A word can change everything.
“Secrete us in reality” says Wallace Stevens—a line I can’t forget reading for the first time. I still hear the verb as a form of “secret,” suggesting to me that the self, the “us,” whom we think we know, will be concealed, and perhaps lost to us, within the actual as it unfolds. And I also hear the verb as a form of “secretion,” so that the line means “cover us with the liquid and ever-flowing material of existence.” In either case, the line holds for me a paradox that seems deeply true—beginning as a call for concealment, and ending by suggesting that it is our understanding of what is real that will be the material of our mystery.
The fluidity and mystery of human experience became frighteningly apparent to me when I was eight, when my mother began to exhibit fierce mood swings after her father’s sudden death. I remember how I’d come into a room and find her staring at nothing. I’d be completely unnerved by her eyes, the way they’d narrow, then widen, then seem to spark when she’d look at me. It was an ominous kind of brightness I’d never before encountered and that I couldn’t help but turn away from. That intensity of hers was more chilling to me than any of her bizarre behaviors. Her actions were so extreme that they seemed to me a parody of afternoon soap opera: she would break dinner plates, my favorite blown-glass figurines, even the wind shield of my father’s truck with one of his wrenches. The suddenness and vehemence of her outbreaks stunned me. Who was she in these moments? Who had my father and I become to her? What reality had she suddenly become “secreted” within, which seemed foreign to everything I understood?
Even more bewildering to my child-self was my mother’s growing obsession to change herself, as though the personality were clothing. New outfits, new hair color, new friends—these were the outward signs, but there was more happening within her that I couldn’t comprehend. Something in her face kept me from asking her about what she felt. None of the changes lasted, though, and such cycles usually ended in periods of abject despair. I’d hear her, sometimes all night, crying to my father over memories she’d recall in no seeming order. The scenes might be from months past or just yesterday—a spending-spree, a hysterical outbreak at a beauty parlor, locking our door on strangers whom she’d met once and invited to visit. At the center of each story lay a terrible error, some way that her life had gone wrong, now impossible to make right again. I came to see how her meaning of “now,” and its relationship to the “then” in which she was still the other, salvageable self, continued to shift forward with us in time.
As a child, the awe I felt at my mother’s transformation remained almost entirely silent inside me. I had no words for it, no conversation that would let me bring this sense to anyone. Mostly, I remember wanting to shut my mother’s incomprehensible reality away from my own. But living with her, listening to her, and in some sense accepting her, left me in a state of startled disorientation. The rules and values—the shape and extent—of the reality I’d known and accepted, were clearly and woefully inadequate. The possibilities this realization offered were too awe-inspiring, too awful, in all senses of that word, for me to understand. But I have to wonder, now, if the startle of disorientation that I look for in poems isn’t a kind of home territory I’m returning to—one that, as a child, I found so disquieting to inhabit.
specifically day lilies abhorrence one’s own face for hours
where thinking it the lilies image is parasitic full blown face
I’ve read many poems like this one that initially seem opaque to me, even as I feel something in the words, the phrasing, that hurts me as I read. I think of Henri Bergson’s insight that when we hear a joke we laugh first, only later realizing why it’s funny to us. This is true, I think, of poetry, too: I can be wounded by the emotions a poem’s language elicits from me before I know how the words have done their work. Poems that offer me this opportunity are especially valuable. Since my response to them comes as a surprise, I haven’t time to armor myself.
This brief poem by Lance Phillips, from the series “Pro Nobis,” rests alone on a page, but its two lines are more than enough language for me to contend with. It is, I think, the simple time stamp “for hours” that opens up the hurt in me. The word “abhorrence” is unwieldy, not one that comes quickly into focus since I use it rarely, and so it distances itself from me after the easy entry of “day lilies.” But I am thrown, full force, into my feelings by the direct accuracy of that “for hours.” Only my obsessions—those I try to avoid and those I can’t—occupy me in this way. Now, too, it is also the rhythm of “one’s own face” that manages sonically to carry “abhorrence” in it. There is no exact pairing of rhyme or meter, but even as my ear recognizes similarities, I am already reading “for hours” (which subtly echoes the sounds in “abhorrence,” albeit an echo tinged with distortion). The correspondences of sounds make the meaning of the words more apparent: I know this feeling well, to be lost “for hours” in my own thoughts, in my “own face” of ego and personality.
I am grateful for the poet’s suggestion that when simply staring at “day lilies” one can become lost in the mirror of one’s own maelstrom, “my own face,” which the object of the contemplation has become. In the second line, the speaker returns to “the lilies,” which had seemed so simply, so “specifically” the poem’s original subject. They now seem far away I appreciate the extra space between lines, which gives the reader a feeling of distance traversed. Now, it is no longer simply the “lilies” but their “image” that is caught up in thought, and it is “thinking” itself that makes that image “parasitic.” To make an “image”—in other words, what the mind “has made the thing into”—this is the parasitic act the mind can fall prey to, as it feeds upon the objects thinking has drawn into its lair.
Surprisingly, it is the word “where” that suggests the breath of freedom for me here, since I realize thought creates a specific location. It is local and not global. And if it is local, then it is escapable. One can change the “where” in which one resides. Just a slight turn of attention can alter everything I believe about the limits of my circumstances. Yet it is difficult to hear such revelations during the rush of daily events, when my ego is using all its standard beliefs and practices to protect me from that onslaught.
In Phillips’s poem, the “face” is “fall blown,” which I could read as meaning distorted and horribly over-emphasized, as in a funhouse mirror. But it also might be “blown” up and thus, now at the edge of its limits, about to pass those limits, or release. I can’t help hearing in the words “full blown face” an echo of “full bloom.”
The second time I read this poem, I began to consider how the word “image” demonstrates the ways I put a “full blown” or an “already complete” face on any new flower I see: the image I make of the flower in my mind completely subsumes whatever foreignness or otherness or newness that this particular flower might express. In other words, the speaker is describing for me how I, too, abhor the fact that I can’t just see this flower without interpreting it, without creating an image of it based upon all my previous experiences of flowers. To call this a face seems accurate, since it suggests how much I expect to see my own reality mirrored back to me.
In all the ways the meaning of this brief poem reaches me through its language, I have a shockingly acute, surprisingly direct experience of “abhorrence.” It is my own “abhorrence,” met so swiftly that I have no barrier to stop the full rush of its presence. Then, even as it fills me, it is already subsiding. When met so cleanly, it can simply be experienced, accepted, and let pass.
Though my mother’s episodes of mental illness began in earnest when I was eight, she had always seemed different from the other mothers I knew. In many ways, I felt lucky—my mother seemed more interesting than the other mothers who picked up their children at my grade school, more elegant, more aloof. She spent her time talking to me while the other mothers conferred together, sending their children off with the other children. I don’t remember exactly my mother’s words, but I feel now that she was telling me a story of us, how I was to act, what we were doing, and why it was interesting, important.
During those early years, before my mother’s breakdown, we spent many afternoons in the backyard where she and my dad had erected a swingset. Our yard was sloped, and my mom had made sure that my dad built the swing to take full advantage of the view. She prided herself on having talked my father into buying such a thing. I don’t remember the first time she put me on the swing, nor ever feeling tired of the repetition. I recall what must have been countless backyard afternoons as only one—as though each were the same—a bright day, and my mother behind me. She called it our magic swing. She would give me a push, and as the swing’s arc took me into the sky, she would say, “What do you see?” And then on the next arc, “What do you see now?”
How often did this happen? Did it actually happen this way? Or did I simply feel her eyes on me as I swung out into the view, and these questions actually formed silently out of that contact between us? I do know that she never pressed me to tell her anything I saw because I can recall these times with such a sense of calm. In that calm, I still can look back and see the way the sky and horizon changed each time I would swing out to meet them, or, I should say, I can still sense the changes in me that opened up a world of surprising variety, changes that her words had taught me to look for. Or was it her silence that taught me to look? Both seem now to be true.
I suspect that the time I spent on the swing remains vivid because both my mind and my body felt freed from restraints that I lived with but normally didn’t think about. I remember keenly the sense that—in the pause just at the height of the swing’s upward rise—gravity seemed able to release me. And I felt released from a second gravity, too, the one that seemed to hold my beliefs in place.
Recently, I learned from Robert Baker that swinging is a significant element of the Dionysian rites of ancient Athens, which Carl Kerenyi examines in his Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. There are many ways that one might interpret aspects of these rites in relation to poetry, too many for a brief essay to contain. Suffice it to say that in addition to its being central to the myth, Kerenyi notes that “[s]winging is also a natural magical action, for it artificially helps the swinger to attain an extraordinary state, hovering in mid-air.” I can’t help but recall Paul Valery’s definition of the poem as “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense.” This opportunity to relish a state between states—this appreciation of the rifts that give reality a deeper dimensionality—feels central to what poetry offers me.
I’ve come to realize that I read poetry because I’m looking for that sense I had on the swing—the sensation of a sudden escape (from gravity, or otherwise). Though it is psychological, not physical, it feels as if the language is physically lifting me out of understandings that have held me, contained me in ways I hadn’t understood. I believe that I read poetry to escape the gravity of my relation to the world I know, to let the language of the poem change everything. There’s a rush I feel in reading some poems that is exhilarating as well as a little frightening: I sense that I must stay attentive in order to stay with it, or I will fall away from the arc of this intensity. The energy in my staying power comes from trust, which I must exert even as I give over control to the experience.
On a first reading, I’m primarily interested in the rush. But I do return to such poems with an intense curiosity: I want to see how the formal contraption of the poem moved with such swiftness and how it managed to hold me aloft. Maybe there’s something unusual or inverted in the poem’s phrasing of an idea or in the structural development of the poem as a whole. Maybe the poet has juxtaposed or jumbled the orthodoxies I would have thought were necessary as foundations for his or her perceptions. The sounds of individual words, which suggest surprising relations to other words, are usually involved. There are as many combinations of technique as there are arresting poems.
It’s useful for me to remember Theodor Adorno’s position that “the unresolved antagonisms of reality reappear in art in the guise of immanent problems of artistic form.” I’ll risk taking this very personally and suggest that the unresolved antagonisms in my own experience—those conundrums that resist my common methods of resolution or those that I am unwilling or unable to face straight-on, yet that I suffer from all the more forcefully by denying—can be met directly, demandingly, surprisingly, and usefully in the formal components of a poem, even and especially a poem that disrupts easy or expected methods of resolution or interpretation.
But form alone is never enough to compel one to fully excavate “unresolved antagonisms.” Adorno reminds us that “art opposes the empirical through the element of form,” to which I’ll add that art opposes the ways in which we have become comfortable in perceiving the empirical through the elements of form. Adorno goes on to say that even though “the mediation of form and content is not to be grasped” unless we appreciate the “differentiation between form and content,” still, a “mediation [between form and content] is to be sought in the recognition of form as sedimented content.” I appreciate this immensely, since sediment is that which is deposited or which settles deep within the whole, and it is also that which is left behind, even when the original whole is dispersed. Form offers, in extremely condensed deposits within the whole of the poem, what might suggest the earliest or deepest challenges within experience.
Lately, I’ve been looking with increased appreciation at the language in poems that “cut me to the quick”—to use an adage that seems especially apt. Both meanings of “quick”—which one could take as “where the skin is most sensitive” or “where action in a moment has been somehow accelerated”—are useful to me. Both suggest that the norm is tearing.
I’ve come to believe that the more astutely I observe myself in such reading experiences, the more I will be able to intuitively discern the location and limitations of the frames I depend upon, frames that—fortunately and unfortunately—protect me from feelings I don’t want to feel. Of course, it’s most difficult and most dangerous to test these frames in the midst of my daily life, especially if I’m in a period of stress. And, even in the calm of casual circumstance, I tend to be too invested in their useful, protective qualities to want to disrupt them. But I can gain much when I watch myself reading poets who find the tools to shift the ground of their experience.
In his essay “What is the Contemporary?” Giorgio Agamben explains that “the entry point to the present necessarily takes the form of an archeology; an archeology that does not, however, regress to the historical past, but returns to that part within the present that we are absolutely incapable of living.” This is what I see many poets doing. They return to the present—as they understand it, limited as that understanding may be—and, with the tools of language, dig into the beliefs that limit their awareness. Watching them, I begin to sense that it may indeed be possible, even advantageous, to live in the midst of flux.
Some poets seem to revel in writing poems of constant flux, constant disruption of ground. But it might be more accurate to say that they see in disruption an opportunity to generate movement, which in its fluidity extends one’s understanding of equilibrium—just as a sail-boat gains direction from constantly rebalancing the sail on wind against the rudder upon the waves. When reading such work, the deft turns of the poem’s formal operations suggest to me that I, too, might find in language a vessel that will not only carry me through the fiercest weather but also help me to use that weather to heighten the agility and speed with which I navigate.
Clouded toward the south; we will not be made to mean by a space.
In this line from Lisa Robertson’s “Wednesday,” in The Weather, the language before the semicolon locates the speaker’s focus as descriptive, referential in its recall of a past event. The second half questions how we use our perception to create reality, refuting any ease we might have found in our unexamined assumptions. The move is to an intensely volatile abstraction. A simple word like “mean,” when a reader or writer is moving this fast, makes the ear try to catch all of its “meanings”—and so the feeling of “meanness,” of leastness, and of cruelty, shades what is, on the surface, a simple statement. So, too, the word “space” conjures not only the environment depicted in the first clause, but also might suggest the “space” between the sentences the semicolon holds, as well as the space on the page that surrounds the words. In these and many other ways, the meaning of this sentence remains slippery to my mind, turning for me in slightly different directions each time I attempt to approach it.
Dusk invades us; the description itself must offer shelter.
Here, in the first half of the line the speaker gives human qualities to an aspect of nature and then calls immediately to our attention the fact that seeing nature in this way is a kind of sheltering device: that to see it, even in this fearfully invasive form, is a way to locate the knowable in our description of it. Any such description is a form of shelter, safer than seeing nature in its even more intractable foreignness. Robertson leaves it to the reader to consider the danger here, of living in the “must,” in the necessity of seeing the natural world as the given set of constructs we have built up in our minds. Or, to put it another way, Robertson reports the potential in every perception to open beyond the perceiver’s past understanding:
Every surface is ambitious; we excavate a non-existent era of the human.
Reading such work pushes me outside myself. It is in poetry that I can most directly replicate the feeling I had as that child on the swing—with each shift in direction and next thrust forward, my perception of everything might change. The poet pushes herself, but I can feel the velocity of the arc as I ride it with her.
I’m standing behind the sliding glass door that opens to the backyard where my old swingset used to be. It will be the last time I’ll look out at this view. The house has just sold; my parents are both dead, each succumbing to illness in the past twenty months. I hired landscape gardeners to clear away the weedy overgrowth as well as all the broken things that hid for years beneath the ivy and brambles and shoulder-high cattails, which had taken over their sloping yard in the last few decades.
I haven’t observed the gardeners’ progress, only this finished result: a number of neatly groomed plants and a lot of gravel—a backyard that increased the selling price of the house. But all the beautification doesn’t obscure what I see: the swingset still where it stood at the far end of the yard until it fell down and disappeared under the vegetation and I stopped standing here to look for it. Until I stopped standing here to look for it. I suppose what surprises me most is not that I still see the swingset, or feel as though I’ve never moved an inch from this intensely familiar spot, but how much this fleeting feeling frightens me.
I believe I read poems for something like this shock: for the chance to experience what seemingly shouldn’t exist, but nonetheless does exist—something that might be, for the poet, almost too bewildering to look at, or to look beyond. Both kinds of looking are valuable, though not always comfortable to appreciate from a reader’s vantage point. But both are impotent in their impact upon me as a reader if simply explained or described in a poem. Instead, some poets use form and content to draw me into experiencing for myself something I hadn’t expected, or maybe, initially, even wanted to see, or some thing I simply hadn’t had the wherewithal to look for.
In this essay, I’ve focused on the risk and reward of watching for language that changes everything. But I must be honest and say that I don’t always have the courage to trust a poet who begins to displace my sense of gravity or to excavate my hidden limitations. For this reason, I’m grateful to read poets who lure me in and then shock me into a gravity-defying ride or a vertiginous excavation of the present. If I’m lured in far enough, I become emotionally engaged. In that state, I can sustain the shock of sudden disorientation and stay with the poem’s motion. By then, the poem’s movement will have initiated an increased mobility within me, which excites a willingness to open myself to more. That initial shift is really the hardest work.
Perhaps it’s unfair to call an initially engaging poem a “lure,” since this suggests it’s a trick. I see it more as a truthful enactment of the poet’s own process. To my thinking, the poet is simply following her own writing’s development—things start in a familiar way, but then the practice disrupts. Her writing is the record of this disruption, which I suspect the poet then incorporates into the development of the work. Poets who compose such works are generous. They offer a more complete view of the often disconcerting trajectory of insight’s arrival—from the first disquieting shock and onward as that shock is incorporated into one’s understanding as the language of the poem. These poems give me a deeper familiarity with watching for the unexpected or even inexplicable moment’s arrival, and they help me trust in the value of attempting to see what wasn’t previously part of my order.
Many of Barbara Guest’s poems do this work for me. For example, she begins her poem “Valorous Vine,” published in If So, Tell Me, with suggestive glimpses of “mourning a lost stem” which might be “budding in another country / while dark here.” This first section of the poem is lyric and lineated in ways I enjoy immensely, but nonetheless expect. Its somberness feels elegiac, strange, and yet comforting, too, as I experience an imagistic realm where the rich symbolism can soothe and absorb my attention.
But in part 2 of “Valorous Vine” Guest shifts to writing in a prose paragraph, which is my first alert that everything has suddenly changed. I am jolted out of my poetic reveries:
It can be seen she encouraged the separation of flower from the page, that she wished an absence to be encouraged. She drew from herself a technique that offered life to the flower but demanded the flower remain absent. The flower, as subject, is not permitted to shadow the page. Its perfume is strong and that perfume may over-whelm the sensibility that strengthens the page and desires to initiate the absence of the flower. It may be that absence is the plot of the poem. A scent remains of the poem. It is the flower’s apparition that desires to remain on the page, even to haunt the room in which the poem was created.
Here, using the seeming irrefutability of discursive thought, the poet presents the writer in third person to describe her actions almost clinically, which creates the first “separation” in this section. The speaker summarizes the poem’s lyric imagery, which creates another degree of separation in the poem, one that is unexpectedly contrary to the internal logic of most poetry. Distancing herself from the poem’s lyricism, the speaker can reflect upon such “separation” as a purpose of the work and question directly what may be the subject of the poem. Rather than simply describing an object, a flower, for instance, in order to bring a sense of that object closer to the reader, the speaker brings the reader closer to the shifts and redirections in the writer’s process, describing the poet’s intention to “separate” flower from page, to give the flower “life” but “demand that the flower remain absent.”
The “she” demands this from “a technique” that she must “draw from herself,” must grow within herself, organically—a technique that separates whatever the flower was from the flower in language and in mind. It’s interesting that after this sentence, the third person is no longer used in the poem. Instead, the subjects of the following sentences are the “flower,” and “it,” and a “scent.” Also, in two of these sentences, a sense of uncertainty comes into this assay of the poem’s trajectory with the use of conditional verbs (“may overwhelm”; “may be”). However, the last two sentences of the poem are offered as simple declarations with present tense verbs, which suggest the immediacy and clarity of a just-arriving insight.
One more point about Guest’s shifting away from the personal pronoun “she” as the active agent: we are told “the sensibility . . . that desires to initiate the absence of the flower” may be “overwhelm [ed]” by the flower’s “perfume.” Because of this, the “absence of the flower,” which the “sensibility” desires, may be unattainable. “[A]bsence” becomes the primary focus of the next sentence: “It may be that absence is the plot of the poem.” “Absence” now seems to stand for not only “the flower’s absence,” which can’t be entirely achieved by the poet, but also the shift away from describing the actions of a referenced poet who is also being “absent[ed]” from the work. Perhaps by exposing the presence of desire, which always suggests a level of the unattainable, a constantly evolving absence may be glimpsed, which consumes not only the agent’s intention, but also the agent. The arrival of this glimpse of absence, this “scent” of what is unattainable, may be “the plot of the poem.” In the poem’s last two sentences
A scent remains of the poem. It is the flower’s apparition that desires to remain on the page, even to haunt the room in which the poem was created.
Here the poet has absented herself as the “desir[ingj” agent, or I should say, has been absented. Because the last sentence begins with “It is,” one could imagine the “scent [that] remains of the poem” as being referred to as “the flower’s apparition.” Not the flower, as the referent it was, or the subject of a poem in the usual sense, but the trace memory, the ghosted presence, the “scent” that the poem has become—here is image, perhaps, scoured of the poem’s usual meanings by the work of language to absent the mind’s typical ways of holding meaning.
To my mind, Guest is enacting the motion of insight, which frees itself, separates itself from the faulty limitations of each framing of meaning the “she” attempts. Such work not only hones my awareness of the transitory nature of my own conceptions, but also lets me appreciate each observable shift as something precious, worthy of my most sensate attention. I imagine this desire to perceive the illusive nature of reality—to apprehend the unperceivable within the present— as the “hauntedness” Guest notices in the actual room where the poem is created, and in the metaphorical room of words, which is the poem. I imagine that this hauntedness gives, however briefly, a discernible quality to our desire to discover the present, which Agamben suggests we can never fully expose.
As I consider what remains for me unperceivable within the present moment, I have to ask myself if I am haunted by something in my memory of that childhood swing, something within that memory that I’m now beginning to sense, but haven’t grasped, an apparition I might follow outside the confines memories tend to become. Like Guest’s flower, I would like to consider how I might offer “life” to that swing, allowing it to separate, to absent itself, from the frame I have lent it. And, I would like to offer “life” to the mother and the daughter I hold in my memory, a life beyond the frames for them that I have constructed, beyond the gravity and dimensions I have given them. I suppose I do see myself as writing to encourage the next level of separation, the next expansion beyond this frame’s limitations, which is why Guest’s poem is so valuable, so haunting to me.
And yet, I must acknowledge the disorientation that I’m feeling as I write this essay’s last section, and ask myself if one of my most significant memories of my mother, one that I’ve finally written about, and used as a cornerstone in this essay, might have been, all these years, haunted by more than I have understood, perhaps by more than I can understand. And that my perceptions of mother, of myself, and by extension, my writing, have all been limited by my previous inability to step outside the frames I’ve made to hold us. This remains a shock, one that comes to me just as I am hoping to end this piece with a clarifying statement or two. But essays, like poems, are best, I think, if they press hard against any perceivable cracks in their housing, and if they bear witness to what may rush in as emptiness, as absence, but which might allow a higher order of mobility and expansiveness. I can say, at least, that these poets I’ve discussed—Guest, Robertson, and Phillips (alongside many more I haven’t the space to include)—give me the courage to expect that there’ll always be more reality outside the limits I’ve imagined sustain my survival.
Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory (Theory and History of Literature) vol. 88, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedmann, newly ed. and trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.
Agamben, Giorgio. Trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella. “What Is the Contemporary?” What is an Apparatus? and Other Essays, Stanford: Stanford U P, 2009.
Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Trans. Clouesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Reprints: www. kessinger.net, 2004.
Guest, Barbara. “Valorous Vine” If So, Tell Me, from The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest. Ed. Hadley Haden Guest. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008.
Kerényi, Carl. Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life. Trans. Ralph Manheim. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976.
Kawata, Ayane. Trans. Sawako Nakayasu. “20,” Time of Sky & Castles in the Air. Brooklyn: Litmus Press, 2010.
Robertson, Lisa. “Wednesday,” The Weather. Vancouver, Canada: New Star Books, 2001.
Phillips, Lance. “Pro Nobis,” These Indicium Tales. Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2010.
Stevens, Wallace. “Repetitions of a Young Captain,” Collected Poems, New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1990.
Valéry, Paul. Quoted by Giorgio Agamben in The End of the Poem. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.