- Larry Eigner and the Phenomenology of Projected Verse
Literary criticism has recently taken a phenomenological turn, with scholars in many different periods and genres showing an increased interest in complex descriptions of the various bodily experiences of engaging with texts.1 So far, this scholarship has applied the methods and theories of phenomenology to the reader’s experience more than to the writer’s, and it has focused particularly on emotion and affect, a significant but no doubt limited slice of the full range of embodied cognition and experience. Furthermore, these critics have often assumed a normalized body at the center of their phenomenology, one unhampered by disability, prosthesis, or disease. This essay expands the phenomenological approach in all of these sites, considering how the lived, embodied experience of a particular disabled writer creatively constrained and enabled his poetics. Thus I am following Michael Davidson’s call for a disability poetics that theorizes “the ways that poetry defamiliarizes not only language but the body normalized within language” and that reads the embodied poetics of mid-century writers against their actual bodies (7, 8). I shall take Davidson’s methodology one step further, exploring how that disability poetics becomes for the reader a kind of defamiliarizing prosthesis that enables new forms of vision and embodied cognition.2 [End Page 461]
I begin with two pairs of eyes, each set attached to a body with unique constraints. The first pair belongs to the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, whose perception was affected by schizothymia, a mild form of schizophrenia that reduces the world to frozen, expressionless appearances (Merleau-Ponty 71). The second pair of eyes belongs to the poet Larry Eigner, who due to a birth injury lived with severe cerebral palsy and spent the first fifty years of his life in his parents’ home in Swampscott, Massachusetts. The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty begins his essay on Cézanne by highlighting the painter’s worry about his eyes and his art: “As he grew old, he wondered whether the novelty of his painting might not come from trouble with his eyes, whether his whole life had not been based upon an accident of his body” (59). The poet Robert Grenier likewise begins his introduction to the excellent new four-volume set of Eigner’s Collected Poems by remembering Eigner’s eyes: “Larry Eigner had great eyes—he could look right through you, or, alternatively, he could look right at you ( or both , at the same time)” (vii). For these two artists working at opposite ends of modernism, “illness. . . ceases being an absurd fact and destiny to become a general possibility,” as Merleau-Ponty writes (71). Disability became a creative constraint that allowed them and their work to incorporate, question, and extend reigning aesthetic paradigms of their times.
Cézanne learned from the impressionists that paintings could be an exact study of appearances by capturing how images in nature strike the eyes in an atmosphere of light and air. He took this methodology one step further, attempting to paint what Merleau-Ponty calls “the lived perspective, that which we actually perceive,” rather than “a geometric or photographic” perspective (64):
Cézanne wants to represent the object, to find it again behind the atmosphere. . . . The object is no longer covered by reflections and lost in its relationships to the atmosphere and other objects: it seems subtly illuminated [End Page 462] from within, light emanates from it, and the result is an impression of solidity and material substance.(62)
As he aged, Cézanne’s canvases were taken over by more and more blank space, what he called “nonfinito,” so that Mont Sainte-Victoire, one of his favorite subjects, became a gray triangular outline of paint, trees a splotch of green, rivers a streak of blue (Lehrer 114–15). In a way, Cézanne was one of the first “objectivists,” doing with paint what poets such as Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen would later do with words. For these poets, words were not images or symbols but things with “solidity and material substance” of their own, objects illuminated in minimalist lines within the white space of the page.