The End of the Alphabet
Grove, $20 (cloth)
She broods, like a bird whose nest has never felt a birth, with a grief that "needs to be and is in the end, anyway." (As Paul Valéry put it, the body is "in the end … our most redoubtable antagonist"). An umbilical cord. Complications. An unspecified difficult choice. Asphyxiation. A life lost in a life lost. Lost but hanging around, hanging on: "We can enter into hell and still sit down for Sunday dinner."
The father of the child is, well, inadequate as she presses her face on the wood floor as if to close its wound: floor, grieve no more, I am your ceiling. The man she lives with now (perhaps the same man) doesn't know how to bring her all the way back, either, but has wiles: "His hand urging out of her deep surrender what / on its own could not. How he holds her down holds him down."
The poetry she heroically writes to "unhyphen the self from the past" threatens to free her-"Shut up, Shut up"-from the loss that has become the "it," the only proof, the negative metaphysics of her life. How to live with "all the loss lost"? Does she make too much of her stagnancy, "the drainage blocked by … leaves, moss, dirt the wind put here?" So be it: "I apologize but I do not apologize." It's both wrong and right, this grief. Sweetness is greater ("I know to desire / sweetness"), but only in a way, for there is an integrity to grief. And the mind-here at once analysand and analyst ("to sit next to the self. // to wait")-is freeing, but, again, only in a way: "Forgive me. / this struggle to exuberance, for as much as I love the mind // it is there we lose."
Something of all this, but much more complex, wavering, crumbling, outside("Dear, heart, you break in two. You do not break into"), and dogged, is the severe "plot" of Claudia Rankine's second book of poems, The End of the Alphabet. But no one will find it quickly or easily. (Turn first to page fifty if you want some basic facts.) Its twelve titled sections made up of separated but untitled sub-poems, the poem consists of successive, unhurried, spent waves (notexuberant) of narrativized contemplations, fragmentary brightenings of the rough particles of glum feeling spread around anyhow, in the womb, in the mouth. It cleanses, that is to say, at its own grieving pace. For this sorrow is both enormous and (so it must feel, however against hope) eternal. Utter economy would be futile, because superficial.
What we have here is not an event, but a life. The poem might seem to end with section nine, "Where is the sea?" in a metaphysical sounding of the physical tragedy:
of the-rain pickle. Though vexed as it is
it is not time that moved the lightning inside.
Before existed in
such dark unsaid–though I expressed it.
Who kiss them teeth?
What craziness she? …
Or it might seem to close its eyes once and for all in the next "poem," to see the sweet hereafter: "There must be an uninvolved and there, outrageous calm." But it goes on, nonetheless, for sixteen more pages of verse, and with justification, if not with an acute formal necessity-for who can have done with one met in death? Besides, as Kafka thought, writing is an acceptance of endlessness. Here is Rankine: "Unable to leave off, to shut up- // the railing is gone."
Nothing is so impressive in The End of the Alphabet as this poet's ability to sustain over one hundred pages an examination of pain so sensitive, sopainstaking, that it nearly outdoes the exquisiteness of the pain itself, its superinventive, invasive, and pervasive "life." Here, wits at once keen and tenacious match themselves against grief's genius for devastation. They run everything in and out of the wringer of abjection and resistance to forgiveness (of the mother herself, the father, the child, and-but here I'm guessing-the doctor, happenstance, and life which returns nothing it takes away), even as, constrained by aesthetics, they are such forgiveness as composition itself always is. (Yet how often this poet conveys unease over the falseness of a final, masterful accomplishment.)
Here is no heroism expectant of garlands. The poem slowly secretes itself like a shell. The speaker's head is forcibly kept bent down, her gaze required to direct itself at her body's taking form, its memory of a catastrophe, of what must feel like-murder. (Hence the scarcity of description in the book. Appearance, after all, requires a spectator who can raise her head and look around.) Unmercifully honest, an ordeal and catharsis of honesty, Rankine's mind cannot properly leave off (as if to say, Resolution is served) because it knows the impossibility of securing the heart. What is behind is the wilderness around the river ahead.
• • •
At the end of the alphabet is the flesh, at least those of its needs and wants that come from the unsaid (as cubs come to a lioness). But language itself is not unlike the incarnadine womb-alive, dead? Rankine creates for her speaker a style at once carefully abstract-touch me not, life-and nervously edgy-filth touches me, I am already always its "hoarse brawl." One reads her, word by never-expected word, with fascination. It is "something strict," this writing, "a thing more violent / than the violence of / broken, burnt, worn, disorder" which it nonetheless bearsand bears along within it: it is art, art as near to experiencing "the railing … gone" as an art that is fundamentally classical-forsworn (or very nearly so) to the goodness of calm-could possibly be.
Rankine's style is the sanity, but just barely, of the insanity, the grace, but just barely, of the grotesqueness, of having been the sight of a "monstrous graft," as Julia Kristeva put it in her essay "Stabat Mater"-a shocking graft of life on itself, inside. Her body is none and all of her:
Did they take a vein from her thigh to mend
She pulled a pant leg up. Her face, undressed,
Da daa daa. She repeated,
Da daa daa. She wanted to leave.
I got a lot of life for a dead woman.
She laughed. She was laughing. She was lying.
Style, another involuntary graft, also springs from the body-style, as Roland Barthes proposed in Writing Degree Zero, whose "frame of reference is biological or biographical, not historical," a "personal and secret mythology … a closed personal process, though transparent to society." Style makes for Rankine a new and separate carnal structure, a continuation of her body, in which forgiveness, if not happiness, can be thought. "Fragments of a reality alien to language lie deeply beneath style," Barthes said. Body-stunned, Rankine's protagonist is of the Barthesian kind.
Of all such elations (and writing is elation), the sensual rapture of Rankine's style is among the least joyous, the least reassured by a successful desire outside the law. Snip and eke and feel one's powerlessness to locate oneself, even in the larger, penumbral body of one's own style, now that the star in the actual body has fallen out of it-such is her (second) confinement. The maternal lining and the stylistic lining cannot be aligned.
Rankine's Latinate abstraction is yet all sorrow of precision. It has something of T. S. Eliot's authority of generalization (as in "Gerontion"), without (usually) the salt and dash of his sharp, compelling images. If overproper on rare occasion (as witness "milk on the tongue tasted rude, unfortunate," which is a touch too prophylactic), it's often intellectually and imaginatively (and emotionally) demanding-it has an intentional, keep-off and be-delicate difficulty in the face of the equally intentional rage for understanding that drives the poem.
Rankine both rushes into and outflanks rhetoric. Hers is an art neither of epiphany nor story: its justification is, in Blanchot's words, "the intimate perception of … suffering" (of godlessness, absence, exile, remorse, regret, despair). It attempts to peel back the layers of forgetting and at the same time not to see the hurt and the horror naked. The tension between the two impulses is the civilest thing just this side of havoc. Whenever before has autobiography (or at least an autobiography-effect) been so elusive with respect to the gross facts of a life, so unbound by any logic of linear narrative circumstance, yet so ferocious and refined an act of self-scrutiny?
"The thinking ego," as Hannah Arendt put it, "is sheer activity and therefore ageless, sexless, without qualities, and without a life story." Thought is Rankine's tractor and plank across the waste, excremental past which, however, won't stay past: "like when feces is stuffed in the mouth (an image woken / into"). Her thinker's vocabulary, her dignified educated lingo, distances her from the offending (betrayed and betraying) body. With few exceptions (which are startling but welcome) her language is a distillate of the "discursivization"-the word is appropriate in its unembraceable quality-which is one of the "acids," as Bruno Latour says in We Have Never Been Modern, producing "the ironic despair whose symptom is post modernism":
(ripped out night, your core untranslatable.
paralyzed, out-of-place syllable outcried.
tacked up sequences
of daylight. distrusted though crossed over,
Rankine's style at once shakes with, mourns, and cleanses itself of the abjection of violated fertility.
What has been canceled deep down is not just a sense of being a being amidst Being, as the clouds are in the sky, but of being able to add to Being from the body itself, as opposed to offering only the rehabilitated moans of style. Rankine or her heroine is not in the mood to answer the feminist criticism-as herewith stated by Vicki Kirby in Telling Flesh-that in the Cartesian schema woman "remains stuck in the primeval ooze of nature's sticky immanence." What is sticky for Rankine's crafted, projected "I" (a.k.a. a distancing "she," like a marble rolling toward the table's edge; or Jane; and rarely and more healingly a "you") is only the clot of rotten leaves that took the place of a second life growing in her body. The hidden religion in The End of the Alphabet-this poem as assured as it is unprecedented, this brilliantly struck off and extended performance-is that of life, itself (we have never been modern)