Wednesday, May 23, 2007



I’m the Man Who Loves You by Amy King
(BlazeVox Books, 14 Tremaine Ave., Kenmore, NY 14217, 2007)

Who is this “I” who claims—in both the title-poem and title of Amy King’s second book—to be “the man who loves you,” and who is the “you,” for that matter? Does King herself, a lesbian woman, declare her love for a female addressee, as though she were courting her as a man? Is she appropriating a patriarchal authority, not only to try it on, but to critique or parody its authoritarian exclusivity? Does she parody a straightjacket of gender norms by misrepresenting herself in order to suggest, a la Judith Butler’s notion of gender-performance, a multiplicity of performative possibilities available, despite societal strictures, to anyone, regardless of biological origins? Does King utilize the poetic persona of a man who loves either another man or a woman? And how can we be so sure that “love” signifies sexual love? “I’m the male father who loves you, my son or daughter”; “I’m the male mother (!) who loves you”; “I’m the son/male daughter who loves you, my mother or father”; “I’m the brother/male sister who loves you,” etc. A perusal of the title-poem—and we should not assume, contemplating such an uncanny poet, that it stands as a synecdoche for the entire book—may help us approach these questions; here are some pertinent lines from its midsection:

I put on my long black dream and stepped into the world of women
to live among my female brothers who know how to grow
up on ink that occasionally vanishes & candles that eat at the wick;
I understood then not to let the germs that occupy my body
infiltrate my mind because they are programmed to dislodge
the thoughts that set me apart as a matter of defining my essence,
that aspect of personhood that surpasses stuffing wads
of cash into every pocket while pretending nothing’s wrong here;
I put myself into this box of unerased sentences. . . . (34)

The poem happens to be a page-and-a-half-long sentence. A full gloss would likely be doomed to vertigo, but I see distinct clues that King’s intricate troping and humorous image-slinging serve the general deregulation of gender constraints. “The long black dream” reveals the wish-fulfillment of one who longs to “live” in a community of women—perhaps more specifically, evolving women writers who thrive both on what is clear and the obscurities that “eat at” illumination—and yet the term “female brothers” gives pause. Are these women who eschew traditional “sisterhood” for the cultivation of “brotherhood”? (If so, how would that “brotherhood” be manifested?) Are they heterosexual women whom a lesbian is willing to treat as she would her brother? Does this “world of women” include transgendered members who were born male? Do more than one of these possibilities apply? After the semi-colon, in a bizarre, non-Cartesian dualism, the speaker warns us that effects of a particularly gendered body, figured as infection, can weaken the thinking subject’s ability to resist coercive, socially constructed definitions of “essence” and hinder achievement of an “aspect of personhood” beyond ordinary gender constraints. Vigilant consciousness of what one is up against, along with creative strategies of thinking “otherwise,” might combat the “disease”; being “natural” and unselfconscious would not. After reflecting on the limitations of rhetorical strategies such as “transparent confessions” and “this type of artificial language,” the speaker “confesses”: “though I adhere/ in something of a masculine vein that can be coaxed open but/ is more often dilated than narrowed into a permanent voice-style. . .” (34-5). No single “voice-style,” however gendered, can cage the speaker in a closed, hardened identitarian “essence,” as the “vein” can “dilate” to permit expansive exploration of alternative styles.

One of King’s impressive accomplishments is to “rewrite” a poem by a significant precursor in her own terms. The title “And Ut Pictura Poesis Calls Her Name” signals the poem’s relationship to John Ashbery’s 1977 poem, “And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name.” In Savage Sight/Constructed Noise: Poetic Adaptations of Painterly Techniques in the French and American Avant-Gardes (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures, 2003), David Lehardy Sweet notes that the “famous Horatian dictum” in Ashbery’s title “presents the relation of poetry and painting,” not only “as one of harmonious parallelism” but of “mutual attraction,” as though innovative poetry must “court” painting, an “independent, anomalous, alienated”—problematic—“lover” (239-40). According to Sweet, the “poem offers instructions on how to write a new kind of poem-painting. . . that double as friendly advice on how to ‘get a girl’ (or guy),” while “modernist juxtapositional strategies” interrupt these teaching moments (240). King’s titular revision foregrounds Sweet’s sense of Ashbery’s discourse on the performative function of a poem-painting more directly than the precursor’s title, with its constative use of the copular verb. In fact, King presents the theme of eros much more overtly than Ashbery does. I will quote a set of passages that include substantial mimicking or playing off the language of Ashbery’s poem:

I think of you, the mistress of ceremonies with your fist held
In a tiger’s grin, a bouquet resembling delphinium
Between your teeth. Every man I love becomes a woman.
But first, there is the critique of the human subject,
Where “subject” comes out into the open, lights his fingertips,
And disappears a gold-plated elephant, entirely remaining
A free-agent unmoved by clock-ticking acrobatics. . . .
Eventually, she approached me about a missing kiss—
Mechanics of another kind? Two lips, tender teeth, a tongue
Dewy wet. . . .
                              Someone should study
The extracting power one has with another: only everything’s
A signal when you turn your radar on. Interlocking legs twirl
Voices out of words. The smallest story of two people coming
Together imitates a circus tent in winter holding
Everyone beneath it. The sheer beauty of ten thousand minds
Colliding with seesaws airborne, trampolines, top hats,
Harmonized buzzsaws,. . .
               A lush masquerade blends discord to dance to,
So that understanding may begin with seclusions,
Ignite collusions, and a body may ask,
Where do you live? (15)

“Delphinium” serves in the middle of Ashbery’s poem as an example of a flower that a poet-painter could use to give specificity and a romantic tinge to the composition, whereas King employs it in the first sentence as a comic detail in the picture of the woman she contemplates amorously. “Delphinium” includes poisonous leaves, so the fact that the “mistress of ceremonies” (a phrase that seems a euphemism for a sexual aggressor, even a dominatrix) has something “resembling” this flower in her mouth allows for the possibility that her pose involves risk or daring, as seduction often does. Also, while the word does not derive from “Delphos,” its sound suggests an allusion to the Delphic oracle, as though both poems might include (or question) prophecies about love’s fate.

King’s second sentence seems to “confess” that the speaker falls in love with women who resemble men she holds dear, thus acknowledging a heterosexual component within homosexualty and troping on the rather ambiguously gendered sexual references of Ashbery’s poem (and in fact, in a great deal of his work before the eighties). What if the verb “becomes” signifies that men she “loves” (loves how?) seek to adopt the subject position of women through transvestite or transgendered crossing? The difficulty posed by these two divergent readings may imply a critique of the presumption that gender is stable. The stock phrase, “the critique of the human [decisively gendered] subject,” situates King, born around the time that the precursor poem was published, as conversant early on with the theoretical basics of Poststructuralism and Cultural Studies in the same way that Ashbery’s parallel reference to “self-analysis” reflects early acquaintance with Freudianism and pre-Lacanian post-Freudianism. (Indeed, Self-Analysis is the title of one of Karen Horney’s books.) In the seventies, Ashbery may have been aware of poststructuralist lingo, especially since he lived in France for a decade (until 1965), but the Freudian/post-Freudian discourse was a staple of his formative years; it provided the kind of near-clichés he could fall back on much more easily. For Ashbery, those who are “bothered about beauty” should “come out into the open, into a clearing,/ And rest,” whereas King envisions a speaking “’subject’ [coming] out into the open,” making a stable self “disappear,” and transforming “himself” into another entity to demonstrate his (free) “agency.” Both poets exploit the notion of “coming out” as public revelation of gay identity, but King’s language reflects an additional sense that being a free agent includes the destabilization of historical (“clock-ticking”) rules about gender performance, not just sexual activity.

Three further examples—and there are quite a few more—should provide a sufficient sense of effects that King produces through her collaging from the precursor poem. Ashbery’s phrase, “She approached me about buying her desk,” which seems to be an example of how “dull-sounding” language can be incorporated into a poem-painting, may refer to a pretext for seduction, but King’s substitution of “about a missing kiss” presents a more obvious case of sexual “mechanics,” and the subsequent “two lips”/tulips pun points back to the sexualization of flowers in the opening image of “delphinium.” A more highly charged sexuality is also evident when Ashbery’s “we were a seesaw” is transformed into King’s “seesaws airborne,” followed in the next line by the phrase, “harmonized buzzsaws” (“velvet buzzsaw?”). Finally, whereas Ashbery writes, “Something/ Ought to be written about how this”—Love? Vulnerability? The final clash between “an almost empty mind’s” “austerity” and a “lush” desire for communication with others?—“affects/ You when you write poetry,” King calls on “someone” to “study” how erotic relations enable “one” to have “extracting power.” She is fascinated with the violent results of the self’s inability to keep its saliences hidden from another’s psychological intensity. The older poet concludes with a wistful impression of nomadic desire and a play of provisional “understanding” and its “undoing”; King does not deny these insights, but the emphasis throughout her brasher, more viscerally surreal text is on the intricacies of the poet-painter “calling” (soliciting) the other’s “name” and “her” own emergent identity-formation(s) (as part of that dynamic) and interpreting responses to those calls.

“How to Get to Here” is a poem that provides an especially complex articulation of gender (and) identity. In the opening strophe, the poet marks the transition from an Ellisonian “self” (“invisible” to a societal “grid”) to a visibility constituted only by the speaker’s service to unstable others:

I had been invisible, untrained, disappearing off the grid
for some time, until you asked me to pass the breadsticks
in that split moment of schizo-panic. To give up
a technicolor coat is a brave tragedy with many layers;
we’re drawn to any labyrinth, perfection at the center
of artistry like the lifelong oil & grease of small town mechanics. (30)

As a trope of multiplicity, the “Technicolor coat” makes the wearer’s identity too complex or, punningly, “layered,” for people at the dinner table to see. Visibility’s advantages, unfortunately, are purchased with the tragic relinquishment of decentered nuance and fluidity. Perhaps fed by the genre of confessional autobiography, a community embraces the presumption that a (human) labyrinth can be negotiated successfully, that a marvelous “center” exists and can be discovered. However, the final simile, though readable as a critique of class snobbery ignoring the accomplishments of auto mechanics, is disorienting enough to suggest that “oil & grease” is more about diffusion and clouded visibility than it is about a labyrinth-threader’s quest-fulfilment. In the second strophe, although the speaker “wears” sincerity to simulate a sense of community based on common mortality, each individual’s ignorance of when s/he will die—usually considered a blessing but labeled as a “stigma” (mark)—lessens the emotion impact of eventual demise and hence, the binding potential of involuntary “conformity”:

So then along, you wear your dog well, the sitting in
backdraft hotels at darkly-lit tables by solicitous candles
gathering conformity of personal death to every else’s,
which doesn’t hit like the stigma of not knowing when.
Most acts attempt to imitate that knowledge: (30)
The charmingly outrageous generalization capping the strophe (but pointing with a colon to the next) regards “most” human action as fiction-making intended to compensate for the most profoundly unknowable and final experience. Human intensity “copies” the supreme intensity of dying; this includes the realm of love/loving:

A person can invent love just by loving.
Though not exactly, it’s the closest arc anyone spins on.
And then the lack of love finally ends
in a dead end of fucking to cover up the hole
where love should play on a regular spontaneous basis.
Some assume the hole is an absence
that longs to be filled. But it’s not a metaphor
of another sort or a pause enacting the turning of pages. (30)

The distinction between the noun “love” as a state of being and its gerundive form as activity—the disjunction between an abstract quality which people might characterize divergently and actual behavior—is both denied and preserved in the verb “invent,” which suggests the creation of narrative structure yet carries the Latin root, to come in, into, or upon (“How to Get to Here”): to reach, attain. The qualifier, “though not exactly,” challenges the full success/access of invention in both senses. The actual lived narrative of a relationship goes past the intensity of perceived or imagined love to realization of “lack of love” and the “dead end,” a sexual encounter, that concludes the lack and, presumably, the union itself. The “dead end of fucking” either depends on the binary opposition fucking/making love (involving any pairing of three kinds of gendered beings) or on a lesbian’s affective and/or political critique of heterosexual intercourse, but “the hole” is a larger “area” of ambiguity.

Lacan, following Freud, reads desire as a lack, and a (metonymic) chain of signifiers deployed to fill the lack is never able to convert absence into plenitude (presence). If King’s speaker negates the metaphorical status of “the hole,” that does not mean she is calling it a literal entity or non-entity—and her slippery rhetoricity is far from equating “hole” and “vagina,” though “some” might “assume” it—because the word might be regarded as a part of the chain of metonyms that buzz around Lacanian lack. But wait a minute: couldn’t she be using the trick of enjambment (now you don’t see it, now you do) to declare that the hole is “a metaphor” but “not. . ./ of another sort”? What other “sort” (sorting)? Is the hole a trope of its own non-substantiality rather than a personifiable figure tied to “longing” by a substantial other? To look at the second half of the sentence, is it constitutive of a temporal interval without the metonymic insistence that this “pause” must be bound up with textual/sexual motion or progress? Perhaps King articulates respect for the integrity of the gap as it eludes assimilation into a narrative that defines, places, domesticates, and subordinates “qualities” of absence to a presence that would presume to master desire. Another reading could be spun off the idea that “hole” is a trope for the irreducibility of death, which always shadows “love,” “loving,” “fucking,” spontaneity, etc. King returns to abstract thinking about the hole in the poem’s last line, but not until she has dramatized the symbolic actions of a “we” (an erotic we, a generalized we?) that supplants the “I,” “you,” and “a person” of the three earlier strophes:

We were meant to crossover dress without the joke of a mirror
that plays us as stationary and permanent.
The effect of a next apocalypse has us on sofas nightly
whispering to our fetal inner ears we’re privately
perfectly satisfied in spite
of the restless legs and finger aches that brought the body here.
This love and hole are inaccurately reconcilable, initially forever. (30)

The phrase “crossover dress” presents a particular social choice while simultaneously including a very legible trace of its opposite. If “we were meant” to cater to a majority to gain popularity, “we” could also defy mainstream authority with sartorial gender-bending. However, haven’t mass media and consumer culture already contextualized cross-dressing in ways that make it “cross over” into normative cultural institutions, where oppositional possibilities are blunted? And doesn’t “the joke of a mirror”—the kind planted by major cultural advertising to stabilize parameters of self-image, as well as to install a permanent lack—ride roughshod over the idea that “we” can construct our individual images as provisional “stands,” subject to continual transformation? Even if “we were” not “meant” to be “play[ed] as stationary and permanent,” we are coaxed to perform critical surveillance on ourselves to develop a fixed self-image that is then presented to the world for consumption.

Whether the “next apocalypse” is a personal, interpersonal, or political crisis, it is debilitating enough that people may not want to take on the added burden of admitting to themselves that they are not “privately/ perfectly satisfied.” However, sexual “restlessness” becomes a symptom that is hard to ignore. King’s concluding line places her two slipperiest signifiers, “love” and “hole,” each of whose different possible meanings can be regarded as “inaccurately reconcilable,” into the possibility of a reconciliation that lacks accuracy (“truth” transcending “fictions” of self- and other-fashioning) but, at least sometimes, “it must give pleasure,” to re-cite Wallace Stevens. The near oxymoron “initially forever” elegantly represents both the spontaneity and repetitive character of the drive toward overcoming the disjunction between the imagined signifieds of these quirky signifiers, as well as giving a sense of the dawning of inaccuracy’s negative truth. And the poem has fulfilled its promise of telling the reader “How to Get to Here” by getting her/him sufficiently lost, since “here” is a “place” of active speculation.


Thomas Fink, Professor of English at CUNY-LaGuardia, has authored 4 books of poetry, including NO APPOINTMENT NECESSARY (Moria, 2006) and 2 books of criticism, including A DIFFERENT SENSE OF POWER (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001). He is also co-editor, with Joseph Lease, of the forthcoming, BURNING INTERIORS: DAVID SHAPIRO'S POETRY AND POETICS (Fairleigh Dickinson UP). His paintings hang in various collections.


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