What is this?
I have discovered one of my new favorite poems in Barbara Guest’s An Emphasis Falls on Reality. I thoroughly enjoy the way “An Emphasis Falls on Reality” skates across the tongue before announcing itself to the world when spoken—and that’s just the title! People (as in “those people”), when talking about poetry, have a tendency to devote a lot of energy to things like “structure” and “flow,” but I want to avoid them almost entirely when discussing this poem. Hmmm, no flow and no structure—well, I guess that leaves me without anything to say so I’ll just move on to Jackson Mac Low. Oh wait—I forgot about “language”! An Emphasis Falls on Reality is all about language.
Guest’s brilliant use of language allows us to tiptoe psychoanalytically between the Chora (Lacan’s “Real”), a time before our introduction into language, and The Mirror Stage (our first entry into language)—the place between subject and object, a place philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva terms The Abject. Where do we stop experiencing “the pure materiality of existence” and start experiencing our lives through the “reality” of language? Why, right there in the first line of An Emphasis Falls on Reality when the “Cloud fields change into furniture” (1). I imagine myself as a child, wrapped in my favorite blankie, staring up at the “natural” cloud fields (representing the Chora) before they morph into the “reality through language” that is represented by furniture and then, just as quickly, they change into fields. This back and forth between the surreal and the real creates a startling landscape. She deftly uses language with and against itself to take us back to a time before its existence. She evokes feelings by using the cloud fields, snow, silhouettes, and illuminations to represent that primal state. She even talks of “‘being’ and ‘nothingness’” (13) to bring us ever closer to that earliest stage of life when “silence is pictorial/ when silence is real” (18-19). By interspersing jarring, tangible words into this ethereal world—words like furniture, “fountains” (11), “motors” (16), and “walls” (24)—she is unleashing the revolt inherent in the Abject. These words somehow don’t belong, but they are there nonetheless. She goes even one further by speaking directly to the language, using words like, well, “words” (which “stretch severely” 5), “vowel”(22), “metaphors” (25), and “font” (32), and lines like “that letter composed of calligraphy” (21). We somehow know that “willows are not real trees” (28), but simply a word that represents the objects that “entangle us in looseness” (29) as “the natural world spins in green” (30). By looking at the poem in this way I appreciate the small miracle that Guest has performed. Language, inevitably and irrevocably, really does create “darkened copies of all trees” (45).
Jackson Mac Low speaks to language as well but much more directly than Guest does. He’s not taking us on a journey to a world of pre-language, but simply showing us the “dance” that language can do. I suppose if you’re going to have to use language, you might as well know how it works. He gives us a pretty big clue to what he’s doing right in the title of the collection from which the first three poems in the reading are drawn—The Pronouns. Sure enough, there He is, 1ST DANCE. announcing himself in line one of Mac Low’s He can do all sorts of things. He starts by doing pretty mundane stuff like “[making] himself comfortable/ & [matching] parcels” (1-2), but we pretty quickly realize that this isn’t your grandmother’s He. He starts by “[making] glass boil” (3) and I’m OK with that—I can accept that He is capable of this. But Mac Low isn’t satisfied to leave it there—our hero, He, can do even more. He somehow is “presently paining by going or having waves” (11). Wow! I had no idea He could do that! I in 6TH DANCE becomes the first-person alter-ego of He from 1ST DANCE (kind of like when John Travolta steals Nicolas Cage’s face in the film Face/Off)*. I is doing what He did, only now in his own words and from a slightly different perspective. He boiled glass but I “boil[s] some delicate things” (3). I “discuss[es] something brown (the bottle that’s not white perhaps) and “keep[s] to the news” (16) all while “quietly chalk[ing] a strange tall bottle” (9). You thought the person pronouns were impressive; wait till you see what This in 12TH DANCE can do. Detached, This really gives us a fly’s-eye-view of the happenings and sees things in a whole other perspective making “meat before heat” (20) and getting “leather by language” (22).I’m going to speed over Trope Market and 59TH Light Poem (both which I liked very much) to get to the only poem of the reading that I initially had trouble with—Antic Quatrains. At first Antic Quatrains assaulted me with its structure and archaic language, but then I realized that Mac Low was playing a joke with language. The words in Antic Quatrains are so over-the-top, so ridiculous in their extravagance that it is impossible to take the poem seriously. Plus, as a bonus, when I began Googling the mostly unfamiliar words I found out the poem was pretty pornographic—and I know this because while I was looking up the definitions on the Internet I actually came across real pornography and was able to successfully compare the two. Unfortunately, all this time surfing porn precluded me from becoming too familiar with Mac Low’s final two poems, Twenties 26 and Twenties 27—on first glance, I guess I’ll just say that I kind of liked them…
* I never actually saw this movie.