I am obsessed these July days at MacDowell by the poem in my one Marianne Moore book, a second-hand Collected Poems 1951, "Those Various Scalpels," that moves directly into a text that is, it turns out, a description of a woman, although "description" belies the tortured and circuitous artificiality of the process as she is cut up and presented (although it also turns out that it is she too who wields weapons or scalpels):
Those Various Scalpels
In this initial stanza the "those" of the title is echoed in the first word of the first line, "those," and then other echoes reverberate in the words used to describe the sounds echoing from a struck glass (in "consistently indistinct" and in all the repeated consonant sounds) such that the whole is bound tightly together even as it is cut apart and dispersed. Moore's poem moves forward, also without narrative as some contemporary process poetry, but with sharp edges, strong breaks, mannered artifice, rhyme: eyes/ice; those/echoes; hair/tail .)
In part this relation of title to text suggests a voice speaking and moving right along, but also it enacts a cut at the outset that is repeated in the body of many of the poems. Thus, although there is a fluidity from title to text, there is also a "cut" between them created by the white space. Moore uses this device often to make one attend to what has been cut out and suspended in white space so as to be clearly seen, but the idea of "cut" works especially well in a poem such as "Those Various Scalpels" about dissection itself:
The use of blades in the poem is especially disconcerting as juxtaposed to dresses, cheeks, hands (as in Shakespeare's "rosy lips and cheeks/ within his bending sickle's compass come"). Yet it suggests a reading of the poem in which its erotic tension rests in sado-masochism, the poet cutting up the figure who cuts, in which the two women, one writing and one being written, mirror one another, a mirroring present in the opening lines I have cited in which "those various sounds" can refer to the voice being described, the poetic voice, the clashing of their scalpels. The figure in the poem is cut into pieces, each piece then ornamented in fetishistic and outlandish ways—made strange, and strangely, for all the visual clues, too fragmented and freighted to be visualized. The poem attacks the figure described, is critical of her sophistication, instruments of dissection, icy brilliance; yet the poem also makes her bleed: "your cheeks, those rosettes/ of blood on the stone floors of French chateaux."
In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the duke (wrongly believing that the boy Cesario, whom he loves without quite knowing it, has cruelly betrayed him) pulls his sword and vows to "sacrifice the lamb that I do love." As in Moore's poem this responsive moment is startling in its destructive and erotic power; the poet, like the duke, mirrors the cruel behavior of the woman who holds of the position of a "beloved," and turns on her as one cock turns on the other in stanza #1. The poem seems to fall into the category of a Renaissance blazon and ought, somehow, to be cooly and precisely descriptive, but there is too much heat, too much wreckage ("snow sown by tearing winds on the cordage of disabled/ships"). Why had I thought of Moore's poems as cooly arranged? Here the cut-up lines may offer a pretense of careful arrangement, but they also enact an erotic charge that clings both to the behavior of the woman described and, so it seems to me, to poetic practice. Here is stanza "5:
I am reading The Freudian Body by Leo Bersani (Columbia, 1986) and working on poems about the marble body of Ariadne in De Chirico's paintings; I will close with a sentence from Bersani: "Freud subverts views of pleasure as inherently social by suggesting that even the most sublimated forms of pleasure are ontologically grounded in a jouissance at once solipsistic and masochistic, a jouissance which isolates the human subject in a socially and epistemologically 'useless,' but infinititely seductive, repetition" (90). Not something I had previously thought to bring to bear thinking about Marianne Moore's poems or my own work.—July, 2003
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