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Saturday, December 14, 2013

‘the tildes outside language were not pronounced’: Some Notes on the Transubstantiation of Geraldine Monk’s Poetics part 3

Part two, ‘Vocalised (private)’, shows how the poet ‘is brought to speech’, but in quite distinct ways from the empirical-mystical process implied by Denise Levertov’s use of those words. Privacy has again negative connotations, of secrecy and concealment. ‘The secret,’ explains John Hall, ‘relates to the confession and is governed by a contradictory impulse to conceal and show, perhaps to find a form of showing that can enter the public domain.’ (Hall 2013: 78) Monk’s ‘words up like sap. Exit with frou-frou’, move towards the public domain, but do not reach it beyond a contradictory saying Monk calls (in a brilliant neologism) ‘mutterance’; sap transforms into the rustling of silk, hardly a form of showing (silk, a contradictory material itself, suggesting undergarments, concealment). ‘Cabinet readings’ sounds more closed in than a chamber performance, say, and the word ‘Cabal’ suggests conspiracy rather than confession or consanguinity. However, ‘amongst friends only’ suggests a safe environment, what Hall calls ‘the relative social privacy of being among friends’ for ‘the quiet page ruffled’, the ‘inner sanctums’ of private performance, in which ‘Off guard quirks’, ‘A misplaced laugh’ and ‘Gaffs’ are all permitted by performer and intimate audience alike. (Hall 2013: 78)

Most eloquent, perhaps, are the single empty quoted space of “ ” and the clammed parenthesis of [] which are the formal markers of, the phenomenological bracketing of, something so locked-in, a species of windowless monad, that we see only the unvoiced sign of its non-appearance. It is simply so private as a content that it almost carries no form other than a vacant shell. For Monk, private vocality is almost formless and demands processes of performative forming (and deforming) to make the voiced text a significant and signifying form at all. She doesn’t want to confess; she wants to profess.

However, in this, the shortest part of Insubstantial Thoughts, the somatic reasserts itself as ‘Words birthed. Made flesh’ – a reiterated reformulation from the head-note text – words which suggest forming and transformation, but it is only as a

                                                Body reclining.
                                                Internal organs curled.
                                                Limbs laxed.

The full stops enact truncation and separation of the phrases, as does zero enjambment. ‘Lax’ suggests lethargy as well as lack, and ‘Foot cramp’ seems worse than the ‘involuntary fidgets’ of silent private reading, although ‘Low-glow performance’, it must be emphasised, is still performance. ‘Mutterance’ is still utterance, ‘shared murmurs’ still shared. The private is like a low wattage light bulb using the ‘Letric’ as energy. ‘Letric’ points towards electricity but it also evokes letters, as in the ‘lettrism’ of the French avant-garde, opening the possibility of performative energy on the page. ‘Letric’, the text asks, ‘is a (j)eeled live wire?’ Electric eels carry energy and perhaps letters do too, beyond their silent curling orthography, a ‘live’ (i.e. performed) ‘wire’, though perhaps the ‘(j)eeled’ nature of the energy is ‘con-gealed’ before being ‘Made flesh’. The transformation of energies is stalled but is conducted through the kaleidoscopic perspective of multiple puns, transforming meanings and thus forming meaning in a way consonant with the poetic processes described. This section ends with yet another question, as though this performativity is liminal: ‘Is it within a hair’s breadth or a hare’s breath?’ The ‘it’ of the question perhaps refers to the ‘vocalised (private)’ performance itself. We are left with the panting somatic breath of the most elusive of animals. It is ‘breath allows all the speech-force of language back in,’ as Olson puts it. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 152)

Before we pass on to public presentations, to performance per se, it might be worth dwelling a little on the liminal performativity expressed by Monk in this section, in light of the theoretical and practical perspectives of what has become known as performance writing (to which Monk’s work stands as precursor and analogue). Institutionally associated with Dartington College of the Arts between 1994-2010, its chief theoreticians and practitioners include Caroline Bergvall and John Hall, and it is the latter’s teasing ‘Thirteen Ways of Talking about Performance Writing’ that most clearly articulates, in its fourth section, the way performativity is formally conceived at every stage of the writing-performance continuum by performance writers in a way that Monk partly resists (in order to prioritise the public). Hall writes

             X is a performance writer
            she writes pages and she writes performances
            she performs writing
            she forms writing which informs performance
what is it to perform writing?
she performs the act of writing
quite simply, she writes
imagine that there is a performance of X in the act of writing (Hall 2013: 26)

Writing, whether private writing or the ‘live writing’ proposed above – ‘live writing implies an act of writing as itself a live performance’ – is all performance in this perspective, and the stages or states between them are matters of form, conceived of as acts of forming, quite explicitly in Hall’s words, and as transformations in Monk’s poetics. (Hall 2013: 155)

Hall also writes, in remarks that contextualise the apparent categorical distinction between the two ‘vocalised’ forms of performance in Monk’s titles: ‘“Private” and “public”, rely on each other, of course; even the OED can’t talk about one without the other. It is a very public notice on the door which reads “private”. What constitutes privacy is, as it were, a public decision.’ (Hall 2013: 76) This interconnection is enacted through Monk’s parallel titles (‘Vocalised (private)’ and ‘Vocalised (public)’) but the passage to the public (if only as yet ‘vocalised’) means we can consider Monk’s public and published works to test her (so far ‘private’) poetics of transformation, although the poetics are, like the notice on the door, in public form (and in poetic form, we must remember). (Such testing is beyond the scope of this piece which is, as the reader will have noticed, already lengthy.)