by Barbara Fischer
Eros and motion, even as they are resisted, drive the poems in Then, Suddenly-- , Lynn Emanuels third collection. The verb "to move" in her work always conveys its double sense--both to journey and to feel, to respond to restlessness as well as to pathos or desire. In a 1993 interview with Haydens Ferry Review, Emanuel emphasizes that in her first two books, "[s]exuality is move, go. In my book, people use sexuality to get out, to get around, or to get money. What I think is very American about The Dig and Hotel Fiesta is that sense of travel; moving where doesnt matter since its just the movement thats necessary." She then cites Gertrude Steins definition of America, a definition that appears in the penultimate poem of Then, Suddenly--, this time as a repudiation:
The poems in this new collection challenge the compulsions of motion and emotion in her earlier work, yet continue to employ the tantalizations of the sensual as impetus. The result is a tensely held stasis that preserves the urge to move, touch, possess. The speaker of "In English in a Poem" may believe that poetry has no intention of being moving, but she is forced to admit, as an epigraph elsewhere from Albert Einstein attests, that "Nothing happens until something moves."
Emanuel scrutinizes the micro- consequences of these tensions, using her poems to explore the ways desire "happens" in the path of a poem that is, after all, a two-way street. In the passage quoted above, the speaker responds to the apparent indifference of an audience as she gives a lecture "explaining my current work / on the erotics of narrative." Though the listeners appear "unmoved" by this exegetical announcement, they wait patiently for a relevant statement--"the way your dog, when / you are talking, listens for the words Good Dog."
The lecture belies its own insistence: one of the listeners finds the talk "very moving" and closes the poem with the command "Get in the car. / Ill drive you home." With characteristic nonchalance ("I am a fatalist when it comes to art / and orgasm in English"), Emanuel takes us into the seductive space of story.
The movements in these poems are ultimately centripetal, gravitating toward the axis of the books self-conscious construction. While many of the individual poems in this collection lack the pungency of poems in Emanuels The Dig (1992), the collection as a whole achieves a more ambitious purpose. As announced by the books epigraph from Edmond Jabès, "the book is the subject of the book." Emanuel investigates the artifice inherent in acts of envoicing, inventing and reinventing modes of address in order to re-sensitize us to the conventions for speaker and audience that underlie much of contemporary lyric poetry. Plotting the overlapping trajectories of communications between reader and writer across the volumes terrain, she builds to the concluding claim, "Reader, I have made our paths cross!" In "Walt, I Salute You!" Emanuel acknowledges her debt in this endeavor to Whitmans listener-up-there gestures, but wryly corrects his sublime exuberance. Walt may imagine himself and his readers to be "hankering, gross, mystical, nude," but Emanuel skirmishes with self-effacement: "Im just a woman, chaperoned, actual, vague, and hysterical." Her own aplomb derives more directly from Stein, the precursor-muse who "hijacks" her in the hilarious monologue of possession, "Inside Gertrude Stein." Emanuels project of exposing the fabrications of narrative and voice takes up Steins crusade against "literalists and realists," though Emanuel apologizes for being a "thin, heterosexual subgenius," not the most likely candidate to assume Steins office.
Emanuel recognizes and parodies the contemporary clichés involved in this enterprise of anatomizing self-reflexivity: "your / stories," says a woman to the speaker of "She," "utilize the latest methods they disrupt everything!" Ample doses of forthrightness and humor redeem her navel-gazing. In "Homage to Sharon Stone," the star drives past the poets house in a black limo:
The scene is set, with the poet-observer and celebrity installed in their respective "roles," but the car "the size of a Pullman" refuses to let go of our attention. Is it "a Symbol For Something"? The "vehicle" that conveys the spectacle becomes the subject of the poem, as does, by extension, the "vehicle" for the anecdote, the telling of the story in the poem itself:
In a reprise of images from other poems, Emanuel literalizes the impulse to personify motion, wishing to become the car itself, and comically reiterates her own name against the phenomenon of "big name" motion-picture appeal. The poem concludes with a return to the mundane, to stacking greasy pans in the kitchen, and to the writer living in that mundane world:
The "bland strangeness" of the episode is not an antidote to glamour, but an invitation to other performances, performances in which writing is a function of motion and its negation--a limo with the lyric "I" in tow.
Then, Suddenly-- entertains with its wryness and its fluid prose rhythms (the downside being that many of her line-breaks seem arbitrary), as well as with the symmetries of its interwoven tropes (a dress, a lobotomized trenchcoat, a train). Yet in the midst of the high jinks, the book embraces a somber center as Emanuel elegizes her father, whose death and posthumous visitations interrupt the composition-in-progress of several poems. When the book operates in this register, grief clearly underlies the speakers reluctance to be "moved." At times motion and desire appear to have spent themselves entirely in the face of loss: "even my longing to be gone from here / is gone from here."
For Emanuel, though, the counter-tendency is never far behind. Despite inescapable evidence of death, of "the disappearance of matter," the matter that remains in the world continues to urge the poems into narrative as insistently, to use her figures, as a train of thought, a train pulling out of the station, a dog pulling on a leash. Narrative, in turn, never gets far in these poems without touching a cord of desire. The living body makes its presence known, whether it is invoked racily in the phone-sex query, "And what are you / wearing?," or remembered when the vertically run lines of "She" force the reader to adapt the body to the poem by turning the book sideways in his or her hands. In one of Emanuels most complex turns, the problematics of voice she has examined throughout enter the province of the body as a process of embodiment and ornament:
Throughout the collection, Emanuel handles these large terms--voice, story, body, beauty--in their most palpable configurations, tending to the conclusion, in a volume that otherwise resists totalizing interpretations, that "no matter what you say the body wins."
"Story" proves to be the term that remains the most contentious. The process of writing and un-writing the "erotics of narrative" in poetic form inspires a world-weary renunciatory manifesto. In "The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am A Poet," which appeared in a dual volume of The Dig and Hotel Fiesta in 1995, Emanuel distances the work of poetry from narrative functions, in the process endearing herself to the readers she has courted throughout:
The poems in Then, Suddenly-- require a readers willingness to connect the dots of voice and story, and to watch oneself connect the dots, but Emanuel makes that willingness surprisingly easy to give. She may eschew feeling, but in this she is somewhat ingenuous, rewarding her readers attentions throughout with vivid, indeed "moving" metaphors (Gk. "transference"). I offer this sample of movements in conclusion: "the golden broth of sunlight ladled over / pond and meadows" ("Out of Metropolis"); "a sun smeared to rosy blur, red as / a drop of blood on a slide" ("Then, Suddenly--"); "standing all alone / under the shaggy aster of a street lamp" ("Painting the Town"); "the moons naked heel dents / the sky" ("In English in a Poem").
Barbara Fischers poems have appeared in Western Humanities Review and Paris Review.