restricted access Out of Joint: An Ir/reverent Meditation on the Line
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Out of Joint: An Ir/reverent Meditation on the Line Cynthia Hogue “The line, for a poet, locates the gesture of longing brought into language.” —kathleen fraser The line as used in contemporary American poetry is a joint as well as building block, tensile and flexible, active and affective, distilling great feeling into a form of endless variance—sometimes a sentence, sometimes part of a sentence, or a seriesofwordsorfragments—allstrungacrossapage(notalwaysthewholepage, and not always horizontally). Sometimes the line is working visually. Sometimes, still, it rhymes aslant. The line both contains and releases emotional energy, and makes the syntactic and synaptic leaps and connections that fret and construct the poem today. The line is telling, not only in what it says but what it doesn’t say. As Kathleen Fraser observes, the line is “a gesture of longing” (emphasis added). There it is. The visible tethering of emotion (longing), creative and performative act (gesture), and the poetic materiality that puts the “long” in “longing”! In thinking about the way poets today stretch and torque the free-verse line, I time-travel back to when it all was new and the modernist avant-garde first pushed the envelope in giddy, gaudy ways. The witty wordplay that makes the end of William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Right of Way” also artful has to do with the cross-linguistic pun, which works as forceful enjambment: I saw a girl with one leg over the rail of a balcony. (206) The first line in the couplet is whole, but contains an image that is both partial and disfigured (at least temporarily). The speaker’s erotic longing is a perverse Hogue | 123 moment that shocks us, when we follow the image with the gaze over the edge ofthelineandthereweare,justlikethegirlwhohasthrownherlegovertherailing in a balancing act. Reading the whole couplet, we’re still surprised to be misled: the girl only looks one-legged because the other leg isn’t visible to the speaker. The line enacts the very pun with which the image is playing (jambe being French for leg). It’s mean fun, and it allows Williams to explore what an enjambed line can do to stretch meaning. It’s a wry, sly move that still has bite today.1 In stark contrast, Leslie Scalapino’s postmodern sequence “DeLay Rose” stretches the line to house not simply perception but acute scrutiny. In a passage that revises Williams’s couplet, Scalapino trenchantly transfigures it to confront our times. The lines envisioning the results of stepping on a landmine explode across the page: simply there a left leg (196) These lines comprise one observation, broken into individual words in spatial patterning on the page: “left” and “leg” justified with each other, neither right nor left justified, the indefinite article cast off from the rest of the lines. They complete a statement (if not a sentence), but all else is scrubbed away, nothing descriptive, all grave. The missing body is an absent presence in the spaces among the words. The lines resist going past their own speech act: the single word made flesh. To say more, Scalapino says less. She revises Williams’s punning line, heartbreakingly, by literalizing it. In order to extrapolate the viscerality of Scalapino’s torquing of “the line,” however, I want briefly to explore how she concentrates profound emotion— grief, outrage, and despair—into analytic focus. Lines fissure along the literally “on-the-ground” consequences of removed and abstract decisions. Scalapino’s lines think past or beyond, we might say, a postmodern, abstract dematerialization . The shattering of the lines is meaningful in particular ways. She terms this method “decomposition” and “dismantling” in “DeLay Rose” (198), which the poem enacts by moving among dislocated or unlocatable subjects in seamed passages of lines that fracture the real. There is a conceptual level to Scalapino’s use of the line as well, which is worth noting. The figure of Tom DeLay in the poetic sequence works metonymically , a part representing a whole that her poem investigates. As a metonym, “DeLay” is drawn along the same lines as the other metonyms circulating in the 124 | Hogue poem—an inundated New Orleans and the Iraq War—by means of the concept of the “isobath,” an “imaginary line” which connects points of equal depth. Scalapino renders visible the isobathic connections among “DeLay,” “New Orleans,” and the “Iraq War”—the visible effects of a system-wide corruption—by de/ composing the fissuring lines. The following passage, for example, traverses the Battle of Fallujah...


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