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  • The Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics by Jeanne Heuving
  • Frank Capogna
Heuving, Jeanne. 2016. The Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press. $34.95 sc. xv + 217 pp.

In The Transmutation of Love and Avant-Garde Poetics, Jeanne Heuving pursues a seemingly paradoxical question: what can be avant-garde about romantic love? Long associated in critical theory with problematic ideals of authentic subjectivity and bourgeois capitalism, and framed in poetry seminars as the residue of an unfashionable lyric tradition (particularly in the age of the Confessional and Language poets), romantic love seems irreconcilable with avant-gardist suspicions of the state, the family, and the prevailing order of things. However, Heuving argues persuasively that romantic love served as a primary aesthetic concept and motivating force in the experimental poetic writing of the twentieth-century North American avant-garde. Her focus is on the work of five modern and contemporary poets—Ezra Pound, H.D., Robert Duncan, Kathleen Fraser, and Nathaniel Mackey—who synergize states of being in love into practices of writing love. While love poetry is habitually framed as the expression of romantic feeling emanating from an identifiable and archetypically heterosexual male speaker, these poets each turn inward to call attention to the linguistic and sonic material of poetic composition. In doing so, they create "projective love and libidinized field poetics" from an onrush of images divorced from any coherent narrative sequence, originating subjectivity, or etiology, in lyric form (3). Their avant-garde love poetics, Heuving argues, emanate [End Page 708] from the decentering of the subjectivity of the lover that is central to conventional love poetry, instead making eros itself—rather than the poetic speaker's experience of sexualized attachment—at once the poem's means and matter.

Transmutation of Love joins recent conversations surrounding the possibilities for affirmative, relational, and affective reading practices in literary criticism, emblematized by Eve Sedgwick's "reparative reading" and Rita Felski's controversial call for "postcritical reading" as well as recent studies like Michael Snediker's Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (2008) and Gillian White's Lyric Shame: The "Lyric" Subject of Contemporary American Poetry (2014). With them, Heuving shares an interest in discourses of feeling and attachment, but with an attention to experimental avant-garde form that makes this study a unique contribution to twentieth-century poetic criticism. Heuving defines her primary subject as "projective love poetry," akin to the composition-by-field techniques theorized by Charles Olson in "Projective Verse" (1950), in which the poem is understood as a field of action where "ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION" (1966, 17). What Heuving terms projective love writing similarly elides narrative continuity between images, evacuates the speaking subject from the text, and attends to the concrete medium of poetic expression, the poet's language. However, Heuving contests common critiques of the avant-garde as privileging apolitical formal experimentation over the modes of personal expression associated with collective, identity-based, or minority poetics. Heuving demonstrates that projective love writing enabled articulations of erotic feeling from subject-positions otherwise beyond the ambit of canonical love poetry: feminist, queer, racialized, and diasporic. While the conventional paradigm of the introspective lover as lyric speaker "has been empowering for white heterosexual men, but rarely for others … transmuting love poetry into a projective, libidinized field poetics … make[s] way for diverse poets to say their love publicly" at moments in which public and private discourses of racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identity are in flux (5).

The first three chapters of Transmutation of Love situate projective love writing in relation to canonical Western philosophy and psychoanalytic theory on the nature of love, self, and other. In chapter one, Heuving explores projective love writing in relation to Olson's composition-by-field methods, claiming that the former retains Olson's [End Page 709] understanding of the text as a kinetic field of images but departs in locating the origins of erotic writing directly in poets' emotional, and often sexual, experiences. This is to say that projective love writing relies on the possibility that poetic language also acts upon the poet...


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