Prac Crit


by Jeff Dolven


by Gavin Alexander

Who said anything about hurting you? Weren’t you just talking to yourself? A blazon is a shield, on which you might display the armorial bearings that tell the viewer who you are. The word interacted in the sixteenth century with the verb blaze, to blow (a trumpet, for example), to proclaim, so that the pictorial shield might seem to have a voice, to be a speaking picture. At this time the word was developing a specialised sense: a poem displaying or declaring the excellencies of the (usually female) body, an anatomical catalogue that proceeded by finding a simile for each body part. ‘What tongue can her perfections tell, / In whose each part all pens may dwell?’ begins one of the most celebrated of such blazons, by Sir Philip Sidney, and right from that start we can see the body viewed being mediated both by the body writing and by the body speaking or singing, the parts of one (pen, tongue) describing, speaking of, the body parts of the other (though never ‘the belt’). That implicit relation of one body to another Sidney explores in puns (‘But back unto her back, my muse …’), and it is always a troubling one, as the male speaker’s gaze lingers over a body with the cold attention of the anatomist, and the metaphors and personifications fail to give life to flesh (‘Her hair fine threads of finest gold / In curlèd knots man’s thought to hold, / But that her forehead says, “In me / A whiter beauty you may see.”’). These then are some of the features and dynamics that Dolven inherits from the sixteenth-century blazon: voice and writing, speech and song, the body viewing and the body viewed; the literal and the figurative, the organic and the inorganic, the living and the dead.

And he inherits them by bypassing more recent literary tradition, a ready manoeuvre for a scholar who works on Renaissance poetry, but an evasion of literary sequence of which Dolven is aware. In the fifth stanza his phone-call to Sidney and co. gets an ‘old-fashioned busy signal’ and the gap that is handed down by tradition is something in which we only hear, or record, ‘a steady, atavistic pulse’ (atavism being the resemblance to ancestors that bypasses more recent generations, from Latin atavus, your great-grandfather’s grandfather). The words need scrutiny: ‘old-fashioned’ requires that one separate its parts, think of the when and how of this past making; ‘tradition’ comes from the Latin (traditio) for a ‘handing down’, and I imagine Dolven is thinking quite actively of the hands there; to record is to re-member, re-call, learn by heart, from re- + cord, heart – again all the resonances of those explanatory synonyms are in play. That re-corded pulse is itself a sly echo of ‘the hollow sound / of the heart repeating itself again’ in the previous stanza, ‘as though that were an explanation’.

One of the literary traditions handed down to this poem is that of the spiritual ‘Dem bones’, though most of us came to know this without its roots in Ezekiel 37:1-14 (‘Ezekiel connected dem dry bones, / Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, / … / Thigh bone connected to the hip bone …’). So when the collar bone, which is ‘bent like a lyre’ (the musical instrument and metonym of sacred and profane song), sings ‘everything depends, depends’ Dolven is thinking about repetition, tradition, duplication: two images – lyre or coat hanger; a collar bone connected to the shoulder’s shrug; depends both in its everyday, figurative sense of consequence and contingency, and in its etymological sense of being connected by hanging from, Latin de-pendere.

Dolven brings together the poetic tradition of the blazon with an act of self-address. In this way, what appears to be a shift is in fact a traditional posture, since this speaker does not sexualize his body but invests it with independent agency and intellect. ‘Wrist of mine,’ the poem begins (the wrist from which depends the hand that writes the poem), ‘what do you have / to sing for yourself?’ By replacing the ‘say’ of the proverbial phrase ‘What do you have to say for yourself’ Dolven makes us look at the words ‘for yourself’ differently. Sing of yourself? Sing to yourself? Wrists don’t sing, obviously, but because everything depends, depends this wrist may be the best metonymic proxy for what this poem is saying/singing to us (and we are there, always, no matter how hard the poem may appear to be trying to keep itself to itself). The poem spends its seven stanzas looking for a proxy, a spokesperson, something to make a noise, to make music. A hurdy-gurdy is a medieval musical instrument that automates the method of sound production characteristic of bowed string instruments by replacing the bow with a rosined wheel turned by a crank. So the shoulder might be a part of a musical body, but it requires another to turn it and make the machine sing. It might sing of its memories, of things in the world (‘Do you remember throwing the stone?’). It might sing of its thoughts and feelings (if ‘shrugging it off’ is only taken in its proverbial sense and we don’t try to refer the ‘it’ back to the stone, as the parallelism of those two lines forces us to do, at which point the stone itself might become some figurative burden rather than a literal skimmed pebble).

So we proceed by fits and starts, tripped up by figures, puns, double meanings. We follow the poem as it traces its way round its own body, its author’s body, and by reading or speaking it we voice its address, we partake of what William Waters, writing on lyric address, calls Poetry’s Touch. No less than in the blazons of Sidney and the rest, there is discomfort in that contemplation (rhetorical invasion, shall we say?) of one body by another, and we might feel that the poem is talking to us, therefore, in its last line (‘though you can hurt me anywhere’); inviting us, even. Everything, it turns out, depends on the head: ‘So [Therefore, or just Next and last? In any case, this is the end of this sequence] it’s up to the head’. Up from the knees to the head, that is, but also it’s down to the head, it’s the head’s call, it’s the head that calls the tunes (and perhaps the suppressed shots too). The moment of addressing the head is striking; the apostrophic ‘O’ makes this a turning away from (Greek apo + strophē) as well as a turning back to, the poet’s self, the poem’s voice. The ‘O’ iconically represents the head (and its open mouth) and we might feel emboldened by that recognition to remember some other things poets do with the letter O – is this head an empty head, a nought, a mere cipher? This is the head’s song. Cerebral, therefore, thought about. But also sonic, spoken or sung and not only, as at the start, written. The pronoun you appears in that last line to have flipped round from pointing at the head to pointing out from the poem, out from its body, out from the poet, to someone or something that would ‘hurt’ it. Is that a lover? Is it the reader? Or is it another proxy for the self? We can’t be sure. And the poem leaves us on that threshold, not sure if we are involved in this song or not, uneasy at the thought that simply by looking and listening in we might in some unintended way have touched this poem and its poet.


by Jeff Dolven

Wrist of mine, what do you have
to sing for yourself?
There where the light-shy lifeblood tests
the surface, like a curious fish.
Or shoulder? Hurdy-gurdy crank,
sing in your turn:
Do you remember throwing the stone?
Do you remember shrugging it off?
Collar bone, bent like a lyre,
or a coat hanger:
you’re in on the shrug as well, I see.
Sing everything depends, depends.
A question to the chest returns
the hollow sound
of the heart repeating itself again,
as though that were an explanation.
(We skirt the belt, by tradition,
only recording
a steady, atavistic pulse
like the old-fashioned busy signal.)
Down to the knees, then: musical hinges,
a serenade!
Alas, it seems you’ve got the knack
of genuflecting noiselessly.
So it’s up to the head: O head of mine,
this is your song.
It’s the head calls the tunes, after all,
though you can hurt me anywhere.

From Speculative Music (Sarabande, 2013). Reproduced with permission of the author.

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