On Poetic Gesture and Emotional Commitment

Posted on December 20, 2011

7


Here we are as poets, in search of primordial forms that pull our imagination beyond the strict confines of the world as we’ve grown used to seeing it, picturing it, describing it – figures of the bird, the fish, or some other unknown prehistoric creatures. It doesn’t matter, really, whether that vision is all elegance and refinement (like a Brancusi) or stormy and turbulent (like a Picasso). Writing the poem is about rediscovering those primordial shapes that inhabit our unconscious (collective or otherwise) without caricature, though perhaps not without a touch of irony. Our figures might have some imposing and awesome mystery about them, but if they’re to work, they must shift into another range of feeling.

The problem of poetry is the same as the problem of philosophy: there is one theme and one theme only that philosophy has had to deal with since its beginnings among the Greeks, and that is the everlasting struggle between Being and Seeming. The Greeks, perhaps more than any other ancient people, had been shocked by the presence of illusion in human life. What we took to be solid, crumbles; what we took to be radiant truth turns into glossy image; what we took to be forthright turns into a trick of words. Ever since we began to think, we’ve been haunted by the need to find something stable amid this flux. Against the semblances that are blared out in public places we must hold to that small circle of things in whose closeness we find what matters to us, what moves us, what makes us think, what makes us feel.

An aspect of what feels true to us (true to our experience of being human) has been preserved for us by the ancient languages and comes to us from the Greek aletheia, usually translated as truth but which literally means “unhiddenness.” The truth of an experience appears to us when a thing comes forth from the hidden into the open, from the darkness into the light, and is revealed as what it is. And we ourselves are capable of such truths to the degree that we can let the thing be what it is, so that it can shine before us as it is, while the veil of abstractions — woven either by our routines or by other people’s empty phrases — falls away. Then we see it, as it were, for the first time.

“I know” in ancient Greek is oida, literally “I have seen.” Both these senses of “truth” are present on the page when we struggle to put down what happened in action — in gesture — rather than simply delivering by image what we think we’re supposed to feel, or have been taught to feel. Only if language opens up some clearing, some open space in which we can lay hold of the things that matter can we come close to and hold fast to them — we reach the things that matter by way of the very stuff of matter. And there is, after all, a moral component here: in the language of Heidegger: truth as the rightness of a human act or attitude presupposes truth as aletheia, unhiddenness. We have to see truly in order to act rightly.

I’m talking about style, where style (the poet’s style) is as much a matter of living life on the page as it is a matter of belles-lettres. “It is what we have in place of religion,” says Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises.

It’s a kind of precision I find myself looking for, having to do with the bravery of the poet in making a discernible emotional investment in the poem’s imagery, and in accomplishing this emotional investment with the use of connective tissue we’ll call “gesture” — where language opens up a clearing in which something happens, and we see and feel the gestures of that thing happening, and we come to recognize it for what it is, as if for the first time, that very particular “now.” “Now, it has a funny sound to be a whole world and your life,” says Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Coming back for a moment down to earth (that place where all our gestures originate), I think of that William Carlos Williams poem, maybe you know it: “The Loving Dexterity” in which in all of 20 words the poet describes a single gesture, a woman stooping to pick up a flower petal and attempt to replace it in the blossom.  A failed gesture, a doomed gesture, but one that is entirely successful at capturing both the woman’s desire for wholeness, however approximate, and the speaker’s appreciation of the woman:

The Loving Dexterity

The flower
fallen
she saw it
where
it lay

a pink petal
intact

deftly
placed it
on
its
stem
again

Note how much Williams accomplishes with this single gesture, making the poem, its moment, its emotional structure immediately available, humanly situated. (For the musicians among us, I’m reminded of Mozart’s ethereal “Ave Verum Corpus,” in which, in a stunningly short, compact piece of choral writing, Mozart wholly achieves the impossible.)

In poems that rely over-heavily upon images rather than gestures, we lose the sense of the human, the sense that the speaker is, herself/himself, filled with human fragility, is penetrable by the things of the world rather than kept apart from them.

Often we’re invited through poetry’s images to notice the chaotic, existential stuff of the world that leaves us necessarily vulnerability, but so often we’re not permitted to FEEL that vulnerability, or the gesture is offered merely as a matter of list-making, and as a result, we get both an image AND a gesture, but the experience is so fleeting that we wind up feeling that we’ve been offered example rather than experience.

Wondering wherever I might find a example of an annotation that treats the use of gesture (and syntax), what to my wondering eyes did appear but this brilliant work from Jenny Johnson, an instructor of Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh and fellow graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Jenny has graciously given me permission to use her annotation of  Jorie Graham’s “Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve].” What more could a blogger ask for?

You’ll notice, of course, that the poem itself treats the idea of gesture (and the gesture of gesture), and that it’s a complex, layered, and highly elliptical (not to mention fragmented) poem – so wholly different in scope, texture, and strategy from W.C. William’s “little” poem that one could get a little whiplash.Writing an annotation of such a poem is an exercise in pluck and imagination and smarts, and Jenny owns these qualities in abundance. It’s such an absorbing and thorough-going job of annotation that I’ll hold of commenting on the meat and potatoes of it for a future blog post.

Here it is, then, first Jorie’s poem, followed by the annotation:

Use of Syntax in “Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve]” by Jorie Graham

SELF-PORTRAIT AS THE GESTURE BETWEEN THEM [Adam and Eve]

1

The gesture like a fruit torn from a limb, torn swiftly.

2

The whole bough bending then springing back as if from sudden sight.

3

The rip in the fabric where the action begins, the opening of the narrow passage.

4

The passage along the arc of denouement once the plot has begun, like a limb,
the buds in it clinched and numbered,
outside the true story really, outside of improvisation,
moving along day by day into the sweet appointment.

5

But what else could they have done, these two, sick of beginning,
revolving in place like a thing seen,
dumb, blind, rooted in the eye that’s watching,
ridden and ridden by that slowest of glances the passage of time
staring and staring until the entrails show.

6

Every now and then a quick rain for no reason,

7

a wind moving round all sides, a wind shaking the points of view out
like the last bits of rain….

8

So it was to have freedom she did it but like a secret thought.
A thought of him the light couldn’t touch.
The light beating against it, the light flaying her thought of him,
trying to break it.
Like a fruit that grows but only in the invisible.
The whole world of the given beating against this garden
where he walks slowly in the hands of freedom
noiselessly beating his steps against the soil.

9

But a secret grows, a secret wants to be given away.
For a long time it swells and stains its wearer with beauty.
It is what we see swelling forth making the shape we know a thing by.
The thing inside, the critique of the given.

10

So that she turned the thought of him in her narrow mind,
turned him slowly in the shallows, like a thin bird she’d found,
turned him in this place which was her own, as if to plant him but never
letting go,

keeping the thought of him keen and simple in a kind of winter,
keeping him in this shadowlessness in which he needn’t breathe,
him turning to touch her as a thing turns towards its thief,
owned but not seizable, resembling, resembling….

11

Meanwhile the heights of things were true. Meanwhile the distance of
the fields was true. Meanwhile the fretting of the light against the backs of them

as they walked through the fields naming things, true,
the touch of the light along the backs of their bodies…

12

as the apple builds inside the limb, as rain builds
in the atmosphere, as the lateness accumulates until it finally
is,
as the meaning of the story builds,

13

scribbling at the edges of her body until it must be told, be

14

taken from her, this freedom,

15

So that she had to turn and touch him to give it away

16

to have him pick it for her as the answer takes the question

17

that he should read in her the rigid inscription

18

in a scintillant fold the fabric of the daylight bending

19

where the form is complete where the thing must be torn off

20

momentarily angelic, the instant writhing into shape,

21

the two wedded, the readiness and the instant,

22

the extra bit that shifts the scales the other way now in his hand,
the gift that changes the balance,

23

the balance that cannot be broken owned by the air until he touches

24

the balance like an apple held up into the sunlight

25

then taken down, the air changing by its passage, the feeling of being capable,

26

of being not quite right for the place, not quite the thing that’s needed,

27

the feeling of being a digression not the link in the argument,
a new direction, an offshoot, the limb going on elsewhere,

28

and liking that error, a feeling of being capable because an error,

29

of being wrong perhaps altogether wrong a piece from another set

30

stripped of position stripped of true function

31

and loving that error, loving that filial form, the break from perfection

32

where the complex mechanism fails, where the stranger appears in the clearing,

33

out of nowhere and uncalled for, out of nowhere to share the day.

- – – -

“In a 1987 interview, Jorie Graham discusses the relationship between sentences and narrative in End of Beauty. She says:

The way the sentence operates became connected, for me, with notions like ending-dependence and eschatological thinking…I began to notice how the forms our Western sensibility creates are, for the most part, ending-dependent… (218)

Throughout this book of poems, Graham attempts to rupture Western sensibilities through both craft (syntax, in particular) and content (for example, opening with Adam and Eve and closing with a poem entitled “Imperialism,” so as to conflate biblical and socio-political narratives). This annotation is an inquiry into how specifically Graham manages to challenge and rupture the archetypal narrative of Adam and Eve using various syntactical strategies.

“Self-Portrait as the Gesture Between” is made up of thirty-three numbered sections of varying line-lengths. Within and across the numbered sections the reader encounters nine grammatical units (either sentences or sentence fragments) that a period closes. The first four sections each contain a single sentence fragment, however the final twenty-three sections maintain one long, complex sentence. In The Art of Syntax Ellen Bryant Voigt uses the phrase “branching syntax” to describe a type of cumulative building within sentences, which will be considered later, but for now this visual image of a subordinate clause or modifier as a tree branch shooting off from the trunk is particularly useful, especially when thinking about the structure of this poem, one that opens with a few terse limbs (sects. 1-4), then accumulates into various longer branches (see sects. 8-10), and closes on one long, layered and sinewy bough (sects. 11-23) (Voigt, 13).

The opening fragments enact “the gesture” that Graham describes; they abruptly rip, tear, bend, and open across the page. Though the energy in these opening lines is dramatic, the fragments each lack a predicate, so syntactically speaking there is no forward progression in the storyline between Adam and Eve, instead the reader is challenged by shifting slices of description. The numbered sections also allow Graham to abruptly shift perspective. Like an image in a kaleidoscope turning as light alters the viewer’s lens, the subject of the poem shifts from “gesture” to “whole bough” to “rip” to “passage.” Each fragment also follows a pattern, opens with a noun [noted in bold] and then is extended by adjectival phrases [noted in italic]:

1 – The gesture like a fruit torn from a limb, torn swiftly.

2- The whole bough bending back then springing back as if from sudden sight.

3- The rip in the fabric where the action begins, the opening of the narrow

passage.

4- The passage along the arc of denouement once the plot has begun, like a limb,

the buds in it cinched and numbered,

outside the true story really, outside of improvisation,

moving along day by day into the sweet appointment.

Though the opening to this poem seems grammatically inchoate, the fragments as shown above are parallel in construction; Graham gives syntactic errancy its own symmetry in this poem. As noted above, Graham also gives nouns (used by God to name Adam, Eve, and the things of the world) primary emphasis. Then she uses prepositional and participial phrases to create illusions of a fixed narrative time and space. However, without a predicate to tether to a thread of storyline, the reader is forced to look elsewhere for meaning, to search for other patterns upon which to tie the opening associative leaps.

Another angle by which to talk about the grammar Graham constructs in these opening lines and throughout this poem requires a brief definition of the term “branching syntax,” or “right-branching,” a name for a syntax that extends out of the main clause. Voigt defines it as: “modification which follows in closest proximity to what it modifies” (163).  Here are two examples of this pattern from sects. 1 and 5 [questions inserted in italics show how the modification progresses from phrase to phrase]:

The gesture (similar to what?)

like a fruit torn (where was the fruit torn?)

from a limb, (how was the limb torn?)

torn swiftly.

But what else could they have done, (who?)

these two, (how do they feel?)

sick (what are they sick of?)

of beginning, revolving in place (similar to what?)

like a thing seen, (how does the thing seen look?)

dumb, blind, rooted (where is the thing rooted?)

in the eye that’s watching, (another word for how they’re watched?)

ridden and ridden (what are they ridden by?)

by that slowest of glances (comparable to what?)

the passage of time (what does the passage of time do?)

staring and staring  (how long does time stare?)

until the entrails show.

In each of these examples, each chunk of thought is born primarily out of the previous chunk of thought, tugging the reader further and further away from the original referent, turning the sentence (or fragment) into a lengthening digression, a widening tear in the poem’s narrative fabric.

Other strategies used by Graham to rupture narrative are interruption and elision.   Sections five, eight, nine, and ten begin on a conjunction. Across these sections, there is even a temporary pattern: but, so, but, so. Typically a conjunction is utilized to connect two independent thoughts that are equal. However, in this poem the conjunctions have the opposite effect. Just as the absence of the predicate is felt in the opening four fragments, the absence of an adjacent idea or thought is felt in these lines. Though the grammar in a sentence like, “So it was to have freedom she did it but like a secret thought,” has a visible subject and verb, the sentence disorients, sounding like either an interruption or the continuation of a remark without a clear origin. Graham also creates gaps or delays in the poem’s progression by leaving out words, in section eight, for example: “Every now and then a quick rain for no reason.” This interrupting fragment elides its subject, “there is.” Though Graham’s various decisions to add a conjunction in one line or elide a subject in another may seem insignificant in such a long poem, read as a whole the absences create a unifying torque.

The other formal choice that gives this errant poem a sensation of coherence is its lexical repetition, as nouns reappear or are echoed through synonyms, the reader seeks to connect or find symmetries across disparate strings of thought (i.e. words or word groups like limb/bough, sight/resemble, light, turn/bend, form/shape/name, passage, touch/gesture, thought/mind/point of view, true/error).

In the final shift in the poem (sects. 11-23), Graham suspends linear time within the body of a single long sentence (310 words total), a sentence dense with digressions that push and pull the reader at either end. The intent to construct a sentence that embodies delay or the “rip in the fabric” of the story is hinted at by the opening adverb “meanwhile.” Unexpectedly, this final sentence is not a fragment. The sentence revolves around one main clause: “the two wedded.” Throughout, the sentence accumulates modifiers; anaphora builds rhythm connecting disparate images from the Garden of Eden, such as: “as they walked…” “as the apple builds …” “as rain builds…” “as the meaning of the story builds…” There is also repetition of language like “the balance” and “the feeling of being,” so even as the sentence right branches it also echoes, creating a cognitive experience that tugs the reader forward and backward simultaneously. This sentence spins like a hurricane, and the stabilizing clause “the two wedded,” a moment of balance between Adam and Eve, is the eye of the storm. Read straight through without the section or line breaks this clause is even situated at the sentence’s center [clause noted in bold]:

Meanwhile the fretting of the light against the backs of them as they walked through the fields naming things, true, the touch of the light along the backs of their bodies…as the apple builds inside the limb, as rain builds in the atmosphere, as the lateness accumulates until it finally is, as the meaning of the story builds, scribbling at the edges of her body until it must be told, be taken from her, this freedom, so that she had to turn and touch him to give it away to have him pick it up from her as the answer takes the question that he should read in her the rigid inscription in a scintillant fold the fabric of the daylight bending where the form is complete where the thing must be torn off momentarily angelic, the instant writhing into a shape, the two wedded, the readiness and the instant, the extra bit that shifts the scales the other way now in his hand, the gift that changes the balance, the balance that cannot be broken owned by the air until he touches, the balance like an apple held up into the sunlight then taken down, the air changing by its passage, the feeling of being capable, of being not quite right for the place, not quite the thing that’s needed, the feeling of being a digression not the link in the argument, a new direction, an offshoot, the limb going on elsewhere, and liking that error, a feeling of being capable because an error, of being wrong perhaps altogether wrong a piece from another set stripped of position stripped of true function and loving that error, loving that filial form, that break from perfection where the complex mechanism fails, where the stranger appears in the clearing, out of nowhere and uncalled for, out of nowhere to share the day.

Perhaps Graham intended to create a centrifugal force in this sentence, where modifiers and dependent clauses spin outward, demonstrating either a loss of balance or a transgressive and seductive symmetry.

Though the story of Adam and Eve is ingrained in the archetypal conscious of many readers, particularly those of a “Western sensibility,” Graham’s rendering is unique, because she privileges the drama of the instance between Adam and Eve over the narrative conclusion. In the interview quoted earlier, Graham also confesses that it’s frightening, “when we start realizing that by our historical thinking we have created a situation whereby we are only able to know ourselves by a conclusion which would render meaningful the storyline along the way”(218).  To counter this mode of thinking within the context of a poem, Graham privileges the space of the errant gesture, turning the transgressive action into a resonant and multi-faceted presence, underscored and empowered by a disruptive syntax. As a result, the poem, as the phrase “self-portrait” suggests in the title, permits an alternative form of witness, an opportunity for the narrator (and reader?) to glimpse him or herself through a potential manifested by transgressions and gaps in the storyline, ‘the feeling of being capable because an error‘.”

- – – – – -

Works Cited

Graham, Jorie. The End of Beauty. The Ecco Press. Hopewell, New Jersey, 1987.

Graham, Jorie. “Jorie Graham & Thomas Gardner in Conversation.” Interview conducted

October 1987. Regions of Unlikeness: Explaining Contemporary Poetry. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Print.

Voigt, Ellen Bryant. The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song. Graywolf Press. St.

Paul, Minnesota, 2009.

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