Predudio: An Introduction to the Poetry of Margueritte

An Introduction to the Poetry of Margueritte

PRELUDIO

by Warren Criswell

just look into my brain once; it is all that I ask;
for one to see my brain as other; then I can sleep.
.............................Margueritte, “not to dig in for history”

for myself; I avoid them; though I
notice they notice me; with avaricious
scent, they smile; I refuse to budge;
I’ll go it alone, thank you.
..............................Margueritte, "knapping recluse"


I

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. There’s a push-pull oscillation, as in a painting. “not to dig in for history” is a picture not only of the poet’s dilemma, and not only of the dilemma of our time. There is, certainly, a satiric dimension to Margueritte’s 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
.........................................The Soul condemned to be;
.........................................Attended by a Single Hound –
.........................................Its own Identity.(1)

Margueritte wants to show you her brain–to reveal her most secret thoughts, as if to relieve the pressure on her skull. (Like Dickinson, she doesn’t use the transcendent “mind” but prefers the mortal and existential “brain.”) But in doing so she wants to preserve her “otherness.” It’s 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.

Like Juvenal, one of her heroes,(2) Margueritte loves obscure words. She’ll pull you in with one hand, and push you away with the other. Hang on; get out the dictionary. She hardly ever makes up a word, but seems to prefer to use them as found objects. “I will chose my crabbed words from the dung pile,”(3) she writes.

.......................................a self-conscious ceiling fan moves
.......................................a Rabelaisian list, a hundred ways
.......................................to say shit;;; . . .(4)

She refuses to budge; she’ll go it alone, thank you. All through the one hundred poems of Coda and Post-coda there is this simultaneous holding onto and pulling away from the self. I’ll return to this inner conflict, but first I have to unburden myself of one of my own. What follows is a narrative of a wrestling match, in which I play the part of Jacob.

II

My first encounter with Margueritte’s 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 didn’t expect her poetry to be any good. Most poetry, after all, is bad poetry.

The gallery was pretty noisy, with very bad acoustics, and she read with no amplification, so that I could only pick up isolated fragments. But one of them was “red hands clutched for the woman below”. Another was “I will find your vortex there in the heart of the cactus”. And

.......................................flenses a half-baked quirk;
.......................................skinless, it exposes
.......................................the translucent heart
.......................................of a bawdy senescence

“The translucent heart of a bawdy senescence” . . . I loved that. It didn’t seem likely to me that this person could have written these words. I got interested and started jotting down phrases I liked. The poems weren’t 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.

Afterward, I was introduced to Margueritte, and she confirmed that the things I had scribbled down were indeed words that she had written. But still I had trouble connecting the poems to the poet. She was from New York all right, but at present she was living in Bisbee, Arizona, a small mining town in the Mule Mountains, and I asked her to send me some poems when she got back there, which she did. The more I read the better I thought they were. Then I bought an audio tape of her reading the fifty poems of Coda over Renaissance choral music(6). I was totally knocked out by it. When I heard her read the last lines of the first poem (quoted above), with Allegri’s Miserere in the background, the hairs on my neck stood up. It was then that I decided I had to write something about Margueritte’s work.
 

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 I’ve said, Margueritte’s 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 Beauty’s castle. The thorns are mostly obscure vocabulary and ambiguous sentence structure. If we want to communicate clearly, we use common, well worn words, but Margueritte’s words are often rare specimens, either nearly extinct or used only in specialized fields, often mixed up with vernacular idioms. For instance, unless you’re 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 Margueritte’s use of single, double and triple semicolons is not really punctuation, in the grammatical sense. It’s 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 musician–Margueritte plays classical guitar, plucked dulcimer and djembe drums–this 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 reader’s consciousness.

Speaking of the poem’s 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 Thomas’s poems, especially the early ones, which Margueritte’s 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 I’ll 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 wasn’t enough. It’s my nature to want to get under the surface of things and see what’s there, if anything. So here’s quidquid:
the foisted monad
lurks a murky pike;
forelegged in a slave’s yoke;
a suckling egg, the
orthographic compeer
of a pelleted gimlet;;;
what coyote’s tryst
howls a midnight question;
pierced by a muddy oracle;
hoisted to the nomad’s
triste-like open odor
For a long time I couldn’t make any sense out of it at all. Was it some kind of word game? Or a literate version of the old Dada sound poetry? Just a sound image built out of word pairs: “monad”/”nomad”, “tryst”/”triste”, “foisted”/”hoisted”? There are two other words with virtual partners: “yoke”, implying ”yolk”, and “odor” implying ”door.” Maybe it was just a toss-off, as the title suggests. But I had studied many of Margueritte’s poems by this time, and none of them were nonsensical. There were all about something, and there was even a thematic cohesion binding them all together. Besides, this one had a haunting, primordial sound to it. As I kept saying it over to myself, its jerky grouping of two- and three-beat lines began to sound like an ancient oracle droned by the Sibyl. It was as murky and unintelligible as that, for sure. It even had Coyote in it, the trickster god, creator of the world, howling “a midnight question.”

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,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrow’s scream.(8)

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.

Again, “monad”--from Greek monos, alone, single, solitary--can be taken in any of its meanings: an amoeboid with a flagellum, a sperm cell, or in Leibniz’ sense as the basic unit of the universe and a microcosm of it. Leibniz’ idea was an elaboration of the Medieval alchemists’ belief that each sperm cell contained a fully formed human, the homunculus. The different definitions all mean generally the same thing, but their ambiguous setting makes you explore each subtle nuance. These overtones give the words a sort of three-dimensionality that we’re not used to dealing with, even in most poetry. In this case, the two broad senses of the word “monad” define the two poles of the poem, the particular and the universal.

Speaking of overtones, Margueritte recently had the idea of reading Post-coda over the music of Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. From 1958 until his death in 1988, Scelsi devoted himself to the exploration of single notes in their various harmonics and colors. He felt that “sound is round, but when we hear it, it seems to have only two dimensions: pitch and duration. The third dimension, depth, is there, but somehow, though we know this, it escapes us.”(9) Scelsi treated each note as though it were a threshold to the cosmos. It seems to me that Margueritte uses words the same way, so as to reveal their hidden depths.
 
An excerpt from Giacinto Scelsi's Aion quattro episodi di una giiornata di Brahama, 3rd movement,
by Ensemble di Percussioni Naqqara, Tito Ceccherini, Orchestra Sinfonica della RAI Francesco Dillon


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 slave’s 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;;;” That’s a tough one. It’s one of a number of gender-ambiguous phrases found throughout Margueritte’s 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 rapist’s 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.” It’s 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;
of the augur of the ogre wrapt in his own image.

It’s tempting to link “ogre” to “auger”--since “gimlet” derives from the Anglo-Norman guimbelet, which meant “auger”--but even I won’t 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? Aren’t we the genetic products of both our mothers and our fathers? And don’t 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.)

what coyote’s tryst
howls a midnight question;

These, I thought, were the only clear, unambiguous lines in the poem. It’s still dark, surely there’s no moon, but the coyote’s 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.

Coyote is the trickster-hero of the Southwestern plains Indians. Again, I knew is wasn’t necessary to drag him into this discussion--we only hear a coyote howling in the distance--but I couldn’t read the poem without thinking of him. I wanted him in there. In his earthly form he is a bawdy villain, clever and horny, although he can also be really stupid, and his tricks often backfire on him. But this scruffy clown is also the creator of the world! He exists on two planes, the sacred and the profane, and his presence gives these two axes to the poem itself. He howls his question at the zero hour of a new day, or the First Day.

His question is “pierced”--not exactly answered--”by a muddy oracle.” This the way it is with oracles. The Pythoness, in this case maybe the poet herself, squats in the smoke of laurel leaves in the chamber of the Omphalos, the navel of the world, and intones a riddle. The riddle is never intelligible, it has to be interpreted. But this time the question comes from the god himself, old Coyote, in the form of a howl. It is inarticulate--we know only that it’s a question--and therefore unanswerable. In terms of the tryst in the desert, it could be anything, something private. But in terms of the myth it is the question, the question by which the world comes into being, or in other words, the doorway through which we enter consciousness.

......................................hoisted to the nomad’s
......................................triste-like open odor

So in it’s 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 world-with-human-form?

I wondered why Margueritte used the construction “triste-like” instead of the conventional adjective for sadly, “tristful.” Then I realized she was referring the end of the poem back to its beginning by the use of rhyming words: “-like” echoes “pike.” I mentioned the other pairs– “foisted”/”hoisted” and “monad”/”nomad”. This suggests that the poem could be read as a closed loop, like Finnegans Wake:

....................................hoisted to the nomad’s
....................................triste-like open odor
....................................the foisted monad
....................................lurks a murky pike;

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)

III


"Don’t for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense."
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

So having worked out this elaborate exegesis, now I had to know Margueritte’s 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 artist’s 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 God’s sake. A visual image may be a sign, but there’s always a part of it that’s not: a part that remains concrete, opaque, inaccessible to language. But words are language. They’re supposed to be transparent to their meanings, or else they’re just gibberish. Shouldn’t the writer know exactly what she has written? And why?

“So many questions!” Margueritte replied. She liked my interpretation, but was sort of bewildered by it. She remembered playing with just those words I had picked out, but had pretty much forgotten what they referred to. She thought “pike” meant the mountain. Excuse me?(11) Yes, “monad” referred to the microcosm idea, and “forelegged I think means arms.” But “foisted monad to me may be the awful new age people with their crystals.” Even if that one made sense, she writes in the same letter that the first five poems of Post-coda were written in New York, before moving to Bisbee, home of the awful crystal people.

So there was this contradiction I had felt from the beginning--this apparent gap between Margueritte and her poetry. And it was causing me to doubt my reading and Margueritte’s writing. But I had sent her a copy of a lecture I had given about the creative process as I experienced it in painting, and she said that was exactly her experience. There, I had drawn a distinction between my persona and that obscure entity which actually did the painting: “My idea for a painting does not seem to be a thing thought up my this masked being known as ‘Warren.’ It doesn’t seem to come from this familiar, language-defined world. For me, it’s a very sensate thing: an image only, an internal perception, not an idea in usual sense at all.... It’s just this very compelling but opaque image which doesn’t seem to have come from my own thinking self, but from some region of my consciousness inaccessible to language–more from the body than from the mind. This must be the birthplace of the muse, the genie, the angel as messenger from beyond.”

Now, Margueritte had already told me that she didn’t like the idea of the muse, because it seemed to her a device for avoiding responsibility for one’s work. But she wrote, “I am the mouthpiece for my own unconscious mind.” Well, I thought, what is the muse if not another word for “my own unconscious mind”? She added, “When I read [what I’ve written] I connect closely with the page and actually on the spot kind of interpret my own words . . . then it’s gone.” In another letter, she elaborated on this a little: “I probably equally use mind and gut, and observe, observe, observe . . . minute details in nature, in people, in faces, eyes, hands, the contortions of the mouth. There’s no way around it--I am also using the word visually--that is, the shape of the word, the letters repeated in another word but not necessarily rhyming, and also rhyming but rarely at the end of a line.” (Internal rhyme--another device used by Dickinson.) “Then there’s the sound, the total sound of the piece and individual couplings of words for sound. Then there is my abstract meaning, then the reader’s, then perhaps that of the creative reader or analyst.” (That last was a concession to me!)

I was beginning to see that I had a lingering inclination to set the writing of poetry apart from nonverbal forms of creativity, even though I knew better, and that I had better get rid of it. In my lecture I had said that “as soon as this image arrives in my consciousness, my intellect goes to work on it. It enters my linguistic world and becomes symbolic. The forms begin to reveal their contents. They become partially transparent . . . to the meanings I’ve begun to assign them. . . . So now the image is no longer pure perception, but has become a conception, an abstraction, an idea in the usual sense.” This is basically the sequence Margueritte described, but I was still missing something.

When I talked about transparentizing, I was assuming that underneath the form, the word or phrase, there was something solid and more or less definite underneath, while Margueritte was completely open to any and all meanings that might be generated. She was willing to give as much weight to the “wrong” word as to the “right” one. Her poems take down the barricades protecting language from attack, leaving it vulnerable to ambiguity, but also throwing it open to new possibilities of meaning. In trying to restrict those possibilities I was not so much like Jacob wrestling the angel as Hercules battling the Hydra: for every head I clubbed three more grew in its place. If my analysis had succeeded in containing the work, then the original opacity of the work would have been lost, and it’s just this opacity, this raw, inchoate fecundity of Margueritte’s poetry--of any great art, really--that allows it to live in widely varying contexts of personal experience.

Of course, this sounds like kind of a cop-out--saying that an arrangement of words in one’s own language is somehow beyond elucidation or paraphrase. How could it communicate at all then? The case is similar to a phrase which is impossible to translate from one language to another, which, says Derrida in Aporias, “trembles in an unstable multiplicity as long as there is no context to stop us.” And even so, “No context can determine meaning to the point of exhaustiveness.”(13) Margueritte says this herself, as only she could say it, only partially saying it, thereby giving it a profound depth, leaving it hanging in a vast Scelsian space:

........................................ the weight of the naked
.....................................shibboleth is sometimes; more; sometimes;
...................................................................................(Coda:1)

Now, I’m not saying that my analytical approach was wrong and that the synthetic, open-ended approach described by Margueritte and Derrida are right. What I’m suggesting is that they are complementary--that is, two mutually exclusive parts which are necessary to complete the whole we call reading. Wittgenstein’s 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 written:

“Given the two ideas ‘fat’ and ‘lean’, would you be rather inclined to say that Wednesday was fat and Tuesday lean or vice versa? (I incline decisively toward the former.) Now have ‘fat’ and ‘lean’ some different meaning here from their usual one? -- They have a different use. -- So ought I to use these words (with their familiar meanings) here? -- Now, I say nothing about the causes of this phenomenon. . . . Whatever the explanation, --the inclination is there.”(14)

A large part of Margueritte’s genius is her willingness to follow that kind of inclination--to let it stand, just as it appeared to her on the surface of her thought, instead of killing it by trying to figure out where it came from or what it means. Just one example:

........................................ . . this prelude flint-locked
.......................................by a gallowsbird has capsized their grit
.......................................and sours an already flat-footed huff (15)

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) Margueritte’s method is of course not Joyce’s, but both methods exploit this fertile instability of language.

But obviously language must also be stable enough to carry meaning, and my reading of “quidquid” tried to uncovered that core of stability. My only mistake was looking for just the one core, trying to “solve” the poem as if it were a mathematical equation with only one solution. It was this tunnel vision that was creating my illusion of disparity between the Margueritte who wrote the letters and the Margueritte who wrote the poems. I had been treating “quidquid” as if it had grown out of an idea, while in fact it was my idea--only one of many possible ideas--which had grown out of the poem. Margueritte’s poems are aesthetic objects carefully formed by her on the surface of language, drawing their life from the eternal incipience of that surface. There is--as Margueritte had tried to tell me--no muse, no god, no unitary origin, no abstract idea lurking under that surface, giving directions. Instead, gods and ideas emerge from the poem like genies from a bottle. The cyclic nature of “quidquid” should have tipped me off that it was not so much a creation myth as a reenactment of creation itself.

I’ve had to learn to read these poems in the spirit in which they were written, instead of trying to imprison them in the cave of my analyses and guard them like a dragon. They do have boundaries, or else they would just be nonsense, which they definitely are not. But their boundaries aren’t sharp and they don’t stay put. They have “the uneven edge of shadows.”

IV 
So, having come to terms with the disjunction I felt between Margueritte and her poems, I can now return to the disjunction I started with: the beckoning gesture and the line in the sand. This, too, is a complementarity, not really a disjunction, and, it turns out, a reflection of the one arrived at above.

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 Margueritte’s 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.
my cloistered words
leap the barrier; wall;
escape the armor;
the coils that flink
an apostatic flay,
attach thread to spider,
frith to scree;;; (17)

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 Margueritte’s craft. Is that spider’s thread not both a lifeline and a dividing line? Margueritte once wrote to me that she agreed with Wittgenstein’s statement in the Tractatus that “Language disguises thought.”(19) Husserl said essentially the same thing.(20) If they’re 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;
........................................this scene is mine; the row boat’s goats’r
........................................nibbling the prow and the prompter’s out
........................................counting deer turds in the carved alley.(21)

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)

It may be that this duality of the mask contains all of the other pairs of opposites in these poems: oracle-bound destiny versus individual responsibility; “come in” versus “keep back”; freedom versus security; masculine versus feminine; senile versus youthful; a priori versus emergent; and so forth. “I am both the coyote and nomad,” Margueritte wrote in her reply to my misguided questions. She compares herself to the dry, ancient desert where she lives. The title Coda suggests that she considers these poems a sort of postscript to the main movements of her life, as if they were marginal, like the desert she moved to. She began writing them after her marriage of twenty-five years ended in divorce.

But like the desert, the poems are teeming with life. You have to sit quietly, and watch carefully. It ain’t Disneyland. Margueritte is tough. She moves farther and farther out into the mountains, enjoying the company of the hawk more than that of the human.

.................................I have no kin;
.................................I commit myself
.................................to the kingdom of animals; (23)

She lectures at colleges, exhibits her collages, plays African drums, teaches music and Tai Chi. But the toughness, as I’ve implied, is only one of the poet’s 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 warrior’s art transformed into a gentle, ritual dance:

................................my serpent glance, not deadly
................................but soft as the eye of a doe (24)

This poetry is a lot like the desert. If you’re 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, “We’re not as good as Yeats.” T.S. Elliot replied, “Yes, we are. . . . We’re trying something harder.” It’s 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 Husserl’s 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.” It’s 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 wouldn’t, 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:
what became of the rose geranium you bought
and the heart-shaped bauble I’ve come to treasure;
Schweizer Kuhe is all that is left, bellowing silently
next to the blue table and beyond the rose-water glass;
it’s a task for Sisyphus; I’m tired and I want to go home.(26)

 

Warren Criswell, 1996 


See also PARTAGAS: A POETRY ASSEMBLAGE by Margueritte


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