Predudio: An Introduction to the Poetry of Margueritte
The two quotes above are from the first two poems of Coda, and they characterize the two seemingly opposing aspects, not only of the fifty poems of Coda, but of all of the unique and challenging poetry of Margueritte. With one hand the poet reaches out to touch or be touched--but with the other she draws a line in the sand. Theres a push-pull oscillation, as in a painting. not to dig in for history is a picture not only of the poets dilemma, and not only of the dilemma of our time. There is, certainly, a satiric dimension to Marguerittes work, but all good satire overshoots its immediate targets and hits larger ones. Think of Swift, for instance. The larger dilemma here is the double-bind of human consciousness in general. Even in social or sexual contact we remain isolated, inviolable, imprisoned. Each sees in the other an impenetrable, alien world, with a history no spade can uncover. The poet needs to preserve her self, her unique identity, and at the same time longs to escape its confinement. Emily Dickinson put it this way:
.........................................Adventure most unto itself
Margueritte wants to show you her brainto
reveal her most secret thoughts, as if to relieve the pressure
on her skull. (Like Dickinson, she doesnt use the transcendent
mind but prefers the mortal and existential brain.)
But in doing so she wants to preserve her otherness.
Its a longing to touch and be touched by another consciousness.
The poems that follow try to do just that, but in their own way
and on their own terms.
.......................................a self-conscious ceiling fan moves
My first encounter with Marguerittes
poems was at an art gallery where some of my paintings were being
shown. A friend of the gallery owner had met her at a lecture
earlier, it seems, and had invited her to the opening reception
to read some poems. She was a small, unremarkable looking woman
in her early sixties with short white hair and large, round glasses.
She was announced with just the one name(5) and as a poet from New York City,
both of which I thought sounded pretentious. However, any diversion
from the usual boredom of an opening reception was welcome, and
we all gathered around. But I didnt expect her poetry to
be any good. Most poetry, after all, is bad poetry.
.......................................flenses a half-baked quirk;
The translucent heart of a bawdy senescence
. . . I loved that. It didnt seem likely to me that this
person could have written these words. I got interested and started
jotting down phrases I liked. The poems werent metrical
but they had a strong, sometimes erratic beat. They had a dark
and powerful sensuality to them and an existence all their own,
quite independent of the reader. She looked harmless enough,
but those strange and imperfectly heard phrases began to sound
to me like the incantations of a sorceress. They seemed to put
a spell on me. The noisy gallery temporarily faded to a vast
desert, dark and primordial.
I thought I had discovered genius, and I guess I wanted to attach myself to it in some way. She was rather widely published in literary periodicals. Her Juvenal Revisited satires were being published, and The Uneven Edge of Shadows, a book of thirty poems, had been published in a limited edition in 1989. But Coda and Post-coda had not yet been published in their entirety, so I proposed to write an introduction for a volume containing both sets. She was all for it. She said it could be called Preludio. But that was nearly a year ago. The trouble is, we began exchanging letters and I asked too damn many questions. As a result, the gap I had felt that first night at the gallery between the poems and the woman called Margueritte widened instead of closing up as I had hoped.
T. S. Elliot said that the less we know about a poet before we read him, the better. To divert attention from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce a juster estimation of actual poetry, good and bad.(7) He was right. I began to doubt my first interpretations of the verses and to wonder if I had anything at all worthwhile to say about them. At first Margueritte had approved of my remarks and generally confirmed my readings. But then, just to be sure I was on the right track, I sent her a long exegesis of one of her most opaque poems, quidquid (Latin for whatever), the first poem of Post-coda.
As Ive said, Marguerittes poetry on the one hand opens itself up to the reader, exposing its most intimate agonies and ecstasies, and on the other it excludes the reader, erecting a barrier like the forest of thorns around Sleeping Beautys castle. The thorns are mostly obscure vocabulary and ambiguous sentence structure. If we want to communicate clearly, we use common, well worn words, but Marguerittes words are often rare specimens, either nearly extinct or used only in specialized fields, often mixed up with vernacular idioms. For instance, unless youre an Umiak or just recently read Moby Dick, you might not know that the verb flense, in the fragment quoted above, means to strip off blubber.
The ambiguous syntax is usually the result of a lack of punctuation--or it might be more accurate to say an excess of punctuation. But Marguerittes use of single, double and triple semicolons is not really punctuation, in the grammatical sense. Its rhythmic notation, meant, as she says, to suggest to the reader a one, two or three beat rest. John Donne used the comma and apostrophe the same way and for the same reason, but I doubt if Margueritte got it from him. As a musicianMargueritte plays classical guitar, plucked dulcimer and djembe drumsthis seemed to her a natural and distinctive way to notate the sound of her poems--and not only the sound but the look as well. To achieve the same thing in a more conventional way, she would have to use a lot of double and triple spaces, as some of her editors, no doubt annoyed by her misuse of semicolons, have actually done. This spreads the poem out over the page, spoiling the compact, kernel-like appearance Margueritte prefers. Her unique notation makes the poem look like what it is--a seed, waiting to be germinated by a readers consciousness.
Speaking of the poems appearance, Margueritte is also a visual artist. That first night at the gallery I told her she used words like an artist might use collage--taking familiar images and placing them in unfamiliar juxtapositions. This not only gives the words different meanings than they had before, but transforms them into objects for the ear or the eye, quite distinct from their original roles as signs. She said it was funny that I should say that, because she was a collage artist! Looking at her collages later at another gallery, it was apparent that there was a close relationship between the way she made a poem and the way she made a collage.
So her notation achieves its ends, but the resulting lack of grammatical punctuation sometimes leads to uncertainty about which verb goes with which subject. Of course, you could say the same thing about Dylan Thomass poems, especially the early ones, which Marguerittes sometimes remind me of. In both cases, after a while you begin to realize that the ambiguity is a deliberate and integral part of the work. Which brings me back to quidquid. How is one to go about interpreting an ambiguous work of art? I was aware from the beginning that the kind of analysis Ill demonstrate here was not strictly necessary; you could stop anywhere you liked with a work of art. You could listen to Wagner as purely abstract music; you could enjoy a Rembrandt or a Picasso without knowing anything about them, just as images, completely opaque to meaning. And I understood that you could read or listen to a poem by Margueritte just for the strange beauty of its sound. In fact, its very opacity could be said to add to its beauty. But for me, that wasnt enough. Its my nature to want to get under the surface of things and see whats there, if anything. So heres quidquid:
Then one morning while I was painting, not thinking about quidquid at all, it came to me. It was about a birth! A terrible birth, like the one prophesied by Yeats: What rude beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? And again I thought of Dylan Thomas: The hawk in the egg kills the wren. And his first sonnet:
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Like Gerard Manly Hopkins and Emily Dickinson,
Margueritte often leaves out connecting words, and uses intransitive
verbs as if they were transitive, and even starts a poem in the
middle of a sentence like Charlie Parker would sometimes start
a solo and like Joyce began Finnegans Wake. All three of these
devices might have been used in the first two lines of quidquid.
You could read it as [in] the foisted monad / lurks a murky
pike; or as if lurks were transitive (like
hides) with pike as its object. Either
way the meaning is the same.
So anyway, my reasoning continued, since this spermatozoon was foisted upon the woman who would be the mother of the pike (predatory fish, heraldic weapon), it must have been implanted by rape or trickery. forelegged in a slaves yoke and the next three lines are syntactically ambiguous, but apparently refer to the fetus's destiny. An image of shackles or handcuffs is conjured up, a denial of freedom. The suckling egg is yoked in the yolk of its muddy oracle, its obscure future. It is the orthographic compeer / of a pelleted gimlet;;; Thats a tough one. Its one of a number of gender-ambiguous phrases found throughout Marguerittes poetry. First, orthographic means correctly spelled, in this case as the sequence of nucleotides in a strand of DNA is correctly arranged to spell out a given protein. So the embryo is an accurate translation of the rapists penis, if we take gimlet in its phallic connotation--a sharp tool for boring holes. That the creature would be phallic was foreseen in its microcosmic image, the murky pike. Its a compeer, or equal of its father. But why pelleted? Loaded with pellets, like a gun, a hypodermic needle, his bullets of semen?
But the word really has the opposite meaning: struck with pellets. And gimlet also has an opposite meaning, again from heraldry, where it means ogress. Read that way, the child takes on the image of its mother, pelleted now taking on the connotation of being stoned, like the adulteress in the Bible, publicly condemned. In not to dig in for history, the first poem of Coda, Margueritte says that she is
free too of the augur of hags and harridans;
Its tempting to link ogre
to auger--since gimlet derives from the
Anglo-Norman guimbelet, which meant auger--but even
I wont go that far! However, our gimlet/ogress of quidquid
might be one of those prophetic hags. Again, there
is the limitation of freedom by a fixed future. Well, what if
we take gimlet in both its genders? Arent we
the genetic products of both our mothers and our fathers? And
dont we all have both male and female components, no matter
how much of a cliche that has become lately? (There is yet another
meaning of gimlet--a cocktail of vodka and lime juice--and
in that sense a pelleted gimlet might be a spiked
drink, maybe an aphrodisiac.)
These, I thought, were the only clear, unambiguous
lines in the poem. Its still dark, surely theres
no moon, but the coyotes howl is an expanding hemisphere
of sound, a shock wave travelling through the dry desert air.
For me, it was the question at the heart of thought, the first
moment of the knowledge of good and evil.
......................................hoisted to the nomads
So in its two dimensions of the contingent
and the abstract, the poem is both an account of a birth resulting
from a rape and a creation myth. The child has come to term.
Mother Night, drugged and ravished by a mangy father-creator,
gives birth to a monstrous, predatory world. The enfant terrible
is hoisted to the sadly opening doors of life, smelling of primeval
ooze. Whatever will it become, the little fish, this
....................................hoisted to the nomads
Read like that, this grim scenario of conception and birth repeats itself in an endless cycle. Has death been excluded somehow? Are we stuck in an endless loop on the threshold of life? Not necessarily. The coyote is a scavenger as well as a hunter, and therefore not only a symbol of mischievousness and sexual assault, but of death as well. Like crows, coyotes accompany the dead into the spirit world. So this little poem mimics the Ouroboros, the world-encircling snake swallowing its tail, nourishing and destroying itself at the same time. The unanswered question repeats itself endlessly, echoing across the desert. T. S. Elliot put it another way: In my beginning is my end.(10)
So having worked out this elaborate exegesis,
now I had to know Marguerittes thoughts on it. This is
something I never did when I wrote art reviews. I made it a point
never to interview a painter or sculptor. I wanted to investigate
the work itself, as it existed in two- or three-dimensional space,
not the intentions of the artist. I think artwork has to live
or die by its own merits, and that the artists theories
and opinions, no matter how eloquently or clumsily expressed,
are mostly irrelevant. So I should have known better. But a poem
is made not of brushstrokes but of words, right?--signs, for
Gods sake. A visual image may be a sign, but theres
always a part of it thats not: a part that remains concrete,
opaque, inaccessible to language. But words are language. Theyre
supposed to be transparent to their meanings, or else theyre
just gibberish. Shouldnt the writer know exactly what she
has written? And why?
........................................ the weight of the naked
Now, Im not saying that my analytical
approach was wrong and that the synthetic, open-ended approach
described by Margueritte and Derrida are right. What Im
suggesting is that they are complementary--that is, two mutually
exclusive parts which are necessary to complete the whole we
call reading. Wittgensteins late work, the Philosophical
Investigations, is concerned with just this very duality of language:
the necessity for it to follow rules and its uncontrollable tendency
to break them. And I suddenly realized that Margueritte was doing
poetry exactly like Wittgenstein had done philosophy! His fat
Wednesday is just like something Margueritte might have
........................................ . . this prelude flint-locked
Language is a tapestry which is continuously
fraying at the edges and being rewoven. Derrida points out that
this inchoate character of language can be exploited, as Joyce
did in Finnegans Wake. This path, says Derrida, would
take responsibility for equivocation itself, utilizing
a language that could equalize the greatest possible synchrony
with the greatest potential for buried, accumulated, and interwoven
intentions within each linguistic atom, each vocable, each word,
each simple proposition, in all worldly cultures and their most
ingenious forms (mythology, religion, sciences, art, literature,
politics, philosophy, and so forth).(16) Marguerittes method is of course
not Joyces, but both methods exploit this fertile instability
A poet friend of mine remarked recently that Language is both a lifeline and a dividing line. He meant it mostly in the context of us/them--we who speak language x and they who speak language y--but it can also apply to me and the other, who both speak the same language. In that sense, poetry can be a sort of mask to hide behind. In the ancient Greek theater, as in Kabuki plays and Beijing opera, all of the actors were masked. The masks revealed hidden truths, but disguised the speaker. There is something of this dramatic nature--both tragic and satyric--in Marguerittes poetry. There is the sense of desperately needing to communicate, but doing so in her deliberately, radically unorthodox way, almost as if there were a fear of clarity.
Wittgenstein wrote that, when doing philosophy, we feel as though we are pursuing the most extreme subtleties, as though we were trying to repair a torn spider's web with our fingers.18 Substitute poetry for philosophy and you get a good metaphor from Marguerittes craft. Is that spiders thread not both a lifeline and a dividing line? Margueritte once wrote to me that she agreed with Wittgensteins statement in the Tractatus that Language disguises thought.(19) Husserl said essentially the same thing.(20) If theyre right, then every thought we have can be presented to others only in disguise. The poet, maybe, strives mightily to unmask her solitary thought, to throw the lifeline to the other, and yet is afraid to cross that dividing line, afraid of having the sanctity of her own solitude violated:
........................................return my thoughts you wicked thought thief;
Maybe the tension between these two urges
is what drives all poetry, maybe all art in general: the effort
to make present in the mind of another that absolutely true and
authentic moment, and the dread of succeeding, since it would
leave the artist absolutely and authentically exposed. Elliot
again: Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion; it is
not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.
But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions
know what it means to want to escape from these things.(22)
She lectures at colleges, exhibits her collages, plays African drums, teaches music and Tai Chi. But the toughness, as Ive implied, is only one of the poets faces. In The Uneven Edge of Shadows she describes herself as a gentle bronco buster. Tai Chi is a perfect embodiment of Margueritte and her poetry: a warriors art transformed into a gentle, ritual dance:
................................my serpent glance, not deadly
This poetry is a lot like the desert. If youre patient enough, strange and wonderful things will crawl out and reveal themselves to you under the sun or the moon. And you may recognize yourself in them.
Virginia Wolf, summing up the writers of her
generation, said, Were not as good as Yeats.
T.S. Elliot replied, Yes, we are. . . . Were trying
something harder. Its even harder now. The ground
of certainty that was slipping under the feet of Wolf and Elliot
(even in his Catholic phase) has become even slipperier now.
It was enough for the poet and the painter to become phenomenologists.
I use the word in Husserls sense of stripping away all
preconceptions, all the sediments of inherited belief and assumption,
in an attempt to arrive at an original intuition of the world,
one which will be the same for you as for me (as I tried to do
with quidquid)--to throw the lifeline across the
dividing line. But now Modernism is over and we are losing its
faith in an original intuition. Its frightening,
but liberating, too. In his essay on Cezanne, Merleau-Ponty said,
Only one emotion is possible for this painter--the feeling
of strangeness--and only one lyricism--that of the continual
rebirth of existence.(25)
I would say the same thing about Margueritte. Her task is to
express the isolation and drift of the human spirit and, simultaneously,
its infinite capacity for endurance and rejuvenation. She wouldnt,
of course, put it in those words. Instead--far more effectively--she
contemplates a little stuffed Swiss cow on four wheels, a relic
of lost love:
Warren Criswell, 1996