A REVIEW OF JULIE JOOSTEN'S
BY CONCETTA PRINCIPE
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Poetry | Issue 7 | November 30, 2014
My niece’s first word was ‘blue’. She didn't know it was her first word. No one but me was witness to this moment. I pointed at the blue lid of a jar and said “bloooo’. “Bleuoaoa” she replied and erupted in fits of laughter. “Blooooo” I said and she replied again, “bluoauooe” and again erupted with laughter. She made the noise again and laughed and made the noise and laughed again. My god she was having fun. She was full of the jouissance of the sound she was making, a feeling in Lacanian terms that reflects both a tension and excitement. In her jouissance I saw the essence of Saussure’s idea of linguistics, which Lacan took up in psychoanalysis: the relation between the sign and the signified is arbitrary. My niece’s joyful laughter made apparent the ludicrousness to attach a noise to a thing and the hilarity and anxiety we experience in that joining. This tension may be said to drive the creative act of making metaphors, which we take up in various ways, including poetry. Light light, a first collection of poetry by Julie Joosten, is one of those books full of the jouissance of its theme; its periodic use of “gibberish”, or what others might call “word salad”, give the collection a quality some might call experimental.
Carmine Starnino’s critique of Canadian experimental work serves as a frame for thinking on what may be experimental in Joosten’s work. In his article, “Get Tay Fuck Ootma Road: The Avant-Garde’s Friendly Face”, he judges Christopher Dewdney’s poetry as “screaming” to any honest reader that “the writing is gibberish”. He continues: “The sphynxism of this sort of subversiveness—namely that there exists writing so revolutionary one can only grasp it in the act of surrendering to its impenetrability—is now the defining procedure of most experimental poetry” (108). The diversity of projects by such poets as Erin Mouré, Steve McCaffery, Christian Bök, and Lisa Robertson would trouble Starnino’s categorical condemnation of ‘experimental’ as a procedure of the ‘impenetrable’ since many of their projects are not at all necessarily “impenetrable”, or if they are, are not similarly so, though they all may be considered experimental. Moreover, what he means by ‘now’ is obscure since this literary experimentation has been going on for eons. There are the modern experiments such as Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) and later Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and don’t forget Beckett. And finally, Starnino’s reference to the ancient Sphinx as the messenger of impenetrability confounds his argument against Dewdney.
The ancient monster’s riddle had a solution, which Oedipus solved. Oedipus’ dexterity with language games foreshadows his tragic failure to understand the Oracle’s prophecy, the truth of which was impenetrable until Oedipus had fulfilled it: he killed his father and married his mother. The tradition of the “impenetrability” of the prophet’s truth and divine revelation in Greek culture was rooted in an anxiety about the future, which came to inform the Christian believers’ interest in the ecstatic experience known as “speaking in tongues”. Starnino is so caught up in his condemnation of Dewdney’s poetry as “gibberish” that he overlooks how his own words point to a correlation between “procedures” in prophetic mystical traditions and “some” experimental poetry. This raises many interesting questions irrelevant to Starnino, the modern-day critic: motivated by a sense of responsibility to the reader who is spending money, critical of publishers’ questionable choices, and understandably troubled by his own responsibility to editing and reviewing new works, Starnino is compelled to draw a line that separates out everything he cannot judge. The economy of literary publishing implicates the reviewer, that is true, and I accept my part in this economy, uncomfortably, in reviewing Julie Joosten’s Light Light. But to ease my discomfort with the objective mission of drawing lines around procedures of writing, I would like to think about procedures of reading: reading as understanding and then the other kind of reading as ‘feeling’ (that childhood jouissance of the word) and the politics that passes through the readable text to the reading public.
According to the promo on the back, this project moves from enlightenment positivism as evident in the empirical project of scientific inquiry towards the “contemporary science of “global warming”. As a whole, the project engages with “technologies and language that shape discourses of knowing”. In the exchange of old science for the new science, where mapping the globe becomes, through the linguistic turn, a discourse of global warming”, we are perhaps supposed to see how “embodiment forms a politics engaged with the environment and its increasing alterations”. rob mclennan’s review of Joosten’s book on his blog, notes its place among many books addressing environmental issues in focusing on the pastoral. I would have to say that the treatment of the natural world does not quite reflect “increasing alterations” of the environment; rather, the representation of wildlife, verdure and weather patterns as vital and growing and masterful signals the strength of the collection as being centered on the observations. The collection’s keen attention to the natural order, from sun to atom, from weather to grass, is made possible because of the poet’s obvious joy and love for the world of nature.
Jane Gregory considers Joosten’s book as a “miraculous mode of attending”, a phrase that secularizes “miracle” and lays the stress on ‘attention’, or perception which these poems harness in many wonderful and exciting ways. “Sun Once”, a revised version of the poem which tied for first place in the Malahat Review Long Poem contest in 2011, and the fourth long poem of eight that make up the majority of this collection, pushes the significance of light as perception. The sun, as source of light is also creator: “It began a field, grew valley” and revealed itself in details such as “Light tipped grass scatters from pollen” and “The sun coppers the ground. It angles bring several seasons at once” (49). Light has such agency that it replaces the divine: “Light shapes the quiet as morning./ The light settles a shawl over the frozen ground. To light out” (53). And so in the field, which becomes a valley, we find things, objects of nature through the sun’s illumination of it: in this way, the poet, given vision to see, is given the power to document light. This ‘poet’s’ perspective takes up the romantic defense of Adam’s authority over the natural world, “I was to guard the valley, name it, speak to it by name” (51) and then launches into the postmodern deconstruction of her own authority:
If weather dress wind whiter
A series of garbled conditionals represents how the constant shifting of the natural world undermines the poet’s impulse to ‘document’ or ‘mean’: against the pre-Copernican thinking that sees a direct correlation between language and god, man and god, language’s promise to mean, Joosten’s conditionals take up the procedure which Starnino might define as “gibberish”. What Starnino’s rejection of “impenetrabilities’ denies is the effect of gibberish: the reader is tossed between the loose bindings of signifiers as if a person is tossed about by wind and rain: her metaphorical efforts inspire a jouissance, this uncomfortable feeling of excitement and anxiety reflected in my niece’s discovery of “blue”. The world is a wild moving place that shocks us, again and again.
The gibberish inspired by ‘weather’ is followed immediately by a diametrically opposed shift of voice and tenor: “I woke in almost night. Conscious of nothing else. Nothing but sky and stars and a few leaves. And then the delight of them” (58). These prosaic statements, assembled by partially broken syntax, introduces a moment of awe, or what the romantics would identify as an encounter with the ‘sublime’, induced by her not knowing who she is: “The wonderful calm of forgetfulness”. Ironically, the fact the poem “means” something here, even if this meaning is the “impenetrability” reflected in the failure to remember, represents the same dissociation inspired by the ‘weather’ gibberish, but in entirely different formalistic terms: where one is fractured, the other reflects an easy syntax and semantics; where one might reflect ‘speaking in tongues’ the other is infused with the romantic poet’s lyrical notion of the sublime. What drives a project to shift between moments of joyful ‘gibberish’ to quiet awe? Do we see in this movement a contradiction in form and so a betrayal of the postmodern experiment?
Formally, chaos reigns in “Once Sun”. We can move from twigs of meaning on one page to full sentences on another, from line breaks and stanzas in one piece to prose poems, some with no punctuation (52) and some with full punctuation (64). The long poem’s formalistic trouble is not unique but repeats as a loose rule throughout the project; no single poetic mode unifies the poems. For example, the conditionals in the title of the poem, “If light stabilizing/ If to receive a bee”, are contradicted by the poem proper which focuses on the documentary effort of the archivist, the seventeenth-century artist scientist, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Her scientific reports, “I found these and numerous other insects…” (29), are assembled with line breaks and woven by Joosten’s lyrical observations, “Prayer not as petition but as attention and unexpected grace” (33). In this poem about and by Merian, we see little collapsing into unstable and even incomplete metaphors as appears periodically elsewhere. What does stand out in Merian’s documenting efforts is Joosten’s political purpose: that the Peacock plant induces abortion is a subversive act by the women which Merian carries into the white western world “(documenting what the slaves told her)” (41). The politics of woman’s place in history, of woman’s secrets in the male hegemony, slips into this collection with understated ease.
There seems to be a divide in the poems of this collection between a politics that requires meaning and chaotic moments wherein meaning is in abeyance. Is it necessary, when being political, to mean what you say? Are all moments of chaos reflected as a kind of revelation apprehended as gibberish? More importantly, are moments of gibberish with or without political significance? These are the questions that this collection grapples with in performative ways.
The way in which this project subverts nineteenth-century scientific inquiry is in its embracing of the postmodern impact on physics, which, in conceptual terms, explains the collection’s formal chaos. In “Light Fragments” we find references to wet weather, “Night grows thunder in this light of strange increase” 95, which can be seen as a refrain of the earlier long poem, “Rain”: “A wave propagates disturbance in a quiescent state. As if quiescence must always dissolve into action, as if stillness wavers to remain still/ then wavers to light or sound… I anticipate gravity as a density of light, light as an atmosphere of dissolve” (20). It is in “Rain” that we see an affinity between liquid and light, which reflects what physics has determined as the ambivalent properties of light: it behaves as both wave and particle. The power of Light Light is that it illuminates itself; it is an enlightenment project, which has moved through the sieve of postmodernism. On the one hand, it plays out as the political act of subverting scientific inquiry into what is known about the world; on the other hand, it enables the jouissance of being divested of subjective knowing; at one moment, we are troubled by broken syntax and then, turning the page, we slide into coherence. The poem oscillate between two states of being.
All this ‘enlightenment’ is enabled not by the objective purpose of cataloguing, but by the subjective position of the observer who is not a disengaged scientist, but an observer creating the world she watches, and by watching, makes it fall apart. One of the most moving examples of this is reflected in the subject’s relation to an other:
..once on the stairs, you walked down ahead of me, my soul, I swear, walked yours with you.
Joosten’s first book may be considered somewhat experimental in Starnino’s sense: the broken syntax and the word salad express that “impenetrability” that Starnino resists as “gibberish”. Yet, I would suggest that the real experimental quality of this project is in the fusion of semantic and syntactical breakdown with lyrical events of awe. This mystical discourse of the 21st-century is conveyed by a precise and gentle sensibility. Perhaps the gentleness of the author’s touch explains why the impact of “increasing alterations” seems less about global warming than it is about the poet and her epiphanies of light. When Joosten moves away from the hyperbole of light and its enlightenment connotations, will she find darknesses in all those ambivalences? I am looking forward to her sequel, wherever she goes.
CONCETTA PRINCIPE is a writer and scholar. She has had poetry, short fiction and reviews published in literary journals and scholarly articles published in peer-reviewed journals. She has three literary publications to her credit and a scholarly project, Secular Messiahs and the Return of Paul’s Real: A Lacanian Approach, is forthcoming in 2015 with Palgrave Macmillan. She is a sessional professor of literature at York University and writes poetry daily.