MASSACHUSETTS REVIEWS: Structure, Sign, and Play

Michael Thurston


Double Portrait by Brittany Perham (Norton, 2017)

So What So That by Marjorie Welish (Coffee House, 2016)

As Robert Lowell saw it, the big division in American poetry after the Second World War was, that between “Cooked” poetry (traditional forms in polished perfection) and “Raw” poetry (open and organic forms, line lengths determined not by prosodic conventions but by breath). In more recent decades, the division that signifies might be conceived as that between expressive poetry (in which a more or less coherent speaker more or less coherently relates claims about inner emotional states) and experimental poetry (in which attention focuses not on expressible or paraphrasable meaning but, instead, on the linguistic means themselves, their properties and effects).

Both oppositions might be analogous to the continuum in the visual arts stretching from representation and figuration to abstraction, though the two poetic binaries do not necessarily map neatly onto one another. In two recent books by American women poets, we can see the continuing pertinence of the expressive/experimental opposition. Such critical commonplaces remain valuable insofar as they help us understand what a given poet is up to. They also make clear that what’s most interesting or exciting happens mostly in the middle.

Brittany Perham’s Double Portrait was chosen by Claudia Rankine as the winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize. Some of the apparatus framing the book suggests an experimental project. The poems are arranged in four series, and instead of titles they have “archival numbers” (DP.f.10, DP.b.01, etc.). One notices in the Table of Contents that these numbers are not in any recognizable way sequential. The second series, for example, begins with “DP.b.01,” but that is followed by “DP.b.20,” “DP.b.00,” and “DP.b.21.” The “Note to the Reader” that follows the Contents explains that the numbers “catalog the poem[s] in a series,” and that “While the book presents one possible order for each series, that order is neither linear nor fixed.” Readers are invited to imagine the portraits hung on gallery walls, available for perusal in a different order “each time you enter.” The jacket copy provides further guidance, describing each poem as linking “two portraits: lover and beloved, child and parent, citizen and country, spirit and body, living and dead.” From the notion of dialogic interdependence embedded in the figure of the double portrait through the (re)arrangeability of the sequences, the paratextual clues point more toward the experimental than to the expressive pole.

Here, though, is the opening of “DP.b.21”:

I want to kiss you now I want to kiss you
then I want to kiss you again I want to kiss you
when your mouth is full of chocolate
& when your mouth is full of wine &
though your mouth is not always mine
for kissing I want to kiss you I want to (20).

The lines (and the poem goes on like this for quite a while) deploy a variety of effects that call attention to language: the key phrase is repeated, repetition of sound occurs both within and between lines, and the ampersand that brackets the fourth line signals that though this expression of desire seems to be spoken with some urgency it is coming to us in writing, with all of the conventions of orthography and printing that writing entails. Still, at the heart of this double portrait is precisely the desire and its expression, and emotion becomes even more central to the project as the passage goes on to join sadness and weeping to wanting. It is only as we get to the poem’s second page that we notice that we’ve been in the presence of a Steinian incremental repetition. When “kiss” becomes “miss,” and the repeated phrase shifts from “I want to kiss you” to “I miss you,” the phonological relationship between “when,” “wine,” and “mine” in the lines quoted above takes on a new significance as part of the poem’s larger linguistic pattern. We want, kiss, and miss in language, and language is both sound and script with their varying warping effects on sense. When “want to kiss” eventually becomes “want to kill,” there is a nicely familiar defamiliarization (the notion of love and hate as two sides of a single coin in passion’s currency is refreshed, the rust of cliché removed).

Repetition, especially repetition-with-a-difference, is a key element of Perham’s poetics. It’s at the heart of Welish’s volume, too, and though Welish is working (as she has over a long and highly lauded career, toward the more abstract end of the continuum, the poems’ experiments also enhance their expressive character. Note the braid of traditional resonance, estranging repetition, and conventional metaphor in this opening passage of “Cardiac”:

     Come heart-aches
Bitter breast-care

reap aches bitterly bin carefully bitten care hear weight weights
  weighted breast your weight you are heavily upon me you have
  taken all space and time come heart whose arch you acquire (12).

Is there a more hackneyed metonym in the lyric tradition than that which figures feeling with the heart? Here, Welish faces this challenge by going to the beginnings of English poetry, the Anglo-Saxon lament sung in “The Seafarer” (bitre breostceare), retrieving the intense physical experience of emotional pain, before subjecting the figure to phonological play. The long lines following the (modernized) quotation can break into numerous possible syntactic units, and the repetition of words (especially “weight”) and sounds (that link “bitterly bin,” “bitten,” and “breast,” “heart” and “arch”) wrings changes that also incorporate homonymic overtones (“weight” as “wait,” for example). The feeling of heartache as weight on the chest remains, but it is not owned by a first-person speaker. Instead, it is grounded in convention and it is balanced or complicated by the emphasis on the linguistic medium through which that experience is thought or communicated. Sticking with the heart and inner life, “from Of Autobiography” similarly arranges and rearranges a set of terms (almost like the melodic material introduced at the beginning of a sonata movement): “She shall never forget,” the poem opens, “cardiac inkstand + because life is short + on off on of + ENTER.” Subsequent stanzas riff on one or more of these, exploring in their combination and recombination both matters of the (literal and figurative) heart and properties of the work’s medium:

Because life is short although itinerant
we must keep remembering these infusions
of that estate of only as a prompt to issuing
the same gray scale questionnaire
of unremarked questions we are not asking.

ENTER palpitating inkstand
because life is a mote.

You, excerpted heart—
such on off on of
is and is (103).

Writing of the heart, in these poems, is the performance of the heart of writing; “cardiac inkstand” might be the tonic to which these thematic variations return, to which they resolve.

Art analogies are imperfect, but sometimes they are useful anyway. With these two books, I think of the tension between figuration and abstraction on display in the painting of Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, or Grace Hartigan. Perham is aware of and interested in the ways her medium twists and tangles the subjects she engages, but it is important to her that those subjects are discernible, legible. Welish has hearts and inkstands, bodies with their breast-cares, but it’s all right with her if you lose sight of these in the welter of wordplay. I’ve got my own preferences among both the painters and these poets (I’m less enamored of portraits than of abstract landscapes), but both of these books reward a reader ready to find resonant expression in poetic experimentation, open to the signifier’s play.

Michael Thurston is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College, and Reviews Editor of MR.