Emanuel’s Elegies: “Something about art/ And its opportunities”
Lynn Emanuel is the author of three books of poems, none of which can be described simply as “a collection of poems.” They are poems making an argument, a triptych with a project. What that project is has been the subject of inquiry, essay and interview, a discussion complicated not only by the postmodern sensibility of the texts but also by the inventiveness of Emanuel’s work, the startling use of repeated imagery and narrator intervention, and by the speaker’s often glib tone undercut by a seriousness of purpose that stands up and shouts at the reader even as the text seems focused on witty commentary.
There’s no doubt that Emanuel is interested in what she call the “bookness” of a book, in the features and limitations of narrative and in postmodern practices that create in the reader a self-consciousness and a sense of separateness from the author and the text. But there is an additional and often overlooked feature in Emanuel’s work. This is a deeply motivating, deeply human feeling that requires real elegy, elegy that is profoundly personal, inelegant and filled with a depth of human sorrow and loss that is not amenable to the linguistic manipulations meant to create distance and coolness in much of the rest of her poems.
In 1995 Emanuel’s first two books, Hotel Fiesta and The Dig, were re-released in one volume by University of Illinois Press. The cover art is an Edward Weston photo of a double-headed toadstool, the sort of thing a knowledgeable mushroom hunter might look for in a cemetery, the sort of thing that is ambiguous in nature, attractive, elegant and possibly poisonous. The photo, owned by Carnegie Museum of Art, is strikingly appropriate for a book housing two texts obsessed with the making of art and its relationship to issues of death. The volume’s prologue, “The Politics of Narrative – Why I Am a Poet” has become famous as a stingingly clever complaint about prose writing, but in addition to what it says about prose, it also introduces the underlying subject of Emanuel’s inquiry: what can art say about life – and death. Emanuel uses fast-paced prose to complain that prose, obsessed as it is with narrative, is boring, tedious, and too much work for too little reward. Likewise, although her poems make liberal use of cinematographic effects, her narrator goes on to tell us that movies are even worse, and then she slyly slips in a word about her real interest. “So, please,” she admonishes the reader, “don’t ask me for a little trail of bread crumbs to get from the smile to the bedroom to the death at the end, although you can ask me quite a bit about death.” And Emanuel proceeds to tell us quite a lot about death and loss, and art’s relationship to both. This is her project.
Hotel Fiesta opens with the story of a drunken, unlucky, love-enslaved mother frying trout. It’s a little film clip, the narrator recording details but communicating no strong feeling. Even the one moment of identification (“When I drink, I’m too much like her”) feels easy and non-threatening. This seems to be an introduction to a narrative, a story the writer will tell us, but just as we are ready hear that story the poem changes its subject. “I have imagined all this” it tells us, and proceeds to relate an entirely different mother/father scenario, one in which the parents are in love and living in an artist’s loft in New York city. Emanuel has clearly established the book’s terms. There will be surprise, dislocation and art (Rothko painting roses, an Arshile Gorky exhibit, her father painting models, a self-portrait). There will also be two fragile moving elegies. This particular pattern, imaginative elegance and artistic performance followed by elegy and death will continue through the next two books. And this order is her order for in Emanuel’s books elegy is followed, not preceded by death’s final silence. More art, more imagination and splendid creative license may follow the silence, but it will not mitigate or explain death. It will not soothe or sustain or comfort. It will make no peace. Because Emanuel is Emanuel the artistic postmodern poetry-fest will continue to fascinate and compel us, but it does not solve a single problem, least of all the one she articulates in Self-Portrait : “Despite my lovely diction/I am going to die/Lying on an iron bed in stocking feet.”
So, what about the elegies? The first, for her grandmother, “Elegy Written in the Vowels of Her Name,” opens with a reference to Roger Van Der Weyden’s Portrait of a Woman, an artistic reference Emanuel’s readers could not find surprising. The swift connection made between his exquisite painting and the grandmother is the kind of thing Emanuel does, linking art and life, pairing two images the reader will not have thought could be paired. However, here the grandmother does not demonstrate likeness to the cultured self-possessed woman in Van Der Weyden’s portrait. She is described as “broken-hearted” and “stunned by stroke.” For a writer with Emanuel’s ability to use fresh and unexpected language these phrases are remarkably bland. Rather than setting the grandmother off from the ordinary, making her a special type that could be represented by a wealthy cultured woman in a Burgundian gown and 15th century Flemish headdress, they ground her and her grief in the decidedly unglamorous. Here, glamour in the form of yachts on a “blue unvoyaged bay” sails away from her and she sits with a bowl of dried beans in her lap. She has been felled, as so many are, broken-hearted and stunned – and death is not even required to accomplish it. Although she’s still here, she’s had a stroke, she’s gone. And the voluptuousness of Emanuel’s language and imagery is likewise curtailed. She is forced into a straightforward telling of this narrative with its sorrowful ending. The original connection claimed to Van Der Weyden’s subject now seems romantic and rueful. Here there is heartbreak and defeat leading as it must to a stillness that cannot be enlivened by art.
The second elegy, “Looking for the Old Rosebud Cemetery” is more oblique, more telling and more desperate as it opens with “there is nowhere to go except this detour…”. Here is the artist whose powerful imagination and prodigious talents have not saved her from an almost certainly unrewarding search for her dead. That search leads to a “Beautiful dead end. Where are you?/ I stop to let things stand clear…”. This is another stillness defining the artist’s limit. Here is a grief too deep to name. There are no words of embellishment or illumination. No glamour, or authorial control — no linguistic tour de force. Here she can’t make anything happen. Instead she sees sparrows, the most common of birds, eating millet thrown by an unknown hand. There’s nothing to do but drive “back blind to Denver.”
The Dig, Emanuel’s second book opens with a strong poem of invention, “Stone Soup,” in which the speaker is so powerful she not only invents her parents, she then makes them make her. This double-strength creative act does not even seem difficult, although it may be tedious. She has set herself a task, inventing a mother holding a cooking spoon, conjuring a father from a coat and a conversation of “labor and wages.” The figures that show up here, the train, the father’s moustache, the sagging overcoat will be part of Emanuel’s repertoire not only in this book but in Then Suddenly, her next book. Here they initiate an orgy of ambiguous story-telling, possible truths, probable inventions, dramatic stories full of unsavory characters and spectacularly heightened moments. Emanuel must add to the mix, giving us another speaker, a knowing voice that comments on the poems and the poet, calling into question not only facts but also the author’s intentions. Throughout this artistic display Emanuel includes poems that stem from her preoccupation with death and loss. What Grieving Was, What Ely Was, What Dying Was Like, What Did You Expect and What Heaven Is. These ontological inquiries are set against poems that make claims about art: A Poem, Like an Automobile Can Take You Anywhere, Inspiration, The Poet in Heaven, and For Me at Sunday Sermons, the Serpent.
The tension between what the poet can do and what she is bothered by increases, and in the serpent poem she declares her allegiance. Let small town sermons ring in the background, let her grandmother stand on the porch calling her home to chastity and a soupy dinner, the poet has answered another call – the call to adventure and transformation. Art is the invocation of glamorous costumes and decidedly non-western locales. Art is the way out and the talented whip of language that can get a reader to see drinks as “dim lagoons beneath their paper parasols” and the movie screen blonde as “a blizzard,” is at her disposal.
Even so, elegy interrupts the action. Midway through The Dig, a subtle elegy makes a joke of her escape from non-artistic concerns. The grandmother actually dies, and suddenly “That was not the summer of aspic and cold veal…” Although in “Drawing Rosie’s Train Trip” the poet has just finished an act of pure artistic control, her grandmother’s death brings her back to Ely, Nevada or somewhere very much like it where “We were not the poor but we had the troubles of the poor.” She is once again at the effect of causes beyond her control, “She who had been that soft snore/beside the Nytol, open-mouthed,/ was gone…” The child in these poems understands little: “somewhere /there was a bay, there was a boat,/ there was a scold in my mother’s mouth.” And she confesses to what is another universal at such times, “ …everything came and went/ in the window of my brief attention.” Here there is no art to create focus, no writerly bag of tricks or transmutation. There is loss, a failure of understanding, and a numbing sense of dislocation.
In Emanuel’s third book, “Then, Suddenly”, the interrupting nature of elegy is absolute and called out in postmodern fashion in the poem titled Halfway Through the Book I am Writing. Emanuel has been explaining how this book-construction thing goes, and what our role is, and hers, and how they may become convoluted but, she tells us, in the end the author will be making the important decisions. Early on she says that in the book “We want to feel half America to the left of us and half to the right, ourselves like a spine dividing the book in two” but in “Then, Suddenly” our centrality is undone by the death of the father. This is not a constructed father or a fatherly archetype, but the specific father of the poet. Emanuel’s father died while she was writing this book and it’s important that she has mentioned this in interviews, that she considers this fact relevant to our understanding, since she is on record as finding inquiries about Raoul and the Ely Nevada adventures in her books annoying and somehow inappropriate. Emanuel uses a text from her first book as an epigraph for this deeply felt poem, “This is the wonderful thing about art, it can bring back the dead…” and her choice underlines the sarcasm of that claim. Here art is not bringing Dad back. He is interrupting the art, complaining about it, complicating it. He is usurping the poet’s control, unhappy with the poem-about-the-train, directing Emanuel to add a museum filled with Dadaist-surrealistic paintings. And as if in response, Emanuel finally does include Soutine’s “Le Boeuf Ecorche”, a painting of a butchered cow. In stark contrast to Thomas Gray’s elegiac lowing herd winding slowly o’er the lea we have the dead cow image Soutine created by keeping a carcass in his studio, painting it daily with fresh blood to make it look real and natural. This was a how-to problem of craft for Soutine and it’s also one for the poet: how do you deal with the dead? The father is a corpse, something she can neither bury nor keep alive. “I’m alone and dead” the father complains. “Father, there’s nothing I can do about/ all that.” the poet responds. The poem ends with the squeak of a phoebe, a small bird recalling the sparrows that were the only sign of life in the poet’s search for the Rosebud Cemetery.
And this is where Emanuel makes the big move – the big non-move. She gives in. She writes The Burial in which she lights a fire and settles down to the task of writing about the problems the father’s death has produced. She’s conscious of what’s she’s doing, “I bend over the keys to write the poem/about my father in his grave,” but she is unable to maintain a postmodern sensibility of distance and control. “This is as far as he goes” she tells us, “I stand at the very end/ of myself holding a shovel…an instrument for organizing the world…” but the father “droops as though he were under anesthesia” and the poet’s left “hand/grows cool and sedate under the influence of his flesh.” Here the poet’s loss of control is stunning , her left hand no longer knows what her right hand is doing. It’s a moment of complete collapse that results in the father’s true burial, “My father drops in like baggage into a hold.” There’s nothing left to do for him. “The body alone, in the dark, in the cold, without a coat.” And whatever difficulties they had cannot now be resolved. The poet goes on to tell us his fate is one she “would not wish on my worst enemy. Which, in a sense, my father was.” Here is truth and loss and strength and resolve. When it comes to the final question, to the death that awaits the most gifted, talented and insightful among us, we must stop short, at the very ends of ourselves, our ways of “organizing the world” useless.
How is it Emanuel does not despair? She follows this heart-rending duo of poems with “The Instruction Manual”, opening with “How-to on how to read this?” In it she recommends by demonstration a pro-active spirit. She invites an argument. She’s bossy and arrogant, daring you to respond, to recover, to make something of this scene in which “For one thing, there is no you.” She tells you “you’re the dog” and “Aren’t you sorry. There is no more. No place/ Just blank page, white space, void with a splash of voice.” She issues a challenge and it is our job to rise to it. As the book continues, she morphs into a dictator out of control, willing to “open a vial of gunfire” on her characters, then dipping her brush into the “lush grotto” of their blood to create a woman in a red dress. She takes the image of the cows, potential figures of the acceptance of death as a kind of going home, and makes them “divans with hooves”, staggering “under the weight of being the furniture of desolate remembrance.” She suffers a relapse in which her father returns to bother her, but they are on better terms. “My dad looked great/ buried in his tweeds from the Denver Junior League.” Forcing herself to admire a tree she describes as “spiffy” and “impudent”, but unable to stay with the project she ends up admitting she likes it because it reminds her of herself. She’s adding fuel to the artistic fire aware she may be “pushing [her] luck with the stove…” but she is engaged in her investigations which continue to be her real focus. “Even a fire needs/ a challenge. These days, what interests me most, I can see, is the disappearance of matter.” Which of course leads to the death that is most personal. Her own.
In the poem “She,” Emanuel finally has it out with the body. While her defense of the postmodern aesthetic is lively and ambitious and while the body is admiring, even fascinated by the postmodernist’s control and creativity, in the end, artistic argument is without sufficient force. “…let’s face it…” the body tells her, “no matter what you say, the body wins.” And so it does and has and will. What Emanuel has done is mark out the possibilities and limitations of art in relationship to that fact. She’s described a territory in which we may make the most of things, in which we can create, argue, exert ourselves and chortle our own existence. We can in postmodern fashion reconsider the rules, try new attacks and holler at each other across a crowded room. We can be the noisy active animals we are, but for each other, she says, perhaps the most we can do is to acknowledge our shared predicament. In the elegy for her father Emanuel says ‘Dad, I will be with you in…” This is not a generous volunteering to accompany her father in his fate, but rather an honest statement of a reality. This is how things are. We can’t wiggle out of death even if we are clever enough to make of memory or narrative or belief or experience an extravagant facsimile. Emanuel demonstrates that to infer from an ability to manipulate a text the ability to avoid a certain factuality in life — the beginning, middle and end-ness of our stories — is a mistake somewhat on par with a child’s complaint, “but that’s not fair.”
Thus, we have a poet who is unafraid to claim her powers but willing to acknowledge their limitations. In the book’s final poem, also called, “Then, Suddenly” Emanuel’s poetry tour guide complains of a sort of failure. Under the sun she has created “poetry readers saunter home/ almost unaware that they are unemployed.” In spite of the prologue’s declaration of intent she hasn’t really left much for the reader to do. And although her artistic control has been absolute, she’s found herself leaving “the little trail of breadcrumbs” so the unsophisticated can “follow along.” In consequence she decides to deconstruct the project, erasing her creations, both “People-I-Know” and strangers. She cunningly undoes the scenery, winding up rivers and dismissing those elegiac cows. What’s left? Famously she claims to “renounce all matter,” to be gone herself, leaving only a voice giving a poetry reading – another warning that we should remember what’s going on here. Let’s keep it real, she seems to say, and it’s as if she’s mirroring Stein who used “the patriarchy as a tool to bury the patriarchy.” Emanuel uses an undeniably postmodern poem to undo a postmodern world, all the way down to unplugging the bees. Let’s play this project out, she says, let’s see what happens when we keep the pedal to the metal and don’t blink. And indeed, something has been accomplished. Emanuel claims “Reader, I have made our paths cross!” and she has done that. She’s succeeded in keeping us from fusing our identity with the writer’s, from totally identifying with the poet. We remain conscious that we are reading a book someone else is writing – we are still ourselves, separate from this audacious virtuoso. Just as importantly, a certain sentimentality that narrative is prone to, with its trite storytelling and misleading sense of resolution, has been avoided. This matters, since as the poem’s epigraph tells us “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling” and genuine feeling is certainly not enough for Emanuel who in “The Corpse” warns us against using the dead to “prop open the plot” in which we dowse the dad with bullets, killing him over and over. She wants something more from poetry, something smarter and tougher. She wants more, so in her book Emanuel has accomplished another crossing of paths. In this work the postmodern and the narrative projects also intersect. To make art of this caliber it is necessary to employ the strengths and beware of the weaknesses of each. Art is not only about imaginative illusion, she shows us. Good art is underwritten by the need to confront, in some way, our individual and collective fates. To do this we have to avoid falling into schools of thought of all sorts – most especially any that claim to have figured everything out. In short, we have to stay awake. In a poem titled “On Waking After a Dream of Raoul” Emanuel speaks to us from the “Order of the Holy Ghost Retreat and Old Age Home” where she has crash landed and found herself forced to recover in the company of old men who have ended “mortgaged to a ghost.” They are vague uncertain characters who have in some sense lost their grip. They never expected, she tells us, to be “living in a place like this.” And we know what she means. None of us did.