This Thin Memory A-Ha

Eric Elshtain chose a fine title for his book, This Thin Memory A-Ha.We say “A-Ha” when something’s revealed. The exclamation may indicate a object–found it!–or a moment of enlightenment–the little bulb over the head that accompanies a personal enlightenment. Elshtain’s title reflects upon the thinness of these moments. It calls attention to how quickly we forget what we thought we’d found. Memories of our “a-ha” moments are thin.It also suggests the moments when we dimly remember what we’ve learned. The weak memory of lesson’s learned, as when we feel haunted by prior resolutions, commitments, or understandings.

The entire book meditates on the dual feelings of surprise and recollection. Elshtain does not treat these seemingly antithetical states as alternating modes of experience, but as overlapping resonances that structure lyrical epiphanies. I use this word because the merger of expectancy and repetition Elshtain explores derives in large part from the Christian celebration of Ephiphany: a ritual that commemorates the first manifestation of Christ. Looking back to looking forward. The European poetry tradition (along with others) includes a long history of experiments with lyrical epiphanies. The metaphysical poets, the romantics, the moderns: each movement established a new relation between lyric form and the moment when a truth is grasped. My sense of the ‘contemporary poetry scene’ isn’t strong enough for me to say with any certainty whether or not many twenty-first century poets care about the lyric epiphany, but I suspect that many do.  My guess is that many cherish the aesthetic experience (they like the feeling when some essence is intuitively grasped) but would be skeptical of the concept, with its emphasis on essence, intuition, enlightenment.

Elshtain is skeptical, but not because he doubts the concept. He believes in philosophy, rationality, the unconscious and grand narratives. He’s not out to satirize, sabotage or otherwise deconstruct the lyric epiphany. But he doesn’t think they’re easy to come by. He acknowledges a myriad of false starts, stutters, missteps and hesitations. Ultimately, he’s attempting to reconstruct a relationship between lyrical forms and moments when intuition reverses into truth.

The primordial representation of the title phrase is the ocean wave. Each a minor surprise—A-ha!—as it breaks to slither ashore; each a “thin memory” as it withdraws into the sand and sea. In “Averting the Way Inside a Tide,” the poet meditates on the failure to memorize a wave: “How could I ever have / the middle of your memory? [. . .] idealized fluids’ un-erotic swerve?” Nature is motion beyond recollection; it’s a movement we can’t know precisely because it’s “un-erotic.” It transmits affects–a pulse, a crash, a retreat and re-absorption–but without meaning. Nature as drive: the inhuman, unceasing push-pull.

Like many writers before him, Elshtain regards the seashore as a thresh-hold: a liminal zone where human knowledge touches (not quite connecting with) meaning’s limits. Stephen Crane, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop come to mind. Like them, Elshtain explores this zone as an analogy for the poet’s effort to compose at the edges of intelligibility. The poet balances reason and rhythm, as the seashore balances our world with the other. In “Ocean’s Preposition,” the poet, swimming in coastal waters, encounters an octopus:

The octopus locked itself to a spell of leg

and lightninged from moss and bronze

to pulsing red before briefing me–

one billowing writ saying “See!”

The “billowing writ” is also the poet’s gesture. The poem calls attention to its subject by obscuring it with ink. This makes the otherworldly creature a kind of fluctuating mirror; the writer catches a glimpse of himself in the creature’s ability to displace its presence, to make itself obscure. The poem ends with these lines:

Coral brained me for deigning a finger

into the inky deceit; the only signature left

of the elusion.

Note the difference between the event–the swimmer jabs his finger into the ink, striking coral–and the metaphorically dense and alliterative language that describes it. The poet, like the octopus, composes a “billowing writ” that shows itself off in order to make us miss the encounter with the other it describes. Elshtain never forgets the poem’s capacity to generate an “inky deceit.” But this gesture, while ostensibly “poetic” brings us closer to the natural event. “Signature” and “elusion” are not gestures that belong to humans alone. The cephalopod is here to reminds us that deceit, including ‘written’ forms of it, doesn’t require sophisticated psyches. Sophisticated camouflage–therefore aesthetics–is not an exclusively human gesture. In another poem about the same encounter Elshtain uses the phrase “legendary unfunny slug” such that it refers to either poet or octopus.

We get to this epiphany through a combination of naturalism and aestheticism. On the one hand, the naturalist’s description of real-time phenomenon; on  the other, the craftsman’s consideration of form. The first depends upon humble, sincere explorations of phenomena; the second upon wit (metaphor and allusion) and rhythm (the beat, the rhymes, assonance and alliteration). Consider the opening stanzas of “When You Punctuate the Equilibrium”:

only then the men smile over the coelacanth,

cover themselves with sea-made

clays. Suddenly shells will be patchworks of male

and female; our world will be

loaded between rock-beds and will avoid the

flood by being flood; there will be no

more swimming with stones; no more death

circles for wind to wear off the rocks.

Poetry as philosophy. The poem begins with a proposition: human knowledge is predicated upon the “punctuation” of an imagined time of flux and equality, an age without distinctions. A psychological structure projected onto a poetic history of events. Each subsequent phrase tests the proposition against another kind of phenomenon, as they appear in the natural world. First we get the coelacanth. In 1938 this “living fossil” was discovered in the Indian Ocean by Rhodes university ichthyologist, J.L.B. Smith. One “smiles” over this ugly old fish only when regarding it as a confirmation via negation of evolutionary theory. Soon we get Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, a “punctuation of the equilibrium” because it genders shells. The stanzas conclude with an allusion to Charybdis, once a sea monster living under rocks on the Strait of Messina, now the meteorological outcome of wind & rock. These examples are knitted though enjambment. Many individual lines are miniature poems: “and female; our world will be,” “flood by being flood; there will be no,” “circles for wind to wear off the rocks.”

The poem concludes with these lines:

Convince yourself you have a backbone

while I invent another device that

hisses at extinctions; I shiver because that is my

inheritance. Gather your optical

illusions into one last attraction so we’ll never

know whether your down was up,

or your up with just another sham.

Fierce writing. A snarl, a sob.In the present now, we anxiously remind ourselves that “backbone” and fear are the animal in man. These encounters with our bodies’ own waves are gathered into “one last attraction”–an epiphany–that impacts us by swerving away from truth. We are left with reverberations. The past discovered by the present, the present discovered in the past.

I’ve focused on the ecological, but Elshtain tackles politics, both public and domestic, as well. In these poems he mixes slang with theory. Here are the opening stanzas of “Ended Seriously Loco”:

and way off the register

it did having

involved corpses

in their own portrayal.

Rendered hypothetical

blues quantified history’s

long-ships; maundered the brassy oaths

kinked the secret code having kicked

K to reach unity, humped

the edges of citizenship

In this poem, the American state does its “having” “way off the register” (which also refers to the radio), through lynch mobs, the photographs of which bring into documentary time the brutality of slave ships otherwise “quantified” in the blues. (Elshtain knows the blues well, as a verse form and subjective stance.) It’s the contemporary police state that, “having kicked” the Klan in the 60s, now “hump[s] / the edge of citizenship” by stopping, searching, arresting and shooting black men. The poem ends “seriously loco,”

having blazoned culture

in its brag having fattened

on twenty-eight anthems

sung way off and

written, hammered,

codicils to the people’s will.

Note the Objectivist density, reminiscent of Louis Zukofsky’s or Basil Bunting’s verse. Slowly but surely the wave washes back upon itself, “fattened” calves, “anthems / sung way off [key]’ and “codicils to the people’s will” that are not just “written” but “hammered” returns us to the inhuman rhythms of American racism, via its European cousins. Again the swerve away, following aesthetic intuitions, yields the epiphany, the painful “braining” that turns reflection toward glimpse.

Eric Elshtain. This Thin Memory A-Ha. Chicago: Verge Books, 2014.

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