In her study on the philosophy of religion, Pamela Sue Anderson writes, “Beginning with Greek philosophy’s equation of the male principle with reason and mind and act, the female principle was left only with a contrasting identification in terms of matter, body and passion and potency. The subsequent history of Western philosophy, despite major conceptual shifts, displayed a characteristic logic and form.” As Anderson rightly observes, much of Western philosophy is predicated on a definition of reason that has over time been coded as male. Yet many readers fail to realize that this limiting definition of reason is embedded — and enacted — within our thinking about language, most of all the conventions of grammar. Indeed, each sentence, with its clean subject-verb-object constructions, enacts and performs a very particular kind of causation, which arises out of a philosophical tradition that has undoubtedly been coded as male.
Two recent poetry collections — A Little More Red Sun on the Human by Gillian Conoley and Blood Feather by Karla Kelsey — invoke enjambment and its ensuing silences as a means to disrupt the syntactic unit as it is presently conceptualized. In doing so, they challenge the causal structure implicit in the familiar rules of grammar. By creating a poetics of rupture and interruption, Conoley and Kelsey dismantle the predominantly male, and predominantly Western, philosophical tradition that underlies our assumptions about reason, rationality, and sense-making.
Indeed, Conoley and Kelsey share a commitment to using enjambment, and the subsequent fracturing of the syntactic unit, to set forth an alternative definition of reason, one that is more hospitable to feminist interpretations of history, culture, and lived experience. Through their provocative use of fragmentation, these forward-thinking poets liberate the mind from a narrow intellectual inheritance in texts that are as philosophically rich as they are conceptually striking.
In her forthcoming poetry collection, Blood Feather, Kelsey writes, “[ PART FIRST ] in autumn I decided / to cancel desire cancel Eve cancel / Venus cancel elicit meetings with Hadley.” Here Kelsey’s provocative choices with respect to enjambment — for example, breaking the line after “decided” and after “cancel” — literally halve the clauses contained in this narrative’s sentences. Given that these are the opening lines of the collection, the reader is purposefully jarred out of a likely complacency with the structures (and strictures) of language. Yet the reader is made to look again at the words themselves, as these carefully considered enjambments reveal juxtapositions and confluences that are all too often swept away in the logical progression of the sentence. For example, the placement of “desire” and “Eve” in the same poetic line, and the repetition of “cancel” three times within the same measured breath, purposefully undermine the various hierarchies imposed upon language by grammatical convention.
As the book unfolds, artistic intention with respect to this provocative fragmentation is revealed gradually, as Kelsey’s engagement with archival material is brought to the fore. She writes in the book’s notes, after the three dramatic monologues contained within it have drawn to a close: “From these women and the archives out of which they are created come facts and experiences resonant with the contemporary moment. For example: a 215 BC Roman law forbade women to own more than an ounce of gold, ride in carriages, wear multicolored garments — particularly those trimmed in purple, symbolically male and royal.” For Kelsey, giving voice to these archival texts not only suggests or evokes a new grammatical structure, but rather, it warrants one. After all, a new story merits is own vessel, one suited to a revolutionary purpose.
Kelsey writes midway through the collection,
fire that edged but never entered
our garden [ PART THIRD ] to be
as wind through a chandelier rustling
burn the ragged muslin edge of
the curtains and the dress
Here the syntactic unit exists in provocative tension with the poetic line. Reminiscent of feminist texts by Jennifer Militello and Tarfia Faizullah in this way, Kelsey’s lineation does violence to the philosophical tradition, as well as the limiting definition of reason that excludes the women whose voices she exhumes within the archive. Out of this violence, a new kind of logic emerges, a definition of reason in which wind, sound and “a chandelier” exist in the same rhetorical space without exposition. Indeed, we are made to see the beauty and the possibility inherent in this associative logic, reminiscent of the wild flights of imagination that govern dreams and the submerged continent of the unconscious.
Much like the work of Karla Kelsey, Gillian Conoley’s glorious volume of selected poems resists a predominantly male definition of reason, logic, and sense-making. Yet Conoley also calls our attention the ways reason and logic serve a very particular model of reading, in which the act of interpretation is a patriarchal enterprise, manifesting as a visible wielding of mastery, a form of conquest and domination for the reader. Like Kaveh Akbar and Henk Rossouw, Conoley uses this provocative fragmentation of the syntactic unit to thwart too clean of a readerly interpretation. For Conoley, reading becomes an exercise in humility, and in turn, possibility.
Conoley writes in “The Invention of Texas,”
The sea left this place
to fend for its own water,
leaving prickly wind
and one yellow color.
Here the relationship between the sentence and the poetic line exists in constant flux. Conoley’s lineation at times intersects with the end of syntactic unit, but more often, splices or interrupts it. For example, breaking the line between “place” and “to” offers a much different rhythm, and cultivate much less straightforward reading experience, than line breaks like this one: “…fend for its own water,/leaving prickly wind…”. The inherent instability of Conoley’s text, in which the logic that governs language is constantly shifting, prompts the reader to assume a more active role, as he she negotiates and renegotiates the linguistic terrain they are traversing.
In many ways, it is this instability, cultivates by rupture and interruption, that resists patriarchal models of reading. There is no single logic that governs Conoley’s text, but rather, a multiplicity. As a result, there is no single key to discerning artistic intention. Coloney asks us, like the speaker of “The Big Picture,” “learn to love what’s there like a child.” In other words, Conoley foregrounds the immediacy of our experience of language, its materiality, through the silence, rupture, and elision that she invites into her poetry. As the book unfolds, we witness Conoley, like the speaker of “Native,” “taking the meaning / and giving back the meaning / as the photographs do with the life.”
If grammar is in itself a worldview, then how can experimental poetry reveal its inherent subjectivity? Karla Kelsey’s Blood Feather and Gillian Conoley’s A Little More Red Sun on the Human use silence, rupture, and elision to reveal grammar as one possible way of organizing thought among many. For Kelsey and Conoley, the poetic line allows us to see juxtapositions, contrasts, and confluences that are usually borne away in the logical progression of the sentence. Indeed, it is the silence that these writers invite into language that allow us to see its shape more clearly. As Conoley herself writes, “the door flies open and a road of light falls through it.”