Aiming to interpret a poem that emphasises the impossible slipperiness of interpretation – and raises questions as to whether the triumph of misogyny might lie in the fixing of interpretations – makes for a very self-reflective exercise. I was aware of my initial nervousness to pin down certain elements in Critchley’s poem. I was also aware of how this nervousness began to loosen – how I began to turn against myself in trying to frame its tensions and situations. I hope this essay will serve as a record of my reading – a small exposé of my own ‘intended / interpretive activity’.
Questions abound when reading the opening lines to ‘The Triumph of Misogyny’, a poem collected in Critchley’s Love/All That/& OK (Penned in the Margins, 2011). Who is this ‘you’ ‘want[ing] them to jack off to the sounds of yr own pleasure’? Who are ‘them’ and what kind of ‘pleasure’ are we to imagine? On the photocopied poem, I underline ‘theatre’; I write ‘stage play’; I write ‘Hollywood’. I add a question mark. Possibly two. In response to the intentions of ‘you’ – ‘you want them to jack off … then you decide yre in no hurry for yr will to be so adhered to’ – I scribble ‘playwright’, ‘screenwriter’, ‘writer’. But the juxtapositions of ‘jack off’, ‘pleasure’ and ‘will’ complicate these categories. A voyeuristic, pornographic pleasure rears into view. Still half-expecting the high art of theatre, I wonder if this pleasure is in fact a smug intellectual pleasure – a kind of masturbatory self-satisfaction in one’s knowledge and the power of wielding it over others? Certainly, elsewhere in Critchley’s poems, there’s a rally against what seems to be a masculine pride in ‘your attempts at Latin & ‘cum’ & / humour I think […] it’s so exhausting, & did your father(s) never tell you to “stop showing off to / people”’ (from When I Say I Believe Women).
Whoever the ‘you’ is, there’s an implication that their agenda is not entirely successful, ‘so you guarantee beauty in Some Other Place’. Yet, what Critchley goes on to describe once again jars with what might be considered beautiful. Moving behind the (theatrical?) curtain, we witness the director ‘shout~/ing obscenities at the displaced starlets’. The breakage of the word across the line, and Critchley’s use of the tilde, takes away the director’s human, physical body and replaces it with the verb/noun: ‘the director is shout’. Describing the ‘starlets’ through a peculiar metonymy involving ‘feathers…tears…mascara’ only serves to continue this disorientation in which artifice rules. The figures pop up like disembodied clichés. This is especially the case for the ‘performance dolls’ who are ‘long~legged and weak~willed’. Easily mistaken for a simple hyphen, the tilde prompts a second take at those adjectives. Unsettling the straightforwardness of a hyphen unsettles the congruence of terms, whilst their contrived alliteration further parodies their sexist vulgarity. The paradoxical statement that these starlets have ‘been paid to sing & just shut up’ goes on to intensify the queasiness.
Yet my own reaction – my labelling of such depiction as sexist and vulgar – rests on my interpretation of these starlets as women – when Critchley has given no such suggestion. Just as the director and the starlets are not depicted as possessing stable human bodies (they can be said to merely possess glitzy accessories), they are also not given gender-specific pronouns. The OED offers up the following definition of ‘starlet’: ‘A promising young actress or other female entertainer; a young actress with aspirations to become a star.’ Its addendum reads ‘Occasionally used of a young male actor.’ Who is to say, then, whether the starlets are men, the director a woman? In light of the poem’s title, is the ‘triumph of misogyny’ not at least partly the fact that we as readers are likely to make gendered assumptions when given the opportunity? In a fascinating back-and-forth between Critchley and Marianne Morris over Critchley’s feminist approach, featured in The Claudius App, the poets refer to a poem of Jow Lindsay’s, which plays with the word ‘nurse’ and the way it conjures a female figure: ‘Did you think the nurse was a man? You’re a disgrace if you did. The nurse was a DOG. IDIOT.’ Without such fierce or comedic arraignment, Critchley also critiques gendered expectations. The onus, however, is left with the reader. We are led to our own moments of self-accusation.
Emphasising uncertain, shifting gender positions, what appears like a new paragraph begins with a new, prospective tense: ‘When I wake in the mood of a crab, disguise finally off’. In keeping with the idea of removing a subjugating disguise, the repressive vocabulary of ‘behind…under…shut up’ in the previous section transforms into ‘wake….realize…opens’. With this change, a sense of freedom begins to emerge. Becoming not just a crab, but the ‘mood of a crab’, the ‘I’ escapes the guise(s) belonging to gender performativity by evading a human body that is compelled into such performances. Becoming not just a crab, but the ‘mood of a crab’, the speaker has seemingly arrived at an ungendered, intangible state.
The ‘will’ that initially belonged to the ‘you’ loses its intent and becomes a request as the ‘I’ asks ‘will you comfort me…& walk wth me sideways?’ The footnote invokes Hamlet’s cryptic speech to Polonius, ‘if like a crab you could go backward’, possibly a jibe about the counsellor’s inability to escape his aging body. But in Critchley’s poem the crab’s more accurately depicted sideways movement takes on other nuances. Rather than age, the wish to walk ‘sideways’ flouts different earthly ‘laws’: perhaps that of gender, but also, in a broader sense, that of interpretation. ‘[Y]r other love, who’s not even willing or the one yre after’ notionally sets up an uncooperative partner, yet this partner quickly seems to take a literary form:
Then where will you be: you and your long~dead poetry,
crying into yr textual apparatus ~ defunct apparatus ~ yr intended
If, earlier in the poem, the intentions of ‘you’ were not successfully received by ‘them’, if our own gendered expectations have been unsettled, then this vignette continues the pattern of instability. Aware of my own biases, on the photocopy I have circled ‘you’ and noted ‘reader’, ‘scholar’. I have underlined ‘defunct apparatus’ and written ‘defunct analysis’, meanwhile becoming, of course, even more self-conscious of my relationship with this text.
Does the scholar cry over the ‘textual apparatus’, the collection of notes and variant readings accompanying the ‘long~dead poetry’, because such accompaniments frustrate one definitive understanding of the text and thus the scholar’s ‘intended / interpretive activity’? Once again, the tilde in ‘long~dead poetry’ prompts a second look. Though separated by a number of lines, a parallel exists between ‘long~legged’ and ‘long~dead’. The connection in sound might also hint towards a connection in sexist thought: is this text ‘long~dead’ because it refers to what is frequently called the poetry of dead white men? Like the starlet’s body, the ‘long~dead poetry’ is subject to a kind of labelling: an analogy occurs between the fixing of gender and the fixing of literary meaning. If, previously, I suggested that the ‘triumph of misogyny’ lies partly in assuming the starlets are women, might the act of interpreting poetry (with interpretation imposing its own expectations and identifications) extend the abuse by similarly determining an otherwise undetermined subject?
Picking up the speaker’s ‘told-you-so’ sneer (‘I’ll laugh so hard at you’), some reviews of Critchley’s writing have questioned the way this otherwise controlled poem ‘descends’ into jeering. Yet, it seems to me this isn’t a descent – quite the opposite. Nor is it, in my opinion, a loss of control, but a continuation of the poem’s unsettling of paradigms. The mocking tone and laughter are appropriately inappropriate: intending to raise that question (and, simultaneously, needle our assumptions) as to whether a poem which has maintained a certain level of emotional coolness – and which, moreover, has been written by a woman – should antagonise in the way it does. Part shrug, the ‘Huh’, which comes as a musical interruption, perhaps echoes (‘yr’ and maybe my own) interpretative frustration. But read as onomatopoeia, ‘Huh’ is also the laugh we’re expecting. The Merriam Webster dictionary has ‘Huh’ as ‘surprise, disbelief, or confusion, or as an inquiry inviting affirmative reply’. Like the laugh, ‘Huh’ becomes a celebration of shiftiness and slipperiness – a conjuring of amusement and/or bemusement at the unsettled relationship between text/meaning that pursues the unsettled relationship between body/gender.
Breaking away from the rest of the text, the final three lines come hot on the heels of that ‘Huh’ to further celebrate the indeterminate. Though perhaps less buoyant, there’s meditative joy in the statement: ‘I’ll be the one dancing in the chasm that opens between sleeping / lovers ~ & what they wake to (ii)’. Clearly, a chasm might be said to exist between sleeping lovers as each becomes unconscious of the other in following their lonely, dreamy paths. Yet the chasm is suddenly made deeper and wider by the concluding line, ‘& what they wake to’. Marianne Morris’s poem, ‘The Auction’, to which footnote ‘(ii)’ refers, opens with a warning that there is ‘no guarantee that sleeping lovers wake to love’. By replacing ‘that’ with ‘what’ and denying ‘love’ altogether, Critchley’s poem leaves us on shakier ground. I feel an urge to pin down what this sleep means – is it ignorance? Do the lovers wake to certain realisations? Yet as the poem teaches us, pinning such things down isn’t the point. To pin down is, as it sounds, a kind of violence.
It’s hard to ignore the way Morris’s poem (to which Critchley refers) concludes with an aphoristic tone: ‘the text that will never be framed rests living in the soul / of whoever cannot let it go’. If, as it appears in Critchley’s poem, interpretation is a way of framing a text, of confining a text, then according to Morris’s logic such a process ultimately seeks to let go of – give up on – discard – a text. Conversely, to refrain from fixed interpretation becomes a way of embracing a text – it ‘rests living in the soul’. A Critchley-esque negative capability begins to emerge. Pleasure is found in the ambiguity of a text, just as it is found in the gender-ambiguous body. Guided by the latter, it becomes impossible not to read this pleasure in a political context. Accentuated by the lack of full stop that suggests an unfinished, unsettled quality, ‘dancing in the chasm’ is a celebration of unframing and unconfining ways of being. If dancing is something jubilant, a freeing bodily movement, where else can it take place but in the unclaimed, uncertain space of ‘a chasm that opens between’? Split away from the rest of the text, these last three lines accentuate the liberating quality of this liminal space. On my photocopied poem, my previous circling of words, my hard underlining, my question marks, have transformed into wavy lines.
The theatre was very crowded, very late. First you want them to
jack off to the sounds of yr own pleasure, then you decide yre in no
hurry for yr will to be so adhered to, so you guarantee beauty in
Some Other Place. From behind the curtain the director is shout~
ing obscenities at the displaced starlets; there’s a flurry of feathers
& tears. Nobody wants to see the mascara drip on the floors under
long~legged, weak~willed performance dolls; not when they’ve
been paid to sing & just shut up.
When I wake in the mood of a crab, disguise finally off,
will you comfort me with yr salt water & walk wth me sideways? (i)
When you realize yr other love, who’s not even willing or the one
yre after, I’ll laugh so hard at you my shell might just crack & fall
off. Then where will you be: you and yr long~dead poetry,
crying into yr textual apparatus ~ defunct apparatus ~ yr intended
interpretive activity. Huh.
I’ll be the one dancing in the chasm that opens between sleeping
& what they wake to (ii)
(i) William Shakespeare, Hamlet
(ii) Marianne Morris, ‘The Auction’
From Love / All That / & OK (Penned in the Margins, 2011).