by Merrill Cole on Jan.12, 2012
In the 1932 The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein assumes the name and voice of her life companion, playfully and in plain language overriding the boundaries a name is supposed to set. The narrator tells us,
I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius, and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead.
Most obviously, this passage operates as a roundabout means for self-aggrandizement—Stein speaks as another person in order to render herself praise. We could decide to applaud the spectacular audacity of this move, or we could criticize her for appropriating another woman’s identity. Looked at another way, though, the narrative set-up renders any unique identity equivocal. At the same time that The Autobiography does the work of establishing Stein’s celebrity, through the far-easier-to-read writing style of Alice B. Toklas, it throws into question the singularity of the “genius” it extols.
Continue reading “No Rectification or There about It: Gertrude Stein’s Improper Names” »
by Merrill Cole on Aug.27, 2011
While today’s young Native-American poets do not wish to deny, refuse, or dismiss the longstanding themes of native poetry, including that of vision, they do not—indeed, cannot—approach such charged subject material in the same manner as their literary forebearers. Such poets as Sherwin Bitsui, Santee Frazier, and Erika Wurth throw native language and customs into drastic contrast to the detritus, as well as to the charms, of contemporary American culture. Stylistic innovation serves as the only methodology that can honestly register the divided subjectivity resulting from irreconcilable demands. This discussion will focus primarily on M. L. Smoker’s “The Necessary Bullet,” from her breakthrough 2005 first book of poems, Another Attempt at Rescue [Brooklyn: Hanging Loose P]. “The Necessary Bullet” is of particular interest because it directly addresses the theme of vision. The poem is bold enough to announce “this is prophecy,” but Smoker tempers the claim to vision by explicitly framing it within both the anthropological gaze of a “science” that would encase Native-American culture in the museum and a theatricality that inevitably contaminates native self-expression in the context of a white audience. The poem demands “do not use myth or legend”—in other words, do not retreat into the storytelling past. It concludes by metaphorizing native anger and integrity in explosive, non-traditional terms: “ask the Indian whether she’d take / the million dollars or the match. / gasoline is on the shelf in all our houses.” Intensifying prophecy with critical perspective, “The Necessary Bullet” redefines what is at stake in poetic vision.
Continue reading “Vision Written in Gasoline: M. L. Smoker’s “The Necessary Bullet”” »
by Merrill Cole on Aug.22, 2011
Note: I composed this essay for the Queering Lawrence panel at the 2011 Modern Language Association Convention in L.A., but the plane ticket from Berlin, Germany proved unaffordable. Eventually, when other, more pressing projects are completed (a novel, a book of poems, a translation, a critical study of naked dancing and photomontage in Weimar Berlin), I will expand it into a critical article. The Escaped Cock was the working title of Lawrence’s last work of fiction, which he finally titled The Man Who Died. In the narrative is a feisty young rooster who breaks free, and “the escaped cock” is Lawrence’s double-entendre.
In D. H. Lawrence’s “Bavarian Gentians,” the putatively male speaker identifies himself with the mythological Persephone. This conflation of gender identity reaches its climax in the poem’s final lines:
Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendor of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on the lost bride and her groom.
Ironically, perhaps, Persephone, who lost her flowers—indeed, was deflowered—when abducted into the underworld, here retires into an underworld that is itself a flower. Not only is the Classical myth revised in the sense of “the passion of the dense gloom,” so that it recounts more a sad lovers’ rendezvous than a rape, but the speaker himself, to follow Helen Sword, becomes Persephone, “pierced,” meeting his male “groom.” The bride’s gender complicates the poem’s theme of deathly phallic dominance, just as the speaker’s autonomy disappears: He loses individual identity, personal integrity, and even his visibility to himself (it is, after all, a poem about death). This complicated gesture at once represents yet another male artist’s appropriation of the feminine, a pretty poeticization of violence against women, and a peculiar queering of the masculine voice.
Continue reading “The Escaped Cock? Male Homoeroticism in D.H. Lawrence’s Poetry” »