Graham Foust

The poster advertising this event suggests that what Logan and I do today might be deviating from the normal path that these talks might take.  I just want to say that I don’t know that there is a normal path that these talk might take.  Basically what we did to prepare for this event was we decided to meet and talk, making our focal point the Henry James novella In the Cage.  We met several times, the whole time we were continuing to write up issues that we thought would be of major concern here.  My talk is less about the story than Logan’s.  Any way, we met, we talked, we wrote and this is what happened.

    I have a postscript with which I would like to begin because if I had it to do all over again I would write about this song rather than the Berryman poems.  You’ll see in my talk that I’m concerned with the question of having to do all over again.  In my mind this song is the finest articulation of poetic speech, or at least the kind of poetic speech that I am going to address, that I know of.  It’s a duet between George Jones and Elvis Costello, and since Logan and I are doing a duet up here … The song is called “Stranger in the House.”

(E. Costello)

This never was one of the great romances
But I thought you’d always have those young girl’s eyes
For now they look in tired and bitter glances
At the ghost of a man walkin’ ‘round in my disguise

He gets the feeling that he should belong here
But there’s no welcome in the window anyway
And he looks down for a number on his keychain
‘Cause it feels more like a hotel every day

There’s a stranger in the house--nobody’s seen his face
But everybody says that he’s taken my place
There’s a stranger in the house no one will ever see
But everybody says he looks like me

And now you say you’ve got no expectations
But I know you’ll also miss those carefree days
And for all the angry words that pass between them
She still can’t understand him when he says

There’s a stranger in the house--nobody’s seen his face
But everybody says that he’s taken my place
There’s a stranger in the house no one will ever see
But everybody says he looks like me

He looks like me . . .

Performed by George Jones and Elvis Costello on the George Jones LP My Very
Special Guests

Written by Elvis Costello, Copyright 1980 Riviera Global Productions Limited

    The song is about a failed relationship — something everybody has experienced, or is experiencing.  The idea of there being a stranger in the house is also the predicament of the author or singer.

                            Disappearing forever is the only solution; or, Our lives take us

[The real essence] was what the night before, at eight o’clock, her hour to go, had made her hang back and dawdle.  She did last things or pretended to do them; to be in the cage had suddenly become her safety, and she was literally afraid of the alternate self who might be waiting outside.  He might be waiting; it was he who was her alternate self, and of him she was afraid.

                 —Henry James, In the Cage

One could not have spoken it but it could have been made to resound—immense, endless, an empty gong.

                  —Marguerite Duras, The Ravishing of Lol Stein

“To write,” writes Maurice Blanchot (or does “he”?), “is to break the bond that unites the word with myself” (Space 26).  In the brief introductory note to the collected volume of his Dream Songs, John Berryman writes (so does “he” not?) a similar statement:

Many opinions and errors in the Songs are to be referred not to the character Henry, still less to the author, but to the title of the work . . . The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof.  Requiescant in pace. (vi)

So much is said here, and yet so little is clarified.  We see that this long poem, like a story, is “about” someone:  it contains him, surrounds him, and yet—perhaps because it is comprised of “songs”—it is also free to wander the specific and limited space that is its character (as in Allen Grossman’s notion that art is about something like a cat’s about the house).  So The Dream Songs, “about” what Blanchot, via Kafka, would call a “he” [il] are both free and trapped, are a border that encloses, like a room, and a boarder that feeds on and lives within its own character and its very characteristics.
    Berryman sets himself at a triple distance:  Henry is “(not the poet, not me).”  Blanchot:  “The song bestows glory and guarantees the name by its renown, while the singer himself is obscure and remains anonymous” (Infinite 378).  We see, in Berryman’s brief comment, that the person writing the note (“me”) views himself as different from not only the character of Henry, but also from “the poet,” the person who is, we might assume, responsible for “the poem.” Within this triad of voices (Henry, poet, me), there is another triple division:  Henry himself is multiple, fractured, distanced from himself by different “persons.”  This is why errors and opinions are hard to pin on him:  the reader would have to ask “Which Henry?  Which Henrys?”  And then there is an interlocutor—though given the already fractured speaker one might just as confidently say another interlocutor, another other, “never named”—who addresses the skeletons in/of the story:  “Mr Bones.”  And so, finally, it is the collective name of the Songs themselves, The Dream Songs, which errs and opinionates.  This name is a state, a word which invites more borders, more residents, though they can only ever live here (in a poem, in a dream) in language.  Indeed, the persons enclosed (first, second, third) and the persons which enclose (“I,” “you,” “he”) both limit (speak), and live in (are spoken by), the Songs.  Despite his almost Blanchotian claim to distance, Berryman perhaps brings words closer to the “thing” he really is, what all of us finally are.  Our names are what we “go by.”  They carry us; we pass them.
    In “The Breaking of Form,” an essay on John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Harold Bloom briefly mentions an ancient linguistic dispute between the school of Alexandria, who are said to have interpreted texts by way of analogy (“equality of ratios”), and the school of Pergamon, who supposedly argued for anomaly (“disproportion of ratios”) as the proper method of critique.  Bloom writes:  “Whereas the analogists of Alexandria held that the literary text was a unity and had a fixed meaning, the anomalists of Pergamon in effect asserted that the literary text was an interplay of differences and had meanings that rose out of those differences” (13-14).  Like many who discuss the Stoic/Alexandrian controversy, Bloom simplifies the relationship between these “schools” in order to allow himself to proceed with an analogy of his own.  (In this case, Bloom is discussing the “latest . . . wars of criticism”  [circa 1979] between the “Alexandrian” New Critics and those “legitimate rival descendents of Crates,” the Deconstructionists.)  But the “real” story of these ancient critics is surely not so simple, and perhaps it is less of a “story” than we might like to imagine.
    In his excellent Ancient Philosophy and Grammar:  the Syntax of Apollonius Dyscolus, David Blank observes that “[a]lthough Stoic philosophers and Alexandrian philologists will have studied grammar for different reasons, this does not mean their methods and concerns were of necessity completely different” (5).  One could say the same thing about the contrast between lyric writing and narrative writing, song and story, which might be seen (heard?) as different versions of the same event rather than as opposed occurrences.  A lyric sings thinking through images, sounds, wounds; its tale is, and is in, its mouth.  A story spends the song by paying attention; narrative listens, then thinks, then tells, is too slow, too late to remember every note.
    Berryman’s Dream Songs catch and cast these different versions of an event as simultaneous versions of each other.  They are, in other words, each other’s words:  the story of the singer in song’s very moment, the narrative of the lyric itself, which is to say that the “Henry,” an “I/he” construct, is forced to tell about himself from without himself, while the song, which he simultaneously sings and hears, is being sung about him (which is to say within and around him).  The singer, singing, is almost one step behind the song, while the narrator, singing along, is almost one step ahead of the story.  Henry’s once verifiable bearings are stripped bare; his good voices are in poor standing.    A story harmed by lyric—and perhaps this is what Blanchot means by a “bad” narrative—isn’t harmonic, though it may well contain multiple parts.  “In dreams one sometimes thinks one knows one is dreaming, but only dreams this” (Space 3).  This complication is the (t)error of a fractured narrator, the source—the song—of everything he says he has to say.
    Here, there is no voice in the background, but rather a voice twice, its second instance directly on the heels of its first, so close that the two almost appear to be one.  This is the sound of a self watching itself and coming to realize that he cannot hold the situations which approach him.  Dream Song 28, entitled “Snow Line,” is probably the best illustration of such (t)error:

                       It was wet & white & swift and where I am
we don’t know.  It was dark and then
it isn’t.
I wish the barker would come.  There seems to be to eat
nothing.  I am unusually tired.
I’m alone too.

If only the strange one with so few legs would come,
I’d say my prayers out of my mouth, as usual.
Where are his notes I loved?
There may be horribles; it’s hard to tell.
The barker nips me but somehow I feel
he too is on my side.

I’m too alone.  I see no end.  If we could all
run, even that would be better.  I am hungry.
The sun is not hot.
It’s not a good position I am in.
If I had to do the whole thing over again
I wouldn’t.      (Dream Songs 32)

    The words are simple, the sentences paratactic; the poem stresses its fractures, its cracks.  “It” begins the poem, and though we assume soon enough that this is likely a sentence about the weather (as in “It is sunny today”), we see too that this first word also brings to mind il (“he” or “it”), a word Blanchot defines as “the unlighted event that occurs when one tells a story” (Infinite 381).  If song, as Blanchot tells us, “signifies an alteration in the institution of narration,” this particular song is, I think, timed differently (381).  It is an altercation, a struggle with telling itself.
    For Blanchot, the storytelling song takes place in “the presence of a remembrance,” yet Berryman’s songs, because they are so tied to their events, because they are the stories of the songs themselves (“about” themselves:  within and without), are not distant enough to achieve “remembrance.”  If Orpheus is drawn into the underworld through his song, the speaker in/of The Dream Songs is nearly sucked back into the song as he strains to tell of it.  Inhaling and exhaling become simultaneous, which would, of course, signal a kind of last breath.  What Blanchot has deemed “an unlighted” event (the dark “It”) now simply “isn’t.”  “It” is not not-dark, but rather no longer exists:  “It” is not.
    “The Narrative Voice” teaches us that what it means to be alive and what it is to be alive are two different and yet dependent things; Dream Song 28 speaks to this discrepancy/dependency as well.  The poet Joe Wenderoth writes about Dream Song 28 at length in the as-yet-unpublished section of his long essay “Obscenery.”  Here, Wenderoth examines the song’s third and fourth sentences and reveals that in addition to what at first glance might be simply the speaker assuming there is nothing for him to eat, there is also something else at work in the poem:

The fourth line of the poem is a long line, and it seems to begin to describe the I in its present state.  It begins by describing a lack, the lack of “the barker,” but then it moves on to address the I’s present “there” directly:  “There seems to be to eat . . .”  This fragment [lacks] a direct object, which we would need to make the statement at all descriptive of a present “there.”  True to form, the next line does not complete the scene, but undermines it, and transforms it into the description of a lack.  In its most common sense, the statement speaks to a lack of food—but its strange construction creates the possibility of other meanings.  First, the line ends with the strange coupling of infinitives (“to be to eat”), and . . . implies a kind of animal presence, a being which exists “to eat.”  But the “I” is not the subject, is not who “seems to be to eat” – the “there” is the subject.  The site of the I, the “where I am,” is what “seems to be to eat.”  This “there” “seems” to the speaker “to be,” that is, seems to exist in order “to eat/nothing.”  The there, the scene the I finds himself in, seems to exist in order to eat nothing.

If this is true of the scene the song describes, we might say that the song itself seems to devour nothing in order to exist.  Line breaks push negation away from the events negation seeks to overpower:  “I am/we don’t know”; “to eat/nothing”; “again/I wouldn’t.”
“If I had to do the whole thing over again/I wouldn’t” forces us back to Berryman’s earlier odd use of “to.”  Like “There seems to be to eat/nothing,” these last two lines might be read two ways.  One might read it as having to “do the whole thing over again” (i.e. being forced), or one might take the lines to mean that the speaker is pondering the having of another chance to “do the whole thing over again.”  Yet there is third way to read these lines, one which links itself to the starvation of existence in lines four and five.  In order for a life to be whole, it must end.  If the speaker had “the whole thing” to do over again, he would not have it.  He would not, in other words, have the whole of life.
According to Blanchot, the narration of the difference between the “identical” sentences “The forces of life suffice only up to a certain point” and “The forces of life . . .” is represented by a narrative

like a circle neutralizing life, which does not mean without any relation to it, but that its relation to life would be a neutral one.  Within this circle the meaning of what is and of what is said is indeed still given, but from out of a withdrawal, from a distance where all meaning and all lack of meaning are neutralized beforehand.  A reserve that exceeds every meaning already signified, without being considered either a richness or a pure and simple privation.  Like a speech that does not illuminate and does not obscure.  (Infinite 379-80)

Yet Berryman’s poems are no such dying fire.  The Dream Songs give us the progression from obscurity to the illumination of obscurity (“It was dark and then/it isn’t.”), however little this progress (or the “force” that causes the movement) may suffice to ease or nourish the speaker or the reader.  One thing is clear in The Dream Songs, and that is the dis-position of the songs themselves.  Like all songs, they are fleeting, and unlike narrative, they assume a position only to watch it shatter and fall away.  Our deep ambiguity forces song upon us, and this song arises in the light of, and yet also in spite of, our particulars.  Dreams and Dream Songs, ours or anyone’s, proceed toward disappearance, even in their being seen and heard.  This makes them what they are and what they aren’t.  The songs are not embers, for this would mean they could be dark and light at once, neither illuminating nor obscuring their existence.  Rather, they are flashes which, like us, are really, finally, no more.

Works Cited
Berryman, John.  The Dream Songs.  New York:  Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1959.
Blanchot, Maurice.  The Infinite Conversation.  Trans. Susan Hanson.  Minneapolis:
     University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
---.  The Space of Literature.  Trans. Ann Smock.  Lincoln:  University of Nebraska Press,
Blank, David L.  Ancient Philosophy and Grammar: the Syntax of Apollonius Dyscolus.  Chico,
     CA:  Scholars Press, 1982.
Bloom, Harold.  “The Breaking of Form.”  Deconstruction and Criticism.  New York:  The
     Seabury Press, 1979.
Wenderoth, Joe.  “Obscenery, part II.”  Unpublished manuscript.  Part I appears in
     The American Poetry Review, March/April 1997.

Notes on the Title
“Disappearing forever is the only solution” is the last line of Joe Wenderoth’s poem “Outside the Hospital,” which appears in Disfortune (Wesleyan University Press, 1995).  This poem reappears in his second collection, It is if I speak (Wesleyan University Press, 2000) where it has been slightly revised and re-titled “Obscenery.”

“Our lives takes us” is spoken by Everard in Henry James’s In the Cage (1898).