| Creative Practice as Research: Lucid Vibrations in the Poetry of Dorothy Porter and Anne Carson
In 2001, celebrated Australian poet Dorothy Porter concluded her Judith Wright lecture on ‘Lucidity: the Poetry of Making Sense’ with a tribute to Lionel Fogarty, and ‘the poetry of survival in our country’:
Fogarty doesn't write nice well-behaved poetry for white fellas. Like the Jewish poet, Paul Celan, writing in German, the language of the nation that murdered his parents, Fogarty is consciously writing in the language of the oppressor. And like Celan he declares his own passionate guerrilla war on that language and crushes it and distorts it in any way possible to wrest his own meaning, his own ‘dreaming’ out of it. As in Celan's last poems where the German seemed to become almost another language under Celan's throttling pen, Fogarty forces English into places it doesn’t want to go and welds it with indigenous words and changes its form and expression mightily. But Fogarty's poems are on their own fierce terms lucid. They make dark and terrible sense. (Porter 2001: online)
Lucidity, for Porter, is a concept as poetically political as it is grounded in the personal. It reflects not only her approach to writing as a subject inextricably bound up in being in and of the world, but also her approach to writing as a practice that confronts subjectivity itself. In this sense, Porter’s understanding of the term ‘lucid’ connects with Canadian poet Anne Carson’s ‘area of very bright light’ in Economy of the Unlost(1999). Both Porter and Carson approach notions of creativity and research as inextricably linked energies of motivation and enquiry across their work, and both poets show a marked propensity for transgressing hegemonic boundaries by way of conflating the traditional binaries that underpin humanist notions of genre, gender and self .
In this article, I use Carson’s ideas about creative practice in Economy of the Unlost(1999) to suggest how Julia Kristeva’s notion of revolt might apply to the construction of subjectivity in Carson’s verse novel ‘The Glass Essay’, which opens her book Glass, Irony and God(1992). I then turn to Porter’s use of what I call archaeoautobiographical masks1 as a means for opening the body to revolt in her verse novel Akhenaten (1992). I argue that both Carson and Porter write the bodies of their poetic subjects in ways that open them to revolt, while at the same time rejecting, through their practice, the sacrificial identities accorded to female subjects in traditional accounts of psychoanalysis.
Carson’s Note on Method in Economy of the Unlost
Carson’s choice to align the poetry of ancient Greek poet Simonides of Creos with the poetry of German Jewish poet Paul Celan in Economy of the Unlost(1999)speaks to certain aspects of Kristeva’s notion of revolt. Carson’s sustained analysis of these two poets highlights the pressures that destabilise their respective use of language, according to historiographic moments of each. It also highlights the complex salvaging and renewal of language these poets undergo in response to an unconscious threatened by repeated dispersal and collapse.
In Economy of the Unlost(1999), Carson posits Simonides as situated at a unique vantage point in history. Carson views Simonides as having been born on the cusp of two economic systems in the ancient Greek world: that of the gift-giving code of xenia, in which hospitality and mutual responsibility incorporates care of the other in the gift-exchange, and that of the new and rising mercantile value of coinage, in which Carson links Marxist ideas regarding the alienation of the object, and the subsequent change in value this brings to invisible goods. This change in value in Simonides’ time had implications for the role of the poet and the spirit-value of poetry and epigraph.
The tensions Carson highlights between these overlapping economies point to areas of symbolic rupture in Simonides’ poetry. Simonides’ perception of the changing values affecting material survival for a poet of his time necessarily influences the singularities of his poetic practice. ‘Simonides’, Carson writes, ‘is like someone trying to live upright in an inverted world’(1999: 21). The same could be said of Celan.
Writing in German, but alienated from his mother tongue by the fact that German was also the language used by those who murdered his Romanian Jewish mother, Paul Celan, in Carson’s analysis, must undergo a complex condensation and salvaging of language via an unconscious threatened by constant repeated trauma.
In aligning these two poets, as Carson remarks in her ‘Note on Method’ in the opening pages of Economy of the Unlost, she brings to attention the difficulties of accessing the immediate experience of the self as the self. Indeed, she suggests that ‘were this possible, it would seal the room on its own boundaries like a cosmos’(1999: vii). This room is one prescribed by the language of ‘facticity’ in which the aesthetic work of academic writing breaks off mid-sentence to become— ‘locked inside its own pressures, fishing up facts of the landscape from notes or memory as well as it may— vibrating (as Mallarmé would say) with their disappearance’(1999: vii). This is what Carson has to say about drawing her two poets into the strange vibration she cites as the task of the writer getting down ‘what you see while your attention is strong’:
Attention is a task we share, you and I. To keep attention strong means to keep it from settling. Partly for this reason I have chosen to talk about two men at once. They keep each other from settling. Moving, and not settling, they are side by side in a conversation and yet no conversation takes place. Face to face yet they do not know one another, did not live in the same era, never spoke the same language. With and against, aligned and adverse, each is placed like a surface on which the other may come into focus. Sometimes you can see a celestial object better by looking at something else, with it, in the sky (1999: viii).
These concurrent movements, that of aligning and displacing boundaries of inner and outer through space and time, is what characterises the poetic dialectics by which Carson reveals her chosen pair of subjects. To this end, Economy of the Unlost(1999) charts the ‘mystery of encounter’2 working through language toward ‘fragments of unexhausted time’(Carson 1999). These ‘fragments of unexhausted time’ incorporate Kristeva’s sense of the zeitlos or unbounded time of revolt.
Carson’s ‘Note on Method’ in relation to ‘The Glass Essay’
In ‘The Gender of Sound’, the essay that closes the collection Glass, Irony and God (1992), Carson critiques the organising principle of patriarchal culture from ancient times to Freud as ‘one based on the articulation of sound’(128). The assumed maleness of this culture is marked by ‘the use of rationally articulated speech: logos’(128), which in turn accords to the speaking male voice a vested interest in keeping the doubly oriented speech of the female body silent.
Carson deploys the analogy of the ‘cracked or leaky vessel’ from Plutarch to highlight the insidious circularity of this argument that both accords value to the woman who keeps her mouth shut, while asserting her incapacity to do so. Drily, but with barely concealed anger, she describes in this essay the perceived badness, embarrassment and ugliness of the sound which ensues when a woman with ‘no door on her mouth’ speaks in the company of men, as evidenced by her example of the garrulous nymph Echo, and Hemingway’s ultimate dismissal of Gertrude Stein. Yet, as Carson’s poetic voices always show, there is leakage in every text.
Carson enlists the patriarchal model of ‘the cracked or leaky vessel’ in “The Gender of Sound” in order to expose and subvert its inherent misogyny. ‘Every sound we make is a bit of autobiography’, Carson writes. ‘It has a totally private interior yet its trajectory is public. A piece of inside projected to the outside. The censorship of such projections is a task of patriarchal culture that...divides humanity into two species: those who can censor themselves and those who cannot’(130). Just as this censorship seeks to block the flow or passage of utterances between selves and bodies which fail, in the writing, to seal themselves off into separate spheres, so Carson approaches her own anxiety, and resistance to this anxiety, in her ‘Note on Method’ in Economy of the Unlost. Carson writes:
There is too much self in my writing. ... I do not want to be a windowless monad— my training and trainers opposed subjectivity strongly. I have struggled since the beginning to drive my thought out into the landscape of science and fact where other people converse logically and exchange judgements—but I go blind out there. So writing involves some dashing back and forth between that darkening landscape where facticity is strewn and a windowless room cleared of everything I do not know. It is the clearing that takes time. It is the clearing that is a mystery (1999: vii).
The mysterious clearing and re-clearing which takes place between the body and the mind in the act of writing and reading a text informs the modality of palimpsest in Carson’s work. In this sense, the concept of palimpsest implicit in Carson’s writing not only engages with the implications of intertextual layering. Palimpsest in Economy of the Unlost also implies Kristeva’s notion of revolt.
Creative practice as revolt
Kristeva’s writings on the powers and limits of psychoanalysis in The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt(2000) and Intimate Revolt(2002) enlist three principal figures of revolt: namely, revolt as transgression or prohibition; revolt as repetition, involving a working through and a working out; and revolt as displacement, as found in combinative techniques and games (Kristeva 2000: 16). These three figures of revolt underscore Kristeva’s theory of revolution, in which she mobilises language as a material process and art as a revolutionary practice, in order to situate the necessities of subjective renewal in the lives of individuals, in their social, political and interior contracts with meaning-making in the world.
Kristeva sees the mobilisation of revolt in the spaces of intimate signification as both indispensible and as always already corrupted by globalising forces. She writes:
I see no other role for literary criticism and theory than to illuminate the experience of formal and philosophical revolt that might keep our inner lives alive, this psychological space we call a soul... (Kristeva 2000: 7).
‘But to talk of mind and body begs the question,’ Carson writes at the epicentre of her narrator’s trauma in ‘The Glass Essay’, which depicts the end of a devastating love affair, ‘Soul is the place / stretched like a surface of millstone grit between body and mind, / where such necessity grinds itself out. // Soul is what I kept watch on all that night’(Carson 1992:12). Whereas Kristeva argues in The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt for the social relevancy, indeed the urgency, of creative practice in the ‘necessity of a culture of revolt’ if we are to live in a society that is ‘alive and developing’, one that resists ‘physical and moral violence’, or what she calls ‘a life of death’(Kristeva 2000:7), Carson places the necessity of an embodied creative practice at the centre of this ‘soul’ her narrator keeps ‘watch on’ throughout ‘The Glass Essay’. Creative practice in this instance implies the act of watching. But for Carson, the act of watching also slides up alongside the shifting vision of her narrator’s relationship with the figure of Emily Brontë, whom she posits as a ‘Whacher’[sic] herself in the world, as in her text(s).
To be a whacher is not a choice.
There is nowhere to get away from it,
No ledge to climb up to— like a swimmer
who walks out of the water at sunset
shaking the drops off, it just flies open.
To be a whacher is not in itself sad or happy,
although she uses these words in her verse
as she uses the emotions of sexual union in her novel,
grazing with euphemism the work of whaching.
But it has no name.
It is transparent.
Sometimes she calls it Thou.
(from ‘The Glass Essay’, p.4-5)
The ‘work of whaching’ in ‘The Glass Essay’ connects with Kristeva’s model of revolt, by way of demonstrating a creative practice that both enables subjectivities capable of renewal, in art as in life, while subverting and exceeding the limits of purely therapeutic frameworks. In terms of Carson’s use of the term ‘soul’ throughout ‘The Glass Essay’, Porter’s sense of ‘lucidity’ as both a concept and a practice persistently confronts the ‘pain devil’ of Brontë’s transcendent romanticism. Without drawing back from the ‘years of inner cruelty that can twist a person into a pain devil’(15) for want of a ‘soul’, Carson’s narrator uses the ‘work of whaching’ to refute, by the end of the text, this un/familiar ‘half-life’(14) of constant cold. Returning to the narrator’s trauma and loss of self at the end of her love affair, Carson writes:
That was a night that centred Heaven and Hell,
as Emily would say. We tried to fuck
but he remained limp, although happy. I came
again and again, each time accumulating lucidity,
until at last I was floating high up near the ceiling looking down
on the two souls clasped there on the bed
with their mortal boundaries
visible around them like lines on a map.
I saw the lines harden.
He left in the morning.
It is very cold
walking into the long scraped April wind.
Ekphrasis in ‘The Glass Essay’
In an interview with Kevin McNeilly Carson responds to the word ‘ekphrastic’ in relation to her method in the following way:
I mostly think of my work as painting. ... making it like what Mallarmé talks about, using words so that you create a surface that leaves an impression in the mind no matter what the words mean. ... it’s about the way [the words] interact with each other, daubs of meaning, you know as impressionistic colours interact, daubs of paint, and you stand back and see a story emerge for the way that the things are placed next to each other. You can also do that with language (Carson in interview, McNeilly 2003).
In many respects, Carson’s narrator in ‘The Glass Essay’ conducts her own subjective renewal by way of the ekphrastic visions that come to her unbidden in the aftermath of the relationship that triggers her grief. These visions perform both the repetition and the displacement characteristic of Kristeva’s notion of revolt. These visions occur to the narrator over time as meditations: ‘Mornings when I meditated / I was presented with a nude glimpse of my lone soul, / not the complex mysteries of love and hate.’(17). She calls these ‘soul-pictures’ her ‘Nudes’. ‘But the Nudes are still as clear in my mind / as pieces of laundry that froze on the clothesline overnight. / There were in all thirteen of them.’(17)
These internal ‘soul-pictures’ function in ‘The Glass Essay’ in palimpsestic parallel to the sort of therapy the narrator’s mother appears to criticise in the poem ‘Three’. Here the tissue of the text runs like a stocking in several directions. The poem ‘Three’ is the final poem of the opening sequence which marks the only verbal exchange between mother and daughter that comments directly on the narrator’s therapeutic process. Rather than closing the conversation down, the semiotics at work in ‘Three’ expose all three players (the narrator, her mother and the figure of Emily Brontë) to all three figures of Kristevan revolt (transgression, repetition, displacement).
Carson opens her verse novel with a dream in which ‘night drips its silver tap / down the back’(1). This in-between state of waking and dreaming allows the narrator to associate her grief at the loss of her lover with her intention to visit her mother the following day. Hence, dreaming, desire and loss spiral through the first eleven lines of ‘The Glass Essay’ to end on the word ‘mother’.
In the transition between the opening poem ‘I’ and the following two poems ‘She’ and ‘Three’, this maternal body becomes both spatially and temporally associated with the textual body of Emily Brontë. This association is geographical as well as literal: the landscape of the moor where her mother lives connects the narrator and her mother to the third figure at the kitchen table: ‘Emily, p.216, propped open on the sugar bowl’(2). It is also clearly psychoanalytic.
Carson’s use of the tercet signals the importance of the three-way relationship between self and other these opening poems evoke. Each poem draws the narrator, her mother and the figure of Emily Brontë into a chain of increasing textual signification. ‘Whenever I visit my mother,’ this narrator explains, ‘I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë, / my lonely life around me like a moor, / my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation / that dies when I come in the kitchen door’(2).
What follows in the poem ‘Three’ is a complex exchange that evokes both ekphrastic and palimpsestic modalities. On one level, Carson draws her three figures (the narrative ‘I’, the difficult phallocentricism of the narrator’s mother, and the ghost of Emily Brontë assuming a papery presence at the table by way of her voice referenced in the text) into an ekphrastic word-picture of compelling clarity, which freezes like the ice outside, into a fragment of unexhausted time. On another level, the idea of palimpsest situates the floating and discontinuous relation between these figures as one capable of inscribing the body of the reader herself. As well as being a reading body, this narrator does a lot of walking in ‘The Glass Essay’. Her tracks and footprints leave embodied evidence of her passage across the snow and ice and slush of the interior and external landscapes of palimpsest in the text.
The fact that this territory throughout ‘The Glass Essay’ also always triggers a shift in the narrator’s attention from the surface of her mother’s words to the physical surfaces of the moor outside her mother’s window, further underlines the particular psychoanalytic surface of Carson’s text. For instance:
Out the window I can see dead leaves ticking over the flatland
and dregs of snow scarred by pine filth.
At the middle of the moor
where the ground goes down into a depression,
the ice has begun to unclench.
Black open water comes
curdling up like anger. My mother speaks suddenly.
That psychotherapy’s not doing you much good is it?
You aren’t getting over him.
My mother has a way of summing things up. (3)
In the end, the narrator must disentangle herself from both her Brontë daemons and the sacrificial aspects of the maternal figuration that haunt the text, by way of the ekphrastic meditations Carson’s narrator conjures as a means of rejecting despair. The ‘Nudes’ themselves serve to spell out the differences between the paper body of Emily Brontë and the ‘difficult sexual destiny’ of the narrator’s sense of living palimpsestically. She describes this way of living as ‘without shelter’, just as Kristeva does in The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt3( Kristeva 1996:215-218), dependent solely on the terms of her own creativity as a source of renewal. Yet the ‘Nudes’, in their searing clarity, are also irreducible visions of the narrator’s unconscious.
In the telling, we witness an ekphrastic relation to Kristevan revolt. The ‘Nudes’ stand in relation to the energies of fire and ice as metaphors for grieving. Each ‘Nude’ conducts the economy and lucidity of any Simonidean word-painting, and yet what is most important about these ‘soul pictures’ would have eluded Simonides altogether. Perhaps Celan, in his close acquaintance with this century’s destruction of humanist visions of the body, may have understood something of their form. Carson’s ‘Nudes’ portray the embodiment of a new kind of ‘soul’ in the process of renewal and revolt.
Carson’s depiction of Nude #13 closes ‘The Glass Essay’ with a vision that further differentiates this notion of embodied revolt from any Judaeo-Christian investments.
Nude #13 arrived when I was not watching for it.
It came at night.
Very much like Nude #1.
And yet utterly different.
I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.
It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
but as I came closer
I saw it was a human body
trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light. (‘The Glass Essay’, 38)
The body that walks out of the light at the end of ‘The Glass Essay’ escapes the dualisms that underpin traditional notions of transcendence by walking toward the vanishing point of all that is ambivalent, provisional, shadowy and unknown. Without this ineffable quality, light as Carson presents it in Glass, Irony and God, is a fairly searing and inhospitable thing. We can only sustain ourselves in the full force of its patriarchal glare if, in counting on the persistence of the body as indivisible from the ‘soul’ as a gateway to revolt and the fluidity of renewal, we are prepared to turn our faces away from its insistent monotheistic brightness.
In the creative process that Kristeva’s model of revolt suggests, we return to the dissolution of dualistic notions of body and soul. This requires an opening in language for the liquidities and lucidities of shadow. Or, as Carson writes: ‘At the vanishing point of metaphor, we may catch a glimpse of their differentiation’ (Carson 1999:59).
The function of light in Akhenaten
In Akhenaten, light performs the violence of a thetic relation4. The body that walks out of the light at the end of ‘The Glass Essay’ is a depiction of a psychological space that has grappled with monotheistic intensity and chosen the ambiguities of shadow over the illusory clarities of non-lucid light, while suggesting, in the subtle collapsing of these boundaries, the limits of psychoanalytic claims on the creative act. In similar fashion, the textual body in Akhenaten traverses the abject by way of the sun. Illusion and shadowy realms do not comfortably mix in Porter’s rendering of Akhenaten’s world: rather, the intensity of light always seems to preclude and signal the disorientation of an illusory state. ‘My ka gives me sunstroke. / She stakes me out / in a noon fire. // I do not fight her’ (‘My Ka’, 38).
The abject body in Akhenaten signals the protagonist’s relationship to his own iconoclastic project of narcissistic self-invention. For Akhenaten, the self-proclaimed son of the Sun-god Aten, light functions as the manifestation of all life, the glare of the desert, the glorification of his own royal divinity and the source of his immortal ‘Ka’. The immortal and visionary aspect of this ‘other’ self becomes the source of Akhenaten’s revitalisation of art. In Akhenaten, Porter has her protagonist write poems and hymns, design temples and cities, while ordering sculpture and paintings to be made everywhere in his own image. Akhenaten attributes the divine source of all this ‘creativity’ to the unique shape of his body and the epileptic nature of the ‘pissing, drooling fits’ that periodically seize him. Hence, the abject perfomativity of his own body translates in Akhenaten’s view to his capacity to embody the Sun itself. This is not Porter rendering herself as Akhenaten. This is Porter using a mask to speak both ambiguously and ironically about the role of the unfixed body in the process of constructing unfixable selves.
Palimpsests in Akhenaten
If Carson’s ‘Nudes’ depict the dissolution of dualistic notions of body and soul in the narrator’s palimpsestic process of revolt and renewal in ‘The Glass Essay’, then Porter’s protagonist in Akhenaten takes this notion further. Porter mobilises the even more remote-in-time figure of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten in ways that directly explore palimpsestic notions of utterance in which the body of the textual subject persists. Porter situates her project in the historic context of an archive that actively sought the silencing of her subject via a process of intentional posthumous erasure. She is explicit about this element of her project, as she writes in her prose introduction to the first edition of Akhenaten:
On his death he was execrated as a heretic, his name removed from the monuments, his city abandoned and used as a quarry. ... The Egyptians wanted to forget the heady Akhenaten years as quickly as possible (xiii).
In addition to the ‘huge gaps’ Porter views as productive to her project in the sense of offering ‘hypothetical space’ (Digby, 1996: 2) to the imagination, Porter is also explicit as to the second palimpsestic aspect of her method: the use of her subject as a mask for ‘self’.
In locating the ‘story’ behind her research, Porter cites her primary sources in the ‘Acknowledgements’ section of Akhenaten as: ‘the work of the notable Egyptologist, Cyril Aldred, in particular his Akhenaten (Abacus 1972) and Akhenaten (Thames and Hudson 1988)’(1992:xi). She follows this sentence with the frank assertion that: ‘In some instances I have drawn my own conclusions from his invaluable research’(1992: xi). In her prose Introduction to the first edition of the book, Porter writes in the guise of an historian summing up the historic elements of Akhenaten’s life. Yet she also places the role of the poet in mischievous rhetorical relation to the historian’s authoritative tone. For instance, Porter opens her introduction with these two sentences: ‘Akhenaten was king of Egypt from 1378 B.C. to 1362 B.C. I first saw him in a museum in West Berlin in 1976’(Porter 1992: xiii). Throughout this prose introduction, Porter assumes the guise of an historian recounting the ‘facts’ while also proffering her own experience of viewing Akhenaten’s face and visiting Egypt in the course of her research.
In her interview with Jennifer Digby, Porter is explicit about the selective nature of her poetic use of the research she undertook. For instance, Porter chose to discount alternative readings of Akhenaten’s body and life, such as Nicholas Reeve’s medical reading of Akhenaten as suffering from the genetic disorder of Marfan’s Syndrome. As Elizabeth Parsons (2006) insightfully comments, Porter’s equally ‘bold adventure in the arts’(3) simultaneously takes a tongue-in-cheek stance in relation to mimicking historians and their ‘long-sanctified’(5) discourses.
In using her ‘subject’ as a mask for her ‘self’ in Akhenaten, Porter’s palimpsestic modalities collapse boundaries between self and other. These collapsed boundaries negotiate not only the recovery of a voice from the past, but also the illusive and allusive possibilities of transference between writer and subject in a very contemporary sense. In the Digby interview, Porter speaks frankly of this aspect of the mask in writing Akhenaten:
I just ran with my nerves writing this book. I found out as much about him as I could and then trusted my own intuition. And obviously I used myself. Any book like this is clearly a kind of masked autobiographical writing. As Eliot said about writing dramatic monologues, they are not necessarily a form of verse fiction but often a form of mask (Porter in Digby, 1996:3).
Yet in the same interview, Porter also differentiates between the freedom of range the use of a mask allows, as opposed to its autobiographical impulse. Still referring to T.S. Eliot, Porter comments that ‘the most liberating aspect of the mask is that it gives you permission to explore territories that you can’t explore in your own persona; that you can’t explore autobiographically or for reasons of ethics’(18). ‘So I could explore incest in Akhenaten when I don’t want to explore it autobiographically,’ Porter states. ‘Taboo territory, particularly, whether it is sexual or ideological is much easier to explore in a mask. Also nasty behaviour’(18).
Ekphrasis and the abject body in Akhenaten
In Akhenaten Porter draws attention to the abject aspect of Akhenaten’s iconoclastic project of refashioning Egyptian art with typical understated comedy in the poem ‘My Statues’. In this poem, Porter draws on a notion of self that operates palimpsestically not only in relation to an abject body, but also in ekphrastic relation to an ‘inner’ self. In this ekphrastic relation, Porter demonstrates the searing gaze of the ‘leper’s rattle’ she so admires in Ahkmatova’s poetry5, by drawing attention to the inherent instability of the knowing subject’s ‘lyrical I’.
Bek’s my pet sculptor.
He dies what he’s told
like any inspired artist.
I wanted my statues
for the temple at Karnak
to be the mirrors
of my terrible ka.
Let my kingdom
Stand in their shadows
and see the God I mate.
Bek watched me draw for him
my ka’s belly and groin
in the sand,
my stick trembling.
Is that you, Pharaoh?
He said and his voice
My headache under
the black sun started
and I held my hot hands
to my eyes
and I said
give me a beautiful mouth
but the rest—
and I finished the ka’s gross
breasts and swollen thighs
in the nauseating sand—
is as I’m showing you
this is who I am.
Kristeva’s notion of the abject opens the textual body to revolt6. In the poem ‘My Statues’ the body achieves a palimpsestic relation to self in a way very similar to that of Carson’s ‘Nudes’ in ‘The Glass Essay’. While Akhenaten insists on the unitary identity of this iconoclastic self, his body speaks otherwise with headache, sunstroke and nausea. Kristeva’s three figures of revolt (transgression, repetition and displacement) open Akhenaten to the performance of revolt by way of ekphrastically representing his ‘ka’ as a form of inspired divinity. That this ‘inner self’ speaks through him with all the attributes of the abject signals a splitting in the text of a non-unitary self that incorporates the ambiguity of revulsion and the elevation of that which Akhenaten’s society rejects as taboo.
My ka has big breasts
that can squirt milk as far
My ka has fat thighs
as heavy as gold.
She hides her cock
but can flash for
My ka built statues of herself
for the temple at Karnak
and the priests wondered how
I fathered my children.
My ka gives me sunstroke.
She stakes me out
in a noon fire.
I don’t fight her.
Subversive masks in Akhenaten
Taking her subject’s erasure as her starting point, Porter both challenges and mocks dominant historical discourse by ‘writing herself into the gaps creatively’(Parsons 2005: 5). This, of course, also ensures a kind of textual survival for the long-dead ‘ecstatically’ self-fascinated Egyptian Pharaoh, to whom, in her introduction, Porter attributes ‘a bold adventure in the arts’(Porter: xiii). Clearly, Porter relishes the subversive function of the mask. Yet while Rose Lucas and Lyn McCredden speak of the need to be ‘suspicious’ of the ‘controlling claims’ of the ‘humanist desire for authenticity, which, it may be argued, lurks in the most carnivalesque mask-wearing and magical moments of Porter’s work’(Lucas, McCredden, 1996: 138), Parsons asserts the fluidity of the destabilised ‘self’ in Akhenaten as one that undermines the very individualism that Lucas and McCredden critique. Rather than conflating the ‘hubristic, shamanistic’ (Lucas, McCredden, 1996: 138) qualities of Porter’s many other protagonists with Porter herself, Parsons reading of Akhenaten subtly investigates the ‘faceted mirror in which the poet unravels a multiplicity of agendas’(Parsons 2006: 3). One of these agendas, in her sustained use of the first person dramatic monologue, is, as Parsons suggests, a negotiation of silence.
The mask functions palimpsesitcally in its negotiation of silence by drawing attention to the fragmentary nature of any notion of the self. It also draws attention to both the gaps and the silences (and silencing) inherent in any constructed ‘archive’. In Porter’s handling of Akhenaten’s voice, textual instability is paramount, as erasure and inscription overlap in her creative practice. Masking assumes a further inscriptive significance in the text when Porter incorporates her translation of the poem Akhenaten wrote for his lover and brother Smenkhare. This poem, as Porter notes at the end of her book, was found on the coffin in which Smenkhare was buried. The coffin itself, as she remarks, ‘had originally been made for a queen or a princess’(172). In her notes, Porter makes it clear that this poem is known in the archive as “Burial Poem”. Yet in Akhenaten Porter takes the last two words of her translation of this poem for the title of its ghostly re-occurrence in her hands as ‘Your Name’ (152). Given that she quotes the Egyptian Funerary Inscription ‘To speak the name of the dead / is to make them live again’ as epitaph for Akhenaten, the invocatory impulse of Porter’s gesture here is clear. Yet, as Elizabeth Parsons so astutely observes, there are two names on the cover of Porter’s book: Porter’s own, and Akhenaten’s, existing side by side. Who breathes silence in the space of whose speech remains productively ambivalent in Akhenaten. This is the ultimate palimpsest.
Archaeoautobiographies in Akhenaten
So what do we make of Porter’s deployment of the palimpsestic mask in the writing of Akhenaten? What might the artistic punishments be for the weight of a reading that restricts its interpretation to fixed notions of an autobiographical ‘self’? The ending of Akhenaten poses some interesting questions on this theme. For it is Porter’s own hand that arguably conducts the trepanning operation she has Akhenaten order for a tomorrow that never quite arrives in the text:
he will clean
in the sacred fire
he will give me
his knife will free
Aten will burn back
through the fresh air
in my empty skull.
(from ‘Doctor Skull Opener’, Akhenaten, p.164)
There is something incredibly eerie in this depiction of a first-person artistic ‘self’ proclaiming the sweetness of an emptied skull. But then, as Porter reminds us in her posthumously published book On Passion (2010), there is always something unsettling in the act of reading and writing, even if these activities inform the most passionate areas of her life:
Of course books can be just soft old slippers to slip into on a cold nasty night, comforters, reliable ports in a storm. But at a more profound level I recognise that there is something very unsettling about a book. Uncanny. A book written by a dead author—and most are (indeed there will come a time when I’m a dead author myself)—is nothing less than a haunted house, which lures the reader into a conversation with a loquacious, enchanting ghost. We forget how mysterious, verging on the supernatural, reading is. (Porter 2010: 87-88).
Could it be that in the embodiment of her subject in Akhenaten, Porter calls on the mysteries of a ghostly ventriloquism in order to simultaneously assert both the uncanny passage of notions of authenticity alongside the project of an equally passionate surrender to undoing memory, death and desire in the willing suspension, or palimpsestic erasure, of the ‘self’? The first person narrator in Akhenaten implies the imaginative act of invoking an embodied voice—why, when we hear a poet frankly admitting the use of a mask do we tend to fixate upon an inherently continuous narratorial ‘I’? As Porter somewhat impatiently iterates in a republished interview with Scott-Patrick Mitchell:
We are getting absolutely constricted by the idea of writing as authenticity i.e. autobiography. ... And I’m clearly not a mad male psychiatrist or even Gil [sic] from the Monkey’s Mask, or an Egyptian Pharaoh, or the character in my next book who is an astrobiologist. I’m none of these people. I think that for me the most wonderful aspect of the imagination and the most pertinent aspect of feminism— likewise with the gay and lesbian movement—is liberty and freedom. It’s not waving the flag of authenticity all the time. And for me, that is my authenticity, the power of my imagination. (Porter 2000, republished 2008 online).
‘The unbounded time of revolt’: imagination, immortality and ‘the little raw soul’
In the final poem in Akhenaten, ‘Epilogue— Eternal Life’, this imaginative power sets about dissolving another dualism, that of light and darkness. This dissolution pulses in the space between the penultimate poem’s last line ‘imperishably marvellous’(166) and the sunrise of the book’s epilogue in which ‘souls bolt from their tombs / and fly as birds / in chorusing clouds / around me’(167). The imperishable marvel Porter evokes in this transition eclipses the light of Akhenaten’s Sun by conjuring a huge shadowy loom of time between the passage of night and day, a liminal and luminal space in Porter’s work which draws on the same zeitlos or unbounded time of revolt I connected previously with Carson’s ‘fragments of unexhausted time’. This is despite the fact that ‘the workman of the new king / have arrived with chisels / and hammers / they have orders / to cut down my city / and cut out my name’ (167). The city that was abandoned and used as a quarry after Akhenaten’s death (as Porter notes in her introduction) evokes the curious discontinuity of remembering and forgetting, erasing and inscribing, calling and falling silent with which Porter conducts her own excavation. And out of this excavation fly the bodies of birds.
The birds vitalise the ending of Akhenaten. They are the bodies that call on both breath and silence in the text. Recalling the function of the night parrot in Porter’s third collection of verse The Night Parrot(1984), there is already a precedent for connecting the role of Porter’s personal muse (raucous, feathered and loony) with that ‘mystery of encounter’ Carson speaks of in Economy of the Unlost(1999). In the context of claiming immortality, Porter’s archeoautobiographical maskings reveal more of a pantheist predilection than her subject’s monotheistic obsessions would suggest. Yet this is also in keeping with the ancient Egyptian belief in the five part human soul, comprising the elements Porter traces in the final epilogue poem that concludes the book: the Ib (Heart), the Sheut (Shadow), the Ren (Name), the Ba (uniqueness of character, or ‘soul’ sometimes represented by a human-headed bird flying out of the tomb to join the ‘ka’ in the afterlife) and finally, the Ka itself (Vital Spark, sustained (significantly) by food and drink). The doubly oriented speech, then, of a body literally opened to death on account of his ‘aroma of Light’ takes strangely familiar solace in the fact that
Ramesses can’t cut down the Sun
or cut out all the birds
in the dawn sky
who call and call
and teach it to their
Their wings ripple about my ears
in raucous rainbows
Their eyes are pestering white prisms.
Why does eternal life
make us so ravenous?
(from ‘Epilogue—Eternal Life’, Akhenaten, p.167-168)
Yet this solace appears less strange, perhaps, but certainly more palimpsestically familiar, when we place the more directly ‘autobiographical’ voice of a self-confessed pantheist next to the overtly Egyptian function of the birds in Akhenaten.
I have a very superstitious relationship with the poems I love. I carry ‘The God Abandons Antony’ like a talisman to temper my grinding fear of losing my own ‘music’, along with the hope that I will accept with stoical grace the time when, inevitably, I too am just a parched empty vessel.
The god Pan is the spirit of fecundity in wild nature, in sexual potency and in undiluted joyous creativity. He is rampantly pagan and unchristian. I believe that Christianity killed something in poetry, put lead in its step and muffled its wildest music. When I listen to my favourite rock music...I hear a dark energy I want to tap into and flood through my poetry. The blistering subterranean pipes of Pan? ... (On the magic of snakes in El Dorado) They are the nub of my own idiosyncratic pantheism. (Porter 2010: 31-34).
The recovered (paper) body of Akhenaten within Porter’s verse novel Akhenaten endures despite the starving ghosts salivating around the agitating presence of honey-cake in the sun (167). Yet on another level Akhenaten also seems to suggest that only the living body of the reader matters in the end. ‘I can’t watch you die too/.../ please accept / this scrappy goodbye / as my thanks / for the years / we had together / when we were / imperishably marvellous’ speaks the voice of Akhenaten in the hands of Dorothy Porter in the penultimate poem ‘Goodbye to Akhen-aten’(165-166).
In the wake of Porter’s own passing, it is very hard not to read this poem as more than the poet taking leave of her subject, even as her subject speaks his farewell to his city, his god and his life in the face of the imminent arrival of the workmen who ‘have orders to cut down my city / and cut out my name’(167).
It seems this textual body is only immortal for the poet in the sense that in calling up such a body, she takes a leap through shifting sands into a futurity which expands the present moment by taking the ‘glorious risk’(Porter 1992:xv) of trusting in a reader to come. Whether or not the chisel and hammers erase the past, the living moment seems to be what Porter’s polyphonic palimpsests seize upon in a way that Carson describes as an ‘area of very bright light’ from out of which steps, not Leonides, as in Carson’s Economy of the Unlost, but— the birds getting on with the pressing business of feeding the gaping mouths of their nestlings(167).
‘Fragments of unexhausted time’ such as Carson investigates in ‘The Glass Essay’ become, in Porter’s hands, ‘pestering white prisms’ that do not, in the end, serve to shore us against our own ruins. Rather, in Porter’s Akhenaten, these fragments serve a hunger that slips ‘in raucous rainbows’ through our fingers like sand: the one thing only we can hold until it is gone is now. As Porter writes elsewhere, in Driving Too Fast (1989):
I hold this experience
against my own mortality.
I hold it to us
like an ice-hot amulet
of pain and magic.
(‘The Amulet’, Driving too fast, p.75)
The ‘us’ that Porter implies by way of the palimpsestic act of writing is only a partial preservation against the depredations of time and death. We are the living bodies her words enter when we speak and read them: Akhenaten assumes a living form in our imaginations only through the breath of Porter speaking his name in polyphonic overlap with her own. ‘Nearby, a mourning wheatear flickered its black and white tail on the stone stump of a temple column,’ Porter writes in the closing of her introduction to the first edition, which she dates as 3 April 1991. ‘Akhenaten always said the souls of the dead came back as birds’(Porter 1992: xiv). Given that the book’s epigram repeats the Egyptian Funerary Inscription “To speak the name of the dead / is to make them live again” the birds in Akhenaten, ‘who call and call’(1992: 167) do so polyphonically: the subject in Porter’s text disperses itself through language and arrives palmipsestically at the crevice of the question that haunts Virginia Woolf at the end of The Waves(1931), and to which Carson returns in her other texts: that is, ‘how to describe the world seen without a self’? Especially when, in the dispersal of this particular narratorial ‘I’, we arrive back at the beginning where, as Parsons observed, two names mark the cover of the book. These names are then underlined by an epigram pointing to a certain posthumous existence. This posthumous existence stresses embodiment in its dependence on orality, the breath of a reader, the speaking of names.
Akhenaten’s narcissistic excesses are not valorised in Porter’s verse-novel without their tragic price. But her rendering of Akhenaten’s insistent commitment to pleasure throughout does evoke non-sacrificial explorations of jouissance and liberty that read productively against the maskings of a writer who also laments ‘I am so sick of being a cautious and frequently frightened woman. It’s a brake on a passionate life, and it’s an ever-vigilant bore’(Porter 2010: 75). The exuberant troubling of boundaries Porter’s Akhenaten so fabulously embarks on in the telling of his life embraces psychoanalytic readings of perversion via a springboard of continuous revolt. In this process of displacement, repetition and working-out, Porter’s daring and formally innovative construction of a verse novel whose protagonist rebels against the strictures of his society while remaining blind to the hubris of his narcissistic drives, approaches notions of the possible/ impossible in contrafactual, yet also, I would argue, socially relevant ways. Speaking of her enthusiasm for astronomy filling her thirst for new knowledge, Porter approaches what science has made possible from the view-point of ‘a twenty-first century feminist’ inclined, ‘with vigilant caution, to trust it with my freedom and wellbeing, rather than be walled up again by traditional religion’(2010:53). Here is the voice of someone willing to explore—and get excited about— the imagination in its ‘mystery of encounter’ with the possible/impossible:
I love the whole notion of astrobiology because it is brazenly optimistic. ... Everywhere an exciting but daunting sense of the impossible is permeating us all. ... I have no doubt that if John Donne were writing his metaphysical poetry today he’d be as made with excitement for this fresh treasure-trove of knowledge and imagery as I am. The astronomers I have been fortunate enough to meet have been among the happiest and most energised people I have ever known. Their work is literally wondrous.
Yet Porter is quick to acknowledge the socially constructed limits that have been historically placed on gendered bodies to the detriment of female creativity:
Notions of the impossible have, unfortunately, also been gatekeepers— and shackles. Especially for women. Patriarchal orthodox religion, whether Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or Christian, has offered dreams of possibility, in either the physical or spiritual realm, to men only. Any woman who embraces the shabby equal-but-different deal offered by the Holy Fathers of any of these faiths is, at best, a deluded mug and, at worst, a scourge and a gaoler of other women. It is only in the very recent past that possibilities for women have expanded—and then, mainly in the West. But in the last twenty years or so, fundamentalism of all creeds has dragged women back. The failure of communism, or socialism in its more acceptable guise was a global disaster, I believe, for the advancement of women. The vacuum it left has been insidiously filled with ancient prejudices, traditional superstitions and the old religious fungus. (Porter 2010: 51-52).
‘The old religious fungus’ is what Akhenaten sets about transforming, in Porter’s hands, albeit in his own troubled and incredible way.
Carson’s ending, by contrast, in Glass, Irony and God asks similar questions in different, though no less impossibly relevant ways: ‘I wonder if there might not be,’ Carson writes, ‘another kind of human self than one based on disassociation of inside and outside. Or indeed, another human essence than self’(1992: 136-37). The pressures brought to bear on any fixed notion of identity adhering to the narratorial and lyrical ‘I’ in ‘The Glass Essay’ and Akhenaten perforate and collapse binary notions of self and other, body and soul at the very interstices in which, as Carson writes, ‘visible and invisible lock together in a fact composed of their difference’(Carson 1999:54).
Just as in the literal Archimedes Palimpsest, in which oxidised ink forms words written by hands centuries apart, only to come floating to the surface from the invisible depths of chance and time, so I posit the modality of palimpsest as a device in which ‘huge gaps’ are ‘glued together’(Porter in Digby 1996:2) in the construction of poetic subjectivity in Carson’s and Porter’s texts. Hence, this article returns to the suggestion that renewal of the contested ‘lyrical I’ in verse novels such as ‘The Glass Essay’ and Akhenaten shows formal innovation through the poetic handling of tropes of the archaeological body as palimpsest in these works. In this, a heightened dialogic inhabits these texts, in which speaking paper bodies assume the various shapes of ‘the little raw soul’ that ‘goes skimming the deep keel like a storm petrel, / out of sight’(Carson 1992: 6). Or, in Porter’s closing, retrospectively posthumous, words: ‘Far better for him or her or me to rise with the smoke on the flying arrow of the unaccompanied, unconfined voice. Fiery. Fabulous. Then gone.’(Porter 2010: 91)
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