Beset with information, and information, and information, what is the self?

January 15 th 2010


Much—perhaps most—poetry written in English since the beginning of the nineteenth century has centered on the self. The self of the poet, standing in for the self of the reader, experiences the world, makes sense of it. It's called the Romantic "I," and it's the matrix of modernist and, now, postmodernist poetry.

It is likely that Foust, O'Brien and Zawacki would not want to be grouped under the rubric "postmodernist," however—so let's call them part of the emerging crop of 21st-century American poets. Although there is no way to know what sort of critical designation they will eventually gain, it is easy enough to see that they, too, write according to the self. But instead of using the self as a unifying center, as the Romantics did, or a locus for an existential crisis, as many modernists did, these new poets revel in the self's limits, its flat reflective surfaces, ontological striations that grow deeper with every advance in communications technology. And they do revel—there is little sense of crisis here.

Introduced into evidence: the first two stanzas of Graham Foust's "My Graham Foust," originally published in 2007 in The Nation.

Gone's his imposter, and gone's
his gawky cross. Gone's
his tweaked legacy's hit list--hooray!--
and gone's his waste of song.

Gone's his civilized wrist. Gone's
his long-exploded gut. Gone's his cruel joy,
his humbling drunk, his good tired.
Gone's his one and every clod of common sense.

This poem's rhythm, marked by the unusual contraction "gone's," arises from a series of phrases that range from vernacular expression to mildly absurd confession. While "exploded gut" is in common usage (referring both to physical maladies such as appendicitis and to uncontrollable laughter), "humbling drunk" and "clod of common sense" are not, though they sound almost right. In this manner the poem continues to peel away almost-recognisable semantic layers from the self of Foust until:

Gone's his sister. Gone's his doctor.
Gone's his transom. Gone's his view.
He's nobody's autobiography.
Whose are you.

The campfire flashlight is turned on the reader, and we find ourselves, if not confessed, then deconstructed (sort of) along with Foust. We're charmed, at least, by the irascible humility of the poem's voice, and we'd like it to be our voice, too.

A poem later in Foust's collection, "So Moved," bears repeating in its entirety:

I, duly finite, pass from animal to remnant.
If for anything, the meat of me votes to get away.
All day, reflections from beside-the-point life click by me.
Last one crossed from the list in the sand's the youngest ghost.

Sarah O'Brien's debut collection, Catch Light (one of five winners of the National Poetry Series in 2008), employs a less personal—and less personable—tone, but still posits a fractured self. As the title suggests, the dominant metaphor is light, and the self is placed in relationship to light. "Memory is in light," begins the first section (or long poem) under the clever title "Light Matters." But the poet soon turns to the subjective:

       I was once told never to place a desk by a window.
And when I did,
the window came in and all I could remember.

Kind of odd. The sentence doesn't make sense, and the next part begins, "The intensity of light emitted should be at least 10,000 lux." Though the source is not identified, a Google search reveals that it is taken from a doctor's instructions for use of "light therapy" in treating seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The quote appeared on a blog in 2007 and is now recycled as poetry.

Hereafter, the "I" becomes "one girl I know" who "made shadow puppets in front of a projector all winter"—then "a child" who "raises her hand / to the window / making shade and letting it fall away." Later "a child" is seen on an airplane, drawing "pictures made of sky." Finally the self is absorbed into the scene, and O'Brien tells us, "The refrain is the window."

Whatever consciousness is in this writing is dispersed—so dispersed, in fact, that it is (or seems to be) actively warring against the notion of a unified self. A poem later in the book suggests a chalk outline at a murder scene: "There will be paper, and shadows, and a heart traced where the body would lie." One can almost see a person scissored out of existence, mingled with shreds of blog entries and half-memories.

Andrew Zawacki's Petals of Zero Petals of One is less gnostic but just as fragmented. "I don't sleep Georgia," begins the torrid 26-page first poem, "Georgia" (which won the 1913 Prize):

I don't sleep Georgia
I shoot bullets into the dark
the blunt mimeographic dark
the middle dark Georgia
outside the outside
whatever a ghost's front tooth is Georgia
let alone ballistics
whatever pulls back the hammer Georgia
coughing up sulfur and strobes of negate
I wait Georgia
think Georgia
the fire is like the snow Georgia
the snow wipes out a oneway street puts nothing in its place

Here are the terms of erasure again, the wiping out, the "I" that has become a state name repeated so many times by the end of this poem as to be almost meaningless. Winter is later described as "pixeled," a techno-natural image that is echoed later—"petals of 0 petals of 1 / rips a hole of a fractal dimension / shrapnel Georgia." The binary of flora leads inevitably to a geometric wormhole that deposits us squarely in a Civil War battlefield, maybe face-to-face with Sherman himself. Later, again: "December beneath a kaleidoscope rain / a digital rain"; "by square root / by willow root / it fractions in Fibonacci Georgia."

Unlike O'Brien, Zawacki never gives up on the "I"—never allows it to be fragmented so totally as to be absent—but he does disperse himself over hundreds of minutia, fuses with them: "I'm an echo playing bumper cars in basilicas of Georgia Georgia / a silhouette / I'm a satin flower / I'm a sick bag and the sick Georgia."

In the book's second long poem (there are no short poems in the book, only three long ones), we see the self almost literally disappearing into the Internet: "the fiber optic net- / work of mouth / on mouth on / mouth // broadband rainfall." But this is not threatening imagery. It's not reflective of a crisis, but a willing self-extirpation, self-dissection, self-examination. And at the core of it, especially in Zawacki's writing, is communications technology. Beset with information, and information, and information, what is the self?

If nothing else, one ought to conclude that the three books mentioned here deserve a library look—perhaps even a bookseller transaction. For further reading on the disappearance of the self in contemporary poetry, see Micah Mattix's forthcoming book, Frank O'Hara and the Poetics of Saying "I" (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press).

Topics: Arts
Aaron Belz
Aaron Belz

Aaron Belz is a poet and essayist who has published work across a spectrum of journals, such as Books & Culture, The Washington Post, Boston Review, Paste, Fence, McSweeney's, and Fine Madness. He has published two books of poems, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007) and Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010), and a third collection is forthcoming from Persea. He lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.


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