Review: Then, Suddenly—
April 1, 2000
Apr 1, 2000
8 Min read time
University of Pittsburgh, $25 (cloth), $12.95 (paper)
Eros and motion, even as they are resisted, drive the poems in Then, Suddenly— , Lynn Emanuel’s 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 Hayden’s 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 doesn’t matter since it’s just the movement that’s necessary." She then cites Gertrude Stein’s definition of America, a definition that appears in the penultimate poem of Then, Suddenly—, this time as a repudiation:
… Gertrude Stein said America
was a space filled with moving, but I hate being moving.
If you want to feel, go to the movies, because poetry
has no intention of being moving; it is perhaps one
of the few things left in America that is not moving.
("In English in a Poem")
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. / I’ll 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 book’s self-conscious construction. While many of the individual poems in this collection lack the pungency of poems in Emanuel’s The Dig(1992), the collection as a whole achieves a more ambitious purpose. As announced by the book’s 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 volume’s 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 Whitman’s 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: "I’m 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." Emanuel’s project of exposing the fabrications of narrative and voice takes up Stein’s crusade against "literalists and realists," though Emanuel apologizes for being a "thin, heterosexual subgenius," not the most likely candidate to assume Stein’s 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 poet’s house in a black limo:
My name is Lynn Emanuel, and in this
book I play the part of someone writing
a book, and I take the role seriously,
just as Sharon Stone takes seriously
the role of the diva….
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:
Or you could think of the black car as
Lynn Emanuel, because, really, as an author,
I have always wanted to be a car, even
though most of the time I have to be
the "I," or the woman hanging wash;
I am a woman, one minute, then I am a man,
I am a carnival of Lynn Emanuels:
Lynn in the red dress; Lynn sulking
behind the big nose of my erection;
then I am the train pulling into the station
when what I would really love to be is
Gertrude Stein spying on Sharon Stone
at six in the morning….
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:
My name is Lynn Emanuel. I am the writer
trying to unwrite the world that is all around her.
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 speaker’s 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 Emanuel’s most complex turns, the problematics of voice she has examined throughout enter the province of the body as a process of embodiment and ornament:
A voice is not a story but a way of
presiding over a story, if one
were to happen by.
It hangs in the closet
of the mind like a beautiful dress
waiting for a beautiful nakedness
to come along.
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:
I mean, how we get from the smile into the bedroom, how it all happens, and what all happens, just bores me. I am a conceptual storyteller. In fact, I am a conceptual liver. I prefer the cookbook to the actual meal. Feeling bores me. That’s why I write poetry. In poetry you just give the instructions to the reader and say, "Reader, you go on from here." And what I like about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in a dark alley, I’d want it to be a poetry reader. They’re not like some people, who maybe do it right if you tell them, "Put this foot down, and now put that one in front of the other, button your coat, wipe your nose."
The poems in Then, Suddenly— require a reader’s 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 reader’s 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 moon’s naked heel dents / the sky" ("In English in a Poem").
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April 01, 2000
8 Min read time