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  • The Poetic Imperative: A Speculative Aesthetics by Johanna Skibsrud
  • Charles Altieri
The Poetic Imperative: A Speculative Aesthetics.
By Johanna Skibsrud. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2020.

In many respects, Johanna Skibsrud's The Poetic Imperative is a lucid, elegantly written, ambitious, theoretically sophisticated, and sometimes moving inquiry into difficult and original poets, beginning with Wallace Stevens, extending into Muriel Rukeyser, and concluding with quite recent work by several contemporary poets and two artists (all in 153 pages). Throughout Skibsrud is primarily concerned with the compatibility between poiesis and a notion of "truth" that may be characterized as "an intimacy with strangeness and uncertainty." This compatibility involves "the interplay between conscious recognition and what cannot be either deciphered or named." Given this understanding of truth as a goal for poiesis, she argues that poetic labor must be "speculative—departing from a point of conjecture and desire rather than from prior knowledge" (5). Hence the central roles played in the book by terms like "beyond," "unknown," "infinite," and "transgress." This treatment of poetry as fundamentally speculative provides a home for several contemporary [End Page 125] values involving the importance of the other—in epistemology, in linguistics, and at the intersection between ethics and politics.

For Skibsrud, it matters that we work out a plausible notion of truth in poetry because we can then see how the encounter with the limits of knowledge continually opens us to an otherness that competing modes of discourse have to repress to perform their allotted functions. While other disciplines seek closure, there emerges in poetry's pursuit of openness at least a quasi-ethic (my qualification, not hers) in which senses of possibility continually invite us to reimagine the relations between subject and object. Poetic truth is a kind of knowing of the self that actively stages the capacities of subject and object to penetrate one another so that they can overflow the traditional boundaries attributed to each (6). Further, poems as "active doing[s]" exhibit selves and others interacting in myriad ways (18), so the poetic work frequently establishes senses of possibility even amidst the most desperate of sociopolitical conditions.

Rukeyser, for example, provides an exemplary version of a documentary labor aware of itself as a form of making that opens alternative possibilities for constructing human relationships and "touching upon the unknown" (54). Inger Christensen and Craig Santos Perez are seen, in turn, as descendants of Stéphane Mallarmé's concern for embedding truth "as an ever-present possibility within every act of either representation or interpretation" (58). An "It" which stands for the object of reference becomes a matter of feeling established by "multiple shifts of mood, grammar, form, and subject matter" (61). Thus, Skibsrud conjoins the two contemporary poets' very different modes of discourse with a shared practice of refusing names as a means of arriving at terms of possible exchange.

Next, M. NourbeSe Philip takes the stage with her poem Zong! because of its way of "un-telling" the story of a scandalous case in 1783 when merchants sought to recover their investment in the many slaves whom they threw overboard (79). Only by creating ellipses in the legal documents of the case can Philip reveal the blindness of the various agents involved in the actions—and only in these openings can she use Henri Bergson as a model for projecting possibilities for change at deep levels of the psyche.

Anne Carson's deep distrust of closure and of the cultivation of a stable identity provides a perfect theater for Skibsrud's modes of analysis. Carson's volume Decreation offers the appropriate text for an imagined dialogue between the domains of self and beyond-self. This chapter is more attentive than the others to the work accomplished by specific figures in the poetry, such as the resonance that is possible from references to "edge" as a way of establishing the intricate transition where telling becomes untelling, and the dynamics of call and response in relation to the place of "difference" in our experience. The concluding two chapters, by contrast, are much more sketchy in how they take on very complicated issues, like the relation between praxis and poiesis, in work...


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pp. 125-130
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