by Kylan Rice
Some Beheadings, by Aditi Machado. Nightboat Books, 96 pp., $15.95
The Agony of Eros, by Byung-Chul Han and Erik Butler. MIT Press, 88 pp., $12.95.
Orexia: Poems, by Lisa Russ Spaar. Persea Books, 88 pp., $15.95
Leeuwenhoek’s lens was a globe. Melt the middle of a rod of soda glass. Pull it apart until it whiskers in two. Now hold one of the whiskers over flame. Its tear will form a perfect sphere.
Looking through that globe, upon the surface of anything he chose to study, Leeuwenhoek saw worlds. In water drawn from a lake outside Delft, or in frogspawn scooped from a meadow-ditch, he discovered numberless creatures of worlds: beneath his microscopes, “very small animalcula did swim gently among one another, moving like as Gnats do in the Air.” In his own semen and sweat he found things teeming. In his socks he found hatching lice. Leeuwenhoek turned to himself as an object of study. He himself was hylozoic, a body of bodies. In the midst of that age of microscopes and optics, Constantijn Huygens wrote, “We wander through a world of tiny creatures till now unknown, as if it were a newly discovered continent of our globe.” Moreover, in light of Leeuwenhoek’s obsessive self-experimentation, we wander through the world a world ourselves, all of tiny creatures, a globe gazing through globes at globes.
Leeuwenhoek lived and worked at the same time and in the same city as Johannes Vermeer, who used optics to achieve a painterly realism that changed how people see the world and, moreover, how people see seeing. In Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing,1 Laura Snyder elaborates that “what Vermeer was painting was the way the eye actually sees, not the way the mind thinks it sees” (215). Sometimes this meant distorting the immediacy of a scene by applying Verfremdungseffekt, “a deliberately estranging declaration of artifice.” The softened, blurred contours of his edges and figures reproduce or interpose the camera obscura through which he gazed to render his objects of study. To gaze at a young woman sitting on a bench, her arm upon a chair, gazing at you, is as much to see a “Girl With a Red Hat” as it is to see Vermeer looking at a girl with a red hat.
Seeing sight itself was part of the scientific revolution, which foregrounded secular forms of scrutiny and empirical, sensory epistemologies. In a review of Snyder’s book, Julian Bell points out that the program of scientific revolutionaries and coincident mechanical philosophers like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz involved “the dismantling of living organisms into their components.”2 With this “came a notion of dismantling the dismantler, reducing the mind to a motion of particles.” As Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer were providing the tools for dismantling dismantlers, Leibniz was writing that “every bit of matter can be conceived as a garden full of plants or a pond full of fish … Each branch of the plant, each member of the animal, each drop of its bodily fluids, is also such a garden or such a pond.” Whatever I am, I am what I include. The individual, the I, is a principle of inclusion. I is only ever it and it and it and you. Baroque figures like Leeuwenhoek, Leibniz, and Vermeer turned and looked inward, looked in and in. They observed the world worlding. No turning in not in fact a turning out.
For Aditi Machado, this is true of lyric enterprise, too. In “Archaic,” one of the final poems of Some Beheadings:
Throughout Some Beheadhings, Machado’s implicitly baroque sensibility is an intense reflection on self-reflection, a fascinated, warping fixation—a Verfremdungseffekt—on the exteriorities of lyric interiors. Coming long after the mechanical philosophers and opticians and artists of the seventeenth-century, Machado nevertheless continues to witness that
But Machado’s tool is not a globe of glass or a camera obscura—or if it is, her tool is the camera obscura that is the lyric poem, the poem of the self, performed as role, as experiment, as nano-surgery. Machado wanders deep into the interiority of the lyric poem and its linguistic machinery in order to make the long journey back through the sightlines of the perceiving self and into the world abroad. The globe that a poem is—the worlding that a poem does—is her compound, concave-convex, globular meniscus:
Machado uses the temporality-suspending powers that Sharon Cameron describes in Lyric Time to abstract herself from herself within the discursive space of the poem.3 To be able to see and understand herself, Machado has to leave herself, behead herself—the violence that the lyric does when it turns a particular flesh-and-blood person into an abstract, disembodied vocal entity. Machado shows what it is like to dismantle the dismantler. In these poems, the dismantler is the poet, whose world is ruined as soon as they start to sing. Whose very song is a ruining.
So, too, song ruined Orpheus, whose mourning in music brought maenads down upon him, desiring him. No longer possessed of a heart, his heart in hell with dead Eurydice, he had none to give. So spurned, the maenads tore the poet to pieces, beheaded him, and threw him all dismembered, along with his lyre, into the river, and surging seaward his head sang on. In the section of her book “Route: Desert,” Machado revisits another beheading, the dismembered statue of Ozymandias in the desert, “the neck spilling its faint lesson.” The head, “opheliac” in a pool of “lyric wet.”
Still in song, Orpheus’s head gets caught in coastal river sedge, his mouth full of brackish water. So it is for Machado’s speaker, every morning, alone and making breakfast—
The poet tongue becomes a verge, surging toward into ferny, fenny margins in the search for a word. The search takes the speaker through the room, through the bracken, to a tomb: Orpheus at the portal gates of the underworld, striking up a song, as if even words—words like “gingerroot, canna, asparagus, iris”—concealed behind them, deep within, some object of desire. The object itself. The taste of it. The poet sings to get to it, the iris, the gingerroot itself, and a deal is struck, it shall be given—but on one condition. Returning to the world, the world of light and rooms and the sun outside them, you shall not look back, you shall not give in to your dumb sensuality, your dumbass lust to see. Know your shady object follows you. Or suffer its loss a second time.
In Machado’s poem, the tongue is the tomb the speaker moves through: “A tongue, a tomb / I move through / to arrive at a word-like / edifice.” The tongue—it brushes, ferns out, greening the world, worlds the world through speech, but it itself is verge, a verging-on the threshold of an underworld, the inferno of the Same. Machado speaks the paradox of the simultaneous surfaces and depths of the self. The inner self that is all surface, so pure reception. Purely as a host receives a guest, ushers her in. Inside, into a vast interior. For here there are edifices and corsets that betray a gentleness, a gentrified, palatial sense of self. In Machado’s poem, the body is a baroque court gown, all for social outward show, but voluminous in its folds: “to be in public, to feel private,” as Machado has it. Gilles Deleuze describes the “great Baroque contribution to clothing of the seventeenth century”:
The Baroque is not only projected in its own style of dress. It radiates everywhere, at all times, in the thousand folds of garments that tend to become one with their respective wearers, to exceed their attitudes, to overcome their bodily contradictions, and to make their heads look like those of swimmers bobbing in the waves. (121)4
Machado distills Deleuze’s sentiment down to its essence: “I feel I am happening / in a sleeve.”
Indeed, for Machado as much as Deleuze, the deepest depth is merely a surface folded. An outwardness interiorized. An outwardness that interiorizes. A surface so excessive it makes more of what it surfaces.
All that surfaces is a head, singing. Templed, a temple that amplifies, swelling the sound of footsteps that echo off a marble interior, or the sound all the sudden of a knock from without. The knock of the without, of being without, for the object at hand is in hell, the hell of the self. A knocking that echoes and doesn’t stop echoing and recurs until it’s song, a song that is mistaken for my own pounding heart.
For an important element of Machado’s book is eros, the desire of the heart. The world of Some Beheadings is world made erotic through language: a world of “labial / dunes,” a desert of dunes at whose “heart” is “a decadence,” and the speaker’s arrival is figured as the “catalysis” of that decadence. The lipped world speaks with the brackish tongue of a broken poet. Broken because the poet is a creature of promiscuous desire, desirous of objects, any object, every thing. But the object, as soon an object of desire, sung for, recedes, ceases to be in and of itself. Still the poet sings, in this upper world of rooms and light, twice-bereft, beheaded. Machado offers an orphic model of eros, where every object is an object of desire, and every object of desire is a dead Eurydice.
The lyric poet’s song is a litany of loss in language. On the poet’s tongue, everything seethes and recedes, sinks ruined inward into song:
The moment I describe my day to myself as if I were perambulating through infinite foliage, a tender frottage the opposite of claustrophobia; the moment I fall asleep obeys a literary convention I touch, explaining its features to myself; ‘absolute contradiction seemed at the heart of things and yet the system was there’; I sink into another elegant counterpoint.
The problem that faces Machado’s lyric “I” is not the state of being bereft. Rather, the problem lies in the multiplication in and of bereftness. Any given day, the speaking self strides out into the world, takes in the world, into its underworld. At the tomb of the tongue, the speaking self sings entrance, access to the thing itself, meaning to bring the world back out. But the promise of contact with (tasting of) the object of desire is too much, and (you fool) I turn to look, and I wander abroad singing my mourning morning song, public, yet private in my grief, all too private, so uncorseted, dismembered, strewn, all that’s left of me a surfacing head, and my head is in the water weeds, the tongue, the bracken:
Some Beheadings is a book of poems deeply alone, a book of depths of self. In this book, Machado confronts and plunges into the totality of self in order to recover the object of desire—that is, the object itself, the object that belongs to a world (the world) outside and beyond the self. In the process, the speaker of these poems discovers that both interior selves and exterior spaces are, in reality, co-constructed—an interfoliation, or a series of overlapping folds furled into the same whole-cloth. Indeed, any plunging-in that happens in this work is a plunging into the voluminous folds of a baroque fabric, the speaking self a beheaded bobbing swimmer in that surge:
The inward inner self (the I) is here turned outward, and, in turn, the outward folds back in. Machado delineates the folds of eros, acknowledging the porous and reciprocal, reciprocating nature of self. The always turned-outward nature of self. The self, then, a surface, incurring depths (that is, a sense of self) as an extension of outside impact. A wind-ripped flag. Curtains stirred by a shaft of heat. The folded dawn-struck depths of bedsheets, left behind by a risen lover.
The folds of eros. I visualize this plastic physiognomy of self by remembering Hymne, 1967-1969, a painting by a little-known Lyonnais artist named Max Schoendorff. The painting depicts at least four human figures, merging into and out of a vast mitochondrial tapestry of golden fistulae and velvet suppurations. Male and female, the figures twist and warp, becoming-pelvic, becoming-cur, the flesh of each inflorescent, flourishing, recombining, an interminable flux of allele and lobe. The revelations of Schoendorff’s work are always his plasticizing figurations. In Hymne, he is able to represent the human body in full, while also subcutaneously unfurling it, its surfaces and depths on coincident display. Schoendorff helps me remember that bodily and psychic hermeticism is all delusion. Instead the body and self ceaselessly reticulate, remit, bundle, bone, slice, shroud, apotheosize, carnalize, carmelize, and bowel, always on the cusp of something, cusped by it, something “greater than I.”
We are familiar by now with Levinas’s thought that the Other, in their infinite obscurity, infinitely beyond me, is precisely what is greater than I. According to Levinas, the Other is all-consuming, the infinity that bursts the total hermeticism of the self, grape-like. Yet, as Byung-Chul Han asserts in The Agony of Eros, modernity has introduced “expanding technologies of choice” and a “rationalization of love” that has triggered an “erosion of the Other.” Without sensitivity to Otherness, the ethical transcendence that Levinas has described so poignantly cannot take place. In apparent dialog with Alain Badiou, especially Badiou’s short tract In Praise of Love,5 Byung-Chul Han grieves the loss of eros in modern life. He grieves because he sees in this “foundering” of love the “vanishing of the Other.” Indeed, Han proceeds from the idea that the encounter with the Other is essentially erotic, defining the erotic as a negative, asymmetrical, disabling experience for the I. “Erotic desire,” Han insists “delivers us from the inferno of the Same to the atopia, indeed, the utopia, of the wholly other.” In Han’s analysis, only the Other can remove and redeem the individual self from itself—a self-consuming ouroboros-loop that he calls “achievement subjectivity,” and pinpoints as the subjective condition of modern life.
And yet, Han writes, “today, negativity is disappearing everywhere.” Negativity instead has been eclipsed by “an overstuffed society of positivity,” in which “everything is positive inasmuch as it is edible and consumable.” Han analyzes Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, as well as work by Wagner and Breugel, in order to hold these as mirrors up to a world of consumers for whom “love is being positivized into a formula for enjoyment.” For whom the “atopic otherness” of eros has been traded in for “consumable—heterotopic—differences.” In place of the “dispossession” that the Other forces upon us, we hoist upon ourselves the burthen of possession. Han critiques the modern neoliberal emphasis on productivity, achievement, and positive gain, which neutralizes the possibilities of the transcendent “catastrophe” of real Otherness, outwardness. He sees in the neoliberal subject an achievement subject who engages in “self-exploitation—and does so of her or her own free will.” These entrepreneurs of the self do not inhabit a disciplinary society, in which the dictum is “You Should.” Rather, the world of the achievement subject—our world—is a world whose dictum (“You Can”) “produces massive compulsion, on which the achievement-subject dashes him- or herself to pieces.” Always in a process of “realizing itself,” the achievement subject that Han describes is utterly enmeshed in the positive machinery of self and self-affirmation:
… Thanks to excessive openness and unlimitedness, the capacity to close and conclude has disappeared. The ability to die is vanishing, too, because no one can conclude his or her life. The achievement-subject has no capacity for bringing things to an end—for concluding, even provisionally. The subject breaks down under the compulsion to perform and produce accomplishments over and over (23).
To the Sisyphusian homo oeconomicus, eros offers outlet. Unburdening by overwhelming and annihilating. In opposition to a society of self-consuming consumers, of “positivity and survival,” Han looks to recover “the non-economy of eros and death,” wherein the oppositional force of eros and death provide the “negativity … essential to vitality.” Han calls for more desire, which is neither need nor want, but always desire for “the Other.” Han calls for more eros, for more “seduction by the atopic other, which sparks desire,” which is “desire for what is absent,” an absence that “interrupts the exchange rate” of incessant consumption and progress.
Han’s Agony of Eros is a bracing book, but its project may be too large for such a slim and speculative volume. I finish wondering, what am I to do? Although, perhaps that is the achievement subject in me talking. Indeed, I have been born into this world an achievement subject. I do not know how not to do, nor how not to ask, what am I to do?, obsessed with deed, as much and as helpless for it as Homer was: How can I tell it all, sing it all like a god?
In the meantime, until the advent of a politics of love, maybe books like Some Beheadings and Lisa Russ Spaar’s Orexia provide a stopgap. Accounting for the givenness of selfhood, Machado and Spaar each probe the ornate involutions of the self self-absorbing. In this way, both books effect and magnify the lyric while simultaneously witnessing to the dilemmas that Han assigns to modern achievement culture. In an age of the inferno of the Same, the lyric poem retraces a crucial commedia—descending into the Same, guiding the self through itself, then up and out the other side.
Unashamed, both Spaar and Machado know that the self is all they have. It is what they have to work with.
Like Machado, Spaar’s poems dwell in and on solitude. Many of the poems unfold in couplets, a formal move that serves to heighten the ironic status of the speaker: that they are alone and aging and strange to themselves, bereft. Solo, Spaar’s poems are velvet and ornate and playful and broken. Sometimes the language and its music is pulled so string-tight, so skin-swollen and surplus that it can only burst into clipped, crocus fragments, as in “Orexic Hour”:
The poem starts by making multiple claims about the body. Not just porous, but made. Not just made, but continuously remade, or edited. Or not. Never edited, only ever reinscribed, compiling what was and what is and what might have been, the body as a kind of stream-of-consciousness, a waste stream, a surplus. The body as a kind of text, a poem. Indeed, the poem being written on the page before our very eyes, written as we read it, consume it. The text, the body as a product, a sacrament, an edible object. The speaker acknowledges the strangeness of the several slippages and redirections that have occurred across the span of eleven words. This remark—“odd to be so direct”—performs a self-reflexive pause, realizing that writing has been happening, or that address is taking place. In other words, the body of the poem has invited its reader in, consuming the reader who consumes it. How reading is interphagous.
Here, the lyric self is a tool (a “gadget”) of care oddly dissociable from the speaker who disregards the odd shame of speaking to confess, or to “admit” to care: “I admit / I care.” The caesura suggests equivalence: admitting is caring, and admitting (in the sense of taking in) depends upon a speaking, confessing inner self. The self made outer made inner. Freighting and being freighted. Spaar offers the lyric self as a pretense for porousness, and even for eros, Poros as Eros, where erotic activity is configured as the reciprocal consumption of reading. Given only the self, Spaar shows that the lyric poem, like the self, can become an erotic gadget—a “lyric forceps,” as she describes it in Orexia’s opening poem.
Atop Machado’s “opheliac” pool of “lyric wet” float the bulb-aroused mouths of Spaar’s crocus mons. The last poem in Spaar’s book, “How I Might SoundIf I Left Myself Alone” pictures this scene:
a day lily in my wine. Oblivion?
Both Machado and Spaar refuse to annul or abnegate the self, despite (or perhaps because of) Han’s crying in the wilderness. Though beheaded, both poets float on, florid, inflorescent on their self’s stream-of-consciousness. A streaming song that carries me to you, verging on the delta of the outside world. A transfusion of me to you and you to me. Indeed, another way to think of the transfusing “lyric wet” of which Machado speaks is to remember Keats’ “This Living Hand,” which
Both Keats and Spaar recognize the transfusion made possible by the lyric poem, this uttering of I and You. Crucially, the transfusion is interphagous: the self-consuming, consumptive speaker (poor Keats) consumes the reader consuming him. The poem initiates and effects this “asymmetrical” exchange (Han 16). Engineered thus, the consumptive process of the lyric poem is utterly erotic.
Like “This Living Hand,” “The Wishbone: A Romance” offers the gadget of communion to its reader. For Keats, the lyric gadget is figured as the hand and the handshake. For Spaar, it is the “lyric forceps” of a wishbone, shaped like a lyre, broken in two by two people.
to blood’s forsaking bodice:
furcula picked and dried
clavicles tongued, now thumbed,
then, after giving thanks,
Spaar’s poem introduces a crucial theme that persists across the whole of Orexia. The wishbone lyre is figured as a pair of forceps, as implements of giving birth. Throughout Orexia, Spaar ruminates on motherhood and the cycles of barrenness and “fertility” experienced by some bodies:
… Fluke or fate,
the portal happened once. To make you,
Involuting begotten and begetter, Spaar figures motherhood (or if not motherhood, at least its thwarted expectation) as a reciprocal process. I and You become co-constitutive in the procreative process, a metaphor for the begetting and being begotten in the lyric poem, the generative outcome of the lyre as forceps. Yet, in its reciprocity, the relationship is, once again, essentially consumptive, burdensome:
as is my wont,
my head bleeding
& hobble to pee, regain
then not, show me again my boy
“Paradise,” Spaar declares in another poem: “I suckle you.”
Spaar’s poems of motherhood remind that the self is only a self insofar as it is potent, able to split, unself. Selves consume each other, a paradise of selfsame infernos. The hunger that drives procreation spawns other hungers, the hunger of others, the hunger for others who were meant to come, or meant to stay. The law of desire is that desire’s fulfillment will always overflow its brim. After the feast, your full belly swells past normal limits. The next day, or even hours after, hunger comes back with a vengeance, your elastic stomach, for a time, more capacious. Capacity breeds lack. Desire desires. This is the fertility of hunger. The productivity of paucity. Orexic, whether you like or not. But you do. You do like it. You love it. You love, because you are I.
Spaar witnesses to necessary cycle of consumption and creation. The bloodiness of the hunt, of pursuit and sustenance, is, upon recollection, redolent of the privations of future fertility, and, in a further future—that is, the present—your fertility deprived of you:
(still, real fires), & the pelvis
hidden on cellar stairs, men below in caps
guns at rest, disjointed and oiled,
blooded jacket pockets, portent
And then, after more years,
Though perhaps no longer fertile in body, the speaker of Spaar’s poems is yet a speaker of poems. Still a self, a lyre, pulled pelvic apart. Made to be entered and exited. Made to be edited.
Over the course of several decades during the mid eighteenth-century, Giovanni Battista Piranesi issued a handful of differing, altered editions of his Carceri d’Invenzione—a series of prints that show bewildering architectural interiors. The title, translated, means “invented” or “imagined prisons.” Piranesi made the plates for his prints by etching, scratching, and burnishing lines into the surface of the metal. After the first edition of his Carceri, Pirenesi “edited” his images by reworking, re-emphasizing, and deepening the lines of his original etchings. Between the first and second editions, Pirenesi’s Carceri grew denser, thicker, more detailed—“a strange linear universe”7 of stairs, terraces, arches, ladders, pulleys, and mazy spatial contradictions. Though more distinct, the images paradoxically became more fraught with possibility and dimension. The excessively, obsessively deepened palimpsests of lines and underlines unrestricted the restricted spaces. The more the prisons were there, the more they were not. That is, the more they were not prisons.
Both Machado and Spaar etch out the baroque carceri of the self. In lines of poetry, Spaar and Machado delineate and deepen the inferno of the Same, scouring and clarifying it, emphasizing—even overemphasizing—its portals, archways, untold depths, depths confessed. They know what Pirenesi knew, that more is less, and that less is more.
For Pirenesi as for Leeuwenhoek, the way out is in. To open the mouth and speak that portal’s password. To say I. To say it again. I. I. A line, a line. Self-swallowing, self-consuming, forking into You. Lines and caesura that double over and over to make a fold. Folded and folded, until the surface is a matrix, a mitochondria, and are not our mitochondria in fact our mothers’? Our most potent, most involuted organelles the outcome of direct inheritance. A pure surface of folds because I am pure reception. Pure portal. And by “pure” I mean “all.” All surface, all portal, all garden all plants all gnats all semen all fish all pond full of fish.
1 Snyder, Laura J. Eye of the Beholder : Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
2 Bell, Julian. “Like Leather, like Snakes.” Rev. of Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the Reinvention of Seeing, by Laura Snyder. London Review of Books 39.7 (2017): 33-35.
3 Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time : Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
4 Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold : Leibniz and the Baroque. University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
5 Badiou, Alain. In Praise of Love. Serpent’s Tail, 2012.
6 Because of the pressure exerted on contemporary lyric poetry by the tradition of “antilyric” reading, Gillian White believes that modern lyric emerges from a place of lyric “shame”—a radical form of “mobile, intersubjective” self-consciousness fomented by a revision of the mode of the poem as a series of “moral” and “ethical choices” (27). The debate over the representation of confessional, coherent subjectivities in poems—and the “shame” that attends the writing, reading, and enjoying of such poetry—corresponds with the rise of a “reading of…conventions as ethical” and a socialization of the “reading process” (31). To feel lyric shame “is perhaps to have always already rescued [the lyric] from its supposed hermeticism and inwardness, even as it is also to produce the I who is shame’s object” (31). White, Gillian C. Lyric Shame: the ‘Lyric’ Subject of Contemporary American Poetry. Harvard University Press, 2014.
7 Yourcenar, Marguerite. The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.