Saturday, April 26, 2008

Dreaming Language: Lytton Smith's Monster Theory

(I've been wanting to write about LJS's chapbook for about a month now -- a moment's rest in the rush of the end-of-semester madness made this finally possible. As some of you know, LJS is frequent commenter at In the Middle -- and I can't recommend his work highly enough. He's also a colleague of mine in the Columbia English department's Medieval contingent, and a fellow Anglo-Saxonist. That might be why it was a bit strange writing about him in the third person! I have to confess, I don't know how to write a poetry review...thoughts and comments welcome! The image is from national geographic, and illustrates another Loch Ness Monster theory. Seemed a good match.)

Reading Lytton Smith’s chapbook Monster Theory is a bit like stepping into a memory you’d forgotten. At first the reason seems obvious: in a book where so many poems take cues and even characters from the world long past, of course you’ll find something in it that is eerily familiar, whether a “Book of Encouragement and Consolation,” a “Charm Against the Loss of Crops,” or even a “Monster Theory.” However, on second approach, this strange familiarity becomes just that -- strange, but in the sense of the French étranger: foreign. If there is a memory here, it isn’t something entirely of the reader’s making. It’s at that moment, in the recognition of that which isn’t precisely recognizable, that the poet’s spell begins.The sense is that this book requires – demands – our complete attention, and moreover, demands to be re-read, even in absence. This little book of poems haunts the reader who lets its language speak to her.

Throughout the book, the poet asks for an gesture of imagination from his reader, and from the first a point of entry is established: “Bury your eyes in late barley,” opens the first poem, called “Scarecrow Work.” With this opening it becomes clear that there is a relationship forming, a world the poet constructs of language which, while it seems to be reveling more than revealing, will show the reader something that exists beyond the glittering surface of its words. Repetitions, particularly of verbs, seem important here, as in the last stanza of “Scarecrow Work”:

“…Your lesson: what will not scatter is safe, /
Is dove, is olive return.”

The existential status of that “which is” safe, isn’t merely safe, and the repetition of “is” – is dove, is olive return – suggests that, while each thing that does not scatter is safe, each thing that does not scatter will still scatter, if only in a proliferation of references.

The centrality of the poem “Monster Theory” to the chapbook which bears its name is well placed. A poem not unlike the patchwork [monster] it speaks, the work performed by each section of the piece stands in for a larger analysis of what the [monster] patterns, promises, reveals and conceals. Though the first section reminds us that “It is always at an outset a displacement—”, the bracketed [monster] moves quickly through that displacement and into a stunning soliloquy that closes the work. The poet writes of a village, a cartographer, a lost daughter, a gathering search for a monster which refuses restraint or removal (the almost playful lines of the fifth section enumerate the ways the [monster] thwarts any attempt to prevent his escape: “Cauldron of boiling water: stench, but not of burning flesh. /Buried alive: Why expect so much of wood and soil?”), and the rendering of the [monster] as myth (“two anxious and too young sentries posted at the cave entrance…” mark a particularly lovely line in the third section), until finally in the seventh section we see the [monster] speak. Though in dialogue with what we presume is the daughter he snatched away, the [monster’s] words are the only voice we are allowed to hear. We are confronted with a [monster] who seems to know his place, and this is where the poem’s provenance becomes strikingly clear. Inspired by the essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (the introduction to a volume of collected essays called Monster Theory), Smith has retained some key phrases from Cohen’s article, and this lends the [monster] an eerie prescience, a theoretical take on lives human and monstrous which approaches a kind of philosophy of monstrous purpose: “The monster exists as harbinger to crisis, / devil’s advocate to the identity.” It becomes clear, however, that when this [monster] is allowed to speak, another aspect of human identity is at stake, and with language, this focus lends light to other work being done by these poems:
‘You of all should know fear of the monster
is a kind of desire, a way of loving without
the difficulty of touch.’ ‘............
………………………’ ‘If your hands grant
a life I could not have imagined, the amber
of electric through the body, I have seen
also your weeping after.'
This sense of the body -- human or not – which simultaneously gives voice to and is voiced by language, is what Smith seems most interested by in so much of his poetry. The intersection of language and body, his poetry tells us, can be painful and profound.

“Annuls the Space/Time Experience” is one of the moments where the intense pain that language can cause is brought out most beautifully in the text. “Is this the dream of language,” the poet asks, and then confronts the reader with the possibilities: “a trap with rusted hasp (suggests escape / but offers teeth)” The musical beauty of language is not forgotten either, and in another moment of the same poem, we are offered these lines:

…and Ben has left
a written note as if to say the lair

is love of lair, the lyre a stringed bereft
of am, the lure just that, another dream
of language much as fluid as adrift…

The progression from lair to lyre to lure is particularly musical, and its setting in a poetic meditation on language is particularly appropriate. And yet, in spite of (and perhaps because of) the beauty of such lyric lines, the poem concludes on this haunting note:

“…we’ve fallen for our absents
and this is then the dream of language,
of those who’ve left, and left us with their absence.”

Those who’ve left, and left us with their absence – returning to this line, repeatedly, the haunting beauty of that which isn’t present (and so must be represented in language) is what it seems Smith is most adept at rendering. And of course, it is where bodily presence is least possible that it becomes all the more pronounced.

In a particularly bold poetic move, the poet writes in the voice of Eva of Wilton, the intended recipient of Goscelin of St. Bertin’s Liber Confortatorius. In “The Book of Encouragement and Consolation,” this young anchoress, who is only known through a letter she may have never received, and the voice of a man, Goscelin, whose love for her may have been implicated in her removal from St Bertin to Wilton, is given her own chance to respond. The embodiedness of her language – “(tongue / composed, the restrained throat forgotten / as threshold)” – as represented in the text is striking, and we remember that silence is an absence which implies a presence, and so lasts “only until its next breaking.”

Despite the deep ambivalence that becomes clear in terms of what “dream of language” we might ultimately embrace, the poet implies that this isn’t the end. If, as in “A Manual for Weather,” we are reminded that “All that is left of weather / Is how it is written…” and if we might (as with a bracketed [monster]) exchange the word “weather” for other words, Smith’s poetry envisions this status as one of hope, not desperation. If language cannot be fixed, or static, therein lies its beauty, its hope – its ability to live beyond us. Lytton Smith creates a world in which words are more than simply memory, and he invites us to leave our preconceptions about language and its myriad uses at the door. At the end of “A Manual for Weather,” positioned as it is at the end of Monster Theory, we are granted the grace of an unexpected arrival:

Welcome, friend. Leave your instruments
at the entrance. We live between weather
and earthlight: there is no use for them

here, no music without weather. Pitch
nor oscillation, string nor wind nor voice.

The poem ends where we do – at the limit of what language can represent. The final line goes out almost like a prayer – and a remarkable chapbook ends with what peace a world of language might finally give:

Silence, and words folding into it, enough.


Lytton Smith's Monster Theory was the winner of the PSA chapbook award in 2008. His book of poems, The All Purpose Magical Tent will be published by Nightboat Books in 2009. Lytton blogs at: The All Purpose Magical Tent.

Cross posted at ITM.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Escaping The Waning of the Middle Ages

It's not that rare that an article in the New York Times makes me cringe. However, only rarely do they invoke one of my favorite books to do so. Today, David Brooks (writing, intriguingly, from abotu an hour away from my hometown in North Carolina -- Elon!) writes about the Middle Ages as The Great Escape. He invokes the spirit of Johan Huizinga, whose Waning of the Middle Ages was a great influence on my own entrance into medieval studies, although from the beginning, my medieval history professor encouraged me to question his work.

Brooks, however, has wholesale bought into it as the antidote to a modern political campaign, saying that

Over the past 15 months, I’ve been writing pretty regularly about the presidential campaign, which has meant thinking a lot about attack ads, tracking polls and which campaign is renouncing which over-the-line comment from a surrogate that particular day.

But on my desk for much of this period I have kept a short essay, which I stare at longingly from time to time. It’s an essay about how people in the Middle Ages viewed the night sky, and it’s about a mentality so totally removed from the campaign mentality that it’s like a refreshing dip in a cool and cleansing pool.

The essay, which I haven't read, is by Michael Ward. It's called "CS Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem." It appeared in Books and Culture, subtitled "A Christian Review."

What is vaguely disconcerting about Brooks' account is that, as he speaks of Huizinga (and other historians) he sounds like him. Observe Brooks:
The medievals had a tremendous capacity for imagination and enchantment, and while nobody but the deepest romantic would want to go back to their way of thinking (let alone their way of life), it’s a tonic to visit from time to time.

As many historians have written, Europeans in the Middle Ages lived with an almost childlike emotional intensity. There were stark contrasts between daytime and darkness, between summer heat and winter cold, between misery and exuberance, and good and evil. Certain distinctions were less recognized, namely between the sacred and the profane.

Material things were consecrated with spiritual powers. God was thought to live in the stones of the cathedrals, and miracles inhered in the bones of the saints. The world seemed spiritually alive, and the power of spirit could overshadow politics. As Johan Huizinga wrote in “The Autumn of the Middle Ages,” “The most revealing map of Europe in these centuries would be a map, not of political or commercial capitals, but of the constellation of sanctuaries, the points of material contact with the unseen world.”
Compare with the first page of Huizinga's first chapter of The Waning of the Middle Ages, "The Violent Tenor of Life" (you can read it here):
To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The constrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking. All the experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life.
I don't blame Brooks (though I'll admit I often want to) for his enchantment by the Middle Ages. What I do take issue with is that, although he seems to know better, he blindly accepts this filtered view of a complicated time. This nostalgic impulse is one that Brooks (and Ward) are both aware of in CS Lewis. This is, again, from Brooks:
The modern view disenchants the universe, Lewis argued, and tends to make it “all fact and no meaning.” When we say that a star is a huge flaming ball of gas, he wrote, we are merely describing what it is made of. We are not describing what it is. Lewis also wanted to include the mythologies, symbols and stories that have been told about the heavenly actors, and which were so real to those who looked up into the sky hundreds of years ago. He wanted to strengthen the imaginative faculty that comes naturally to those who see the heavens as fundamentally spiritual and alive.

But that is a modern interpretation of the Middle Ages. A longing for the Middle Ages is NOT for the Middle Ages that existed. Another quote from Brooks shows that he knows this:
Large parts of medieval life were attempts to play out a dream, in ways hard to square with the often grubby and smelly reality. There were the elaborate manners of the courtly, the highly stylized love affairs and the formal chivalric code of knighthood. There was this driving impulsion among the well-born to idealize. This idealizing urge produced tournaments, quests and the mystical symbols of medieval art — think of the tapestries of the pure white unicorn. The gap between the ideal and the real is also what Cervantes made fun of in “Don Quixote.”

Writers like C. S. Lewis and John Ruskin seized on medieval culture as an antidote to industrialism — to mass manufacturing, secularization and urbanization. Without turning into an Arthurian cultist, it’s nice to look up from the latest YouTube campaign moment and imagine a sky populated with creatures, symbols and tales.
Brooks misses the point of his own writing -- and, I daresay, of Ruskin's. The ideal is wonderful -- it serves as something to strive for, perhaps. But what Brooks forgets is that the ideal was only available partially, and only then to the elite. Yes, it's easy to look at a campaign and get nostalgic for a simpler time of knights and tournaments and fair ladies in distress. A time when good and evil was obvious.

But that kind of enchantment -- the kind that only aspires to the "dream" without committing to actions in the world -- isn't an antidote to industrialization or anything else, because it doesn't live in the world, but somewhere above it, outside it, beyond it. "Meaning" is a process, not an end -- and a longing for a world that is only meaning (only allegory) ends up harming more than it helps. Moreover, it seems to me it's a surefire way to assure that nothing about the present -- the people starving, suffering, bleeding, and dying far from those who can indulge in dreaming of an "ideal," or interpreting the world -- ever changes. In the search for a stable place to stand, this "ideal" leaves out anyone who dwells (as JJC has so often shown so elegantly in more traditional print sources) at the borders, or in difficult middles. That's why I find Brooks' drive-by citation of Ruskin so problematic: If you remember "The Nature of the Gothic" (problematic work itself), you'll remember this passage:
[T]he second most essential element of the Gothic spirit [is] that it broke through that law wherever it found it in existence; it not only dared, but delighted in, the infringement of every servile principle; and invented a series of forms of which the merit was, not merely that they were new, but that they were capable of perpetual novelty... The vital principle is not the love of Knowledge, but the love of Change. It is that strange disquietude of the Gothic spirit that is its greatness; that restlessness of the dreaming mind, that wanders hither and thither among the niches, and flickers feverishly around the pinnacles, and frets and fades in labyrinthine knots and shadows along wall and roof, and yet is not satisfied, nor shall be satisfied.
I can't help but wonder, young medievalist that I am, if that interpretation of the medieval instinct (about architecture, perhaps, but no less medieval for that) might ultimately be the one we should long for: the unresting search for change, rather than Brooks' wish for enchantment, meaning and symbols. How do other readers of Brooks take this article? Am I being too much of a medievalist?

Thanks to EAB for the link.

cross posted at ITM.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

An All Purpose Magical Tent, or, A New Old English Poet's Blog

[picture: Old English...or was it New York. The Cloisters in Late Summer]

I miss blogging. Since the beginning of this school year, I've been learning on a number of levels -- learning how to be a "doctoral candidate"; learning how to write a dissertation; learning how to be a better teacher; learning how to be an organizer in the department; learning how to balance an Old English single-author blog with a medieval group blog (a task I'm always grateful for); learning how to find ways of exercising mind, heart and body that fit in ways that complement, rather than detract from, one another.

And it's April. Finally. The winter here in NYC appears to be abating, and by this time tomorrow I'll have written something that will vaguely resemble the first chapter of my dissertation. I've finally identified my Growing Pains again, and realized that that's the hard part about experiencing them: you never know when they're going to come back, and each time you experience them, it's something completely new and overwhelming.

But today I had an Epic Realization, and remembered that they too are like growing pains. Each time you experience them, it's just like the first time you realized. And my Epic Realization was this: what makes this work worthwhile are the people I've met doing it. My colleagues here at ITM -- co-bloggers and comment-ers alike! -- are a big part of that: the conversation that unfolds here is teaching me how to be a better, more humane academic, and teaching me how I want to see the field unfold as I begin to enter into it in a real way.

However, I'm also blessed with a number of talented colleagues here at Columbia, and it's my great pleasure to introduce one of them who has just (and finally!) started a blog of his own. Of course, an introduction isn't really necessary: you all know him already. LJS, of Monster Theory fame, has not only published his new chapbook but has also built an All Purpose Magical Tent. I'm psyched that LJS is joining the blogosphere, and am looking forward to seeing the ways he will bring together his poetry and his prose, and through the magic of the internet, bring them to us.

Welcome to the blogosphere, LJS!

cross posted at ITM