Wednesday, January 12, 2011

You Villain Touch; or, the Body of Genre

In my first meeting with this semester's starry-eyed Introduction to Creative Writing students, I played a little game where each student shares a word that they like and another word that they despise. It's a functional icebreaker and, as far as the favorite words go, also serves as a simple diagnostic tool, dividing the class roughly into the aspirational (words like "hope" and "individual") and the ear-driven ("indubitably" is the one I recall). The negative words are more interesting. After three different students independently came up with "moist" (a word that occurred last semester as well), I began writing down the disliked words on the board:
Another disfavored word that I didn't write down sums the rest up, both sonically and in terms of meaning: grotesque. Each word is heavy on sibilants and, except for slice, hard C and T sounds. And each describes an object failing to maintain its boundaries, spilling liquid (moist, secreted), crumbling (crusty), or dissevering (slice). Words that conjure disintegrating bodies. Words that make your flesh creep—a phrase that in itself conjures that crucial aspect of the grotesque, the uncanny aliveness and strangeness of your own body, which is coterminous yet refuses to play along with the social and psychological boundaries of the self.

Thinking a lot today about the grotesque as a genre, or anti-genre, in light of various books on my radar. In the senior seminar I'm co-teaching this spring with Davis Schneiderman, our chosen texts are William Gillespie's new novel (but perhaps I should borrow Geraldine Kim's coinage, Povel), Keyhole Factory; and the much-noted anthology edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg, Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics. I'm also reading the brand new collection edited by Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher, The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (in which my esteemed colleague Bob Archambeau has a useful essay on the Victorian pretensions on the can-poetry-matter crowd). Last but not least, a book that does not yet exist but which G.C. Waldrep and I are slowly laboring into being: The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. All these things form a constellation in my mind on the question of boundaries in American poetry, and in poems themselves.

Touch me not: one of the early warnings, or irresistible come-ons, in the English literary tradition, when it comes to touching:
Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, hélas, I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that farthest cometh behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain.
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.
This famous sonnet of Sir Thomas Wyatt's, an imitation or riff on Petrarch's "Rime 190" is widely understood to be an allegory about the poet's desire for Anne Boleyn. It's a poem about impossible pursuit, partly because pursuit is barred by the power of the sovereign (Caesar, aka King Henry VIII) and the Ovidian transformations of Boleyn, who takes the form of an animal (a deer, "an hind") but also, in the poem's most famous line, something even more uncatchable: "Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind"). The poet yearns to touch, catch, and "hold" the elusive beloved but she is "wild for to hold, though [she] seem tame." To hunt this hind means to risk "running wild" in the sense of total dissolution of the self; for the revenge of the sovereign must be total in nature. Wyatt's social death, his death at court, would precede his inevitable physical death should he be caught in the act of sexual treason. The power of eros becomes the eros of power, with this difference: unable to assume the power of Caesar (itself a power greater than any single body can contain), the power of touch threatens annihilation; and yet such touch, clearly, is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

In the American tradition there's overt celebration of touch, mingling, pressing the flesh, but this celebration masks a profound ambivalence. Walt Whitman is surely the poet laureate of touch and its Dionysisan tendency to blur and bend the principium individuationis:
Mine is no callous shell;
I have instant conductors all over me, whether I pass or stop;
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.

I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy;
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.
From that "harmlessly through me" (implying a fundamental stability of self: "Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am") we pass quickly to touch as peak experience, the jouissance of "about as much as I can stand." And the section that follows is even darker:
s this then a touch? quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,
Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them,
My flesh and blood playing out lightning to strike what is hardly different from myself;
On all sides prurient provokers stiffening my limbs,
Straining the udder of my heart for its withheld drip,
Behaving licentious toward me, taking no denial,
Depriving me of my best, as for a purpose,
Unbuttoning my clothes, holding me by the bare waist,
Deluding my confusion with the calm of the sunlight and pasture-fields,
Immodestly sliding the fellow-senses away,
They bribed to swap off with touch, and go and graze at the edges of me;
No consideration, no regard for my draining strength or my anger;
Fetching the rest of the herd around to enjoy them a while,
Then all uniting to stand on a headland and worry me.

The sentries desert every other part of me;
They have left me helpless to a red marauder;
They all come to the headland, to witness and assist against me.

I am given up by traitors;
I talk wildly—I have lost my wits—I and nobody else am the greatest traitor;
I went myself first to the headland—my own hands carried me there.

You villian touch! what are you doing? My breath is tight in its throat;
Unclench your floodgates! you are too much for me.
Many commentators see this moment in the poem as a moment of masturbation and not the nigh-unbearable contact with another's flesh. But this is nearly irrelevant to the larger question of the power of "villain touch" to destabilize the self and threaten it with foundering. Je est un autre, as Rimbaud says, and one's own body (Whitman's queer body) may be as "autre" as another's.

Or as Jeff Goldblum's mad scientist puts it in The Fly, "The flesh makes you crazy."

Flash forward a hundred years to the Confessional poets. And when I think about what's most compelling about their work, what makes them sexy--there's no better word--it's not the dubious glamour of insanity ("My mind's not right") but the ways in which Berryman and Lowell and Plath admit the treacherous terrain of tremulous bodies in contact with other bodies into their poems. Consider for example Berryman's own "touch me not" poem, "Dream Song 4":
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken paprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact that her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying
"You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry's dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance." I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni. -- Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls. --

Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes
downcast . . . The slob beside her feasts . . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
--Mr. Bones: there is.

The seemingly indifferent and self-possessed object that is the desired woman's "compact & delicious body" has the effect of shaking Henry's always precarious subjectivity all to pieces; "fainting with interest" (the first word suggests a Keatsian "swoon"; the latter word suggesting that we are very far from any Kantian idealized aestheticiation of the body-object; Henry's interest in her is decidedly culinary), he is torn between the violently opposed actions of "springing on her" (closing the absolute distance between subject and object) or "falling at her little feet" (abjectifying the self while placing the beloved on a properly Petrarchan pedestal, an action which notably sustains rather than terminates her inaccessibility). Villain touch in this poem is all mental, all fantasy, but it's still powerful enough to shake this speaker apart, calling his minstrel-doppelgänger Mr. Bones into existence in the final strophe, a mark of Henry's habitually split self. "There ought to be a law against Henry / ...there is." It's Henry's identity as transgressor, as transgressed, as divided by painful (erotic or deathly, or both; see "Dream Song 382") contact with others, that makes him and The Dream Songs so memorable.

The question of genre and the comparative fleshliness or bony spiritualization of American poetry connects, I think, directly to this question of contact between subject and object; or in broader national terms, the divide between democratic melting pot and xenophobic nationalism. Of course it was Lowell who gave us the metaphor of "the raw and the cooked"' in poetry, that is so weirdly apt to this question of the role of the flesh, the grotesque and carnivalesque. Lowell meant, broadly, the "raw" poetry of Ginsberg and the New Americans versus the "cooked," more traditionally formal poetry nurtured by the New Criticism. He was referring primarily to poetic form, but as with any strong metaphor, the vehicle of raw and cooked can overpower the tenor of form and bring poetry, abruptly, into more or less sublimated contact with the flesh.

I am tempted to be contrarian here and to argue that, just as Berryman and Lowell are more preoccupied with the raw terrors of embodiment than you might expect, so too is a poet like Ginsberg surprisingly concerned with bodily integrity and the construction of an impermeable subjectivity: the egotistical sublime. The phrase of course evokes John Keats and his notorious characterization of "the camelion poet" as boundariless, permeable body: "A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity - he is continually in for - and filling some other Body." And Ginsberg, who demonstrates Whitmanian sympathy with others in "Howl," does not go so far as Whitman does as to risk dissolution; his "I" exists in ambiguously distanced relation to "the best minds of my generation" who engage in Dionysian ecstasies of gay sex and drugs, and which only comes back into the poem as self-in-touch-and-at-risk with the appearance or reappearance of Carl Solomon: "Ah Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe and now you're really in the total animal soup of time." That's a terrifically ambiguous phrase as far as Lowell's metaphor goes--total animal soup, isn't that somehow raw and cooked? When we are "in the soup" we are in chaotic contact with the heterogenous, and in danger of being eaten besides! But it's Carl who's in the soup, not Ginsberg, who steps back in the second section for his jeremiad against "Moloch" and who only fully inhabits the poem as an I that is "with you in Rockland / where you're madder than I am"; but that repeated phrase, "I'm with you in Rockland" only serves to reiterate the speaker's separation from the "madder" Solomon, who only threatens actual contact "in my dreams" at the poem's conclusion: " in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across / America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night." To my cottage: a strikingly pastoral image evocative of Yeats and Pound in Ireland or, perhaps more pertinently, the person from Porlock who's arrived just in time to prevent Coleridge from dissolving into the total animal soup of "Kublai Khan."

I see that I've yielded to temptation; I see also that pastoral has come up, as I knew it would. Because pastoral is that fantasy of subject-object, culture-nature reconciliation, though in actual pastorals the supposed reconciliation is firmly on the subject's terms (as in Romantic and Transcendentalist pastoral) or more rarely the object's (as in the Objectivist pastoral of an Oppen or a Francis Ponge, "taking the side of things" [Les partis pris des choses]). One might say that an anthology like American Hybrid takes a pastoral position by constructing a wishful "middle landscape" between raw and cooked poetries (editor Cole Swensen, curiously the only of the two editors engaged by the critics in The Monkey and the Wrench, calls it "a thriving center of alterity"). We can imagine a hybrid itself as "raw" or "cooked," with the "cooked" end of the continuum implying synthesis and blending, while "the raw" preserves the individual identities of its components in what I envision as a lightly dressed salad. In general the anthology's critics see it as a cooked anthology that's pretending to be raw--that it represents a re-inscription of white mythology, constructing an imaginary exterior (and superior) to the fraught and intrinsically political zone of contention that is po-biz, from which so many poets and critics regardless of aesthetic position seem to want to escape.

What has this got to do with that villain touch? Everything, if the yearning for touch ("Contact! Contact!" Thoreau cries) weren't always in the Western tradition countered by fear of touch, by our dim or acute suspicion that our boundaries, our bodies, are porous and penetrable. ("Secure our borders!" the Tea Party cries, which like all such movements seeks not political power but the end of politics as such, not just "politics as usual.") To identify with the porous and penetrable is to take a step toward the grotesque (consider the drag queen), inverting powerfully gendered and hierarchical assumptions about who gets to be a speaking (lyric) subject. When young women speak from the uncanny position of the object, as in the gurlesque; or when flarfists make deliberately bad-tasting animal soup out of kitsch; or when the writers associated with New Narrative (I have in mind a loose confederation of largely Bay Area authors, the sons and daughters of Kathy Acker, many of whom are represented in Biting the Error) tell baroque stories of desiring machines and bodies-without-organs; or when almost anyone takes the trouble to translate poems written almost anywhere else in the world (the most intimate and intimidating form of poetic touch, it seems, for American readers)--then we are exploring and exploding, without dreaming of erasing, that terrifying and seductive boundary, permeable and mortal as human skin.

Olson again crystallizes things for me, return us to "Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)." "No Greek will be able / to discriminate my body"--Olson rejecting the philosophical tradition of humanism running at least from Socrates to Descartes, reducing his body to res extensa. "I have this sense / that I am one / with my skin." A sense refined, I think, by Olson's experience among the Maya, whom as he told Creeley seemed to hold their bodies differently from Americans: "it's so very gentle, so granted, the feel, of touch -- none of that pull, away, which, in the States caused me, for so many years, the deepest sort of questions about my own structure." The return to the body--or not the body, but a body, what a body, Olson's gigantic body, Maximus, mountainous locus of difference. It's easy to read the last lines of this poem as the return of the egotistical sublime, but:
Plus this—plus this:

that forever the geography

which leans in

on me I compell

backwards I compell Gloucester

to yield, to



is this
The landscape (the landscape!) exerts its pressure on Maximus, "leans in" on him, transmits through him a compulsion on Gloucester, not because he is artifex, Mussolini-manque, but because he has a citizen-body, and to be such a transmitter, in contact, on that boundary between self and other, subject and object, well. "Polis / is this."

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