Friday, July 25, 2008

Some reading notes on Ariana Reines' Coeur de Lion

I like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath's work, but they've never been especially important sources of inspiration/influence for me in terms of my own writing for several reasons. I'm not a Boston Brahman living in the 1950s, and I don't currently face the same degree, or even kinds, of gender and class-based social and aesthetic restrains that they did. I feel trite and mean when I say this, but I don't have to marry or be in love with a rich asshole and then feel abject and bad about it.

True, my family would probably, if I asked them their opinion about it, like me to marry. And like me to marry a nice, upper middle class NPR Democrat engineer or entrepreneur or political science wonk or perhaps a certain specific sort of academic who knows a little bit about music and literature and gourmet food, but it's not like there's any money for them to threaten to cut me off from if I don't, and I don't need the protection of a husband to live without the support of my family, and I can live and work and not starve and do more than not starve on my own.

I just remembered a dinner party that I went to with my brother and sister-in-law at one of their friend's houses in Belmont. I'd not yet learned to navigate parties with confidence and charm, but I'm sure I was some combination of overly energetic, friendly, and strange. I was uncomfortable being around Belmont rich people. I remember very few specific details about the evening. We brought guacamole. Someone was trying to decide between Harvard and Yale for law school. Someone had been on the Atkins diet who got really drunk ate half a pear tart. They were talking about their trips to Europe. I tried to talk about Singapore and Malaysia, but no one had been to either of those places, and I'd only been to England and Ireland and never continental Europe. I kept thinking about Plath and eventually Sexton at McLean, and how Sexton actually kind of wanted to go there and how fucked up it was that being at a mental hospital would seem a preferable alternative to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet outside of one. I remember looking around at the women in the room, most of whom were academics, becoming academics, or married to academics (I guess there were lawyers and business women and men, too) and wondering how many of them were depressed and/or taking psychiatric medications.

I'm thinking about all of this because I've just read Coeur de Lion, by Ariana Reines. And because Plath and Sexton are thus far the only non-contemporary poets to come up in any conversation about Gurlesque that I've read. I have a lot to say about Coeur de Lion. It's good. It's maybe the best book by one of my 20-some and 30-some peers that I've read in two or three years. It's got major energy. It's a super hyper-aware love poem aware of the historical and grammatical constraints and pleasures of lyric. It's perverse.

The poem isn't attempting to represent anything like Suzanne Muzard's idea of reciprocal love: "The idea of love is weak, and its representations lead to errors. To love is to be sure of oneself. I cannot accept nonreciprocal love, and therefore I reject that two lovers might be in contradiction on a topic as serious as love. I do not wish to be free, and there is no sacrifice on my part in this. Love as I conceive it has no barrier to cross, no cause to betray."

Coeur de Lion knows that "you" is always a constructed object, and that the world comes into the poem at you's expense (both in the poem and maybe even out of it). Lyric love traditionally depends on the beloved being a distant jerk and on the poet being alienated and economically disenfranchised--Coeur de Lion knows this though, and tries to push that dynamic as much as possible.

But, but. It did make me think of the dinner party in Belmont. That says more about me, maybe, than the book, but still...

(The poem made me think of a lot of other things, too, including some New Narrative, Bataille, most of French Feminist theory, Kathy Goes to Haiti, Djuna Barnes, and Freud more than Lacan or Zizek because even though Freud is often wrong his theories of subjectivity are so much more physical and bodily than Lacan or Zizek).

Long sentence: ...Something about how the poem chooses in a totally self-aware way to inhabit a traumatic series of neurotic loops that obsess about love and loving a rich, emotionally abusive jerk who is not a very good writer and the abjection and self-hatred that come from this choice, which does, yes, remind me of Sexton's desire to be McLean.

More later.


Catherine said...

my connection to plath and sexton is largely through fairy tales / folk tales -- which was a primary influence; the relationship of these stories, and vernacular or even oral history, literature, philosophy, and science -- from which many of our received ideas spring -- are thus the works of women and largely used BY women

et said...

Lorraine, you asked elsewhere for ideas about lineages of a gurlesque grotesque, so I say what about Angela Carter, Lynda Barry's novel Cruddy, Katharine Dunn (early bks esp), and also Anita Loos, Mae West -- have you read her novels? -- both there for the invention of Hollywood, which surely ties to gurlesque and grotesque.

K. Lorraine Graham said...


Thanks for your comment. Fairy and folk tales are fascinating, and the way they show up in Plath an d Sexton is not quite the same as, say, H.D.'s mythology. Still, I'm not sure I understand how drawing inspiration from fairy and folk tales necessarily constitutes a strong connection to Plath and Sexton--I suppose I mean that that fairy tales and, more broadly, oral literature is a huge, amazing web of connections that would touch if not encompass several things...


Thanks also for your post. I adore Mae West, but I had no idea she wrote novels. And Anita Loos, of course, she's wonderful! I don't know Katharine Dunn's early novels at all (any specific recommendations?...

q. said...

Not sure what you mean by "I don't have to marry or be in love with a rich asshole..." Thank goddess for that. I guess you're saying that one need not date an asshole in order to occupy the role of being a woman and abject? I'd agree. In particular, I think of Dodie Bellamy and her writing on bulimia, therapy, and her working-class childhood.

Reines's book is exciting because she is a "regular" (?) woman who is discussing things that are right in front of her whereas earlier in avant-garde literature such a thing would be considered too abject, too confessional, whatever. It's ridiculous to expect anyone to have filter out her life to fit into some esteemed idea of art and a revolt seems to be occurring in her work. I love revolt and even revolting things when they're done well.

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but the part that grabbed me the most was the admission of her lack of understanding of women. I found her relation to the Emma figure to be most interesting. And especially how she talks about how she was a prostitute and how she did it because she was curious about women. That seemed to me to be a pretty positive thing that could go in various directions. I'm hoping she'll get into that more...

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hello q.,

Thanks for your insightful comment. Absolutely, one doesn't have to date or marry an asshole to be an abject woman. And one doesn't have to be rich to be one, either. I'm glad that you brought up Dodie Bellamy's work, because it's a great example of writing that takes on female subjectivity and abjection in a working-class context, which is of course not the class context of Plath and Sexton’s work.

In my comment about how I don't have to marry a rich asshole, I was also attempting to contrast the social and class context I live in now with that of Plath and Sexton (and many other women writers from previous generations). Although I do face plenty of social pressures and obstacles because I am a woman, I don’t face them to the extent that women in the 1950s did. For many of us, who we love and partner with has more to do with our own choices now than it did 50 years ago. I don’t want to downplay the struggles that many women now face, especially same-sex couples, but I do think things are better now for us than they’ve been in the past.

I’d like to hear more about your comment on how earlier avant-garde writers would have considered the subject matter in Reines' book too abject and confessional. Are there some particular writers/works you had in mind? I think of some, but I also think Reines' work resonates with quite a bit of literature in a variety of avant-garde and alternative traditions. Those traditions are large and complicated, so there’s certainly room for writers that reject abjection and confessionalism and writers who explore it (and that binary probably isn’t so absolute). Quite a few avant-garde writers have explored the connections between love, abjection, gender, and subjectivity. For example: Mina Loy's Love Songs to Joannes, Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, Breton's Nadja, all of Jean Rhys' work, but especially Good Morning, Midnight... Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy, and Chris Tysh as well as Selah Saterstrom’s fiction…

I was also interested in the way the narrator in Coeur de Lion related to other women, although in many ways the ways she relates to them aren’t so surprising—does she look like me or not, what does she do, am I as smart as her…etc, all comparisons that are quite familiar, unfortunately, to many of us. Relating to abjection is complicated and unpleasant, and that’s part of what I find interesting and ultimately frustrating about this book. I’m still thinking through that. Definitely the interest in exploring and relating to prostitutes reminded me of Kathy Acker

Thanks again for your comment. I’m really finding this conversation helpful.

mark wallace said...

think Coeur de Leon is very good too. Incredible narrative drive. I think that what’s frustrating about it is central to what’s fascinating. The frustrating part really can’t be taken out.

What’s frustrating about it is exactly like what’s frustrating about having a friend stuck in a bad relationship. And in this case, it’s someone who understands that the relationship is bad and exactly why it’s bad but still wants to be in it. Self-aware obsession may be the most frustrating kind.

Think of the classically clueless male advice: “Dump her”–or in this case, him. What’s funny about this advice is that it’s correct as well as clueless. Correct because it may very well be the right idea, and perhaps even inevitable, since the bad relationship is most likely to end pretty soon. Clueless because no one who is obsessed with someone else ever breaks up with them; the situation just has to play itself out. And clueless also because it’s a denial of the emotional complexity that has caused the problem in the first place.

For me the term “avant garde” may not be that useful for the book, although I can see its connection to Bellamy. There’s not much questioning of linguistic norms or of the relation between linguistic norms and social norms. Instead the work strikes me as a somewhat idiosyncratic narrative poem with intense drive, although it does play some games with the idea of where poems begin and end. I wonder if a better comparison isn’t the autobiographies written and published by a number of young women a few years back (and still?) that were very popular, stories of eating disorders, dysfunctional families, prescription drug abuse, etc. Exposes of the kinds of trouble young women face in an era when sexism may be less total and blatant than it once was but at the same time remains subtly and complexly embedded in our social institutions and socialized emotions and attitudes.

q. said...

I was thinking of language writing and writing influenced by it. In particular, Dodie Bellamy kind of takes the piss out of the '70's Bay Area scene and how, as a reaction to her writing, someone suggested she see a therapist. Some people who are not language writers eye emotional nakedness suspiciously, which I find counterproductive. Sincerity can manipulate, but not all manipulation is bad and moreover not everyone who is sincere is in total control. I'm paraphrasing, but Eileen Myles said Bellamy gets no egotistical payoff from her writing. Bellamy is putting herself in a vulnerable position by being so intimate and I imagine that the working-class thing exacerbates this. As a person who doesn't have money and who has protect herself physically and emotionally, Reines seems to be in the same tradition.

How does one create work that is threatening to liberal intellectuals? Pulling out the working girl lexicon might do it--making people question their illusions. This might be an area to work on the earlier mentioned linguistic and social norms. She could even more deeply undermine the lookism that she writes about. I do think she has a lot of power in being a smart girl who dated an asshole because I think there's power in numbers and relatability and what is regular (maybe I feel this may because I'm not of the majority?). I think you're right to suggest that Reines may potentially come out of a tradition of threats: Mina Loy, Barnes, Acker, Alice Notley... I would also agree with your and Mark's comments: that traditions are operating in which Reines's work could fit into quite well. But is the audience that is reading Reines's work also reading Plath, Michelle Tea, queer girl lit, Heather O'Neill, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Jessica Cutler, work by young prostitutes? Maybe they are. Maybe I'm out of touch, but I always felt that girls's writing was segregated to “guilty pleasures” in the serious avant-garde (what's a better word?) tradition. Reines seems like she could be a Morrissey figure: exposing people to doom and gloom and kinky things that don't fit into mature conceptual poetry.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hi Mark,

I definitely agree that my various frustrations with Coeur de Lion are central to what’s fascinating about it. As you put it, "the frustrating part really can’t be taken out." That tension is at least partly responsible for the great narrative drive and linguistic energy of the book, I think.

I hadn't considered placing this book in the autobiographical context you mentioned--that does seem useful. Although the poem does seem formally aware of the history of lyric. About half way through the poem the narrator jokes about the "you" in the poem becoming more an more of an obsessive construction. So I'd argue that various Post-Language Poetry concerns with the lyric are relevant, too, and also some of the concerns of New Narrative, too.

That said, I don't get the feeling that Coeur de Lion is focused on exploring the social or revolutionary possibilities of the lyric in the way that, say, Juliana Spahr's recent work does. In This Connection of Everyone With Lungs, Spahr imagines a love lyric as a way of not just understanding romantic relationships, but also a whole series of social relationships and possibilities that extend out into the world in very complicated ways. In Coeur de Lion, the focus and fascination really is the love relationship--the rest of the world only appears in glimpses and moments.

Thanks again for your comment.

Johannes said...


I'm going to beat my dead horse a bit if you don't mind. That dead horse being the use of the term "avant-garde."

It strikes me as interesting that Mark can't see Ariana's work in an avant-garde tradition but he can see it as part of a girl's writing about bad experiences tradition.

What could be more like Tzara-like than putting "young-women's-confessions" in a lyrical poem?

I just wrote a thing for my block on people trying to stabilize the meaning of "avant-garde" so that may be coloring my response.

Also, I want to say that I think "Q"'s entry was very insightful.