To gather a frame of reference for Daniel Tiffany’s critical and creative output, one could begin with the list of illustrations to his 2000 volume on the lyric, Toy Medium. This list includes "1. Von Kempelen’s chess player," ,"2. Mechanical birds," "5. Hans Bellmer, drawing of First Doll," "8. Painted-glass fireworks theater," "9. Animal electricity experiment by Sir William Watson," "11. Finale of 1936 Olympic ceremonies in Berlin," "12. Cloud-Chamber photograph of nuclear disintegrations," and so on. The list is interesting both for its quasi-scientific, quasi-occult contents and for the way it yokes this arcana to an epistemological tool (the list) itself made up of epistemological tools (illustrations). This dotty jostling among would-be orders of knowledge is at the heart both of Tiffany’s critical propositions about the lyric and of his lyrics themselves—and this image of a leaky double heart is just the kind of sweetly fatal grotesquerie that might find itself the object of Tiffany’s prose or verse speculations.
In Toy Medium, Tiffany seeks to shift critical discourse on materialism and the lyric by investigating what we talk about when we talk about matter, about material substance itself. In doing so, he locates a discussion of 20th C. poetry within a speculative tradition comprising the Epicurianism and atomism of the ancient Greeks, magnetism, optics, Mesmerism, toys, games, meteorology, and other areas of alchemical, philosophic, and occult speculation. As Tiffany leads the reader through the bizarre images and elaborate metaphors, unlikely thought experiments and still more unlikely physical experiments, models, marionettes, gimcracks and automata which make up over 20 centuries of striving after the nature of matter, corporeality, life and the soul, one can’t help but sense a gleam in his own authorial eye akin to that of the scientists, cranks, poets and seers he traces on his pages. Indeed, Toy Medium is striking because Tiffany’s ultimate goal is not just to establish a new vocabulary for discussing poetry but to suggest that poetry itself, properly considered, might turn out to be the very substance that will provide insight into the nature of matter itself:
Further, if we could produce a model—a picture—of lyric substance, might it not, despite its illegitimacy, have a place in current debates about material culture and the nature of corporeality? More specifically, is it possible that the "soul" of lyric—the technical apparatus proper to its effects—plays a more substantial role that we suspect in the institution of material substance?
In its Poe-like tenor, its phrase-by-phrase intensity, its flying-buttress like interrogative structure, and, of course, its outlandish allegation, this is easily the most outrageous and thus persuasive response to Gioia’s "Can Poetry Matter?" yet forwarded.
Tiffany’s first book of poetry, Puppet Wardrobe, has just been released by Parlor Press, and it serves as an eerie, tandem body to Toy Medium. Many of the illustrations in the previous book appear as allusions in this volume; Toy Medium‘s whimsical frontispiece drawing of a cupid driving a butterfly chariot, explained in that book as the production of an 18th c. mechanical drafting doll, is alluded to (but visually absent) in "Master’s Gone Away,” the first poem of the new book:
Supposing a doll of mysterious origin,
a mechanical marvel, falls into your hands
And suppose the doll, restored to life, signs the name
—the very signature—of the chemist who made it,
long dead. And now recall the print pulled in 1793
showing the toy, a girl today, richly dressed as a boy.
Thus far, the poem provides a synopsis of the information provided in the critical book, but it also begins to activate the special agencies of lyric. The bodiless speaker-as-raconteur, the implication of the addressee through pointed injunctions ("Supposing," "suppose,", "recall,") creates a tense and tensile space in which the substance of the poem reaches out to charge the addressee even as the mechanical doll "falls into your hands." The poem continues:
Suppose all that—for the doll is a writing machine—
and suppose it held in its periodic mind,
long before it went astray in the world,
a cartoon of the ship that would take it abroad
and a sketch of its maker—some say—or a self-portrait,
a study of Eros in chariot pulled by a butterfly.
The torturedness of this locution, heaving effortfully from line to line, makes material the chain of removals, doubles, fore- and afterimages making up this odd proposition, a chain which includes not just "doll" and "maker" but a system of text and sketches that also double for, mirror and replace each other, including the present poem, which in its textual markings is a trace of the butterfly sketch and of the doll itself. As the poem concludes,
And now suppose it scrawls—for a penny—these words
for you, announcing its return as a god:
Without eyes I see, without tongue I speak.
the axis of doll-to-reader becomes paramount, casting the doll as god, the reader as visionary to whom the god appears. The paradoxical immanence of the last line is flooded with all possible speakers at once; the maker, the doll, the poet, and the spectral speaker can all make this claim to speak and be present despite the absence of "real" bodies, and they all speak in one stressed and uncanny voice.
The thought experiment so pointedly raised in this opening poem is presented throughout the book in a variety of guises, yet the poems are also delightful bagatelles, ingeniously strange dramatic monologues propped up, often, in Baudelairean tableaux (an image that itself conjures Bellmer’s living dolls). In "Nightspot," the siren/automaton, saucily posing, makes a corresponding automaton of the addressee:
You’ll like my big-girl outfit—
just make sure you get the signals
right: once the collar’s set
and the cuffs, nod once to put ice in
my veins, twice and your kisses turn
to riddle—say who I am—to favors
The doll-like speaker’s mechanized functions and identity are scripted both by a presumed programmer and by the "you" who controls the doll by nodding, yet whose nodding and kissing are in turn scripted by the doll who cajoles the addressee to perform these actions. By the end of the poem, after an S-and-M-cum-Dickinsonian tableau ("They harness me—for breaking") the balance of humanity seems on the side of the doll-speaker, while the addressee, rendered silent and passive by the exigencies of the lyric, can only listen and not respond to her plaint:
I don’t understand who’s there
in my place, a star like a blueprint
spreading from nail to calf,
an image of the engine. Say who I am.
This pile-up of images, blueprints, and doubles recalls "Master’s Gone Away," but the final sentence inverts the gesture of the earlier poem’s close; the speaking voice wishes to give over godly agency but cannot receive an answer, while the addressee, charged to respond, finds herself mute and doll-like, without the power of speech.
It is tempting, then, to read these poems as object lessons for the theories and models of "lyric substance" forwarded in Tiffany’s critical book, calling attention, through their tropes of dolls and automata, makers and masters, scripts and double portraits, artificial voices and code languages, to the ways in which the lyric functions as both automaton and smart-substance, manipulating the very reader whose action of reading brings it to life. But that would seem a reduction in scale from what Tiffany is really after. I submit that to give Tiffany’s poems their fullest measure, one would have to engage their properties, perhaps by weighing oneself before and after each reading, or measuring the static cumuli thrown off by one’s brain, or gauging the salinity of one’s sweat, blood and tears, to see how one’s corporeal dimensions have been altered by contact with these gemmy dynamos, these lyric bodies.