Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Reb Livingston and Ravi Shankar: "Wanton Textiles"

I am not that strong on Bakhtin. I have a vague awareness that the novel, for Bakhtin, is a subversive art-form because it involves "polyphony", a blending of many different kinds of voices. Putting disparate voices together could be a way of conflating classes, or of toppling class and labor divisions that enable a capitalistic society to subsist. Somehow all this ties in with "dialogism", Bakhtin's most famous theoretical creation. I have an incomplete understanding of dialogism, but I believe that it, like polyphony, involves a dissolution of boundaries in the meeting and interpenetration of voices. Incomplete though my understanding of Bakhtin is, I can't help but wonder what Bakthin would've thought of Wanton Textiles, a chapbook released by Reb Livingston and Ravi Shankar in 2006. The chapbook takes the form of a dialogue between two would-be lovers. Yet, each of the two lovers develops and instrumentally uses more than one voice in the course of the 39 page text. It all adds up to an intriguing array of erotic passages, sprinkled with odd semantic juxtapositions that mimic the discomfort of thwarted desire. Here is one entry by Reb, many of whose entries take on a loose epistolary form:

Oh Oklahoma, privy to all, frontier to few, the runestone ruined and still I'm writing you. OK, I'm run through and this bus station is only small talk and woe. This is what I hear: Your slacks are wrecked, your zipper missing teeth and the patches on your knees cover the holes but have no sway. This style challenge among princes indicates you're neither pencil nor thumb, neither then nor now. I know the promised hand's true purpose and lie mute in communion. Hear what I'm saying? Coming your way with a pair of overalls. Keep your pants on until I get there.

Hushed and Flushed, Reb

It is a characteristic of this work that place is never static. Just as the would-be lovers never meet, the dialogue enacts a restless frenzy. We see Livingston and Shankar weave a poetic course through places as disparate as the Mojave Desert and (in a moment of cuteness) Intercourse, Pennsylvania. Yet notice the precise attention that is paid to melopoeia: in the first line and a half of this passage, there is a chain of rhymes and near-rhymes, "few, runestone, ruined, you, through." Though the would-be lovers are unable to consummate their relationship, lyricism, Yeats' "articulation of sweet sounds together", becomes both an outlet and a container into which the poets can spill their affect. The decidedly blue tone of some of the denotative language, "hushed and flushed," "keep your pants on until I get there", "zipper missing teeth", gives the poem its narrative backbone. We are told, in no uncertain terms, that this is erotic love poetry. Livingston's sections are decided; Shankar seems more willing to reject closure:

Reb, multitudinous seal-like forms on the lawn revealed themselves to be tarps covering holes, for what purpose I could not ascertain, not even after sitting momentarily in a bulldozer, grinning. Perhaps if I was possessed of clairolfaction, which a static-ridden talking head assured me equates to psychic smelling, I might have sensed the cancerous elm overhanging the hole was in fact budding new leaves, in one sightless spot. But I had to get back to the underventilated building, so nothing jangled my nose. Now I'll never know.

The Raven

Possible resonances with Poe aside ("The Raven"), what we see here is a strategy that has much in common with the hard-core Surrealists: Breton, Soupault, Jacob. "Multitudinous seal-like forms" is, or could be taken as, a dream image. So could "static-ridden talking head" or "cancerous elm". What is static and cancerous, in this context, would seem to be the desire that Shankar cannot fulfill. While Livingston uses overt blue tones (much like the kind of blue notes that Billie Holiday or Lena Horne would throw into their performances), Shankar paints in duskier tones, midnight tones, "sightless" (i.e. dark) spaces. The opacity of Shankar's segments encourages a reading of them as Surrealistic: the Surrealists conflated dreams and reality; dreams happen at night. There is, in fact, not much daylight in Wanton Textiles. It is a book about dark corners, isolation, and incomplete solace. Conversely, it is also a book about togetherness, communion, and the pleasures of language.

This is, I think, where the book locates its center, and its excellence: in the pleasures of language. In this context, it is clear that another, more visceral pleasure is being deferred. However, what is sublimated into these exchanges is a fertile concentration of affect, presence, and image. What is felt between the two characters is made palpable in words. These two poets are "giving language to each other", making a body of words stand in for their actual bodies. Through their affect, presence, and images, the two complementary "bodies" touch, embrace, and interpenetrate. Their pleasure in literary interpenetration becomes our pleasure. Their victory in words conduces to our pleasure in them. Between the reader and the two poets, a kind of triangular structure is created. The poets want to be read and we want to read them: it is a circuit of pleasure and fulfillment, that may in fact be deeper and richer than what a mere physical consummation could offer.

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