poem as cloth

May 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

She strung crude country wool across a loom
(The purple threads pricked out against the white);
She wove a tapestry of her sad story.
— Book VI, The Metamorphoses, Transl. Horace Gregory

The story of Philomela and Procne has been read as paradigm for the production and interpretation of texts by women within a context of patriarchal culture. A silenced group which desires to speak encodes its texts in some manner, so that the message remains in plain view, yet is read differently by different target audiences. Once Philomela’s message, woven into a tapestry, is received by Procne, the story of these sisters ends violently as they seek retribution for the crime committed against Philomela. So does the weaving competition between Arachne and Pallas Athene, in which Arachne weaves scenes of the gods’ transgressions, largely sexual violence against women; for producing this ‘text’ she is severely punished.

Saussurean models of language also lend themselves to the trope of text as cloth, with its conception of parole as combination of paradigmatic and syntagmatic selections; Barthes developed the distinction between work and text, where text becomes texture, an interwoven tissue of signs (text etymologically derived from texere, to weave).

The trope however tends towards a static conception of text, over process. The poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis in The Pink Guitar and in her own poetry (“Drafts”) developed the idea of feminist writing as process, as continual draft. In part she does this by offering multiple versions of a poem; by bleeding text into margins; ‘contaminating’ the white page with hand-written signs; and including midrash-like commentaries to her poems. But however much white space on a page is creatively approached, print tends to fix signs, like a specimen or sample fixed to a glass slide.

There is, however, the interesting concept of the “veil of print” with reference to Shakespearean studies — the way in which multiple copies of Shakespeare’s plays in folio and quarto versions, compiled by different compositors, have been thought by some to obscure or ‘veil’ the ‘original’ intentions of Shakespeare. If only this veil can be lifted away, we might see his true hand. This suggests print as a kind of tidal flux — multiple possibilities for a given word choice, line, scene — print itself as unreliable and contaminating.

This also makes me think of Emily Dickinson’s manuscript fascicles where she might record multiple selections for a single word in a line of one of her poems,  as if anticipating Saussure’s paradigmatic axis. Critical work has concentrated on this concept of choosing/not-choosing (see my earlier post on Emily Dickinson’s “Fascicules”) … why choose only one version? Why not hold multiple versions simultaneously in mind? Or choose one now, a different one later? Or why choose at all?

But back to cloth as text. I am thinking here of a more basic comparison between poem and woven cloth, not so much in terms of the poststructuralist trope or of the feminist models of production and interpretation, but from the perspective of the poet/maker/weaver, where writing a poem is understood as material practice. This is more closely aligned then with DuPlessis and her work on the idea of process, although I am less convinced by the older poststructuralist version of predestination, of having already been written, presented in The Pink Guitar.

In my experience, much of the pleasure of writing a poem or making a piece of cloth (I imagine, never having woven cloth) comes in the actual making, in the moment of putting down one word and then another and then another, watching as inked lines accumulate under fingertips or as lines of weft are tamped down along the warp threads and a pattern begins to emerge. (Wayland Barber: “The threads of the warp are those lying lengthwise in the finished cloth, and the most tedious part of making a new cloth comes in stringing these onto the loom, one at a time. Once you begin to weave in the cross-threads — the weft — you can see the new cloth forming inch by inch under your fingers, and you feel a sense of accomplishment.” p.17)

The production of cloth — spinning, weaving, sewing — through history is largely, although not exclusively, women’s work. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has documented this in her 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 textiles of the 4000-yr old Beauty of Loulan and her people of the Taklamakan desert; felt, plain weave, twill. She has a wonderful description in Women’s Work of her first attempt to make her own woven copy of a piece of cloth from the Hallstatt salt mines she had seen displayed in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.  The scrap of cloth, a piece of green and brown twill, about 3000 years old, had been preserved by the salt. She decided to try to reproduce it. Her own mother had learned to weave in a weaving school in Denmark, at a time when women had been expected to make much of the cloth for their households and so Wayland Barber knew something of the techniques involved. She describes in some detail setting the warp with the help of her sister:

For nearly eight hours we had been working on the warp […] In the morning we had wound off the requisite number of green and chocolate brown threads of fine worsted wool, stripe by colour-stripe, onto the great frame of warping pegs — pegs that hold the threads in order while measuring them all to the same length. By lunchtime we were ready to transfer the warp to the loom, tying one end of the long, thick bundle of yarn to the beam on one side. Then began the tedious task of threading the ends through the control loops (heddles) in the middle on their way to the far beam. It would have been simpler if we had intended to use the plainest sort of weave. But because we were setting up to weave a pattern — the fine diagonal pattern called twill that is used typically today in men’s suit material — it was taking far longer. p. 17-18

She learned about the textile she so admired by trying to recreate it, learned things from the errors she made in setting the warp, and in the actual on-going practice of weaving the cloth, the sudden conceptual leaps made as her fingers came to understand something about the process.

The pleasure she describes in its making is much like that of writing a poem: it can take time, patience, care, requires knowledge of earlier techniques and processes; is often a question of trial and error; we learn from earlier innovations and incorporate these into our own work. There are also some structural similarities, in the lines of a poem which we might think of as the poet’s weft woven across the warp threads of culture and language. A new pattern emerges. The end result — a poem, a piece of cloth — is a human artefact that now exists in the world, and is made for others.

This is beautifully expressed in Emily McGiffin’s “Swadeshi,” in Between Dusk and Night (2012), which begins: “And because words, if they were possible at all/were illegitimate, tawdry,/I spoke to you in yarns.” The speaker in the poem describes the process of choosing to make a blanket for someone she — I’ll call the speaker a she — loves. Yet as we read, we sense that this person does not reciprocate this love, perhaps is not even there. It’s as if the beloved is a ghost: this is a thread that runs through the collection and results in some of the most intimate and moving poems, of love which is offered, not taken, but offered nonetheless — this is the nature of a truly unselfish love, a complete giving of the self, without thought of return.  Throughout, we hear the speaker’s doubts (“But you might actually have found me ridiculous”, “You were warm enough. I was redundant.”)

The speaker carefully documents each stage of the making of the blanket, from shearing the fleece, to cleaning it — picking out twigs and burs, soaking it in water, spinning the wool into yarn that can then be woven, dyeing it. Then comes the intricate task of setting the warp on the loom, the mechanics of this and its effect on the body, the descriptions of which remind me of Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal, for its technical precision which ballasts the poem’s metaphorical flight:

Bird’s-eye twill, six hundred ends. So intricate was the work
that its details crowded out all else. The old beech loom
stood patient as an aging draft horse
as I moved around and over it, climbing onto its heft frame
to straighten all the harnesses and check the lines.
Six hundred threads to keep untangled, to align, one by one in orderly sequence,
from the back beam through six hundred heddles, six hundred
separate slots in the reed. By the time I had finished and knotted them all down
and wrapped the warp onto the front beam at the ready
I was like an old woman: my back
would not straighten, a web of tense lines
had deepened at the corners of my eyes.
But I slid under the loom like a mechanic
to tie up the treadles in the last hour before midnight.

The passage is replete with technical vocabulary (bird’s-eye twill, harnesses, heft frame, beam, heddles, reed); the loom is described as a machine the speaker works on, and the speaker/poet as mechanic. This is in itself pleasing, to hear this particular register incorporated into a poem. Yet this setting of the warp is also offered metaphorically, as model for poetic practice, and as emblematic of the speaker’s relationship with the person for whom she is making the blanket. The speaker realizes, when she is done, when the warp lines are all set, all parallel, that they embody the problem of her relation with the beloved: “the nature of our conversation/all the threads ran one way”.

It is only when the work of beginning to weave the blanket, just as Barber describes above, of bringing in the weft, which crosses over the warp, that there is real communication — even consummation, in the mechanical song of making, in the clanking of cranks, gears, break and beater: “But when I began to toss the shuttle, as the cloth grew/under my hands, colloquy blossomed into cacophony…”  The speaker finds joy in the process.

And when she is done, having worked all night:

I worked clear through the frog-song night and when dawn came
I cut it free. Unfurled it from the loom. It billowed out
the way a sail climbs a mast in a few quick halyard pulls,
snapping open in the morning light — that quick instant
the story of our kind. Ingenious capture. The way into a whole
civilization and its ugly deceits. But there is also a way
of being careful. Here, spread in soft folds across the floor:
only the labour of my own attentive hands.

This idea of capture, of our human ingenuity in the making of artefacts often used for negative ends carries traces of the violence embedded in the tapestries of Philomela and Arachne. Philomela is taken, her tongue cut out so she cannot speak. It carries traces of the ways in which we capture or take the natural world, and others, carelessly, without thought. But I like the insistence here on an alternate understanding of making — a way “of being careful,” of hands that are “attentive.” This cloth the speaker has made, which can keep a body warm, intended for the one she loves, will last many years beyond the time it took her to make it, the attention and care she placed in it will perhaps outlast her; it was made not for herself but for another; and in the end, it was freely given:

This entwinement of yarn:
all the words that lived in me, the finest
I could craft. I gave them to you.

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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.

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