- The Agonies of Ambivalence:Anna Mendelssohn, la poétesse maudite
as Neither Poetry can be translated into political feeling & politics will always attempt to reign in and rule over… Give me Tristan Corbière ANYDAY.1
I am become my enemy whom I could not please and am imagined to be whom I am not for she was not me although her interpretations suited her best should I have no where to lean my face except against the cup of the palm of this hand that hides the life I could not live having fallen young into my mind having fallen further than answers would give an astute reply to martial arms had I words I could confidently write & not be told that they were an excuse I might find the time to warm into less fright.
I try to confine my expansive capacity and am told that I am not known for my hospitality.—Grace Lake, Tondo Aquatique (1997)2
Grace Lake's sonnet paints an introspective Icarian fall, a plunge well beyond the public parameters of mere bathos. Insistent against longstanding enfeeblement, this self declaims: "I am become." Individuality retraces its capacities for cohering and steering, testing the plausibility of the person called "I." The lived subject is pitted against a "she" bound to the endlessness of interpretation. She is a "me" and an exacting, relentless [End Page 461] enemy. Unquiet, the "I" cannot incline toward or rest comfortably upon this self. Far from reassured by "the fullness of [her] decline," the speaker dives into a bottomless ne plus ultra of suspicion.3 The climate of this submersive, anxious region is cold with fear, its fluid boundary menaced and marked by an accusative "you" that is herself as other, and, come the volta (if not before), others, full stop. Absent from articulation, the pronoun "you" nevertheless pervades, deploring declarations as mere justifications. That same "you" labels ungenerous attempts to shore up the ruination that this being is become. Embedded, persistent questions go unanswered, answers do not give, nor do those who seek them.4 What brought this "I" to this descending impasse? Violence? This abyss is "an astute reply to martial arms," arms that end in a cupped palm, the locus of an unreadable, unrealizable future, haunted by dictates past and present, imagined and painfully real.
But haven't we been here before, poetically speaking? In 1888, Verlaine asks: "is it not true that et nunc et semper et in secula the sincere poet will see himself, will feel himself, will know himself damned by the rule of any faction"?5 The factions in question can be as small as Lake's subjective dyad, as when Rimbaud needs "complete protection, even against [him]self!" (Verlaine, Cursed, 78). Rimbaud is condemned by his own reticence, his refusal of acknowledgement, his envisaged resistance to inclusion in the coterie of Verlaine's construction, les poètes maudits (60). Defined by the war they wage on binaries, the cursed poets sling paradoxes and oxymorons, reveling in the agonies of ambiguity. Or perhaps not quite. Transcendent poet, abject obscurantist, le poète maudit is: "Absolute by imagination, absolute in expression … But cursed!" (12). Is the curse, then, the torturous prophecy of a future marked by contradiction, uncertainty, equivocation?
Torturous or no, assuredly self-fulfilling.
Embodied as weakness, vacillation takes about a century to wend its hesitant, dogged way from aesthetic, gendered, "degenerate" performance, to puling David resisting the Goliath of metaphysics, to the deliberately shaky foundation of contemporary ethics, criticism, and theory. Sotto voce, weakness announces a crisis of ideology, of putting the "I"—becoming or stagnate, cursed, or celebrated—at the center of thought and action. With this refusal of the ubiquitous, self-important Human comes a refusal of the self-assured human. "[W]e moderns with our anxious care for ourselves and love of our neighbour … appear as a weak age," Friedrich Nietzsche writes, condemnatory flag at half-mast.6 For Nietzsche's weakness refers to the presumptuousness of our values, our continued faith in "scientificality" and philosophical truths, not to mention our smug moral rectitude, the comfort we take in aspiring to "the good" (Twilight...