EMMANUEL LEVINAS ONCE ARGUED that intimacy takes us from the impossible to the infinite, and back again. In this interstitial space, we are transfixed by the boundlessness of another consciousness — a luminous, intricate, self-contained world that is ultimately inaccessible. Yet this vastness continues to reveal itself, offering glimpses of a psychic terrain that lies just beyond what one can know.
Three recent collections of poetry offer constructions of intimacy that fully and convincingly acknowledge this complexity: Jennifer S. Cheng’s House A, Rochelle Hurt’s In Which I Play the Runaway, and Karen Volkman’s Whereso. Through their novel and provocative variations on traditional lyric address, these poets reveal closeness as a kind of “corporeal speech” that forever equivocates. In each collection, we are asked to consider, albeit through a slightly different conceptual lens, our eternal alterity, that all-too-familiar condition of “wanting the world through a window,” as Hurt describes it.
With that in mind, the presentation of the “you” is perhaps most telling in these finely crafted book-length sequences. The love object is both a “cross-section of water,” impossible to render, and a gravitational pull. We are made to see the allure (and the impossibility) of a sustained, meaningful moment of recognition, that “faraway hour” when both the “I” and the “you” fully reveal themselves to one another. Each poem, and the silences that accompany them, remind us that someone else’s mind is like an ocean, “fluid and wafting in refracted light.” What’s more, these gifted and dexterous poets know that despite this persistent “unmooring,” this “willful” and “soundless” distancing, “the body will blur its boundary, will embrace.”
Cheng observes, in a recent craft essay published in the Black Warrior Review, that every story of intimacy is haunted by “a shadow story.” For Cheng, this hidden narrative is almost always the history of language itself. House A, her first full-length collection of poems, shows us the “chaos and wholeness” of a voice that is sedimented with its own past, even in the most personal moments of lyric address. Indeed, the speaker’s lexicon is revealed as being at once mediated and insular, a social construct that ultimately isolates. “We each live within our own language,” Cheng explains, and any closeness, any true connection requires “stitching these languages together.” Yet speech is not as simple as the relationship between signifier and signified. Rather, Cheng reminds us that the larger structures of power and authority that surround us are embedded, and enacted, within our smallest grammatical choices. “And how relieved I was,” she writes, “no longer to be embarrassed by my mother’s voice but to feel her broken sounds again as intimacy, as home.” Here, we are othered by and through language, as each inflection, each “folktale” slowly reveals an “anchoring of place.” After all, it is an individual’s movement through language that allows us to situate them amid the inevitably contested borders and territories that make up a larger body politic. Language, for Cheng, is an “inhabited surface, like the wooden grain surrounding an embedded nail.”
It is perhaps for these reasons that Cheng’s book begins by depicting an impossible intimacy. Presented as an epistolary exchange, “Letters to Mao” allows us to witness the “man of history we know so well” being presented with the speaker’s most private familial exchanges. In much the same way that language (and its political implications) infiltrate the farthest corners of the mind, Mao is shown the “the dark silhouette of a mother’s hair,” “the dust and corners” of a home. Any intimacy is revealed as both deeply personal and inevitably collective, as it is mediated by a shared historical imagination.
Indeed, the closeness that Cheng’s speaker cultivates — whether through lyric address, memory, or the creation of narrative — is persistently intruded upon. As the sequence unfolds, a “mother’s off-key lullabies” and even “the movement of a body in sleep” become an “island that wasn’t even yours.” Cheng writes, for instance,
I want to describe for you the watery life of home, and by that I do not mean the ambiguity of homeland. For homeland is something embalmed in someone else’s memory, or it is a symbol, both close to the heart and a stranger you reach for in the middle of the night …
Here the lyric becomes a performance of what has been lost, becomes elegy, and finally, becomes an impossibility. By entering language, we have surrendered an essential part of ourselves, and as a result, we have given over our ability to share that “small” and “tunneling” space with another. Yet Cheng upholds the possibility of compassion and connection, even in a divisive, sometimes hostile cultural landscape. Although the speaker’s “homeland” is described as an “ambiguity,” and the recipient of this deeply personal letter is a mere “symbol,” both are still held “close to the heart.” Fittingly, the voice of empire never speaks back, but, rather, becomes a conduit for “the biography of the collective,” a “spreading of constellations across a dark chart.”
Rochelle Hurt’s first collection, The Rusted City, is marked by a decidedly polyphonic approach to both narrative and the lyric. Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Hurt shows us that the creation of any story is a shared endeavor, as each “wife,” each “quiet mother” takes turns describing the “impatient decay” that surrounds her. Hurt’s latest book, In Which I Play the Runaway, returns to this enduring interest in collective consciousness, while also bringing her multi-voiced lyricism to bear on concerns that only occupied the periphery of her earlier work.
Hurt’s second collection, much like Cheng’s House A, considers the ways intimacy is mediated by a shared cultural imagination. A fugitive speaker drifts between personae and voices, among them “Aunt Em,” “Dorothy,” and “The Lone Ranger.” In this intricately crafted sequence, any semblance of empathy, love, or understanding is buried, “splintered with shreds / of unfamiliar syllables,” beneath a heaping accumulation of received narratives.
“The sky behind you,” she writes, “is a sherbet pastiche of movie set hues.” Here the narratives that connect us, making possible shared experience and culture, are also an intrusion into the most intimate parts of the psyche. Hurt shows us, skillfully and strikingly, that the stories and archetypes which provide frameworks for our thinking, that build community across geographic and temporal boundaries, are also a subtle and deeply unsettling presence in what we once thought were private exchanges. As “silence blooms” between the speaker of these gorgeous poems and her absent beloved(s), we see her unmoored by the very characters she aspires to, who ultimately keep her “houseless” and “husbandless.”
Like Cheng, she shows us the lyric “I” as inevitably collective, undoubtedly mediated. What distinguishes Hurt’s collection, however, is her unflinching presentation of her speaker’s “breaking” and “slippery” psyche. Because of this proliferation of narrative — that “empty grave” of postmodern culture — the “I” is persistently drifting, ambulatory. “I fall in love with surfaces,” Hurt writes. She elucidates for us, bravely and strikingly, that the depth of emotion, the “honeymoon” to which every film and novel aspires, has become an impossibility, an indistinct and beautiful memory, “a perpetual past tense” that haunts the luminous, vast, “brimming” mass media circulating around us.
Much like Volkman’s previous collections, Whereso situates the individual voice within a linguistic landscape that is temporally bound and sedimented with history. We are made to see, whether in the Petrarchan sonnets of Nomina, or the hybrid prose of Spar, the ways that received forms of discourse structure our most private interactions. Yet Whereso also explores the agency of the individual in language, the myriad ways that “the throat-flute uttering its constant note” offers a kind of subtle resistance.
For Volkman, it is the intrusion of language, this ever-present strangeness within the self, that makes intimacy possible. Like Cheng and Hurt, she fully acknowledges the ways that the mind is mediated by grammar and culture. Yet she shows us, deftly and compellingly, that these received narratives can be fractured, “collapsed into particles,” remade entirely. It is through this cracked lens, this “totality of pieces,” that we come to know and truly understand the other. For Volkman, the inevitable “levitation into clarity” cannot be anything other than mediated, as it is this commonality, this “bridge,” that “makes the force containable,” that gives us language and structure for our experiences.
In this collection of intricately linked poems, Volkman offers a lyric “I” that is at once fragmented and charged with desire. “A contour of relation,” she writes, “swells, hurls.” It is no coincidence that many of these poems take place in the old world, replete with “pageant,” inhabited by a speaker who “loves” these monuments and ruins “as material.” Here, intimacy is none other than an encounter with cultural memory, “needle-bright and bleeding,” as it is made and unmade by another consciousness. This unequivocal embrace of intimacy as mediation — and desire as only possible because it is bounded by time and history — most distinguishes Volkman’s poems from those of Cheng and Hurt.
As Whereso unfolds, this “retrouvé of the past-pulse” is enacted in the very texture of the language itself, offering a vision of the lyric that is as polyphonic and historically sedimented as it is electric. She writes in “Stranger Report,”
crawling or leaping
both are a deeping
of traceable action, intentions on a stage. We are your auditors, calculating ruptures, in the invisible lines determining
movement as pattern, this precision beyond a norm.
Here the lyric “I” arises from a confluence of vastly different lexicons and registers. The language of business (“traceable action,” “we are your auditors”) collides beautifully and seamlessly with academic diction (“calculating rupture”) and everyday speech (“this precision beyond a norm”). Volkman asks us to consider, through her careful juxtapositions, voice as a social construct, all of thought as a collective endeavor, even when one believes one is alone. Whereso is filled with gorgeous poems like this one, which show us, strikingly and effortlessly, that it is “the textures and tinctures” of received culture that allow us to truly appreciate the other, because they prompt us to speak and — finally, inevitably — be understood.
If intimacy is both an impossible desire and infinite possibility, lyric address may very well be an attempt to think through this contradiction. In these three striking volumes of poetry, one encounters this paradox in all of its beauty and complexity. Here, we are offered a carefully constructed philosophy of interpersonal connection, which is at once boundless and bound by the realities of human consciousness.
What’s more, it is through their innovative constructions of poetic voice, their polyphonic and formally dexterous approach to the lyric, that we begin to recognize the constant presence of the other within the self. Whether offering a lyric “I” that is multi-voiced or a “you” who exists as inaccessible radiance, these poets show us intimacy as mediated, and mediation as a kind of intimacy in itself. We are never alone with the other, because we are never alone with ourselves.