by Joyelle McSweeney on Feb.21, 2011
A key factor of the necropastoral for me is not just the way it manifests the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classical pastoral— ie the most celebrity resident of Arcadia is Death—but also its activity, its networking, its paradoxical proliferation, its self-digestive activity, its eructations, its necroticness, its hunger and its hole making, which configures a burgeoning textual tissue defined by holes, a tissue thus as absent as it is present, and therefore not absent, not present—protoplasmic, spectral. In the next couple posts I want to look at three phenomena: Wilfred Owen’s War Poetry, Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, and WikiLeaks– to try to think about how the necropastoral stages networks and ‘strange meetings’.
My hypothesis is that the strange meetings in the necropastoral eat away at the model of literary lineage that depends on separation, hierarchy, before-and-after, on linearity itself; simultaneously, the ‘strange meeting’ could be considered as one of the necropastoral’s political modes. The strange meeting of Lady Gaga and Julian Assange, the strange meeting of Cairo, Egypt and Madison, Wisconsin!
Case Study 1: Wilfred Owen’s “The Show” and “Strange Meeting”
A characteristic factor of first World War is the way it rerendered the bucolic meadows and woods of Europe as stinking charnelfields, a quality winking from infernally kitschy poppy mouths of “Flanders Fields”, poppies which would go underground, feed on corpses and erupt into the feverscape of Plath’s Ariel. Engoldended dethpoet Wilfred Owen’s textual landscapes are infected with the properties and modalities of the corpse. The poems form a continuous, necrotizing battlefield, a skin-like surface, pitted and dubious, capable of inscription and unexpected transmission, full of holes and wounds through which pity can escape like a stench. Draining, bulging, drowning are the defining gestures of this space. In “The Show”, Death’s transportation allows the speaker to gaze upon the whole corpse-like scene: “sad land,/weak with sweats of dearth,/Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,/And pitted with great pocks and scabs of plaques.”
Owen’s speaker describes worms arising from the corpses, seeming to animate them, but really making and moving through apertures or holes, “smell came up from those foul openings/As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening.” The poem ends in syntactic and synesthetic confusion:
And Death fell with me, like a deepening moan.
And He, picking a manner of worm, which half had hid
Its bruises in the earth, but crawled no further,
Showed me its feet, the feet of many men,
And the fresh-severed head of it, my head.
So Death and Art and the Poet and War and the Corpse and the Landscape go on shitting, eating, decapitating each other like so many worms, a Strange Meeting in the Necropastoral, but never reaching an end of its necrotic conversions, never arriving at status, stasis, identity; always eructing or shitting an extra phrase, “my head.” When the poem should be definitively over, some little bit of worm manages to spasm out of the tissue, in its mouth a wriggling tail or wriggling head of another worm inside itself who will also protrude, a bit of text, a bit of phleghm that says “my head, my head.”
In one of Owen’s most famous poems, “Strange Meeting”, Owen escapes from war through a hole eaten in war by war itself: “IT seemed that out of the battle I escaped/Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped/Through granites which titanic wars had groined.” This over inscription is a saturation which is also a self-evisceration, a digging out—war makes an aperture in war. And this trenching and saturation produces an unlimited supply of specters, “encumbered sleepers […]/too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.” Thought and death, quite distinct abstractions normally, are indistinguishable materials here; the speaker goes on probing the tissue, and finally “one” pops up, the material is responsive, becomes a medium.
The voice of the wraith-speaker now jams the transmission of poem, speaking over, under and through the speaker, speaking the awful fluid ‘pity of war/and war distilled’, describing it for 29 lines in a jammed, tangled syntax which is itself concerned with stoppages and flows: “Now men will go content with what we spoiled./Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled./They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.” Amid wars total expenditure of fluid, its hemorragic force, the wraith figures himself as a spectral counter-fluid which rises to effect a magic and fantasized erasure of wounds in the last line:
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were
Yet even counterfactual erasure of wounds cannot stop bleeding. The passage’s rhetorical insistence generates excess material and obscures iteslf; excess of tense specificity shores up no particular tense at all, no action at all, only alternatives: “I would go” “I would have”. The speaker’s rhetorical proposition becomes unclear, an unclear material, a kind of residue of rhetoric rather then rhetoric itself. The oozy murkiness of the poem, recalling the drinking and pouring fourth of Keat’s Nightengale ode, finally drains to its most direct claim:
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . .”
In this system of saturations, a spectral occupation has come about; the spectre speaker now projects himself as the speaker, casts the speaker as his addressee, but the spirits continue to pass in and out of each other, ‘you frowned/Yesterday through me.” The floating, apparational aspect of the ‘frown’ is made concrete, occultly awarded the violent physical force of jabbing and killing. The final invitation to ‘sleep’, to join in a necropastoral swoon, is itself destablized by the limited/illimitable ellipses and the quizzical art remarking of the final quotation mark. Who ‘speaks’ the unvoiced quotation mark? Is typography here the speaker reasserting himself, rejecting the death bargain, or doubling himself to stand outside it? Is the quoatation mark the head of a head of a worm, wriggling out through the corpse of the poem, saying my head, my head!?
Conclusions so far: Strange Meetings in the Necropastoral
I want to propose that these incomplete, draining, not always shifting saturations produce distended effects and allow strange elements—punctuation marks, affective grimaces like the ‘frown’—to temporarily emerge as organizing marks in the murk. Such necrotic, spectral, ephemeral upheavals, such flowing and sinking, commingling, draining, eating and saturation and submersion, entail ‘strange meetings’–entirely apart from conventional protocol, hierarchy, genre, and division—that the necropastoral mounts in both literature and politics.