- 1 All translations from French are mine.
1“Emotion is essential,” Bishop once explained in an interview. “The only question is in what form. I am at work on a villanelle that is pure emotion.” (Monteiro 66) Ever since Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads, the expression of personal emotion has been one of the most hackneyed features of poetic lyricism. It might well be, however, that emotion does not necessarily presuppose a foregrounding of lyrical subjectivity. Instead, by examining the function of “the lyrical object” in this discussion I would like to temporarily follow the tracks of Michel Collot who, in “Le sujet lyrique hors de soi,” defines e-motion as that which “only prolongs and reenacts that movement which constantly carries the subject and makes it drift outside of itself, and through which alone it can ek-sist and ex-press itself […] Modern poetry,” Collot adds, “compels us to overcome all dichotomies in order to try to understand how the lyrical subject can only be constituted by way of its relationship to the object” (115-6)1. While this certainly applies to Bishop, I hope to show that it does not necessarily lead to the conclusions suggested in Collot’s account of Ponge’s objective lyricism, which demonstrates how through objects the poet “invents himself outside and in the future, in the movement of an emotion which brings him out of himself in order to rejoin himself and the others within the horizon of the poem” (117). Relying on the Lacanian notion of the voice as object, I would argue on the opposite that the voice of the invoking drive emerges precisely when meaning as a condition of intersubjective communication falters and gestures towards the unsayable: “the voice comes in the place of what is unsayable in the subject […] the agency of the voice is always present as soon as I must locate my position vis-à-vis the signifying chain, insofar as this signifying chain is always in connection with the unsayable object. To this extent the voice is precisely what cannot be uttered” (Miller 51).
2I would like to broach the questions raised by the call for papers that initiated this conference by examining one of Bishop’s poems where issues of intersubjectivity and the inscription of the subject are foregrounded. In “The Armadillo” (CP 103-4) the poet witnesses a manifestation of some Brazilian villagers’ faith that involves casting fire balloons into the air in order to honor a local saint. While the fire balloons are supposed to disappear into the sky and thus materialize a scenario of union with transcendence, the ritual falls short of this expectation. Instead the fire balloons fall randomly and sometimes set houses on fire. While the communal bond that gathers the villagers around this ceremony is powerful enough to defy the ban on those “illegal fire balloons” (line 3), Bishop nonetheless stresses its frailty. The enjambment of lines 5-6, in particular, clearly suggests that the ritual followed by the poet from an ethnographer’s perspective is threatened with obsolescence : “rising toward a saint / still honored in these parts.”2 As a primitive mix of Christianity and paganism, this quaint ceremonial seems unlikely to survive much longer. Indeed, depending on the direction of the wind, the fire balloons seem to merge with stars whose names carry echoes of Latin mythology and which are significantly seen on the wane: “Once up against the sky it’s hard / to tell them from the stars— / planets, that is—the tinted ones: / Venus going down, or Mars”. They may also “steer between / the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,” an obvious Christian symbol whose relevance is also thrown into question through Bishop’s possible allusion to the episode of the Passion where Jesus shows his humanity by asking God why he has forsaken him. “Receding, dwindling, solemnly / and steadily forsaking us,” the fire balloons thus embody the demise of old beliefs around which communities were once built and whose disappearance might cause their dissolution.
3What object may be substituted for those instruments of worship that so miserably fail to connect man with the beyond, i.e., to give consistency to the Other who retroactively guarantees the social bond? What intersubjective link may subsist when religious ritual collapses like the fire balloon which, in stanza 6, “splattered like an egg of fire?” I would contend that “The Armadillo” attempts to provide a specifically poetic answer to these questions by thematically and formally deploying its own suppletory strategy. As I have just indicated, although the fire balloons are supposed to disappear into thin air and become one with the invisible or the transcendent, they do not reach their destination and share the fate of those “unanswered letters” that are littered in “The Bight” (CP 60). However, their final collapse disturbs a couple of owls who take off and vanish into the night, “their whirling black-and-white / stained bright pink underneath.” Thus the purpose that the fire balloons were unable to accomplish, the owls seemingly fulfill when their feathers ironically reflect their light before they “shriek[ed] up out of sight.” In other words, the successful although unprogrammed ascent of the owls strips the balloons of their symbolic significance by accidentally staging in the real the imaginary merger of the visible and the invisible that the religious artifacts have failed to bring about. Likewise, in the penultimate stanzas, the rabbit who is described as “a handful of intangible ash” seems to have borrowed from the realm of transcendence the attribute of intangibility, much as the light of the fire balloons did previously spill over onto the feathers of the owls.
4As to whether the letter finally reaches its destination, however, Bishop carefully remains silent. Indeed the writing of “The Armadillo” seems designed to exhibit Bishop’s skepticism as to the possibility of controlling direction, textual or otherwise. This appears especially in the odd relationship between the poem’s thematic title and its contents, which clearly runs counter to its avowed intention. What announces itself as a poem about an armadillo dedicates only one out of ten stanzas to the animal of whom we just catch a glimpse as it leaves the scene, in line 31. It is as if the poem drifts away from its theme almost as soon as it gets under way. In this respect it thus seems to mirror the fate of the fire balloons, a fact further corroborated in line 7, where those “paper chambers” are reflected in the poem’s layout on the page, since it too is made up of a succession of stanzas, the Italian word for “chamber.” Indeed, the very prosody of certain lines seems to imitate the motions of the fire balloons in the sky. This is particularly striking in the iambs and final choriamb of line 14: “they flare and falter, wobble and toss.” Thus as the owls and the armadillo borrow their color from the fire balloons, so too the poem entertains with those a degree of kinship. Is the poem however intended as a mere counterpart, or more interestingly as an alternative to the ritual under scrutiny? The answer, I believe, lies in its final lines and their rejection of “Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry,” warning us against a strictly mimetic reading of the preceding stanzas. Underlying the religious ritual described in this poem is the naive belief in the possibility of communication with the saint to whom those offerings are addressed. What if the Other to whom this ceremony thus attempts to give consistency has forsaken us? Perhaps then “surprise” can be substituted for religious awe, as seems to be the case in the penultimate stanza. Perhaps also the Other may still be postulated, at least within the strict boundaries of literary communication? This would be one way of accounting for the fairly exceptional presence of the dedication, “For Robert Lowell,” whereby Bishop seems to substitute for the failed offering of the villagers to their saint, the gift of her own poem to the tutelary figure of her friend Lowell. Thus the literary intersubjectivity created by that object which is the poem might be seen as an alternative to the futile ceremonial of the fire balloons. That this alternative is viable enough and that not all letters remain unanswered, might in this particular instance be confirmed by literary history which, as if plotting to lend the Other that answerability which was found so sorely lacking in “The Armadillo,” teaches us that Robert Lowell’s own “Skunk Hour” was in the poet’s own words “modeled on Miss Bishop’s ‘The Armadillo’” (Lowell 227).
- 3 In the face of such opacity, biography provides an easy way out. Thus according to Colwell, “early (...)
5Of course such confirmation is purely anecdotal and eventually misleading, at least inasmuch as it fosters a view of the poem as a successful invocation, a calling upon the voice of the Other, who conveniently answers back. This view may quite possibly have been intended by Bishop herself since Anne Colwell (161) mentions that “The Armadillo” initially appeared in the New Yorker without the dedication, which Bishop possibly added after Robert Lowell wrote to her that he admired her poem. This nonetheless does not help us solve the poem’s main difficulty, which lies in the enigmatic status of its last stanza. In contrast with the stylistic clarity of the preceding stanzas, where comparisons predominate, lines 37-40 are jarringly opaque, and have therefore triggered a wide range of interpretations3. What matters most, however, is not to identify the “weak mailed fist” as metaphorical of the armadillo and possibly of man’s bellicose tendencies. It is much rather the way in which Bishop isolates the very gesture of invocation in two lines whose meaning and syntax seem incompatible with the initial “O” of line 38: “O falling fire and piercing cry / and panic, and a weak mailed fist.” In a context describing a religious ritual, we expect this interjection to be used in its vocative sense, as is often the case when divinity is called upon. Yet this expectation is once again thwarted, since here it is intended primarily as an expression of surprise. Even in this acception, however, “O” seems incompatible with the indefinite article. The interjection thus appears semantically detached from its immediate context, in the same way as the absence of conjugated verbs throughout this final stanza subtracts it from the linear progression of the poem. Combined with the exclamation marks and the italics which both signal a variation in pitch, the interjection isolates the voice not as the bearer of meaning, but as its other, thus corresponding to the function of the object of the invoking drive as Miller defines it:
[speech] binds together the signified and the signifier […], and this binding always involves a third term, which is the voice. […] One may inscribe in the register of the voice what remains of the subtraction of signification from the signifier. And in the first analysis voice may be defined as everything which, in the signifier, does not contribute to the signification effect. (49)
6I would suggest that the paradox of the voice in the poem’s final stanza lies in our uncertainty as to its origin and destination. If it is legitimate to read Bishop’s dedication as an a posteriori effort to ascribe to Robert Lowell the structural place of the absent Other, it is worth bearing in mind that in its original form when it was first published the poem made no such attempt: instead, the acephalous voice it allowed to resonate in its final stanza and in the context of a poem where the sacred is seen as “steadily forsaking us,” also brought the silence of the Other to reverberate within the echoing chambers of its stanzas. It is in this logic that Philippe Hellebois’s remarks may be brought to bear on Bishop’s poem:
voice does not resonate in some kind of spatial void, but in the void of the other, a void […] which is that of its lack of consistency. […] This brings us to the main paradox here, which is that voice is no audible object, but on the contrary aphonic, event silent. Indeed, saying that voice resonates not in the real but in the absent Other implies that it is not located in the register of sound, but of silence. (92)
7In “The Armadillo,” the “O” of invocation, a syntactic as well as semantic core of impossibility delineating the space of the real in the text, thus opens up the chasm where the silence of the inconsistent Other is engulfed. Additionally, insofar as the italics do not simply isolate the voice of the invoking drive as seeking the ear of the Other, but also single it out as another voice within the text, the voice as object is both given and received, a drifting object whose final destination, like that of the fire balloons, falls outside of the network of meaning.
- 4 One famous example is Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” (CP 104).
- 5 For a reworking of this Lacanian concept in the field of contemporary French poetry, see Collot (1 (...)
8The emergence of the voice as object thus carves out a signifying void all the more noticeable perhaps since it occurs within a text that chooses to obey strict formal constraints. Another case in point is Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art” (CP 178). Spelling out a litany of lost objects which culminates in the figure of the addressee apostrophized in the last stanza, “One Art” attempts to control the pathos of elegiac diction by reclaiming loss as an art which like any other may be mastered. In keeping with the conventions of the villanelle, the signifiers “master” and “disaster” placed at the end of lines 1 and 3 recur in various positions in each stanza before being united again in the final couplet of the last quatrain. Contrary to those conventions, however, Bishop chooses to vary the contents of lines 1 and 3—unlike other contemporary poets who when using the villanelle form simply repeated lines 1 and 3 without variation in the final couplet4. It is thus as if “disaster” tightened its grip on the poem while mastery becomes increasingly difficult to assert. This dynamic follows the crescendo movement traceable in the catalogue of losses, ranging from an innocuous set of keys to “two rivers, a continent,” and finally the “you” of the last stanza. Of particular interest in this poem is Bishop’s view of objects as being “filled with the intent / to be lost.” Loss being thus posited as inherent in their definition, Bishop runs counter to the prevailing notion that the object of desire fills a void, since instead of designating as the object’s ultimate truth its metonymic or stopgap function, the poet pins it down as bearing the signature of its own erasure5—much as the italicized words which mark the emergence of the voice in “The Armadillo” simultaneously cancel themselves out as vehicles of meaning, the better to reverberate with the signifying void which they inscribe.
9Apart from its handling of the constraints of the villanelle, however, the poem’s most striking formal feature is the alternance of the indicative and the imperative mood. Indeed, within the imperative itself further subdivisions may be observed, from self-exhortation (4-7), to the verb “Look!” in line 10, which technically qualifies as an imperative but functions more like a deictic directing the addressee’s attention to a current state of affairs, and finally to the italicized “Write it” which, appearing in the final line of the poem, seems to split the subject of utterance in two. These repeated shifts in intonation thus bring to the fore the specific orality of Bishop’s villanelle.
- 6 “We understand that the covert setting aside of the object as real conditions the stabilization of (...)
10Let us now focus briefly on the three human subjects represented in the poem: successively the poet’s mother (line 10) designated in the third person; “you,” the second person pronoun explicitly mentioned in line 16, although already implicit in the preceding imperatives; and finally the first person pronoun “I” present throughout the poem’s last three stanzas. What seems of particular importance is that each of these is also metonymically designated by a small set of objects, which were hardly picked at random. It is thus striking that while the guilt of the “hour badly spent” is voiced in line 5, the object by which the mother is remembered precisely turns out to be an instrument to tell time and measure its loss. By virtue of the dual meaning of the signifier “watch” which, in a different syntax, could also refer to the activity of the gaze, the speaker thereby identifies with the mother’s condemning look, an avatar of the imaginary superego whose symbolic counterpart may be found in the numerous imperative forms previously hinted at. Hence in line 10 the signifier of the gaze being first designated as lost, then summoned again on the stage of writing and thus re-appropriated by the speaker through the imperative “And look!” which proclaims her symbolic identification to the mother’s injunction. Following the same metonymic logic, the poem’s addressee is first recalled through “the joking voice, a gesture / I love.” Yet that voice and that gesture are likewise immediately conjured up once again in the form of the imperative “Write it,” italicized as if to signal a double inflection: a modulation and possible cleavage of the poetic voice, and a corresponding gesture of the hand that holds the pen. Thus each time the poetic subject becomes one with the lost object, i.e. with loss qua object, bearing witness to “the equivalency of the subject and object a” (Miller)6. Moreover, by dint of the projection of the paradigmatic on the syntagmatic order, lover and mother merge as agencies whose commands are brought to bear on the speaker. Bishop’s poem thus highlights the duality at work in the invoking drive which ultimately refers to the mother’s threatening, yet seductive voice—which accounts for the spectral quality of this imperative seemingly emerging from the void left open by the vanishing of the lover’s own voice.
- 7 See Lacan (Écrits 119-48), and in particular the following remark: “the law and repressed desire a (...)
11Through the injunction it conveys, this voice merges the contradictory necessities of writing and enjoyment, whose fundamental collusion with the categorical imperative Lacan brought to light in his “Kant avec Sade”7: it is this voice which dictates to the poet to write the final words of the villanelle and thus risk the coincidence of “master” and “disaster” for the first time brought together in a couplet, that is, of the signifiers of art and enjoyment, access to which other than fragmentary means the extinction of the subject. This is perhaps how we may interpret Miller’s observation that “voice is that part of the signifying chain which cannot be endorsed by the subject as “I,” and which is subjectively assigned to the Other.” (51) In this free-floating voice of the imperative jouissance and the law coalesce, and the voice of the Other becomes the repository of that surplus jouissance imperfectly integrated in the subject’s own signifying chain.
The […] status of the voice as object was developed […] a propos of the notion of la voix acousmatique, the voice without bearer, which cannot be attributed to any subject and thus hovers in some indefinite interspace. This voice is implacable precisely because it cannot be properly placed […] but belonging rather to that mysterious domain designated by Lacan as ‘betwen two deaths.’ (Zizek 25)
12 In “One Art” I would suggest that this interspace is precisely delineated by the parenthesis which contains the last imperative, “Write it,” implacable to the extent that it urges writing and disaster to become “One Art” in the impossible coincidence of jouissance and poetic speech. That interspace is also more broadly circumscribed by the very structure of the poem, whose musicality may partake of a desire to “substitute for the Other’s silent answer one which is audible and articulated, but which echoes beyond language, even when it envelops words” (Vereecken 89), but more importantly is also a direct function of the repetitiveness of the villanelle form. This repetitiveness also turns out to be the main feature of the drive which “cannot be separated from its back-and-forth, from its fundamental reversion, its circularity” (Lacan 1973 162). In Bishop’s poem, the voice of the final imperative, made to resonate and simultaneously contained in that poetic automaton which is the villanelle, a voice neither of the dead nor of the living, is like those “apparitions that emerge in the domain ‘between two deaths’ [and which] address to us some unconditional demand, and it is for this reason that they incarnate pure drive without desire.” (Zizek 21)
13Distinguishing between existence, the realm of the symbolic, and ex-sistence as “the impossible real-kernel resisting symbolization,” the realm of the “Thing embodying impossible enjoyment” (136), Zizek stresses that “we are always caught in a certain vel, […] always forced to choose between meaning and ex-sistence: the price we have to pay for access to meaning [being] the exclusion of ex-sistence.” This alternative crystallized in Bishop’s poem around the poles of mastery and disaster generates the tension specific to the last stanza of “One Art,” simultaneously perceptible in the triumph of form inherent in the very completion of the villanelle, and in the partial breakdown of the syntax noticeable in Bishop’s elliptical, “Even losing you […] I shan’t have lied.” Bishop’s poem thus clearly demonstrates how, originating in an imperative which is cosubstantial to enjoyment, writing necessarily involves coming to terms with the sinthome as “this kernel of enjoyment which is, so to speak, immune to the symbolic efficacy, the operating mode of discourse” (Zizek 137). It requires opening up a space where “I am waiting for the Other’s voice, the voice that will tell me what lies in store for me, what will happen with me, and what pertains to my being as unutterable” (Miller 51). As I have tried to show in the previous readings, the voice as object is carved out of this unutterable core.
14While, as we have seen in “The Armadillo,” no consistency can be ascribed to the Other of the symbolic order as a closed totality, bringing the object into play is a way of coming to terms with this lack in the Other or of the Other: it is “the little bit of the real functioning as the signifier of the ultimate senselessness of the (symbolic) universe” (Zizek 134), a fragment which, due to its “equivalency” to the subject, may even be substituted for it, as is strikingly the case in Bishop’s “The Bight” (CP 60). In this poem proclaiming the death of “old correspondences” and where the lyrical subject appears only once, bracketed in tiny print below the title, the “white crumbling ribs of marl” (line 2) and “dripping jawful of marl” (line 34) represent that core of enjoyment which simultaneously provokes attraction and repulsion. The onomatopoeic sound of the dredge isolated by Bishop in the last lines of the poem, on the other hand, functions as
a little piece of the real attesting to the ultimate nonsense of the universe, but insofar as this object allows us to condense, to locate, to materialize the nonsense of the universe in it, insofar as the object serves to represent this nonsense, it enables us to sustain ourself in the midst of inconsistency. (Zizek 134-5)
15I would suggest to conclude that this audible click-click emanating from the chaotic world of objects whose activity Bishop describes as “awful but cheerful,” partaking of the dimension of the voice in its utter senselessness, is that fragment of the real whose presence in the poetic artifact bears witness to its status as a compromise solution between mastery and disaster.
16The role of the poetic object in the texts I have just examined raises the central question of Bishop’s status as a modern or post-modern poet, and I would like to conclude on this issue by making a short detour via the arguments convoked by Zizek in order to demonstrate how Habermas is “a postmodern without knowing it.” (142) According to Zizek both the theories of Adorno and Horkheimer betraying a “hope for the utopian abolition of the difference between alienated life spheres” and of the deconstructionists who postulate the “unity of the experience of meaning […] conceived as the effect of signifying mechanisms” (142), may be pinpointed as modernist procedures, at least to the extent that “the aestheticist, anti-universalist ethics of the individual’s shaping his life as a work of art [was ] always part of the modernist project.” (141) Contrariwise Habermas qualifies as distinctly postmodern in asserting “the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere, the functional division of different social domains.” In other words, one approach is holistic and inclusive, the other decidedly disjunctive. In this respect Lacan would have to be ranked among the postmoderns, since his theory hits upon the existence of a real, traumatic kernel resisting symbolization, and posits “enjoyment as ‘the real thing,’ the central impossibility around which every signifying network is structured.” (Zizek 142-3)
17Modern and postmodern aesthetics differ in their handling of this kernel. The former is built around the absence of the Thing, designated through a variety of indirection strategies that foster “an unending process of reading, of interpretation” (151). The latter
consists not in demonstrating that the game works without an object, that the play is set in motion by a central absence, but rather in displaying the object directly, allowing it to make visible its own indifferent and arbitrary character. The same object can function successively as a disgusting reject and as a sublime, charismatic apparition; the difference, strictly structural, does not pertain to the “effective properties” of the object, but only to its place in the symbolic order. (143)
18Far from cultivating opacity, postmodern aesthetic is thus compatible with extreme stylistic clarity aiming to exhibit “the Thing itself as the incarnated, materialized emptiness.” Vis-à-vis this core of enjoyment the voice as we have seen it at work in “The Armadillo” and “One Art” functions like the psychoanalytical object which “is placed in a certain relationship to the Thing, intended to simultaneously circumscribe, presentify and absentify” (Lacan 1986 169). This dialectical relationship of the object to the Thing ensures the dynamics of poetic writing and critical reading. Yet I would venture to suggest that the clarity which is an increasingly defining feature of Bishop’s poetry after her first collection, North and South, shows the poet, notably in her treatment of descriptive detail, hesitating on the threshold of postmodernity as Zizek defines it, interpretability being often hinted at, then ultimately denied to the components of her landscapes. This is the case, for instance, in her encounter with the undecipherable horror of an open “holy grave, not looking particularly holy” in “Over 2,000 Illustrations, and a Complete Concordance” (CP 58). In a less traumatic context Bishop describes a seascape “with white herons got up as angels” which “does look like heaven.” This resemblance, however, is soon acknowledged to be all in the eye of the beholder, and ultimately arbitrary. The “bright green leaves edged neatly with bird droppings” observed in the poem may look “like illumination in silver,”8 yet Bishop tellingly favors the tentative mode of comparison and avoids the interpretative leap of metaphor. Thus the analogy dictated to the poet by the context of the “cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a pope” where these visual features become readable as conveniently fitting in the painter’s artistic and religious project, never deprives those features of their initial identity as slightly repulsive fragments of the real.
19The same is true of the iridescence that contaminates most of the lowly details described in “At the Fishhouses” (CP 64-6): the apparent translucence created by the reflection of light on the fish scales might in another context lend itself to a transcendentalist reading, but in Bishop’s poem it obstinately remains confined within the bounds of the visible, and resists symbolic deciphering. The fish scales may thus alternately be seen, in Zizek’s formula, “as a disgusting reject and as a sublime, charismatic apparition” (143), and while Bishop’s writing tends to promote the second term of this alternative, it maintains no ambiguity as to the ultimate arbitrariness of this choice. In the final analysis a “specklike bird” may always turn out to be nothing but “a flyspeck looking like a bird” (CP 176). What ultimately defines the status of the object in Bishop’s poetry might thus be the hesitation it embodies between the modernist treatment of the incompleteness of the Other, which triggers interpretation, and the post-modernist acknowledgement of its inconsistency, which brings it to a halt.