Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Subways & Om Cakes (2)

Mark Wallace read a generous cross-section of his recent work last Sunday in Portland, including portions of a work-in-progress, Notes from the Center on Public Policy; his forthcoming-in-2008 Edge book, Felonies of Illusion; and 2005’s Temporary Worker Rides a Subway.

Hearing Wallace read is like discovering a self turned inside-out to expose the back weave of bureaucratic questionnaires, public policy studies, HR procedural handbooks, and darkly insistent security concerns that go into its making. In place of the standard-issue expressive lyric ‘I’—truths drawn up from the inner depths and swaddled in sincerity—his writing seemed to posit a subjectivity that’s assembled at the shifting points of contact (and conflict) with institutions and other mechanisms of social control whose logic is opaque and whose purposes are always impersonal. Notes from the Center on Public Policy employs a complex syntax that conveys some of the ‘rationalized absurdity’ of the systems under critique, pushing long, perfectly sensible clauses out into time with such velocity that you’re apt to forget where the referential anchors are; your attention's drawn to the structural shapes grammar creates before it sets into meaning. (In this way his work recalled for me some of Taylor Brady’s writing in Microclimates, or the “Zoning” section from Occupational Treatment).

Wallace introduced Felonies of Illusion by situating it among the debates in the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics Program in the early ‘90s over ‘representational’ vs. ‘non- or anti-representational’ writing. One feature of an ‘anti-representational’ writing, he said, would be that it relies more on the connotative function of language to communicate, so that if we found what he read going ‘in and out of meaning,’ it was working like it was supposed to. It was in that ‘going in and out,’ in the provisional condition of any of the meanings arrived at, which were subject to change with the movement of the next verbal unit, that the writing seemed most political to me. Just before the reading, I’d seen this comment that Wallace left on Stan Apps’s blog:
“There's something to be said (as I think Stan is moving towards) for a refiguring of the notion of the persona poem. For instance, I think we're now long past the old argument that the problem with lyric poetry was its use of a transcendent "I"—clearly, lyric poems can also work with partial, contingent, historicized subjects, or reject the concept of subject position completely, although the latter now feels to me like an old move too, the sort of pure reversal of the binary that tends to go too far.

So I'm not at all sure that we need to understand by "persona poem" a creation of some kind of transcendent, unified sense of character (or of a "voice" meant to stand in for character). Of course, as a fiction writer and someone interested in the history of psychoanalysis, I'm not at all persuaded by any kind of Marxist criticism that suggests that character is somehow a dead issue, one that can be replaced by focus on language or social structure. Yes, various notions of "self" are constructed in various ways through language and history, but many other aspects of it are not so clearly containable in that way. Perhaps, following say the work of Erving Goffman, we might begin to think of character not as essence but as a fundamental kind of interaction. Remember The Great Gatsby; "If personality is no more than a series of successful performances..."

Character as a sort of performative linguistic interaction was one of the things I was working through in Sonnets Of A Penny-A-Liner, for instance.”

Felonies of Illusion seemed to put into motion something very much like the “performative linguistic interaction” Wallace talks about here, where the voice is clearly produced by “language and history,” but also slips ‘in and out’ of those limits—or pushes against them—to explore parts of the self “not so clearly containable in that way.” Where things aren’t entirely containable, resistance is possible: connotation may be the linguistic analogue for that larger social fact. What would it mean to be a ‘connotative self,’ an amalgam of the parts left unsaid after discourse has its say? A lot of what Wallace read on Sunday seemed to revolve around that question, or questions like it, or maybe just question itself, a feeling for the lyric as an intensified form of the interrogative.
“Imagine then if a person could become a social pleasantry, or speak their deepest feelings like filling out a form. Would it be frightening or a relief?"

--Mark Wallace, Haze: Essays, Poems, Prose, p. 51.

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