In The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James argued for a vision of the subject as essentially relational, actualized by one’s interactions within a larger community. We are made to see self as world, and prompted to take note of the astounding multiplicity housed within each of us. The human voice, then, is not a singular thing, but rather, it is a choir comprised of luminous fragments: a newspaper headline, a botanist’s field guide, the hit song played over and over again on the radio.
Three recent books of innovative prose remind us, through their most subtle stylistic choices, that to be human is to be a conversation. Cassandra Smith’s u&i, Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star, and Laura Mullen’s Complicated Grief each dismantle the boundaries between self and other with astonishing grace, wit, and stylistic dexterity. Indeed, they ask us to consider the artifice inherent in the divide we often imagine between subject and object, calling our attention to the role of language, its rules, and its implicit hierarchies, in sustaining a poetics of binary distinctions and exclusion.
Within each of these collections, seemingly small technical choices become politically charged, evoking the myriad ways that consciousness is mediated by linguistic conventions that are hostile to it. In other words, language and its implicit binaries, the larger power structures that are enacted within each of its rules, are inevitably internalized, leading us to overlook the constant presence of the other within the self. For Smith, Gerard, and Mullen, the sentence, and the paragraph, for that matter, become a battleground, its most beautiful monuments usurped, interrogated, and subverted from within. While somewhat similar in style and approach, these carefully crafted works of prose offer us three very different ways of conceptualizing a grammar of both alterity and resistance.
* * *
u&i worried that our bodies were growing differently. u&i clung to each other and after the fire it became very important that we were two who were clinging…
In Cassandra Smith’s u&i, we are presented with a poetics that is undoubtedly relational. The speaker of these linked works of lyric prose is at once both subject and object, self and other, viewer and viewed. Moreover, the reader is often unclear as to whether the “u” who is being addressed is external or internal, embodied or imagined. The poem sequence could be read as social interaction and an exchange between parts of the self or parts of consciousness. With that in mind, the narrative is both externally voiced and a manifestation of the speaker’s inherently dialogic imagination.
This purposeful ambiguity within the sequence allows meaning and possibility to accumulate. The other is revealed as an ever-present part of the subject, but also, self-knowledge remains possible only through one’s interactions with the other. It is this ongoing dialogue that allows us to see ourselves, our individuality, and our own conscious experience in sharper relief. If the self is essentially a social being, made and unmade by the workings of a larger community, is there such a thing as difference? Or alterity, for that matter?
The questions raised by the text strike sparks against Smith’s formal innovations and stylistic nuances. For instance, the reader is frequently presented with prose that appears pristine, logical, and orderly. Yet we are offered only the illusion of coherence, a continuity that is possible only through the reader’s own imaginative work. In much the same way that the boundaries between subject and object are dismantled and interrogated, the poem itself becomes a collaboration between the artist and her audience, particularly as the separation between them grows less and less clear. In Smith’s skillful hands, the poem becomes a locus for dialogue, authorship being merely an ongoing process of curation.
Now the movement of leaves, that laughter in the distance.
To whom is she speaking, then? What is being gathered here, and for whom?
* * *
u&i alone in a forest were the only subject of all these cards, alone on a wall in a forest. these cards were stack on a bookshelf, a stack on the floor. a stranger would enter and the cards would tell stories of how to tell more…
As Smith’s book unfolds, our most solitary moments are revealed as socially constructed, as consciousness itself is only possible through a shared cultural imagination. Smith offers not only lyric prose, but also, a philosophy of mind and a grammar to accompany it.
In many ways, u&i seems oddly reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Here, too, a narrator finds herself alone in a forest, yet at the same time, conversation—with culture, with literature, and with the multiplicity housed in the self—becomes almost infinite in its possibilities.
Yet what begins as dialogue inevitably gives rise to discord. What happens when conflict arises within the subject? Can one ever escape the movement of consciousness itself?
* * *
I want to not want that all the time. I want to forget I want that.
I want not to want what I think I want. I want to not want what I want.
I don’t want to smoke.
I want to sleep.
Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star begins as a love story. A young female protagonist struggles with an eating disorder, while her boyfriend remains engulfed in depression and substance abuse. Yet it becomes clear that they are destroying each other, piece by piece. Gerard invokes strange and luminous metaphors from astronomy to suggest that these individuals, these distant stars, are actually part of the same system, held together by a deathly gravitation pull.
Now the dark matter is all around us.
The entire windshield shattered.
A fever of 104 degrees.
Which is more dangerous: together or alone?
More often than not, the answers to Gerard’s provocative questions can be found in the style of the writing itself. By invoking artful repetition, evocative metaphors, and a majestic procession of terse, tightly constructed declarative sentences, Gerard gestures at the impossibility of extricating self from other, even in the most violent circumstances, and even in one’s most solitary moments. Consider this passage,
I’m afraid. He was afraid.
You have what it takes.
Your students need you.
I lean on the desk.
You’ve something authentic.
Arson Claimed as Action of Eco-Terrorist Cell.
I fall to my knees…
Gerard offers us an inner voice that is as polyphonic as it is fraught with tension. Situated near the end of this luminous hybrid text, the monologue circles back to the themes and motifs with which we began: fear, desire, and the light of distant stars. As we return to the very beginning, Gerard’s unyielding declarative sentences suggest both inevitability and infinitude, conveying a tacit resignation that extends into the foreseeable future. Here we are made to encounter suffering in relentlessly journalistic prose. As a result, the circular nature of experience, consciousness, and human relationships are presented as mere fact, stripped of the usual subjectivity. Gerard’s vision proves as desolate as it is powerful, her stylistic virtuosity a center of gravity that grounds the incandescent fragments within this accomplished volume.
And so we are left here, with no trains or taxis to speak of.
Our hair disheveled.
Our prayers cut short.
Is there a way back from this cold and empty auditorium?
* * *
Our home life in the region of the waterfall, in expectation of the projected improvements, along the lines laid down by a road made up of alternate versions of that road, blossoming where the fractured rigidities of a choose your own adventure story inevitably discover our hero…
Laura Mullen’s Complicated Grief explores the implications of loss for this notion of the self as an essentially social being. The speaker of this extended sequence recounts the death of a love object, making stunning use of fragmentation (of voice, of grammar, and of narrative) to convey the artifice inherent in our attempts to create meaning from the violence of experience. As the book unfolds, are carried from third-person narrative to the first-person, and back again. With this subtle stylistic gesture, the self is revealed as other, and in the aftermath of loss, one’s own consciousness will never be familiar again. And we can no longer find our way back into language, shared narratives, or the lyric imagination that once made us whole.
In Black Sun, Julia Kristeva described mourning as a loss of language. The relationship between signifier and signified inevitably collapses, and one by one, signs lose their meaning. Grief and its ever-darkening binary star, melancholia, can offer us only luminous fragments, those little shards of what once was our immersion in language.
When fall out of language, it is the other who brings us back, and restores meaning to the words we once knew. Within Mullen’s work, the reader is asked to reassemble the subject’s shattered consciousness, to construct a narrative that lends unity to the chaos of her experiences. In many ways, Mullen suggests the inevitability of these arbitrary attempts to create meaning from disparate things in the world: a portrait, a typo, the empty space the edge of a map.
So what has been given to us? Sorrow and its little box of thorns?
* * *
Mullen takes a tremendous risk in handing over these fragments of the speaker’s experience. As the reader becomes a collaborator, participating actively in creating meaning from the text, we risk appropriation, misrepresentation, or even negation of the subject’s lived experience.
Mullen’s bravery speaks to an undertheorized aspect the human condition: we all risk metaphysical violence at the hands of the other. This, however, is a chance that we must take, as we are only ourselves when we are in conversation.
With that in mind, Complicated Grief renders the dialogic imagination more beautiful, and more terrifying, than ever before:
“Do I open my book? Close your book. Do you close your book? Does Mr. White close his book? Take this pen. Who takes this pen?” In wholly patrimony. To each one she says the same last words: “You look like someone I loved once.” The final tower neither exists or does not exist. How is that?
* * *
In any paradox, there are only beginnings. Smith, Gerard, and Mullen each offer a different point of entry to the same set of questions:
What dreamscapes and what cathedrals are housed inside each one of us?
Can solitude become a conversation?
Are we ever alone?
These three writers don’t pretend to offer us concise answers, but rather, they refract the question, allowing it to tangle and proliferate. When each book closes, we are left with only a shining multiplicity. But it is one we recognize from within the darkened rooms of our innermost experiences.