THE LYRIC IS A FREAKOUT: ANNE SEXTON & THE LAB COAT MAFIA


anne sexton, in her fur coat, with her muffler, snuffing out her pronoun for the sake of her utterance. or, to be an unusable witness for the lyric mode in which she was enmeshed. the poetess becomes her utterance, as a result of her “I,” the “confessional mode,” her constant quoting of her “inner monologue,” presumed to be “true,” irritatingly “interpreted” and denied treatment until the body is glue and the glue is a poetics which relies, to some extent, upon a purposeful mis-“interpretation.”

anne sexton: ingenue par excellence

sexton’s self-percetion was temporally unstable. instability doesn’t imply a value judgment, but a difference. her sense of time/linearity somehow ruptured. this rupture could be caused by trauma or it could be the cause of trauma. this is the crux that will keep coming up – is the lyric, the urge to it, a variation or a reaction? how does one, if one cannot recognize a singularity within oneself, navigate the grid of temporality/language?

since the output of this sensibility is often perceived by the Other as the Subject/self-as-Whole, the poet’s first-person utterance is perceived as a de-facto map of the Self; but this map, in its most “obvious” form, the “confessional” poem, “obscures” rather than “clarifies” –

“Is this your father’s father, this Commodore/in a mailman suit? My father, time meanwhile/has made it unimportant who you are looking for.” (all my pretty ones)

because linearity is irrelevant to sexton, the who, the subject, is not important – but the self, though temporally unbound, is sufficiently extant to assert a “you,” which implies an “I.” the self and the subject are perceived as simultaneous but one can exist without the other. this phenomenon is a deviation from the “norm”; therefore, an “illness.”

deviant –adjective 1. deviating or departing from the norm; characterized by deviation: deviant social behavior.

positing an illness or deviance implies a norm, which is itself a regulation. the issue is that language is a system. a system is defined as having order, but order is not itself a regulation. for example: there is an order. the order is defined by a binary – life/death. this binary can exist only if one accepts a concept of time which is governed, at some level, by linearity; but in sexton’s work, time is constantly moving in any or all directions – as in for the year of the insane

“Closer and closer/comes the hour of my death/as I rearrange my face, grow back,/grow undeveloped and straight-haired./All this is death.”

All this is death. but ALL cannot be death because death is the result of having been alive, therefore the lived portion of the line of flight out of the poem/consciousness cannot be death itself because it cannot be simultaneous with having died, which necessarily precedes a state of being dead.

again and again in sexton’s work the question of the nature of death is raised, but the question is actually one of being alive. the issue is that, unlike those who are bound to the concept of living=present –> dead=nonexistent future, sexton removes the forward-driving arrow. she can conceive of being dead: what she perceives is an unfixable perspective, a deviance, nothing.

classic language of the abuser. there is an illness inherent. the subject of the address is always already in the wrong. in this case, in the poet’s case, language strides into the bedroom with its strap.

there is a crisis which arises from the subject’s need to identify as a signifier with a singular, fixed signified. there is a desire to transcend the systematic, which requires multiplicity, because the mechanic is perceived as inorganic : dead : outside of time.

this is a classic case of the abused. the subject is pressured to define itself as a singularity because this weakens the system to the point of nonexistence. without such a system, how is the subject to protect itself? if definition itself defies, in this sense, the nature of a system, then language as a defining structure which requires stability is effectively DEAD.

the issue is not that language escorts the subject into the double-bind of static signification, but that the lyric utterance is itself a trauma which cleaves time. the compulsion to make a lyric utterance implies a deviation which results from an awareness of the fact that one’s own perception of the experience of the pronoun “I” is incompatible with the normalized perception of such, which is accepted because of an arbitrary designation of singularity=totality.

hannah weiner perceived language as simultaneous and constant, accessible in myriad ways by any combination of senses, in such a radically different/deviant manner that she had to translate this perceived language into a perceivable language and was defined as mentally ill merely for having access to a sense of multiplicity.

anne sexton wrote as a result of a diagnosis, her condition of selfhood so incomprehensible that it had to be translated for those neitzchean monsters in lab coats, the Arbiters of Normality; she was compelled to make a lyric utterance. this was the language best suited to her shifting pronoun, the only form which could contain her multitudinous sense of time and self. such translation is often an unhappy process, a continuous ciphering that cripples the singular subject until it ruptures, becomes a trauma, interrupts/shatters time.

consider the form of sexton’s poems – metrical, deconstructed; one sees the standardization and discovers that it is coded into the language at a structural level. there is a disjunction, however, between this structural unit and the image, such that the image is always already outside of time – see, red riding hood:

“Long ago/there was a strange deception:/a wold dressed in frills,/a kind of transvestite./But I get ahead of my story.”

as soon as this image, the wold dressed in frills, arrives, the moment becomes obsolete; time and narrative are no longer linked. it is not the occasion of the image but the nonexistent correlative which creates the order in the poem. the order, then, is not a series of fixed or fixable definitions, but a mesh which is created by metaphor.

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