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Giants, Nosebreakers, Dizzy Spells

For certain poets, in the cappuccino-stained Pee-wee’s Playhouse of modern poetry, the Words of the Day will always be proprioceptive and eidolon.

No two poets are hard in the same way. A Charles Bernstein poem might be hard because it wants us to reflect on how no language is transparent–the gap between bird and a chirp–, or on how our experience of a work of art hinges on context. A Robert Duncan poem might be hard because he thought his poems processes— documentations toward a spiritual arrival, sand scattered mid-combat with an angel. But there are certain hard poets whose work I couldn’t love until I started thinking about the body’s sense of itself, apparitions momentary and drawn together by desire.

So, for our Words of the Day, proprioceptive first. Neurology tells us our senses come in three modes– exteroceptive (the five usual senses and that of balance), interoceptive (by which we feel pain or motion in our internal organs), and proprioceptive.

Proprioception tells us where the parts of our body are in relation to each other, and measures our sense of effort in motion. It’s a global bodily relative measure. To modulate one’s voice is proprioceptive, as is a phantom sensation (of itching, weight, or temperature) in a missing limb; police officers test your proprioception by asking you to touch your nose with your eyes closed. Before an epileptic fit or during a migraine aura, a sufferer can experience proprioceptive illusions– her waist can seem to vanish, her limbs appear grotesquely enlarged, her whole body seem to expand or contract. (Oliver Sacks wrote “The Disembodied Lady” about such a case.) You can even induce proprioceptive illusions in yourself.

So how does this return to poetry? The late lamented Barbara Guest (whose knockout Collected Poems just came out with Wesleyan) produced late work which lived in lines that felt like proprioceptive cues– no narrative, disregard of subject; only architectural forms, the sudden distortion of a poem’s bodily measures of breath and sound, her inner-eye-fryingly bright imagery.

Take these lines for a spin:

he rubbed his eyes and counted them kneeling

wrinkled as grass.

A ghost in their nostrils put a heel at their

forehead; they saw only the moon as it


Poems enact what they describe. The tumult of certain poems’ inner world is best called bodily; besides, we always like better what we can name. My pleasure in Barbara Guest’s poems now feels like my hands are swelling or they miss my shoulders, or like a light-lash is cutting through my vision I can’t blink away. My pleasure in this fat stack of Caryl Pagel’s poems from Octopus No. 6 is similar: if I didn’t break my nose reading one, I’d leave it feeling like my head (the poet’s head? can I even distinguish?) had gone sailing off my shoulders– or like my voice was unmodulated, stuck on howl.

Something about eidolons next week. Meanwhile, for something completely different: if you’re not one of the thirty million people who’s watched this, then maybe you shouldn’t follow the link.