July 2008

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

Writing the Dead

Jack Spicer argued that his poems were written by “Martians,” “spooks,” or “the dead.” Such metaphors let him understand poetry as something not fully in possession of the poet. The “here and now,” for Spicer, was in service to observers from beyond. The dead used the living to apprehend a world that denied them phenomenal access except through the kinetic and imaginative systems of the poet.

Elizabeth Robinson’s Inaudible Trumpeters is built on such a strategy of noetic composition. In this new book, she presents a conceptual poetics, though it is informed more by Spicer's or Robert Duncan’s understanding of what concept could mean to the poem than by the recent debates over Conceptual Poetry. While Kenneth Goldsmith, K. Silem Mohammad, Ron Silliman, and others have reflected on the values of Conceptual Poetry, Flarf, and even a “transceptual” poetics in recent weeks on various blogs, I’m interested here in Spicer’s notion of a poem that presents a complex body of thought and feeling, wherein language is used to reveal the exchanges of phenomena and imagination through the material substance of words. Robinson’s work results from metaphoric openings that introduce conceptual relations through dramatic enactments in the poem.

Adding to the conceptual complexity here is a conversation with a dead author. The poems in this collection all converse conceptually with the New England poet, Edward Arlington Robinson, whose work provides the titles and line-end rhymes throughout the book. As a formal method, the poems are restrained by the rhymes and titles, but also this allows Elizabeth Robinson to engage a conversation with a dead author, claiming a conceptual field in which to do so. By placing formal restraints on the poems, Robinson meets Robinson, and in the process a new conceptual space is opened wherein the dead guides the living toward new discoveries in words. Such a brilliant approach to composition insures that an unknown element will erupt as Elizabeth Robinson discovers what motivates her words into being alongside the trace remains of a man now dead more than 70 years. Robinson, like Spicer, asks readers to consider the origin of poetic authorship, suggesting that we are not entirely in possession of what we know we are saying. An otherness interpenetrates our own thoughts, desires, and observations.

One poem, “On the Night of a Friend’s Wedding,” observes the transformation of the self over time. Indeed, the very notion of self is complicated by its location in natural environments, temporal modalities of imagination, and the pronouns of daily verbal usage. Rather than making comparisons through similes, Robinson opts for metonymy’s substitutions. “Wait,” she says,

until you find out how I came to you, from a sod house sown
with doors. Vows uttered and done
from a frontier in every instance. Eight
years later I huddle in other promises. I might prate
about a new border, oceanic, a true one

which commands all attention.

The “sod house,” “frontier,” and “new border” introduce incongruent metaphoric relations to the poem. And yet, such words move it out of the space of personal lyric. The pioneer-esque vocabulary recalls movement over new territory and the leaving off of the known for what isn’t. The situation -- a wedding and the new sense of self such unions evoke -- is conveyed through the commonplace of the nineteenth-century pioneer. This helps undercut some of the celebratory fanfare usually associated with a wedding by pointing out that we all share in rituals of self-transposition. More particularly, however, a sense of spiritual restlessness occurs here too, as a kind of unease is evoked through the pioneering metaphor. These images form notions of danger, for borders can be difficult to negotiate, and the humble “sod house” protrudes upon a prairie where it is exposed to the elements and observations of others. “Tonight,” Robinson continues,

can we imagine jumping off recklessly, into the sea that’s come
almost to our feet? All the while, keep in mind the plains. And me—
so adrift without my coasts. I lack you, or not “you,” but some sight
of our old selves, playing hooky, skimming from
off the tide. That’s how we should blend environs and vows now,
                                    following the periphery: utterly.

The tension between coasts and plains metaphorically keeps the “periphery” present, unsettled by restless geographic occupations of space. But through such restlessness, Robinson suggests, the pioneer narrative forms communal values. The subtext of loss tries to raise itself into some positive force. But the final adverb of the poem, that “utterly,” brings a sense of finality to it too. The upward thrust of the poem’s hope and good faith in marriage -- a spiritual marriage, perhaps, with a metonymic placement that suggests a joint commitment between the living and the dead -- is dragged out into further considerations that conceptually transform the poem into a meditation on change, commitment, and the weight of cultural narrative.

In “Discovery” the lyric confrontation with the dead again subverts the expectations of personal experience by conceptualizing emotive claims. Robinson writes:

With what regard for memory have you soared?
Haphazard: your gesture thrown in sterner light
now rises from the bent road inside your word
and into the distress of larger record.
Once you arrested loss as if it were sound transposed as sight.
It’s now flown away. You betrayed sense with errant might.
Yet senses? They have since refused to call you Lord

of the palpable. No matter. You will not beg in any wise
but are happy enough at the loft of surprise
in the body. (So many obstacles whose subtle return
dismays their abode.) You, assured, learn
that the itch may come and it may go.
suspended. How to find it you hardly know.

I hate even trying to “say” something here about the poem, because it claims a conceptual space that is utterly its own. If, however, “discovery” could be mapped as a spiritual motion of the mind and senses through phenomena, memory, and language, we can observe, through the poem, the motives of the dead. The drama marks a kind of spiritual pursuit. The “Lord / of the palpable” is established here as a governing entity to be overthrown. The conceptual action of the poem is worked out metaphorically -- since metaphor, really, is all we have to understand the chaotic and inchoate drives and desires that motivate our speech and thoughts. We perceive more than words allow us to say. The metaphoric relations in Robinson’s poetry, however, point out possible orders of attention that may help us reflect on our relationship to otherness -- an otherness that resides within.

Transparency and transcendence tend to preoccupy the attention of certain theorists of language and poetry. I’m not talking transcendence in some strictly religious sense. Transcendence is a unique aspect of communication too, for somehow words arrive and bring with them meaning from somewhere else. I speak and the other hears something, deriving some meaning from the sounds my lips produced. And yet we all know how complicated and difficult this is, with misunderstandings frequently resulting from any attempt to speak or write. This, possibly, is what makes Robinson’s work so compelling, for she constantly moves her writing into spaces that are not easily transparent. Transcendence, in language, she suggests, operates on other terms based on the motives and willingness of the writer to listen for signals from afar. The problem of how we understand the words of others -- or of ourselves -- is poignantly explored in Robinson’s poetry. And yet, even now I feel that I am over simplifying the case and reducing Robinson’s work to something not altogether accurate either. It is, after all, here, a conversation -- Robinson to Robinson -- but any attempt to listen through the poem guides her readers toward new possibilities of meaning.