All too often, writers possess great technical ability, but they lack ambition with respect to the larger ideas that seemingly small choices within a text—a line break, alliteration, and even the visual appearance of the work on the printed page—can communicate. For many practitioners of the literary arts, style remains mere ornamentation, rather than functioning in a more substantive way. And so we are left shivering in a beautifully painted corridor after the performance, with the doors latched all around us.
At the same time, three recent texts by women remind us that form, and the behavior of the language itself, can function as an extension of content, opening up possibilities for readerly interpretation that transcend the semantic meaning of the words as they appear on the page. C. Kubasta’s All Beautiful & Useless, Ruth Danon’s Limitless Tiny Boat, and Anne Tardos’ Nine each present us with subtle technical choices that call our attention to the politics inherent in language, grammar, and the literary forms we have inherited. We are asked to consider language not as a given, but rather, as a set of implicit hierarchies, judgments, and assertions of power. Even more importantly, the reader is reminded that language structures conscious experience, and even the most subtle implications of grammar are internalized by the subject. In these deftly crafted works of poetry and hybrid prose, we watch as each author simultaneously inhabits and revises received structures for thinking and writing, ultimately subverting them from within that familiar and deeply entrenched order. Although somewhat different in style and approach, these innovative texts certainly share an investment in approaching poetic technique as politically charged, the smallest nuances of formal innovation offering opportunities for social justice within the literary landscape, and well beyond its boundaries.
What does possibility look like, then? How will we recognize her, and what glittering ammunition does she carry?
* * *
I did not say this exactly. I said
I am alone. I am ashamed.
I said I am so thirsty I
want something to drink. And
I said there are small shells
crushed beneath my feet. And I
also said one simple thing…
Ruth Danon’s Limitless Tiny Boat provocatively juxtaposes inherited myths with invented forms, which often use the space of the page as a visual field. By presenting her artistic inheritance alongside the wild machinery of her own imagination, Danon ultimately calls our attention to the arbitrary nature of the forms, narratives, and linguistic conventions that circumscribe what is possible within thought itself. Indeed, the cultural imagination from which we all borrow is revealed as the result of chance, and what’s more, it is only one of many possibilities.
At the same time, Danon’s graceful retellings of classic myths remind us that these shared narratives, these symbols and motifs that circulate within culture, are necessary for dialogue, artistic exchange, and even community. Danon fully acknowledges the necessity of a repertoire of forms and narratives, and the larger collective consciousness to which they give rise. She herself is implicated in sustaining this chance assemblage of cultural knowledge. Yet she skillfully works within these received structures for thinking and writing to expand what is possible within them.
What will we find when we open the door?
* * *
Any sequence of three lines
suggests a narrative…
As Danon’s book unfolds, familiar myths, and the literary conventions that structure them, are rendered suddenly and wonderfully strange. Indeed, we are made to see that the story of Narcissus and Echo offers myriad possibilities for identification on the part of the reader, among them a silenced female beloved, who discovers the possibility of speech by traversing the darkened corridors of her own psyche. Narcissus, who normally occupies a prominent role in the story, becomes a tertiary figure, mere ornamentation.
As Danon works to excavate Echo’s agency from this familiar mythical dreamscape, narrative convention is revealed as a source or order within a text, but also, a diversion, a limitation, a silencing. When we are asked to attend to Narcissus, we miss the possibilities at the margins of the text, the subversive and provocative gestures that exist only on the periphery of a larger cultural imagination.
Indeed, narrative convention is revealed as an attempt to impose order on an inherently unruly human psyche. What we discover through Danon’s work is the multiplicity that is housed within any experience, perception, or event. As we struggle to sort through these glittering possibilities, our attempts to find order inevitably replicate the power structures within the culture we inhabit. Danon’s work offers us a profound interventionist gesture, which inevitably expands what is possible within this familiar narrative, and the larger power structures that narrative replicates.
When Danon forces us to unsee Narcissus, we see Echo for the first time.
What else is waiting for us when we meet her?
* * *
Mix of funk and freejazz Miles Davis musical response.
Lucretius saw the universe as something having a nature.
Bernstein: “Estrangement is our home ground”-Yukon bullfrog flu.
Barely arrived, it seems, and almost time to leave…
In her most recent collection, Nine, Anne Tardos acknowledges the necessity of shared conventions, myths, and narratives for creating community, and in turn, works of art. Yet her interrogation of these constraints is as relentless as it is fiercely intelligent. She ultimately eschews the rules of grammar, syntax, and narrative, choosing instead to define her own.
Written in nine end-stopped lines of nine words each, the poems in this provocative collection make us suddenly aware of the many constraints that are imposed upon conscious experience. Much like Danon, Tardos reminds us of the chance nature of the rules, and the larger cultural imagination, that we have inherited. This burdensome inheritance, accidental as it may be, ultimately circumscribes what is possible within thought itself. And for Tardos, the vast terrain of the cultural imagination we all inhabit is wholly subject to revision.
As Tardos redefines the rules that lend structure and meaning to experience, she allows this radical grammar, these new syntactical structures, to open up unforeseen possibilities for her own thinking, and for our imaginative work as readers. The poetic line becomes both a self-contained unit and a gesture toward infinitude, the possibility of indefinite extension. Similarly, the wild and provocative juxtapositions within each line strike sparks within one’s imagination. Each moment of rupture within these fragmentary narratives becomes an aperture, a doorway through which the reader is beckoned. Indeed, the poet no longer gives meaning to an audience who passively receives it. The text instead becomes a machine for generating meaning, and practitioner’s job is merely to guide the reader in his or her own imaginative work.
But don’t the little dishes on the table look familiar? Do you recognize that music drifting from the other room?
* * *
Take a good look, she says about her inventory.
Palatially housed, her inflammatory and multifaceted set of selves.
Old brain inside the new brain, inside the skull.
The exact velocity of quantum particles cannot be known…
Tardos certainly draws inspiration from a shared cultural imagination. The book’s pages are populated by familiar literary figures, among them Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Charles Bernstein, and Kenneth Goldsmith. Yet Tardos situates these fragments of culture within a deeply unsettling imaginative topography, which is governed by order and chaos, chance and careful procedure.
By inviting accident into what once was a meticulously structured world, Tardos creates a critical distance between her own thinking and the cultural mechanisms that she is interrogating. It is chance that pushes the boundaries of the imagination, as we inevitably search for, imagine, and impose narrative. Indeed, this element of randomness helps us to see the limitations that have been imposed upon our own thinking, dreaming, and imaginative work.
And by abandoning the rules of grammar, syntax, and narrative, Tardos allows us to see them more clearly. The boundaries that have imposed upon our thinking appear in sharper relief, and we are suddenly conscious of the wild experiments in thought that have inevitably been lost.
* * *
The stories we are told as children
Leave mute tethers, limning the interior
of grey matter, the hollowed synapse.
I remember Thumbelina: I was too small, prey-mate to mouse, mole.
I remember Bluebeard: I was too curious, opening doors, drawers, finding books my mother thought well-hidden…
Like Danon and Tardos, C. Kubasta interrogates the politics of language, making us suddenly aware of (and implicated in) the ways larger power structures are maintained within culture. Yet her new collection, All Beautiful & Useless, is unique in its focus on the politics of textual ownership. Kubasta makes us see that the rules of grammar, narrative, and artistic community are predicated on a proprietary model of language, which forecloses the possibility of appropriation as an ethical violation, a theft of labor and capital. At the same time, Kubasta reveals all speech acts as collaborative in nature, as we inevitably draw from a shared repertoire of literary forms, cultural symbols, and inherited narratives.
Her experiments in appropriation show us that a proprietary approach to language situates literary texts, especially feminist works, within an economy that is hostile to them. What’s more, texts are shaped by the economies in which they circulate. Helene Cixous once described writing that takes shape within a masculine intellectual economy as “marked” writing. The narrative arc, the musicality of the language, and the writer’s intellectual labor are determined by the needs of the literary marketplace and its accompanying systems of valuation.
Kubasta resists this masculine economy of texts, its rules, and its system of valuation, through her provocative appropriative gestures. By juxtaposing found text with her own imaginative work, Kubasta makes it impossible for us to separate her own intellectual labor from culture, or the individual from the larger collective, or self from world. She calls our attention to the inherent artifice of any attempt to assert textual ownership. As the book unfolds, Kubasta asserts language as being in a community, rather than an economy of any kind. Indeed, the economy of texts we have all taken as a given is revealed as an illusion, a social construct, sustained only by our tacit acceptance of its terms.
It is Kubasta’s formal innovation, her wild and unflinching experimentation, that allows us critical distance from culture. By breaking convention, she helps us see these rules in all of their elaborate and destructive artifice.
* * *
A burned house, a branch snapped in two.
We are made to understand the implications of our smallest gestures, and even our most infinitesimal choices in language. We now grasp what is at stake as we place the words, one by one. As a cathedral takes shape in the air.
We know, more than ever, what it means to dismantle it.