restricted access Only the Broken Breathe
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Only the Broken Breathe Graham Foust “To be conscious,” writes Roberto Unger, “is to have the experience of being cut off from that about which one reflects: it is to be a subject that stands over against its objects” (200). According to Unger, this odd division between the thinking subject and thought-about object is made possible by the subject’s ability to “defin[e] its relationship to its object as a question to which different answers might be given.” Here, reflection is figured as kind of renunciation, that “piercing Virtue” Emily Dickinson calls “The letting go / A Presence—for an Expectation—” (365–366). But what happens when the subject becomes conscious of herself? That is, what happens when the subject is the object of her own reflection? Dickinson’s poemishelpfulhere,too,endingasitdoesbyreframingrenunciation—previously figured as a “letting go”—as a kind of reaching out: Renunciation—is the Choosing Against itself— Itself to justify Unto itself— If the self is “over against” itself when it selects itself as the object of reflection, it must also in some way align with (i.e., “justify”) itself, which may be to say that moments of self-reflection involve alternately calling for and renouncing one’s own wholeness, an oscillation we might liken to inhaling and exhaling. Because they are spoken language—and because they are broken language— poems are places (and times) in which we are able to hear ourselves enact this process. Tell me where in the poem the reader is, and I will tell you of what she is or is not conscious. If she is in the poem, taking it at its words by speaking and hearing them, then she is also in some way rendered unconscious, put under by Foust | 93 the sound of her voice as she gives away her breath to the poem. If she is hovering outside the poem, however briefly, in that place we call the line-break—figured there as breathless by the poem’s placement on the page—she then regains her consciousness. Strangely, though, this waking comes by way of her sudden removal from the very process (breathing) that makes consciousness possible. In common parlance, to “take a break” is to take “a breather.” This is not so in the uncommon parlance of poems. In a poem—or, rather, just outside of it—we breathe just after we break, electing to then return to unconsciousness in order to say the poem’s next line. works cited Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. Knowledge and Politics. New York: Free Press, 1976. ...


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