I can’t concentrate  for  long—I can’t  properly  and  significantly focus—on a source of
worry or anxiety or fear  without  moving  off  mentally, and sometimes physically too,
as  one  changes  position  upon  waking from a nightmare so as to turn away from the
site of  distress.  I’m  hit  by  emotional heat—sorrow,  shame,  fear. I want to kick my
back, my neck.  I want to kick you.  Be  forgettable  and  be  forgotten,  you sunk bog-
tromper,  soggy  runner,  unformed  rotten  women  in quicksand!  Leave me alone! As
one turns, one asserts  one’s  autonomy, one distinguishes oneself. But in doing so one
allies  oneself  with  the  unhappier   forces  of  irony,   utilising  irony’s  propensity to
deracinate materials from their meanings.One becomes a mere fragment of one’s own
history.  Maybe  fragmentation is the situation that faces Cordelia when Lear poses his
nightmarish  challenge to his  daughters. Lear  invites  his  daughters  to  gain  private
autonomy for themselves  through sacrifice of  the common autonomy, a kingdom. But
Cordelia’s love for her father is bound to that kingdom, as it can’t help but be since it
entails for her the  entirety  of the  known  world. No single expression and no amount
of  expressing  can  speak  of  her  world,  or of her knowing it,  at all. The linearity of
language cannot bear it. Its  syntax  would  shatter.  And so Cordelia cannot enter into
the dividing up  of  the  world  that  Lear  demands  and that her speaking would bring
about. Nonetheless, tragically, her reserve  does so. She refuses to  memorialise  what
belongs  properly  to the  ever-changing  active life of remembering.  Out of insolently
casual quotidian living  into  cautious  obligatory  history:  Cordelia is precipitated into
the  situation of a mourner.  And so she becomes an historian, bound to an ethical and
emotional imperative to remember.  But if, as some  argue, aesthetic  experience is at
its best when it most closely approximates immediacy—of perception,  of response,  of
feeling,  of  that mode of understanding that  isn’t  cognitive  but,  rather, transmutes
experience   into   meaningfulness  (sometimes   almost   bypassing   meaning,   in  the
epistemological sense,  altogether),  it  has  to  eschew  remembering.  Lear  wants  to
arrange  conditions  for  himself that will allow him the  leisurely,  regressive aesthetic
pleasure of forgetting—hence his  desire  for a declaration  of  love  from his daughters,
the  verbal  equivalent of a memorial.  Or a list.  The semantic temporality  (which I’m
inclined to term the paratactic present)  of  paratactic attention is closely akin to that
of Gertrude Stein’s ‘beginning again and again’: we come to one thing and another in a
moment to  moment  place  to  place  sequence  and series of experiences experienced
without any necessary or determining  order,  their  details  appearing in such a way as
to make  one  conscious  of  them  and  to  assure that  they  ‘never,’ as Adorno puts it,
‘merge tracelessly  into  the totality.’1  This is  the  syntax of  remembering,  its units
oddly  hinged.  Shot  of  a  dry  landscape, a small  group  of people standing on a bluff,
hands clasped and heads turned to the sky, fissured by a bolt of lighting.  Shot of a city
at night in rain,  dark streets gleaming , some cars, tall  buildings. Shot of a great bank
of  blue-white  ice  hissing  and  crumbling  at  sea’s  edge. Shot of two women fighting,
one holding a knife in her raised  hand,  with  a  table  under a white  tablecloth in the
foreground  on  which  rests a bowl  of  peaches  and  blackberries. Shot of a flirtatious
child; he’s pretending to shoot me (with his finger) and I pretend to die,  followed by a
second  shot  in  which he  revives me by sweeping his arms outward from his chest and
waggling  his  fingers  at  me.  Beaming  child.   A  plot  emerges. This  one  needs  only
another  bolt  of  lightning  to  become  allegorical. The sequence  of  shots  frame  the
world.  Or do they issue a warning? A propensity for list-making, which  is  not  atypical
of  the  superstitious, is  frightening for the paranoid. It reassures the superstitious that
she can  exercise  a  modicum  of  control over the  phenomenological  ceaselessness of
the  world;  it  gives  expression to  a  perceived orderliness  without imposing order on
things.  But  the  paranoid reads into  the  list  and  finds  evidence  in it  that nefarious
forces  have  been  assembled  and are at  work  in  all  the  reaches  of her  world. The
allegorical  can  be  viewed  either (as  in the  case of the  superstitious) as manifesting
continuity    and    homogeneity   across   differences  or   (as   with   the  paranoid)  as
manifesting  discontinuity  and heterogeneity across  similarities. Listing is generally an
evaluative  activity, holding  life at  bay.  In  that  case,  it  probably  doesn’t  have any
aesthetic  value,   despite   whatever satisfactions  or  emotional  excitements it brings
about.  In  the  Phaedrus, Socrates warns  against  writings  that  supplant  memory: ‘If
men  learn  this, it  will  implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise
memory because  they  rely on that which is  written, calling things to remembrance no
longer  from  within  themselves,  but  by  means  of  external  marks.  What  you  have
discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.’ I  dream that I am praised for
my  sentences—or,  to  be  more  precise,  for  my  evident  interest  in  sentences. The
evidence  of  your  interest,  says  Nicholas Declan Callahan, is in the sentences. I don’t
know  how  to   respond   except   vivaciously.  Assembling words  and phrases  is  what
poets  do,  after  all;  the  ideas   and   images, the  representations and  messages and
depictions  are  secondary,  regardless  of  (and  sometimes  indifferent  to) the  poet’s
desires   and   intentions.  Suddenly  the   assemblage  becomes  a  presence,  awkward
perhaps but present. This textual-sudden becoming-present bears  similarities to an act
of  remembering:  out   of   accumulated fragments  of   perception,  something  comes
abruptly  to  mind,  whole,  as  it were. But  it  is  also  very  likely  to  be ‘wrong.’ The
absence  that  marks  each  memory is  not  only of the past that is remembered; it also
includes  everything  that  remembering  subsumes  or  lops off. This is the site at which
the lyric ‘I’ pauses to speak to the lyric ‘you.’


O you who are the sum of summits,
You,
Chief, president, boss, chairperson, czar
And admiral of my elbows,
My pilot and navigator, chauffeur
And captain,
You, o receiver of terms of endearment and irritation that I improvise, invent,
and apply to you and to no one else,
O you, ...
 

And  so  on.  With  indexical  lyricism  the  poet begins to pet,  and occasionally poke, her
spouse.  Such  violence  is  characteristic  of  the  lyric  poem—and why?  Because feelings
must  be  powerfully  moved,  so  that  they  are  shaken out of their well-worn grooves. I
have written  a  twelve-part,  twelve-page  poem. The lines, of varying length, are placed
at  varying  distances  from  the  margins;  each  page becomes a landscape formed by the thoughts/phrases  scattered  across  it. I  read  over  each section one last time, stamping
the  pages,  as  I  approve  them,   with  a   single   word  in  block  caps:   DECEASED.  We
dream  unshared  experiences  in   an  unshareable  world—no  longer in  a realm of beings
acting  and  speaking  together.  ‘New  Yorkers  tend  to  be  too  provincial,’  says  Lei-lei
Wilson  Tin  to  Tamarind  Magee.  ‘Not  that  anyone  cares,’  says  Lily  Ball  with  muted
malice.  ‘New  York  would  be  chill.’  Commando  pinches  a  slice  of  pepperoni  off the
pizza  on  the  platter  in  front  of  them.  ‘I’m  thinking  of  writing  a graphic biography,’
says  Lei-lei.  ‘Of whom?’  ‘Of  the  woman  my  mother  wants  me   to  become.’  ‘Grim,’
says  Tamarind  Magee.  As  Charlie  Altieri  notes,  in  the  course  of an eloquent analysis
of   the   culturally-impotent  characters   in   James  Joyce’s  Dubliners:  ‘we  realise   in
retrospect   why   the   children   in   their    disappointment   become   the   adults   who
disappoint.’2  All  that’s  left  for  the  disappointed  children,  whose options are limited
from the  very  start,  is  to  find  an identity that  can bolster them enough to allow them
psychically  to  survive,   if  not  to  flourish,   in   the   milieu   to  which   their  lives  are
consigned.  And   that  identity—the  one  most  readily  available  and  probably  the only
one  anywhere  in  sight—is  that  of  the  disappointing (disappointer) adults. The child by
now  is,  in  her  disappointment,  angry,  but  at  herself.  She  has  become not only  the
focus  of  disappointment  but  an  embodiment  of disappointment itself.  She is a failure
in  a  world  of the failed and failing.  ‘My dad’s a creep,’  says Tamarind  Magee.  ‘Seems
like   you  get  off   on  hating   him,’  says   Lily   Ball.   For  months  embarrassment  has
angered  Tamarind  Magee,  now  anger  embarrasses  her.  She  shuts up.  As a honey bee
circles   a   clump   of    sage,   it   defecates.    Something   like   thought—a   polyphonic
awareness—crosses  its   flight   path.   In  a  previous  life  as  a  human  it  was  obedient
except  when  crossed.  In  its  next  life, as an azalea—a life it doesn’t foresee—it will no
longer entertain thoughts of revenge.


 

End notes

  • 1. See Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory; edited and translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 303.
  • 2. Charles Altieri, The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 220.