As far as you can throw them: disjecta membra on self-portraits and the ken of similes

Jake Adam York
July 11, 2011
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Maybe, as Charles Wright says, a poem is always a self-portrait, though what exactly that means for the poem’s shape, or the way it treats its reader, is less than a simple matter, as I considered in my last two postings. I’m not yet through thinking about the relationship between ekphrasis and self-portrait poems, but, reading Weston Cutter’s interview with Erika Meitner here on the KR Blog and listening to OutKast, I’m diverted or diffracted to think about (though now it occurs to me that what follows can be read (please read it this way) as an extension of some of the comments I made last week about the figures in Cecily Parks’s self-portrait poems) the relationship between the figure or image in a self-portrait poem and the writer ostensibly being self-portrayed and, for that matter, what one’s similes say, or do not say, about one’s self.

Though it’s not called a “self-portrait,” the gesture that begins “North Slope Borough,” the opening poem in Erika Meitner’s Ideal Cities, seems self-portraity in its reflexiveness, though the gesture exceeds the ken of simple autobiographical statement:

My heart is an Alaskan fishing village during whaling season,
which is to say that everyone is down by the thawing sea.
The huts on stilts are empty, and my heart is a harpoon,
a homemade velveteen parka, hood lined with wolverine.

In her interview with Cutter, Meitner says “I’m super tied to my geography,” which, as Cutter’s question specifies, is Washington DC, central Virginia, east coast locales. Alaska doesn’t come up. Her Wikipedia entry tells us that she was born in New York and attended college at Dartmouth–so East Coast mostly, though Wikipedia also says she taught at University of Wisconsin-Madison and UC-Santa Cruz, so there’s some upper-Midwest and West Coast in the geographical resume, but still no Alaska–all of which to say the poem’s statement that the speaker’s heart is “an Alaskan fishing village” is a boldly metaphorical statement and not just a change of scale, as if I, a fifth-generation Alabamian, were to say “my heart is Birmingham” or even “I am Alabama,” neither of which would be technically true, however metonymically plausible. The biography and geography-biography suggest that the locale picked up by the title, “North Slope Borough” is the metonym, but I’m not really thinking about metonyms. It’s the metaphor–the claim that the heart is an Alaskan fishing village, which expresses and images the speaker’s adoption of a hunting posture, which tells us that she is on the move–and moving so surely and determinedly the village and the metaphor disappear soon.

My mouth has no zipper, which helps me remember
how to say O. O I miss home. When I close my eyes,
I see the F train’s twin headlights blooming into the station.
When I close my eyes, its warm wind sweeps hair from my face“

Back in New York.

I admire, I want to say, the way this poem expresses what Meitner calls her tie to geography by moving, in what we might (hopefully-not-too-bad-flashback-academically) call the poem’s vehicular space–in that place that’s reserved for the images of metaphors or similes that transport us to those other places, though the poem’s finally really and always and never stopped being about the speaker’s “heart,” that, by the end of the poem is “old-school graffiti” and so forth from what a Wikipedia-biographical approach to the poem would suggest is home, is the original geography for the poet who may be pressing forward in the speaker. I admire, I want to say, the way this poem moves through a chain of metaphors or similes, the way it uses a figure until it gets what it needs (can you see the people on the seashore?) and then moves on.

I am thinking, I want to say, too, as I re-read this poem, of the VH1 2008 special VH1’s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs, and specifically their 23rd greatest hip-hop song, OutKast’s “B.O.B.” The song is from OutKast’s 2000 album Stankonia, and it was the first single off the album, which also included the now-more-famous “Ms. Jackson.” According to the VH1 segment, this song, which radically altered OutKast’s position in the hip-hop universe by projecting the musical explosiveness of the Atlanta crew beyond the scope of the Dirty South, was a serious club hit that started getting radio play before ultimately being pulled from radio rotation the following year when, after the 9/11 attacks, the phrase signified by the acronym–“bombs over Baghdad”–became perceived as a pro-war statement or as an offensively-upbeat celebration of war. This, however, is clearly a misreading, as the song instead thinks–amplified especially in the chorus, which contains this simile–about the first Gulf War conflict and the way America’s relationship with Iraq, never really good after that conflict, help figure the need for decisive and definitive action. As the chorus goes:

Don’t pull the thang out unless you plan to bang
Bombs over Baghdad
Don’t even bang unless you plan to hit something
Bombs over Baghdad

It’s a core practice of hip-hop to use a simile then leave it. One might say “all similes are local.” So, on VH1’s third greatest hip-hop song of all time, Dr. Dre’s “Nothin’ But a G Thang,” Snoop Dogg raps that he’s “getting funky on the mic like an old bunch of collard greens”–yet, no one’s looking for him in the produce section or behind the grocery store.

Meitner is–and for that matter OutKast and Snoop Dogg are–always playing on our desire, once we’ve become invested in or awakened by a figure, to continue to live with it and in it. Maybe the misreadings of OutKast’s “B.O.B.” are inevitable–especially as the culture changes around it. Maybe these ways in which the vehicular figure slips out of the pocket say something about the time and place–the temporal and spatial geography–in which an utterance can occur and in which it can be read. The figure is good as far as you can throw it, but sometimes it skips on the water on continues even further than we could have made it go.

Meitner, in her poem, knows how to make the skip work, letting the stone travel after we’ve stopped watching.

“Home,” Meitner’s poem will not say, does not need to say, because you will say it for the poem, is where the heart is, so after the heart is the fishing village and the poet comes “home” and declares

Home is the place with plastic slipcovers on the couch.
Home is the place with heavy brown shoes misaligned at the door.

we have left Alaska, but we have not left it entirely behind, because it can still say something, or help the poem say something, about the poet’s home geography:

When I close my eyes, I look for an entryway into the earth.
I dream of a porcupine, though I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen one.

The porcupine seems more at home in the frontier geography of Alaska, but it provides the poem’s speaker a way of moving from a part of the poem in which the subways of New York read like convenient similes to a place in which the subway trains, the tunnels, the graffiti, and sidewalk chess matches of the poet’s home geography become not figures but self-portraits. The stone skipping, seemingly accidentally, with serious, stealth purpose“

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