Glasswater [sic]: an interview with Jacob Bennett

Toby Altman, Series Contributor

Toby’s series “Bodies in Space” is about sustained thinking of the physicality of the body and its relation to poetry. Here, critical essay fractures, moves like poetry.

Jacob Bennett’s new chapbook from Furniture Press Books, Wysihicken [sic], takes its name from a misspelling. If you look at a map of Philadelphia, you’ll find Wissahickon, an astonishing state park which runs through the city’s Northwest neighborhoods. If such a pastoral landscape seems improbable in the heart of Philadelphia, workshop of the world, Bennett’s chapbook demonstrates how the natural is already the political: implicated in violent acts of naming and appropriation, which turn Wysihicken into Wissahickon.

Bennett conducts an archaeology of the park: examining, in tightly constructed poems, its human and natural history. He documents how the poem’s Arcadian setting serves “as microcosom or repository of the foundations of the United States of America. Appropriation and dominion, naming as claiming, domination and change – these are American themes and the themes of this poem.” The park becomes a “petrified directory” for reading, reproducing, and critiquing the cycles of colonial violence which have made and shaped the ‘natural.’ I interviewed Jacob about his chapbook, its politics and its aesthetics, over the month of June, while he prepared for his wedding.

Toby Altman: I’d like to begin by talking about the tradition of romantic landscape writing. Wordsworth, for instance, famously composed while walking, and the rhythm of the footfall insistently frames his poems. We might say that romantic landscape poems rely on the poet’s body—a centripetal presence which organizes the natural. Your poem too begins with the poet’s rhythmic movement through the landscape: “I began composing the first sections of this poem in my head while riding my bike through Wissahickon Creek park in Philadelphia’s northwest quadrant,” you write. But your poem itself effaces this presence; the word ‘I’ is ostentatiously absent from the poem. Talk about your relation to the tradition of landscape poetry: if your poem breaks from that tradition, what is at stake politically and aesthetically in the breaks?

Jacob Bennett: While I had Bishop (“Florida”) and Olson (“Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [Withheld]”) in mind, and not Wordsworth, the connection to that tradition is there. It’s gratifying that you notice the friction between what I was very consciously thinking of as a lyrical tradition of R/romantic landscape writing, on one hand, and the total absence of an ‘I’ in my own poem. It’s an artifice, to be sure, the erasure of my Self as a central filter for sensory input. Because, of course, it IS me walking, splashing, riding, reading, touching, smelling. There were, in early drafts, some ‘I’ references, but at some point I (ahem) decided that, in order to compose something that was bigger than me or my subjective experience of a very beautiful landscape, and my third-hand reader’s experience of a very brutal history, that there should be no center or axis, at least not in the form of a “me as center of everything,” around which the poem might revolve. As far as the lines, which are sometimes short, sometimes long – I’m thinking of your comment about Wordsworth’s peripatetic rhythm – I guess the poem is a specimen of concrete poem, as I was trying to match the lines of the rocks, and the water, and the trails, along which I traveled.

TA: I’m interested in what you say about the shapes of the poem. It seems like the poem is not merely descriptive of a landscape, but also mimetic of it. I wonder if this is true of the poem’s language as well as its shape. The language of the poem is at once austere and heteroglot, impacting geological, industrial and lyric vocabularies. In the Author’s Note, you write, “I realized…there is no way to pin down a place by naming it or telling its story. After all, even bedrock fractures and loses its place.” Talk about the relation that this poem establishes between language and place. Is the groundlessness of place also the groundlessness of language? How do you accommodate one to the other? (I particularly want to hear about the neologisms, like ‘millspins’ and ‘glasswater,’ which are so much a part of the distinctive fabric of this poem).

JB: Yes, I think that’s right, that place and language are, if not groundless, then definitely ungrounded or unstable over time, even if the shifts are unnoticed or so slow as to take ages. The first time I read the ‘misspelled’ name of the Wissahickon that is the poem’s title, it was attended by an editor’s notation indicating the ‘found’ nature of the spelling: [sic]. The sound of the combination—Wysihicken [sic]—echoed in my head for a while before I realized that was the title. And then I realized that the alternate spelling was a perfect carrier of the idea of slippage, as in the sliding of continents over and under each other, and also of the arbitrary nature of spelling and labeling. Sure, today there are geometric shapes on a map that represent the creek, the creek’s protected parkland, the creek’s watershed, but those shapes, and the names applied, have changed and will change. What’s in a name? Well, Wissahickon is a suburban refuge for urban citizens. Wysihicken [sic] is a conglomerate of Dutch colonists, and Lenape tribes, and German Rosicrucian doomsdayers, with tongues that make sounds unfamiliar to, alien to, the English of my own tongue. And I wanted to capture that, the way a spelling can change something so familiar, both in the eye and maybe even in the ear. And, since you mention the neologisms and other diction choices, I should say that I strove for the occasional ‘clumped-up’ compound word, which I saw as mimetic, too, of the clumping of various materials in the forest. I wanted, too, with ‘glasswater,’ to express the very specific look of the still, flat, mirrored surface of the creek on a windless day, but the way it juxtaposed with ‘Ganshewehanna’ (‘noisy water’), the Lenape name for the Dutch-named Schuylkill, was also very attractive to me. So I used a trick I learned from my study of German, and from Truman Capote (‘summeryellow’ he wrote, somewhere, I swear), compounding a new word. Amelia Bentley suggested I get rid of ‘simmering,’ and I agreed. But before striking the word, I looked up the etymology, and discovered that in addition to our received idea of ‘slowly boiling,’ the word has older meanings related to ‘cement.’ That the word holds both these meanings, simultaneously, of movement and stasis, meant that it had to stay. As for the shapes of the poem, there is definitely a mimetic quality to the look of the poem on the page, and that was important to me from early on—I was interested in there being another layer or facet to the language, something that might come through in the layout. Cristophe – as you know, publisher for Furniture Press – made a really great suggestion that I try for something more organic, less ergonomic and clean, than the blocky original layout. So I changed the measurement of the ‘tab’ key, seven hundredths of an inch, rather than half an inch, in order to achieve something more sinuous, less rigid.

TA: We’ve been talking about the ‘groundlessness’ of language and place in your poem. You refuse to treat this as a metaphysical condition; instead, you document the colonial and industrial violence that turns Wysihicken into Wissahickon. I’d like you to talk about the poem’s political strategies: does its mimetic commitment preclude taking a political stance on the violence it documents? Or is mimesis itself urgently political?

JB: I want to go in all the directions in order to answer that! I’ll start by saying that, while I do try to anchor my ‘groundless’ language in the literal as much as possible—historical accounts, geological data—I am very much interested in the metaphysical questions ‘what might be?’ and ‘what might be the nature of that Might Be-ing?’ I am just as likely to think of myself as a staunch materialist as a believer in things unseen. To go ‘way out there,’ and to fuse those parts of my mind, it may be useful to quote NASA: “everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments…adds up to less than 5%” of the universe. Ontologically, we’ve got a lot of work to do to “order” the universe, what is likely an impossible goal. It is, though, comforting to the materialist in me to revel in the work of Linnaeus; naming things and categorizing them lends a sense of order, and control, to what is the riot of existence, and I do find great pleasure in naming that red bird with the peaked head feathers, black face feathers, and blood-orange beak: “cardinal.” But, of course, this aspect of mimesis, names as representations, is abjectly political. Look at the ongoing ‘Redskins’ situation. And mimesis as mimicry, too, is political. Look at recent uproar surrounding texts by Jeff Nagy or Josef Kaplan, among others who create or channel personae to some artistic end.  I suppose mimesis is inherently political, if not urgently so, so even if I try to limit or preclude a political stance, I will inevitably fail. Even abstention is a stance, after all. But I think I’ve taken a stance in Wysihicken [sic], at least against violence. Not very courageous, admittedly. I am no panglossian, hopeful for an end of the kind of ethnic violence that occurs in the poem, or and end to a hierarchical view of culture or the attendant colonialism that allows for the violence in the first instance, but I believe in the ‘truth’ of the idea that “butchers and their wives / fatten upon the smell of fog” (where fog is ignorance, distraction, and obfuscation), and I am eager to keep in mind the idea that Earthly paradise is just as appropriate a setting for human atrocity as any other locale. I’m thinking now of Williams’ notion that one might access universal ‘truth’ via “contact” with the locality of one’s actual experience, so while I don’t fool myself or anyone else into thinking that a poem, or a news report, or a trending hashtag, will necessarily repair or prevent atrocity, the acknowledgement of such is important to me. That’s why I love Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs. It is an acknowledgment, down to the molecular level, of such violence. Even if only to say, metaphysically, “this is why we can’t have nice things.” I suppose my overall stance is that affiliation, communion around commonality (wherein tradition or ritual is a kind of mimesis), is good for building a sense of attachment or community, but taken to extremes it becomes divisive and inevitably violent. That’s where a love of cataloging, of that vestigial hierarchy of Linnaeus’, can run into an ethical morass.

TA: I’d like you to talk about how this chapbook fits into your broader projects. It seems, in its mimetic detail and its formal austerity, quite different from some of your other work—I’m thinking for instance of the poems you read at the Penn Book Center in March 2013, which were prose-y, carnivalesque, detailed, lush, and very political. Do those poems share the same politics of mimesis? Or is your politics strategic, responsive to the form and subject of your poems? Better, what’s next?

JB: Oh, yeah, the prose poems (from a manuscript titled seeking blank slate: postcards out of eudaimonia) are a different thing altogether! One of the major differences between eudaimonia and Wysihicken, which I wrote in that order, is that, while political, the ‘postcard poems’ are also very, very personal. I began that series of poems after a particularly difficult breakup, which left me alone in a new city without friends or a network of support, ruing and jealous and self-flagellating. I think, for the first time, I really started to address my own undesirable qualities (the rue and jealousy and self-flagellation, among others) and to write about them, learn from them, maybe rewire my emotional register and behavior a little. And that led to a larger investigation of privilege, my own, as white, male, cis, straight, blonde over blue…I mean, go down the list of American ‘leaders,’ especially early on, and you’ll see some of the biggest bullies and tantrum-throwers, and I was trying to prove to myself that I wasn’t that guy. You know, that I wasn’t Jefferson or Washington, spouting one politically benevolent ideology and doing quite the opposite in the day-to-day. That’s an extreme example, but, I think it makes a point. So, it’s a text that addresses issues both personal and political, and leans, I guess, not toward resignation but maybe reconciliation, with some outbursts along the way. Getting right with the political identity I’ve got, and making sure what I believe and do are in alignment, and trying to adjust as necessary. I was very interested in getting myself into those poems, and—to address the question of broader projects or approach—since I have anxiety about repeating myself, I usually strive for formal and stylistic and tonal shifts between one manuscript and another. Hence the austerity, the mimetic concrete-ness, the “I”-less-ness of Wysihicken. I bet someone could do it, but I can’t even think about writing that poem as first-person lyric! As for next, I’m working more on establishing a practice and facility with translation, specifically of Petr Bezruč, a Czech poet who wrote his major work in just a handful of years at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. There are other original works I’ve got going, but they’re still somewhat nebulous or ill-formed, as ideas and also in many instances as poems. But they are, for the most part, short-ish, kind of like Wysihicken segments, but a lot snarkier. As a way of closing, I’d like to thank you—so much!—for such great, probing questions. Thanks, Toby!!

Toby Altman

Toby Altman is a conceptual poet. His poems have appeared. He is the author of and the recipient of. He currently lives in, where he works as and serves on the editorial board for. For more of his, please visit his and follow him on.

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Against Procrustes

Toby Altman, Series Contributor

Toby’s series “Bodies in Space” is about sustained thinking of the physicality of the body and its relation to poetry. Here, critical essay fractures, moves like poetry.

At the end of his recent article in Poetry, Slavoj Žižek proclaims, “The most elementary form of torturing one’s language is called poetry.” Ok, so poetry is a form of political violence in and against language—this is an old and storied avant-garde conceit. The novelty of Žižek’s account lies in the relation it posits between language and subjectivity. Language, he argues, following Lacan, is the “torture house of being,” a scene of sustained political violence against the self. Poetry merely returns the violence of language to itself. Or, more precisely, it reverses the roles: the tortured subject of language becomes language’s torturer. This is, needless to say, a bleak view: here the economy of political violence is total. Poetry does not offer a way out; it provides an opportunity to reverse the vector of violence. An empty alternative: the possibility of such easy alternation dissolves what might otherwise be an ethical and structural distinction between torturer and tortured. For Žižek, they are one position: to inflict violence is already to be its object.

However, Žižek’s closing proclamation is itself amputated; as a commenter on the Poetry Foundation’s website points out, much the same language appears in Žižek’s monumental exegesis of Hegel, Less Than Zero: “The most elementary form of torturing one’s language is called poetry—think of what a complex form like a sonnet does to language: it forces the free flow of speech into a Procrustean bed of fixed forms of rhythm and rhyme.” Žižek’s habit of repeating himself—particularly his jokes—is well known. The repetition of these quips and stock phrases tends to naturalize them, leveling their humor and their eruptive, disruptive, force. Procrustes seems to have suffered such a fate, a casualty of repetition. (He’s been “disappeared,” as Žižek would have it).

In the myth, Procrustes—who lives in a castle on the sacred road between Athens and Eleusis—offers shelter to passing pilgrims, and then stretches or shortens their bodies to fit an iron bed. He is eventually subdued by Theseus, who punishes him by “fitting” him to his own bed—a Žižekean conclusion, in which torturer becomes the tortured. The myth has become a stalwart of debates in poetics, so much so that we might think of a Procrustean tradition. For instance, it appears in William Drummond’s Conversations with Ben Johnson and in Thomas Campion’s attack on rhyme in Observations in the Art of English Poesie:

…there is yet another fault in Rime altogether intolerable, which is, that it inforceth a man oftentimes to abiure his matter, and extend a short conceit beyond all bounds of arte: for in Quatorzens me thinks the Poet handles his subiet as tyrannically as Procrustes the thiefe his prisoners, whom when he had taken, he vsed to cast vpon a bed, which if they were too short to fill, he would stretch the longer, if too long, he would cut them shorter. [as originally appeared in Early Modern spelling]

Campion has roughly reversed Žižek’s position: the torturous violence inflicted by rhyme is not an occasion for celebration, but rather an impingement on the poet’s liberty as an Englishman. This is again a false and fleeting difference: beneath their disagreement, Campion and Žižek agree that form is political violence, inflicted on the body of the poem.

The hinge upon which a Procrustean poetics hangs, however, is the metaphorical conflation of body and poem. For the metaphor to work, the poem needs to have a body that can be violently stretched or shortened. More: that body must precede the poem’s encounter with Procrustes and his tyrannical violence. Torture is not a form of productive power: it requires, structurally, a preexisting body which it can threaten with irreversible pain transformation. And here the metaphor begins to break apart. Poetic form is generative and productive. As the new critics taught us, the poem is not separable from its form—nor can it be said to precede it. If form is a kind of political violence exerted against the body of the poem, then it also produces the body it acts on. Pace Kafka, form is an instrument which produces the body (of the poem) by writing on it.

Procrustean poetics thus relies on a projected before: the fantasy of a body which precedes form and is, in a sense, the reality of the poem. In other words, it produces (and it relies on) a distinction between form and content. And this entails a further distinction between ordinary language and form. Recall Žižek’s formulation: “think of what a complex form like a sonnet does to language.” Form acts on language, transforming it into something other than itself—and language precedes form as an organic totality, the natural and unimpeded body which is violently interrupted by meter and rhyme. Language becomes the metaphysical presence which underwrites the poem’s absence. Žižek tries to avoid this position by equating language and violence—a move which, as we’ve seen, tends to erase the distinction between language’s action on the subject, and the subject’s action on language in poetry. This suggestion seems to me the most productive in Žižek’s brief and equivocal essay. If we are to think about poetry as a kind of violence, we will have to rethink form itself. It can no longer be the fence which separates poetry from other kinds of discourse. It must instead betray that difference, inciting us to imagine poetry as a separate and protected sphere, and then disappointing the desire that it has itself created. It’s easy to imagine how this argument applies to texts in the modernist tradition—texts which ostentatiously betray their own formal limits. But these betrayals involve a set of assumptions about traditional forms: that they need to be broken open, dismissed, discarded. That, in other words, their machinery protects poetry from generic rupture and ensures its difference from ordinary language. In this centennial year of Anglo-American modernism, it might be profitable to interrogate this foundational conceit. Can we conceive of traditional forms as themselves as a false and porous fence between poetry and its other?

Toby Altman

Toby Altman is a conceptual poet. His poems have appeared. He is the author of and the recipient of. He currently lives in, where he works as and serves on the editorial board for. For more of his, please visit his and follow him on.

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Six Micro Essays on the Tenuous Public Body

Toby Altman, Series Contributor

Toby’s series “Bodies in Space” is about sustained thinking of the physicality of the body and its relation to poetry. Here, critical essay fractures, moves like poetry.

1.

Let’s be real (though the injunction already admits a failure of reality which is the condition of our discourse): everyone likes looking at bodies. I choose that word—likes—with a certain care, certain as I am that ‘liking’ something is both the most generic libidinal act, and fretted with corporate power. Capitalism is engined by like(s): as Facebook reminds us, metaphor is money gone wild. And so the libido is a kind of economy, or the economy is a kind of libido. Not that the ‘or’ matters for those of us down here in it, who have it the American way, that is, both ways at once. Capitalism is the surveillance we delight in. Delight is surveillance itself. To watch and be watched, to like and be liked: this is the consummation for which a body is trained and shaped.

2.

I am flexing my critical muscles here—a bad habit, but nonetheless revealing: of the thing that flexes; this body, in its critical acts, slouched at a desk in insatiable winter; swollen at the waist; irredeemably white and male, and therefore capable of disappearing into its language. Or, rather, appearing as its language: on Facebook, a major symptom of privilege will be the ability to appear as fossilized language, to delete the material and historical facticity of one’s particular flesh. A material and a history which is otherwise intractable and carnivorous, dismantling language, reducing authorship to the circulation of the body.

3.

Leigh Stein, in her trenchant and necessary open letter to HTMLGiant, documents the casual violence through which women’s writing is reduced to the circulation of a body:

In the summer of 2011, I met with a team of Random House sales reps who would be responsible for bringing my novel and poetry collection to bookstores and libraries around the country. One asked me what kind of cover image I wanted for my novel.
“I only know I don’t want a headless woman on the cover,” I said. “I don’t want my book cover to exclude men from picking it up.”
“Do you really think a man would read your work?”
“Well, a lot of men like my poetry,” I said.
“Only because you’re cute,” I was told. By my editor.
I didn’t know what to say. I like to think that out of the 37 people in the world who read poetry, the men who read mine are finding some merit there, and not just jacking off to my author photo.

Such misogyny limits the female body to itself; it denies access to the means of literary production and circulation. Or (this or again an and), it seeks to reduce literary production to the traffic in women: the distribution of female bodies for specular pleasure.

Such misogyny, in its stupidity, its virulence, its violence, may be understood as a vigorous defense of the actual. If it seems hysterical, in (paradoxically) the pathological sense of the word, it’s because the mechanisms of literary production and distribution already organize bodies in rigid and misogynist logics—lending some the capacity to recede into text, and forcing most writing to circulate instead as the body of its author.

4.

The mechanisms of literary community and circulation are structured by an underlying misogynist logic: the logic of liking and circulating bodies; of specularity, surveillance, and digital capital. Take, as an example, the poetry reading—a form which offers the display and specular consumption of bodies as one of its major pleasures, adjacent and often superior to its literary allure. To be an audience member at a poetry reading is simultaneously to engage in voyeurism and disciplinary violence: the pleasure we take in looking at bodies is, partially, the pleasure of limiting and shaping them with our gaze. In such a setting, the capacity to disappear into one’s text, to delete the body, is the capacity to evade discipline: which, in our country, is both the image and prime symptom of race and gender privilege. (Just ask William Zantzinger).

5.

Let us therefore build better institutions, and critique the ones we have with a generous and collective care. And let’s celebrate the improvisatory and ephemeral practices of poets who critique the interpolation and discipline of their bodies with their bodies. In that spirit I turn to a recent example from a ‘reading’ given by the poet Emily Barton at the Red Rover Series in Chicago—in the belief that such interventions dizzyingly exceed this lame, safe act of internet, institutional critique, in both subversive potential and bravery.

I use scare quotes here because Barton refused to read or, indeed, to engage in any of the ritual pleasantries of the poetry reading. Instead, she sat on a stool at the front of the room and quietly read the New York Review of Books (a publication which has become notorious recently for excluding women from its pages). In the background, from a small iPhone speaker, a male voice (ok, full disclosure, my male voice) read her poems in a dreary monotone. It was a precise parody of the gendered dynamics of the poetry reading. Surrendering her voice, offering her body purely as a thing to be seen, Barton reenacted the reduction of female writing to the female body. (It matters too that it was my voice, since at the time of the reading, Emily and I had been engaged some three weeks: under critique is marital heterosexuality which, even with the best intentions, remains a ritual of patriarchy, not a form of but the traffic in women).

Barton’s performance, precise as it was in capturing the gendered dynamics of the poetry reading, was not a capitulation to their disciplinary force. The poetry reading is a scrupulous and decorous space—so scrupulous that its implicit regulations are rarely felt because rarely violated. The poet is expected, indeed compelled to participate in the ritual. To refuse to engage, as Barton did, is to express hostility to the ritual itself. This hostility was richly registered in the room: which became suddenly possessed by a physical sense of discomfort, accompanied by the special and diligent silence reserved for painful and awkward public situations. Here, I think, lies the full brilliance of Barton’s performance. It is one thing to parody the strictures of gender. It is quite another to make a room feel the critique as a loss: of certainty, of the grid through which (gendered) (aesthetic) experience is rendered intelligible. Barton’s reading did not point toward a solution to the gendered imperatives of the reading series—that would be simple utopianism, which we all should learn to avoid (desiring). Rather, she showed us—a fecund demonstration, open for imitation and critique—how the logics of the poetry reading might decompose itself.

6.

Over the holidays, I spent a few languorous and pleasurable days reading about the history of the poetry reading—a mechanism of literary distribution which is really only fifty years old but, like gender, masquerades as the natural. I was disappointed to find that, despite the recent ‘performative turn’ in poetics, the poetry readings have only been very tentatively theorized. Peter Middelton, for instance, writes compellingly about the role of space in the aesthetics of the reading, but has little to say about its politics. As a card carrying member of the devil’s party, I believe it is better to know—however little knowledge actually helps us negotiate the rough imperatives of power. I think it is time, therefore, that we collectively come to grips with the politics of the poetry reading—rather, with the way that the reading inflicts politics unevenly across (our) bodies.

Ideally, such an account would be mobile and intersectional: a diffracted and kaleidoscopic model, which registers the way poetic power acts differently on different bodies. At a panel on “The Politics of Poetry in Performance” at MLA this year, for example, Kate Zambreno lamented the cultural injunction against women expressing anger—and posed her own angry language as a form of resistance. In a subsequent talk, Douglas Kearney noted that, as a black male poet, anger acts as an automatic generic demand on his writing: radically limiting its possibilities to a stereotypical form of racial experience. For him, the question becomes how to subvert that expectation without blunting the force of his anger. Poetry readings produce contradictory demands on different bodies. And so, any theory of the poetry reading must be supple enough to accommodate those contradictions. As an initial gesture toward such a theory, this little essay falls woefully short. Neither intersectional nor particularly supple, it risks (with much feminist work—especially by white critics) positing a universal white subject. I end with that failure, in hope of correction.

Toby Altman

Toby Altman is a conceptual poet. His poems have appeared. He is the author of and the recipient of. He currently lives in, where he works as and serves on the editorial board for. For more of his, please visit his and follow him on.

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The House of Loss, or, Hamlet and the Oyster

Toby Altman, Series Contributor

Toby’s series “Bodies in Space” is about sustained thinking of the physicality of the body and its relation to poetry. Here, critical essay fractures, moves like poetry.

“But who asked you to swallow men like oysters, Prince Hamlet?” (Nietzsche)

I said that a house is an engraving that incites desire. But it is not enough to consider the house as an “object.” The house is a privileged entrail, transcending the anatomy of all the houses in which we have found shelter. In every digestion, even the richest, the first task is to find the shell of the essential: the intimate valve of inside space. For the house furnishes us. And the entrail deepens to the point where an immemorial domain opens. We are never real historians, but always near poets, and our entrails are perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that is loss.

What is poetry but the witnessing of a moment that causes one to say entrail? For some, the poem enacts and re-enacts queasy rituals of defilement and revulsion, an obsession with corporeality that reduces everything to appetite and excretion. The poem is then a desire for aperture coupled with a disgust at openness; a need for, alongside a rage about, bodily closure. And, the unction of lyric seals up the skin, leaving the diseased interior to fester “unseen.” One is left with a set of fantasies of access to the other’s interior—concrete fantasies of eating, purging, or penetration—and this is called, often enough, ethics.

Put another way, it is the essential myth of the lyric that the higher the art, the more one may capture that which is art, that thing that lies within language. Here in the graveyard, the soul (which Walter Benjamin calls “earth-bound”) comes to inaugurate the form, to dwell in it like the flesh in an oyster. But this particular creature is the object of Hamlet’s greedy love. He slurps it down, and the slurping is a kind of music. And thus only the eater seems to possess the ultimate truth of entrails: there are no oysters in Hamlet (or Hamlet); only the armor of the Ghost.

But, paying heed to “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is hair to” does not necessarily turn one against the body; on the contrary its very fragility may elicit a tenderness toward the facts of moral embodiment. For instance, there is no doubt that Rilke liked locks. But who doesn’t like both locks and keys? Gentle closing calls for gentle opening, and we should want life always to be well oiled, in the (libidinal) manner of the Eucharist.

Speaking of resurrection, let me start over. I said that a house is an engraving that incites desire, and the word is delicious with itself: in-grave-ing, [a] writing which is also [a] ritual of mourning. [A] ritual which is also the making of [a] place. A house for the body which is also an image of it. For the house furnishes us, and deepens the entrail until it opens on a reservoir of oil, black, Eucharistic, distilled from the body itself. I mean language, which is built to envelope and sustain itself. I mean: all sorrow is booty sorrow and all mourning is a form of eating. Praise its salvific unmaking.

The author would like to thank Gaston Bachelard, Vanessa Place, and David Hillman, for donating their language to this essay.

Toby Altman

Toby Altman is a conceptual poet. His poems have appeared. He is the author of and the recipient of. He currently lives in, where he works as and serves on the editorial board for. For more of his, please visit his and follow him on.


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