JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“flash of mask” from and I would open by Jill Stengel
(ypolita press, n.p., 2011)
flash of mask
an open mouth
“flash of mask” reminds me of nothing more than a Babylonian or Presocratic or Sapphic or ??? fragment. It does not include the usual scholar’s apparatus of brackets and ellipses and interpolations and so forth and so on, but that’s what I’m reminded of. And it’s probably not a fragment. But that’s what comes to mind. Probably because I’m reading Stanley Lombardo’s translations of Empedocles andParmenides.
But I think there’s a more profound reason why it seems fragmentary. “flash of mask / open mouth” may be a complete perception, but it’s open at each end. Something unknowable to us preceded the flash, and it seems at least possible that something issued from the open mouth.
This poem could be a sudden epiphany during lovemaking (who hasn’t confronted the wrathful and beneficent deities in the face of the beloved during lovemaking?), or some other personal or impersonal confrontation (who hasn’t confronted those same deities just walking down the street?). It could be pretty much anything. And again, it could be a perception that borders on the shamanic: a “god” could be about to speak. And out of the open mouth could come wisdom.
Which doesn’t seem farfetched, to me at least. Luce Iragaray wrote a book called The Widsom of Love, in which she claims that that’s the proper – or at least more useful – translation of philo-sophia, which is usually translated love of wisdom.
The blurb to Iragaray’s book reads:
'The Way of Love' asks the question; How can we love each other? Here Luce Irigaray, one of the world's foremost philosophers, presents an extraordinary exploration of desire and the human heart. If Western philosophy has claimed to be a love of wisdom, it has forgotten to become a wisdom of love. We still lack words, gestures, ways of doing or thinking to approach one another as humans, to enter into dialogue, to build a world where we can live together. …
Now, I’m not claiming that Stengel’s poem is Iragarayan. I’m just saying that it’s suggestive, and this may be one of its suggestions. I admit I base this on a reading of the entirety of and I would open, in which love, desire and lack take central stage.
The poem, in its brevity, could also be read in other ways:
“a flash of mask”: the other (or the self) is suddenly seen to be not present in the encounter, and what one is confronting is a mask instead. Therefore what issues from “an open mouth” is just a simulacrum of an utterance.
Though, I’ll note, perhaps or perhaps not, that it is impossible to lie, in a sense. One’s whole “truth” is contained in every utterance. Even if said truth is undetectable. There fore the simulacrum is only a simulacrum of a simulacrum.
[Which is to say that most successful lies assume both skill in the liar, AND a lack of attention on the part of the one lied to]
Which leads to another interpretation. Perhaps the mask and mouth are out of sync. Perhaps the mask says one thing, and the open mouth contradicts it. The mask ties to conceal, the mouth won’t let it.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, we will never know. It’s conceivable that the author / narrator was just flipping through a magazine, or walking through a gallery or museum, when something caught the eye for a moment, and that what we have here is a contrast between the bright colors of the mask and the open mouth’s black hole.
That’s the glory of fragments (whether or text or experience). They pretty well put paid to readerly certainty. But what is certain is that these seven words are as suggestive as one would like, and open to all kinds of interpretations.
It occurs to me as a write that this short poem reminds me of early c20 imagism. To quote Al Filreis, Imagism is the
Name given to a movement in poetry, originating in 1912 and represented by Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and others, aiming at clarity of expression through the use of precise visual images. …
… The Imagists wrote succinct verse of dry clarity and hard outline in which an exact visual image made a total poetic statement. Imagism was a successor to the French Symbolist movement, but, whereas Symbolism had an affinity with music, Imagism sought analogy with sculpture. …
From an Imagist manifesto:
1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.
2. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.
3. Absolute freedom in the choice of subject.
4. To present an image. We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.
5. To produce a poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.
6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.
(Al Filreis, http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/imagism-def.html “Imagism”)
Let’s revisit Stengel’s poem in the light of this manifesto:
flash of mask
an open mouth
This poem seems to fulfill the prescription. So, it might be just as well to consider it as an image as a fragment. But let’s look at what is perhaps the most famous imagist poem, Pounds, “In a Station of the Metro:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Petals on a wet, black bough.
This poem is complete in itself. Nothing important to it seems to precede it or follow it. Is this typical of imagist poem? I think so. I’ll provide three examples. The first two are lifted from Richard Aldington’s http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30276/30276-h/30276-h.htm Some Imagist Poets (1915)
H.D., “THE POOL”
Are you alive?
I touch you.
You quiver like a sea-fish.
I cover you with my net?
What are you – banded one?
The sky was apple-green,
The sky was green wine held up in the sun,
The moon was a golden petal between.
She opened her eyes, and green
They shone, like clear flowers undone,
For the first time, now for the first time seen.
The third and final example, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, is from WC Williams’ Spring and All:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
It’s fair to admit that all the Imagist poems are slightly mysterious, and that the fourth, with its “so much depends”, asks an unanswerable question. But we must be careful when we classify, whether it’s the Pound poem, or any of the others, including Stengel’s. Classification reveals and conceals at the same time. So thinking of Stengel’s poem (and any poem) in terms of imagism is “helpful, but.” We must be careful not to diminish or even foreclose the possibility of the kind of reading that sees this poem or any other as a mysterium tremendum, an “overwhelming mystery”, as one dictionary has it, the kind of mystery that, according to another dictionary, is “Filled with or characterized by a sense of a supernatural [JBR: read: immanently sublime] presence: a numinous place.” Which is how I read these seven words of Jill Stengel’s. Open, open open.
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.