Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Misreading Oren Izenberg

While in Washington a few days ago, I picked up Oren Izenberg's book, Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life at Bridge Street Books. As you will see, I am reading the book unfaithfully; I am not following Izenberg's argument so much as translating it into my own thoughts on writing about dementia. Please pardon my misprisions; they're all I have.

Izenberg is interested in history, but not historicism, poetry but not craft or form. Although his canon is, shall we say, canonical (Yeats, Oppen, O'Hara, the Language writers), he is more interested in noems, or non-poems, than in poetry as poetry. "The persistent production of non-poems asks that we entertain the notion that what the poet intends by means of poetry is not the poem," he argues early on (12). The ground on which Izenberg bases his reading of these non-poems is personhood. Everything we usually consider about poems in the classroom passes away in Izenberg's writing about poetry not as an art but as an investigation of personhood.

My first desire was to identify with his argument; here at last, I surmised, was a writer less interested in form than in meaning, less interested in the structure of poems than in their confrontations with existence. In his own terms, Izenberg is less interested in the conversations people have about poems (as he illustrates in the last chapter) than in the ways in which poems create relationship within the reader, "reorient the person toward a shared world." People are not persons, but persons matter desperately to him.

This desire for identification is not met by Izenberg's thesis. But I found a relationship of fruitful misreading in the last paragraph of his introduction. Writing about Alzheimer's, as I do, is nothing if not writing about personhood, what it is, how it alters, remains, how much it depends--or does not--on reciprocity and "reading." It's writing about existence at the point at which existence is called into question. So I'd like to quote extensively from Izenberg's last paragraph, and then talk to it, person to person-like:

OI: "Poems, like persons, are always going about some business of their own, which in the moment seems much more urgent--and certainly more specifiable than the business of being instances of what they generally, abstractly, essentially are. If the particular business of individual persons is what we mean by living, then the specification of the business of poems is what we generally mean by reading" (38).

SMS: But you are assuming, Oren, that persons are those who have "particular business," which suggests means and ends. By putting persons in parallel with poems, you are further suggesting that any two people conducting their business can read poems (together, apart, or even asymmetrically). What of persons who do not have "business," and who do not "read" poems, or anything else? What of the woman who sat "reading" the newspaper the other day in my mother's Alzheimer's home, looked at a benign headline in the sports section, and uttered a horrified "oh no!"? I can read her "reading" as the correct response to the wrong communication, perhaps, but she is not reading in the way you or I are reading. My response to her is still quite complicated; first I want to know what she is responding to, and then parse out the ways in which she is responding appropriately to a headline that is not in front of her (the murders in Tucson, for example, whether or not she knows about them). At this point it matters more that I know about them, so that her response to the sports headline echoes mine to a rather different headline. We are in concert, but it is not a conscious composition operating between us.

OI: "Taking up debates about collective intentionality within contemporary social philosophy, I propose an alternative to models of poetic community built around conversation, interpretation, or translation. Writing myself into the history of poetic intentions I describe, I also argue for the interest and value (if not necessarily the truth) of a theory of collective intentions that is crucially internalist; it conceives of the ability of forming intentions for partnership-in-action whether or not one has a partner--indeed, whether or not anyone else in the world exists" (38-39).

SMS: I would take that further, because the community I just spent a week living in, or among, or with--the community the comes and goes from the common area in my mother's Alzheimer's home--is not built around any of these things. Talk is most often solitary (with the current exception of the lovebirds), reasonable interpretation belongs to me but not to them, and translation is often impossible. Lacking language, people fall into mystery, a rather different mystery from the kind that usually cloaks them. So yes, the result is "internalist." The partnership I form in the common room is less common in the larger sense than in the private one. I am partnered with myself. The days are spent in conversation: what happened? what might it have meant? in what ways did it fit with other events of the day, or the background sounds of the television? And yet, I would argue that "anyone else in the world exists."

OI: "The ability to recover--by reading poems--a conviction in even the solitary person's innate and 'primitive' capacity to formulate 'we-intentions' may, I suggest, have a transformative effect on one's felt capacities for relationship, and reorient the person toward a shared world" (39).

SMS: This is true for me when I visit my mother. It is not true for her. I try to read her a poem of Keats that she once loved and she looks away. When I hand her a stuffed dog, however, she lights up. Not a reading of poems, but a reading of relationship with something soft, something with big eyes. That's what matters because something is exchanged between her and, if not a being, then the material imitation of one.

OI: "The question that the poets in this tradition pose to social thought is of the most fundamental kind: not how to distribute fairly the privileges of identity, but how to secure the ground of identity; not just of how to do things with persons, but how to know that a person is there at all" (39).

It is not just that I am a postmodernist, perhaps, that I cannot hold to the "ground of identity" in this context. After all, I also live in Hawai`i, where identities are constructed on something like the ground (sand, perhaps). To know Alzheimer's is to know the lack of ground and yet to recognize that there is humanity in its lack, to know that a person is there, if not a personhood, perhaps. There is no fair distribution of privilege in the Alzheimer's home; there are only shades of self-loss.

Izenberg's last sentence: "how to know that a person is there at all," takes on a new urgency in this context. To write Alzheimer's is to acknowledge that a person is there, even if she cannot read you or your words, even if she cannot know what is said about her (is not writer or audience, in other words). To write Alzheimer's is to acknowledge that the "common room" is, indeed, held in common, even if very few conversations occur there. That the common room is a very social space, even for those who have become internalized by their illness. That poetry, or non-poetry, is the fund of memory that sits alongside the vast swatches of forgetting that inhabit the Alzheimer's home. The subject is forgetting, but the writing is all memory. It's as tangled a tale as Shelley's assertion that art and politics rather miraculously align, an assertion about which Izenberg has much that is valuable to say.

The conclusion to the book is as beautiful as it is sad. Sadder yet when the story of his failed relationship, his failed idea of reading together as relationship, gets translated into the failures of Alzheimer's. One may involve psychology, the other biology, but they are analogies. The book's ending (are there spoiler alerts in literary criticism?), when the devoted reader discovers that his partner in reading had stopped some time back, oddly mirrors the feeling I have in dealing with the Alzheimer's residents. Yes, "Life got in the way." We'll all finish another time.


The hospital room, the Alzheimer's home, these are theaters. They are theaters in which the subject is existence itself. What is existence, and is it coming to an end? At what point is existence full and at what point empty? What do all the intermediate states tell us about either end of this frail line?

It was in the theater of my father's last hospital room that I discovered that life at its most extreme (its end) structures itself like a poem. This may be because I am taught to read through poems; perhaps it also resembles engineering, musical composition, landscape design. But my father was speaking poetry. He was speaking the poem in the sense Izenberg means it--it was all about personhood--and in the sense that a poet means it, too--his metaphors had all become true.

In my mother's common room there are scenes upon scenes. They are not simple scenes, but layered, synchronous. So when the lovebirds coo to each other on the couch [see the previous week's blog posts], they echo Bonanza on the television; when Animal Planet runs, my mother pets her "dog." This is not cause and effect, but synchronicity. The television, like the residents, relies on cliches for its power; the shows rely on scenic structures that are none too complicated by themselves (until they are brought into the same space as the common room interactions). Enclosure, repetition, cliche. And an uncommon honesty, too. This is not a paradox.

Izenberg's book is not about my mother, but I choose to read it with and against her existence. I'm glad he writes about persons, and that I can read what he says about them. I'm also glad that there are persons outside of poetry, even outside of non-poetry. To "reorient the person toward a shared world" means that what we share may be a world of poetry, but that it sometimes exists far outside our reading of poems.

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