Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Tostian Item

I want to return to Tony Tost's "I Am Not the Pilot" because that is where it all began for me. Since reading that poem, and tracing its relations to what is happening in poetry today, I cobbled together this idea of the "antipalinurian" voice, which proceeds from the slogan gubernator non sum as though having fully overcome the melancholy of Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave. Examples include Drew Gadner's "I Am So Stupid" and "I Feel I Am Searching", Gary Sullivan's "On Speaking in Public", Lara Glenum's "How to Discard the Life You've Now Ruined" and "The Manifestation of Male Hysteria", pretty much anything from Ben Lerner's Lichtenberg Figures, Cynthia Sailers' "Against Interpretation", and, of course, Tony Tost's Invisible Bride.

Reading Leonard Cohen's "Item" today, with Tony's sample from 1001 Sentences fresh in my mind, an important aspect of antipalinurian writing occured to me. Cohen's poem opens like this:

Let the still-born eagle demonstrate
how he avoided the arrow
with its predicament of death: his closed eyes,
his half-formed feathers.

I paused at "the arrow/ with its predicament of death" because it is in many respects a great phrase. The trouble, of course, is that it is strapped into this metaphor, or, more accurately, that it means something. In fact, "Item" goes on to invoke "the hunter" directly, and then makes the explicit connection to "heroes" and "swords" and "battles": "Then let them remember the still-born eagle," etc. In short, Cohen was clearly trying very much to say something with this poem, and therefore ends up obscuring the very predicament of death he deploys.

An antipalinurian poem would not eschew phrases like "the predicament of death", "the darker battle", "the unthinking steel", "the difficult flesh".* Even "the dry field of death" is permissible. But it would avoid letting "half-formed feathers" belong to a still-born eagle. It would begin, not with the image, but the items that compose it. It would scrupulously avoid re-presenting the image that is present to the poet. (Or more precisely: it would avoid presenting the illusion that any image was present to the poet.)

"Kafka liked to draw his terms from the language of law and science, giving them a kind of ironic precision, with no intrusion of the author's private sentiments," said Nabokov in his lectures on "The Metamorphosis". I am not sure that the antipalinurian voice is ironic, and it certainly does not depend on the language of law and science. But it does prevent the intrusion of the author's private sentiments (in the mind of the reader, let us say). It does this by detaching the item from the idea in the construction of the image.

I want to pursue this "item" as the unit of analysis.

*In fact, the seminal antipalinurean work ("I Am Not the Pilot") deploys "the glamorous end of the sword".

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