Saint Erasure

Donna de la Perrière

Talisman House

2010

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Despite currents of panic and loss flowing through Saint Erasure, this book manifests quietly. It has the feeling of speech performed by a solitary speaker in an abandoned picnic shelter overlooking the sea. If you have driven any stretch of U.S. coastal highway you know the place: turn off the road and there you will find a concrete table and bench bolted to a concrete slab, the welded iron railing all that keeps you from the bluff and, below, the churning surf. For all of the highway’s traffic that you’ve just left, signs of humans, here, are consigned to some graffiti, a crumpled McDonald’s bag, perhaps a used condom or syringe. Such ravaged beauty, such waste. A sense of erosion happening under each surface. This is the atmosphere of landscape and voice that I find permeating Saint Erasure. For example, note the textures of “The High Note,” the book’s second poem. It begins:

began with
a frantic tapping

with a blurred
rush like wings beat

outside a window
a sustained note

(organ key that
cannot get unstuck)

(cannot once leave off
from its own ringing

flattened note)we were
by the seaon rocks

white motion and
spillagekept saying,

we should
live herebut that one

sustained note that
would not become

unstuckthe frantic
tappingthe click

—and continues this cascade for another page-and-a-half.

The voice articulating Saint Erasure is so particular, and it whispers its statements at such close proximity to the ear that I would recognize the voice anywhere. By this I don’t mean that the voice overly-announces itself by deploying a flashy persona. I don’t mean that it hinges on a solid, object-like subjectivity, or that it overtly delineates the cultural constructs that form voice. Were this so, the book, with its themes of the feminine, and of punctured subjectivity, would employ a different kind of voice, a voice that might fall along the popular trajectories of voice made intentionally excessive as in the gurlesque or else the dramatics of the Glückian conventional lyric (if I can say there is such a thing), or else the voice-as-tool-and-palimpsest of identity politics poetry (for lack of a more nuanced term). No, Saint Erasure refreshingly is not of any of these categories and treats language, world, and self with a sensibility reminiscent of H.D., but also shadowing the concerns of Eliot’s Four Quartets, although in the end the voice is most assuredly the book’s own. Here, subjectivity is always fluid, always slipping, always flowing out of punctured or broken containers. As such, it is a book that admits the terrifying aspects of being flung, as consequence, into the void, but it is nevertheless a book and a voice of strength and persistence in the face of, in the course of, dissolution.

The passage quoted above from “The High Note” attests to this fluidity and shows the way the book manages to embody, at one and the same time, the two seemingly-opposed characteristics of solidity and dissolution. Take the phrase that folds over couplets six through eight: “…we were / by the sea on rocks // white motion and / spillagekept saying, / we should / live here.” While the phrase feels quite smooth and tailored, we can read it in two significantly different ways depending on the grammatical role we assign to “white motion and spillage,” and upon where we place the agency of voice that keeps “saying we should live here.” The first reading of the phrase paraphrases as follows: “we were by the sea on rocks which were awash with white motion and spillage and we kept saying that we should live here.” The statement, read in this way, is fairly mundane and colloquial and feels like comfortable public speech. Who, when sitting on rocks by the sea, doesn’t say that they should live there? As such, this is the kind of moment one might recount to anyone: it is not intimate or personal and reveals very little. And despite its little flourish of “white motion and spillage” it risks little in its telling. In the greater context of the poem the moment, then, deflates the tension that precedes it.

At the same time, we can read the phrase in another direction, assigning “white motion and spillage” the agency of voice: “we were by the sea on the rocks where white motion and spillage kept saying we should live here.” This paraphrase, though just slightly different, hilights the intimate, mystical aspects of the moment—the speaker tells us of a “we” called to live by the sea not only by the environment (by the world), but by nature as “white motion and spillage”—nature not just as a solid state (rock), but nature as movement and excess. Juxtaposed with the colloquial version, this phrase electrifies—a command not to ignore, surely, and not mundane. A command that deepens and complexes the tension that precedes it. Furthermore, one would not be wise to tell just anyone that, while sitting on a rock at the coast, the white motion and spillage of the world told you that you should live there. One would only reveal this at great risk of being thought mad or fey or silly. And so, as readers, we are in this moment of apprehension either overhearing something we have not earned the right to hear—or, we are being trusted by the speaker with intimate information. Either way, the information is intriguingly folded into the colloquial, a hidden secret about the world revealed only to those who meet the phrase with its own aspect of looking.

This textural moment, along with others like it in the book, embodies the central opposition of the book between the solidly contained and the uncontainable. That de la Perrière does this in the self-same phrase creates not a plurality of voice, but, rather, the much more stunning circumstance of one voice pointing in two opposite articulations. One singular voice articulating an almost flat, public language, while at the same time beveling with the pull of the private—a simultaneous layering of the symbolic and the semiotic.

**

I know that “voice” generally gets a fraught wrap when we are contemporarily talking poetry, but when we (by which I suppose I mean I, because I really shouldn’t speak for you) aren’t being petty or boring, it is still an exciting concept. In general, “voice” inhabits a liminal space, for it is physical and yet insubstantial at the same time. Voice comes literally from containers, from physical bodies (voice boxes, instruments, natural and synthetic objects) and is apprehended by the physical body but is, itself, vaporous. In many ways, the act of speaking out loud is a form of breaking: breaking silence, breaking the boundaries of self-containment to enter into the mutability of the world which will inevitably translate and transform what has come from within. As such, beyond providing a tool for unpacking discreet moments, the notion of “voice” is important to Saint Erasure in ways that further reflect de la Perrière’s central tension between solidity and liquidity.

Heard sound’s significance comes to the fore in the poems’ sonic power and the use of small gaps of white space, enjambment, and—often—parentheses, which emphasize moments of speech set among the draw of silence. Listen to “‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved,'” which I quote in its entirety:

the only promise: you will lose
everythingthe only promise:
that you will passbreath on glass
wind on skinrain on
shoulders when you’re moving
fast(look now: you are moving fast)
every day acts as ballasta promise
a luremoving forwardif
fracturedif fallen(the ways we fled
before his face)the real
violence of bodiesand this ware-
housethese train tracksthese
full rain-slicked streetsstored up
inside ourselves for ages
become waterbecome bloodbecome
myths(the remaining)once
torn into piecesnow torn
into God

As with other poems in the book, de la Perrière uses the pause of white space as caesura and end-stop rather than using punctuation marks. This extends the line of speech over line breaks and pauses, creating a tension between continuous utterance and silence. This technique is also used on a larger scale within the book’s three, longer, series-based poems. As with the way the line works in tension with the whole, each moment of any given series is both autonomous and necessarily linked to the next movement. While such tactics of form are certainly not unique to Saint Erasure, they find a particularly apt home here, given the book’s central tension between solid and liquid, container and uncontained.

In addition to the poems’ formal makeup, Saint Erasure is everywhere full of the mention of sound. The following sounds of the world are among those recorded in the book: “a frantic tapping,” “sustained note,” “organ key that cannot get unstuck // cannot once leave off from its own ringing flattened note,” “click click click,” “the flat crack of rock falling / on rock,” “an awful roar,” “a whistling like wind,” the “sound of air rushing,” “breath,” “speech,” “dry rustle,” “the eerily flat / song that sang // through the wires,” “the sound of the ocean,” “a swift rushing of air.” Note aspects of onomatopoeia wherein the word is the sound, a weld of signifier and signified that allows text to emanate with world. Additionally, we also get overt description of moments of speech (or of difficulty speaking): there is a woman who “whenever she sought to speak, swore / she felt a darkness tightening in her throat.” There are “people talking around you,” and “it started with never saying never,” and “called sister sister.” Furthermore, the book ends with the following lines:

we remember that time
whenand remember

when we felland the
city looks all full

of light from up here
all beautiful up here

and you cannot imagine
the view here, we say

buried up to the neck
our patron saint is

windour patron
saint, erasure

Here we have not only the use of the spoken (“you cannot imagine / the view here, we say”), but also emphasis on the physical body—the container that houses speech. Here the “we” (which is perhaps a form of “I,” perhaps collective, perhaps both) are “buried up to the neck.” This image is both harrowing and colloquial at the same time. Colloquial because of the metaphorical expression that ghosts behind it (as in “I am buried up to my neck in work”). Harrowing because of the image of the body submerged under the earth—some sort of putative torture (remember Aisho Ibrahim Dhuhulow), a position completely devoid of agency that turns what is said about imagining the view, which is first given to us as a thing of beauty—ironic. What sort of view can be had, inches from the ground? Furthermore, note the shifting nature of this passage: is it the speaker that is buried up to the neck, or is it “our patron saint” that is stuck in the ground? As with the passage I quoted from “The High Note,” the text lends itself to both readings, creating a moment that holds contradictory elements within the very same articulation.

Locations in the work such as this, where container imagery (here of the body, of the earth containing the body) comes into tension with flux and voice, are among the book’s strongest. Along this line and also intriguing are the different ways de la Perrière figures the female body—and the bodies of this book (even the body of Atlas) are all feminine. In “The Glass Delusion,” for example, we get a series of women who “were persuaded they had glass buttocks” and a woman who “thought she was a shellfish; / another believed she was all cork.” In a different register, the serial poem “Still Life (Shirley in the House),” gives us a house as an extension of the body, and within that house “there is a landscape constructed inside a boxa box inside a box inside a box inside a box.”

In all cases, Saint Erasure’s figured containers are fragile, broken, permeated, penetrable, which lends the book its meditations on death, on the psyche’s container punctured from the outside by what might be sacred, but might be madness. Part of the circumstances of puncture is that one is not given to know the nature of the outside that so rapidly enters. And, while the failure to contain is as such not a cause for celebration, is not a liberation, is not an easy circumstance in this book’s world, it is a necessary one, for it is only in such failure that speech and movement—perhaps even grace (though here I may go too far)—can happen. This conviction manifests less as affirmation than as a coming-into-relation with a sober reality of being human. It happens more as undertow than assertion, but by the end of the book we realize we have been moved from figuration of the “glass body”—an artificial, errant configuration of embodiment that keeps the world out—to “the real body,” a body permeable and inclusive wherein

[…] there is always
the sound of the ocean

a frantic
tappinga dull

huma high rushing
of air […]

And although there is terror in this form of the body, the book brings me to prefer this mode of rushing-through—as poem, as mode of existence—to the static containers we more often are told to strive for, and are more often, by our culture, asked to regard as natural, just, and given.

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