The Urn and the Urinal (Poetry Where Death Goes)
Click here to read part 1 of Amy King's two-part essay on poetry and death.
The poet is the priest of the invisible.
– Wallace Stevens
Into one, the corpse is poured, and through the other, life’s byproducts.
Few caress the corpse, fantasize over inanimate doughy flesh, imagine the corporeal membrane as something other than former Self, as something else, anymore than one wishes to drink urine to discover its taste or consider its other existences. And yet, urine as therapy purports to cleanse, diffuses the jellyfish sting, and is found on ice in restaurants regularly. It enters the body, and washes over it.
Likewise, death calls from the roadside accident, the necromance of the cross hanging on every other wall, and the partial dog’s body stands stuffed and stroked. To commune with death except as commodity is morbid, forbidden. Death holds no weight, despite its presence. It is restricted systematically, usually trussed for effect via horror flick or as threat, primarily postponed, until it removes another, and then, is purged again: burned, buried, flushed, as though life stands alone, triumphant, while shunned Death presumably protests, “Don’t look at me, I’m hideous!”
At the possible demise of his people, Chief Seattle said, “It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend with friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny.”
In a culture where death is mostly ‘over there’ and ‘not us,’ where poetry is a thing to murder, where creams and machines battle the mysterious end to animated beings, our interaction with our time of decay is not surprisingly limited, nearly nil, until it isn’t. Like all imminent abstractions, it is untrustworthy, an anomaly pointed at with a variety of names: Derrida’s différance, Keats’s “negative capability,” Lorca’s “Duende,” and Rimbaud’s dérèglement de tous les sens (derangement of the senses). It requires and relies on distrusted human attributes to navigate. But do we fear it—or our own inability to grapple with its presence? Upon close encounter, death inspires want after fear, one of those emotional pangs. Those who encounter it become “hungry for life” with renewed voracious appetites. Death, that familiar unknown, inspires visceral responses. It is a poetry, present but ineffable, requiring us to somehow tap the same resources to resonate—to detect, to register, and to point at it, usually with language, the readiest tool at hand. We can count on death to “put things in focus.” Death, despite its recurring appearances, remains so singular, no one has figured out how to bottle it yet. Its individual undoing of each body is certain and suggests the certainty of the self. You are here, and somehow, you certainly will not be. As in, I’m dying, but I don’t want to be.
Or so my gut tells me. As scientists have recently confirmed, brain cells populate the gut, and the entire system from head to pelvis, it has been suggested, should be considered as one. So when the poet Craig Dworkin asks, “What would a nonexpressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion?” I balk at the domino-effect of western divisions that would excise my intellect from emotion, as though a head could be placed Vincent Price-style in a vitrine away from the distractions of body and emotional detritus. I may not be able to speak emotions into matter, but language is not the fitted jacket of ideas only. Even as the materiality of body is also somehow a mysterious amalgamation of tastes and feelings, so too does that entity choose language to prod and attest to its condition. The materiality of material in action, a speaking. Laura Riding interrogated the gauze of words:
I am because I say
I say myself
I am my name
My name is not my name
It is the name of what I say.
My name is what is said.
I alone say.
I am my name.
My name is not my name,
My name is the name.
Someone said the self is dead, she said herself. In other words, the push to intellectualize or commodify death, to wax abstractly about it, sanitizes and removes it from intuitive access, to excise the “gut” from that which processes ideas. Poetry suggests a bridge between the unseen elements of existence and the material of life, while some philosophies place death squarely in the territory of categories for calculation and managing – which is a betrayal of the fact of our humanity: that we are mind and body, the same, inseparable. Until what follows post-Death. Death, not the counterpoint of Life, is the engine itself of living.
I can’t go on, I’ll go on …
– Samuel Beckett
By the end of the last century, from surface readings of Hume to Buddhism, many have heard there is no self, that fixed single ego, which still doesn’t explain why so many selves remain. Even in their disjointed multiplicities, they each rely on head and heart to get around in contexts, influenced as much by dreams and desires as by logic and ontology, executing decisions and actions based on such vagaries as ideas and intuition. Why, despite the self’s dissolution, does it assert itself so often? “I, I, I …” Like death, like poetry, hasn’t the self been thoroughly delegitimized? (“Don’t look at me, I’m hideous!”) In fact, those aspects unique to each, such as death (“Yours is not mine”), have not received enough attention – not the kind that’s due. All of those selves have for far too long been occupied with reaching out to connect and share, in recycled fashion, the state of their emotions, the labor of which diffuses further exploration of said ineffable. Even as emotions have been pronounced separate from the intellect, they have also been dramatized and removed from the realm of ideas, as if feeling cannot be informed or intelligent.
To force metaphor to excess, one might ask how we can “see” and “understand” what one feels, and understand it also as intellect. At this juncture, I can only speak a manifesto, which is no manifesto at all but a poetics. While poetics implies exploration, ongoing, incomplete and solution-free, the manifesto of yore, bound and proper, hearkens to “man” who preferred his woman as muse, and while I’m a nice guy, I am neither man nor muse but am closer to myth. The manifesto suggests a unified vision of members, a group ruled by pre- and proscriptions, which I shun for now. So I invoke poetry in which all things are possible, including the manifesto’s mercurial transformation (“Look away; there is no manifesto there”), which is also my manifest-for-one, a list of hydra-headed selves.
Tactics to redeem death daily, my Manifest-for-One:
“Father Death Blues”
— Allen Ginsberg
1. One tack could be not to connect, not to share, to block the drive to communicate the state of one’s feelings. The standard play for empathy might be shelved for another generative move. To gesture from emotion, as Pollock’s technique was borne by both idea and feeling, is to invoke and test the carnal intellect, the alchemical act of flexing intellect in the feeling body. Not emotion recollected in tranquility—but emotion as muscle for recollection. Poetry, and death, permit the unhinging of the feminine, the disavowed hysteric, of monsters that do not censor impulses to cater to masculine logic, to flex, and thus one might as well up with excess and move the matter of culture, the material of the intellect, despite the condemnation of “unseemliness.” When they kill poetry, they want to animate its corpse only as zombie. Flood the corpse instead with a spectrum of drives – beyond fear – that we are required to suppress for decorum. Plumb them. Be the artist in touch with her life as incomplete death, the poet unafraid to touch death’s, which includes trying out words that don’t fit well together, shuffling lines as the antithesis of eloquence. Be beholden to no one for once. In A Culture of One, Alice Notley’s Marie builds her culture from and life within the local trash dump. “Marie would rather /reinvent the world for herself.” Leonora Carrington admired the hyena that consumed trash for sustenance and painted herself as such. Marie redeeming dead things, Carrington replenishing the soil as composting queen, the phoenix composed of ash in flight – these poetries never fully obey, propped in vitrines for sale. They contain the ugly detritus of dead matter and never sit still.
Who, surprised and horrified by the fantastic tumult of her drives (for she was made to believe that a well-adjusted normal woman has a . . . divine composure), hasn’t accused herself of being a monster? Who, feeling a funny desire stirring inside her (to sing, to write, to dare to speak, in short, to bring out something new), hasn’t thought she was sick?
—Luce Irigaray, “Body against Body: In relation to the Mother”
Through such unadulterated explorations, the unusual Nothing may find form, erupt, meet and crossbreed in unprecedented ways. Ideas and emotions guided by gut: a cultivation of the intuitive mind, ecstatic, messy poetries. “What would it be like / to live in a library / of melted books. / With sentences streaming over the floor / and all the punctuation / settled to the bottom as a residue. / It would be confusing. / Unforgivable. / A great adventure.” – Anne Carson, “Wildly Constant”
2. When Justin Bieber cut his hair, Bridge Direct lost a chunk of money on the dolls made in his image. Another tact might be to invoke and practice what evades consumption if only for a moment. Or as Stein put it in Picasso’s words, “Anybody that creates a new thing has to make it ugly. The effort of creation is so great, that trying to get away from the other things, the contemporary insistence, is so great that the effort to break it gives the appearance of ugliness” (“A Transatlantic Interview, 1946”). Or as Alice Notley wrote in “Culture of One,” “Marie made things in the gully: she made her life, sure, more than practically anyone else did, but she wrote things down on paper discarded in the dump and she made figures out of wood and rocks and cord and burntness and whatever. . . . Where does culture come from? It comes from the materials you do it with.”
3. Another tack could be to construct cultures of one. Groucho Marx explained, “I DON'T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER.” Gather not ye rosebuds, but instead, fashion the anomalous into your culture of one, so that no one else will have you initially, or as Leonora Carrington did, conjoin the garbage-eating female hyena with the pedigreed white horse with the woman who murders by proxy (“The Debutante”). Or as Frida Kahlo pierced the deer with an image of her face and an arrow, mount your selves with the cast off, the suppressed, the refuse and the rejected (“The Little Deer” with accompanying poem). Death becomes us as much as our culture. Perhaps marry that.
4. Another tack could be to deny the common enemy parlance. Forego the shaping of individuals into single groups. Or as Rodney King once asked, “Why can’t we all just get along?” We are getting along, but “how” is the divisive question. Or as war would have it, we find the foreign in others, to forge the othering in speech in order to destroy them and purge ourselves, at last. That is as close as we get to death, as reductive end game of rejection, as Dear John letter to one’s self. Empathy hijacked. Or as James Baldwin put it, “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” To talk in cultures of one means we cannot build forts and give orders. Hannah Hoch, "Love in the Bush."
5. Another way would be to see that fostering a self through a culture of one does not eliminate community. Or as Werner Herzog cites in his recent film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” an archaeologist quotes an ethnographer quoting an Aboriginal Australian cave painter who answers the query, “What are you doing?” as he is painting new paint on an ancient art work, “I am not painting. It’s the hand of Spirit that paints,” which invokes Roberto Rossellini, “People today only know how to live in society, not in community. The soul of society is the law, the soul of community is love.”
In that spirit, one may break mode and make manifest, -oh, the idea that to enumerate a culture of one is not a rejection. We might break bread with the either/or and ask how they work together. A culture of one is likely not purely so in any context, for if one is a hermit, there are other hermits the art “relates to” and “connects” as my students like to put it. But the conscious, forceful effort to make a break from expectations is the thrust of my last point.
6. A closing tactic could be to compose your culture of one with the alchemy of death in context that spurs some relevance, at least, to yourself. As in, the dying person knows and decides more urgently how to spend his last. Steve Jobs decreed whom he would see in his remaining weeks and how he would work his final minutes. Still, despite and except for the fact that your death is not mine, we are each always dying, and interrogating that, from the White House to the poets’ theater to the courtroom to the classroom, could conjure the difference. And by difference I mean not a denial of community, for empathy is as inevitable as is looking, which also seeks recognition, I mean difference as a death, desire, a lack, in the very act of meaning. For in all of that, the dead body is measurably not the living heart beating; the difference is that animation has been excised from a material sum, which remains the mound for an apparent destiny, the expectations of others, superimposed. Or, as Keats put it, “Of marble men and maidens overwrought, / With forest branches and the trodden weed; / Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought,” but into what? Desire to make one’s own culture from the one you emerge from . . . .
This is an incomplete list, just as this is an incomplete death we’re living. Cells are sloughing off while cells are growing. Don’t make the most of it; make something forged from the Eternity that doesn’t last. We’re here now until we’re not, which never comes, until it does and we’re no longer living or dying but simply gone. Something of that bears repeating in the most undiscovered and unusual ways to date. That sense-making bears poetry, which bears us back, until Death do we part.