Unspeakability and the Long Poem Sequence

by Anis Shivani

In my new book of poetry, Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish, there are two long sequences, Sonnets to X., and later in the book, Letters to Y., that stand in an uneasy and tense relationship, and I thought I’d say something about this.

Whenever one embarks on a sequence—even if it’s not book-length—one has an unfolding dialectic or progression in mind. There is the repetitive style of the chosen form (in this book the sonnet first, and then the sixteen-line epistle) which builds meaning through variation on sameness. Within each sonnet or epistle there is a conversation not only between the poet and his beloved (or other object of interest) but also a conversation between the meaning the form wants to impose upon the poet and the poet’s desire to free himself and/or to succumb to it. Often the desire for freedom and submission occur at the same time, or are perhaps different aspects of the same vocabulary.

In a sequence it is the cumulative effect that registers, as one notices again and again the poet coming at the same unchanging problem through different techniques, different methodologies of confrontation/avoidance. Repetition, in a sense, becomes addictive. I should note that Sonnets to X. were the forerunner, about five years ago, of a book I later wrote (and which will be published this fall) by the title Soraya.

The Soraya sonnets are all exactly similar in tone, one hundred of them, a sustained exercise in exposing the deliberative nature of erotic and psychosensual pleasure (above all the pleasure of poetry) by way of working to the bones a form that comes laden with a historic freight of meaning, going back about eight hundred years. As soon as one enters the sonnet stream, one places oneself in the stream of history, and more recent names like Rilke or Berryman or Berrigan cannot be far from the mind. And the same goes for the epistolary form; of whatever length and style, it immediately burdens one with impossible expectations.

Let me get into some specifics by looking at a couple of these variations.

Here is Sonnet to X. #3:

Was it all right to burn the house in California?
We escaped in the dead of night to Vegas, drunk
on the cosmic prank that brings contenders together,
caught in limbo, in paradise-on-stilts, until either
the sea evaporates or the desert blooms, until
Bukowski himself emerges from drug rehab,
and Anaïs Nin offers to enter the monastery.
No, our house was an effrontery to poetry,
don’t you see? Guests were always losing
their only copies of manuscripts, neighbors’
kids turned lifelong enemies of the state,
pets died, old-timers fucked like teenagers.
Out here, the road stretches like a severed limb,
the only thing detaining us a moon behind fog.

And here’s Letter to Y. #10:

When you explain your art to me, I think
of how expression is malleable, not in the

way the unmasking of maladies is, or spectacles
of madras madwomen, but magnifications,

growing out of first names and first person,
creating an epic environment not just as

decoy but to let the cutworm in at the back.
Yes, this house was surely a speakeasy

where they overstayed visas and ovulating
retirees modeled for terra cotta. But your

soft feet walking on these Javanese floors
make this house lighter than air, liliaceous

novena for December. Your art is nostalgia
observed in pearlescent hierarchies, heyday

of the ground squirrel, glass ceiling at rest
like iridium along the iris, gypsy moth I

have loved since I was firestone, exposing
marginalia taken from the schoolhouse.

Clearly, in both the sonnet I chose and the epistle (in each case, it’s probably the case that the recipient will remain ignorant of the address, even if he/she gets to read it) we are involved in a relationship fraught with anxiety. At one level, both poems contain the impossibility of direct address: I, the poet, write to you, the beloved, because you cannot possibly hear me, even if, and particularly if, you read me. But if I’m not communicating with the beloved, then who am I communicating with?

I think partly these repetitions on forms are exercises in aesthetic theory. Long ago, when I first began unraveling the structure of novels I liked, it became clear to me that each unique novel contained, within its pages, its own self-sufficient hermeneutic theory. Each great novel tells the reader how to read it. Similarly, each book of poetry, if it’s any good, comes with instructions inside its pages on how to interpret it—or rather, it offers the author’s chosen method of interpretation which the reader may agree with or decline to accept, as the case may be. After one has written enough poems, I think poetry (like other writing) becomes all about inscribing methodology, the dynamics of interpretation, the acceptance and denial of authority. Who writes, why does he write, to whom does he write, what can and can’t be said through writing, become constant obsessions.

One purpose of choosing established forms (and norms) like sonnets or epistolary poems is to provide the poet a scaffold upon which to delicately perch himself as the action goes on below—far below the 110th floor, so to speak. One chooses elevation by working in established forms, one chooses to become irrelevant to oneself, one chooses to become irrelevant, above all, to one’s preferred aesthetic theory.

The form is a “house,” as I mention in both the sonnet I quoted and the epistle, but it is also a temporal, convenient, physical shelter where real poetry is kept out, because the lover and the beloved are (supposedly) involved in consummation inside the house. As such, the house is also the ultimate threat, it kills poetry to the extent that materialities come true in the house. Hence, “guests were always losing / their only copies of manuscripts,” as I say in the sonnet, and radical writers like Bukowski and Anaïs Nin lose their essence. This is a house that is clearly “an effrontery to poetry.” It is only within the poetry that true love manifests (in the form of a permanent quarrel), and only to the extent that it cannot be consummated or fulfilled, as all the Sonnets to X. attest.

Similarly, in the epistle, I think the hope that the beloved’s presence will “make this house lighter than air” is just that, a hope, a vain hope at that, with little possibility of realization. And one doubts very much that the house will become “liliaceous novena for December”; one feels instead that winter and its frigid assertions will rule. While the epistle is written in more artfully disguised and distanced language than the sonnet, the point seems to me the same: they are both a “masking of maladies,” and point to an absence beyond the words on the page that is so painful to contemplate that it cannot even be stated in the respective poems.

I think what I am after in this book is forms of unspeakability (presented with baroque overlay). Pain is unspeakable. Love is unspeakable. Above all, death is unspeakable.

When I read from this book at length last weekend, at Houston Poetry Fest, it occurred to me that this book does not have a center of gravity, unlike, say, my most recent two books, Soraya and Death is a Festival, which are tightly organized, like perfect globes, radiating from a central point. These recent books are like black holes from which there is no escape, and where the gravity is so intense that rising above it does not seem conceivable.

But Whatever Speaks seems to me like the flat city of Los Angeles, or Houston, with five or seven different points of interest, each equidistant from the other, with a somewhat skeptical attitude toward the expressiveness to be found in the other compartments or regions. The book feels like sprawl in a desert, out West somewhere, where water is scarce yet gets fulsomely wasted all the time, with not a care for the future. The established forms I’ve used in this book seem to gesture toward replenishment and sustainability, but really, the project in the end is not sustainable at all. The emotions I’ve used up in this book are not to be found again, they are ultimately invalid for a poetry that can define my identity in the long term.

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authorphoto0915Anis Shivani’s books include My Tranquil War and Other Poems, The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, Against the Workshop, Anatolia and Other Stories, and the novel Karachi Raj. Poetry, fiction, and criticism appear in the Yale Review, Georgia Review, Boston Review, Threepenny Review, Antioch Review, Black Warrior Review, Iowa Review, Volt, Epoch, Fence, Denver Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Boulevard, Subtropics, New Letters, and other journals. His most recent book of poetry is Whatever Speaks on Behalf of Hashish. Soraya: Sonnets comes out in December 2015. You can find out here what he’s published in AGNI.


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