Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The "something" thing

I did something to someone in one way so that he could do something to something, then I did the same thing to the same person in another way so that he could do something else with this same thing, then I did that thing a third time, this time to the thing in the same ways I had done it to the person and this time I gave the thing to the person and then I did it again to more than one of the things so he could do something to them in one way up to a certain point, then for the fifth time I did it to something that could be used to do something to the thing which was his and finally I did it for the sixth time to something in the other way so that it could do something with the thing:
— Bernadette Mayer, "Moon in Three Sentences"
0 to 9, no. 5 (Jan. 1969)

It is Mayer's refusal of specificity that interests me most. She opens with defamiliarizaton, by removing specificity to point towards underlying structure. We don't, upon reading this, know who did what to whom — and our uncertainty is underscored by the recollection that "I" is itself a shifter, that it points only towards the voice of who speaks it, rather than to a particular individuated consciousness or actor. And though the "I" is uncertain — though both its status as shifter and the prohibition against the intentional fallacy underscore its uncertainty — it is tempting to read this passage in terms of, if not as autobiography.

Mayer's refusal of specificity recalls (to my mind, at least) and extends upon the conclusion to Berrigan's sonnets, in which "Someone / is having a birthday and someone is getting / married and someone is telling a joke." And her play with, and effacement of, the autobiographical also calls out to Lisa Jarnot's own "Autobiography" (from Ring of Fire):
I didn't sleep with anyone for six months until I met X. While I was sleeping with Y I also slept with Y's girlfriend. While I was sleeping with Y's girlfriend I also slept with S and T. During the six months between sleeping with Y and sleeping with X I spent a lot of time with K. I never slept with K but J slept with K and Y's girlfriend and also with S. After leaving Y and before meeting X I didn't sleep with anyone for six months.

But in the beginning of "Moon in Three Sentences," we don't even know what was done: whatever action "something" points to can apparently be done both to people and to objects, but the term is complicated by the appearance of a "something else." There is, in fact, a Stein-ian play on the word "something" in Mayer's poem — it refers to objects and actions. "Thing" also refers to an action: "I did the same thing." It is as though Mayer points to the limits of the conventional, if not technical, definition of a noun as "the name of a person, place, or thing," reminding us that a thing can also be an activity, and perhaps suggesting we rethink the distinction between material object and action.

What we're left with at this point in Mayer's poem is a two-fold structural analysis, that examines grammar and syntax while it also reports on a set of interpersonal relationships. Because of the complexity of the poem, it isn't clear which of these levels of interpretation is to be taken as literal, and which as metaphorical: are we looking at grammar as though it were personal? Or is it the personal that, under scrutiny, reveals itself to be structured grammatically? Is there a difference? With such abstraction, does metaphor simply become a way of playing between to "levels" (but that term is too hierarchical in itself — "dimensions," maybe?) of meaning?

The poem's next section is less satisfying, inasmuch as it resolves these questions, provides an answer to the riddle at the same time that it reconstructs what has proceeded as riddle in the first place:
I brought you here to round this moon
I brought you round to hear this moon
I brought this moon round here to you
I brought you moons to round to here
I brought this here to round your moon
I brought this round to hear this moon.

But where the ambiguity of the poem is resolved, and where this resolution is a bit disappointing, the poem turns back in on itself, redirecting us in the final line to the beginning, and turning "Moon in Three Sentences" into a self-generating text.
Then I tried to explain what I had done so far.
The effect is to return us to the grammatical play, and to reassert the structure as primary, as that which underlies the specificity, reframing the resolution as an extension of this deeper structure, which is in turn positioned as an "explanation," despite the fact that it "explains" less, at least in terms of what a conventional understanding of "explanation" would allow us to expect, than that which follows it.

[See also my discussions of Laurie Anderson and Juliana Spahr, which deal with similar approaches in writing, and are, really, of a piece with this.]


K. Silem Mohammad said...

Nathan, I don't know if you've already made this connection, but this seems very relevant to Mac Low's "The Pronouns," with its weirdly both specific and general instructions, like:

"I do something consciously,
going about & coming across art.

After that I boil some delicate things
while doing something under the conditions of competition
& going under someone or something
& taking opinions,
& then, when making or giving something small, I monkey with

something that's not white."

steve roberts said...

I've been waiting for a Bernadette mayer poem that I liked, and this is it, second stanza less the first of course. I'm surprised you didn't make the obvious (perhaps too obvious) connection with the "I do this, I do that" style of O'Hara, Berrigan, etc. This is maybe a basis from which Mayer playfully elaborated, and also your dsicussion of the use of a "fluid" pronoun reminds me of Tom Clark's "You" series. It seems like a lot of poets in the second generation (Mayer, Berrigan, Towle, Padgett) were very concerned with this ever-changing perspective within their poetry, and this is a great example of that concern being used to great effect.

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