Friday, July 03, 2009

Sex and Terror

The poems I would like to feature today belong to Boston's Mary Walker Graham. Graham's poems adopt the stance that the protagonist seems either to be a sort of victim, or in the process of self-castigation; veer towards the straight Confessional, but always with an added dimension and depth (imaginative capacity) which places her (to my eyes) squarely within the confines of post-avant. The following is a prose poem, it is entitled A Pit, A Broken Jaw, A Fever:

When I say pit, I'm thinking of a peach's. As in James and the Giant, as in: the night has many things for a girl to imagine. The way the flesh of the peach can never be extricated, but clings- the fingers follow the juice. The tongue proceeds along the groove. Dark peach: become a night cavern- an ocean's inside us- a balloon for traveling over. When I said galleons of strong arms without heads, I meant natives, ancient. I meant it takes me a long time to get past the hands of men; I can barely get to their elbows. How a twin bed can become an anchor. How a balloon floating up the stairwell can become a person. Across the sea of the hallway then, I floated. I hung to the flourescent fixtures in the bathroom, I saw a decapitated head on the toilet. I'll do anything to keep from going in there. I only find the magazines under the mattress, the Vaseline in the headboard cabinet. A thought so hot you can't touch it. A pit. A broken jaw. A fever.

This poem practically oozes creepiness. Among the aspects I find most notable: the way that Graham's protagonist self-infantilizes (regarding herself not as a woman but as a "girl"), the imagery that conflates the sexual with the horrific (Vaseline butting against a decapitated head, broken jaws, fevers), and the intimation that what is at the heart of this confrontation is some sort of compulsive relationship. Yet the poem is intriguing because, despite its intimations, it never abandons the first person singular. Whomever the "you" happens to be, we never see them, they are never addressed, and the poem contains no "Other." There is solipsism at work, that cuts the implied "you" down to size; the narrator may be involved in an unhealthy relationship, but the primary feeling we get is one of self-loathing and self-disgust. The generalized phrases that are addressed to men serve to illustrate, as is Graham's wont, the narrator's alienation from whatever specific man is involved in the situation. There is also an unlikely quality to Graham's metaphors: what exactly could "balloon" imply, in this context? How can it be connected to the "peach" that Graham puts it up against? At one point, Graham creates a metaphoric chain, all meant to represent the same thing: dark peach, night cavern, ocean, balloon. The most obvious interpretation is that the metaphor is meant to signify the female sexual organ. However, the metaphoric chain is distorted, disturbing, and macabre. You have to stretch to allow the metaphoric chain to work, just as Graham stretches to convey what she wants to convey, which is equally brutal and surreal, and supports a consistent persona. The following poem, Double, has roughly the same feel:

Here is a box of fish marked tragedy.
Is it different from the dream

in which your alter ego kills the girl?
You are the same, and everyone knows it,

whether tracing the delicate lip of the oyster shell,
or sharpening your blade in the train car.

The marvelous glint is the same.
Though you think you sleep, you wake

and walk into the hospital, fingering
each instrument, opening each case with care.

The scales fall away with a scraping motion.
You are the surgeon and you are the girl.

Whether you lie like feathers on the pavement,
or coolly pocket your equipment, and walk away...

You are the same; and you are the same.
You only sleep to enter the luminous cave.

I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that this poem places itself in a realm of infantile sexuality. Yet that it is written from an adult perspective gives it a kind of double edge. If there is terror here, it is terror of the protagonist's own sexual power. The pleasure for the reader is in trying to understand the different levels of self-evaluation that are going on, and how they tie in to the narrator's sense of herself- how her persona is constructed. As in A Pit, there is a level of sexual solipsism going on that becomes a maze, in and of itself. There is also a level on which the poem exteriorizes its own discomfort through the use of "gross" imagery: box(es) of fish, blades, surgeons. What is the nature of the operation? What necessitates it? The poem is given added depth because it is presented in the second person: not "I" but "you." It takes on the quality of a narrator talking to herself about herself, and makes the poem an exercise in imaginative self-consciousness, more so than the first one. I find this compelling because it picks up the tone of Confessional poetry but puts it through a new kind of synesthetic light filter. What Graham sees as "Double" could be a split between her body and her mind, or between her sexuality and her intellect, or even between herself and an Other. Whatever it is, it has left her in pieces, and the poem seems to be an attempt to put herself back together again. Both of these poems, and other Graham work, present a consistent persona, a tangent to Stacy Blair's: a polymorphously perverse girl-woman lost in the never-land of her own body (and polymorphously perverse can imply a body of thoughts and ideas in addition to the mere physical mechanism.) Though possibly mainstream-consonant, as has been duly noted, it would be difficult to get more edgy than that.


The second portion of the Sex and Terror post is being scribed at a later date: January 2017. With the addition of new material to PFS Post both from Mary Walker Graham and Stacy Blair, there is more to see and say about the pertinent issues hewn into their texts- the creation of a new kind of female persona in American poetry; a new approach to female sexuality and the female body; and a continuing, obsessive interest in the dark or shaded portion of human reality. As of January 21, the poem by Stacy Blair which crowns PFS Post is called Photo Experiments:

Blonde locks jut out over the tops of pigtails,
bleached beach/sand-color by the sun.
Time's short between this photograph and my regard.
Picture: no flower lays or shoes, just
young grass hips. She is, I am, we were,
very young. The entire page of this album
flanks history; under my mind, another
helpless time explosion. I was, we were, are,
naked newborn, as our little limbs on film.

What might strike the reader as most urgent thematically- the artful insinuation of pregnancy- is buttressed by the same strain of self-castigation, self-reproach, and self-mistrust we find in Graham. Like Graham, "young grass hips," "flanks," and "flower lays" are all heavy innuendo about carnality. What makes the poem so fascinating are the divisions and precisions Blair incises into her perceptions of identity- who she was, who she is now as two distinct selves; who she is and who her assumed lover is, also as two distinct selves; and the third entity they create together (possibly the unborn child) being distinct from them as another gestalt entity. It is difficult not to read "helpless time explosion" specifically as a reference to pregnancy- and equally gripping, because addressed, text-wise, with taut, terse authority, caesuras creating a sense of hypnosis for the reader, brief incantation. The poem ends in irresolution, purposefully- and the creepy edge (or edges) of what I called post-avant many years ago is very much in effect, on display. Why the Aughts created this sense of dread, of foreboding, along with the shadowy seductiveness of stark eroticism, is anyone's guess; a reaction, perhaps, to the stunted quality of the female body (and the female brain in response) in century XX art?


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