Saturday, April 24, 2004

Love et cetera

I'm not alone in the writing of love poems as a visceral response to a violent world. Stephen Vincent writes me: Yes, I think big life (love) urges are impulsively taking over my work in the face of all this terrible reaper business. "Collective punishment" - we are getting it in spades from these power mad terror folks and I know I am reacting on some kind of primal level." So, in between his Walking Theories, he's been getting into Sappho on his blog, making some interestingly contrapuntal versions of Ann Carson's translations.

It is hard to deny that to assert love in the face of war or the massive forces of global capital is in one sense an exercise in utter futility. And this declaration may be no more what it is often accused of being: a sentimental evasion. At its worst, the declaration of love may be a microcosm of what it supposedly stands against in the wider world: the expression of Love has, uncomfortably, often been the adumbration of the male gaze, that which seeks to colonise and possess the desired Other, and which claims its right to know and describe that Other in terms which the Other may not dispute. Crudely, you can see similar mechanisms operating in the official US propaganda on Iraq: in the censorship of publications, well pre-dating the controversial closure of Sadr's small paper, in the recent demand that Al-Jazeera be removed from Falluja, or more widely in the entire system of representation Edward Said named "Orientalism". The power to describe and to know is reserved for those who desire to possess: description is an imperial right. By reserving the right to gaze and describe, the Lover asserts a masterly singularity, and ultimately obliterates the Other in the significance of Love's (and the Lover's) own being.

A recent discussion on Poetryetc reminded me of an essay by Sophie Levy I published last year in issue 5 of Masthead. So I went and re-read it. It's a discussion of innovative lyric poetry by women, with glances back over the history of love poetry. She notes the connection between description and power: war, she says, like the possessive male gaze, is a "betrayal of multiplicity into a single possible definition of markers of territory". But she suggests another possibility for poetry and for love: the possibility of a love which disperses the singular self, rather than being its affirmation, a poetry which is "intimate with error" and which has "the quality of an interruption", a gaze in which the Beloved might be nourished rather than possessed, and which may permit the Other to recover a self, rather than be pillaged of it. Sophie locates this at the core of a political possibility which has the power to alter reality.

This is not only a linguistic game, but a preoccupation with the way language plays itself out in the real as a set of hierarchies and prohibitions that "everywhere prevent freedom of speech, / of movement, of thought, of style". The lyric is being redefined as the arena of the personal politic, with a new insistence on saying 'I' and meaning many things, as a radical act. "When I say I won't" I change the meaning of 'I' within the space of a word, asserting my right to speak and not to speak, differentiating between the I that speaks and the I that is spoken about. Language originates in the 'I', and these poets are wryly rewording Pound's dictum by i-novating. They argue that to speak outside the natural language of men involves speaking in error, and that error is the root of what is lyrical about lyric, "another reason" that stops us in our tracks and makes us consider the multivalency of every word we read.

Well, much more to say, but my life is again taking on the quality of an interruption...

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