Friday, May 02, 2003

Katy Lederer's Winter Sex seems to fall in that interesting middle zone of poetry between the tracking of subjective perception and the materialization of objects in language. The presence of a blurb from Lyn Hejinian on the back would suggest that Lederer stands closer to that particular mode of Language-y investigation, while the blurb itself suggests that a mimesis of subjectivity is also part of Lederer's project: "[these poems] are about the speculative yearnings that bind us to all that we care about." I'm still trying to wrap my head around these three potentially useful categories for describing poetic modes: subjective, objective, degree of mimesis. Lederer is less interested in wordplay than she is in subverting our syntactical expecatations, as in this passage from the poem "One Day":
The flowing scene and spirit within
The pearl in the solemn stream
And broken brook, I can hear it move haggard over rocks
Advancing, slow, along the path
To its settlement
And footstep,
Where it may or may not
Resembling, along, like a brook
Dry, parched, and of no substance.
Is there a name for this kind of rhetorical maneuver—a succession of independent clauses that are retroactively transformed into dependent clauses? The effect of the line breaks (and initial capitals, so rare now in verse) is to introduce parataxis into an otherwise hypotactic sentence, causing the action it describes—the crystalization of "The pearl" out of the more abstract"flowing scene and spirit"—to move out of concretization and back into abstraction. If there's mimesis here it reflects less "the solemn stream / And broken brook" than it does a mind suspicious of its own tendencies toward the symbolic.

Mimesis is one of Lederer's themes, most cleverly and ambiguously dealt with in the poem "A Dream of Mimesis," which is clearly meant to be a kind of translation or reading of Erich Auerbach's reading of book 19 of The Odyssey in his book Mimesis. Auerbach's take on Homeric poetry, of course, is that it is entirely unsymbolic, non-allegorical, rejecting of any notion of latent content. Auerbach's Homer writes from a curious sort of objective, immanent metaphysics: the things of this world (which include the gods) are fully present and fully meaningful, manifesting in Homer's poetry as objects fixed and unchanging in their relations with each other. It is the Homeric style "to represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations. Nor do psychological processes receive any other treatment: here too nothing must remain hidden and unexpressed" (6). There is no background in Homer, only foreground; so when Euryclea recognizes Odysseus' scar the main narrative is interrupted in order for a second narrative, complete in itself, of how Odysseus received the scar as young man. It is not a flashback, it is not syntactically or otherwise removed to the past; it is a second, entirely self-sufficient present. Homeric time is synchronous time, a series of self-contained moments that vibrate up against each other rather than depending on a more linear, causal connection. Sounds like Objectivism, no? Lederer's remarkable poem seems to interrogate the nature of the force field in which these separate Homeric moments are suspended. It is glimmering with sex and violence.
A Dream of Mimesis

It is duty and not hospitality that has diverted the ancient guest.
It is the whispered threat of sentiment and ignorance.
There is a plenitude of foresight. Before the diversion of the light.
The light is now spilling over. We now recognize him by his scar.
The feelings are being externalized. No contour is blurred, but of light
There is only the thin throat of it that hits his head. He rises—
Is seen through the curtains. Now lax—with the wind, made more solid. They are lying
Slick in the yellow light. He is wanting to fuck.
The thigh is clean. The scar on the thigh is newly healed.
In the episode's chaste entrée ("once ... when a boar ...")—here—
He must straddle her ass. We are patient. Here, his organs begin to swell—
Lest they are spiritual, his courage will fail him. His organs are swelling—we have, here,
Great depths—trimmed by delicate vulvic folds. Flesh dangles, cut.
They talk. Her hand, fraught, grabs at his clean, polished cock.
Gradually, historically, the choice has befallen him. Idols aged rot on the verge
Of legend. It runs too smoothly. The river beside her. Angst. The river is blue.
The river is not very wide. He is raping her. The situation is complicated,.
The scar on his thigh is newly healed. Let's not see it just yet—let's see
Both of their bodies illuminated in a uniform fashion. He slaps her. She grabs
At his ass. A suggestive influence of the unexpressed. The separation of styles.
Light hits her throat. The thigs of each swell—then abate. The sublime action dulls them.
He "persecutes" her. He is not afraid to let the realism of daily life enter into his sublime.
There are clearly expressible reasons for their conflict. The human problem has dealt with them
In this fashion. They are using two styles. The concept of his historical becoming has disturbed him
Into action. The episodic nature of her pain is obscured by the sublime action of his cock.
He is the simile of the wolf. He is seeking her nipples with his mouth ("A god himself
Gave him ..."). The introduction of episodes. An eloquent foreground. A uniform present
Entirely foreign to the story of his scar ("The woman now touched it ...")
With the "two styles," Lederer seems to be forcing the other major mode of mimesis that Auerbach describes into the episode of the scar. This is the subterranean, almost entirely latent world of the Hebrew Bible, in which an absolute minimum of action is narrated so as to invite a maximum of interpretive possibilities. The story from Homer is contrasted with the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which almost "[e]verything remains unexpressed."
It would be difficult, then, to imagine styles more contrasted than those of these two equally ancient and equally epic texts. On the one hand, externalized, uniformly illuminated phenomena, at a definite time and in a definite place, connected together without lacunae in a perpetual foreground; thoughts and feeling completely expressed; events taking place in leisurely fashion and with very little of suspense. On the other hand, the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and "fraught with background" (Auerbach 11-12).
Clearly, Lederer has let the Biblical style seep into and infect the Homeric style in her reading both of The Odyssey and of Auerbach's take on the two major Western modes of literary representation. The boar hunt and Euryclea's recognition become conflated with a disturbing subtext (or rather, a latent text made manifest: "He is wanting to fuck") of sexual desire which is itself further disturbed by a "subtext" of rape. Perhaps she is thinking of the sexual threat Odysseus presents to Nausicaa when he confronts her with his nakedness in Book VI. Robert Fitzgerald's translation:
He pushed aside the bushes, breaking off
with his great hand a single branch of olive,
whose leaves might shield him in his nakedness;
so came out rustling, like a mountain lion,
rain-drenched, wind-buffeted, but in his might at ease,
with burning eyes—who prowls among the herds
or flocks, or after game, his hungry belly
taking him near stout homesteads for his prey.
Odysseus had this look, in his rough skin
advancing on the girls with pretty braids;
and he was driven on by hunger, too.
Streaked with brine, and swollen, he terrified them,
so that they fled, this way and that. Only
Alkínoös’ daughter stood her ground, being given
a bold heart by Athena, and steady knees (103).
Bold heart and steady knees describes Lederer pretty well. In her representation of erotic experience (section III of her book is dominated by this and it's certainly the most memorable section upon a first reading) she seems committed to representing her own subjectivity, but not in an egocentric way. Her "I" is a tense thing, contradictory at its core, more a placeholder for the experience of feminine desire under patriarchy than a claim for coherence. Her book helps me understand better what I'm seeking from poetry right now: the dialectical representation of experience, whether achieved through tracking the mental movements of a split subject or through the materialization of conflicting languages. Lederer stands more on the subjective side, which tends to manifest in most poets as a certain verbal aridity; when I tire of this I turn toward a richer, more supercharged, more "externalized" kind of language (that is, it manifests its phon- and melopoetic properties in advance of what it signifies) as I find in someone like Mullen or even Lucie Brock-Broido.

I wonder how much longer this model of poetic activity will seem useful to me? I was ever fickle about theories.

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