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Caroline Dubois. «You Are the Business». Trans. Cole Swensen. Burning Deck, 2008, 104 pages, offset, smyth-sewn ISBN 978–1-886224–86-5, paperback $14
Jennifer Martenson. «Unsound». Burning Deck, 2010, 64 pages, offset, smyth-sewn, ISBN13: 978–1-936194–01-8, paperback $14.
Reviewed by Michael Tod Edgerton
Thanks to the seemingly tireless efforts of the press’ proprietors, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, (along with Alison Bundy, more recently) for nearly half a century Burning Deck has been a home to some of the most intelligent, formally engaged, innovative, and just straight-up exciting poetry being written in this country. Its titles include such important early career books as Lisa Jarnot’s Some Kind of Mission, Peter Gizzi’s Artifical Heart, and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Heat Bird. To this impressive list the Waldrops have now added Jennifer Martenson’s Unsound, a debut that proves itself worthy of such illustrious company. Burning Deck has also done more than its share of the much-neglected work in America of publishing translations of our foreign contemporaries. The twentieth volume in Série d’Ecriture brings us Cole Swenson’s dexterous translation of Caroline Dubois’s book of prose poems, C’est toi le business (“You Are the Business”). Both of these books deal with themes of cultural visibility and viability, particularly as they pertain to issues of gender and sexuality, while launching their investigations in poetry that exhibit the kind of provocative and productive relation of form and content (and disregard for any hard and fast distinction between them) which is characteristic of the Burning Deck aesthetic of formal experimentation.
The general “business” of C’est toi is precisely the “you” addressed in its title. It is concerned with the nature of subjectivity, with social relations and cultural lineage, the narratives and power structures which precede us and condition our individual and group identities, and with the possibility of changing these. “I wonder what the difference is between what you catch and what you create and what it turns into and where” (7), begins the book’s first sequence, “talala.” Is there a difference between what we inherit, the cultural norms and presumptions we “catch,” like a virus, and anything that we might create with them, from art to the possibilities available to us for conceiving of our lives, of what counts as a “life,” as the “human”? Is there a way to work through and against this received framework and to generate something that does not reproduce its power structures, or that reproduce them differently, so as to open a new way of thinking and living? Dubois’s play with the pliability of language and how it operates certainly sets out to try. “I like to repeat the same thing several times mine those that come out of the mouths of others [… ] out of my own because the same things by means of this process are no longer the same things at all” (37). In the tradition of Stein, Joyce and Beckett, her ludic repetitions and syntactical mutations force language to make sense according to different rules, force the reader to inhabit the language in a modified way, and to break down the power relations that are built into syntax itself, much as with American Language poets like Leslie Scalapino and Barrett Watten.
This first sequence queries creative and procreative lineages alike, cultural and genealogical, wondering if “those you catch come from your brother’s brother’s father’s sister’s husband’s brother’s father’s brother’s mother’s sister’s brother’s father’s father” (8). This humorous catalog is both delightful and bewildering, leaving the reader’s head spinning as s/he tries to chart the branchings of what in the end is a patronymic and patriarchal line of descent, finding as it does its origins in the “brother’s father’s father” and in those relations between men. “But maybe,” the speaker proposes, “also out of a brother’s father’s mother’s sister we create” (8). Maybe we create also from a feminine legacy (and each is here in-mixed with the other, “father’s mother’s sister,” avoiding the reductive violence of a simplistic either/or binary) — “but what and what does it turn into oh la la” (8). How can we transform, inhabit differently, the dominant fictions and power relations of our culture? This is the major question of the book.
Starting from the basic Hegelian precept that otherness lies at the heart of the self as its structuring principle, Dubois directly addresses the problematic of how the immense and variegated terrain of specifically feminine subjectivity is darkened by the projections of patriarchal cultural fantasies. She explores these issues through one of our culture’s primary repositories of fantasy, the movie. Dubois’s is an ekphrastic project, and each of its seven sequences “catches” on such films as Mouchette, Blade Runner, Miracle Worker, and the original Cat People. But its primary focus is not on the cinematic image, but on how visual images, cultural narratives, and linguistic structures collude in the construction and constriction of our identities.
The first sequence takes up the character of Rachel in Blade Runner, for instance, whose thoughts may or may not be her own: does she possess any agency or humanity, or is she simply a programmed simulacrum? This question gets to the issue of human identity in general, and feminine identity in particular. In “we kiss in America,” Dubois revisits the male anxieties about female sexuality in Cat People. “It is said that even today their daughters or the daughters of their daughters sometimes revert to their wildness and that they do this when their instincts are aroused” (20). We can recognize immediately the psychoanalytic notion of the split subject, one of the “civilized” ego and the other of the “wild” unconscious drive. “My sister in two parts lives in a world whose two parts split her in two” (29). In Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, specifically, the subject is split by dint of the alienation of language, which cuts us off from the “state of nature” or “the real” and leaves us in a world awash in representation. We could easily read the world’s two parts, then, as representation and the real, conscious and unconscious, ego and id.
Such investigations and interventions of and through language as we find in this poem and throughout the book often invoke a figure of the maternal in tandem with the question of identity: “I wonder what the difference is between what you catch and what you create and what it turns into and where. What it turns into I wonder — mamma oh la la mamma I wonder what it turns into what into what” (7). Such nonsensical utterances as “oh la la,” “talala,” and “Mmm” recur throughout, often, as here, in combination with the “mamma” which repeats in the manner of baby-talk in a number of places and underscore the materiality and aural qualities of speech. This language takes us back to the primal scene of signification, where as infants we are witnesses to the strange sounds the adults volley around among themselves, and with which they so often shower our own small bodies. In this pre-individuated state, we are on the cusp of beginning to associate certain sounds with specific things: mamma, dadda, etc. Dubois highlights this elemental aspect of language, gives us sound on the verge of opening into sense, not only to underscore its contingent nature, but to allow the id-infant wildness at its foundation to shake it up a bit and transform it, to catch on language slightly differently, to catch something different on it this time, something the current network of hetero-patriarchal power relations cannot easily or fully reappropriate. Dubois herein reclaims the non-rational, material and gestural nature of language that is at the heart of the poetic and uses it to disrupt the normalizing mechanisms of rational prose and received ideologies, specifically of gender.
This split is also the split of sexual difference. “When I say I’m named Simone Simon I don’t know if it’s for the thrill of not deciding it swings between two times the same but for the e that makes what difference” (89). What difference does the letter e, added to Simon to create Simone, make? Is the feminine a mere adjunct to the masculine, is a single rib or letter or organ lost or added to make this difference, or can women have their own identities? Querying what is and isn’t hers, her “so mine,” the speaker of “Simone Simon” worries that “in my e the sight the voice of Simon… twist me into Simon girl-version // and e like a girl-version addition the emptiness… ” (83). She poses the question of sexual difference because, as Luce Irigaray and many other feminist thinkers have made clear, in a patriarchal culture, femininity is constructed as a mere add-on or inversion of masculinity, and feminine subjects are thereby left emptied of any identity of their own, a mere “girl-version” of the male. What is this small addition of an “e” which makes all the difference? As she announces at the start of this poem, “e jars the ensemble a little it glitches it’s the play in the system that thwarts the symmetric” (77). Symmetry, in Irigaray, is precisely the masculinist narcissistic dream of complimentarity, wherein the feminine is the empty mirror reflecting back in inverted form the image of the masculine, giving an illusion of two complimentary, mutually beneficial sides and a complete yin-yang whole which is in fact completely imbalanced in favor of the masculine side.
This concern with gender, subjectivity, and the destabilization of the established linguistic and cultural system pervades almost every aspect of the book. In “touch there touch,” a poem that uses the narrative of The Miracle Worker, Dubois’s speaker takes on the identity of Patty Duke taking on the identity of Helen Keller in a complex movement that dizzily redoubles the already twice doubled “sister in two parts who lives in a world in two parts” (20). As with the “mamma oh la la” utterances throughout, the poem’s narrative references a pre- or proto-subjectival state, one on the cusp of language, where the tactile and gestural still hold primary sway. “As Patty I have hands in place of eyes and ears a mouth but it can’t talk a head with no memory — and the things that come to me are always already there so close that I can touch them and then they’re gone just like that with no warning” (64). No speech and no memory, Helen essentially is an infant, arrested in a state of pure sensation with little or none of the differentiation, intelligibility, and identity (of things and of oneself) which language cum naming brings to the world. In psychoanalytic terms, she has not separated fully from the maternal body, but still exists less as an human individual than as an extension of the mother. Indeed, the whole world is reduced to the maternal body, which expands to encompass anything that might escape its parameters. “And if for me the whole world takes on the shape of mamma when mamma leaves — mamma which is to say all mamma all her it’s the whole world that goes away with her… ” (65).
The Helen Keller narrative of “touch me touch” centers on one woman helping another acquire a means of communicating with others and thereby accede to full subjectivity, to leave her half-life of extreme isolation and become a person among people, embedded fully in social relations — to “see” the world and “be seen” in it, recognized as a human subject. She does this through touch, teaching her the alphabet by writing letters with her finger on Helen’s hand, bringing her into language and showing her that the “luminous track left by words means that the things — you’ll see can be kept in your mind” (71).
Touch grappling blindly for sense and sensation, the tensions between visibility and invisibility — being seen and being erased — and the world-making power of language are also central to Jennifer Martenson’s debut collection, Unsound. If Dubois is concerned primarily with the masculine construction cum erasure of the feminine and with women’s attainment of their own subjectivity, Martenson’s primary focus is on female affectional and erotic relations and the heteronormative rendering of queer lives as invisible, even unthinkable. Is there such a thing as a lesbian relation when there is no cultural framework for it, no matrix of intelligibility in which to think it, no language for it? One thinks of how sodomy laws never pertained to sex between women because sex which does not involve a penis was thought of as a contradiction in terms. Historically, the language used to think about “homosexuality” (including this term itself) has been given to us, or rather imposed upon us.
Without any language of her own, Martenson relies on the erotic caress. “In my attempt to explicate by touch, I struck my forehead violently against the corner of an ambiguity. Was I // holding your hand or merely an opinion?” she begins her poem cum “Preface,” opening the book with a question that will iterate itself throughout the book in various forms. Having referenced “the desire of one woman for another” in the third paragraph of this prose piece, she notes in the fourth that intimacy, “[c]losely wedged among surrounding concepts, [… ] would not move an inch from its negation.” She is left with a forced choice. “I had either to seek out a different gender or to climb across the blind-spot and resume my identity // on the other side.” She is also concerned with the nature of any human relation and the question of what it is we know when we think we know someone else, of what is entailed in the dynamics of intimacy. “I reached for you as if for proof[.]” This question is all the more pressing — and the more difficult to answer — if you are queer in a culture that has until very recently generated no representation of same-sex relationships and no model for conceiving of them apart from illness, in a culture where, for instance, self-psychologists like Heinz Kohut have claimed that homosexuality is pure narcissism and, as such, a non-relation at the psychical level. Martenson’s poetry struggles with the continued legacy of such invisibility and erasure, seeking a language to articulate what has long been designated to be “unspeakable.”
Whereas Dubois works exclusively through the sentence and paragraph structures of the prose poem, Martenson restlessly explores various strategies of analyzing and rewriting cultural categories of intelligibility — reality as we know it — through a myriad of forms. Working with the page as compositional unit in a satisfyingly rich way, the first poem-sequence of the book, “Contact Sheet,” can only be properly described as a series of interrelated and trifurcated diptychs. Each left-side page presents a double-spaced poem with floating margins, each framed at the upper left and bottom right of the poem by quotation marks. The right-side page presents a more traditional, left-justified, single-spaced poem. At the bottom of the page, ala Spicer, we find a bar beneath which runs a sentence or two of a separate line of thought. Both of these texts on the right-side page run continuously from one page to the next, whereas the left-side pages give us poems that are more individual and self-contained. The tension between sameness and difference, visibility and invisibility, coherence and incoherence, form and formlessness play out here at the level of poetic form as successfully as they do in their explicit expression at the level of content. This is true not only of “Contact Sheet,” but of the entire collection, in which we find a search for articulation in all registers of language, an explication through the signifying function of words as well as through the gesture or “touch” of the visual and aural aspects of language and signifying effects of poetic form.
“A Priori” presents us again with three “voices,” all of which, in this poem, struggle to cohere into a single structure, both individually and as a group (and here, as always in literature, syntax serves as analog to subjectivity). These three lines of thought try to coalesce, but each are broken by the interjection of the other and by disruptions in its own syntax. These interwoven threads are visually marked by Roman, parenthetically enclosed italic, and emboldened all-cap textual formatting. Like You Are the Business, “A Priori” is concerned with broad questions pertaining to sensation, language, and the constructed nature of identity. In particular, Martenson protests the historical disciplining of queer sexuality via aversion therapy and other pseudo-scientific behavior modification techniques.
That the senses sometimes lie is hardly a new idea, but WE LEARNED THAT BY ACTING ON ability to ignore or misrepresent them (so we use the same symbol for both) to the point of endangering CERTAIN SENSES ’s own safety WE ‘PROVOKE A MODFICATION’ well-being IN THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE OTHER […] And since everyone’s experimented on at birth, it simply isn’t possible to scrape together a control group (in speech with a relatively fast tempo, assimilation is quite common) for the purpose of defining “normal”. (22)
If only this were mere historical curiosity. Unfortunately, we live in a world where “ex-gay” movements still exist, where people are still attacked for their perceived queer sexuality and gender identity, and where heteronormativity and the presumption of heterosexuality remain a daily fact of life.
The penultimate piece, “Xq281,”published in 2001 as a chapbook, joins such predecessors as Nabokov, Derrida, and David Foster Wallace in experimenting with annotation-derived form, subsequently joined in 2002 by Jenny Boully’s The Body. It is an essay in footnotes, much like Boully’s. With all of the forms in Martenson’s book, while none of them is entirely original (what is, of course), she takes up these forms and reinvents and reinvigorates them. What I think is particularly successful about “Xq281” is that it presents us with a set of self-referential footnotes, embodying the purely digressive reading mode of the thesaurus or internet. This leaves the reader constantly circulating through infinite permutations of the text, empowering the reader with the agency and responsibility of deciding when to ignore a reference and keep reading the current note, and when to leave off and hop over to note 12, or back to 8, etc. — and when to quit reading the poem altogether and move on to the next part of the book. Note six serves as a fine example.
6 Furthermore, the presence of female homosexuality (quite likely to have existed in oral form long before the destruction of these manuscripts9) can only be detected through ambiguous synthetic messages,4 and while there is better than a 99% chance that the observed identities are real,3 the insertion or deletion of a single letter can set into play a monotonous sequence of denials [… ]. (31)
Form is an extension of the content which is an extension of its form. Martenson parodies the language of the scientific construction and regulation of homosexuality, which seeks to essentialize and thereby safely compartmentalize the queer (it’s definitively them, and definitely not us); she does so in the rat’s maze circularity of the notes-within-a-note form that gives the reader a sense, equally through the registers of content and form, of the claustrophobic, panoptic mechanism of power endemic to such medicalizing discourses.
The second half of the book is composed of the title section. Less a coherent sequence like the previous pieces and more a mere a collection of individual poems, it disappoints in that one regard only insofar as the expectation for a more formally cohesive unit has been established by those first poem-sequences. The poems collected under the title “Unsound,” however, turn out to be among the most beautiful and satisfying in the book. If the first half of Unsound could be as accurately described as formally innovative lyric essays as poems, “Unsound” gives us all the associational richness and exploratory momentum of poetry in the experimental tradition of high Modernism through Black Mountain, New York, and Language poetries. These lyrics are no less formally engaged in their thinking, and the first enacts again the drama of a body or self in pieces struggling to form into a viable entity (even if fantasies of utter completeness have been long set aside). The instability of the self as it oscillates between states — rational and non-rational, ordered and disordered, etc. — is enacted with the fragmentation and reconstruction of a phrase. “Precarious to balance on the threshold travels with the legible already melting” is taken apart and amended with such associated terms as “ice” and “thin” in a visual, almost graph-like arrangement, beneath which it is reconstituted as a more coherent version of itself, one structured with punctuation and almost into grammatically complete sentences (though gaps and fissures remain): “Precarious, to balance on the legible. The ice is thin, already melting. And the threshold travels with me” (41).
The themes of this passage recur throughout the book, and are evident in a number of lines from poems in “Unsound.” Followed by the Foucauldian themes of “Xq281” and “A Priori,” they clearly express an ambiguity about the visibility and cultural legibility concomitant with the sexual identity categories of “lesbian,” “gay,” “queer,” and so forth. On one hand, the speaker wants to articulate her desires and demands recognition and validation of their legitimacy. In “Without a System of Movement,” the “[f]ate of the undefined” is represented as “shifting borders of skin / and breathing.” Such a non-subject, or, following Martenson’s title, un-subject, is “shunned by the plausible[… ] // so many versions,/ none of them ours” (52). The impulse here is to reject definitions imposed upon queer folk and to generate our own, acknowledging a discomfort with being shunned, living an impossible life where the subjectivities of same-sex lovers suffer the “constant / shiver of the unportrayed / in steep dissolves // their legs entwined in only seeming” (53, my emphasis). Martenson here protests the “half-life,” to invoke the title of the book’s final poem, to which queers have historically been relegated in many cultures, including the contemporary U.S., where some “still write us into sickness” (62).
On the other hand, Martenson is not without a measure of ambivalence about the very terms of cultural representation and recognition she desires, questioning “how much is lost in completion” (52). Just as Dubois foregrounds how language and selfhood are conferred from the outside, from pre-existing, power-laden cultural formations, Martenson is aware of the misrecognition, to use Lacan’s term, of essentializing definitions, and that the signifier kills the thing, as he said, echoing Hegel. “My name is a / haphazard shelter / propped // on the conditional / it does not keep me / warm” (45). Indeed, this ambivalence and oscillation between impulses has been playing itself out in the contested terms of queer theory and activism in one form or another for decades, and can be fully resolved only at great risk of one danger or another — of remaining utterly invisible or utterly confined. Her book is an intellectually and psychologically rich, beautifully choreographed literary performance wherein the language, voice(s), and form are in varying states of tension, of fragmentation and reconstitution, becoming and unbecoming. Martenson sounds out desire, articulates the contours-in-formation of a certain subjectitvity and cultural identity, and simultaneously “unsounds” it, disarticulates its discursive body to savor the pure sensation of corporeal pleasures. This includes the pleasures of the aural and visual material of language itself, beyond the simultaneously enabling and disabling limits of the naming, classifying, and defining functions of signification, and the cultural legibility and legitimacy such representations offer alongside their regulatory aspect. There is, after all, a certain freedom in the non-rational, mad state belonging to those of us queers who remain, to one extent or another, “unsound.”
Both You Are the Business and Unsound are welcome additions to the Burning Deck catalog. These works of language-focused, feminist and queer literary art are doing important cultural work while producing poetry of complex and satisfying aesthetic pleasures. They are both fine examples of that tradition of philosophical and critical poetry which takes literary form as itself the vehicle of thinking just as much as content, based on the postulation that the literary artist qua artist
communicates not only through what she says but how she says it, and that language constitutes the very ground, ever-shifting, of culture, society, and self. This second assumption makes it imperative, then, to work on the language itself, not as a mere means to an end, but with attention to how the tools and techniques of the trade are already imbued with certain limits and limited ways of thinking which must themselves be taken as subject matter of the work. Far from detracting from their aesthetic merits, this attention to language and form, as the always already politicized, ideology-laden materials of literary art works, is indeed what constitutes such works as art in the richest possible sense of the term, and both You Are the Business and Unsound are fine examples of poetic art thus conceived. Burning Deck has been a home to many varieties of language-centered, critical, and exploratory poetries over the years, making an indelible mark on American “experimental” poetry and its sustained conversation with its French and German analogs. We have much to thank the Waldrops for as the press approaches its fiftieth anniversary, and much cause to hope Burning Deck continues its work for many years to come.
Michael Tod Edgerton is a writer, teacher, and editor whose poetry has been published in Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Eoagh, Five Fingers Review, New American Writing, New Orleans Review, Sonora Review, Word For/Word, and other journals. Tod’s book reviews have been published previously in Electronic Poetry Review, Mantis, Mesechabe, and Reconfigurations. Recently, he has joined the staff of Tarpaulin Sky journal (http://tarpaulinsky.com) as an Assistant Editor of poetry and hybrid writing.