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  • Graven Images
  • Henry Hart
Karen Mills-Courts. Poetry as Epitaph, Representation and Poetic Language. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1990. 326 pp. $39.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.

It might seem strange that a book erected on the deconstructionist foundations of Jacques Derrida should take its title from that celebrated advocate of hierarchies, T.S. Eliot. Since titles foreshadow unities of theme and stance, at first glance it would appear that Karen Mills-Courts’s Poetry as Epitaph courts the courtly values of Eliot, authorizing and ordering her own critical principles by locating them in Eliot’s authoritative shadow. Eliot’s presence certainly haunts much of her book, most noticeably at the end of the introduction where she quotes from “Little Gidding”: “Every poem [is] an epitaph.” She also provides the longer passage which sketches Eliot’s belief in poetic propriety, “where every word is at home / Taking its place to support the others, / The word neither diffident nor ostentatious, / An easy commerce of the old and new. . . .” For Mills-Courts, this endorsement of a poetic language that is decorous, humble, and unified, organically lodged in tradition yet politely asserting its modernity, mixing memory and desire, ends and beginnings, dead and living, is the gist of “T.S. Eliot’s remarkable moment of insight.”

The moment is also an end and a beginning for her own investigation into poetry’s ability to either present or represent, incarnate or imitate the mind’s inspired thoughts. Her attitude towards Eliot typifies the theme of the book. If she supplicates Eliot’s ghost, engraving his words on the gray, tombstone-like cover of her book, she also argues against and periodically expels his presence and the Platonic and Christian notions of spiritualized language (“tinged with fire beyond the language of the living”) that during privileged “timeless moments” supposedly incarnate the poet’s visions. She explains her own stance as poised between “Heidegger [who] thinks of language as presentational or ‘incarnative’” and “Derrida [who] thinks of language as ungrounded ‘representation’.” Through her bifocal lenses she examines representative texts from the beginning of what she would call, with Derrida, the logocentric tradition of western culture, and proceeds to map a gradual disillusionment with the capacity of the logos to embody or present intended meanings. She moves from Plato, the Bible, and Augustine through George Herbert, Wordsworth, and Shelley, and finishes with a lengthy discussion of John Ashbery. In some ways, however, Eliot remains her shadowy guide, her principle example of the poet torn between an ontotheological conviction that poetry is the living incarnation of the maker’s divinely inspired conceptions, analogous to God’s creation and incarnation, and the more sober recognition that word and world are always already fallen, that “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still,” as Eliot said in “Burnt Norton.” To this disillusioned view, words are simply dead or dying marks on the page, representations of representations that are continually losing their representational power and slipping into a confusion of tangential meanings.

Although Heidegger and Derrida provide most of the theoretical framework for her debate, dividing the book between a logocentric viewpoint at the beginning and a deconstructionist one at the end, Mills-Courts shies away from taking a firm, dogmatic stand on one side or the other. She is critical of Plato for his denigration of writing as a paltry substitute for speech but she is also critical of Derrida for his repudiation of authorial intentionality. If Plato is too idealistic, Derrida is too skeptical. In the end she sides with the poets who shy away from factional positions, who, in contrast with the ideologues, vacillate in the tense no-man’s-land between rival camps. Referring to Heidegger’s and Derrida’s conflicting linguistic views, she says: “Caught between them, the poet creates a poem that is overtly intended to work as ‘unconcealment,’ as the incarnation of a presence, the embodiment of a voice in words. Yet, he displays that voice as an inscription carved on a tombstone. In other words, he covertly acknowledges that the poem is...

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