Thursday, December 12, 2013

‘the tildes outside language were not pronounced’: Some Notes on the Transubstantiation of Geraldine Monk’s Poetics part 2

The titles of the parts of the poem are clear about the poetic’s foci, the various conditions for the largely vocal performance of a poetic text (I repeat: not the making, as in most poetics, but the formal remaking of one, hence the insistence on transubstantiation). The five sections are: ‘Unvocalised (private)’, ‘Vocalised (private)’, Vocalised (public)’, ‘Voca-visu (orientation)’, and ‘Fused Sonics (interaction)’. As such they formalise the states or stages of the potential realisation of a text from silent reading to its performance with musicians and others. It separates out phenomenologies of reading (in its various senses) and of performance and collaboration.

As a poet dedicated to performance one might suppose that Monk’s ‘Unvocalised (private)’ would see the lack of performance or audience as negative. The condition of the ‘Lone Reader’ is ‘Incommunicado’, masked like the Lone Ranger hinted at, the words of the poem ‘Unutterings’. (Monk 2002: np) This leads to a ‘self-meeting’ inwardness that is ‘cerebrally absolute’. More positively it is ‘Unpoliced’, of course, in its privacy, though even that is balanced again the ambiguous detention of ‘The body taken in to (care)’. But even though she describes a ‘Corpus in repose’ (which could equally refer to the corpus of the words silently read as to the reading body) Monk is aware that ‘Eye-orbs fly-wink’. This ‘mini zigger-jit’ is recognised by cognitive scientists as a ‘saccade’. Jane Stabler et al. summarise the findings of considerable empirical research on reading:

Reading in a strict cognitive psychology definition consists of a series of jumps forward, rests and returns by the eyes: forward jumps are known as ‘saccades’, backward ones are ‘regressions’ and the resting points are known as ‘fixations’. Readers typically fixate … for about a quarter of a second and saccade forward about eight character spaces with 10-15 per cent of fixations being regressions to earlier points in the text. Difficult texts … produce longer fixations, more frequent regressions and more cautious short saccades. (Stabler 2007: 205)

Poetic texts formally belong in that last category, of course.[i] The eye and brain are thus fully occupied by this unvocalised private reading, while the body is prey to ‘Involuntary fidgets’ and drinking and smoking while reading: ‘Tics. Itch-ay. Sips. Drags./ Scra-T-cha~~cha~~~chaa.’ But musicality keeps breaking through, as rhythmical scratching turns into a genre of egregious dance music with its rhythmic name, and there is even ‘A semblance of a toe-tap’ along to the poem as its musicality is spectrally registered if not recognised. Even the purely visual elements of the text (‘-T-’, for example) seem to be ready to burst into song. Chris Goode says that in a Monk performance of this piece ‘the tildes outside language were not pronounced’; they were ‘performed (though not emphatically) as hand movements.’ (Goode 2007: 171) Similarly Goode feels this first section of Insubstantial Thoughts, with its many visual glyphs, punctuation marks and signs, ‘could be said to extend the liveness of performance back to the moment before the poem begins to be written; in other words, it may matter how you pronounce the punning graphic bundled within “dis♥embodied”, but it doesn’t matter yet.’ (Goode 2007: 171) This is because it is, as yet, private in its vocalisation (though there is some irony in Monk actually performing this piece publicly!).

However much cognitive science may be used to show the eye-dance of the reader, Monk’s reader is clearly also the poet (as the poem is its own poetics). Indeed when she reminds us ‘Authorial origins can be dubious’, she is not just reminding us about the intentional fallacy (or its post-structuralist equivalent, the death of the author, or the ‘authoaxer’ in her wonderfully minatory neologism), she is again positing poesis as a formally transformative process. The poet is a ‘Shape-/shafter’ rather than a shamanistic shape-shifter, the enjambment abruptly holding the hyphenation in supreme tension as we consider ‘shape’ and ‘shafting’ as a more violent – even sexually so – version of the shape-shifter’s transubstantiation.

The absence of unpronounceable glyphs and symbols after the first section where they are ‘busiest’, as Chris Goode says, (171) indicates partly the entry into the realm of performance. Wait for the next posting. 

[i] Stabler et al. raises quite a challenge to our assumptions about close reading: ‘A full, slow, thoughtful reading of a poem will produce all the characteristics of a reading that a psychologist would recognise as typifying an impediment.’ (Stabler, et al. 2006: 205) Part of the answer, for students of form, or for a poet like Monk, is that reading becomes performance.