Dissimilar Multitudes

Kristina Marie Darling

Mar 19, 2018

Co-Written with Karla Kelsey

Grubby violet dusk.  Everywhere, the tongue-tang of rust….

In a recent collection, Night Vision, Claire Wahmanholm presents us with a speaker who drifts between rhetorical modes, trying each of them on as though they were scarves or overcoats.  Finery in which to traverse a textual landscape “overcast with coal,” littered with bright and “scattered fragments.” 

When read as an ars poetica, a manifesto that performs and dramatizes its own aesthetic principles, we begin to see the possibilities of a poetics based in language other than ones own.  The poem becomes a testing ground, a space in which to question and further refine the relationship between language – in all of its textures and incarnations – and that window, shot straight through with light, that is now being rendered in textual form. 

Of course, unknown variables have been known to make an equation more difficult.  When the poem comes unhinged from the singular voice of its author, it becomes what Emmanuel Levinas describes as a “dissimilar multitude:  I’s, all one of a kind.”  Yet, we tend to forget that this multiplicity is also contained within a single voice.  As Plato notes, “the voice [phone] that comes out of my mouth is one and infinite [apeiros] and multiple; it is the voice of everyone and each one.”  Does a poetics of the archive, of appropriation and recontextualization, offer an experience of the human voice that is more real, and more true? 

Now a flash of color in the window, a knock at the door—

“The person inside a literary creation can be both viewer and insider,” writes Barbara Guest in her essay “Shifting Persona.”

The many textures and modes through which a poetic speaker might manifest perhaps map onto the various modes of subjectivity to be experienced throughout a life—various ways of being in the world, of experiencing and of speaking. As such, perhaps any mode of poetic voice is as true as any other and the model of subjectivity to which it is attached is itself a device we use to understand various sensations of being. For example, particularly when telling narratives of cause and effect the sensation often arises of being an I, a personality that began in the womb and waxes into full personhood until its light goes out. We might, in this mode, feel poetry flow from a voice as if that speaker was the singular source generating its own content.

Equally as familiar: the sensation of being as discontinuous and perpetually in process, a series of relations that are context-dependent and difficult to pin down. Submerged in a crowd you suddenly find yourself at your destination, unsure of how you arrived. Where do “you” go when you read? Googling a location you zoom in on an image of the address and see yourself mid-stride walking down the street. We might, in this mode, find “instead of the poet being a beautiful machine which manufactured the current for itself, did everything for itself—almost a perpetual motion machine of emotion until the poet’s heart broke or it was burned on the beach like Shelly’s—instead there was something from the Outside coming in”—as Jack Spicer describes poetic practice in his lecture “Dictation and “A Textbook of Poetry.’”

Might we consider the archive to potentially act both as the Outside tremmoring through the window of the poet and also as the trace of social and cultural forces that have formed the solid-seeming “I,” knocking on the door to tell a story? Is language a possession, an organism, a relation? Is the self a possession, an organism, a relation?

“A window is open,” Barbara Guest continues, “and the bird flies in. It closes and a drama between the bird and its environment begins.” To what extent does a poet’s sense of speaker, sense of being a subject, determine the potential of the drama?

There is only so much the poet can attend to at once. In the periphery, a dirty feather, an old book, a piece of string. Even mid-sentence, as I open my mouth to form the words, I'm largely unaware.

“Poets exist within a city of the dead,” Jack Spicer argues in his Vancouver lectures, positioning the text as an interstitial place where ghosts may come and go, carrying dispatches of what cannot, will never be, fully known.  And so a crisp white envelope arrives with only a dried desert flower inside.  There is no return address, and no postmark above the wax seal.  Spicer’s city of the dead is marked by a careful withholding – of origins, of intent, of narrative – from the poet, who is merely a conduit. 

Of course, he refers to a rich history of literary practitioners who believe that voice is an alterity that speaks through us, rather than being spoken.  For Homer, this other presence was the Muses; for H.D., it was the unconscious mind; for many collaborative teams, it is the “third voice” that belongs to both of the practitioners and neither one of them. 

What happens when we relinquish control, no longer claiming ownership or intent?  When the hand lifts from the paper, a shadow appears.  All that is hidden – that pause between the question and its answer – is what leaves room for the other to speak.

Whose and is this and? Whose the, whose I, whose feather?

“Names are in people, people are in names,” says Her Gart, the narrator of H.D.’s 1927 autobiographical novel HERmione, unpublished until 1981. H.D., Hilda Doolittle’s nom de plum, was the name she gave the writer of her poems. She signed her prose J. Beran; Edith Gray; Helga Dart; Helga Doorn; Rhoda Peter; D.A. Hill; John Helforth; Delia Alton. What is in a name? In one of the founding myths of modernism Ezra Pound and H.D. sit in the tearoom of the British Museum. It is 1912. He signs her poems for her: “H.D. Imagiste.” “Imagist,” a name that comes to stand for the crystalline perfection of her early poems, a surface that facets and fissures into her later texts’ syncretic histories, hermeticism, and psyche-work.

Language overflows containers of possession affording not only a multiplicity of readings, but also a multiplicity of positions from which to live, relate, write. Relinquishing control reveals the space language creates for our others to speak.

A name might harbor multiplicities from which to read. In late 1959 H.D. misreads the phrase “actual H.D.” in a letter the young Robert Duncan has written to her about her work. Seeing in its place the phrase “astral H.D.” she identifies with it and during this time she writes her last long poem, Hermetic Definition, completed seven months before her death in 1961. Imagiste replaced by astral. Naming replaced by what misreading reveals. “Astral” traces back to the Proto-Indo-European root ster, star, which releases into the future aster; asterisk; asterism; asteroid; astrology; astromancy; astronaut; astronomy; AstroTurf; constellation; disaster; Estella; Esther; instellation; interstellar; lodestar; stardust; starfish; starlet; starlight; starry; stellar; stellate.

Language overflows the containers of possession. We make the world as we write and as we read. This performs the impossible: opening the past, informing the future, history writes forwards and backwards. Multiplicity is potentiality. See M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! This poetic, performative text transforms the legal text of a late eighteenth-century court case deliberating the financial liability of 150 slaves thrown overboard by the ship’s captain. Legalese and narratives of possession moan, ululate, and fragment. History cracked open. Text cracked open. Ownership cracked open. The names and narratives—the lives of these slaves—can never be known and yet we hear water, hear drowning, hear what cannot be spoken but must speak.

Whose and is this and? Whose the, whose I, whose feather?