“Something about art/ And its opportunities:”
Lynn Emanuel is the author of three books of poetry, none of which can be described simply as “a collection of poems.” They are poems making an argument, a triptych with a project. What that project is has been the subject of inquiry, essay, and interview. It is a discussion complicated not only by postmodern sensibility but also by the inventiveness of Emanuel’s work, the startling use of repeated imagery and narrator intervention, and by the speaker’s often glib tone undercut by a seriousness of purpose that stands up and shouts at the reader even as the poem’s text seems focused on witty commentary.
There’s no doubt that Emanuel is interested in what she calls the “bookness” of a book, the features and limitations of narrative and in postmodern practices that create in the reader self-consciousness and a sense of separateness from the author and the text. This essay will argue that the central project of Emanuel’s three books is an examination of what art can and cannot do. There is a critical moment in each volume where the unavoidable appearance of real elegy, elegy that is profoundly personal, filled with human sorrow and a loss is not amenable to the kind of linguistic manipulation that creates distance and coolness in much of the rest of the text.
In 1995 Emanuel’s first two books, Hotel Fiesta and The Dig were re-released in one volume by University of Illinois Press. The cover art is an Edward Weston photo of a double-headed toadstool, the sort of thing a knowledgeable mushroom hunter might look for in a cemetery, the sort of thing that is ambiguous in nature being attractive, elegant, and possibly poisonous. The photo, owned by the Carnegie Museum of Art, is strikingly appropriate for a book housing two texts obsessed with the making of art and its relationship to issues of death. The volume’s prologue, “The Politics of Narrative—Why I Am a Poet” has become famous as a stingingly clever complaint about prose writing, but in addition to what it says about prose, it also introduces the underlying subject of Emanuel’s inquiry: what can art say about life—and death. Emanuel uses fast-paced prose to complain that prose, obsessed as it is with narrative, is boring, tedious, and too much work for little reward. Likewise, although her poems make liberal use of cinemagraphic effects, her narrator goes on to tell us movies are even worse, and then she slyly slips in a word about her real interest. “So, please” she admonishes the reader, “don’t ask me for a little trail of breadcrumbs to get from the smile to the bedroom to the death at the end, although you can ask me a lot about death.” Emanuel tells us quite a lot about death and loss and art’s relationship to both; this is her subject.
Hotel Fiesta opens with the story of a drunken, unlucky, love-enslaved mother frying trout. It’s a little film clip, the narrator recording details but communicating no strong feeling. Even the one moment of identification (“When I drink I am too much like her”) feels easy, non-threatening, this is a piece of art that seems to be an introduction to a narrative, to a story the writer will tell us. Yet, just as we are ready to hear that story, the next poem changes the subject. “I have imagined all this:” it tells us and proceeds to relate an entirely different mother/father scenario, one in which the parents are in love and living in an artist’s loft in New York. Emanuel has clearly established the book’s terms. There will surprise, dislocation, and art (Rothko painting roses, an Arshile Gorky exhibit, her father painting models, a self-portrait). There will be memory, invention, and dreams. There will also be two fragile, moving elegies. This particular pattern, imaginative elegance and artistic performance followed by elegy and death will continue as Emanuel moves through the next two books. And this is her order for in Emanuel’s books the elegy is followed, not preceded by death’s final silence. More art, more imagination and splendid creative license may follow that silence but it will not mitigate or explain death. It will not soothe, sustain, or comfort. It will make no peace. Because Emanuel is Emanuel, the artistic postmodern poetry-fest will continue to fascinate and compel us, but it will not solve a single problem, least of all the one she articulates in “Self-Portrait”: “Despite my lovely diction/I am going to die/ Lying on an iron bed in stocking feet.”
So what about the elegies? The first, for her grandmother, “Elegy Written in the Vowels of Her Name”, opens with a reference to Roger Van Der Weyden’s Portrait of a Woman, an artistic reference Emanuel’s readers could not find surprising. The swift connection made between this exquisite painting and the grandmother is the kind of thing Emanuel does, linking art and life, pairing two images the reader would not have thought could be paired. However, here the grandmother, rather than demonstrating a likeness to the cultured and self-possessed woman in Van Der Weyden’s portrait, is described as “broken-hearted”, and “stunned by stroke”. For a writer with Emanuel’s ability to use fresh and unexpected language these phrases are remarkably bland. Rather than setting the grandmother off from the ordinary, making her the special type that could be represented by a wealthy cultured woman in a Burgundian gown and 15th century Flemish headdress, they ground her and her grief in the decidedly unglamorous. Here glamour, in the form of yachts on a “blue unvoyaged bay”, sails away from her as she sits with a bowl of dried beans in her lap. She has been felled as so many are, broken-hearted and stunned and death is not even necessary to accomplish it. Although still here, she’s had a stroke, she’s gone. And the voluptuousness of Emanuel’s language and imagery is likewise curtailed. She is forced into a straightforward telling of this narrative with its sorrowful ending. The original connection claimed to Van Der Weyden’s subject now seems romantic and rueful. Here there is heartbreak and defeat leading as it must to a stillness that cannot be enlivened by art.
The second elegy, “Looking for the Old Rosebud Cemetery” is more oblique, more telling, and more desperate as it opens with “there is nowhere to go except this detour…” Here is the artist whose powerful imagination and prodigious talents have not saved her from an almost certainly unrewarding search for her dead. That search leads to a “Beautiful dead end. Where are you?/ I stop to let things stand clear…”, another stillness defining the artist’s limit. Here is grief too deep to name. No words to embellish or illuminate. No glamour, authorial control, no linguistic tour de force. Here she can’t make anything happen. Instead she sees sparrows, the most common of birds, eating millet thrown out by an unknown hand. There’s nothing to do but drive “back blind to Denver.”
The Dig, Emanuel’s second book opens with another strong poem of invention, “Stone Soup”, in which the speaker is so powerful she not only invents her parents, she then makes them make her. This double-strength creative act does not even seem difficult, although it may be tedious. She has set herself a task, inventing a mother holding a cooking spoon, and conjuring a father from a coat, conversation from talk of “labor and wages.” The figures that show up here, the train, the father’s mustache, the sagging overcoat will be part of Emanuel’s repertoire not only in this book but through her most recent book, Then Suddenly, but here they initiate an orgy of ambiguous story-telling, possible truths, probable inventions, dramatic stories full of unsavory characters and spectacularly heightened moments. Emanuel even adds to the mix, giving us another speaker, a knowing voice that comments on the poems and the poet, calling into question not only facts but also the author’s intention. Throughout this artistic display, Emanuel includes poems that stem from her preoccupation with death and loss: “What Grieving Was”, “What Ely Was”, “What Dying Was Like”, “What Did You Expect?” and “What Heaven Is.” These ontological inquiries are set against poems that make claims about art: “A Poem, Like an Automobile Can Take You Anywhere”, “Inspiration”, “The Poet in Heaven”, and “For Me at Sunday Sermons, the Serpent”. Thus, the tension between what the poet can do and what she is bothered by increases, and in the serpent poem she declares her allegiance. Let small town sermons ring in the background, let her grandmother stand on the porch calling her home to chastity and a soupy dinner, the poet has answered another call to adventure and exotic transformation. Art is the invocation of glamorous costumes and journeys to decidedly non-western locales. Art is “the way out” and the talented whip of language that can get a reader to see drinks as “dim lagoons beneath their paper parasols” and the movie screen blonde as “a blizzard” is at her disposal.
Even so, elegy interrupts the action. Midway through The Dig, an elegant and subtle elegy makes a joke of her escape from non-artistic concerns. The grandmother actually dies, and suddenly “That was not the summer of aspic/ and cold veal….” Although in “Drawing Rosie’s Train Trip” the poet has just finished an act of pure artistic control her grandmother’s death brings her back to Ely, Nevada or somewhere much like it where “We were not poor but we had/ the troubles of the poor.” She is once again at the effect of causes that are beyond control, “She who had been that soft snore/ beside the Nytol, open-mouthed,/ was gone…” As a child the poet understands little, “somewhere/ there was a bay, there was a boat,/ there was a scold in my mother’s mouth.” She confesses to what is another universal at such times, “…everything came and went/ in the window of my brief attention.” Here there is no art to create focus, no writerly bag of tricks or transmutation. There is loss, a failure of understanding and a numbing sense of dislocation.
In Emanuel’s third book, Then, Suddenly, the interrupting nature of elegy is absolute, called out in postmodern fashion in the poem, titled “Halfway Through the Book I Am Writing.” Emanuel has been explaining how this book-construction thing goes, and what our role is, and hers, and how they may become convoluted but that in the end the author
will be making the important decisions. Early on she tells us that in the book “We want to feel half of America to the left of us and half to the right, ourselves like a spine dividing the book in two”, but in “Then, Suddenly” our centrality is undone by the death of the father. This is not a constructed father or fatherly archetype but the specific father of the poet. In fact, Emanuel’s father did die while she was writing this book and it’s important that she has mentioned this is interviews, that she considers this fact relevant to our understanding, since she is on record as finding inquiries about Raoul and the Ely, Nevada adventures in her books annoying and somehow inappropriate. Emanuel uses a text from her first book as an epigraph for this deeply felt poem, “This is the wonderful thing about art, it can bring back the dead…” and her choice underlines the sarcasm of that claim. Here the art is not bringing Dad back. He is interrupting the art, complaining about it, complicating it. He is usurping the poet’s control, unhappy with the poem-about-the-train, directing Emanuel to add a museum filled with dadaist-surrealist paintings. And as if in response, Emanuel finally does include Soutine’s “Le Boeuf Ecorche”, a painting of a butchered cow. In stark contrast to Thomas Gray’s elegiac “lowing herd winding slowly o’er the lea” we have the dead cow image Soutine created by keeping a carcass in his studio, painting it daily with real blood to make it look fresh and natural. This was a how-to problem of craft for Soutine and it’s also one for the poet: how do you deal with the dead? The father is a corpse she can neither bury nor or keep alive. “I’m alone and dead” the father complains. “Father, there’s nothing I can do about / all that.” the poet responds. The poem ends with the squeak of a phoebe, a small bird recalling the sparrows that were the only sign of life in the poet’s search for the Rosebud Cemetery.
And this is where Emanuel makes the big move—the big non-move. She gives in. She writes “The Burial” in which she lights a fire and settles in to the task of writing about the problems the father’s death has produced. She is conscious of what she is doing, “I bend over the sea of keys to write the poem/ about my father in his grave” but she is unable to maintain a postmodern sensibility of distance and control. “This is as far as he goes” she tells us, “I stand at the very end/ of myself holding a shovel… an instrument for organizing the world;…” but the father “droops as though he were under anesthesia” and the poet’s “left hand grows/ cool and sedate under the influence of his flesh.” Here the poet’s loss of control is stunning, her left hand no longer knows what her right hand is doing. It’s a moment of complete collapse that results in the father’s true burial, “My father drops in like baggage into a hold.” There’s nothing to do for him, “The body alone, in the dark, in the cold, without a coat.” Whatever difficulties they had cannot now be resolved. The poet goes on to tell us his fate is one she “would not wish on my greatest enemy. Which in a sense, my father was.” Here is truth, loss, strength, and resolve. When it comes to the final question, to the death that awaits the most gifted, talented, and insightful among us we must stop short, at the very ends of ourselves, our ways of “organizing the world” useless.
How is it Emanuel does not despair? She follows this heart-rending duo of poems with “The Instruction Manual”, opening with “How-to on how to read this?” In it she recommends by demonstration a pro-active spirit. She invites an argument. She’s bossy and arrogant, daring you to respond, to recover, to make something of this scene in which “For one thing, there is no you.” She tells you “you’re the dog” and “Aren’t you sorry.
There is no more. No place./ Just blank page, white space, void with a splash of voice.” She issues a challenge and it is our job to rise to it. As the book continues she morphs into a dictator out of control, willing to “open a vial of gunfire” on her characters, then dipping her brush into the “lush grotto” of their blood to create a woman in a red dress. She takes the image of the cows, potential figures for the acceptance of death as a kind of going home, and makes of them “divans with hooves”, staggering “under the weight of being the furniture/ of desolate remembrance.” She suffers a relapse in which her father returns to bother her, but they are on better terms. “My dad looked great / buried in his tweeds from the Denver Junior/ League.” Forcing herself to admire a tree she describes one as “spiffy” and “impudent”, but unable to stay with the project ends up admitting she likes it because it reminds her of herself. She’s adding fuel to the artistic fire aware she may be “pushing [her] luck with the stove…” but she is engaged in her investigations that continue to lead to her real focus. “Even a fire needs/ a challenge. These days, what interests me most, / I can see, is the disappearance of matter,” which of course leads to the death that is most personal—her own.
In the poem “She,” Emanuel finally has it out with the body. While her defense of the postmodern aesthetic is lively and ambitious and while the body is admiring, even fascinated by the postmodernist’s control and creativity, in the end, artistic argument is without sufficient force. “…let’s face it…” the body tells her, “no matter what you say the body wins.” And so it does, and has and will. What Emanuel has done is mark out the possibilities and limitations of art in relationship to that fact. She’s described a territory in which we may make the most of things, in which we can create, argue, exert ourselves and chortle our own existence. We can in postmodern fashion reconsider the rules, try new attacks, and holler at each other across a crowded room. We can be the noisy active animals we are, but for each other, she says, perhaps the most we can do is acknowledge deeply our shared predicament. In the elegy for her father, Emanuel says “Dad, I will be with you in…” This is not a generous volunteering to accompany the father in his fate, but rather an honest statement of a reality. This is how things are. We can’t wriggle out of death even if we are clever enough to make of memory or narrative or belief or experience an extravagant facsimile. Emanuel demonstrates that to infer from an ability to manipulate a text the ability to avoid a certain factuality in life, the beginning, middle and end-ness of our stories, is a mistake somewhat on a par with a child’s complaint “but that’s not fair.”
Thus we have a poet who is unafraid to claim her powers but willing to acknowledge their limitations. In the book’s final poem, also called “Then, Suddenly”, Emanuel’s poetry tour guide complains of a sort of failure. Under the sun she has created “poetry readers saunter home / almost unaware that they are unemployed.” In spite of the prologue’s declaration of intent she hasn’t really left the reader that much to do. Although her artistic control has been absolute, she’s found herself leaving “the little trail of breadcrumbs” so the unsophisticated can “follow along.” In consequence, she decides to deconstruct the project, erasing her creations, both “People-I-Know” and strangers. She cunningly undoes the scenery, winding up rivers and dismissing those elegiac cows.
What’s left? Famously, she claims to “renounce all matter,” to be gone herself, leaving only a voice giving a poetry reading—another warning that we should remember what’s going on here. Let’s keep it real, she seems to say, and it’s as if she is mirroring Stein who used “the patriarchy as a tool to bury the patriarchy.” Emanuel uses an undeniably postmodern poem to undo the postmodern world, down to the unplugging of the bees. Let’s play the project out, she says. See what happens when we keep the pedal to the metal and don’t blink. And indeed something has been accomplished. Emanuel claims, “Reader, I have made our paths cross!” and she has done that, succeeded in keeping us from fusing our identity with the writer’s, from identifying totally with the poet. We remain conscious that we are reading a book someone else is writing—we are still ourselves, separate from this audacious virtuoso.
Just as importantly, a certain sentimentality narrative is prone to, with its trite storytelling and misleading sense of resolution has also been avoided. This matters for as the poem’s epigraph tells us, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” and genuine feeling is certainly not enough for Emanuel who in “The Corpses” warns against using the dead to “prop open the plot” in which we dowse the dead with bullets, killing them over and over. She wants something more from poetry, something smarter and tougher. She wants more, and so in her book she has accomplished another crossing of paths. In Emanuel’s work, the postmodern and the narrative projects also intersect. To make art of this calibre it is necessary to employ the strengths and beware the limitations of each. Art is not only about imaginative illusion, she shows us. It is underwritten by the need to confront in some way our individual and collective fates. To do this we have to avoid falling into schools of thought of all sorts – most especially any that claim to have figured everything out. In short, we have to stay awake. In a poem titled “On Waking After a Dream of Raoul,” Emanuel speaks to us from the “Order of the Holy Ghost Retreat and Old Age Home” where she has crash-landed and found herself forced to recover in the company of old men who have ended “mortgaged to a ghost.” They are vague uncertain characters who have in some sense lost their grip. They never expected, she tells us, to be “living in a place like this.” And we know what she means. None of us did.