Life of a Star
Sunday, November 7th, 2010
By definition the prose poem arises from a site of struggle and composes a union of opposites. We know that a prose poem succeeds when we discern the struggle and see the way in which the tension inherent in the genre reveals something essential about the opposing forces. And ultimately the prose poem has the power to resolve, on the page, something that cannot otherwise be solved. In his 1987 book, The Poverty of Objects: The Prose Poem and the Politics of Genre, Jonathan Monroe deepens the thinking around this fundamental aspect of the genre, connecting genre tensions with “socio-aesthetic” oppositions and conflicts. In other words, the prose poem works out—or furthers the struggle of—what we cannot see ourselves through off-page.
Of particular interest to me is the struggle Monroe taps between the lyric “I” and everyday life. He makes the compelling argument that the prose poem appears and reappears “at those moments—such as the close of the age of the new criticism in America in the early 1960s—when the lyric and the lyrical self seem most sublimely autonomous, detached, set apart from reality” (28). The prose poem serves to do what the individual genres cannot do in isolation: it yokes this lyricism, this lyric self, with the everyday of prose, creating a necessary dialectical tension between the two extremes. In a further turn he prophesies that the prose poem will “disappear or decline in importance when the verse lyric begins again to address the more prosaic aspects of daily life it has often tended to ignore” (28). Once the lyric and the lyric “I” becomes the territory of the everyday—the territory of what used to be the province of prose—the prose poem hybrid will no longer be necessary. The genre will be submerged because it will no longer be needed to fulfill its primary function.
Thirty years later we can see at swift-glance that we have more prose poetry than ever before. If we believe Monroe, this would indicate a verse lyric and a lyric “I” that continues to eschew the daily. However, yet another swift glance will reveal that, to the contrary, the verse lyric increasingly feeds on the “more prosaic aspects of daily life” and lyric “I’s” are now quite often constructed and read with the socio-cultural contexts of their authors in mind. Indeed, the versified lyric sensibility of the everyday has taken the center stage. Furthermore, while a good chunk of the prose poetry written today may be hashing out genre tensions that no longer need hashing, I am pretty sure that much of today’s prose poetry gets something out of being prose poetry rather than a lineated thing.
Because I am convinced by Monroe’s larger picture of the connection between the genre’s dialectical tension and life-as-we-know-it (and you really should read his book because I wager that you will be convinced too), this indicates to me that the prose poem of today is working out of a new tension. A tension that speaks to contemporary 21st century extremes not only extant in genre, but of course also prevalent in, and born of, society at large. I will call this the tension and problem of artifice. For while we are very well aware that the “I’s” we create when social networking (for example) are part-fictive or all-fictive constructions, Facebook posts have physical non-fictive consequences. We still point to the Franzen debacle as an object of shame while we, with the other hand, shell out the cash to purchase David Shields’ Reality Hunger. There is something going on with artifice: it still has the power to absorb us and then, in the next moment—or, in a prose poem, at the very same time—to spit us back out.
Enter Jane Unrue’s Life of a Star, a book-length series of prose poems* voiced by the same persona, all centering around the art and artifice of self-presentation projected towards attention-getting ends. The speaker, every bit of her a fictive character, charges and lingers through the highly artificial landscapes of a formal garden, a museum, a cruise ship, the boarding house of childhood memory, an un-named lover’s bedroom, and the non-space of embroidery (she works on stitching a “simple study of a bumblebee” onto a pillowcase)— all the while recounting memory, fantasizing about romantic adventure, and voicing sexual encounter. The speaker’s aim is to style herself in a way that captivates the attention of lovers. For example, a sequence of poems set in a museum weaves through the book and features the speaker posing for attention in museum galleries:
Dark, twisted people on the beach among the sticks and timber of a storm-wrecked ship, I stood right in the center of that grand old hall of devastating paintings of the poor and pitiable survivors of the largest shipwreck ever, panels hanging clockwise starting at the door through which newcomers wandered. On that spot inside the Gallery of Art I practiced an entirely silent scene, and, of those passing through, there was, there had to be, one couple on whom I made quite a deep impression. He, I knew, was bothered by the image of me standing almost motionless: my body turning slowly so as to confront each painting, otherwise no movement whatsoever. It awakens something in a married man to see such beauty, grace, allure. Not just in contemplation of that kind of agony (eyes: shut), but deep down in the trenches of it (still shut), with it. He could see it on my face: I suffered (deadeye: floor).
And, several pages later in the book, the following poem, brief in its entirety:
I was arresting on that day; exhilarating; dangerous. All that I saw were husbands wishing they could steal away from their encumbrances and go away with me.
Here we have not only woman-as-art-object, but woman-as-intentionally-offering-herself-as-art-object. The speaker of these poems knows not only how to pose her body to particular effect, standing such-and-such a way among art objects, but also knows the particular people to manipulate with her effect: married men, cruising galleries with their wives. Here she will not only play on the man’s sensibility for beauty, already triggered by the beautiful shipwreck depicted around her, but she will also prey on his married state, urging him to see his wife as an “encumbrance.” Additionally, there is an interesting indeterminacy to the phrase “All that I saw.” Does the speaker mean that she became blind to all other people—so deeply seeped in her manipulation she only sees the objects that can project herself back to herself? Or, does she mean that her very presence transformed “all that [she] saw” into husbands? Artifice as self-blinding or other-transforming—or both, at the very same time?
In Unrue’s use of persona, unabashed indulgences of artifice, and tropes of an actress on the stage—all packaged within a book-length project—Life of a Star bares more than a passing similarity to Louise In Love, Mary Jo Bang’s 2001 book that chronicles the love affair of a character, Louise, an actress who both is an is not Louise Brooks. For example, here is an excerpt from Bang’s poem “Louise sighs, such a long winter, this”:
Dollish and dressed in pretense, Louise turns
to the window: in one eye, she sees fir trees
circling a suspicious white house,
a peevish pink shed; in the other, a helicopter
distinguishing itself from five geese flying in form.
O the crippled government of love, love love.
Numb now, why she’s just a young thing,
a fillip of the ghostly habit of on and on.
Here we have similarities to Unrue’s museum passage in Bang’s presentation of a woman caught in a moment of solitude, in the attention to Louise as physical artifice (“Dollish and dressed in pretense”), in the passage’s focus on the character’s gaze (though Louise’s gaze registers objects rather than aims at the effect of being an object), and in the linking of the pose of a woman-in-solitude to musings over the nature of love. There is also a sense, in both passages, that while we see a particular feminine figure featured, these women are part of a whole fabric of artifice: Unrue’s speaker is an extension of the shipwreck painting behind her and works to transform her beholders’ wives into encumbrances; Louise is a “fillip,” that is to say, a stimulus of what goes “on and on.” There are, however, significant differences to the projects and these differences point to what Unrue is doing with artifice in the prose poem genre.
Most recognizably, Bang employs the framing technique of a third person speaker who can tell us more than the characters that she describes—moving us in and out of the layers of the story, never fully unfolded but rather gestured towards, stylized. Louise and the other characters in the book have lines of dialogue, but the third person speaker serves as a structural apparatus that draws our attention to the artifice of the work and allows us to see the way it is constructed and held together. As such, we can become both absorbed in the textures of the love affair, but we can also be pulled up to the surface, made aware of the act of telling and observing because of the outsider status of the story’s teller. In this way, the speaker enacts a tension also employed in the poems’ form. If the sentence-to-sentence action creates the thrust of the story, the lineation of the poem breaks this thrust, doubling the language back on itself.
Life of a Star has no such advantage, for we encounter no lineation and are locked into the head of the book’s first-person narrator. This allows Unrue to take full advantage of the absorptive aspects of prose work. For example, I have rarely been so annoyed with a first-person narrator than I am with this speaker’s palpably cloying and manipulative forays into love. The fact that I am annoyed with her means that I have in some major way “bought in” to her, even during poems such as the following:
Encounter number one: “Don’t let me conquer you,” you said. I said, “Already have.” (No blinking: mouth: relaxed.)
And the following:
“No whore,” you said, “Has ever been fucked like that.” “You’d better go,” I said (eyes: down) in hopes that you would tell me I’m not going anywhere. It was encounter number two.
Both of these moments are set on their own pages and sound, aptly for a book titled Life of a Star, like bad dialogue from some star’s blog. They work to create a layering to the persona, allowing Unrue’s speaker to come across as both highly artificial and strikingly real. By weaving moments such as these “encounters,” which are raw and minimal, between moments such as the museum passage (notice the repetition of parentheticals linking the two different types of experience) or moments of high fantasy (“When I looked over, I discovered sea pearls on the floor, and reaching in between my legs, into the warmth and wetness, it seemed I was filled up with those sea pearls”) Unrue creates a sort of psychological, New Sentencey effect—not between sentence to sentence, but between poem and poem. If the New Sentence, as described by Ron Silliman, works so that in prose poems the leaps between sentences create and reveal gaps for readers to engage, Unrue’s leaps between poems create a space for readers to fill with a sort of virtual psychology, thus becoming attached. (Here we might remember our Stein: Paragraphs are emotional while sentences are not!) Further compounding this effect are about a dozen poems, placed near the beginning of the book, in which the speaker tells about her childhood. Here we see a formative and scarring experience with a boarder named Jeanette (the speaker’s family rents rooms), another little girl who is favored above the speaker. We get a morbid dream-like encounter and the family suddenly moves out, but our “star” never tells us exactly what happens—does she threaten Jeanette? Hurt her? Scare her? Unrue gives us just enough information to perform an amateur psychological evaluation on the narrator, but not enough information to tell how far our little star will go with her manipulations.
The attachment Unrue’s speaker wrests from her readers is, however, ultimately disrupted by the “poetic” aspects of the text. And this is the way in which Unrue performs the tension of artifice—that of absorbing us into a fictive world while at the same time spitting us back out. Unrue breaks the dream by calling attention to the surface of her language through her range of diction—we get “fuck” and “whore” on one page and “seed pearls,” which may or may not be related, but in terms of diction are from a different sphere—on another. We also get self-conscious, nearly meta-poetic moments where the speaker talks about her wiles of manipulation:
The one who simulates attraction to herself by molding her complexities to meet a given situation and by demonstrating, at the same time, the effect her having on the situation has upon her own self, wins.
Notice here that not only does the speaker confess her intentions, but she shows her hand with the awkward phrasing of “her having.” The use of “her having” rather than the smoother “she has” deploys the merits of the continuous form of the verb, “to have,” thus enacting the “at the same time” that the sentence describes. Such finely-embroidered phrases leave us to wonder if the book isn’t also a metaphor for literary persona-making. Of course it is.
Other poetic aspects of the book include gaps between the poems and the varying amount of space each poem takes up on the page. Gaps and space here create a sense not exactly of silence, but of something going on off-page, another life lived that we cannot hear in the circumscribed (and so lyric) world of the speaker. In addition, Unrue does not give us scenes in successive settings but rather jumps around from museum to cruise ship to childhood to lover’s bedroom, etc. This jostles engagement with the action (usually sexual, sometimes violent, sometimes conversational) that happens in the scenes, shooting us out of any sort of narrative of cause and effect we might feel lingering under the surface.
As such the book explores the tensions of artifice that we face daily: knowing that we encounter constructed identities, we still buy into them. Perhaps this is akin to believing, contra quantum mechanics, that the cat-in-the-box is always either dead or alive but never any mixture of both. Perhaps this is because we know that, ultimately, within artifice resides a certain truth: by deconstructing these fictions we find the materials and impulses—the origins—from which they are made. Out of this we can study the drives and values that construct a made thing. However, this is not the sort of truth that settles anything: if we admit all speakers, and not just in novels, to be fictive things what we are becomes ever more complexed and murky. If Unrue’s book does resolve this contradiction it is with moments of self-recognition such as the following single-line poem. For better or for worse
It seems I have no feelings I can call my own.
* In full disclosure I must reveal that the book has the genre “fiction” written on its back cover. And who am I to argue with the genre designation given the book by its author and/or publisher—all of which are prose poets par excellance? However, quibble I will. I think it is because of the persona-based aspect of the book that it has been designated “fiction.” This shows how far outside of the mainstream a blatantly fictive, psychologically absorptive lyric “I” is considered to be. If the lyric “I” of the New Critical lyric was not likely to be found messing about in the everyday (and so needed the prose poem to do it!), the lyric “I” of the contemporary versified lyric is just as likely not to be found indulging the drama of a fictive, palpably artificial persona. Admittedly, both examples are reductive (there was more going on in the early 60s than New Critical lyrics!), but we are talking official verse culture. If we consider today’s experimental breakthroughs into the “mainstream” (the obvious example being Rae Armantrout’s recent awards), we will notice that the works that do the breaking thrive on identification of author-and-speaker and take on the language and aspect of the everyday. This, my friends, is something to think about.
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See comments by readers about this reviews 
November 12th, 2010 at 11:23 am
Dear Karla Kelsey,
Thanks so much for this very smart and thought provoking review and more for reminding us of the connection and fissure between the poem and the prose poem. Very smart and very generous. So much cleverness in reviews, so much narcissistic display, that rarely will you find that open door to the work that you provide here.
February 4th, 2014 at 2:15 pm
Yes,I agree, this is a review that opens the door to a work that I would very much like to read.
I was reading the New York Times Book Review this weekend and in one review the young woman reviewer talked more of herself — why, she was of no relevance to the review — than of her 80 year old actual subject. I complain to the New York Times, but is it a complaint that will be heard? Probably not.
I look forward to buying so many of these books you have found for us!