THE RIFT MAKES THE RITUAL: On the Poetry of Donna de la Perrière
It could be argued: Donna de la Perrière has published to date three full length collections of poetry. But, such a loose literary-historical claim, on closer inspection, invites trouble, and trouble needs no further invitation in the world this poetry sets so vividly summons. A revised claim: the imaginative integrity of True Crimes and Saint Erasure, published only a year apart from each other, written simultaneously, compose one book in two installations. But then, the third title, now the second book, stands apart. As elucidation? As exegesis? As a furthering of, and a liberation from, the first composite book? But then, a further then: isn’t the third title too intricately bound to the first two to be kept from them? Isn’t it more like the third act of a three-act play, a play written with the concision and concerns of a Sophocles? So, by way of clarification: the poet has just completed the publication of her first book.
This purely postulated, composite, tri-partite first book, what should we call it? True Erasure? St Crime? Works of Erasure and Crime? True Love? Saint Terror? Will a new volume soon obsolete any immediate recombinant title? Best head where the poet directs, the first word, laser-cut into the steel of the first page: “body.” All the subsequent poetry unfurls around that word with an uncanny dexterity, as might an ancient tragedy around “light,” or “silence,” or “justice.” Donna De la Perrière’s poems continually deepen our understanding of what would seem a straightforwardly materialist notion: a life in time involves a body. It’s the one thing we get for free, then pay off for the rest of our lives. It’s the medium of social position, of sexuality, of citizenship, as well as the conduit of transcendental fits, the vessel of any ecstasy from the beyond. Delusion may argue the body is not what we think it is, that, for example it’s made of glass, or that there’s a hole at the back of the throat into which and through which a cosmic wind blows. But our first gloss on the body, upon entering Donna de la Perrière’s theater of anguish and speculation, is that we are at the scene of a metaphysically inflected murder mystery. The “true” in True Crime immediately sets itself apart from the pulp associations of the full title, though the pulp, as well as the gothic, the grotesque, the, well, southern, are an essential component of the way the world is presented in these works. The fact of a transgressed body guides all inquiry.
A range of experiences and kinds of writing are nested in this tabloid frame, which is not so much summoned as evaded, so that an aura of transgression and trial touches all the poems placed in the suite, “Return to the Scene.” While there are specific crimes evoked, including murdered ancestors, the aim of the suite is to extend the reach of the figure of justice into realms that would seem far from providing actionable evidence. Stray remarks, anecdotes, incidents, and passing thoughts, all recorded phenomenon, seem part of an ongoing investigation into the book’s inaugural word: whose body is it, what was done to this body, when did this happen, under what circumstances. Actual crime is now and then evoked, but the consciousness of crime is pervasive. (We are all, the poet tells us, killers.) In Saint Erasure, the reenactment of an actual crime is the focus of a key poem. The poet depicts the crime, the rape, as an event that takes place on multiple levels at once, as if to demonstrate the core understanding of the prose poem sequence in True Crime, that any thought or action can be seen as potential evidence. The rape occurs in the once of its depiction, and perpetually in the psyche of the raped. To render this temporal doubling of the trauma in a single poem is an almost insurmountable challenge, but de la Perrière found a way through a kind of poetics of dissociation. The victim of the rape herself raises the question of how we are in time, which affects our approach to poetic closure. Even as the rape is happening, it’s over. The poem is with the one under attack in the moment of the attack, yet also composes a screen or a stage, with a large white space in the center of each page and text at the bottom like a stage and short lines high up like a pulled-up curtain. The large white space rebukes our lurid desire to imagine the rape as it is happening, or to make substantial the notion that the truth of the crime defies representation. Further, the one line that tops the page, that hangs like a curtain bar over the violent tableaux, repeats with slight variation the stanza at the bottom of the previous page, on the floor of the stage, as it were, where the crime is still in progress, told in the bluntest terms possible, as if the pulp subtext of the first book, True Crime, were now the ground of being. The single lines along the top of the page subtly alter our sense of time in the poem. From what standpoint, the reader must ask, are these lines being produced? Are they the victim in reflection? Are they within the victim’s head while the attack is occurring? And then, with the keen cruelty this poet has a gift for rendering, (it’s not for nothing that in an interview she cites Flannery O’Connor as an influence) a second temporal frame arises, that of the beating. And then a third, that of the intrusive witness, who opens the door, sees, and then just leaves. While there is much more to be said about this powerful work, about how brilliantly the form of the poem, the play of perspectives, the rendering of how time passes and never passes in regard to trauma, lets simply observe here how carefully the writer has placed this poem. Not until the body is established with an almost philosophical rigor as a principal theme is the depiction of a “true crime” a central preoccupation. The physical assault on the body depicted in “First Love” paradoxically establishes the experience of disembodiment as a crucial part of de la Perrière’s poetics. Consider the consciousness of the victim as the poem depicts it. Where is her head “at” throughout the assault? Is it in, but apart from, the moment? Who decides what a moment is? Is it a state we are in or a station we move through? Thus, while it would seem that the body is the locus of poetic investigation, the body is also a vessel to and from, and of, what is beyond it.
While in much of her work de la Perrière is conscientious, if not fanatical, in maintaining a cleanly drawn boundary line between the embodied and the beyond, she is never content to be anywhere but at that absolute edge. Cultural delusions, such as the phenomenon of imagining one is made from glass, or psychiatric disorders, or religious manias, provide the poet case studies which distance the her from the truth claims of deviant perceptions while allowing a guarded exploration of the inner logic of altered states This boundary must be asserted with a certain severity that paradoxically attests to its potential fluidity. These poems which address occasions of mania and adoration seem not unrelated to the poet’s meticulous prosody in poems which themselves explore the unreality of any control. De la Perrière tends this boundary between what the historian of religion Jeffrey Kripal would call “anomalous experience,” and the explicable, with a stoical rationality. Her poetry celebrates destruction, sings of endurance. The heroic task of the lyric posed as it is on the boundary between the sacred and the secular would seem to be to build and immediately tear down. Masochism opens the path to wisdom:
. . . .we totter then
stand, we move out into
the world – the rift
makes the ritual:
a dervish, a bargain,
a cadence, a threshold,
the cog that makes us
run—we dreamt a tapestry
or shroud in which every
text was sacred: we dreamt it,
we wove it, begged it
sing, then tore
it down (Works, pp. 1-2)
(At the end of Works of Love & Terror, as we will see, poems open outward into a universe where certain expressive strictures have dropped away. Until then, we’re caught between two states. Each is unbearable. At an early age the poet’s mother read her Blake, a song of innocence, and a song of experience. The truth of contraries was conveyed by the figure whose illness and death haunts the most recent work.) We can see in the above lines, as in many other places in the poetry, an imagined point of abiding, where contraries can be endured. Our motion out into the world, much like a tradition myth of the fall, creates a rift, a distance that then creates a pained consciousness. From this, ritual arises (as if “we” had nothing to do with it). Then the poem begins a chain of substitutions. Definitions of ritual rise and fall: dervish, bargain, cadence, threshold, cog . . . While each is worth considering in its own right, here I merely want to suggest the rough transition from dervish to cog seems a lessening. We begin as ecstatic Sufi dancers bringing into the material world the opening and closing of the cosmos with the whirl of our robes and end as dystopian cogs. The poet posits, at this last point in our ritual transit, that we arrive at the origin of religious imagining: dreams. Ambiguity, here, is immediate: a tapestry, or a shroud. What a difference each makes as the medium in which all textuality is declared sacred! Are our texts stitched into a tableau of life (a tapestry), or stained on a veil for our advance into death (a shroud?) But the even more pressing mystery is the disposition of the unidentified collective, the “we,” toward the icon they would make. Is the tearing down an act of retribution for the failure of the devotional object to “sing,” or is the destruction a part of the ritual practice, the way monks making mandalas of sand destroy the image after laboring long to create it. The gesture these lines enact seem to me indispensable for considering the relation of de la Perrière’s poetics to her vision of the afterlife of the sacred in the realm of the secular.
“The rift / makes the ritual”; a vision of both, rift, and ritual, rule these precisely lineated phrases, these poems. Rifts are notable everywhere. Ritual, less evidently so. The quoted line catches a dilemma: how does a metaphysically minded poet imagine a purportedly post-religious world? The poem in which this line arises opens the extraordinary last section of her most recent published work, while the poem which immediately precedes it lays out in schematic fashion the crisis from which the final section of Works of Love & Terror arises. In “I Am Trying to Say Fire,” the poet is trying to say certain words, words derived from an eclipsed spiritual vocabulary. The poem is a liturgy on the failure of liturgy. The rift is between thought and action. The rift is also incorporated into the layout of the poem. The left-hand margin establishes a responsorial aura, shifting back and forth between the conflicted intention and the aborted act.
What are you trying
I am trying to say
I am trying to say
I am trying to
I am trying to say
God . . . (Works, p.64)
The speaker wants to say such words as fire, immaculate, God, heaven, dark, we’re burning, but can only say them by announcing her failure to say them. This lexicon of the saved and the damned dramatizes de la Ps relation to the pre-secular world. It would seem the contrary states of heaven and hell are not available, or not so with the desired immediacy the poet clearly brings to them, though the desire to say them, the capacity to think them but not say them, is the imaginative zone where her poems thrive. Rift and ritual, or so the argument of the earlier poems goes, signal a divided consciousness. There exists for de la Perrière some fundamental state of culturally mandated, deeply internal division which receives extended analysis in a major suite in Saint Erasure, “Occupational Marks and Other Signs.” In this poem, de la Perrière has chosen a monumental backdrop for her exploration of separations, boundaries, and incursions on multiple planes of existence. This poem appears in Saint Erasure (the title of which announces the poet’s personal beatification of sanctity and absence) and traces forays back and forth from one realm of being into another. De la Perrière takes up the most famous and provocative of Rilke’s claims, to have written a dictated poem, that came in the onset of angelic presences. Given this source text, The Duino Elegies, it is difficult not to consider the poem within the traditions of the region of her actual residence, the Bay area, where Jack Spicer in particular made much of Rilke’s angels, striking a variety of poses in regard to the origins of poetic speech. Spicer explored the arrival of angels, and anomalous experience more generally, through a range of responses, from satire, to devotion, to dread. In regard to angels, de la Perrière is guarded. No voices in the howling storm on the parapet of a castle in her revision of Rilke. The castle is an apartment, the angels, an agitation at the edge of thought. Earlier poems such as “House: The History of Us All” and “How to Build Your Own House (Herself Surveys Her Kingdom)” establish the figure of the house as a metonym for mind. Rooms loom large, sparely, abstractly described, they are places more intuited than described. The poet’s interest is in what it feels like to live in a sensibility touched by forces outside it. She holds fast to the central concern of all three of her titles, that thing that angels don’t have, the body. This legendary scene of modernist vatic initiation falls into stages, all of which are in some sense subsequent to an encounter with the divine, with God, that is over before the poem begins. Her angels call forth not awe but tolerant bemusement. Yet as the poem proceeds to submit Rilke’s legend of poetic dictation to scrutiny through its seven sections, angels infiltrate the quotidian. At first, they seem innocuous, a touch of the fantastic in the daily routine, as if they were merely the numinous afterglow of an encounter with the divine we can only suppose is ecstatic. But the poem quickly darkens. The dread that Rilke makes the mark of angelic presence is reduced to the sublimity of a panic attack.
The angels become tormentors of, rather than handmaidens to, the human. They come bearing word that the body is not so bounded as the poet had hoped. The body is prey to violations beyond the exceptional circumstances of a rape. As a material assemblage, it is open to forces beyond it. Mania and delusion show how reason as prey to whatever seems outside it, as the poet demonstrates in her case studies: (“The Glass Delusion,” “Dictionary of the Visible,” ”Madeleine Le Bouc on Tiptoe (Salpetriere, 1899),””Just Like You Said It Would Be (Russian Madonna, 1405).” Here, the poet takes up what it’s like to live within a porous universe. Along with an enhanced sense of the daily world, these angels bring alienation from the body. Horror at its aging, at our bones becoming visible, at our dissociation from proprioceptive assurances, and a more generalized undermining of any sense of a viable self. Though from this comes a highly qualified defense of art, or more precisely, of art-making. The age of mechanical disenchantment hovers nearby:
each print will be different depending upon pressure
depending on the weight of the wheel: imagine each
line as a mark of adornment painted skin carved cheeks
imagine the care necessary to keep from splitting apart
from that precise point skin slipping out of place failing
fish lines ripple the length of your body this adornment or
dissection this wilderness or testimony: the physical as
desertion as art as the last best hope (“Saint Erasure, p.36)
A further elaboration of de la Perrière’s Myth of the Body comes by way of one of the richest turns in religious thought, as old as the Vedas, that having bodies allows us to create the category of body in our minds and so continually pose ourselves as somehow outside what we most seem to be, even imagining new and other bodies, some of which might correlate the cosmos to our limbs and organs, some of which might hover above or around us, sometimes be captured in a photograph. In “From the Root Word Meaning ‘To Go’” the possibility of a new body is almost within grasp. The language is celebratory, euphoric, arising around the merger of a vision of a new body with the landscape. It is a sustained rebuke to the earlier renderings of embodiment as a liability or limit. But then, and painful it is to relate, the body is erased. However, this erasure is no matter of simple friction. As the title of her second volume emphasizes, the poet has divinized this process, erasure. She has proclaimed it the one named saint in her imaginative universe. How should we approach it? The vanishing or undoing of a grapheme or picture, is that a transgression of the entire notion of an icon, or is it the fulfillment of the icons role, to draw the force of the invisible world into the visible? Does it bring about, as the concluding lines of her study in iconology would have it, “the point at which everything changes”? The art world seems alert to the complexity of the gesture of erasure, how it implicitly involves a meditation on the iconic properties of an artwork. Given the poet’s relation to Black Mountain poetics (she even gives us her own Freudian take on open field poetics in “Field Composition (Fort-Da).” The famed erasures by Rauschenberg of de Kooning, Cy Twombly’s further adventures in this obliterating technique remind us how charged with doubleness erasure can be, creation and destruction, all at once. And, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis makes clear in Drafts, erasures can have ominous political and cultural uses. Her reproductions of the black bands of government redaction in George Oppen’s FBI file remind us how crudely close to daily life a more infernal vision of erasure can be. Erasure, however, does not necessarily imply human intent. Hills can be erased by wind, shores by tides. But de la Perrière links her vision of erasure specifically to what is made, and made by the one who erases. Erasure is the destruction of what has just been created. It is not merely a defaming, or a partial occlusion, evoking a new shape presumably hidden from view. For de la Perrière, erasure is severe, a ritual practice in which two warring forces are held in balance. Erasure is one version of the rift that makes the ritual, and the ritual is an apocalypse, and end to all ritual.
Every angel erases us. In Works of Love & Terror, immediate peril: a maternal figure in a hospital. The imminent and ultimate erasure of matter, a mother’s death, looms, and no guarantee of her transfiguration into the heavens, her becoming a ward of cosmological order. The integrity of this daughter’s poetry, the very expertise of lineation and cadence, resides in never erasing certain steadfast boundary lines. Nonetheless she works with all her art to achieve some glimpse of what is just past the limit, of the body, of reason, of conventions of feeling. It is both an anguished and ecstatic paradox, that a poetry that so aspires to and achieves clarity in the interest of what is essentially a cosmic drama, where we are securely in a material world but one riddled by incursions from various iterations of the beyond, from what Spicer would call the outside. In the mode of feeling that dominates the first two titles of this tripartite work a stoicism is proposed, an almost cruel demand is made: that humans be able to endure erasure, of themselves, their artworks, and of those they love. (The poems, here, which defer to the contemporary vogue of erasure might attest, provoke an admonition: as Billy Collins must endure his own erasure, here, in Purgatory, will we all be forced to read our own words as erased by others?) The virtuosic command of cadence, phrase, image, and lineation pushes directly against the tribute demanded by Saint Erasure, as if the saint were a lightly costumed and quaintly baptized avatar of a darker pagan god. Gathering under this title is the crest of a wave that has built through her entire body of work to date. These poems exhibit a deeply established confidence in the power of the poet to surrender to what is beyond the individual will. Which is to say, death. These poems, especially those in the last section, move far beyond the dilemma posed by “I Am Trying to say Fire,” that of a desired but unavailable lexicon. Her poetry now inhabits states and stations of longing towards which the earlier shunned, demythologized, gestured. The pre-secular world is beyond the recall of poetry. An extraordinary prayer at the deathbed of the mother acknowledges the severance of the sacred and the secular but refuses to rest there. The crucifix above the deathbed, the remnant of a world of belief unavailable to the poet, to the poet if not to the person, becomes the conduit of the cosmos, by way of a homespun analogy:
. . . when we call a body
a vessel, we call a vessel
a star, we call a star a loose
blast from the deep empty
to nowhere -- in the darkened
room a mother repeats I love
you, I love you (that is all
she remembers, that is all
she can say) -- the cross above
her bed: a string-and-cup
phone to the night sky, a shell to
the ear through which she hears
the largest ocean (Works, pp. 74-5 )
The poet imagines something other than the conventional associations of a cross at a deathbed scene. It’s as if Emily Dickinson is urging her on, to imagine her way through traditional Christian hierarchies, through angels, whether Christian or symbolist, by way of the homemade antique chd’s toy so reminiscent of an American childhood of summer camps and science experiments regarding sound vibration. The crucifix, what would the dying woman’s relationship to it be? We don’t know. Perhaps we are not entitled to that degree of intimacy. The poet touches upon spiritualist tradition, that God works through the latest technology, by syncing childhood hands-on wonder with earlier moments in the American religious imagination. What is most striking in this revisionary trope is, of course, that the crucifix, reconfigured as an acoustic prosthetic, brings to the poet an extraordinary sense of the cosmos, as if the call has bypassed Christianity, and been forwarded to some mystical vision of a primordial sea.
Prayer and vision are the means by which the poet imagines the other side of embodiment. How deft and tender the departing of souls is rendered in “Mere.” Souls of women are passing through the landscapes where life was celebrated and suffered. They are on the verge of becoming their own constellation, becoming other bodies securely established beyond rape, madness, and diminution. The poet draws on the Renaissance figuration of mortals crossing into the realm of the eternal. They are not erased, but revealed, made other by their suffering:
the old women rose with the moon
twisting their gnarled arms across the sky
they hovered over the places they had walked
they passed the houses where they had lived as girls
the dark, pine-arched roads where they had received first kisses
and clutched at boys or other girls in the quickening dark
they passed the hospitals or rooms where they had birthed children
they passed the graves of children, they passed their own graves
they tore light out of the stars and wore it as cloaks
other light they flung to earth where it split apart and shattered
they crowned each other with the wrecks of their longings and despairs
they fell apart, cohered again, they spun with the weather
they watched the world flame out, ignoring them at best or hating them
they rose over the ridge like a troop of fixed stars (Works, p.77)
The poet is, for the moment, on the other side of terror, of the need to assert and defend a division between mind and body, the other side of a need to dramatize what the damned feel like in their fire. The fierce obsession with vexing, then reconfiguring, some perpetually threatened boundary seems less pressing. Intention and action, reason and magic, these seeming contraries withdraw. The poet courts less severe contrasts, and pays homage to what the body makes possible, which is to say, a life. (There is a beautiful elegy here for the poet Kari Edwards.) The crest of this concluding sequence is “Last Things.” Line by line, this inexhaustibly graceful poem turns around the predicament of all de la Perrière’s poetry, in aspiring towards the point where everything changes, to create poetry where schism, trauma, alienation, crime, are subsumed into an articulation that is also a flight. It would not be a de la Perrière poem without the feel of contrary forces at work, in the poem as in the world the poem creates. Flight, associated with lines and articulation, establishes the terrain. Death, the “terminus of falling,” awaits us at the poem’s close, but what the poem communicates is not despair or resignation at some final reckoning, but a kind of graceful and exact grasp of an ideal of writing, a kind of poetry yet to be written, arising from death but not darkened by it. It seems to me what the poet is imagining is the poetic line as a horizon line. Perhaps dawn or sunset beside a deathbed. But it is also some new or yet to be fully rendered line, a vision of poetry one beyond resemblance or scar, that can bravely hold imminent death within an illuminated sentence.