are often easy to support and persuasive, they leave out moments in which questions can convincingly be read as a form of openness to the other, as a desire for non-coercive understanding, and even as empathy that questions the usual boundaries separating self and other: “How do I open this?” (109); “Is personal liberation possible without a social dimension?” (111); “When is you I?” (121); “Is not a good shit a true pleasure?” (123); “Isn’t the question of existence of time answered by the fact of irreversible processes?” (129); “Can you hear what you are thinking under what you are reading?” (145). A text does not have to be a dialogue denied, but can be a dialogue deferred — one that does not have to “dry up” or “explode,” to cite Langston Hughes. (In the Beckett interview, Silliman acknowledges that Michael Waltuch and Alan Davies have written texts that respond to many questions in the prose-poem.) Even a passage using the harsh verb “fuck” evinces the possibility that a common understanding of shared experience should be attempted: “In order to recognize you, don’t I need some concept a continuity, some thread of identity which does not break up, thus don’t I, don’t we all, suppress our recognition of constant change, the fact that even as we fuck, eyes open, bodies sliding slowly together and apart, we become different, are never, moment to moment, the same?” (131). The prose-poem itself is itself a collection of elements of “constant changes,” not so much the “debris” of the title. “Threads of identity” are considered, then slip away.
While Silliman has noted that “Sun Debris” is structured as a barrage of questions, Tom Beckett’s much shorter “One Hundred Questions,” first published in the 1997 chapbook Wagers of Synthesis and included nine years later in Unprotected Texts: Selected Poems 1978-2006, consists of one question per stanza, allowing a relaxed pace of reflection. In his interview with Crag Hill and me that ends Unprotected Texts, Beckett cites the poem as the result of his having “set a framework,” since “the title literally prefigured the work. Units of thought led to other units of thought through an associative logic of collage” (171). The opening sentence, “Is grammar syntax?” (91) asks whether a part (syntax) can be considered so important as to be equivalent to the whole (grammar). In other words, is the potential production of sentence structure, since it might be considered the major unit of speech and writing, what makes grammar relevant? Beckett’s interest in this question is linked to his overall speculation in the poem (and in a good deal of his work in general) about the relations of thought and language, which are also sometimes bound up with imagery:
Are you a person who thinks in frames?
Does anyone out there really like their plot?
Exactly how do thoughts signify? (91)
Is perspective everything or only one thing? (92)
Is thought a traffic light? (95)
“Frames” happens to be the title of an earlier Beckett poem which begins “‘When you name/ something/ you change it’” (69). The use of “you” can either “frame” the speaker’s curiosity about others or permit self-address. “Frames” suggest organized patterns of thought (contexts) or a cinematic mode of experiencing mental processes. The latter reading is reinforced by the word “plot” in the following sentence; “frame” is seen as involving small bits of narrative presented visually. Also, Beckett is exploiting the pun linking the eventual fate of burial with the “framing” of one’s life as narrative. Thinking as elucidation of causal relations within a context may either clash or accidentally coincide with the notion of thought as a primarily metonymic (not logical) succession. The co-presence of the two possibilities in the poet’s question may also reflect the problematically simultaneous pursuit of both approaches or a sense that each lacks what the other possesses. If one reads the noun “everything” as a trope for the full range of interpretation, which is nearly identical with “thinking,” the question on “perspective” restates the “frame” question more generally.
To derive questions from these questions: do random streams of “free association” or “automatic writing” constitute thinking? If so, do they include frames or perspectives? Doesn’t even highly associative thinking jump in and out of contexts and into other ones, albeit swiftly? One possible answer is that multiple perspectives are as close to “everything” as one can hope. And in the social sphere, conflicting perspectives produce a complex and sometimes dangerous multiplicity or a falsely unified front. Take Beckett’s response to my interview question about the sentence, “Is the President a hologram?” (93), in which he thinks of “poetry” as a kind of “intervention where all the varied technologies of perception meet in the form of something very much like a hologram. The President, bastard spawn of advertising, avails himself of versions of these same technologies” or “more accurately, . . . is the creature of these technologies, but torqued” (175). Thus, the version of the President that reaches the public has collected and “framed” various contexts in a way that resembles a hologram.
Turning to the question that asks whether “thought” is a regulation of “traffic” flow,” I find that it could either refer to a single thinker or the interaction of thinkers in general. In both cases, syntax manages pauses and movement and encourages equilibrium that reduces the chance of collision, and drivers (writers/speakers) are also guided by logical propositions and other structures conventionally or alternatively validated as constituting thought when they steer their “cars” (words). However, reducing “thought” to adherence to the “traffic lights” leaves out intangibles; one might follow proper syntax and logical forms yet give utterances that many would not count as thinking. Further, in the flow of cognitive “traffic” featuring different drivers, there will be sometimes be conflicts about what constitutes “traffic lights” of reason, logic, etc., whereas only extreme anarchists could deny the pragmatic validity of actual traffic lights.
While probing complexities of individual thinkers’ processes, Beckett is always interested in the social contexts of utterances. As in Silliman’s prose-poem, Beckett addresses the social problem of the discernment of rhetorical and actual questions. In the interview, Crag Hill notes that some “questions. . . answer themselves, twisting back into themselves” (174). Hill is echoing Beckett’s second question: “Do questions answer themselves?” (91), in which the fiction of personification — the piece of discourse as intending communication — allows the question to construct conditions for its own reception as a statement (rhetorical question). The fiction is viable to the extent that the reader accepts that conventions of language-use significantly influence possibilities for utterance of those struggling to convey intentions with words. And even though the poem’s third sentence — “In what sense can questions be said, or made, to constitute selves?” — may suggest, through passive verbs, that human decisions to utilize conventions are at stake in the effects of questions (rather than “magical” personification), it raises the possibility that interrogations of individual identity shape the parameters of response that come to stand as a subject’s linguistic representation. In “How is gender ascribed to inanimate objects?” (93), we are reminded that arbitrary features of linguistic conventions are used to constrain an understanding of animate beings. When Freud’s famous question “What does woman want?” is transformed by Beckett into “What do women want?” (92), the poet’s plural corrects the possible connotation that the “essence” or “nature” of all women are reducible to one, but he displays the recognition that men have tried to thwart women’s autonomy by seeking the foundation of their desire.
Even if the question “Who knows?” (93) is answered, “No one really knows,” an interpretation of a “self” produces social effects as one interacts with others and with institutions. When questions are rhetorical, they can have a (Foucauldian) disciplinary force more than they provide insight: “Is an admonition more akin to a bullet or a bulletin?” (93); “Are these questions admonitions?” (96). The poet acknowledges the force of admonitions and identity-formations external to the individual, but he keeps coming back to fundamental uncertainties that challenge such coercions. For example, what makes Beckett’s personifying sentence, “Do all questions presume all replies?” (94), so tantalizing is that the verb “presume” can be read either as an approved assertion in the form of anticipation or claim or as an extremely questionable or even false claim. It is hard to imagine the cognitive “space” from which a reader could conceive of all possible responses to a question on the basis of the ensemble of ambiguities within the question’s words, phrases, clauses, and their interactions, but can such a “presumption” be ruled out? Beckett’s most imagistic interrogation of how questions function is: “Are questions water, rocks or cloth?” (98). Surely, open-ended questions (of which the most absurdly extreme versions are “Do we. . .?” and “Can I. . .?” ) are “water,” whereas rhetorical ones have the effect of “rocks” in purveying certainty. Perhaps an ambiguous question is “cloth” that “covers” (up?) an issue but does not lead to illumination.
In “Sunset Debris,” Silliman includes the sentence, “Can I get permission?” (117), but he does not often dwell on the “one-down” position of a petitioner. Beckett, on the other hand, writes: “Am I allowed to ask this?”; “Who gave you the right?”; “Where do I get permission?” (92). Unlike Silliman’s speaker, who wonders whether a request can be granted, Beckett’s is pragmatically concerned with location of an authority flexible enough to give permission. Nevertheless, the bulk of the last two pages of Beckett’s poem, appears to refer to the politics of the AIDS crisis and display anxiety about political authority figures’ possible proscriptions:
Am I positive?
Have you been tested? . . . .
Who is Our Leader now?
When will they colonize me?
Can I begin faking a response?
Has the leak been found? (98)
Can we see it, that image of the cure?
It is safe to touch myself, isn’t it?
Who is the boy in the bubble?
Are we free to love?
Is this speech balloon a rubber? (99)
The fact that the first two questions above can refer to strength of character is ironic, as social conservatives in the eighties claimed that people with AIDS were being punished for moral deficiencies, while activists “positively” and courageously challenged the Reagan-Bush administrations’ lack of response to AIDS, homophobia, and the right’s puritanical view of sexuality. When a patient asked a doctor whether s/he has tested “positive” or otherwise contemplated the impingement of institutions on such issues, s/he feared severe illness/death and “colonization” by political forces exemplified by the Orwellian phrase, “Our Leader.” Thus, Beckett’s representation of the vulnerable subject wonders not only “how porous” human beings are in their susceptibility to contact with the virus but also how the discourse involving social desires for containment of AIDS might develop in the fashion of a “slippery slope” so that the freedom “to love” and many other rights, including freedom from discrimination, are endangered. The absurd question of whether masturbation is “safe” is a vivid example of the problem. In such a strained atmosphere, one may consider it necessary to give a “fake. . . response” when a truthful one would be “framed” to serve a bigoted, destructive agenda. This is intensified by the fact that “the leak” (the origin of AIDS) has not “been found” in the mid-nineties (or now). “That image of the cure” was and is extremely difficult to “see,” although the question beginning with “can” is progressive in its implication of possibility. If the speaker and his addressees are compared implicitly with “the boy in the bubble,” it is hard to say whether the unspecified “bubble” — a context formed by a constellation of interpretations of the AIDS crisis, perhaps — is a form of genuine protection or imprisoning isolation.
Playing off the “bubble” trope, Beckett’s remarkably evocative final question, if taken very literally, asks whether the framing device of the “speech balloon” in a cartoon strip “contains” words in such a way that either their ability to participate in “reproduction” or to spread “disease” (to other characters in the strip or to readers?) is thwarted. Does the “balloon” merely remind us that cartoon characters are not real speakers? Beckett uses the adjective “this,” which may liken the cartoon device to the material presence of each sentence in a poem of questions and its use as a “rubber” preventing transmission of the “disease” of illusory thinking (taking the fictional for the “real”). If the poem foregrounds its own fictional status, then it can also underscore the fictional component of authoritarian figures’ representations. Therefore, the question may express a longing: since the AIDS crisis and many other current problems are textually politicized in deeply reactionary ways, interrogative and critical discourse (or counter-discourse) should serve as an effective “speech balloon”/”rubber” to be placed around every problematic bit of speech and writing and thus to protect the vulnerable against coercive rhetoricity. On the other hand, condoms burst, and poets like Beckett continually face the worry that meta-language (which is not part of a species of words different from what it scrutinizes) may not be strong enough to protect its constituents against the duplicities and emotive effects of language used to make them less “free to love.” Further, a “speech balloon”/”rubber” can also be used by the other side to prevent the dissemination of liberatory words.
While “Sunset Debris” consists of forty pages of questions, Steve Benson’s ninth book,
Open Clothes (2005), contains seventy pages of interrogative poetry. The book begins with three poems composed of most declarative sentences, followed by eight (some in poetic lines and others in paragraphs) entirely in question form. “The words in the texts in this book,” he asserts in the “After Notes,” “are, with extremely rare exceptions, just the same words as were written or spoken in the acts of composition. . .” (127). Silliman, blogging on the differences between “Sunset Debris” and the question-poetry in Open Clothes, states that the former “is always, at all points, writing, . . . each sentence plotted out with an eye not only to internal construction but how its juxtaposition is going to enable the reader’s frame to evolve,” whereas “Benson’s improvisations are exercises in ongoing thinking, tentativeness, uncertainty and creative leaps that enable his questions–often longer and more winding than anything [Silliman] would come up with–to complete themselves. . . .”
In the long “Open Notebook,” which consists of 53 short, dated sections (ranging from “1/31/02” to “6-25-03”), there are various questions of subjectivity related to language, emotion, and cognition. Though often lengthier and less imagistic, these are not dissimilar from a number of Beckett’s questions, because Benson is either 1) trying to gauge his own processes; 2) “enter” another’s most intimate mental environment by eliciting precise responses; 3) do both at once; 4) use a rhetorical question to presume knowledge about himself and/or others. Here is “1-8-03, 1-11-03,” which questions negative judgments of affective responses to imaginary situations:
Is this in or out?
Why do people seem to think that having a physical
reaction to imaginary pain is strange?
Is emotional pain, is grieving, anger, imaginary?
Is feeling thinking?
Can a person not know what they are thinking?
Isn’t there a difference? Do emotions possess weight? (73)
Benson’s opening question interrogates intersubjective boundaries in the most abstract way, while the second, if read as a rhetorical gesture, implies that people should accept the imagination as a parallel reality to what happens to them in the phenomenal world, or, if read as an actual question, wonders what reason they have for their psychological judgment. Two questions later, the implication that “imaginary pain” refers to the mental invention of physical pain suddenly takes on a new significance: is the mental activity of image-making what produces all “emotional pain,” or is it even possible that “pain” is an illusion? On the other hand, twentieth century cognitive psychology’s link between “feeling” and “thinking” would complicate the equation(s), and perhaps “emotion,” possessing “weight,” is tied to one’s corporeality. Then again, “thinking” itself may be split between consciousness and the unconscious, “where” “a person” does “not know what they are thinking.”
Articulation of cognitive and sensory experience is not a given, but as in Beckett’s work, a problem; when the poet asks, “Can you empty your mind of thoughts?”, this is followed by “Please? Shall we look together? Shall we try to put it into words or not?” (“7/5/02,” 63). And sometimes, Benson seems to challenge the connection of thinking to the use of language: “Don’t words obscure the actual dynamics of the dialectic/ in realizing anything there is to know?” (“5/29/02, 60). The questions in “2/11/03,” typical of those to be found in other question-poems in Open Clothes like “Am I just listening to myself think” and “If you stop to listen to yourself think,” recast the problem of the relationship between language and knowledge in terms of intriguing meta-situations:
If you stop to listen
to yourself think,
can you think better?
What is the effect?
What do you have to say about that?
Is it a bother?
Have you heard it all before?
Does it happen in words?
Who did you get those words from?
Are you thinking of how,
in what way, or ways, you
are using them differently? (75)
In the critical thinking movement in U.S. education, many have assumed that thinking about one’s thinking improves the quality of the activity, even if it is “a bother” in disrupting the flow of thought, but Benson keeps the question(s) open. Further, just as Beckett asks “how. . . thoughts signify,” he does not assume that the thinking and re-thinking occur “in words.” If it does, however, he assumes that the “words” must have been “gotten” from somewhere. The development of new thinking must then be done by taking “old” language gotten from others and “using” the words “differently,” but the poet asks whether the thinker is self-conscious about such differentiation.
“Am I just listening to myself think” is typical of Benson’s question-poems in how it jumps around casually from one subject to another — except in the last page or so, during which the poet focuses intensely on the challenging relationship between “private” experience and individuals’ ability to engage in constructive political action. Beginning with a paradoxically violent and yet benevolent (or progressive?) fantasy, he turns to a possibly gigantic problem in the development of coalition building needed for significant social change:
Aren’t people being hideously tortured, abused, exploited, murdered, and stymied at every corner in specific places and wouldn’t you like to be able to bomb the hell out of the ones who are doing it to them without hurting the ones who are already being hurt? Is there such a great inequivalence between the experience of someone who is safe and faced with the challenges of balancing wants and needs and the experience of someone whose physical and psychological integrity is so repeatedly in jeopardy and occasionally violated to the point of trauma that communication between them is effectively impossible? Is it possible to get on the phone with someone in this kind of a fix and not waste their time? (44-45)
The poem is dated “12 29 2002,” after the Bush administration’s incursion into Afghanistan and during the debate leading up to the invasion of Iraq. During both the senior and junior Bush’s administrations, the buildup to war featured a vague assurance that the U.S. military could defeat the enemy without many unintended casualties, but, despite the heavily censored Gulf War media coverage, the term “friendly fire” became prominent. “Collateral damage” to the people and lands of Afghanistan and later, Iraq is too obvious to detail. Therefore, reading Benson’s question rhetorically can give rise to an actual question: Since conducting a war against an oppressive group is almost invariably so damaging to the non-combatant population and to the regional ecology, and since covert operations to remove a dictator no longer seem to work, is there any reasonable, efficient way to stop such oppression, or is the region essentially “doomed” for a protracted time without full-scale military intervention?
“Inequivalence” of perspective in the second question can shed implicit light about how those in countries with relatively good military security — including the U.S., even after 9/11 — might fail to grasp the kind of help that those in nations under siege actually desire. Of course, the former can ask, but those convinced that “bomb[ing] the hell out of” “evildoers” is a last or only resort might not even interpret the others’ response accurately. The second and third questions in the passage — on an interpersonal, inter-group, or global level — undercut presumptions of paternalism. In acts of “communication,” responsibility resides with the would-be helper to acknowledge the great difficulty, perhaps impossibility of understanding the victim’s needs. Possible withdrawal from helping is justifiable because the time of the one “in jeopardy” is considered precious, not that of the helper. The poet’s deliberate overturning of a typical sense of temporal value becomes obvious if we plug Bill Gates and a homeless person into the sentence’s equation.
In the last six questions of “Am I just listening to myself think,” Benson turns to the personal obstacles encountered by the helper that could jeopardize his/her positive efforts on behalf of others:
Is there any good reason not to, again, write to Washington, read the data, talk with friends and family about it, and get to work organizing? Is your heart a safe place? When do you listen to your fatigue and try to stop putting out so much energy? How do you know when to research and when to act out? What inner disturbance undermines that impulse to engage in social organization to correct injustice and cruelty? What makes private, intimate distress at humiliations suffered in an intimate relationship overwhelm pragmatically evaluated efforts to do the right thing? (45)
If one reads these questions rhetorically, steady political activism is posited as something like a categorical imperative; therefore, problems with interpersonal relationships, “fatigue,” and similar factors are distractions from one’s moral obligation. (The notion of whether one is temperamentally suited to constant political action or whether one can serve the common good in a less direct way becomes irrelevant.) If the individual’s interpretation of such difficulties results in a hiatus from activism, this marks not only an “inner disturbance” but an ethicopolitical flaw in the person.
But what if the questions are taken literally? The matter becomes more complicated. A “good reason” to delay “getting to work organizing” might be viewed as a sensible rationing of “energy” based on one’s current physical and/or emotional condition. The questions lead to other questions: Should the personal difficulties of, say, a middle class individual be respected and not considered mere self-indulgence compared with exigencies produced by political crises? Is it better to be a non-stop activist whose effectiveness is significantly impaired by “intimate distress,” etc., or should one “engage in social organization” intermittently — when the level of effectiveness is apt to be higher. And should the categorical imperative be modified to account for the reality of burn-out? Openness to negotiation between competing individual and collective concerns would probably involve the recognition that “your heart” is not necessarily “a safe place.” For Benson, ongoing political quietism is not an option, but in the closure of this prose-poem, the tug of war between a rhetorical and actual reading of questions is extremely useful in putting the problems of personal and ameliorative social organization in acute focus.
Silliman, Beckett, and Benson tend to use conventional syntax — including fragments with fairly predictable structure — in their question-poems, while Brenda Iijima in her long poem, “If Not Metamorphic?” uses a variety of choices in syntax to “interrogate” what it can be to ask a question. A number of her sentences that conclude with a question-mark otherwise appear to be declarative statements, and several sentences that have the syntax of questions end with a period.
Before examining how these innovative gestures question questioning, I would like to point out something that I cannot make manifest in quoting passages from Iijima’s poem: the boldface type of her words is superimposed on parts of various chapters of a “Solution Manual and Study Guide” for chemistry, and, in fact, the last two pages contain no words from the poem and the third-to-last only a few. This palimpsest (palimptextual) effect makes the lines a little more difficult to read, but more importantly, the reader is always aware of this doubleness, and thus, the question of “why?” is superimposed upon this poem of questions. While very few of the poem’s sentences refer to chemistry, perhaps the visual metonymy is telling us that both top and bottom could not be other than sites of the “metamorphic.” (I am reading the poem’s title rhetorically.) Words possess a chemistry that permits a flux of (re)combinations and splittings, and chemistry’s peregrinations can be made to assume a language or languages: “Is this the message?/ These reactions are analogous/ To those of carbonyl/ Compounds to a great extent,/ As you can see from a list/ On the next page — that page wasn’t/ Missing, was it” (unpaginated). Indeed, the actual page of the manual could be missing from the poet’s text. In this reader’s case, the “page. . ./ Missing” is a working knowledge of chemistry; I could be missing quite a few more specific connections, just as a chemist not versed in contemporary American experimental poetry could well find the opacity on top, not on the bottom, as in the opening lines:
The deep sea? A deluge?
The ever-present dancing machines
Threatened to kill you?
Designed by whom Designed by whom
Departure it seems, doesn’t it
By the roadside?
Threaten to kill you?
Designed by whom
Departure it seems
A soft, green, beautiful mountain?
The strangling, like anger?
One nude war? Kelp?
Illusionary? Encloses the neck?
A snake was circling?
Made virtual by design?
Threatened to kill — design
Threatened to kill?
Note that, as in earlier literary periods, each line of poetry begins with a capital letter, and so, despite the modern spacing of words in lines and the lack of left-justification, enjambment plays the clause- or sentence-unit against the emphasis on individual words. These effects join the fractured syntax to increase a sense of defamiliarization.
The simplicity of the opening fragment — stripping away subject, auxiliary verb, and both direct and indirect object — focuses as generally as possible on whether an utterance has occurred. In a Derridean sense, writing is “chasing” speech. However, the brevity of the next three fragments suggests that perhaps some or all of these units could be linked, as though part of the same sentence. For example, has “the deep sea” articulated its “anticipation” of “a deluge” that would increase its voume? (And this presumes that we take “the deep sea” literally, when it could be a trope for humanity or the social environment.) Or has someone made a statement about the sea or about a flooding or an expectation of particular maritime conditions? There is no opportunity afterward in the poem to determine what has been “said” or what “metamorphic” event has been described.
The fifth fragment could be a complete sentence in question-form if Iijima merely added “Do” or “Did.” This slightly more economical phrasing, however, also calls attention to the fact that, if the question-mark had been a period, the words as they stand would have been a declarative sentence. One can adopt the double perspective of a statement/question positing that and asking whether “the machines” behave like violent entities. A larger uncertainty (as in the case of “the deep sea”) is identification of the plural noun. If we do not assume that the successive fragments can be joined into a larger unit of meaning, then the “machines” could metaphorically convey the physical effects caused by elements like wind interacting with the actual sea, or could signify actual industrial machines, computers, weapons of mass destruction, military institutions, or the outsized ids of human beings who make war.
No protocol of reading ensures that references in separate questions must be joined within a single context. However, the reiterated question about whether something or someone has “threatened” or currently threatens “to kill” a “you” or, toward the end of the passage, an unspecified object (as though the “you” lacks significance in itself but happens to be an accessible target, among others) makes good sense if “the machines” are the subject, and the last three referents I mentioned fit well. The repeated matter of who “designed” them indicates human inventors, unless one suspects the invocation of a major spiritual force — perhaps, almost literally, a deus ex machine.
The lines, “Designed by whom Designed by whom/ Terrarium,” seem to comprise one fragment: we may read the concluding noun as though it were the subject of the passive verb, [was] “designed,” that precedes it, or as a possible answer to the question. If the former, then focus on the “terrarium” may displace that on the “machines,” or these two signifiers are fundamentally one, united by an implicit trope. If the latter, such a response to the question is baffling if taken literally, but it may suggest through metonymy that the paradigm of the regulation of nature serves as the design for (in this case, destructive) technology. Indeed, the fragment’s last word can be said to play on “terror” and “terrorism,” sullying the original Latinate association with Mother Earth.
The next two lines seem closest to conversational syntax. The “sentence” begins with a structurally inverted assertion, and then a verb-subject inversion turns it into a rhetorical, if not quite an actual question, followed by the specifying phrase that includes the suggestive noun “roadside.” Is “departure” an innovation in design, a violent death, or a more general, symbolic point of transformation? In the news, we hear of terrorists’ “roadside bombs,” and “roadside” also recalls “crossroads,” where Oedipus blindly kills his father, and where, in African and African-American cultural symbolism, the direction of individual fate is often decided. Several lines later, the spiritually loaded word “mountain” — garnished with appealing adjectives — “seems” subject to ominous “departure,” or at least harm, along with the “you.” Although this interpretation is supported on the next page with the line, “Threatening a soft, beautiful mountain?”, a mountain, however “soft,” could be a site of danger for “threatened” people.
Toward the end of this opening passage, various references to physical violence are embedded in questions. Harking back to “the deep sea?” at the beginning, even “kelp?” (evoking “help!”) can be seen as an instrument for “strangling” like the “circling” “snake.” As it turns out, at various points, images of “kelp,” especially “rotten kelp,” resurface, and midway through the text, in one of its longest questions, “the deep sea” is not merely a precious environment to be protected from human exploitation but a battlefield involving natural not social Darwinism: “Rotten kelp dripping of/ Sea water, the sea/Urchins, their black/ Spikes, drooping octopi,/ The cunning sharks,/ Black purple ink of the/ Squid — kelp encircling/ Your neck?”
The first direct reference to war, “One nude war?”, soon followed by words like “country” (“In the greatest country?”) and “state,” stands in contrast to “Made virtual by design?” If some aspects of war are grossly direct and obvious, the “design” of media in collusion with governments can create simulacra with distancing effects that “make” the nudity disappear. The suggestions, gaps, and reiterations in Iijima’s fragmentary — sometimes egregiously chopped up — questions haunt such scenes of deception:
You did that? War?
Thwarting the mind?
State (said what?)
Of the heart?
State? . . . .
Virtual, like anger?
Whittled down, like time?
In this country? By whom
Whittled down? Was the paper?
Encasement? The country?
Disturbs your head? Disturbing your
Departure at window? To that country?
Was a bluish and deep sea?
The fragmentary question, “Was a/ Death’s head?” exemplifies how Iijima’s “whittling down” of interrogative syntax permits differing emphases: if, wanting to complete the sentence, one adds the verb “ found,” the sense of discovery differs from the effect of identification produced by the placement of the subject “it” or “there” after the verb. The “death’s/ head” echoes prior references to people’s thinking processes, which, along with emotional responses (“State . . . / Of the heart”), are “disturbed,” “thwarted,” and “encased” by the state’s representatives and their allies, who want to “whittle down” resistance to war. (By making this assertion, I take the poet’s questions as rhetorical.) An instance of Iijima’s fertile wordplay poses the problem of manipulated public opinion in different imagistic terms: “A flailing opinion, pared/ Down/ In the mode of an onion?”
When the poem was published in 2004, the Bush administration was already having difficulty containing a substantial sector of the public’s resistance to the continuing Iraq conflict. In one especially dense, collage-like passage, Iijima repeats the word “history” many times and brings together what seems a plaint against the recurrent emergence of military domination and the countering promise of “love”:
In the greatest history? I (they were/are)
Was that delicate (beaten) bird
(Population) beaten to a history (By a
Dominant culture) bruised by the
Floodlights of inspection the belligerent
Rank and file of monstrous power as in
This example a mere dwelling didn’t you
Walk with me Didn’t you embrace me
With all of your compassion and what
Follows such expression Was evidently
Longing? Didn’t the history overwhelm
The uranium? The rumpled stump and
Sports for limps? The shackles? Again, by
History? In the greatest history, are there
Not players floodlights gushing over the
Sports field there are no more players
Who is tangent to whom. And when. In
The field? If I were you? In a history? If
You were the occupied? Contracts?
Billions trillions? More than life? More
Than living? As in living? Have any effect?
Mention of “the greatest history” may involve either a questioning of American exceptionalism, a major political theme in the current decade, as it was in the Vietnam era, or a sense of how “dominant culture[s]” have repeatedly “beaten” (down) “delicate” “others and have prevented them from articulating their own history — “beaten [them] to” the telling. (Note how Iijima both uses a representative “I” and makes sure via parentheses that the reader understands how many are being represented. The two readings, of course, echo trends in the discipline of history and various other areas of the humanities in this country in the last three or four decades to write history from the perspectives of the oppressed and exploited, rather than the victors.
On the one hand, “the belligerent rank and file” (supporters and beneficiaries) “of monstrous power” have “bruised” the “delicate. . . bird[s]” with “floodlights” of surveillance and intimidation, but syntactical ambiguity allows us to perceive the “birds” as turning the “inspection” back on the accomplices of the dominant order. After inserting the question honoring someone’s “embrace” and their “compassion” as a sharp interruption of the thinking about “monstrous power,” various questions challenge the legitimacy of that power. For example, when “floodlights of inspection” morph into “floodlights gushing over the/ Sports field,” the poet seems to question whether tropes of athletic competition are a helpful way of characterizing “history.” One obvious question with a period and not a question-mark, “Who is tangent to whom,” interrogates hierarchy, as does an attempt to ask those in the dominant camp think about what it would be like if they “were the occupied.” And, taken together, the three fragments, “Contracts?/ Billions trillions? More than life?”, may succinctly question how multinational corporate capitalist praxis makes a narrow sense of profit an infinitely higher priority than the “life” and “living” of the world’s poor.
Utilizing a prophetic tone, the end of “If Not Metamorphic?” asks whether an empathic creativity based on the imperative of inclusive community or “a fossilized will” leading to apocalyptic consequences will prevail:
You opt for the metamorphic?
A fossilized will?
A sort of chipped permanence?
As I become you?
You who are
The great swan?
Past equatorial lines?
Once and for all?
Whether or not one “opts” for change, “the metamorphic” is a given in the natural and social worlds, but I think that Iijima’s implied binary oppositions in this final passage suggest that the attitude that certain forms of “permanence,” however “chipped” by real events, are desirable is a denial of change that can bring on “death” rather than a “eureka” that finally transcends the “lines” of geopolitical divisiveness and respects both individuality (“One”) “and” the common good (“for/ All”).
My briefest example of the poetry of questions is taken from the work of Eileen R. Tabios. In the three-paragraph prose-poem “Enheduanna 1,” the first of 19 prose-poems in the series, “Enheduanna In The 21st Century” (2004), followed by a final section in verse, Tabios includes eight questions and four sentences or fragments ending with periods. However, two of the “statements” are extremely short, and the questions occupy the great verbal bulk of the text. In a prefatory note, the poet explains:
Enheduanna (born ca. 2300 BCE) is considered the world’s first recorded poet for seeing her work preserved on cuneiform tablets. A moon princess and daughter of the King of Sumeria, Enheduanna frequently wrote to the Sumerian goddess of love, Innanna (or Ishtar), a deity who then would descend to earth in response to her calls. But, once, Innanna deserted Enheduanna, causing Enheduanna to move to a leper colony to mourn. I wrote this series. . . to explore the sensibility underlying that period of Enheduanna’s anguish: desire. (13)
Ron Silliman speaks of the writer’s power in asking a reader a question that s/he cannot answer. Tabios’s prose-poem, however, features a speaker who yearns for an answer; she is emotionally entrapped by the limitations of apostrophe. In the prose-poem’s opening paragraph, Enheduanna asks questions fortified by assertion in order to seek compensation for her anguish (powerlessness) in the absence of the beloved through an (imagined) reply. She gives no evidence that the two have already met or that she can assign an accurate name, face, and other data to him; “he” might be a construct of her longing or, as she believes or wants herself and others to believe, the actual subject of her mystically accurate “anticipation.” Therefore, the beloved addressee is not within listening range of the speaker, may not even exist, and, thus, may not ever be able to answer the prose-poem.
“Are you thinking of me?” is a question that many lovers want to know about a beloved in absentia. However, if the addressee has never met Enheduanna, this is not a reasonable expectation, and yet the poetic conjure woman desires a reciprocal effort in response to her miracle:
And are you thinking of me while you pace the streets of a city whose sidewalks have memorized the atonal rhythms of my footsteps? Surely you have walked through the spaces I have hollowed out from air and left behind in anticipation of you. Through the years I have lightened the forlorn dimness of many alleys by leaving behind single-stemmed roses–has your shoulder been tapped by their perfume? Has my scent threaded itself yet through the circles wind-drawn with the ink of your curly hair? Once, we stood unknowingly in the same room of this city with numerous rooms — have you entered its space again without knowing (until now) why you always look at each face? (16)
Like the distribution of “single-stemmed roses” in Enheduanna’s third sentence, the personification of the “sidewalks” in her first does not so much assert the ability of solid concrete to “remember” anything as it declares her presence’s power to influence an environment. The speaker insists upon the truth of her prophecy of her own erotic encounter to come and upon her ability to create a foreshadowing of their eventual meeting for the beloved through the metonymy of her prior occupation of a space that the latter enters. Her questions seek a “yes”; they trumpet the questioner’s miraculous ability to induce a kind of telepathy or counter-anticipation in the beloved in the “now.” However, Enheduanna’s stance of mastery is vulnerable to the contradiction between her claim that the two of them were present “in the same room of this city” and the fact that neither knew of the other’s presence at the time. She can only learn about their mutual appearance either through another person or a picture or text, not through her own spiritual power. Her final question presumes to know that, if he has been in the room again, he “always look[s] at each face” to find her, but why should we trust this “telepathic” awareness when she has revealed her prior non-omniscience? Even if her questioning is not exactly rhetorical, it is fundamentally an articulation of her desire for the realization of her fantasy about the union of the other and her self, rather than curiosity or what I have called a manifestation of openness to the other. Silliman turns out to be right because the man’s inability to answer gives the speaker power.
The second paragraph becomes more blatantly erotic:
There, now. When you turn this corner and feel Baudelaire’s “infinite expanse” at the sight of a sky thinned by two parallel skyscrapers, do you think of me latching a star on a gold chain so that its shimmer will lower your eyes to my breasts? (16)
The text’s second non-question, “There, now,” would be a clichéd command for the beloved not to be agitated about the sizzling details — if the italics and comma were missing. Instead, Enheduanna’s power of suggestion or imaginative (re)construction “now” commands him to re-experience the feeling of being in that room, though newly aware of her presence “there.” And again, the long question is an expression of her fantasy and an imposition of it on the beloved. The question is part of her seduction itself.
The man in this 2004 text is situated in pre-9/11 New York City. The reader’s awareness that the “two parallel skyscrapers” are violently gone from the cityscape signals geopolitical actualities surrounding Enheduanna’s amorous drama. This displaces the feeling of “Baudelaire’s ‘infinite expanse’” with a sense of the finite, of collective mortality, of spatial and psychic limitation. Tracing the pre-history of the relationship moving inexorably to its consummation, the speaker’s tone throughout much of the text suggests that she would imbue it with transcendent consequence and with a kind of permanence, but an allusion to world historical forces jostles this.
From a reader’s perspective, even if there is an initial “willing suspension of disbelief,” Enheduanna inadvertently shows that her prophecies are untrustworthy as she exposes limitations of her prophetic powers. This is especially true of Tabios’ final paragraph:
In this city replete with paintings who have witnessed us both fail repeatedly to see each other, are you thinking of me while you and I have yet to know you and I? And when we finally meet, will you see me as familiar? Of course you will. And not just for mirroring the color of each other’s eyes. When we finally meet, why will you see me as familiar? (16)
While in the first paragraph, the “sidewalk” personification had served to demonstrate Enheduanna’s power, “paintings” (the personification enhanced by “who”) now help her indicate past failures of mutual recognition — especially perhaps in art museums and galleries. (How does she know that he frequents them?) “Witnesses” “who” in reality have the purpose of being seen and cannot witness “observe” a “blindness” on both their parts; compensation is supposed to arise magically from the speaker’s article of faith or retrospective intuition that she and the beloved have “repeatedly” been in close proximity and that this is significant in light of the belief that they will “finally meet.”
If Enheduanna’s major tenet is that a love that has been blind to itself, rather than simply blind, will be transformed into “knowledge” of “you and I,” she also makes a tacit admission that she (included in the first “you and I”) has “yet to know you and I.” Her prophetic powers do not include the ability to pre-experience what their actual process of constituting a “you and I” will be like, yet she makes her next question about his first impression after meeting her a rhetorical one, as if her “familiarity” to him is inevitable, and not just because of the narcissistic mirroring aspect of falling in love. Since contradiction and lack of proof trouble this passage, it seems more fruitful — as I did before — to read both the questions and assertions as articulations of desire rather than interrogations. Enheduanna wants him to “see [her] as familiar,” because she has exerted so much effort for such a long time to create conditions for the relationship to flourish, and her last question “requires” an answer that honors her effort.
Nevertheless, there is another possibility, one that suggests movement outside the speaker’s attempt to control the entire drama. Even if we suppose that most of the speaker’s earlier questions have been representations of relatively ego-centered desires in interrogative form, the “of course” response to her penultimate rhetorical question may reflect her belief (rather than hope) that familiarity is a precondition for erotic attachment. And the final sentence, then, could be classified as the text’s first question reflecting a wish for an answer that is not anticipated by the questioner. Thus, although she is focusing, still, on his responsiveness to her, openness to the psyche of the other is present at least in seeking what she does not know about how his past experiences shape that reaction.
One might read Tabios’ entire prose-poem as the construction of a fantasized conversation between the fictional Enheduanna and a beloved that she has totally imagined, but I think that examining the interplay between illustrations of plausible opportunities for actual communication and levels of fantasy elaboration offers a more useful way of thinking about how language performs and is performed than merely unpeeling one layer of fiction after another. The two irreconcilable readings of the text’s concluding sentences efficiently dramatize how questions may function in poetry’s mapping of the pursuit and management of human relationships. The fortress of emergent “love” that Enheduanna builds throughout the text — a strategy of consistency differing markedly from the disjunctive and recursive sprawl of the work of the four other poets I have examined — may prove alternately secure or shaky to her and to the reader, but at the end, the speaker either intends to strengthen the fortress through a question whose rhetoricity points back to assertions in the long first paragraph, or she opens the main gate, if only slightly, in recognition that risk may lead to some fulfillment.
Stylistic differences among the five question-poets are obvious. Iijima’s short bursts of fragmentary syntax create an intensely choppy effect, often stressing blockages of articulation countered by recurrent motifs, and this is far from the parts of Benson’s texts in which relatively long sentences with various qualifying clauses promote either a relaxed, friendly atmosphere or an elaborately and obsessively reflective one. The separation between each of Beckett’s relatively short or medium-sized questions not only makes his poem’s pace unlike Silliman’s “barrage” but, in pointing structurally to the “leaps” between sentences as much as possible continuities, it differs from Benson’s conversational flow.
In some respects, the rhetorical/actual binary may be fundamental to what is generated thematically and linguistically when poets steadily utilize the interrogative, and in other respects, it may not. To put the negative first, one can try to exercise the will to power over another or others either by commanding (pseudo politely) the audience’s assent (rhetorical) or by gathering information that contributes to the ability to exert control over the object of study. However, the desire to camouflage doubt and present a pretense of confidence, or to seek reassurance from the listener/reader, or to communicate hostility to a foe or enemy group is served only by pointing strongly to one answer in question-form. An actual question allows for various answers, some of which may increase the interrogator’s doubt and insecurity; the lack of implied statement does not presume a condemnation of the addressee.
Even if a speaker wishes to promote implementation of democratic ideas, doing so by challenging coercive authority requires a rhetorical question, whereas clarification of problematic social and/or philosophical and/or psychological issues and contexts calls for a literal question implying either an interior monological Socratic method or dialogue. In other words, analysis from a critical understanding and temporary uncertainty can serve democratic goals. On the other hand, one can only posit uncertainty through a rhetorical question; this uncertainty is deemed a form of knowledge superior to false certainties, whereas one asking a literal question possesses a lack of knowledge that someone else’s answer could actually end. Finally, to practice openness to the other’s self-representation as an ethical imperative or as a strong emotional impulse demands an actual, not a rhetorical question.
As exemplified by our five practitioners, the poetry of questions discloses the importance of the rhetorical/actual binary in various cases and lack of significance in others, while it also discloses a spectrum of possible intentions that influence choices of these forms. The range of diverse intentions, even on the same page, animates the collage-effects of Silliman and Benson in particular, while in one of my two readings of Tabios’ closure, the powerful shift from one mode/aim is felt. Since Beckett keeps thematizing how slippery context is, his poem emphasizes the related problems of questions that could either be read as rhetorical or literal and ones that seem traceable to two or more different intentions. Iijima’s use of periods for seemingly actual questions and question-marks for rhetorical ones parodies and provides a witty code for a way out of de Man’s interpretive impasse regarding this binary, and her innovative fragmentation of syntax spurs us to interrogate what kinds of combinations of words can produce rhetorical and actual questions and, therefore, can convey specific intentions.
Beckett, Tom. Excerpt from “Interview with Ron Silliman.” “Ron Silliman Issue.” The Difficulties. 1985. Republished on the web:
———. Unprotected Texts. St. Helena, CA: Meritage P, 2006.
———. “(Interview). Thomas Fink and Crag Hill. Unprotected Texts. St. Helena, CA: Meritage P, 2006. 163-179.
Benson, Steve. Open Clothes. Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2005.
Iijima, Brenda. If Not Metamorphic? Brooklyn, NY: Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2004. [The poem, originally published in chapbook form, will be republished in a book by Iijima of the same name by Ahsahta Press in the near future.]
Man, Paul de. Allegories of Reading. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1979.
Perloff, Marjorie. Excerpt from Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Republished on the web:
Silliman, Ron. The Age of Huts (compleat). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
———. Silliman’s Blog. 18 Sept. 2006.
Tabios, Eileen R. Menage À Trois with the 21st Century. Espoo, Finland: xPress(ed), 2004.
Thomas Fink has authored four books of poetry, including No Appointment Necessary (Moria Poetry, 2006) and two books of criticism, including A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth-Century U.S. Poetry (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001). With Joseph Lease, he co-edited Burning Interiors: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2007). His poem, ‘Yinglish Strophes IX’ was selected for The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s) by Heather McHugh and David Lehman. Fink’s paintings hang in various collections.
The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/34/fink-questions.shtml