Cornstarch Figurine by Elizabeth Treadwell
“For which the speech of England has no name . . .” This quote by William Cullen Bryant, which sits in incipit to Elizabeth Treadwell’s poem “the snow-white host of new haven”, suggests to us some of the initial concerns of this poetic. For what precisely is this object which “speech”, specifically, cannot name? It is perhaps something outside of our known taxonomic boundaries; a manifestation of language surpassing familiar forms; a linguistic entity which, though possessing its own unique shape, has contorted itself into an, as yet unnameable, amalgam.
It is this amalgam which, when initially faced with Treadwell’s complex, achieved poems—with these incarnations of language-as-evolving-object—we are at a loss to adequately describe. It is perhaps, in short, the acquiescent “figurine” representative of all possible poems: malleable, yes, as all the good ones are, into shapes we find nowhere in the tiny dictionary of our current nomenclatures. It is perhaps, then, a language able to forge a space for itself in which it has itself lost the means to describe its own precise qualities! It is the fact that a new form never implies formlessness. It is the strange, simultaneous variety and unity of this poetic.
“For which the speech of England has no name”, becomes, then, as well as a possible definition of poetry in general, a particularly salient description of Treadwell’s poetry in particular. For the relationship which this poetic maintains between the two notions referred to here—writing and speech, “form” and “formlessness” —gives the lie to this alluring binary. As Treadwell’s poems, in veering between their states of shapes and shapelessness, in seeming to begin always in media res and in concluding when we expect it least, in spreading tendrils of visual stanze to the edges of a page before contracting into tight amoebic unity, give us the impression not only of an intricate malleability to so much textured “stuff”, but convince us also of our own freedom to take such lived or poetic “material” as we will, and to make out of it a new structure, firmament or environment.
William Cullen’s quote thus seems, in the context of Treadwell’s poetic, to take on a certain significance. But why speech? Is “speech” used metonymically here to mean the same as “language”? Treadwell’s poetic, it seems to me, leads us to a different conclusion: namely, that correspondence, conversations, calling, in short all this “lower-limit speech”, has value not in itself necessarily, but in its widening of the possible fray and foray of a poetic.
The incorporation of such speech into an ever-widening formality implies then that each discourse, in spite its own “given” form, may be remoulded to make a veritable Animalia out of its originally inert cells. The heritage for this incorporation of speech is long, but Treadwell seems as far from New York talkiness as could be imagined. This is perhaps because we may have the impression that speech, in Treadwell, like the other preoccupations of her poetic, is less a value around which one can create the axiology of a poetic, as simply another form, another possibility in these poems’ constantly moving metamorphoses.
Of course, the poetry is speckled with conversations. Not any conversations. These are brilliant conversations.
Men always say women have intuition, but really it’s just that we pay attention
--Yedda Morrison, conversation
The comma, followed by that last categorizing word, establishes a rich antinomy. This is speech. It is “from” a conversation. It has been put into writing, and made poem. Of course, it remains conversation both in origin and possibility; but it is sufficiently rich and sufficiently beautiful that it has broken its taxonomical bounds in order to become something else.
For this is, it seems, not the valuing of speech for speech’s sake: not the status of mentally recorded verbal tournures as in O’Hara-n acrobatics. What is it then? Rather, this:
chatter pages hair dryers makeup a plain leather black smoky don’t
smoke mustn’t kitchen mother tea please drawing pin up please i am
leaving my dress it is my dress I’m not lying to burnt hair tart angle
tired big leaving i am windy promenade goodbye for ever lemonade
is it good the man asks seagulls once a gravesite said mate for life
What precisely is this sticky sonic and semantic web? Revealingly, “chatter” and “pages” find themselves here touching in a most unusual of initial unities. For such a passage seems made up precisely of both “chatter” and “pages”, which form together here an unusually equity. Here, “don’t smoke” and “goodbye” cuddles then with “windy promenade”. I would rarely use the latter phrase when speaking; when writing, however . . .
This is, then, like the expanding breadth of language’s usage. And importantly, there is a surprising unity to these particulars, in spite of their diverse origins. This is not facile assemblage, and it is this, I feel, which makes Treadwell’s poems function so often, and so well.
It’s not always fashionable today to speak of formal unity: the term itself seems to reek of certain structuralist hegemonies. And yet how entirely such successful poems convince us of the lasting necessity of these cohesions! I said before though that these poems begin in media res, that they end before we even expect it. Does this not break their unity, leading them into a sort of formal dissipation? Strangely, no. Some examples will be enlightening. To take, almost at random, the marvellous little poem “Pocahontas Riding Her Victoria Hospital Pillows Home”:
still she lies
alone in wake
amongst this gathered
Jesus fish swim
round her hand-held
also these false gold
these other quiet fish
There are many delicate touches here: “Alone in wake” is not quite what we would expect, though we may initially scan it without out blinking. “Awake?” No. Read again.
A word too about sound: the assonantal and alliterative touches here, revolving largely around a’s and s’s, seem to create an elliptical effect mimetically mirroring the represented circling of such fish.
As for the notion of formal closure or coherency: not only are we unsure where specific phrases and sentences begin and end here—making possible parsings—but the poem may also seem to have ended before it “should”. In some contiguous cases, the poems even seem to continue on after several possible points of their finition. This, for instance, is the rather unpoundian close of “Impersona”:
he said that, pope’s long chain
armful of field poisoned
till he was dead
till he was dead
only would immediate cousin,
thought litter envisage kingdom
description of the palace,
the dress worn to the sea
This ending lends itself for me to an effect of nearly pure bathos, (or a known error in the Horatian handbook). But it’s almost impossible to say that it doesn’t function brilliantly. “Till he was dead” or “thought litter envisage kingdom” would both have been easy exits. But Treadwell doesn’t take them. She lingers on in a final distich which leaves us wondering, at the end of it all, where we are and what we feel.
Now, I am aware that this positing of ineffective closure or origin in these poems sounds like a criticism; yet here, for me, it is in fact the highest of praise. For, just as with the arrival of such “quiet fish” in the previous example, we too descend here into a rather sudden silence which, given the line-breaks and the rhythms of the preceding stanze, leaves us expecting more. What else? What is this poetic announcing? It is announcing, first of all, some effects we have rarely seen, along with others which, though they look suspiciously like poetries we may feel we “know”, show themselves in the end to be rather different.
An example: I am often personally dissatisfied by what is sometimes called—to use a term dear to both Ron Silliman and Jordan Davis—“soft surrealism”. So envisage my surprise to see that, in Treadwell’s poems, these moments of littérature fantastique sometimes seem among the most astoundingly effective. Take, for instance, the poem “Concern”, which needs to be quoted in its entirety:
little people-shaped creatures
sit in the many many crevices
of my tiery ballgown listening
to everything that i say
to be bodice specific:
in my manifold cleavage,
for i have twelve breasts,
looping round, which makes
it hard to deal with one’s
arms, they sit, hairless tiny
monsters folded up like
the thinker, one in each shallow
to be specific as to length:
near where my knees would
be, if you could see them,
there is a fragile ribbon
arcing round, and still others
hang there, like miniature
One of the things which I find so strange about this piece is the precision of its observation—its playing with an almost positivistic descriptive register—which contrasts so unusually with its more imagistic reverie. There is much concern here regarding specificity: “to be specific as to length”. And yet, that which we are being “specific” about seems entirely beyond any such “rational” gaze: it is an image of another world, one charged with mythopoeic, perhaps even psychoanalytic, possibility. How can one “measure” one’s dreams, nightmares, fantasies, desires? This seems one of the most pertinent questions of “Concern” and perhaps it is also this dualism which is even more of a “concern” than the bold images with which we and the speaker are confronted. These are complex, gendered, political, real questions, given the status of dream.
That is, there is a distance constructed here between two different ways of seeing: first a more intentionally, if playfully, “visionary” mode, in which we may perceive crucified men in our breasts; followed by another in which we attempt to measure, analyze and equate these postulates, even up until the very content of our most secret projections, dreams, desires, memories.
In the same way, the very careful and studied line-breaks help contribute, I suspect, to the prevention of this imagery falling into pure reverie or surrealistic automatism. This is, in part Neruda, but it is also the inversion, even more so than the subversion, of Neruda, (especially his most machismo-esque elements). Though their gestures of incongruous association have some roots, then, in a defined tradition, the poems themselves go elsewhere, and in doing so, re-define—reshape—themselves:
when the point was to frame
horror in tactics of artistic
wax, merely imagining or trying
just as the birth was his
church when white cowards
down at the rock real estate
We shouldn’t be surprised that, in contemporary poetics, our taxonomies are exploding. Don’t worry though, friends, because they have been exploding outwards since Horace, and Elizabeth Treadwell simply contributes to this other tradition: a definition of our new parameters and needs. Moreover, in spite of such invention, we aren’t to fear much chaos here. Not with this unity. Not with this adhesive, binding, textured formality. Not with poems which begin: “pinprick the lighthole situationist”.
Not, in short, with this intelligence.
Nicholas Manning teaches comparative poetics at the University of Strasbourg, where he is currently completing his PhD. His first full collection, entitled *Novaless*, will be released in August 2008 from Otoliths. A chapbook of new poems is also forthcoming from Ypolita Press. Editor of The Continental Review, his poetry and criticism may be found in such places as Jacket, Verse, Fascicle, The Argotist, Free Verse, among others. He maintains the weblog The Newer Metaphysicals.