December 26, 2018KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsLiterature

“Let Her Balance on Nothing”: Notes on Victimization, Complicity, & the Gaze

Maria Lugones observes that “through traveling to other people’s ‘worlds’ we discover there are ‘worlds’ in which those who are the victims of arrogant perception are really subjects, lively beings, constructors of vision even though in the mainstream construction they are animated only by the arrogant perceiver and are pliable, foldable, file-awayable, classifiable.” Lugones rightly calls attention to the ways persuasive rhetoric often forecloses the possibility of empathy, reducing the humanity of its subjects to signification, that simple equivalence that fits neatly within a reductive explanation of the world around us. For Lugones, it is a kind of arrogance to believe that the complexities of inner experience can be fully captured, and faithfully rendered, by the limited repertoire of formal argumentation.

Two recent poetry collections fully do justice to these complex questions of rhetoric, victimization, and complicity. Gillian Cummings’s The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter and Jenny Minniti-Shippey’s After the Tour consider, and thoughtfully critique, the implicit arrogance of the master narrative. Though vastly different in form and thematic approach, these two carefully crafted volumes share an investment in unearthing, and revising, the politics and power structures enacted in language, perception, and meaning-making. As each book unfolds, we are shown both the necessity of, and the limitations inherent within, the strict conventions of narrative. For Minniti-Shippey and Cummings, stylistic innovation – whether in the form of fragmentation, hybridity, collage, or the most cinematic of montages – offers the possibility of a story that does not offer a teleological end, and a more ethical way of documenting the difficult, complex cultural moment we inhabit.

This connection between formal innovation and ethics comes through most visibly in these gifted writers’ use of silence, white space, and rupture. It is in these bright apertures that Cummings and Minniti-Shippey invite uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity back into the act of storytelling. In a culture that privileges speech over silence, Cummings and Minniti-Shippey are brave enough to leave some things unsaid. In doing so, these innovative practitioners create a ledger of history, perception, and suffering that does not serve a teleological end, instead engaging the discontinuous, discrete, and often contradictory nature of sensory experience.

 

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Cummings’s The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter takes Shakespeare’s Ophelia and her voicelessness as its artistic subject. Presented as a book-length sequence of linked persona pieces, the poems in this stunning volume consider the ways we as a culture are disoriented by silence, trained from the very outset to fill the gaps, fissures, and elisions that manifest in language. In this way, Ophelia’s voicelessness becomes an alluringly absent center around which Cummings’s text orbits. Though archival in its genesis, The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter proves thoroughly modern in its presentation, and interrogation, of language, gender, and silence.

What’s perhaps most striking about Cummings’s approach is the way that she acknowledges, and moves beyond, complicity in a broken cultural mechanism. Because the poems themselves are persona-driven, an attempt to imagine that dress, that body “lingering in the swirl” of dark water. In such a way, Cummings recognizes, and fully owns, the undeniable impulse to create meaning from a world that is “fleeting” and illusory, “like a railroad’s wish to lead nowhere.” Yet she proffers the bright apertures, the space between one dream and the next, as an alternative to the all too familiar master narrative, that story “taut with gnarl and gold.” She writes, for example, in the opening poem,

Meanwhile, she wants to die and does
not know: the body and its burden
or the self that pretends to be body.
She steps and one thousand moths lift,
lift lightly, spiral-swirl. They flicker and fleck
weaving a world around her […]

Here Cummings offers a provocative metaphor for her own practice. Just as “one thousand moths lift,” “weaving a world around” Ophelia, the poems themselves orbit around her silence, as a rich and complex linguistic tapestry arises out of her speechlessness. Yet the poems are gorgeously fractured in narrative, in syntax, and in their semantic meaning, fully acknowledging their debt to Shakespeare’s heroine, her voice “blasted with ecstasy.” Approached with that in mind, Cummings offers a vision of the classic narrative arc that carves space for the other to speak, whether or not she avails herself of that invitation. That fissure, that elision becomes a home, appropriately liminal, for possibility to reside in. It is in these gaps that Cummings’s gorgeously fractured narrative courts expansion, response, and proliferation, welcoming the destabilizing impulses of her audience.

As Cummings herself writes, “Go. Home. To the silence.”

 

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Like Cummings’s new collection, Minniti-Shippey’s After the Tour considers the ways rhetoric and teleology silence the other, but also, she engages the possibilities inherent in that silence. Constructed as a book-length sequence of lyric pieces, which at turns address soldiers, friends, lovers, and selection committees, Minniti-Shippey’s poems traffic in uncertainty, proffering alternatives to the familiar narratives that circulate within our culture. Perhaps most striking is a sequence of poems addressed to a young soldier, “at twenty a man,” as he is deployed and as he gives thanks for “three weeks with no fire.”

By delving into the minds and hearts of those individuals our culture frequently speaks for, Minniti-Shippey creates a poetics of empathy and resistance, challenging the belief that storytelling is one more “thing to master.” I find Minniti-Shippey’s questioning of our traditional models of reading and writing – in which the construction of knowledge is framed as a visible wielding of mastery – to be compelling and heartening in its ethical sensibility. Like Cummings’s presentation of Ophelia, Minniti-Shippey’s lyric strophes revel in the space between perspectives and worldviews, finding beauty and redemption in ethically fraught territory—the thematic terrain that other less skilled writers would shy away from.

She writes, for instance, in “TO THE BOY READING HARRY POTTER ON HIS BUNK IN AFGHANISTAN,”

Your brothers play
card games out of bright-hot boredom.
Some you love return—you’ll greet them

with a fist to solar plexus, generous
sweep of boot to shin. Blood out,
blood in. It’s a kind of wisdom.

What’s revealing here is that Minniti-Shippey recognizes the young soldier not solely as perpetrator, but as a victim caught in a broken cultural machine. From a stylistic standpoint, the poem makes intriguing use of enjambment as the lineation, and the seemingly orderly structure of the poem, becomes a form of violence done to voice and narrative. Yet as the lines visibly rupture the speaker’s voice, Minniti-Shippey calls attention to the implicit cruelty of the master narrative, and the incongruities of the artificial order we tend to impose upon unruly sensory experiences.

For Cummings and Minniti-Shippey, it is in disorder, rupture, and chaos, that the possibility of complexity resides. And they show us, fracture by fracture, one elision at a time, that these gorgeously fragmented structures, charged with tension, offer a representation of human experience that is more real, more just, and more true. As Minniti-Shippey herself reminds us, “the heart, from its great distance, watches.”