I got your emotional cocktail right here: Bortzutzky's Interfering Bodies, Ponyo, and feelings

by on Aug.01, 2011

[Caution, y’all, it’s a spill!]

I read Daniel Borzutzky’s The Book of Interfering Bodies (of which you can find some great reviews online; this is not a review) over the past couple of nights. Lying in bed on my side with the book tucked under the lamp, shooing midges, sometimes the baby, not really a baby anymore, he’s a toddler, doing his sweet/irksome starfish routine against my back, partner shuddering the bed with restless sleep because he’s overworked and underslept, dog snoring, it’s warm nights in Wyoming so that it feels like some other country. Daniel’s book worked like a ghost on me. Like an otherworldly visitation of something I thought perhaps was dead and gone, or someone I expected never to meet, or something I didn’t know could be. It was psychic. It knew what I wanted and gave it to me, or else it was mindmelding, or else I was able to tell via a series of complex gestural articulations what was next and to arrange myself into the ideal receptive position. I mean, I was on my left side, and that does tend to give me heart palpitations, but it wasn’t palpitations I was feeling. I was feeling around them for a shunt in my heart. I was feeling the direct transmission of mixed feelings. All the tender muck of abjection love silliness tender outrage future panic giving over dissolution fine thread of hope in the whole very earthly very in the dirt of the earth only littoral insofar as the sewage runs out to sea business running headlong right into my chest. I’ll say tender as many times as I like. In my ribcage, squirming all around my clumsy heart. It was satisfying, so I didn’t want to 1. right my own poem (I really just typo-ed that pun, what a hack!) taking a line of flight to a better location, or 2. wake everyone up to tell them so.

I had a similar response to, for instance, Killing Kanoko, but I don’t know Ito Hiromi.

Daniel & his pack were good friends to my pack when we did our brief stint in Chicago, and I am freaked by how much I love this book, like I won’t be able to look him in the face next AWP and yak about the schools our kids go to or the new bakeries that have opened since we left town or whatevs. Of course, the awkward (whatever!-also-wonderful) part really comes from me saying that aloud, and it’s silly because when I see him again, he’ll be himself, slightly apart from whatever book he’s puked up glistening charming whole, or however it came out. I feel this way about, let’s see, maybe 100 books. Some of them are yours, your books, gracious, I love you. If you catch me looking at you funny, that’s why. I’m looking to see where the book came out, to see if you really mean all those things you said.

I meant them, mine, the ones I said.

But we’re really very circumscribed and occupied, aren’t we? Here, in the quotidian with our stupid mix of feelings that can’t be parsed or actualized or forced to exit the body, cowards, parasites, and take shape as some physical object with which one could reckon.

My daughter loves Ponyo. This movie troubles & delights me on many levels. Aside: Most of all I’m troubled by its representations of countless tiny reproductions of the larger whole of which the reproductions are a part, but also separate:

Back to the relevant bit: Ponyo’s father (former human, something of an eco-primativist with monomaniacal inclinations) deals in elixirs: Look: this is how I write and what I read for. I suspect it’s pretty basic, and obviously I’m overstating the simplicity, so let’s call it a drive, a particular drive along a particular trajectory. I’m driven by the experience of emotional cocktails. I’m driven to distill several strong, competing emotional experiences and their complementary affects into particular elixirs. The emotional and affective qualities are not divorced from their content or site-specific conditions.

From Borzutzky’s “Resuscitation”

I touched your head and it became a balloon
The warmth of my hand made your head swell with air and when your head exploded I found a rag and a bottle of
I took a sip of the bleach and it was vinegar
I spit out the vinegar and watched your eyeballs sail down a river
I scooped up your eyeballs and tried to pin them to my chest
Your eyeballs dissolved into the cotton of my shirt and I imagined you could see inside me
I felt your eyes inside of my chest and what they saw was an endless drip

(Now I’m dividing him into “Daniel” and “Bortzutzky,” what a dope! what little easy moves we make to somehow get language to perform half what we’re mechanizing in the brain). There’s something that happens in poetry, wherein the precise affect, the precise elixir in its goofy baroque urn, in the hand of some undersea wackadoo, where the serum disguised as benign print, whatever: the poem. There’s something that happens in the poem such that the exact location of its architecture, the exact geegaws in the architecture, the tonal tilt of the speaker, etc. etc. combine to create a precise, as-yet-unnamed emotional flux. Nothing that happens in these lines could happen quite the same way without the sealed tunnel or the balloon or the mice of the preceding lines, without the peeled skin that follows, without the boys and shirts and They and the horse’s legs, without the particular political climate in which these things decompose, even though the passages are made with feelings that we might find elsewhere: fear, dismay, passion, hope, itch, seduction, croup–am I getting off topic? Why do we have such a short lousy list of named feelings in English?

It’s scientific, paranormal, and ridiculous, exactly like a ghost. We can prove the emotive experience with science, we can view the experience with the standing up of all the fine hairs on the forearm, we can thrall and pitch to it in the bed where we’ve lain everything else quietly down. Distillation, concentration from the poet. Permeability, rent fabrication of the reader.

What am I aiming for Montevidayans?

Today, Joy Katz made a very compelling observation about the way we value experimental poetry. She suggested that we might value experiments and innovations in the sentimental landscape as much as we do those in the semiotic. Recently, I was chatting with a friend, an “experimental” poet, for lacksies of a better term, whose experiments occur in form and grammar. Of a third writer he said, “I don’t think of her as experimental,” and I said, “well her form is totally traditional, yeah, but she’s creating completely uncharted emotional territory. It’s an emotional experiment.” I was a little talking out my ass, as I always am, but also I was entirely serious (you can tell from the superlative adjs).

In a lot of ways, Sianne Ngai’s book Ugly Feelings gave me Official Literary Permission to talk about feelings, which permission I needed because I am a dweeb, but anyhow, I can’t thank her enough. Now. I want to talk about feelings. Let’s do that. What does it mean to, perhaps, be an experimental affect poet?

Here’s some Ponyo while you ponder:


5 comments for this entry:
  1. Jared Randall

    That’s a great ending question, Danielle. Makes me think of my own work in a different way, as a different landscape than I expect it to be, as maybe an unknowing conservator of my own inner-feeling-being, a preserver of the raw and quivering but unallowed stuff I don’t allow myself to look at. Then again, what I’ve written starts to sound like the old poetic trope of the relatable because “universal human” — which scares me back away from some ledge you have me peering over. Perhaps what makes it experimental affect is the refusal of this universal, the embracing of the particular (particulate?) and varied and profuse and unaccountable? More thought (feeling?) needed here…

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Josef Horáček

    Yes, the closing question is great, and I especially like how you immediately distract the readers away from it by having them watch the Ponyo trailer. The question peek-a-booed my brain and then lodged itself in some waterlogged crevice of my body, Ponyo-like.

    I wonder what you and others think about the use of words feeling vs. affect. Have feelings indeed made a comeback in the literary and academic worlds, disguised in a trendy new term? Or is there a difference?

  3. Danielle Pafunda

    @ Jared, thanks! Yes! I think the particular/particulate is an ideal place to start. When texts are lauded as “universal human,” I always feel like that’s noxious code for something–either a subtly racist “oh, look, here’s a poet of color we all can relate to, after all!” or an establishment “these poems are totally appropriate and stamped with approval and should win an award,” or some such.

    Also, I suppose an important difference would be not trying to recreate one’s own (the author’s own) emotional landscape in the reader–not trying to mirror-resonate. Instead, making a cocktail and seeing what happens when you feed it to people?

    Josef, that’s such an excellent question. I’ve been puttering around with it since we got Julia Obert here at UWyo teaching affect theory. So cool! She has a whole unit on shame! Anyhow, I imagine, yes, sometimes affect is a fancy way to avoid talking about feeeeeeeelings, but in my limited exposure to the subdiscipline of affect theory, it seems like a good way to define what’s text and what’s author/reader. I like to think that humans & animals have feelings, whereas texts carry affect that produces (unpredictable) feelings. The author has feelings on one side, and the reader has feelings on the other and between them is a bizarre aura in which the catalysts of feelings, the affect perches.

    Plus I think about all those psych studies where people’s stomachs are stimulated to give them different emotional responses… seems like feelings as we understand them require a bio-container?

  4. Josef Horáček

    Oh, so much to think about! I don’t know if affect theory and I share the same concept of textuality, but it seems from your description that affect operates at the level of the signifier, which makes me think that a feeling, a physical emotion, is then a possible signified, a reader’s reaction to the text that for a moment arrests the endless deferral of signification and produces meaning (localized and temporary but at the same time bodily and irrepressible). Does this mean, then, that an emotional response is necessary for meaning-making, or is this just one way of responding to a text?

    What you say about feelings and bio-containers reminds me of the old theory of humors. Also Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

  5. Danielle Pafunda

    Ha! That’s probably way more my concept of textuality than affect theory’s. But wow, yeah, lots to think about. We should get my friend Julia in here. Or, read some more books 🙂 .