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Venus Becomes a Document

Barbara Fischer

Talking Cures
Richard Howard
Turtle Point Press, $16.95 (paper)

8 Nine of the poems in Richard Howard’s 12th collection, Talking Cures, are subtitled “Phallacies,” a punning conflation of the erogenous and erroneous. In the course of these narrative accounts, two sibyls of detumescence ensure that preoccupations with the male form—from the “Apollonian scrotum” of the Colossus at Rhodes to an alarmed response to copulating iguanas on a toilet tank—never amount to a male prerogative or boast. In “Another Translator: Phallacies I,” Mme. Yvonne DeGaulle, when asked about the “chief significance of life” at a Parisian press conference in the ’60s, responds “a penis”—only after a long pause do the “flabbergasted” onlookers realize that she means “happiness.” Likewise flabbergasted are the art-world cognoscenti in “Success: Phallacies IV” when the aged artist Alice Neel, seated at a party beneath an oversized Roman male nude, gazes up at a “pelvic arch indeed denuded / of the usual embellishment” and remarks: “Very fragile things, penises.” The word “flabbergast,” as Howard no doubt intends for us to know, is an informal fusion of “flabby” and “aghast,” and it summarizes the sense of erotic loss and astonished vulnerability at the heart of this book’s repeated anticlimaxes. Once eros is all talk, then humor and prurient wordplay—what Howard calls “somatic verve”—become welcome palliatives.

The theme of erotic loss and the compensations of culture is not new in Howard’s work. Four books back, in Lining Up (1983), he reminded us of the regret behind the wit: “Desire is a relic here; Venus becomes a document.” He is quoting Paul Valéry, from an essay titled “The Problem of Museums.” The problem, as Valéry sees it, is the “cold confusion” that ensues when we are faced with the enshrinement of a vast collection of aesthetic delights. It is a confusion that Howard’s allusive and extravagant work itself often provokes. He is among the most “museal” of contemporary poets, and his aggregative and anthological oeuvre now comprises a dozen volumes in which the voices and stories of the high-cultural past reconvene. Valéry observes that when we are confronted with so much concentrated cultural capital our response to art grows numb, superficial: “Or else we grow erudite. And erudition, in art, is a kind of dead end. . . . For direct feeling, it substitutes theories, for the marvelous actuality, an encyclopedic memory.” With his erudition and encyclopedic memory, Howard’s own copious, virtuosic displays continually run this risk. But he confronts the “problem of museums” by repeatedly dramatizing it and by reminding us of an argument that Valéry fails to mention: in one view, art is always already a substitute for “direct feeling,” for the “marvelous actuality” of erotic experience.

In Talking Cures desire becomes a relic indeed—a box of broken-off phalluses in museum storage. “Joining: Phallacies VIII” tells of the uncomfortable initiation of “the first woman to be made / (Associate) Curator of Antiquities” in the male-dominated world of a museum’s administration. She is assigned a desk at the end of a remote hall, where she discovers a trunk labeled “ANTIQUITIES. MEMBERS ONLY” that contains “tray after tray of penises knocked off / how many missing statues, marble, flint / and granite. . . .” Howard puns shamelessly on “member” and “knocked off” to suggest the sham and bravura behind protocols of cultural authority. In another parody of museum policy, “Hanging the Artist: Phallacies V,” the gallery is also the artistic gallows. Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura confronts the prudery of the curatorial staff, who preemptively censor his show because “provincial / museum-goers . . . tend to be repelled / by images that seem to question / or repudiate—you follow me?—the status quo / of gender.” The artist’s recalcitrance elicits this curatorial ultimatum:

the dress was up to her waist, the girl
     was naked, I mean you were naked,
and right in the middle of that big black bush of hair
     was a prominent penis (I know you know
          what those words mean). Morimura-san,
believe me, the fact that it wasn’t a real penis
     makes no difference whatever. The Houston
          Contemporary Art Museum
will not show Marilyn Monroe with a penis, now
     Get. That. Straight. . . .

The joke is at the curator’s expense. After Howard’s ekphrasis has evoked this graphic image, a comic line-break reiterates the extent to which the unruly energies of Morimura’s work cannot be contained: “how the rest of the show is hung / is open to change.” As he foregrounds “phallacious” genderings like these, Howard negotiates the problem of museums—the numbing of the sensual, the conservatism of cultural conservation—by humorously upending the terms of cultural value and mocking institutional efforts to keep those values under control.

Yet not all “phallacies” are funny. Howard gives us a darker view of the faulty reasoning that can arise in attempts to represent human sexuality in “Measure for Measure: Phallacies III.” His subject is the Czechoslovakian-born psychologist Kurt Freund, the first clinical sexologist to use penile plethysmography (a measure of tumescence in which the patient’s penis is placed in a sealed tube) to assess the responses of sex offenders. Imagined as an epistolary confession from Freund’s wife to their grown children shortly after their father’s death, the poem suggests that Freund had used videos of his children bathing as the testing stimuli for his “phallometric methods.” This scientific effort to document and diagnose desire turns cruelly back on the investigator: “. . . he began to recognize in himself / similar responses / while administering / those ‘lie-detector’ tests he had devised.” In this compelling account, Howard suggests that Freund’s inability to accept his own polymorphous perversity, his failure to recognize his place in a “community of sexuality,” precipitates his passive suicide. Here and throughout the book, Howard suggests that Venus becomes a document only at great human cost. This bleaker undertone of many of Howard’s prurient antics comes to the surface in the voice of Willa Cather:

                                                  . . . My own
    imaginative knowledge is of loss,
     the consequent action of what I write
is of loss as well;                necessarily
     whatever celebration I can make
     of my experience will be of loss.

Documenting the vicissitudes of desire may sometimes engender imaginative transformations, but they are born out of lack.

In this book, Howard’s “omnivorous art” (as he says of Gerhard Richter) yields what admirers and detractors might consider a miscellany. Cover art of John F. Peto’s Discarded Treasures, a tattered grouping of old books, tells well enough that this lucidly arranged collection does not consider itself grand. The dedication announces that Howard offers it as “show and tell”—a kind of look-what-I-found assembly of inspirations discovered in museums and out of them. Along with Neel and Morimura, other visual artists make up the dramatis personae of this book, including Richter as “The Apotropaist,” Lord Leighton, and contemporary artist Tom Knechtel. Other treasures include “Infirmities,” a conversation between an aged Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker (a sequel to Howard’s 1974 poem “Wildflowers,” in which Whitman meets Oscar Wilde), and the sequence “The Masters on the Movies,” in which Henry James, Joseph Conrad, George Meredith, Rudyard Kipling, and Willa Cather comment on film classics. And if that has not incited enough museal confusion, there is also a hilarious and ultimately poignant correspondence between a dog lover and the Japanese company that produces a device for “translating” canine utterances, as well as an elegy for the “awful parenthesis” of September 11.

Bin Ramke once described Howard as the “slyest of postmodern poets,” a counterintuitive point to make about this creator of fictive voices, shapely stanzas, and narratives enclosed in graceful denouement. Talking Cures is a more unabashedly logocentric and phallocentric book than perhaps any other since the days before Derrida. But I second Ramke’s notion, somewhat implausibly, with the observation that Howard continues to reiterate the unnerving instability of efforts to write of the body and its pleasures. In his work’s insistent writtenness and its collages of polyvocal quotation he reminds us that the immediacy of contact—vocal, erotic, somatic, sensory contact—is out of reach as soon as we write about it. A fugitive Odysseus makes this point in the book’s opening poem, insisting that “I have no tales to tell, I have only / echoes”:

                                                  . . . Best heed
    the sea’s rote and an iron
          keel rotten with salt
clanging on the rocks; second best, read
     several thousand lines of
verse and various lists ascribed to
     a quite imaginary
          rhapsode called Homer.

With the consonance that cleaves the beginning of this passage, Howard musters the acoustic resources poetry has for driving the word into the body, but such force cannot be sustained. Instead, barring that, we are left with “second best,” with reading, with lines and lists, scholarly interpolations—with desire as document. A standard translation of the Valéry essay I have been quoting renders the line “Vénus changée en document” as “Venus is transformed into a dossier,” but Howard knows better. “The problem of museums” that he faces in Talking Cures and throughout his work is not one of cultural capital, of the elitism of an inescapably high-art dossier, but a matter of words and their distance from the flesh, a distance and absence made tolerable at times with comedy. Not dossier, document—with all the chill of loss that text entails.<

Barbara Fischer
, a frequent contributor to Boston Review, is currently working on a study of ekphrasis in contemporary American poetry.

Originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Boston Review

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