poems and other domestic objects

April 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

“It is worth one’s while, at certain hours of the day or night, to scrutinize useful objects in repose: wheels that have rolled across long dusty distances with their enormous loads of crops or ore, charcoal sacks, barrels, baskets, the hafts and handles of carpenter’s tools. The contact these objects have had with man and earth may serve as a valuable lesson to a tortured lyric poet. Worn surfaces, the wear inflicted by human hands, the sometimes tragic, always pathetic, emanations from these objects give reality a magnetism that should not be scorned.

Man’s nebulous impurity can be perceived in them: the affinity for groups, the use and obsolescence of materials, the mark of a hand or a foot, the constancy of the human presence that permeates every surface.”

–from “Some Thoughts on Impure Poetry,” quoted in the Introduction to Residence on Earth xii-xiii

Neruda, who wrote odes on socks, a table, a chair, here describes the marks of labour carried by objects. In an earlier post (“the poem as artefact that carries traces of its own making”) I’ve considered, with reference to Elaine Scarry’s extension of Marx in The Body in Pain, the traces of making that objects carry — the cloth which is “soaked” in labour, which carries traces of sweat, blood, the pin pricks and marks, the very weave of the cloth — and the subsequent alienation of the maker from such labour.

The objects Neruda describes here seem to come largely from the stereotypically masculine realm of labour: carpenter’s tools, wheels that bear heavy crops, charcoal sacks. Does he romanticize these common objects, and is there an attempt also to valorize poetry — I mean, to give more every day value to it — by placing it on the same footing as a sack that carries charcoal, or a wheel that bears a heavy load?

Heaney’s poetry also values such tools and the labour of the farm, in his case, the result of his having been raised on a small farm-holding in Northern Ireland. From his earliest collection, with the pen as substitute for the spade (and gun), he invokes the earth. Later collections return often to the trope of the plough and the ploughshare (again, with reference to the boustrophedon and versus, to the modern line’s turn at the end of each verse, and to the lovely image of the poem which turns back time):

My father’s ploughing one, two, three, four sides
Of the lea ground where I sit all-seeing
At centre field, my back to the thorn tree
They never cut. The horses are all hoof
And burnished flank, I am all foreknowledge.
Of the poem as a ploughshare that turns time
Up and over…

–‘Poet’s Chair,’ in The Spirit Level

The many domestic objects which work their way into his poetry are not limited to the masculine realm. There’s the turnip-snedder in District and Circle: in an age of “bare hands/and cast iron,//the clamp-on meat-mincer,/the double flywheeled water-pump,//it dug its heels in among wooden tubs/and troughs of slops…” There’s also the beautiful dedicatory poems to North, in particular “Sunlight,” dedicated to his aunt Mary:

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall…

He goes on to describe her floured hands and apron as she makes scones, the “plaque of heat” given off by the stove, dusting the board with a goose’s wing. Then comes the quiet moment as she has time to rest between work:

here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

Time is love and food, and the preparing of it, and plenitude — love as a scoop that is “sunk past its gleam.” North quickly descends into the darkness of myth, but still finds its ground in the archaeological objects of a distant Viking and Iron Age past. In this description of baking in the dedicatory poem, there is still the fairly strict demarcation of male and female roles, as there also tends to be when Heaney lays out his various schemata of English/Irish roots in his theoretical explorations of his own poetry: masculine, consonantal, air, clarity and light, the long line of iambic pentameter, all contrasted with feminine, vowelled, earth, darkness, the short, cutting line of North.

I turn often to Eavan Boland to read poetry with domestic objects and experiences from a woman’s perspective: fabric, cloth, the kitchen, children, illness, the confined spaces of small rooms in the suburbs. Boland is particularly fine in her poems that incorporate cloth. For example, in The Journey when she describes her search for a language like lace, or in “The Unlived Life,” her description of quilting in the new world:

to formalize the terrors of routine
in the algebras of a marriage quilt
on alternate mornings when you knew
that all you owned was what you shared.

Cloth in its long history is the history of women.  Elizabeth Wayland Barber traces this labour in Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, and in The Mummies of Ürümchi, where she describes the woven textiles of the Beauty of Loulan and other mummies found on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, along the old Silk Road. Cloth, like DNA, carries signatures, traces of its history, of how and when it was made, of where it comes from. Cloth is analogue for language and for skin, which comes into close contact with another.

In The Material of Poetry, Gerald Bruns, citing Levinas, describes poetry as object, as ethical contact with the world, language as skin. The aural qualities of a poem operate on a different level from the visual which emphasizes objectification, sudden complete comprehension, totality, versus the unfolding of sound over time, which is partial, incremental, and intimate as touch (as radio is more intimate than television). Poetry requires listening, which

“involves a form of subjectivity — indeed a kind of experience — different from seeing; it implies or entails a porous, as against a self-contained, mode of being, and it also implies a different world from the one that seeing, perception, observation or conceptualization constructs or projects onto the screen of consciousness. In an essay on ‘The Transcendence of Words,’ Levinas says, ‘To see is to be in a world that is entirely here and self-sufficient.’ Sound, however, undoes this state of self-sufficiency and contentment — and it is important to know that Levinas is thinking of the sounds of words rather than, say musicalized or harmonized sounds. Specifically, he is thinking of voiced sounds in which sound is no longer a semantic medium or the embodiment of aesthetic form but rather a mode of sensibility irreducible to vision, comprehension, or containment within categories.” p.44

Bruns is referring here to the role of sound in poetry over and above its semantic content; we’re within earshot perhaps of Kristeva’s distinction between genotext and phenotext. He notes also how sound overwhelms the firm borders of the self; “sound bleeds the self.” p.45. Listening to a poem is to exist in the “mode of being touched.” p.43 The poet’s relationship to language is one of listening. [1]

Similarly, Robert Pinsky, in Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, speaking of the Favourite Poem Project, describes the reading of a poem as being inhabited by it, of giving oneself up to this mode of being touched. In fact, the reader becomes “an actual, living medium for the poem.” p.61 This is Jane Hirshfield again, on taking the poet’s breath into your body, to give life to his or her words once more. There is a cohabitation in this, a living with another for the time it takes to speak the poem, a willingness to become the medium for that person’s voice.

But I have gone somewhat astray — or perhaps not. The experience of a poem, as in the wearing of cloth, or in the pleasure of touch, is one of proximity. I was describing cloth as analogue of poem and skin. In Boland’s poetry cloth is intimate with the human body, linked to both labour and desire, and its accompanying dangers:

Tonight in rooms where skirts appear steeped in tea
when they are only deep in shadow and where heat
collects at the waist, the wrist, is wet at the base of the neck,
the secrets of the dark will be the truths of the body
a young girl feels and hides even from herself….

(2. How the Dance Came to the City in Domestic Violence)

Boland describes many other kinds of domestic objects in her poetry. Here she is writing about antibiotics, from the title poem of The Journey:

And then the dark fell and ‘there has never’
I said ‘been a poem to an antibiotic:
never a word to compare with the odes on
the flower of the raw sloe for fever

Depend on it, somewhere a poet is wasting
his sweet uncluttered metres on the obvious

emblem instead of the real thing.

Perhaps I am stretching things by thinking of an antibiotic as artefact or domestic object, but I take my lead from Scarry and her wide-ranging account of the role of human artefacts, including language, in making the world. This brings me back to Neruda again, and his insistence on an impure poetry, an insistence on poem as labouring object, and Scarry’s description of a poem as being able to work on the world in a positive sense, to rework it, and change ourselves as a result.  I’m thinking of the use of a poem in a very diffuse way as this ability to work upon the world by working upon — by touching — another’s consciousness, and transforming it.

[1] I’m less convinced by Bruns’ defence of sound poetry as joyous vociferation; what he describes as an opening of the self to sound (and he describes exclusively male projects and projections here) feels more like unwelcome, one-way invasion, of being forced open.

the poem as artefact that bears traces of its own making

January 24, 2013 § 4 Comments

It is also possible to think of a poem as a material artefact, whether constructed out of sound, or the letters of the alphabet, which function as a fossilized notation of sound. Jane Hirshfield’s observation on the experience of speaking or reading a poem is again useful:

“Saying a poem aloud, or reading it silently if we do so with our full attention, our bodies as well as our minds enter the rhythms present at that poem’s conception. We breathe as the author breathed, we move our own tongue and teeth and throat in the ways they moved in the poem’s first making. There is a startling intimacy to this. Some echo of a writer’s physical experience comes into us when we read her poem.” [1]

She reminds us that words have a physical origin, anchored in the body of the poet. Nor is it incompatible to think of a poem as both material artefact and living flesh; the poem as material artefact is a projection of the human being (the human body) into the world—a projection of sentience, moral perception, emotion, idea—in a form which can now be shared with others, and which can last through time, working on the world as other tools of our material culture do—which then, as Marx and Scarry note, rework our own sentience, our own selves.

Hirshfield also reminds us of this material nature of the poem—the poem as artefact—when she observes how the effect of time alters our perception of it. Strangeness in the language of a poem as it ages through time functions as a kind of patina for future readers, a historical ‘signature’:

“When an original grows old, its dated words and syntax serve as a kind of watermark. Age in itself gives substance—what has lasted becomes a thing worth keeping. An older poem’s increasing strangeness of language is part of its beauty, in the same way that the cracks and darkening of an old painting become part of its luminosity in the viewer’s mind: they enter not only the physical painting, but our vision of it as well.” [2]

To describe a poem as we might a painting helps us to remember that, however ephemeral or immaterial a poem may seem, it is still a physical thing that can work on the world as much as a telescope or a microscope, tools which help to extend our range of sight. As an object which can hold and share a human’s perceptions and sensations with others, even those who live far in the future, the poem might be described as analogous to a container or vessel—it carries some essence or knowledge of the poet, knowledge which was once restricted to the borders of the poet’s body, but can now be shared.[3]

Another analogy I have suggested is that of a woven cloth, composed of many disparate threads. I am sympathetic to this comparison because of the work I did with “Karyotype.” Some of the poems in the sequence describe the cloth worn by the people of the Tarim Basin, and use the language of woven cloth—warp, weft, plain weave, selvedge—a vocabulary which reminds us of the complex work of weaving, a skill that was once essential to know in order to provide clothing, blankets, and other household textiles for your family, but is now almost a forgotten skill due to the industrialization of the process. As Elizabeth Wayland Barber points out, we are hardly even aware of the fact that most of our clothing is still made from woven cloth, and that the ancient patterns can still be seen in the plain weave of our cotton shirts, the twill of our jeans.

The poem-as-woven-cloth analogy also reminds us of the work and care that goes into making a poem. It reminds us that a poem bears the marks of the labour that went into its making. Just as a piece of cloth can be read for clues as to how it was made (the width of cloth produced by a portable loom; the kind of selvedges; patterns such as twill or plaid or plain weave; the smooth or rough transition from one colour or pattern to the next), so does a poem (the metre as the warp across which the rhythm is weft; choice of line endings in tension with syntax; formal and aural repetitions; transitions from one stanza to the next, from octave to sestet, and so on); these clues also tell us something of the skill of the maker.

I find it very difficult, excruciating, in truth, to look at my poems for this reason—I see the awkward transitions, the slips, the failures of technique, raw places where I could have done better. A poem is never finished; there is always more work to do.

Take for example ‘Karyotype XVI’:


Running the length of the skinny
little body, the narrow cloth
is wrapped, the tan warp tucked across

her like the threads of a cocoon,
as she is waiting to emerge
from her long sleep. Moon-

face in her pod of softest brown
stitched closed with carved bone pins,
the mottled wasp-nest skull

and tapered form
so carefully framed with selvedges
and checks, as if a young woman

made this as she learned to weave,
a sampler gangly as the child
she had to wrap so carefully and leave

in the cold ground, her child.

[This poem first appeared in Event Magazine;
my thanks to the editors.

I find it almost unbearable to read for the technical errors I see shot through it. I worry about the line breaks in the first stanza, and the way the sentence breaks across the first stanza into the second. Why end the first line on “skinny”? Why end the third line on “tucked across” and place “her” at the beginning of the fourth line? It could easily go at the end of the third line as a downbeat, an extra syllable resulting in a feminine ending, still iambic in sound. I suppose it could be argued the break between the first and second stanzas enacts the warp stretched across a space from life to death, to accommodate the body.

The rhyme throughout is very slant (I was simply aiming for two lines in each stanza to rhyme, at least in part): cloth/across, brown/pins, form/women. And as Mary Kinzie has noted in Poet’s Guide to Poetry, end rhymes are harder to hear if the lines don’t end on the phrase or clause or the close of a sentence, as with enjambed lines the ear is already skipping ahead to the next line to complete the syntactical construction. I’m not sure if I like the repetition of the phrase “so carefully,” one to refer to the work done on the sampler/shroud, the second to the wrapping of the child’s body in this piece of cloth. The lines don’t scan very smoothly—they are also awkward, although it improves a little towards the end.

There are elements I like as well: the way the penultimate line breaks off at “leave,”—again, the unbearable space between life and death—and the final line resumes after crossing this space, “in the cold ground, her child,” so that “the child” is separated from the mother, as the line orphans her. I like that I attempted to describe the child and her shroud accurately: tan warp, stitched closed with carved bone pins, the mottled wasp-nest skull; the language of weaving and making is merged with natural forms made by insects (cocoon, wasp-nest). So despite the technical errors, I still feel protective towards this ungainly poem, as if it enacts the woven sampler with its awkward transitions that show the inexperience of the maker. The poem seems to me now unwittingly like the cloth sampler it tries to describe.

‘Karyotype XVI’ is based on a photograph and description of the Qäwrighul child in Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Mummies of Ürümchi. The photograph shows a child of about eight years old who was wrapped in a shroud of cloth which Wayland Barber reads as a ‘sampler’ because of the evidence she sees  in the traces of its making, traces that show the weaver was inexperienced: uneven colour zones, haphazard transitions, “but that is how one learns.” Wayland Barber speculates that perhaps the young woman who wove the cloth eventually used it—perhaps now a piece of scrap cloth—to wrap her child in before placing her in the grave.

I tried to write this poem a second time, outside of the Karyotype sequence. I decided for the second attempt to use blank verse, and to try to describe the sampler in more detail—the oatmeal and tea-coloured patches, Barber’s technical analysis of the work. This time I was more conscious of the comparisons that could be drawn between the inexperienced work of the woven cloth, and the writing of the poem as artefact—as made object that bears traces of its own making.

[1] Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, p.7-8.

[2] Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, p.67.

[3] Ursual K. Leguin explores this analogy as it relates to narrative fiction in her essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

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