“The New Syntax of Love”: Lyricism as Experiment in C.D. Wright’s Tremble
In a 1994 interview conducted when she was completing the manuscript of Tremble (1996), C. D. Wright characterized that volume as one in which she was “striving to find [her] lyric core”; “I’m trying to find out,” she observes, “ if I, too, can be a lyric poet in my lifetime.” Wryly foregrounding the old-fashioned aspects of this quest, she adds that she has had to “put down [her] harp for the time being” because of other projects. Wright’s reference to the harp--besides acknowledging the ancient linkage of lyric with music--anachronistically calls to mind the poetic theories of the 19th-century Romantic lyricists, for whom the Aeolian harp was a key emblem. Indeed, the epigraph to Tremble, from twentieth-century Belgian poet Henri Michaux, introduces wind, the natural force that vibrated the strings of Aeolian harps: “Could not life continue on earth without wind / or must everything tremble, always, always?” The word “tremble,” in turn, reverberates intertextually with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Eolian Harp,” in which the changing music of the wind harp brings the speaker boldly to speculate:
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all? [italics added]
Coleridge’s poem typifies Romantic lyric: the discourse of a speaker observing a particular natural scene, in which “the drama [is] one of mind itself when faced with external stimuli.” (Culler 167). (Its gender dynamics are also typical, in that the apparently autobiographical speaker is male, as is the animating intellectual force that breathes upon creation, while the auditor and the passive instrument are female.) Wright’s indirect allusion to Coleridge suggests that her sense of lyric is closely tied to specifically Romantic practices. At the same time, Michaux’s and Coleridge’s texts in combination point to Wright’s engagement in this volume with thematic concerns associated with lyric tradition more generally, such as the passage of time, love, the inevitability of change, and the relation between human kind, the natural world, and the divine.
Yet we would be mistaken to imagine either that Wright aspires anachronistically to gain access to lyric as it was practiced in Coleridge’s day or that she wishes to establish her skill in lyric as it is widely practiced now. Her poetry--founded in the tough grittiness of her Ozark roots and then shaped by her contact with Bay Area Language writing in the early 1980s--has always stood apart from the currently dominant lyric modes. Like much of the poetic experimentalism of recent decades, her work--which often possesses strong narrative elements--has deliberately eschewed the naturalized voice, authentic “I,” and epiphanic structure that are the linchpins of post-Romantic lyric. She accurately characterizes herself, in the same 1994 interview, as a “restive enough writer that I’m usually looking for a new entrance.” Thus, when she turns toward lyric in Tremble, Wright deforms and reforms it so that lyric itself provides a “new entrance”; rather than being a received set of conventions, lyric becomes a challenging medium of experimentation for an artist who has heretofore steered clear of its signature traits.
It is my contention that Wright in Tremble generates a disjunctive variant of lyric--in some ways reminiscent of Susan Howe’s--in which syntactic ambiguity and interruptive visual space often take the place of personal voice and melodic aural graces. However, where Howe’s stuttering lyrics serve a project of historical analysis and fragmented recovery, Wright’s, which investigate the dynamics of human love, forward a reconceptualization of human embodiment, of the relation of intellect, soul, and emotion to body, and of the relation between all these and conventions of poetic voice. Because of the gender dynamics of lyric tradition, which reinforce denigrating and de-authorizing associations of woman with body in opposition to mind, this project has strongly feminist implications.
Wright explicitly addresses her approach to lyric in “Like Peaches”-- the first of several pieces in Tremble whose titles, beginning with “like,” invite us to read the poems as metaphoric conceits. Although the poem, like a trembling lens, does not hold a single focus, nonetheless it seems to offer an extended comparison of peaches and people, as if one could insert the pronoun “we” between the title and the first line: “Like Peaches // [we] change speak sway.” Much of the comparison is insistently physical--having to do with lingering odors and protective skins, and a procreative imperative ( “yield one’s earthly wand one’s earthly sac into this vessel”). Human culture resists but is subordinate to nature’s rhythms, so that the phrase “Forever Lynne” inscribed on the water tower of a now dying town, appears a foolish denial of nature’s cycles (“ripen cling drop”) and the losses they entail. Only after extended invocation of motion and change in the context of nature is lyric explicitly introduced, in lines whose speculative stance recalls Coleridge’s “what if” in “The Aeolian Harp”:
what would it be like to fell this mess of twigs to graft
the shaking body to lyric the seasoned body to stem
to shake the lyric body to season
the stemmed to trail the fallen . . . [ellipses Wright’s, 9]
Wright’s speaker, however, instead of positing a supernatural unifying force animating a glorious nature, confronts a “mess of twigs” and contemplates acts the artist/gardener might undertake to alter the world as she finds it. The precise intervention she imagines--like the physical scene, if there is one--remains somewhat indeterminate, as phrases vacillate, or tremble, between functioning as infinitives and as prepositional phrases. The lines may present a series of equally important transitive verbs and their objects: to fell this mess of twigs, to graft the shaking body, to lyric the seasoned body, to season the stemmed, and to trail the fallen. Or the verb graft may be a particularly central action here, governing several phrases: graft the shaking body onto lyric and graft the seasoned body onto stem. In either case, the speaker contemplates experimenting with multiple strategies, some of them quite drastic. Her desire apparently is twofold: she wishes to change the body--which I take to mean altering our ways of thinking about or constructing the sensual and material human body--by grafting it to lyric, and she aspires to change lyric by shaking it, and perhaps by stemming it, seasoning it, trailing it along the ground and so on, verbs that suggest very physical modification of structure, movement, or tone.
The speaker focusses on process rather than on the product that will result, offering the experimentalist’s intrigued speculation about what “it would be like” to try various innovations. Nonetheless, the terms of the meditation implicitly challenge those in which Yeats famously characterized the ideal lyric achievement. Yeats envisioned the ideal art object as nearly indistinguishable from the live and intact natural object--metaphorically, the grand chestnut tree, a “great-rooted blossomer “ at once leaf, blossom, and bole. Wright, however, emphasizes the modification of nature by the artist; what captures her imagination is the deliberate introduction via “grafting” of hybridity, constructedness. While this ars poetica acknowledges, even embraces, the inescapable context of natural processes and mortality, verbs such as “fell,” “stem,” and “shake” define the artist’s responsibilities as in significant part disruptive.
That Wright’s notion of lyric involves lopping off and shaking up has of course already been evident in the formal construction of “Like Peaches,” where the flow of syntax and any possibilities of lyric effusiveness or of transparent representation have been stemmed, replaced by the symmetrical but disjunct arrangement of spatially isolated single words or pared phrases. The words themselves are sometimes curiosities, specialized technical terms like “drupe” and “epicarp” that enrich the poem’s aural effects (key to traditional definitions of lyric), even as they counter conventionally lyrical evocations of visual beauty and interfere with illusions of naturalized voice. The only two lines in the poem that are not abruptly broken into spatially separated phrases seem a direct rejection of Yeats’ famed romantic image:
things that are not written in this book
don’t go boring your nose in the fork of a tree not even present
Don’t search here for all that might be found in the sublime nature lyrics of the past; this is not that kind of organic structure. The pleasures of this hybrid form are less refined, what’s written is less transparent, and what’s gained is frankly the result of human ingenuity:
arise refreshed wormed
pulpy opaque ecstatic
of perfect nexus shave the epicarp collect the juices
In this concluding passage, as throughout this poem re-envisioning lyric, syntax is open and individual words are surprisingly deployed; nouns such as “orchard” become verbs, and spaces substitute their suggestive indeterminacies for punctuation marks and other syntactic determinants. All this is part of the experiment of stemming and shaking--that is, rendering more minimalistic and more indeterminately ordered--“the lyric body” in the sense of the lyric form.
Wright’s complementary project of grafting “the shaking body” to lyric--the shaking body being perhaps the human body in a state of emotional and/or sexual excitement, and also in the inevitably trembling process of mortal life--reflects aims similar to those asserted by feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz who refigures the body so that it becomes central, not peripheral, to subjectivity in her 1994 study Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Grosz proposes to take the body as a point of mediation between what’s perceived as internal and external, and therefore as the point from which to rethink not only the oppositions of mind/body and inside/outside, but also of public/private, self/other, cultural/natural, etc. (20) Wanting to replace the dualistic and hierarchical models of the relation between (conventionally feminine) body and (conventionally masculine) mind, Grosz seeks to invert the primacy of a psychical interiority by demonstrating its necessary dependence on a corporeal exteriority (xii). Rather than dividing the subject into mutually exclusive categories of mind and body, she proposes an embodied subjectivity or a psychical corporeality. She offers the mobius strip as one model for this understanding:
It enables subjectivity to be understood not as the combination of a psychical depth and a corporeal superficiality but as a surface whose inscriptions and rotations in three-dimensional space produce all the effects of depth. It enables subjectivity to be understood as fully material and for materiality to be extended and to include and explain the operations of language, desire, and significance. (210).
Although the figure of the mobius strip is not invoked in Tremble, Grosz’s description of what it “enables” clearly pertains.
Wright’s poetry in Tremble conveys a powerful vision of what Grosz terms “psychical corporeality.” Grafting the body to lyric thematically, the collection emphasizes the physicality of human emotional bonds (for instance, when the title “Everything Good Between Men and Women” is completed by “has been written in mud and butter / and barbecue sauce” ), and it presents conventionally intellectual activities, especially writing, as corporeal and as inseparable from sexual activity. In the abbreviated lines of “Gift of the Book,” for instance, one cannot determine whether the book is a printed volume or a person’s body, and whether reading is a mental process or a physical exploration:
I stay awake
by the hunger (27)
While the hunger seems most obviously “yours,” it could also be that the speaker is stunned by her own hunger as she devours, in lovemaking or in reading, this ambiguously literal or figurative book; self and other blur, intellect and body are one.
Wright’s experiments with lyric reflect a desire (like that articulated by Grosz) to explore reconfigurations of the relation between interiority and exteriority. Traditionally, romantic and postromantic lyric is distinguished by its inwardness, so that the external scene provides merely the occasion for a meditation on emotional or spiritual conditions. The love poems in Tremble are distinguished by their ostensible outwardness. Thus, the opening poem “Floating Trees,” (in which the title may suggest another rejection of Yeats’s phallicly rooted tree) is made of paired lines that focus largely on sensory details of the couple’s bedroom:
the comb’s sough and the denim’s undeniable rub
the chair’s stripped back and muddied rung
color of stone soup and garden gloves
color of meal and treacle and sphagnum
hangers clinging to their coat
a soft white bulb to its string
The lines that follow this passage present a crucial assumption behind this externalizing approach to lyric “the footprints inside us / iterate the footprints outside.” (Is this claim that the marks we bear inside repeat those outside a materializing revision of Coleridge’s “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”?). Moreover, it is only from the “outside,” via the act of writing, that the emotion, conventionally “inside,” gains completion: “ink of eyes and veins and phonemes / the ink completes the feeling.” Art, then, acts neither as reflecting mirror nor as illuminating lamp; rather the poem itself is an object in the scene (“one of them writes this down / one has paper”) valued for its constructed and constructive otherness.
Either the woman, the man, or both members of the heterosexual couple in “Floating Trees” could be writers. That this has revisionary significance for the female writer even in the 1990s becomes clear in “Like Rocks” (another poem in the mode of “Like Peaches”) which revises the Biblical creation story to reinsert woman and her body into the process of creation. The poem draws upon some common scientific notions of geological evolution but in this version rocks develop sexes “male and female colored differently,” and as the poem progresses the voice of the speaker becomes that of a rock: “quarry me uplift butterfly me micturate / across the flat of my back.” Given that the differently colored rock of the other sex would be no more able to quarry, lift, or spit than this one, the plea here must be addressed to some larger, freer force, perhaps that traditionally figured by the divine Eros or the Judeo-Christian God. What follows is an explicit refutation of the phallogocentric creation tale or tale of authoriship that appears in Genesis 1:
in the very beginning was only fucking
hunger poetry breath shhhhhh
“The outstanding feature of the creation in Genesis 1,” notes Margaret Homans, “is that the masculine deity creates with language. God’s Word is what supplants feminine fecundity, and when that Word is made flesh it takes masculine form. The Logos is a masculine prerogative, handed down from Father to Son” (30). By insisting that what comes first is not the masculine Word but fucking, a physical activity that involves two partners equally (and the volume as a whole invites presumption that the coupling is heterosexual), Wright refutes any theory of artistic creation that privileges the male, excludes the female, or de-materializes the process. The (masculine) Word has no place in this creation (“shhhhh”); while the breath, with which the Bible’s masculine God gives life to the first man and which reappears as Coleridge’s masculine harp-playing wind, here belongs to both genders and exists on an equal footing with (also not gendered) poetry and desire.
Wright’s emphasis on embodiment does not erase sexual difference, but it enables her to challenge traditional models that figure the female body as a falling off from a male norm. This is true of “Approximately Forever,” another poem that complicates conventional notions of interiority and exteriority. “She was changing on the inside” the first line asserts, “it was true what had been written // The new syntax of love / both sucked and burned.” Intensely physical sensations, presented as internal events, result from love’s introduction of--what do we make of this “new syntax”?-- new structures for communication? a reconfiguration of the elements constituting her subjectivity? These internal changes, at once abstract and material, are registered primarily in the woman’s sensory awareness of the world: “she took in the smell . . .every sound was relevant.” The poem’s abridged narrative closes with cryptic but allusive lines, in which the woman responds apparently to her male companion’s seeming “strangely moved”: “She would take her clothes off / for the camera // she said in plain english / but she wasn’t holding that snake.” In the high-risk context of love, where new inscriptions are grafted to old, she will expose herself (her “corporealized subjectivity”) to the potentially objectifying male gaze, but she emphatically rejects all the old nonsense about woman’s responsibility for the fall, about the evil of woman’s sexualized body, or about woman’s coveting the phallus her own body “lacks.”
I suggested earlier that Wright’s grafting of the body to lyric entailed alterating lyric conventions of personal voice--conventions challenged by many current experimentalists, influenced by poststructuralist understandings of subjectivity and of language. Wright’s favoring of third person presentation (as in “Like Rocks”) is part of this; along with with the disjunctions and abbreviations that produce indeterminacies of interpretation, distancing pronouns undercut notions of the poem simply transmitting the poet’s emotional experience or her voice to the reader. The poem “Sonic Relatons” provides a particularly clear example of Wright’s rejection of Romantic and contemporary understandings of lyric as capturing (to paraphrase Wordsworth) the voice of a (wo)man or speaking to (wo)men. The “sonic relations” explored here are those between a woman who tells her story and a man who listens, and those between lyric voice or music and lyric structure. The poem’s first section reads:
In the space of an ear
she told him the uncut version
in all but inaudible detail
without motors without phones
he gathered round her
like books like chairs
her warmth her terrible warmth
flooded the tone
The lines are complete phrases; the connection of each to what follows or precedes seems tenuous. At the same time, the 43-line poem as a whole coheres almost like a fugue, as phrasal patterns repeat (in, we might note, dichotomous but not dualistic structures) and entire lines recur two, three, or even four times. Sonic relations, the form suggests, are best explored not by efforts at naturalizing representation but via shifts in order and syntax among carefully honed elements. Such rearrangement--”shaking”?-- of constitutive elements also contributes to the reconfiguring of categories and bodies that takes place in the poem. Both the man and the woman expand beyond their bodies’ conventional boundaries: “he gathered round her / like books like chairs” as if he were a group of people or a comforting domestic surround, while her warmth seems literally to overflow. The poem’s irregular repetitions--through which we register the couple’s interaction from several perspectives--creates an effect like the depth-giving rotation Grosz attributes to the Mobius strip model of mind/body relations. Perhaps it is because of this depth, these repetitions with variation, that the female character depicted succeeds in communicating with her auditor (“he saw ralph then and the fire / in all but inaudible detail”) and that, at the poem’s close, connection is maintained despite distance and possibly dangerous heat: “she looked at him / across an azimuth of space / he gathered round her/ her warmth her terrible warmth.”
Many of the poems in Tremble, like much of lyric tradition, examine the warmth or flames of various forms of love but the poem which seems to me an inscription of Wright’s “lyric core” has no speaker and does not appear to treat a relationship or emotion. Rather, it is a kind of verbal pillar constructed from isolated, syntactically freed words arranged in an ordered structure. Titled “Flame” and placed as the volume’s penultimate poem, it has three columns of fifteen words preceded by “the”--a form that can be read horizontally or vertically, and in which the largely iambic rhythm (e.g. “the breath the trees the bridge / the road the rain the sheen”) perhaps suggest the heart beat. Where the title might suggest instability and change, this is formally the most regular and visually stable poem in the collection. It is as if C. D. Wright’s turn inward in search of her lyric core has yielded finally a small number of significant words. Most of them have acquired resonance by appearing elsewhere in the volume. Some denote body parts (the lungs, the eyes, the leg, the skin, etc.) or elements of rural landscape (the trees, the road, the rain) while a few evoke less tangible entities (the reasons, the signal, the distance, the hour). The only word that repeats (and it appears six times) is “breath,” apparently a touchstone as the source of physical life, as spiritual inspiration, and as the force behind word or (lyric) song. The final horizontal line of “Flame” is composed of related words obviously linked to the title and in lyric tradition signal sexual love and earthly desire: “the burn the burned the burning” (58). It seems, then, that in her experiments with lyric, Wright succeeded in locating what she most loves (both the words themselves and what they signify), and in the process found the essense of love unchanged over time but its contemporary syntax at once reduced, corporealized, and opened.
Coleridge, S. T. (Get info on right edition)
Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature.
Homans, Margaret. Woman Writers and Poetic Identity.
C. D. Wright. Tremble. Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1996