Joshua Corey

Ishmael and I: A Review
GutCult Winter 2005 Reviews

Dan Beachy-Quick, Spell (Ahsahta Press, 2004), $16.95
Deborah Meadows, Itinerant Men (Krupskaya, 2004), $13

        The late Jacques Derrida’s best-known catchphrase, “Il n’y a pas hors de texte,” has been badly misunderstood in this country, especially by commentators and obituary-writers made uneasy by the force of his insistence on the necessity of reading complex human realities complexly. In his impressive second book of poetry, Dan Beachy-Quick avoids this misunderstanding by seeming to take Derrida’s remark with a grave literalness. Spell is a highwire demonstration of the art of what Charles Bernstein calls wreading, a kind of acting-out on the page of the supplementary meanings generated by a reader who refuses to be passive in the face of a text. It helps that the text in question, Melville’s Moby-Dick, is more than an acknowledged American masterpiece, but is itself a consummate act of wreading, as the “Extracts” section prefacing the novel attests. Melville’s epic attempt at American Shakespeare was cobbled together from multiple styles and multiple texts: sermons, soliloquies, memoirs, whaling lore, plays, natural philosophy, political pamphlets, cracker-barrel humor, and not least Melville’s own earlier writings about life at sea. The accumulation of texts seemingly outside the narrative—most noticeable in the many chapters devoted to the history and practice of whaling—has frustrated generations of readers and led to abridged paperback editions that cut to The Chase. But Melville’s wreadings are as crucial to Moby-Dick as Hamlet’s vacillations are to Hamlet: they are not a deferral of the main action but the main action itself. Just as Hamlet’s hesitation and introspection make him appear to have an inner life, so do Melville’s textual peregrinations give Moby-Dick the illusion of being a world unto itself, as legitimate a source of experience and new writing as the world which common sense insists is outside any text, despite evidence to the contrary.
        Like Melville, Beachy-Quick begins with a section of “Extracts” that establish the constellation of his concerns. Those quoted are mainly philosophers and theologians: Augustine, Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Frege, Emerson, Walter Benjamin, and Plato, plus Melville’s contemporary, Emily Dickinson, who asks “Can the Dumb define—the Divine?” The Benjamin quote amplifies this: “…the languages of things are imperfect, and are dumb”, and “Extracts” ends with a Rumsfeldian remark of Socrates’ from Plato’s Theatetus: “Now let me ask the awful question, which is this:—Can a man know and also not know that which he knows?” These extracts set up readers to expect an epistemological investigation from Spell, and they will not be disappointed; but there is a second introductory section to Spell, a “Prologue,” that adds a more novelistic or at any rate narrative dimension to the book. The prologue takes the form of a letter in iambic tetrameter to an “Editor” in which the author’s literal-mindedness first crosses the line between questions of writing and reading and the larger question of how to live:

                        Here are the lines my mind fathomed.
                        They are tar-dark. I wrote them on pages
                        Breathless and blank, as beneath water
                        Men’s minds are blank but for needing
                        A next breath. Sir, turn
                        This page and the thick door opens
                        By growing thinner, ever thinner,
                        Until the last page turns and is turned
                        Into air. Don’t knock. The ocean knocks
                        Ceaseless on my little craft, and I am
                        Asking you, Will my craft hold?

So from the very beginning, outside the main text (which is titled “Leviathan: A Reading”) the sufficiency of the text as world unto itself is simultaneously established and put into question. The figure of the author returns in the penultimate chapter of the book, “The Anvil, a” (each chapter’s title is an anagram of the word “Leviathan”), in which his increasingly desperate letters to the “Editor” describe a writing situation that takes place against a bleak marital background, so that both threaten to consume him: “Sir, I’ve lost my right hand to vellum-depths— / My left hand I lost to a silver ring.” This novelistic chapter, whose subtitle informs us that “The author of this poem [is] a character no longer,” is the book’s anchor or mainmast, a lifeline to the lived experience of writing that keeps the rest of the book from foundering in a sea of textual play. Or it might be more accurate to say that it keeps the narrative-minded reader from foundering, since the book as a whole demonstrates an impressive degree of technical mastery on Beachy-Quick’s part, offering numerous pleasures of sight and sound. As in his first book, North True South Bright, Beachy-Quick adapts the color and vigor of nineteenth-century rhythms and diction to his own poetic purposes. Thanks to the multiple strains and voices that compose his Melvillean master text, the effects achieved by Beachy-Quick can be nearly symphonic, as in this excerpt from chapter 4, “Halt (Naïve)”:

                        Mute latitudes, blind: the ocean mutters dumb
                        The jellyfish’s phosphorescent thumb (stinger),

                        Mutters dumb the dark ink inside the squid
                        That is the White Whale’s food. The ocean stings

                        The bit lip shut: I misspoke, I see I misspoke.
                        The ocean mutters: “no more, no more” (a message

                        Spoke not only to shore). I hear what I am told.
                        No ears are deaf save those that need not hear:

                        Who below the ocean knows the ocean
                        Murmurs most darkly to himself. White Whale—

                        Sailing-men say you do not die—
                        You in silence, silent lie, and flame your thought

                        Toward some uncharted depth-of-mind. You’ll divine:
                        Chapter Closed. Me? A coral reef? A captain

                        Or a Captain’s leg? A flaming-thought thinks
                        Itself, you do, you do. Your white silence the dark shark

                        Flees from in fright. No tooth threatens you,
                        You know. You know

                        Men think your tongue is dumb and mute with nacre—
                        I suspect—your tongue is dumb—as is a sodden acre.

The echolalic and chiasmic pleasures of rhyme and assonance have the effect of folding the surface of Beachy-Quick’s text, creating a depth of aural experience that unpacks each word and freights it with extra-semantic significance. At the same time, Melville’s most characteristic representations of the sea, the sails, and the whale itself are conflated with aspects of textuality, as in this meditation of Ishmael’s in the chapter titled, “A Vain Heat”:

                                     Drop anchor
                                     In ink and drop anchor
                                     In ocean: lead sinks

                                     But sails in current
                                     Above no bed
                                     The anchor is ocean’s sail, and

                        I am one who sailed
                        Through midnight sea: a
                                                              sea, a

The folds of pages, lines of poetry as sail-sheets, the blackness of ink as the seeing pupil surrounded by the whiteness of the eye: Beachy-Quick’s literalness conflates the scene of writing with the scene of life, so as to keep faith with Heidegger’s “arduous path of appearance.” Again and again he insists on the phenomena of Melville’s text, its words and characters, as being sufficient to disclose his experience of it, in a manner somewhat akin to Zukofsky’s counter-intuitive reading of Shakespeare in Bottom. The names of major characters are processed back into words radiating unexpected contexts: “Pip” becomes a punctuation, the “Crack of the shell when hatching,” “A seed in fruit”; “Starbuck” is broken down into its components of high aspiration and low animality according to the method prescribed by a definition of star: “radiating crack / or fracture”. The spell cast by Spell turns each signifier into an allegorical microcosm of the macrocosmic Moby-Dick, turning each word into a spinning coin flashing beauty on one side and violence on the other, as though exchange-value itself had been fetishized. The extra-syntactic energy sparking from these words in strange combination itself becomes an object of fascination and dread to the figure of the author. “I meant / To anchor myself in song with song,” he writes in the Afterword, but then “I thought myself / Past the margin.” Ultimately it is the contiguity of the word with the world that provides hope of affirmation, with the poet’s own body as the point of possible connection:

                        The world is flat if the page is flat.
                        Delete all. Here’s one country: my hand.
                        It seals the envelope. Here’s one country:
                        My lips, my tongue. They seal the envelope.
                        Suffer whiteness. My white hand in a white cloud.
                        My lips white with salt. The white rain—I see it—
                        Sings white a lullaby to the milky white ocean
                        And the milky white ocean calms

                        It calms as it dives down.

        For all its pomo permutations, Spell is a deeply earnest, even romantic book; an only half-ironic quest for the depths of American experience that Beachy-Quick imagines beneath the glimmering surface of Melville’s language. Deborah Meadows’ Itinerant Men owes much more to the Copernican project of Language poetry, seeking to de-center the authority of an Ahab without re-centering on the mere subjectivity of an Ishmael (in fact portions of the book have previously appeared under the title, “from The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick”). The book’s title hints at its concerns: its version of Moby-Dick is a novel without a hero, an examination of the Pequod as a socioeconomic microcosm in which captain and crew alike are set adrift, units of abstract labor seeking vainly to enflesh themselves with language. Unlike Spell, which stands at enough distance from its source text for the reader to take it for a freestanding edifice, Itinerant Men virtually demands that it be read as a kind of trot or primer alongside Moby-Dick itself. The book is in two sections, “Under Weigh” and “One Forgets the Tiger Heart that Pants Beneath,” and each poem is titled after a chapter from the novel: “Under Weigh” begins with “Chapter 22” (in Moby-Dick this chapter is subtitled “Merry Christmas,” in which the Pequod departs Nantucket) and ends with “Chapter 51” (“The Spirit-Spout,” in which the secret harpooneer Fedallah sends the ship chasing vainly after the mirage of a whale’s spout); “One Forgets” starts with “Chapter 80” (“The Sphynx,” which describes the decapitation of a dead sperm whale) and ends with “Chapter 114” (“The Gilder,” where the section title comes from: “when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang”). The incomplete numbering and the absence of Melville’s evocative subtitles create a fragmented effect for the reader, who has the sense of putting together a jigsaw puzzle with its rectangular borders missing. Meadows’ division of the book, which eliminates its beginning, its ending, and a chunk of the middle, follows from her decision to excise narrative in favor of aphoristic reflections on fragments of Melville’s text that accumulate into an epistemological investigation of the Pequod as state-of-mind. In other words, rather than retain the distinctions between characters as Beachy-Quick does (though all tend to be assimilated into the poet’s yearning voice), Meadows allows their voices to coalesce into a sort of Greek chorus, a logical extension of Ishmael’s peculiar authorial omniscience in the novel. If Beachy-Quick turned each major character—Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg, Pip—into aspects of a single Hamlet-self, Meadows does the same but for the ship as a whole, eliminating the most narratively significant portions of Moby-Dick in favor of the chapters of delay and deliberation on the fate of men in service to a ruthless capitalism indistinguishable from the lust for revenge.
        The back cover copy of Itinerant Men calls the book “a reading-through of [Moby-Dick] that combines chance operation with philosophical investigation.” Meadows’ aleatory procedures are not immediately apparent to this reader, but her philosophical method is: each chapter provides her with the means to meditate on the implications of a particular piece of Melville’s language. Sometimes that means a reflection on the dramatic or narrative or philosopical frame Melville uses, as in “Chapter 38” (“Dusk” in Moby-Dick):

                        Starbuck’s soliloquy.

                        A study in black and white.

                        Can he unseat a certainty?
                        Will I? Horrible democrat plainly tied
                        “me” to equality above, not to lessers below

                        I see eye: horror at the recognized glint
                                    that can inhabit my eye, too.

                        Captain-identification not crew
                                     “whelped somewhere by the sharkish
                                     sea,” suspect bloodlines
                        at revelry:
                                                 a song of joy
                                                 “only to drag
                                                 dark Ahab
                                                 after it”

                        Knowledge subordinates Soul:
                        of “latent horror”:                      the long haul
                                                                        held to knowledge.

                        Peace. This untutored thing
                        latent with soft feeling
                        behind the blessed influences.

Beginning with an identification of the chapter’s rhetorical context and followed by a swift characterization of its content, the poem moves through several layers latent in Melville’s text, at times rising to its surface through the decontextualized quotations. The central question of the chapter is then distilled to a deceptively simple pair of questions: “Can he unseat a certainty? / Will I?” The answer is seemingly a forgone one: Starbuck, who is both spiritually and pragmatically opposed to Ahab’s mission, finds himself divided and conquered by the internal division between his nobility and his devotion to whaling and its profits. As the recent presidential election teaches us (“Horrible democrat”!), a questioner cannot defeat fanaticism with questions alone. More intriguing is the identity of the “I” in the second question. Is it Meadows? Melville? Ishmael? Most likely it’s all of them, plus the collective “I” of the Pequod’s itinerant men, the “suspect bloodlines” who find themselves caught up in “Captain-identification.” “I see eye”: the spectacular rhetoric of Ahab’s madness tautologizes Starbuck’s vision, so that the mere act of seeing incorporates him into Ahab’s imperial eye/I (“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”) In the last third of the poem, Starbuck’s “Soul” is at once validated as “This untutored thing / latent with soft feeling” and rendered impotent by the “glimpse / of ‘latent horror’”. “Knowledge” and “Soul” incapacitate each other in the face of Ahab’s bloodlust and become incorporated into a false “Peace” similar to that of Meadows’ brilliant condensation of Stubb’s fatalism in “Chapter 39”:

                        What will.
                        What will happen.
                        What will happen will happen.

Included in Meadows’ chorus of voices is the figure of the “. . . ous author,” with “Chapter 41” offering a number of sly prefixes to the solitary “ous” (itself a figure for Being as empty container): fabulous, ferocious, ubiquitous, curious, superstitious, treacherous, malicious, righteous, audacious, unconscious. This is the schizophrenic reverse of Joyce’s modernist god-author “refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails”: authorship is an attribute of many moods that settles like a crushing weight on each of Melville/Meadows’ itinerant men: “mad intention / deployed by sane Means; / audacious / revenge through utility of plan / unconscious / of hiswriterly fatality.” One of the threads of Meadows’ book is an inquiry into the author-function and the ways in which it serves or is served by power. From “Chapter 82”:

                        Whaling enterprises which underline
                                    antiquity, as a profession,
                        push the prophet, prince, and monster—

                                                our delectable
                                    artistic exploit.

                                    To double arms for the kill, consider


                        glossed by archivist, myth-collector
                                     yet married to
                                     the author.

There is an entire theory of poetry packed into these lines, with an author married to “intent” (somehow recalling for me the nameless spouse of Beachy-Quick’s Author) versus the “archivist, myth-collector” model for the poet as in the work of Ezra Pound and Charles Olson. (Olson as self-made Gloucesterman and author of Call Me Ishmael is one of the unnamed presiding spirits of this book.) The book is dotted with protests against mastery, authorial and otherwise: Meadows speaks up for difference and diversity while acknowledging the sometimes subtle violence that represses it the moment it appears. Again and again the problem of men more or less willingly yielding themselves up to another’s control, whether that other be a personal tyrant (Ahab), the free market—

                        Gaunt consternation distracts
                        the crowd, so use contrivances
                        originated by Nantucket Indians
                                    (mobbed, they were,
                        by business, its vicissitudes:
                        right angles,
                        threat, and surface.)

                        “Chapter 87”

—or the forces of patriarchy:

                        Bodies are male or not
                                     upon the whole,
                        between luxurious surrounding
                        and 19th century mastery.

                        “Chapter 88”

        If Spell is a horizontal unfolding of Moby-Dick that continually affirms its surfaces, Itinerant Men is a vertical investigation that presumes depths beneath every word. That can make it a drier read, and as I’ve already said, more dependent on the reader’s familiarity with Melville’s novel. But at their best the poems manage to dig up the hidden logic or pathos of their respective chapters in a way that helps the reader to behold them freshly, while intersecting their content with a contemporary inquiry into American realities of commerce, class, gender, and race.

                        Poor Pip, lonely castaway,
                                     abandoned . . . intent . . . turned
                                     fate . . . strange . . . swim
                        His finite body not entirely owned
                                     by the sea,
                                                 a mason
                        with promise quells
                                                 its beaten skin
                                     worked thin.

                        “Chapter 93”

Both books ultimately affirm narratives rooted in the direct treatment of Melville’s language, while putting the meaning of the story Melville or any author intends to tell into doubt. They are lovely affirmations of the role scholarship can play in poetry: that is, in the proper (ir)reverence of study, the willingness to dive deeply into another’s text and not come up for the air of one’s own intent. This is poetry as midrash of a founding document of our literature, a commitment to rediscovering its uncomfortably enduring relevance in a time of rationalized violence, unrestricted profit, and the countless separate I’s that each imagine it alone will escape our mutual fate.