Sunday, December 15, 2013

‘the tildes outside language were not pronounced’: Some Notes on the Transubstantiation of Geraldine Monk’s Poetics part 4

‘Vocalised (public)’ is the longest of the sections, perhaps in recognition that the poetry reading (one poet: one poem) is the common form page-based poetry performance takes. As John Hall says, in an almost Apollonian vision of this,

Y writes a page that becomes a book

when he performs that writing the words are on the page, which he has written, are in the form of the performance, inform it and are transformed in it[,] (Hall 2013: 28)

all of which is acknowledged in Monk’s more Dionysian poetics, where the informing and transforming is both wilder and embodied in wilder language. ‘Public and pubic are too close for typographical comfort,’ the poem opens (after the repeated head note), though it is the vocalisation of this common (and embarrassing) misreading that is discomforting: ‘Spoken so pointed it should be spiked with a double ‘k’.’ Curiously Monk describes this transformation instead of effecting it and transforming the word ‘spoken’ into ‘spikken’. The voice is spiked, the language is as physical as the poet:

            The bodied poet
            broke on the back of phonemes
            and puns with heart-reach
            or slightings

Puns (and this poetics abounds with them) either are affective or effective (as jousting insults). A variety of poetry reading venues, from utilitarian ‘Bright/college rooms’ to quaint and twee ‘Upon-/a-time shops’, snap their way across the line-breaks, until we arrive at an italicised phrase which appears twice in this section: ‘Poet as an Exhibition’. Two phrases lie behind this locution: the neutral title ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, as in the Mussorgsky rhapsody, and the complaint (to children or egregious adults) that they are ‘making an exhibition of themselves’. [i] This is precisely what a poet does in performance – makes an exhibition – in revealing

gender-age race species height
weight dentistry speech defluct
stam r twitch [,]

all features in their socially obvious obscenity, the performer utterly vulnerable. ‘Mean-time exposure’ shows meanness could be the cruel response to a ‘stam r’ for example. This emphatically is not rendered as a gendered apprehension here, but another female poet, Denise Riley, also describes the exhibitionism of the poetry reading, noting how ‘it ushers in a theatrical self with a vengeance, the performing I bringing her accidents of voice and costume and mannerisms to flesh out a starved text, married and reconstituted with it in fullness before the eyes, like wartime powdered egg soaked in water.’ (quoted in Hall 2013: 73) However, Monk counters this theatricality with a measured presence as a performer, which means that ‘Body mass is conduit’ not just socially-judged ‘weight’. The point of this poetics embodied in a poem is that neither it, nor the ‘poem’ being evoked into imaginary performance by the text, is ‘starved’, in Riley’s formulation. ‘Max somatic dynamics’ are even rendered as an exciting list poem without fear of metaphorical powdered egg or performative nuptials, metaphors which separate text from performance:

Body limited in overdrive:
            upright/ uptaut/ double-bent/ kathakalic.
Voice exitings:
            inc(h)ants/ warbles/ sprechgesang/ gutturals.
            edgling up arterials of interior weather maps.
            four and growing. Corporeal compass points.
            Rhythm. Ythmm. Timing. Timbre.
The Happening-stance:
            The preposterously loud death-thud of the
            fledging against the bedroom window.

This last image seems a violent alternative to the ‘birds and clouds and bits of paper flying through the sky’ of Levertov’s happenstance listing of occurrences that evoke and then enter the poem, but the process is the same, the outer limit of a poetic compositional process. The list begins with the body mass of the performer-poet and her gestures and energy. The form of the list acts to order levels of performativity and at each level we are offered performance choices. The voice, or kind of voice, is a matter of some choice, not an ‘accident’ as Riley insists. The performer can choose between canting and chanting or opt for the formal technique of ‘sprechgesang’, which lies between speech and song. Somatic neural pathways through corporeal humours, metaphors that combine the scientific and the pre-scientific, share a directional and territorial sense of discovery (with maps and compasses). The ‘text-gesturals’ perfectly enact the echoic progression from the formal properties of ‘Rhythm. Ythmm. Timing’ to ‘Timbre’, sonic shading that unites form and content, in the contextually powerful ‘Ythmm’, and concludes on a gentle roll of the poetic tongue: ‘Timbre’. [ii]

[i] The opposite notion of being ‘inhibited’ seems equally objectionable.
[ii] The monologue is the poetic form most alive to capturing a single voice on the page, usually through some approximation of speech. ‘Responding to a poem being recited involves performing the particular performance of it that I am hearing.’ (Attridge 2004: 86) This fact requires further theoretical work.