Saturday, August 19, 2006

from "A Careful Errancy: John Taggart's Poetic Theogony"

“The Open admits. To admit does not, however, mean to grant entry and access to what is closed off, as though what is concealed had to reveal itself in order to appear as unconcealed. To admit means to draw in and to fit into the unlightened whole of the drawings of the pure draft.”
--Martin Heidegger

“The one thing we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

In Taggart’s essay for Susan Howe’s *My Emily Dickinson*, “A Picture of Mystery and Power,” his use of the word “power” in the essay’s title and throughout are telling. Here, Taggart would like to set the record straight and place Howe’s book in a context he deems more appropriate to that book’s radical contents as the work of a poet taking up a master poet’s life work. If Taggart would also like to rescue Howe’s book from a simplistic “feminist” reception it is because, for Taggart, Howe’s book contains many of the most important truths about the poet in the act of composition beyond the reductions of identity politics.(1)

“Only now we must understand that the imperatives for staying alive in the America of real frontiers remain in effect for our encounter with and in language. Once we have torn away from the settled usages—and this is never done once and for all, but must be repeated with no cessation of pain or doubt--we must remain in motion. Whether it’s away from or toward, motion must be maintained. If not, the poet risks composing nothing not already composed, an inert sort of hunting, or of becoming the hunted. For to hunt at all must certainly contain the possibility of becoming the hunted. There is only one possible protection, if there is to be any hunting and if power is to be put on, and that is to stay in motion. ‘Unconcealed consciousness out in pure Open must be acutely alert if he is feminine.’ We can affirm this and also affirm that all hunting consciousness in composition, male or female, must be acutely and continuously alert.”(SoD, 177)

The poet, for Taggart’s Howe and Howe’s Dickinson, is one who risks the assumption of a power larger than herself by entering a wilderness of language usage in the act of composition. This power is the source and not the destination of her craft; it is a power that may be said to conduct the world at a threshold of law and transgression—what Howe refers to elsewhere as ”perfect primeval Consent”. (*The Europe of Trusts*, 14) To compose poetry is to consent to a most violent and unpredictable power of language itself. The mytho-historical figure of this threshold for both Taggart and Howe in their poetics, is that of the frontier person hunting and hunted in a wilderness abandoned by social custom and law who is potentialized and put at physiological and ontological risk in this very abandonment. As Taggart points out at the outset of his essay, Howe finds both precedent for her venture and disagreement in the work of Martin Heidegger, who presents a philosophy of language based on the revelation of Being by the forces of a universal becoming he calls after Rilke “the Open” of a “pure draft”. Inasmuch as the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, takes up problems of language and sovereignty after Heidegger’s work through his recent books on “bare life” and “states of exception” he may extend Taggart’s own propositions concerning Howe’s seminal study:

“The relation of exception is a relation of ban. He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable. It is literally not possible to say whether the one who has been banned is outside or inside the juridical order. (This is why in Romance languages, to be ‘banned’ originally means to be ‘at the mercy of’ and ‘at one’s own will, freely,’ to be ‘excluded’ and also ‘open to all, free.’) It is in this sense that the paradox of sovereignty can take the form ‘There is nothing outside the law.’ *The originary relation of law to life is not application but Abandonment.* The matchless potentiality of the *nomos, its originary ‘force of law,’* is that it holds life in its ban by abandoning it.”(*Homo Sacer*, 29)

In poetic language more than any other linguistic form, language marks a threshold where the abandoned human-animal—that Aristotilean animal of political discourse reduced to the Greek *zoe* (“bare life”)—can neither be killed in a legal sense of homicide, nor sacrificed in sanctioned religious ritual. In the Dickinson poem Howe makes the central axis of her book, “My Life Had Stood a loaded Gun,” we may locate such a figure of abandonment where the poem’s elusive speaker “has the power to kill without the power to die.” Such a power is the power of the poet-sovereign, she who, bereft of society and yet of its most fatal devices in the act of composition, must risk an antinomous body of the “scared man” (homo sacer) excepted from both apotheosis (the power to die and gain immortality) and a retributive economy of legal violence (the social contract which permits corporeal punishment and murder).

In the late Protestant-American literary projects of both Taggart and Howe—those Lew Daly has also convincingly proven to be ”late in the prophetic tradition”—we can locate the historical particularities of such a mytho-poetic state of exception in the history of European encounter with American “wilderness”. Taggart clearly connects his project to Howe’s in their shared concerns for this wilderness—a wilderness both historical, cultural, and literary—yet he also does so in his poem addressed to Howe in *Loop*, “The Lily Alone”. In “The Lily Alone” it is interesting that Taggart depicts his contemporary as a lily flower redolent of the healing ring of flowers from his earlier book *Peace on Earth*—that same flower Howe expresses pessimism for in her review of the book—, but also as that deadly beast of prey frequently featured in women’s captivity narratives and frontier adventure tales: the panther. In describing Howe as both “pantherine” and “sweet” it would seem Taggart is paying a teasing tribute to his friend as he portrays Howe in Janus-faced aspect. Yet another significance about the project the two poet’s share may emerge in the isolated one-line stanza dividing the other two four-line stanzas of the poem: “the motion of the ring is the motion of the animal”. This ring I take to be an illusion to the ring of flowers of Taggart’s earlier poem, but also (however coincidentally) to a central figure from Heidegger’s philosophical development: the “disinhibiting rings” which partition the animal in its environment from the environment-shaping capabilities of the human:

“Heidegger gives the name *das Enthemmende*, the disinhibitor, to what Uexkull defined as ‘the carrier of significance’ (*Bedeut-ungstager*, *Merkmaltrager*), and *Enthemmungsring*, disinhibiting ring, to what the zoologist called *Umwelt*, environment. Heidegger’s *Fahigsein zu*, being-capable of…, which distinguishes an organ from a simple mechanical means, corresponds to Uexkull’s *Wirkorgan*. The animal is closed in the circle of its disinhibitors just as, according to Uexkull, it is closed in the few elements that define its perceptual world. For this reason, as in Uexkull, ‘when [the animal] comes into relation with something else, [it] can only come upon that which ‘affects’ and thus starts its being-capable. Everything else is *a priori* unable to penetrate the ring around the animal.’”(*The Open*, 51)

In Giorgio Agamben’s sequel to *Homo Sacer*, *The Open*, Agamben takes up Heidegger’s post-Rilkean term, “the Open,” in terms of the ways the separation of the human and the animal have been historically understood and imagined. Crucially, what separates the human and the animal is nothing more than a preposition, the animal being what is *in* the Open and the human what is *before* it. In Heidegger’s original proposition, the animal is so much of the Open that the Open remains unopenable, and undiscoverable as such. No example of Agamben’s perhaps more sublimely illustrates the animal in the Open, reliant on its “disinhibiting rings,” than one from Heidegger’s contemporary, the zoologist Jakob Uexkull, whom Heidegger cites in the 1929-1930 lectures Agamben takes up as one of the central texts of his book. In this example, a bee continues to suck from a portion of honey in spite of the fact its abdomen has been severed from its body. In the bee’s drive to continue sucking, Heidegger recognizes the bee as “captivated,” given, as it were, to the “honey,” and in this captivation prey to its environmental disinhibitors which both give the creature sustenance and expose it to harm.

In a caesura between the human and the animal—openness and the ability to open, being before and being in—I wonder if we can not recognize the poet of Howe’s and Taggart’s mutual wilderness given to a grace the radical play of necessity and possibility. Poe’s line from the story ”MS Found in a Bottle” radiates from the first pages of Howe’s book: “I am heading towards certain discoveries”. These discoveries, as we know from Poe’s story, are wondrous and disastrous. So the poet who must hunt in the Open of composition is subject to the dangers of an affective intentionality beyond both knowing and pure “letting be”. In the Open the poet puts on a new face, a face neither entirely of the human or the animal: the face of ontogenetic Power itself. In putting on this face the poet does not so much revert to the animal as go beyond the human to a place of suspension where human and animal are no longer discernible in their separation. I believe Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay “Circles,” refers to this separation when he celebrates the loss of a “sempiternal memory” in enthusiasm. Likewise, Agamben concludes his book in praise of a similar forgetting the venture of which is to undo all anthropological projects towards the possibilities of a humaner projectlessness: “To render inoperative the machine that governs our conception of man will therefore mean no longer to seek new—more effective or more authentic—articulations, but rather to show the central emptiness, the hiatus that—within man—separates man and animal, and to risk ourselves in this emptiness, the suspension of the suspension, Shabbat of both animal and man.”(*The Open*, 92) This projectlessness may be the task of Howe’s and Taggart’s poet abandoned in graceful vigilance before the Open of compositional risk.

1. “Finally, some readers of My Emily Dickinson may feel we’ve not read the same book. For them its attraction will be an unabashed feminine perspective from which an instance of the feminine overthrow of male authority is celebrated. This is a possible, though surely reductive, reading. If I read it differently, it is to call attention to the wider application of Susan Howe’s picture of the poet for all those who would read or write.”(*Songs of Degrees*, 178)

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