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Paul Jaussen

Beverly Dahlen and the Writing of the Real


The first statement of a vast poem often reflects the character of the entire work. The tradition is replete with compelling examples, from the classically heroic ‘Arma virumque cano’ (Virgil) to the contemporary new democratic man of ‘I celebrate myself’ (Whitman) to the historically self-conscious master poet making it new with ‘And then went down to the ship’ (Pound) [1]. In the face of this domineering and masculine tradition, Beverly Dahlen opens A Reading with a subtle and no less powerful line of escape, equally forceful even as it eschews mastery: ‘before that and before that’ (1–7 15). The sentence’s lack of a beginning capital letter (a practice maintained throughout most of the work) speaks to its receding gesture, beginning after an invisible grammatically-correct beginning which, lacking a referent for its repeating ‘that,’ leaves us on an edge of history, language, and the sentence itself. Humble and yet haunting, A Reading attempts, at the outset, to set out for new terrains which have not yet been, or, as we shall see, cannot be, adequately mapped — the fantasy of a poem before the poem, that space before language, which, as Dahlen has stated, the pursuit of which was one of the original desires prompting the work (‘Reading and Discussion’).


The opening line thus correlates precisely with the work’s title, which, in the vein of Louis Zukofsky’s A, conveys the sense that this poem is a singularity among many possible repetitions, one of many writerly-critical-textual acts. A reading sits alongside other interpretations, acknowledging that there is no such thing as The reading, particularly not of that ‘before that.’ A reading is always intertextual, since it is a new linguistic production responding to other writings. A reading, therefore, is supplemental, deriving its identity not from its own self-enclosed boundaries, as a well-wrought urn, but from something outside of itself with which it is engaged. Already other, a reading necessarily demands a ‘before that’; it is an articulation which acknowledges its own deferred significance.


The intertextual epigraph for Dahlen’s project highlights one of the major sources of A Reading’s poetics. The quotation is from George Steiner’s After Babel and is a paraphrase of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who in turn was interrogating Freudian psychoanalysis by asking ‘where, when, and by what rationally established criterion the process of free yet potentially linked and significant association in psychoanalysis could be said to have a stop’ (1–7 11). Wittgenstein’s question precisely describes Dahlen’s undertaking: a self-consciously deliberate attempt to adapt Freudian analytical procedures, specifically free association, into an unending poetic text. [2] For Dahlen as for Freud, the unconscious continually recedes, before that and before that, and the closer one gets to the origins of one’s psyche, the further that impossible beginning slips away.


While Dahlen’s adaptation of psychoanalysis might suggest that she falls within the tradition of surrealist experiments, especially automatic writing, she is clearly aware that interminability is not simply a quality of the unconscious but of language itself. [3] The world-making structure of language, both historical (semantic) and grammatical (syntactic), produces an endless flow of signifiers, behind which the unconscious flashes to life. It is language’s relationship to consciousness that generates Dahlen’s poetic experiment, language being the central medium of both psychoanalysis and poetry.


By connecting psychoanalytic free association to an awareness of language’s own power as a structure, the stakes of Dahlen’s work become incredibly high. Her poem is premised on the notion that there is an inextricable link between language, the psychoanalytic symptom, and the larger historical formations of identity, gender, and poetic authority. We are born into language, language is not born in us, and so the subject is already self-alienated, occupied by the symbolic and social orders which identify the ‘I.’ From the outset, A Reading sees this conditioned subjectivity as overwhelming and inescapable, requiring an almost shamanistic activity of poetic mediation to afford some sort of release or relief. The fragile ritualism of poetry and analysis is evident early in the work:


now looking back but not wanting to trace the way: the forest closed behind her. the trees, sinister, consciously malevolent, clasping branches behind one’s back. that reading. or casting out. the powers that oppose us. now clearly visible. the source is not split, it is not older than we are. (1–7 16)


Refusing to entirely map the journey taken thus far, the poem here recalls Dante’s selva oscura, without the hope of a Beatrice to guide one home. [4] The forest’s enclosing of ‘her’ conveys disorientation, and this dark force is linked to language, in some fashion, through ‘that reading.’ The forest may be language as such, or it may be the personal history whose paths one recalls but does not wish to repeat. The ‘reading’ of the poem’s title is apposed with ‘casting out,’ presumably of ‘the powers that oppose us’ (patriarchy, social alienation, intercommunicative failures) which have become visible in the poem’s own thick woods. The catharsis invoked by free association becomes a ritual, purging those powers which both oppress and which have made us. Resistance to these besetting forces comes, then, through reading as casting out, but this opportunity does not bring a promise of necessary or final success, for, as we are told on the next page, we are caught in ‘the interminable reading. the infinite analysis’ (17).


Significantly, it is clear that the subject who writes is thus, even in the associative process, impossibly split, emerging out of the chain of substitution and not entirely able to contain it. The ‘catastrophe’ of the sign is that it displaces the subject (1–7 21), but, at the same time, only the sign can allow the subject to trace those movements in the endlessly deferred self. Rachel Blau DuPlessis claims that this tracing demands a multiplicity of textual links: ‘[lyric], documentary, and palimpsest all express themselves [in Dahlen’s work] in a continuous stream of metonymy which uncannily, the more it extends outward (writer as collector, as documentarian, as collagiste), the more it seems to layer itself over and over, a texture of porous time and porous ego’ (160). The metonymy of association ‘sidling, sidelong, creates the thing on the side, the thing to the side, the thing set aside, the desire repressed but palpable in its corrupted absence’ (161). Thus, for Dahlen, the catastrophe of the sign: it generates an ongoing metonymic chain which refuses to rest and reveals in its movements the fact that the source of the subject, like the subject’s desires, is always outside of itself, never fully present.


That said, the porous ego and porous text are not merely sources of subjectivity. Their complex displaced origin is an opportunity for intervention, particularly into the unmarked history and creation of the feminine. Jacques Lacan’s association of the symbolic order with the law of the father always troubles Dahlen’s text, for it implies that language is already caught up in an exclusion of the feminine. Thus, the emergence of the female voice is also dangerous, both to the symbolic order and to the excluded voice, at times quite literally.


Dahlen’s attempt to re-read the epic tradition through an alternative history appears, for instance, in the female wanderer introduced above, who recurs in various guises throughout the work. Rejecting the heroic stance, however, this figure’s existence is a risky one, walking ‘the woods without trails, she wrote how she followed her grandfather in the pathless woods, hunting, how a log became a crocodile, snakes in the water, how things became animals, enemies, enmity forever, my heel shall crush thee’ (1–7 32). What could be a fragment of autobiography echoes the male history inherited by the female poet, following a paternal figure through a pathless wood, blending with an allusion to the religious, reworking the language of the book of Genesis, where the fate of Eve is wedded to childbirth. [5] Later, in 8–10, the female figure sets off unprepared and alone: ‘she simply walks out, taking nothing, certainly her death, how can she help it, not to be, how can it not be seen certainly she walks out, there can be nothing but death’ (48).


The silence of death for this woman occurs both literally and symbolically, creating one more tension between language and that which comes before. When reflecting on fertility rituals which celebrate ‘that freeing of the bond, in nature, of conception and increase so that women might bear at any time in the year,’ Dahlen recognizes that this untold history is strewn with broken female bodies, the material condition by which all history, and all language in which history abides, can emerge: ‘even so, she died, and the children also, and none would have lived to tell the tale without her labor’ (1–7 31). This silenced past leaves figures with ‘no mouth, all breasts and belly, it is there by the rule of denial, devouring. the mouth is death, hell-mouth’ (31). The mouth is both desired and feared, a metonymy for speech. The passage thus gives voice to those women who were silenced, and yet, at the same time, the very language by which one speaks prompts the separation from the body into the symbolic order. The female wanderer thus cannot articulate a home, for the terms of a ‘mother tongue’ are already, for her, alienating. Occupying this liminal space, caught in a web of death and desire, the subject of A Reading lives ‘so much outside the law, as all women do’ (1–7 43). [6]


The double-bind of language, both silencing and desiring, has informed many of the critical assessments of Dahlen’s work, providing a useful approach to A Reading’s linguistic shifts, transformations, and endless deferrals. Alan Shima argues that Dahlen


employs a discursive technique that exposes and utilizes the discrepancies between the woman speaking in her writing and the woman who is composed in speech. A Reading, therefore, is an inexhaustible encounter with spacious progressions, where the reader inadvertently perceives the compositional legibility of a constantly emerging female subjectivity. (119)


That is, the compositional activity of reading/writing by which the text unfolds refuses to codify or solidify that subject, and, in light of the silencing effects of language, the wandering, writing woman must keep moving in order to come to life. In this manner, Dahlen’s poetics of exploration unites discovery and creation: the feminine subjectivity of the work does not pre-exist the writing, but, instead, is born through the writing. Lynn Keller makes a similar claim when she observes that ‘the fractured, paratactic, and associational character of the writing precludes any fixed identifications of what these things “stand for,” just as this “song of a maiden” [A Reading 2] thwarts fixed and singular identifications of woman and her relation to language’ (268). Parataxis, akin to DuPlessis’s ‘metonymic sidling,’ allows the text to escape a constrained signification even as it accretes meaning, to write alongside, as it were, the logic of the symbolic order.


These tactics of sidling, coupled with a deliberately open analytical stance and a questioning of all language as a cover for ideology and power, are the foundation for a life poetics of suspicion. While formally in descent from Whitman, Pound, and Charles Olson, not to mention Homer and Milton, Dahlen’s adaptation cannot embrace the positive politics or ontology of these male figures who, to one degree or another, are able to speak in the language of the father. Thus, the world- or polis-making work of earlier life poems is denied to Dahlen under the terms she sets out for herself. This does not leave her without resources, however. Instead, it prompts her to pursue those elements outside or behind language and ideology, the unsymbolized ground which she calls, following Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and the poet Jack Spicer, ‘the real.’ The peculiar problem of the real, like the unconscious, further demands the endless explorations of life poetry, and the remainder of this essay will consider Dahlen’s response to that demand.

* * *


To return to, or reclaim, a world before language in language, that is, in poetry, produces an inevitably thankless task. In an essay from 1986, Dahlen hints at this desire, stating that ‘language seems to exist in opposition to thought, that it’s excessively material (dense, heavy, rational) in contrast to thought’s lightness and insubstantiality, its disorder and irrationality’ (‘Something/Nothing’ 173). Mark Linenthal, commenting on this statement, draws the necessarily difficult conclusion:


A nothing which, in the act of naming, we would substitute for lost perfection, for the body of the pre-Oedipal mother; a something which is too heavy to express our thought and which we shall always experience as other. What hope, then, for the poet? Only a constant effort to express in words what lies below or back of words, and an acceptance of the inevitable otherness of the result. (128)


The inevitable otherness, one could say, is the impossibility of that disjunction between the words one speaks and the behind, before, or outside which those words attempt to approach. Breaking the subject into a multiplicity of linguistic fragments in the hopes of encountering the pre-Oedipal real, and thus expunging those anxious symptoms, is another definition of the task of analysis. Dahlen recognizes that it is only through language that the real beckons to us, evoking in us the desire for that which is outside.


In this paradoxical sense, the real is inevitably bound up with the symbolic order, not absolutely opposed to it. Dahlen is keenly aware of this inseparable relationship. At several points throughout her work, she approaches the problem through Kristeva’s notion of the semiotic chora, which, according to Kristeva, is an early manifestation of human drives in the body, a type of signification based upon sounds, energies, and physical gestures. The semiotic chora exists alongside, and in contrast to, the symbolic functions of language evident in the definitions of words, the order of law, and the logic of grammar. As Kristeva puts it, all discourse ‘moves with and against the chora in the sense that it simultaneously depends upon and refuses it’ (26), in part because the chora does not yet offer a ‘distinction between the real and symbolic’ (26).


One might think here of the rhythmic nonsense articulations of the child, expressing a desire for language which, nevertheless, has not achieved the condition of symbolic or grammatical order (or the necessary social relations which give the symbolic its order). In this sense, the chora may be understood as language on the way to the real, a powerful resource for the poet who is tempted by that pre-symbolic state. And yet, according to Dahlen, this condition can only be imagined:


Now the chora is always constituted after the fact of its loss as an absence to which language, in its supposed presence, points. And that present absence is conceived as ‘immortality’ (Wordsworth’s immortality ode would be the paradigmatic poem), a primal unity which is, as Kristeva writes, ‘maternally connoted.’ Heaven, Eden, paradisiacal fantasies in general, replace this loss and project a possible future restoration: Utopia. (‘Emily Dickinson’ 19)


The maternal, pre-linguistic space, like death and paradise, is nowhere, but language causes it to appear as a projection of our own desires for its presence. Here, language becomes the origin of its other, an alterity which can never actually arise. If we consider that other to be an indicator of the real, then the real, too, becomes a utopian projection, a questionable resource, at best, for resisting the symbolic order.


Dahlen’s thinking about the real has evolved, however, over the course of A Reading. In a recent conversation, she attempted to distinguish between Lacan’s sense of the term and the poet Jack Spicer’s definition. [7] For Dahlen’s purposes, Lacan’s real is ‘the obsessive thing in your life, the question you have to keep coming back to, the chronic idea, the reason that you can’t close the poem or conclude the poem [. . .]. It’s the niggling thing you can’t get to the bottom of’ (‘Interview’). The real, here, is the impossible origin of desire, that hole at the center of consciousness which resists final symbolization or formalization. It is the unsignifiable personal urge which sends the wanderer out into language.


Dahlen contrasts this version of the real with another sense which


is not so much about a personal consciousness or unconscious. The real is what’s out there, it’s the universe in total. It’s an earthquake. When you live in California, when you live in Seattle, when you live anywhere, the world can open up and swallow you in the next second. And that’s the real. (‘Interview’)


This dangerous, inescapable real can bring about silence, trumping all language in its raw force. In this sense, the real of physical disaster, indifferent to human symbolization, destroys and dissembles the world-making efforts of language and culture. One may be able to confront it, but one cannot actually describe or define it. Thus, Jack Spicer’s poetic desire to bring the real into the poem was continually frustrated, or, at best, can only be understood as a form of displacement, as Dahlen writes in ‘Tautology and the Real’: ‘To restore the real, to make it visible in Spicer’s sense, is to break the artifice of the poem at the boundary of the real, to shatter the image, or icon, at the heart of the painting, and to point to the gap’ (217). Only as a gap in the symbolic constructions, the realization that our laws exclude the very conditions of their appearance, whether as the materiality of the body or the silencing of the mother, can the real be approached. As Dahlen goes on to say, ‘[one] points to the ghost of the real with an equally ghostly finger’ (217).


In other words, we are made aware of the inarticulate real only through the body of the letter. A Reading constantly attempts to evoke that ghost in language, to shatter it and point to the gap. But what poetic mechanism allows one to approach those disappearing ghosts? How can a poem break its own artifice, or, for that matter, break language in order to write the real? Here, Dahlen’s interest in and resistance to Lacan may provide a way in to the poetics, keeping in mind that Lacan’s real is only one-half of Dahlen’s sense of the term. [8] Specifically, Lacan’s account of the metaphorical and metonymic ‘flash’ as the origin of the unconscious allows us to see how Dahlen’s excessive use of metonymy (and, to a lesser extent, metaphor) can generate glimpses of the chora, the unconscious, as the real. Lacan can be read, in other words, as a theorist of poetry whose insights clarify Dahlen’s own contribution to the language of the life poem.


In his essay ‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud,’ Lacan offers an account of language as structure which describes the unconscious as an effect of that structure, or, more properly, of the movement of the units within that structure. Using Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics as a starting point (although, as Bruce Fink points out, Lacan’s algorithmic representation of the sign is ‘radically different’ from Saussure’s [79]), Lacan refines his focus on two properties of the signifier, namely the lexical register of phonemes, or individual sound units, and the combinatory rules of grammar, or the ‘signifying chain,’ whereby the lexical units are linked together (418). As Lacan emphasizes, the meaning of a given utterance depends upon both the lexical and the grammatical functioning in tandem, so that ‘it is in the chain of the signifier that meaning insists, but [. . .] none of the chain’s elements consists in the signification it can provide at that very moment’ (419). That is, there is an ‘incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier,’ the order of the signifier pointing to, but never ultimately identical with, the signified (419).


Meaning thus dances along language, or, more properly, hums or sings, for each of the lexical units, shifting as it does within the many possible grammatical structures of the sentence, echoes or hints at all of the possible significations which the letter [9] can occupy in other utterances. Lacan identifies this quality of language with the verbal art:


But it suffices to listen to poetry, which Saussure was certainly in the habit of doing, for polyphony to be heard and for it to become clear that all discourse is aligned along the several staves of a musical score.
Indeed, there is no signifying chain that does not sustain — as if attached to the punctuation of each of its units — all attested contexts that are, so to speak, ‘vertically’ linked to that point. (419)


We hear in poetry, and in all language if we are listening closely enough (exactly the kind of listening the analyst offers the analysand), the relationship between a given signifier and all of the other possible significations it can occupy, depending upon the sentence or utterance in which it is found. Poetry depends upon this polyphony, the expansion of the letter into its many potential contexts.


Lacan demonstrates that this polyphonic quality of signifiers, not the actual, ‘real’ relations among signified objects, explains metaphor and metonymy. [10] Metonymy, the part taken for the whole, is shown not to be a rhetorical effect dependent upon the signified, the thing out there, but a purely ‘word-to-word’ connection (421), while metaphor results from the substitution of one signifier for another within the grammatical chain.


Both poetic devices can thus be explained purely in terms of the signifier, with no necessary appeal to the signified outside of language. Metaphor’s ‘creative spark [. . . .] flashes between two signifiers, one of which has replaced the other by taking the other’s place in the signifying chain, the occulted signifier remaining present by virtue of its (metonymic) connection to the rest of the chain’ (422). Metaphor thus depends on the metonymic relationship between signifiers, that polyphony which comes about from the substitutions possible within a given sentence, and all of the musical echoes produced by this potential multiplicity. Metaphor does not result in the closure of meaning in opposition to metonymy’s open form, but, instead, exists precisely because of the infinite significations implicit in the grammatical chain. If one is a poet, she will produce ‘a continuous stream, nay, a dazzling weave of metaphors’ (422). Language can be turned into a movement of flashes, a series of sparks whereby a signifying chain can be used to mean other than what it says.


There are many other tones and echoes in Lacan’s piece, which is itself a polyphony pulling from a number of intellectual and cultural symphonies in dizzying (some would say deafening) fashion. That said, listening to one more key move of this ambitious psychoanalytic ars poetica brings us back to Dahlen’s own endless weave. Lacan points out that this metaphorical spark, situated at ‘the precise point at which meaning is produced in nonmeaning,’ that is, a meaningful utterance emerging from something other than the grammatical and lexical orders of language, a ghost in the machine generated by the system’s own properties, offers an explanation for a fundamental Freudian truth:


Of course, as it is said, the letter kills while the spirit gives life. I don’t disagree, having had to pay homage somewhere here to a noble victim of the error of seeking in the letter, but I also ask how the spirit could live without the letter. The spirit’s pretensions would nevertheless remain indisputable if the letter hadn’t proven that it produces all its truth effects in man without the spirit having to intervene at all.
This revelation came to Freud, and he called his discovery the unconscious. (423–24)


The unconscious, the source of repressed desires and unspoken energies, according to Lacan, originates not in some primal darkness, some ethereal spirit, but in language itself. The spirit haunts us, and we experience its effects, undoubtedly, but those effects can be explained through the same flashes of metaphor and metonymy, neither of which relies on anything but the signifier and its rules. Desire, repression, and even the ontological status of the human, are, in Lacan’s radical reading, inseparable from the properties of language from which the subject emerges.


For this reason, a poetry of metaphoric weave and metonymic excess, a poetry like A Reading, can be understood as an attempt at engaging the momentary flash whereby meaning emerges from nonmeaning in a language into which every reader, every subject, is born. These poetic moments can only be generated one after another, an endless chain, for otherwise the ghostly spirit will not emerge. There is no word or sentence to define the unconscious, since, like desire, it is caught ‘in the rails of metonymy, eternally extending toward the desire for something else’ (Lacan 431). Desire never fulfills itself just as the unconscious never shows itself fully, even as its effects are felt.


While one cannot equate the unconscious with the real in any technically precise sense, Dahlen’s interpretation of Lacan’s real as a drive or symptom at least suggests a connection. More significantly, the latter’s account of metaphor and metonymy provides a model for a poetics which attempts to use language to step outside of itself. Whether discussing the real or the unconscious, one can see that they share the characteristic of existing as a fissure in the symbolic structure, a gap in meaning. As Lacan’s theory suggests, while that rupture cannot be positively named in language, it can be produced by language. If this is so, then poetry can, in fact, approach the real, through the deliberate and ongoing effort of generating gaps, fissures, and flashes, a radical movement of metaphor and metonymy which creates those ghostly effects.


To see this movement, the various notes of the signifier being sounded, consider a brief excerpt from A Reading 11, beginning, appropriately enough, with ‘the line forms on the left’ (22). The ‘line’ of everyday life, of banks and grocery stores, could be designated with this brief chain, but so too could the ‘line’ of poetry, formed against the left margin. These apparently unrelated passive ‘forms’ are in fact the consequences of active interventions, rules which naturalize standing in line or writing in such a way that one’s lines line up.


But then, a change in the next sentence offers a new kind of activity, the signifier-to-signifier relation producing a different tone: ‘the line into it, working out of the darkness.’ The line is a point of entry, but also a way out, a pathway of escape from ‘the darkness,’ potentially the darkness of that which occurs before the line of poetry, of death or silence or that (always imaginary) pre-symbolic time before language and ‘I.’ The simultaneity of the line moving in and out implies that the escape from darkness is also its creation, a way out of that which has been produced by the utterance itself. We stand in line to keep us from social disorder, we write in lines to keep us from darkness, yet neither disorder nor darkness would exist without the symbolic order giving it a name.


The linguistic/poetic reading of the first two statements in the section is reinforced by the third: ‘what we have here, what we seem to have, are waves of words breaking’ (22). Here, a metaphor in Lacan’s sense of one signifier for another could be detected, with ‘waves’ and ‘breaking’ substituting for ‘lines’ and ‘stopping.’ But there is also a literal sense, since spoken words are sound waves which break upon the ear drums. Alternatively, ‘waves’ can signify ‘a multitude,’ as in ‘waves of troops’; in this case, such waves would designate sentences and words being sundered into pieces. The ocean’s waves are, finally, almost lines, the waves on the beach breaking to create a horizon in their dissolution. The air waves of the word are evoked by the next statements, ‘or breath lines, say, breaking. see this as the broken breath, waving.’ The gesture of farewell within the sentence makes broken breath sound like dying. Already, repetition of signifiers within different signifying chains multiplies the senses, producing flashes not merely between the present and ‘occulted’ signifiers in a given (metaphorical) utterance but between the present (metonymically-linked) signifiers, such as ‘line,’ ‘breaking’/‘broken,’ ‘waves’/ ‘waving.’


One more form of waving introduces another symphonic note to conclude the passage: ‘the trees lift up their heads. they cry, he said, because their faces are inside out. or turned away’ (22). Waving trees take on heads, the place where breath comes from (and, in the form of sound, enters) the human body. A quotation from another speaker, perhaps an autobiographical recollection, extends the metaphor but transforms it into something monstrous, even uncanny, a tree with a face turned inside out. More imaginable, but no less mournful, is the thought of the tree’s refusal, a pulling away, perhaps from the breaking breath, perhaps the waving words, perhaps into darkness. Whatever the possibilities, the passage ends not by bringing the deferral of signification to a satisfying conclusion but by attempting to reveal, however briefly, those sparks of what Lacan called metaphor, a moment of rupture within a clearly endless weave. The fact that this occurs in language, that is, within the shared symbolic space outside of a given subject, means that this movement of the signifier is accessible to everyone, a poetic analysis displaced into a signifying chain and thus exceeding the individual speaker.


In other words, the unconscious of this poem is within language even more than in the subject who is writing (and being written). Like everything else in Dahlen’s work, this effect of language can only be produced from the side, obliquely, within the moment of the movement. Dahlen’s flashes do not illuminate anything other than themselves, even as these fissures may tempt us to a beyond, an after-word, a substance which can exist before or outside of language. This temptation can only be pursued as it dances along the chain of substitutions and the accumulating texts of A Reading. One could say that the unconscious’s emergence out of the letter reflects the kind of presence in absence Dahlen associates with Kristeva’s chora or the gap by which one can designate Spicer’s cosmic otherness. What Lacan offers us as readers of Dahlen is a way to understand how that gap is produced: not as an actual rupture in the fabric of language but as an effect between signifiers, a spirit-emergence in the world of letters.


That we cannot escape language does not negate desire, it simply postpones it along the rails of metonymy, that original symptom. The postponement as such becomes, for Dahlen, the originary absence from which A Reading is born, an inescapable reality to those of us who live in a ‘posthumous world’ (18–20 13). An alternative formulation of this realization occurs in Dahlen’s essay on Emily Dickinson, when she supposes a ‘psychic economy in which hunger itself became the aim of desire’ (26). This is the economy of A Reading, an embrace of desire which recognizes that desire evokes anxiety precisely because of its excess.


While Dahlen, in a more self-revelatory moment in the work, confesses that the ‘desire for meaning, to produce meaning, fills [her] with dread and anxiety’ (18–20 13), speaking to the potentially tragic nature of that economy of pure hunger, there is also an attempt to link the fragility of the unconscious, even language’s duplicity, to the notion of beauty. In A Reading 8, the tragic reading can be found in the reference to the classical epic ‘knight errant,’ who knows or comes to understand that ‘to travel is to be in danger, error, to see the error of your ways in that travail. adventure a labor’ (14). While we may not be in the age of literal knights errant (thankfully), the wandering implied in ‘error’ reflects the associational logic of Dahlen’s own ‘travel’ in language. To travel is also to work, to ‘travail,’ even, perhaps, to give birth through heavy labor, but the child is never allowed to come, ultimately, to home:


another parent to shine through.
how flesh is an obscure land we see through it.
these dismal losses, one’s failure to penetrate.

what I thought I saw and then again the effacement by a cloud. (15)


Error without the promise of ultimate insight (later: ‘who does not suspect revelation [?]’) conveys the anxiety and dread one feels in the need to travail after meaning. And yet, in the next section of the poem, there is another approach to the same condition, this time through the language of beauty:


a painter’s eye, he saw how this rhymed with that, the blue of the peacock feather, the vein of blue in the glass vase. the recurrence, what is that but beauty, the repetition compulsion, in a ‘non-repeating’ universe, time running forward, riding madly on a foaming horse, ‘Happiness is the deferred fulfillment of a prehistoric wish.’ coming again in another guise, that is beauty, the différance. (16)


To differ and defer (Jacques Derrida’s ‘non-concept’ of différance) [11] can be understood as a form of repetition and recurrence, those returns of never-original things which cannot ultimately be retained, but can only be recognized in their traces. Dahlen’s beauty is another name for error, in the sense that it is the embrace of repetition, of endless differences, of language itself as an unfulfilled promise. There is an indistinguishable line between the anxiety and the desire, loss as longing. ‘Beauty,’ Dahlen writes in an essay on the subject, ‘is a mercy, and so, finally, is death’ (28).


Thus, the five volumes of A Reading published up to this point continue their subtle and yet shattering wandering into language, gender, and the real under the sign of both beauty and death. The consequences of this work are impossible to name or locate in instrumentalist or positivist terms, for they emerge from that unapproachable moment of originary repetition, ‘before that and before that.’ And still to come, for, as Megan Simpson points out, Dahlen ‘keeps subjectivity, gender, and sexuality in process, never cutting short the possibilities for knowledge, never settling into the complacency of received categories and definitions’ (93). The practical consequences of this includes a skepticism ‘of any politics or art that cuts short the process of knowing in favor of final conclusions’ (93). In this sense an antidote to the deadly prescriptions of Pound or even the exuberant additions of Whitman, Dahlen offers a fundamental and essential life poetics, an analysis without ultimate cure but yet no less necessary. As fundamental as a polis or a democracy, Dahlen reminds us that the ‘question of beauty is an ethical question’ (“Beauty: Another Reading” 27), implying that a poetry of the real lies beyond the ‘merely’ aesthetic or the fetishizations of ideology, becoming, instead, an essential cultural and political task.

Works Cited

The Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1972. King James Vers.

Dahlen, Beverly. A Reading 1–7. San Francisco: Momo’s Press, 1985.

———. A Reading 8–10. Tucson: Chax Press, 1992.

———. A Reading (11–17). Elmwood, CT: Potes and Poets Press, 1989.

———. A Reading 18–20. Boulder: Instance, 2006.

———. A-Reading Spicer & eighteen sonnets. Tucson: Chax Press, 2004.

———. Reading and Discussion. University of Washington, Bothell Campus. 4 May 2009.

———. ‘A READING: Emily Dickinson: Powers of Horror.’ Ironwood 28 (1986): 9–37.

———. ‘Something/Nothing.’ Ironwood 27 (1986): 170–75.

———. Personal Interview. Conducted by Paul Jaussen and Emily Beall. 6 May 2009.

———. ‘Tautology and the Real.’ Temblor 10 (1989): 215–18.

———. ‘Beauty: Another Reading.’ Crayon 5 (2009): 24–28.

Derrida, Jacques. ‘Differance.’ Speech and Phenomena. Trans. David B. Allison. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973. 129–60.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. ‘While These Letters Were A-reading: An Essay on Beverly Dahlen’s A Reading.’ Ironwood 27 (1986): 159–69.

Fink, Bruce. Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004.

Freud, Sigmund. ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable.’ The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XXIII. Ed. and Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1964. 209–53.

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Lacan, Jacques. ‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud.’ Écrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 2006. 412–41.

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[1]  Undoubtedly a subversive point within this genealogy, one might consider Williams’s ‘Rigor of beauty is the quest’ which can only be approached through ‘a start / out of particulars’ (Paterson 11). Williams’s beauty is not Dahlen’s, however; see the discussion below.

[2]  Freud takes up this problem in ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable,’ and claims that while analysis can be an ‘interminable task,’ this does not imply ‘that analysis is altogether an endless business’ (249). At the same time, this ‘end’ is largely ‘a practical matter,’ not necessarily a theoretical one (249). The resistances of the ego are remarkably slippery, transformative things.

[3]  Jacques Lacan points out that the surrealist experiment of automatic writing, while allowing for a ‘major step forward,’ was premised on a ‘false’ doctrine, one which was not sufficiently attentive to the role of the signifier (422). We could say that, in simplest terms, Dahlen is fully attentive to the power of the signifier, while the Surrealists attributed too much agency to the unconscious as signified content. These questions will be taken up in more detail below.

[4]  The urgency of Dahlen’s project questions the gendered identities at work in Dante’s poem. One of the effects of her turn toward language is to destabilize the gendered other as guide or guarantee.

[5]  ‘And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel’ (4:15).

[6]  For a valuable and more extensive reading of this section, see Lynn Keller 254–69.

[7]  Spicer’s influence is evident throughout Dahlen’s work, from her discussion in ‘Tautology and the Real’ to A-Reading Spicer & eighteen sonnets where one is ‘listening in to the radio,’ a reference to one of Spicer’s many definitions of the poetic process.

[8]  Moreover, it is important to recall that Lacan’s notion of the real also evolved over the course of his writings, a subject beyond the purview of this essay.

[9]  Lacan is using ‘the letter’ in a broad yet technical way, ‘somewhere between the signifier and its microstructure’ (Fink 79). ‘The letter’ refers to both the multiple senses of the word as well as its material properties as sound and writing, themselves linked to other words. Fink’s discussion of the concept is useful; see 76–79.

[10]  Lacan acknowledges a debt to Roman Jakobson’s famous analysis of metaphor and metonymy in aphasia (439n5).

[11]  ‘We provisionally give the name differance to this sameness which is not identical: by the silent writing of its a, it has the desired advantage of referring to differing, both as spacing/temporalizing and as the movement that structures every dissociation. […] Differance is neither a word nor a concept’ (Derrida 129–30).

Paul Jaussen

Paul Jaussen

Paul Jaussen currently lives in Seattle, where he is completing his doctoral dissertation on the many evolutions of the life poem.

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