The Beauty of the Husband
Alfred A. Knopf, $22 (cloth)
W.W. Norton & Company, $22 (cloth)
Grove, $13 (paper)
by Barbara Fischer
The poetic experiments in these three mid-career books are each built self-consciously as collages—mixtures of media, transgressions of generic and formal boundaries, and miscellaneous lexicons. Alice Fulton explains in an interview, "I try for traces of collage and disjunction, along with enough synthesis to hold the poem together." When an interviewer proposes that Anne Carson's fragmented narratives are collages, Carson agrees, likening her process to "Painting with thoughts and facts." Claudia Rankine invokes "Bearden, Romare (collagist, of course)" in the concluding section of Plot, a reference that suggests a model for her own improvisatory collision of images. The mixed-media impulses in these volumes of poetry (Fulton's fifth, Carson's fifth, and Rankine's third), especially those that appropriate the materials and methods of the visual arts, allow for polyphony, heterogeneity, and incisive self-analysis.
Felt, after a prefatory poem, opens with an ekphrasis on Joan Mitchell's White Territory. Like the poems that employ painterly analogs in Fulton's earlier books ("The Priming is a Negligee" in Sensual Math, and "Scumbling" in Palladium, for example), "Close" tracks a complex procedure of description and self-reflexive interpretation that carries insights and difficulties across artistic borders. Mitchell, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, herself suggested a reciprocity of poetic and painterly agendas when she said that a territory "is a lyric space." Similarly, Fulton uses the process of taking in a painting—and being taken in by it—to map a lyric space of vulnerable exposure. Standing in front of the large painting (it measures seven by nine feet), the speaker realizes
This uncomfortable nearness triggers a rapid series of "in" sounds that underscore the speaker's immersion:
I couldn't get away from it.
I could see only parts of the whole,
I was so close.
I was almost in the painting,
a yin-driven, frost-driven thing
of mineral tints
in the museum's vinegar light.
Fulton shares Mitchell's concern with what the painter called "internal weather." The painting "put me in mind of winter" writes Fulton, a phrase that preserves an ordinary idiom for "it made me think of winter" while it invokes the directive for radical numbness that begins Stevens's "The Snow Man." The danger of being "too close" to a painting or a person, the poem suggests, is that proximity can occlude empathic understanding. When, conversely, something is "felt"—a word that Fulton tropes throughout the book as both "the permeable past tense of feel" and "a fabric of entanglement"—it implies both contact and inevitable distance.
Fulton's mixture of media is edgy and experimental—"This is not an illustration." She stands close enough to her subjects to see that art, visual or verbal, is adulterated by evidence of the processes that have made it. The museum-goer notes that "In person, [the painting] looked a little dirty. / I could see the artist's hairs / in the pigment—traces of her / head or dog or brush." She sees "gooey gobs of / process painted in," and notes Mitchell's knifework, which has "left some gesso showing through, / a home for lessness that— /…/ is a form of excess." This paradoxical excess of absence describes a characteristic feature in Fulton's work, here and in earlier books—a lavish and roiling expenditure of imagery and wordplay that draws attention to the means by which any representational illusion of plenitude is sustained. Critics have emphasized the "excesses" of Fulton's vivacious artifice, digressiveness, and heterogeneous diction (I would agree with those who do not consider such "excess" pejorative), and Felt, if somewhat less juicy than Sensual Math, powerfully investigates the emotional stakes of this "form of excess" as a poetics.
In "Prequel," another poem that draws on the visual arts, Fulton dramatizes the principles of provisional and peripheral vision on which many of her poems are written. Originally titled "Sketch," this poem exercises a process in which "Each line braves rejection / of the every, edits restless…." Restlessness and contingency, in "lines" that often double as units of writing and drawing, characterize the mixed-media impulse throughout Felt. The long poem "About Music For Bone And Membrane Instrument" grafts musical imagery onto an erotic subtext to explore rock star idolatry, adolescent infatuation, and Kafka. A later poem clarifies the intent of this process of accretion and tight compression: "I'll have to reach—not just the lyric chicory's / chill wick, or genteel emblems poised as gems— /…I'll have to feel / / the unaesthetic everything twist through my head." As it assays the visual arts and music, Felt re-mixes the aesthetic into the "unaesthetic everything" to expose new possibilities for verbal art.
Anne Carson's adulterations of poetic form in The Beauty of the Husband are particularly well suited to her subject—adultery. This book is a tale of a marriage told through dialogue, exposition, elegiac couplets, literary quotations, and letters. Carson continues to be, as one critic has put it, "compulsively readable," especially in her characterization of her villain, a charismatic but chronically unfaithful husband who publishes his wife's writing as his own, and who is capable of saying "…I never lied to her. When need arose I may have used words that lied." Nonetheless, the wife cannot resist him, and her complicity is evident in the desperate acerbity of their dialogue. At one point, she unleashes a terrific string of epithets: "Coward… Betrayer…Opportunist…Slave.…Faithless lecherous child…Liar…Destroyer liar sadist fake." He counters:
If you wish not to go on with this I'll stop. Passages like these are interspersed among a complex network of references to Keats, Homer, Bataille, Lévi-Strauss, Beckett, and Thucydides, to name a few. With Keats as her cicerone and these others in tow, Carson circles problems of truth, beauty, and "[h]ow…people get power over one another." In the process, her method becomes the message: "this is the look of the truth: layered and elusive."
I've said everything before.
What's wrong with us.
Fog of war.
Why are we at war.
Because I don't want to give up.
Your dreams are a mess.
They are my masterpiece.
Carson, like Fulton, begins with the visual arts. In the first section, a quotation from Duchamp introduces "hesitation," a concept that permeates the book. Discussing The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Duchamp instructs, "Use delay instead of picture or painting— / a delay in glass / as you would say a poem in prose or a spittoon in silver." Duchamp's imperative, as it blurs distinctions between subject, art object, and medium, invites us to see Carson's use of postponement as both form and theme. As she writes later, "What if we drop a little more solvent / on the seam / / between foreground and background." The character Ray, a painter friend of the husband, offers a model for an artistic project that creates "delays," albeit a model that Carson gently parodies. He has completed a picture called "Me and My Desire under the Red Stars" and is working on a painting of his mother: "Portraits / on the same canvas almost four years of them, / by now a thick painting. / I like to keep the hesitation in Ray'd say." The husband is inspired: "Once he met Ray / he began to write paintings." (This phrasing echoes Carson's own remark that she sees her process as an act of "painting.") Ray's "hesitant" artistry is ultimately less important than his triangulation of the relationship between the spouses, but many sections of The Beauty of the Husband reflect an arrangement of textual space to "keep the hesitation in." Here, Carson's spacing heightens the tension:
There is something pure-edged and burning about the first infidelity in a marriage.
Taxis back and forth.
Cracks in the wall where it gets hit.
Lights on late at night.
I cannot live without her.
Her, this word that explodes.
Lights still on in the morning.
Carson's dominant mode in The Beauty of the Husband, however, is not painterly but dancerly. The book is subtitled "a fictional essay in 29 tangos." By choosing dance as her analogous medium, in particular the tango with its "sheer wantonness," Carson dramatizes the effects of disastrous desire. References to tango flicker in and out of the narrative to underscore the sensuality of her character's interactions, but more importantly, tango serves as a structural device: the poem's tempo and pacing mimic the dance's alternation of long steps with quick complicated ones, as well as its exaggerated posturing. Carson's frequent use of tercets with lines of shortening lengths evokes the tango's centrifugal arc. The narrator cannot resist her desire to "circle closer to the beauty of the husband," and the counterforces that prevent her collapse are the exertions of pause and pose.
Carson's most original experiment in this book is the way she lays down a rhythmic base that works viscerally and cumulatively. When the final tango concludes "Here's my advice, / hold. / / Hold beauty." it has a breathless, theatrical power that it could not have without the rhythmic accumulation of the preceding "dances." Carson orchestrates both subterranean intensity and surface detail to great effect. One example of the latter: the word "satin" is used early on to describe an erotic moment in which grapes feel "like hard bulbs of wet red satin exploding under your feet." The word resurfaces at the end of the book, in the husband's voice, to describe rabbits' "satiny red entrails." With a shiver, we recognize that the husband's use of erotic beauty is not merely manipulative, but violent.
The husband in Claudia Rankine's Plot is much more likeable. As a wry interlocutor in this innovative account of pregnancy and childbirth, he plays a supporting role to the central character, Liv. Plot, perhaps best described as a book-length narrative collage, dwells in the interstices of intimacy and language, as did The End of the Alphabet, Rankine's second book. Ever attentive to the way that our sense of self is linguistically constructed—"a banked stamina called: I, I, I"—Rankine assembles arrays of halting fragments to suggest a mindscape that is by turns foggy, turbulent, and clear. The result is a stunning evocation of the cognitive and emotional weather of pregnancy, and a very difficult read. (The book confronts its own difficulty when the narrator admits, "this assemblage, its associated distortions, bewilders me.") Rankine's hybrid form fortunately allows for brief respites, such as the pillowside exchanges ("Are you awake? / I could be.") in which Liv struggles with her fear that "the hood of motherhood was meant to blur herself from herself":
That same night Erland pressed his ear to Liv's belly.
What do you hear? Liv asked.
Not you, Erland answered. Not you.
Rankine strips her subject of all sentimentality, denaturalizing the notion of familial, "unslakable resemblance." Baby names don't get any less cute than "Ersatz," her term for the unborn child—the replacement, the synthetic product, the made thing. The "plot" of this fractured narrative is both the determined chain of bodily events from conception to birth, and the machinations of a mind that refuses to acquiesce to these transformations without strenuous reflection.
Rankine, like Fulton and Carson, turns to the visual arts as a medium for these reflections. Liv is a painter, and the book juxtaposes her creative and procreative energies. In the sequences "Eight Sketches / After Lily Briscoe's Purple Triangle" and "Painting after the death of Virginia Woolf entitled Beached Debris," Rankine constellates words in rectangles printed on the page, and then flanks these visual-textual fields with captions and commentary, as in an artist's notebook:
I think I am open to experiencing all drowning but I remain
suspicious of landscape that is a mental rehearsal set down to
wash recognition out of mind. I see there is meant to be plot,
a burial, but the beginning of reflection should have fewer
maybes and tension should exist between the bank (our solidity)
and the river (our dissolution).
The passage starts like a direct journal entry ("I think I am open to experiencing…") but then segues into the paradox that a "rehearsal" does not foster "recognition," but indeed erases the possibility of it, pre-empting any "openness." Plot becomes a finality, a burial ground, and to resist such tragic closure, Liv establishes a "tension" in the picture field, the parentheticals foregrounding her attempt to assign symbolic meanings to the work she composes. Here is part of the framed "painting" that results:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Until the surface, defoliating, embraces its shadow
Dense indifference within traced trees
Bleached shrubbery: effaced no longer and still
Loss in aggregation, slow-moving, heavy, grave matter
Being subsumed subsequent to green, salt
This assemblage self-describes the instability of any symbolic values that may be attributed to the composition. The surface "defoliates" as concrete images ("bleached shrubbery") and abstract terms ("indifference") seem to cancel each other out. In the attempt to maintain the "tension" between "solidity" and "dissolution," the words themselves seem to go under: the phrase "subsumed subsequent" pulls the section to the heavy stop on "salt." Rankine goes farther than either Fulton or Carson in seeing the poem as a visual and sonic space, and her experimental procedure blurs the image/text boundary to expose a surface where we witness a dynamic "loss in aggregation."
Like Fulton, Rankine uses wit and wordplay to measure the "proximity" of self to language and to other selves. Fulton concludes Felt with a second poem titled "Close," bringing us back to the volume's beginning and reminding us that the word "close," as it slips from adjective to verb, signals both nearness and conclusion. Rankine— in a series of poems that are titled "Proximity of…" one word to another, such as "posed to exposed," "weary to wary," and "clock to lock,"—identifies overlooked intimacies in language itself, spinning moody, enigmatic meditations from these discoveries. Her sensitivity to anagrammatical and typographical detail allows her to see "open" in "persons," "in her" in "inner," and, troublingly, "evil" in "live" (a word which she plays off her heroine's name). As these poets exploit polysemy, they present tentative, unstable examples of "fusion" in "confusion" (Rankine's terms), rapidly deploying multiple meanings as if dizzying discontinuity were the only way to get difficult matters said.
In a recent discussion of contemporary poetics in Fence, Rankine asks, "Is it fair to say there is in the 21st century a greater consensus towards the notion that true coherency is fragmented?" Many would say yes, agreeing that it has become commonplace to violate syntactic norms and otherwise fracture linguistic and poetic conventions in the name of realism. Yet Rankine goes farther: in a deliberate project of constructing a "languaged self" with greater fidelity to the disruptions and interruptions that constitute it, she demonstrates that linguistic fragmentation need not make poems inaccessible. Rankine explains that she is interested in "reintroducing all that has been broken off previously to make the narrative smooth." She assembles "the fragments that altogether we recognize as experience," recording the interruptions of body and mind that make syntactic fluidity all but impossible. Like Carson, Rankine pieces together the overlooked details of the domestic-erotic. (Plot may be the only place in poetry that describes lovemaking in late pregnancy.) Not despite, but indeed because of its discontinuity and indeterminacy, Plot has emotional force and inspires moments of recognition. When, for example, Rankine has Liv walk "out onto the sunlit."—a sentence that ends on the adjective—she points out the sensory condition that blinds us to the unwritten "street" it illuminates. Each of these books contains many such moments of acuity and inventiveness. In the aggregate, in their juxtapositive force and friction, these moments yield new poetry of perceptive intensity and abundant verve.
Barbara Fischer's poems have appeared in Western Humanities Review and Paris Review.