Julia Guez on the motion and modulation in Carl Phillips’s book of poetry, Double Shadow.
“Nothing to say about the texte de jouissance,” according to Roland Barthes. “You can’t talk about it, you can only talk ‘within’ it, on its own terms.” This, I think, is a useful way to approach Carl Phillips’s newest collection, Double Shadow.
Phillips’s verse is difficult to excerpt, though. (It is almost impossible to excerpt sparingly). There are plenty of gems, of course, plenty of individual lines whose phrasing seems absolutely non-fungible.
That said, the real force of the poetry is not most apparent on the level of the line (no matter how beguiling the line may be). The real traction is in the movement within and between stanzas that create enough room to enact the “back-and-forthing” of the mind.
Unlike a more static texte de plaisir, Katherine Kurk succinctly defines the texte de jouissance as “a dynamic construction which emphasizes a verbal action and which delights in the bliss of the textual reader/writer exchange.”
Julia Guez explores the nuances of ambient translation at work in Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat.
In the current issue of Pleiades, Rachel Zucker writes,
Now that I have given birth three times and been present at friends’ and clients’ births, I know what none of the poems or stories made clear (were they lying? not listening?). Birth is beautiful and spiritual and mundane and shitty (literally). It is hard work—the lowest and highest—and that’s what I’m interested in writing. Not birth per se but the realness of experience. I want to write with shame and honesty and humor and ambivalence about and out of experience.
As a mother, doula, and activist, Zucker knows “what none of the poems or stories made clear” about motherhood. As a writer and editor, she is in a position to directly and indirectly address the lack or void in the literature. This impulse is central to Swedish poet Aase Berg’s work as well. In an essay on “Language and Madness” translated by Johannes Göransson, Berg observes,
Motherhood is one of the most overlooked subjects of 20th-century literature: the cute, paradisical madness. The mother’s relationship to the baby is the root of language, madness and complexity. None of the great serious works would have seen the light of day without the tracks that were inscribed in the early mother-and-child relationships. Life is based on the irrational and noisy language of this little crazy symbiosis.
By creating an entirely new language to more accurately enact the “madness” and “complexity” stemming from the “symbiosis” between mother and child, Berg finds daring, odd, beautiful, and altogether innovative ways to represent the reality of motherhood for a twenty-first century literature.
The Madeleine Poems is the first full-length collection by Paul Legault, winner of the 2009 Omnidawn Poetry Prize. It is lyrical, tipsying, and impossible to read without feeling: a) envy, b) envy, and c) wonder.
Julia Guez on the pleasure and pain in Henri Cole’s book of poetry Touch.
In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” Freud elaborates on “the operation of tendencies beyond the pleasure principle, that is, of tendencies more primitive.” To this end, he observes a child at play. When left alone, the child entertains himself with the invention of a game involving the forced disappearance and return of various toys (a wooden reel on a string, for example).
The game soon reveals itself to be a way for the child to enact and, in a way, master the distress of being left alone. Given the child’s strong attachment to his own mother, it seems strange that he would choose to re-enact the clearly unpleasant experience of being left alone with a game (requiring him to rehearse the loss and recovery, and re-activate the distress of the departure before re-activating any delight in the return).
Unpacking the significance of the fort-da game—so-called because these are the specific words the child will use to signify the disappearance and return of objects within his reach—Freud was able to postulate the existence of impulses, tendencies or compulsions that seem to operate independently of the pleasure principle.
After the discussion of children at play, Freud includes the following as a kind of addendum, “A reminder may be added that the artistic play and artistic imitation carried out by adults, which, unlike children’s, are aimed at an audience, do not spare the spectators (for instance, in tragedy) the most painful experiences and can yet be felt by them as highly enjoyable.”
There may be no better way to frame my analysis of Henri Cole’s newest collection, Touch. Cole is fearless in treating the loss of a mother. He is fearless in treating other losses, as well—the hens, for example, victims of capital punishment. At points, the only constraints seem to be formal.
Miranda Field and Julia Guez have been corresponding since January 2010. This is the transcript of their conversation which touches on insomnia, motherhood, and “living on the wrong side of the river.”
Miranda Field published a first full-length collection just over ten years ago. After a “journey-into-things-other-than-poetry,” she is writing again.
Field and I meet face to face, for the first time, at OST, a relaxed café around the corner from my East Village apartment, not far from where Field lived when she was around the age I am now—“barely even beginning to think seriously about poetry, let alone motherhood.”
Like many of the contributors to the vital Not For Mothers Only anthology (Fence Books, 2007), Field has received some attention for the ways she has since learned to reconcile the demands of both parenting and cultural production. To borrow from Alicia Ostriker’s introduction to the anthology, it is very clear to me how Field’s life and work “bespeaks both the power of maternity in bending us to its will, and the power of the artist to resist-while-submitting.”
In our first conversation, though, sitting on a pea-green sofa in a sun-washed window overlooking Avenue A, we didn’t speak about poetry or motherhood. We talked about fallow time. We talked about health and sickness, publication, and travel. We talked about small presses, feminism, and the sacredness of a well-made cortado.
Though she has, in her own words, “kind of gone underground in the last ten years,” Field has maintained a quiet but forceful and enduring presence in the poetry world. She has been cited by other poets as an influence, both poetic and otherwise. In a recent essay called “A Curious Thing: Motherhood, Confidence and Getting the Work Done,” the poet, Lynn Melnick, recounts a conversation with Field (with whom she shares a fierce commitment to reinforcing how “being a mother and being a writer are two things that can happen in the same woman”).
Years ago, long before I could imagine ever being a mother, my friend Miranda Field, a superb and accomplished poet and mother, spoke to me about what it was like to be both of those things. Her oldest was still a baby at the time and she said that, against popular wisdom of sleeping when one’s baby sleeps, she wrote during his naps, because it was a do-or-die situation. After years of non-productivity, she had to make a conscious decision to either write or not write, to be a writer or not be a writer. If she didn’t write during her baby’s sleeping hours, then she would never write, and she would not be a writer.
Since January 2010, Miranda Field and I have been corresponding about the writing life via email. We have been talking about Swallow and Foxglove. We talk about motherhood. And conversationally we have continued to “journey-into-things-other-than-poetry.” We talk about sleep. We talk about Hokusai, translation, and homesickness, among other things. What follows is a transcript of the conversation that has been evolving over the last thirty-six months.