As Reviewed By: Jocelyn Emerson
Black Series by Laurie Sheck. Knopf, 2001.
In the Life of Cowley, Dr. Johnson famously disparages the metaphysical poets, remarking, “Wit, abstracted from its efforts upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.” Following Dryden, Johnson chastises those poets he deems too proud of their wit, most especially for their heavy reliance on “analytick” and novelty, as well as for producing “combinations of confused magnificence.” Harsh criticism, from which Donne, among others, suffered until Eliot, of course, recognized the deeper linguistic and cultural complexities of the “metaphysicals.”
[private]I’ve never held much stock in Johnson’s readings of early modern poetry; however, his comments in this passage do, I find, illuminate some of the excesses of Laurie Sheck’s Black Series. Her fourth book retains the eerie, distanced quality of her previous books, particularly The Willow Grove; and Sheck continues to draw on classical sources in an attempt to create new archetypes of modern subjectivity. The problem, of course, is that archetypes are powerful because they’re sediments of old cultural selves rather than newly minted ones, and the book suffers when it doesn’t recognize this difference. Although she frequently falls into the paradoxical formalism of the fractured “postmodern” self, Sheck ambitiously attempts to understand the ways in which our culture’s never-ending stream of information attenuates rather than expands our internal selves–the ways in which our technologies impede rather than aid communication.
With a quasi Foucauldian attention to technologies of scrutiny in Black Series, Sheck describes what it feels like to be the object of continual observation in both public and private spaces. She attempts to understand what new habits of mind and language such scrutiny creates. What is interesting here is the way in which Sheck attempts to translate this feeling into figural thought and affective language, as she does in “Circuits”:
But the programmed air is purposeful and sure; it doesn’t wander.
It carries a deliberateness inside it,
a brittleness like wooden boxes.
In my neighbor’s room, electronic voices soothe him,
and bodies made of an uncertain light
that pass back and forth through brief episodic disclosures.
No microbes live in them, or stenches–only a blue glow.
Each night they become their own erasures.
As in many other poems such as “Mannequins,” “Broken Window,” “Inside the Screen,” and “The Crossing,” Sheck wants to reveal the unacknowledged extent to which our lives are determined by an instrumentalist rationality, a rationality that can turn even the elements–air that doesn’t wander–into commodities–predictable and sellable.
To her credit, Sheck resists using ironic pastiche as a method of distancing the self from the powerful undertow of commodity culture. As Frederick Jameson has long asserted (perhaps too exclusively), such imitation, intrinsic to postmodern depthlessness, supports rather than contests the marketing of heterogeneity so dear to corporate America. Instead, Sheck draws on classical mythology, especially Ovid, as well as on Athenian tragedy and Homeric epic in the attempt to give historical depth to her work. Her allusions force the reader to look outside of contemporary American culture and demotic narrative for other ways of thinking about the relationship between individual and culture. Yet too many of Sheck’s allusions simply recycle the familiar–Odysseus’s long delayed arrival at Ithaca and Galileo’s stunning discoveries in Sidereus nuncius; however, her decision in “Heath” to use Antigone’s exile interestingly rejuvenates a tradition (followed by both Sophocles and Euripides) that has been neglected since Hegel’s famous discussion of Antigone’s antinomic conflict with Creon. Sheck’s portrait of the wandering Antigone and the Lear-like Oedipus, exiled from both family and polis, aptly reflects the abject and dislocated subjectivity Sheck explores in the book as a whole.
Additionally, Sheck’s desire to integrate the virtual/informational and the pastoral re-invigorates the genre by attending to its inherently political dimensions. In “Broken Window” Sheck writes:
I’ve been like the iced black glare of a window,
too still. That glare so paralyzed, severe,
I’ve felt the web-sites untouchable and safe above me,
sites of data-banks and pixels, sites that repeal the beating ground,
until softness seemed a perilous intent, and myself a mere artifact
from a waywardness long over.
Perhaps more explicitly, in “Traces”, Sheck attempts to understand the ways in which seemingly innocent “information” pollutes both land and mind, as in this section entitled Aerial Photograph of Weapons Disposal Site, Toole Army Depot, Toole, Utah:
How do I belong to this? Landscapes of process, of memory traces,
of light animating disfigurement, disfigurement animating light,
landscape that almost everything in me
wants to push away.
Where has the eye’s hunger gone to now?
And then suddenly I want to look–the glowing skin of earth
solemnly enchanted, its ruined silver-darks
ridged with memory traces still cleaving to each surface….
Other reviewers have amply discussed Sheck’s obvious dependence on Jorie Graham; however, explicit dependence on a contemporary isn’t necessarily an intrinsic problem. In other historical periods, such dependence was an assumed norm. The trouble here is that Sheck merely appropriates Graham’s stylistic and rhetorical excesses–her surfeit of compound nouns, her glut of unanchored abstractions, her flood of present participles–instead of examining the epistemes Graham strives to create through them. Sheck doesn’t push nearly hard enough, in this volume, to develop or extend the ramifications of Graham’s substantial linguistic and epistemological discoveries, which would be a significant contribution to the Whitmanesque strain of American poetry to which Graham’s work is greatly indebted. By choosing to mirror rather than revise Graham, Sheck misses, I think, a valuable opportunity to scrutinize more carefully her own relationship to shared poetic ancestors.
As for Dr. Johnson’s “confused magnificence,” it’s difficult to tell, in Black Series, whether or not Sheck deliberately uses mixed metaphors as an uncanny rhetorical technique, or, as Johnson would have it, as a “perverseness of industry” that leads nowhere. Figurative incongruities immobilize the reader, negating that synthesizing activity which transforms disparate images, ideas and tropes into larger metaphysical truths. Unlike much stronger examples of “Language” writing that successfully challenge the naturalness or inevitability of such “truths,” Sheck doesn’t really want to contest metaphysical comforts in any fundamental way, and the resulting poetry is often hopelessly jumbled. Such discordia concors merely imitates the superficial features of postmodern disjunctiveness without adding anything to it or reconceptualizing it vis-à-vis the demands of lyric. Sheck’s reach far exceeds her grasp. Repeatedly resorting to “beautiful” phrases, vague language and sententious closing lines, Sheck superficially contains that abject postmodern subjectivity she is supposedly examining in the poems. The result makes one seriously question the poet’s ability, in this book, to think clearly and rigorously about the ideas she evokes.
[Editor’s Note: The author would like to thank Patricia Johnson, whose scholarship on Antigone, as well as personal conversations about the play, informs her analysis here.] [/private]