Monday, April 28, 2008

I continue to read Alma.

One step-up from my reading notes, and really a process of thinking.

The writing in Alma is expansive and messy. On the level of the book, I like it, on the level of the sentence or line, it's hit and miss for me. That's a vague thing to say, so I'll try to clarify. The expansive messiness is energetic--it's not the kind of beautiful lush s l u g g i s h prose that weighs down some experimental fiction--the energy of the language does carry me through each section. The punctuation in this is often interruptive and substantial--a lot of commas (pauses, breaths, interruptions) in places that don't always make traditional structural sense. Periods used like commas. Not a lot of question marks, though there are a few--this isn't an especially questioning book. Alma makes declarations and proclamations: here's a brief section from "State of the Union" that I hope will illustrate the kind of interrupted energetic language I'm trying to describe:

"and when she. so the novel. glistens in all its propriety. and then he. no it was
where i spied no on knows any doves. and the cool features of one one blue as
the sky, which i've been studying. you are, were you, that time. i don't have it's
in my body. hemmed in by if the all-powerful, but they're cliche-inscribed..."

The values this book ascribes to men and women continue to irk me, even when I keep in mind that the book is supposed to be a relentless rant / curse, and that it's written, at least in part, to irk. Here's a section from "Curse Tablet of Dead Women" that made me write "mmm" in the margin:

"...we demand the binding of the tongues and
limbs of any who would usurp our power in present or future, as male presidents,
leaders, officials elected or appointed or self-appointed, directors of institutions,
all men of wealth, and also men of no apparent stature, who would steal our
power. may your tongues and limbs be bound indefinitely" (125).

Then in my notes I wrote: it's kind of interesting to speak in the language of the oppressor, or to reverse a binary, but it's still a binary, and power is power.

Women who support patriarchy are also cursed later in the poem:

" for those
who would want to justify our lives in their own sentimentality: that we must
have been happy and found our own fulfillment: may you be bound from speak-
ing so, male or female..."(125).

I'm excited about any moment in feminist writing that thinks about how certain kinds of feminine behavior might support traditional patriarchal hierarchies instead of undermining or resiting them (one of the things I obsess about in my own writing). I like the fact that Alma is aggressive--it's not passive aggressive or subtle about it's accusations. Of course, that's also it's weakness.

(Aside: I feel pressured to write poems and criticism that are open-ended and questioning. Lyn Hejinian is right--closure and conclusion certainly do have their problems. I like Leslie Scalapino's question marks. But I admit that I like things to be definite, too. I want to say "you are a total asshole," and not question it. I also want to say, "I will organize the party" or "I am happy to curate the reading series." I hate it when people stand around talking about how no one will do anything, and then hating the people who do something. This happens a lot in any community where everyone is supposed to be equal in some usually undefined way but really isn't. That's my own Alma-rant of the day).

Alma in Alma is almost perfectly feminine in the postmodern sense: she's total negation and non-symbolic otherness--she enters the world through archetypal symbols or marks imposed on her by men. On the other hand, the voices in Alma are also agressive in a way that, yes, is violent and masculine. The curse I quoted from above expresses a desire for a world where women rule and men are bound and punished--it's not a critique of power, it's a critique of the fact that men have all of it.

So, the voices in Alma remind me of Rachel Blau DuPlessis' description of the numerous kinds of feminine subjectivity at work in Anne Waldman's work, and how Michael Davidson describes Sylvia Plath in Guys Like Us. Here's a quote from DuPlessis' "Anne Waldman: Standing Corporeally in One's Time," (from Jacket Magazine #27) that also quotes Davidson:

"Waldman is certainly one of the exemplars of female masculinity. Indeed, Waldman might be closest in her ferocity, performativity, and aggressions to the picture Michael Davidson draws of Sylvia Plath in Guys Like Us, with those “self-conscious assaults on gender binarism” (Davidson 160) by someone who will “interrogate masculine aspirations from within a speaker who embodies many of those aspirations” (Davidson 170)."

In terms of content, Alma doesn't really attempt an assault on gender binarism. Like Descent of Allette, it holds on to gender binaries and doesn't let go. However, structurally, Alma does mess with gender binaries--it's lyric and epic, it's declarative and aggressive but full of disruptions (in grammar, sentence-structure, and punctuation, for example), it moves from reportage to song and back...Form and content (or content and form, if you prefer), always exist in tension with each other (whether we want them to or not). I like poems that make this tension interesting (Kristeva's notion of the "ethical text," maybe I'll elaborate later).

Alma does have an interesting form/content dynamic, especially when I consider the ways in which that dynamic both supports and undermines gender binaries.


mark wallace said...

You know, I think George Bush and 9/11 put us into a new fundamentalist age, and I think that age has affected the literary world as well. I guess I'm saying this only because I'm wondering if we're at a moment when many people want more to reassert binaries than to undermine them.

Johannes said...

This is an interesting post. I will have to read the articles you refer to.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Mark-There's certainly something to what you're saying. I'm immediately thinking of a surge of interest in work that is formally experimental while the emphasis on content is secondary (or where, to refer back to my post, I find the tension between form and content to be really boring).

Johannes-yes,do read them, for sure! Rachel Blau DuPlessis critical work in particular has always been useful for me, and does a good job contextualizing many Post WWII feminist avant-gardes (and Mondernists, too).