It’s easy to be silent; it’s hard to be quiet. If you want the former, just don’t say anything. But if you want the latter, you will have to figure out how to control for how we register sound. It isn’t simply a matter of volume. A whisper, for instance, can prove even more distracting than speech pitched at a normal register, just as the whine of a single mosquito or the buzzing of a lone fly can provoke attention where we might successfully drown out a louder but less differentiated racket.
On the page, a poetic analogue to sound is rhetoric. Rhetoric doesn’t get yoked to poetry very often any more; when the term appears at all, it’s so closely in the company of political speech that one now means the other. This isn’t just because politics is persuasion. It’s also because we think of politicians as talkers, and we have ill sentiments about talkers, even when they use the same abbreviated store of words everyone else does. So what, then, is the relationship between our attitudes about talkers and our attitudes about literacy, the literary—especially when we couple literary fluency and eloquence, and eloquence to rhetoric?
Hearing sounds and words and cadences and rhythms is not the same thing as hearing (or performing) the sound of someone talking, especially someone talking deliberately and with intent to persuade, paint, seduce, inspire. And I suspect it just isn’t possible to experience talking without rhetoric, tagging along uninvited, to complicate matters. Much can be made of that complication, of course—arguments with others, arguments with self—but what cannot be done is the reversion of eloquence to its elements without the presence of the eloquent.
In Rae Gouirand’s first collection, Open Winter, about twenty-five of the poems are eight couplets each, with most couplets interrupted by colons. Several other poems experiment with alternative punctuations, or extend the number of couplets, but this basic form comprises approximately one-quarter of the book. These poems look, more or less, like this:
What area is a word if you
ask: for wind you get stones if you
ask: for stones wind: ask both
and stones in wind stones: in wind
wind passes: on its way
to being wind: and walks out the hills
to bend them: it whistles
what is not stone: or wind or fence
the bird: stands midair
a constant line: the stillness of stone
the only thing reminding
of moving I think: back what you said
about cold stones and dirt
holding in your ears and cast: some
tones if you ask: the words
turn so ask: just one word to fold
“Ask Both” cannot be eloquent, because it cannot be easily elocuted; you can say it, but in saying it, you are not speaking, at least not in a fashion that lends itself to rhetoric. If that seems like a sacrifice on Gouirand’s part, consider what she gains. Wind is an ungainly word; locked in discursive syntax, polysemy makes it too easily mistaken for its verb doppelganger. Barring that, even the noun form poses metonymic challenges, because as a thing it only achieves descriptive urgency as an action. Altogether, then, wind doesn’t hold much promise: it’s airy, indefinite, too hearty a symbol, too poetic.
Unless, of course, you conjure a way to include it as a subject while prohibiting the structures that activate the abovementioned risks, which is exactly what “Ask Both” does. In fact, the poem’s replete with words that pose equivalent risks: stones, fence, stillness, cold, dirt, tones. If you warned a judiciously grim reader to expect a sixteen-line poem built from that lexicon, they wouldn’t hold out much hope. All of which simply accents how smart a poem this is, smart in solving a problem and smart in seeing the problem requires solution. By making “Ask Both” an impossible complication of elocution, Gouirand divests the words of their rhetorical familiars and thereby reintroduces them as both simple and strange. That’s an uncommon combination, but it’s also one that seems elemental, of a world of word-as-thing.
The choices she makes in this poem, and this form, are particularly vital for Gouirand, because her capacity for eloquence is as vast as her rhetoric is supple. When she’s working free of the syntactical limits enforced by the form of “Ask Both” she’s capable of things like the following, from her long poem “Sfumato”:
Inside La Specola, a woman’s neck graced
by pearls, comma between face and science.
Entirely wax, aside from that string, as though
A woman sculpted on such a cold table deserves
Something for the borrowing. Hair, also real, kept
In braids, some warrant of care or purpose for this
Surrogate, a sample years passed her one stopped
Utterance for Florence, its students of bodies
& service. The city stands, wax intact,
but I learned my veins from books,
guessing faint hairpin turns in blue
x-ray, and a house where things pulsed
without the rise of sight.
This is, if such a statement can still intelligibly be made, classically eloquent. I prefer rhetoric in chains to rhetoric gloriously unleashed, but I admit that Open Winter would be a weaker book had Gouirand chosen either the liberated or bound form to the exclusion of the other. The advantage here isn’t simply that of variety—variety for its own sake is simply a mess—but the establishment of pinned if polar techniques between which she can weave poems according to the density the subjects demand. That claim, too, is a very traditional presumption, that both the poet and the poem can have a subject, and that the subject can be well—or ill—served by compositional choice or “style”. The problem is that admitting this is a conservative way of talking about a poem often shoves poets into either repudiation of the terms or a reactionary embrace of them. It’s of no consequence to me to which side of the road any given poet chooses to jump, because either way they end up in a ditch. The alternative Open Winter presents isn’t an aesthetic centrism or meaningless “hybridity” so much as it is a reasoned and ultimately evocative concession to the treacheries and sweetnesses of what prompts figural language. Just as distrust of rhetoric doesn’t mean you can eliminate it, distrust of selfhood doesn’t make you disappear. Managing these distrusts, narrating them without making stories of them, is Gouirand’s great strength. She can work the regions between like key changes in chromatic harmonies, each suited to the tone or mood fit for the degree to which the subject is or has potential for rhetorical elaboration. For example, her poem “Finger” uses the rhetorically-exhausted symbol of the moon to remind us that the moon actually exists, literally above and beyond human use—but she does so in a way that avoids reproducing that kind of use.
Ask once and no response:
can mean no response: ask twice
and the same only points:
like a finger to the moon: silence
indicates: the keeping
of space: as yes it must be known
when unsaid: twice
the telling happens: only when one
is ready: to be alone with
what is told: the work of rope:
a cast a discipline
a letting: I want to desire nothing
more than the state
beyond need: recognize the moon
bow speaking: the word
after the edge after: the felt point
That’s impressively done, but it is at least as impressive that Gouirand saw that it could be done, that someone could try without forswearing any of the options language presents. It’s possible that she has chosen subjects that of necessity force her into invention: she writes about beauty but doesn’t want to write “beautifully” when she does; thus, she can write beautifully when she writes about lust, which she doesn’t write about lustfully, although she does write lustfully when she writes about language, which doesn’t write about as if it were speech but rather matter. Lo, a pattern grows discernable.
Some poems in Open Winter hint at the other ways Gouirand finesses the pattern. In “Adequate Dissemblance” she keeps the full syntax array, trading out punctuation devices for actual letters until the letters become shape, symbol and phoneme, all in the context of the unapologetically—forgive me—lettered.
In the earliest scrawl of human pursuit,
scratched on an antler in a rock house
in Auvergne, the naked hunter, approaching
the ample Urus, who is eating a little grass,
pulls his spear back in the air. This clutch
will become the D, the fist of motive.
An R emerges from the predacious rip
of the open mouth. The creature
will vanish, but the antlers, V.
What of this to I the child, left to
the dining room table long past the clearing
of the dishes, the plate of cold eggs
leaking, m n m m n against the edges
of the vegetables and the quiche,
the serum of barely solid foods.
If in whatever she writes next Gouirand proves that she can build from these occasional deviations poems as focused and considered as those in Open Winter but without reliance on any predetermined technique (which is really just the carapace of ethos) then I believe she’s capable of anything and I look forward to seeing what that anything looks like: you don’t often watch someone pull the rug out from under themselves and remain standing. In any case, Gouirand’s work with words won’t be limited to a theory of how language ought be used but concerns itself with how it is, both within speech and verse and without, sometimes even above and between. Sometimes a label, sometimes a lathe.