OBEDIENCE by KARI EDWARDSCHRIS MURRAY reviews
obedience by kari edwards
(Factory School, 2005)
where i leave my wings and leave my limitations behind: kari edwards' obedience
Gender activist kari edwards writes a poetry of kinetic energy in perpetual linguistic flux, a poetry of "bodies in motion" (12),
rising with the sun
caught in non-newtonian motion
from zero to infinity times ten
The poetry of obedience flows in acrobatically stunning, quick shifts of dialectics, transformative reversals, "forms forming" (20) in "continuousness reruns/ continuously replenishing" (21). This poetry is an act of carefully combing through ideas as one's fingers would comb through beach sand looking for that one special thing--a shell, a creature, a lost ring, an old spoon--that one knows intuitively must be there, even if one is not yet sure what that found-thing will turn out to be, or, that it may never be found. The goal is not what matters--the quest is what matters. Here is a genuine poetic quest, a tracing that combs through the act of philosophizing life in a continuous present--of thinking aloud--via turns of compressed image and allusion, fluid person(s) (variety of voices and speaking positions), emotive action, artfully alliterative and consonant sound involved in "rejuvenating the naked, creating vast flames that leap to tomorrow's tomorrows in a word, on a body made of non-objects not objecting to themselves ... a figure that is flesh ... a dream surging on a plane ... rising against the ... walls of hate" (69). Reading this I am sadly reminded once again that hate is a purely human invention: in fact, implicated regularly when "a species disappears" because "we live in a spectrum of hatred" (13). Yes, then: obedience raises a communal voice that is volatile and harsh toward hatred, yet also full of beautifully transformative energy, a lively chorus of compassionate song countering the panoply of human violence, poetic song holding forth against the painful, debilitating, deadly effects of myriad hatred.
* * *
This kinetic poetry is not merely a function of the verb to be, a factor of 'is'. The poetry is not is; rather, it feels. This poetry feels close to the body-as-loved, close to the vital fluidity, the blood that sustains and cares for the body. Indeed, there is something of "blood" on nearly every page--blood, both as let ("... a knife, a bullet, a blood clot/ stars and stripes) figuratively-politically, and as sustaining life ("blood donors") (20). Thus, as readers we are drawn in by this recognition of blood, a most common, shared element of physical humanity--rather than being distanced by the word as object on a page. We are continually embodied rather than othered by this poetry. Its kinesis, in effect, is a literal form of inspiration: while reading, especially if reading aloud, the poem-speakers are felt as beings, as if running a language-to-life gauntlet until nearly breathless; speakers are continually uttering thoughts in a rush toward that peak moment when the lungs are depleted and must be, then finally are, filled. Replenished with fresh, life-giving oxygen, as in this passage:
call it blows against life
so blood thirsty
call it whatever
tears in a clairvoyant downpour
a gasoline rainbow
a sophist who mistakes
touch for a dream
a dream for an infection
curvature of space for an optical
I am talking about an antechamber
petrified forest of images
faucets dripping from the underground
a ball of wax and second class citizens
a replica who counts
till the bones are crushed to the last breath
* * *
This fluid interchange of energetic words, body, and things exists not so much in the subconscious arenas of mind and culture proposed and cultivated by surrealism and Dada, but more as a primordial chamber for sorting and reflecting, "an antechamber," or a twilight region of pre-consciousness, a Kristevan almost-place (akin to Kristeva's notion of the semiotic chora) of Dickinson-like proportion, of possibility. Yet a possibility evolved more out of an emphasis on the transformative, one that fruitfully never quite attains a fullness of having (nor knowing) its name. That is because it is a condition of possibility that recognizes it is always in semiotic metonymic motion.
* * *
The notion of transformative possibility is alluded to right from the start of obedience. The book begins with two short epigrams, one a line about discovering knowledge, taken from the ancient Hindu mystic-spiritual guide, the Upanishads. The other--a line about the universal import to everyday life of the notion of "possibility"--taken from gender theorist Judith Butler: "Possibility is not a luxury; it is as crucial as bread" (obedience, 5). The import of a Butlerian, poetic form of "possibility" to kari edwards and to this book cannot be over-emphasized. The quote comes from Butler's landmark 2004 text, Undoing Gender (Oxford UK, Routledge, 29), a work that questions gendering from the perspective of transformative physis, ethos, and logos via transsexuality understood not only as a figuratively performative phenomenon and state of being to be enacted or staged, but as a radical act of transforming gender in all aspects of self and being: body, mind, spirit: as the ultimate radicalizing and exercise of agency in one's episteme. Transsexuality as an act, then, that entirely unseats the cultural and socio-political centrality of heterosexuality. As a transsexual, kari edwards innovatively writes to, speaks from, having experienced this as struggle, as often painful yet a uniquely transformative state of being, a state of profound "possibility," where one is always "giving birth to an appropriation of the self into the other... dying in dying ... a death with a welcome or replayed on a final end, only to begin again" (51). The cycle is one of renewal, and as Butler notes, of "improvisation" (Undoing Gender, 1). And as one speaker in obedience puts it, the experience is akin to declaring "myself a border interloper... [I] adjust to delux adjectives" (18), and one might add, also a far more nuanced texture and complexity of pronouns.
* * *
As subtext, one particular "possibility" conceptualized in obedience is that identity is permeable; "possibility" refuses to be fixed with, to be burdened by, a rigidly defined name, a narrowly defined identity. The "I" speaks to, continues a relationship with, a "you" transformatively, implying fluid interchangeability. The "possibility" that conditions this speaking "I" foregoes the predictable, the compartmentalization that would occur in the inescapable and stiffly maintained hierarchies of bureaucracy and socialization packed onto identity by designations of gender, race, ethnicity, class, age, that inevitably occur in language and culture. This transformative possibility of "I" refuses to be named (defined) even if to ride the wave of resisting being named is costly for the individual in every possible human way. In that sense, then, this poetry is particularly political: an in-your-face, on-going response to the inadequacies and insufferable limitations of identity, the narrowness and rigidity of taxonomical language and the sense of community as merely systematic and singular, in terms of shared being.
* * *
The energy of this poetry is realized by the act of writing, which is an ongoing attempt to ride the wave of, yet never attain, complete or absolutist definitions. The act and energy of this poetry make productive, material use of that desirous, intangible paradox of thought, imagination, moment, and the experience of fluidly being-with/in-thingness. We hardly have words for that phenomenon, and that is the challenge this poetry takes on. Through the writing process, to make manifest that which (knowingly!) can never really be, except in passing. As Martin Buber might say, to make manifest the full presence of the I-in-Thou in relation to the I-in-It. For, the poetry of obedience also speaks of a spiritual quest to know or to be part of that linguistic and material space Buber called Thou, which designates the abstracted familiar being, the spiritual other, the unnamable entity that all being exists in relation to, in dialogue with. In other words, the same entity or Thou to which the first, most ancient poetry was addressed. To speak in and out of that paradoxical relation is a large part of the project in obedience, to reveal how "I am you," (7) and that, materially and linguistically, we all originate from being
conjoined in the erotic
in a cavity between
slight and never
evaporating human voices
And "and": the simplest of conjunctions underscoring the fact of being conjoined. And: with which poetic allusion to life and art this passage puts Plato to shame for underestimating and then banning poets and poetry. Moreover, Freud and Lacan are allusively targeted for their patronizing pathetic fallacy of male-centeredness, while Luce Irigaray's groundbreaking work in talking back to the fathers (Plato, Freud, and Lacan) and asserting an unequivocal feminist presence in psycholanalytic and philosophical discourse is no less alluded to with an applauding, deft wit.
* * *
The poetic challenge here is also to grapple with the innerness of thought, its silence(s) and its self-silencing, in relation to the outer-ness of power where one is "powerless to say" (67), especially against "arrogant bigotry" (48). To talk back and to assert oneself in the face of bald violence(s) emanating from such outer forces as "helicopter gun-ships" and "an army of" (what amounts to near-compulsory) "heterosexuality in the name of god and country" (77), which evokes the continued need for gender activism in word and in deed. Such, yet again, marks one of the most damaging and narrowest limitations of having/accepting a name, of committing the act of naming, even of self-naming, even as self-empowerment--given that westernized languages, which ultimately form human consciousness of self and world, divide and classify human speakers by a deceptively (laughably) narrow, binaristic number of gender positions: one is supposed to fit oneself in as either "he," or "she," only, a conceptualization that forsakes all states of sweet in-betweeness and any possibility of interchangeability, or newly-created, as yet unnamed and transformative positions. Add to that the implication of a further travesty of language, insofar as language narrowly limits other beings by ascribing to them (of the plant and animal worlds) the ingloriously, sub-human, indefinite referent position: "it."
* * *
So, here is a poetry grappling with how to speak oneself out of that conundrum, how to speak thought so as to make it physically manifest as self-empowerment, a initiation into the predominant mainstay of change in discourse: "argument," with its hegemony of causality in western letters and culture, thus, courageously: venturing into argument as a poetic way to enable the disempowered,
...because in the very being, that brings being into play, brings an argument
to a position of because, being the force behind a wall no longer speaking, held captive with probing hands, attempting to make sense of senselessness in a senseless world, inhabiting the living in an object, concerned with the impossible aberration of too many hyphenated words, finding what will crevice on the surface, thinking surface, thinking forgetting -- forgetting thinking, passing completely through being in a wild rhapsody of utter faking, making sense of sense, making a square, faking a square, making the concrete blur, making the unheard unblind, everywhere in interstate cemeteries.
Why courageous?--because language (in the broadest Derridean sense of the term), in all its inadequacy and narrowing, is all we have to be ourselves with, and with others. Think about it, the desolation of that recognition.
* * *
I want to conclude here by calling attention to how kari edward's obedience opens. The first line is "let's begin" followed immediately by these lines:
there are mental facts
as potent as physical facts
let's start again
with a theory of law
bodies of resistance
a miraculous wonder striptease
The book--really one long poem, a poetic journey--goes on to end, paradoxically with the echoing line, "let's begin again" (82), which is the eloquently sole occupant of the last page, but never the last word on this journey. For, if the word is limiting, it is also fluid, thus recycles, "again" and yet "again." In that humble construction is signified, aptly enough, both purpose for poetry and hope for its speaker(s). Few books of poetry have grappled so successfully with so much of philosophical and cultural significance. Given the profundity of this book, and the innovativeness of this author, I cannot wait to see what poetic challenges kari edwards will take on in hir next journey.
Chris Murray's poetry and reviews can be found in Sentence 2/3/4, LIT 10, American Book Review (forthcoming, July 06), Jacket 29, Black Spring 1, Score19, Fascicle 2,Yale Angler's Journal, Mem 3, Shampoo Poetry, Blaze Vox, Sidereality, Moria, can we have our ball back?, Eclectica, and Znine. With Hoa Nguyen & Susan Briante, Chris curates the print journal, Super Flux. A 2004 chapbook, Meme Me Up, Scotty! can be acquired via email@example.com. Since March 2003 Chris has been blogging poetry & poetics at chris murray's Texfiles. Chris teaches rhetoric and literature, and directs the writing center at University of Texas at Arlington.