JULY 30, 2016
ELAINE SCARRY ONCE OBSERVED that “a made object is a projection of the human body.” We must remember, too, that much is housed within the walls of the body: the senses, certainly, but also grief, difference, and the various narratives from which they arise. With that in mind, even the most commonplace items are inscribed with history’s discontents and inequities, a startling numbness in the fingertips that is inevitably externalized.
Three recent experimental texts explore the many ways difference is written onto the body, as well as the objects that surround us: “ill-fitting shoes,” “flowers carved out of thick glass,” “a cracked bowl.” We are presented with a sorrow that is contained in everything we touch, with the tears of things. Indeed, Lisa Fay Coutley’s Errata, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index, and Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women conceptualize a sadness that is at once tangible and historical, a melancholy stitched into the seams of every dress.
While vastly different in form and approach, these writers also share a commitment to representing a grief that is uniquely female. The artifacts of femininity offer a point of entry to this consideration of history, sorrow, and its persistent manifestation in the products of our physical and intellectual labor. For Coutley, Scanlon, and Boyer, mourning is present in the making of the very spaces we inhabit and in the decorations mounted in every room of the house.
Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women skillfully situates the products of the speaker’s labor within a larger economy of texts, knowledge, and goods. As the book unfolds, womanhood is revealed as inextricable from the marginal spaces of a market economy, which sounds like an abstraction but is made real by the disparities in how we value different types of labor. The female body is burdened by a system of valuation that is not kind to it. A mounting heap of work and debt wears on the speaker’s physical being: first a “toothache” that she cannot afford to fix, the scent of “ammonia” that lingers in a cheap apartment, and the persistent feeling that her body is “unwell.”
For Boyer, each object is not only a projection of the human body, its wellness or lack of rest, but also the body’s place in a larger market of labor, goods, and cultural production. These objects, particularly the artifacts of femininity, also become a form of protest. Boyer’s descriptions of sewing are especially telling in this regard. She writes, “I could spend a year learning to do well what I have spent twenty years doing badly, and after that year, I could still be bad at what I do.” Her narrator abjures our predilection for convenience, and reclaims the economic value placed on her time, revealing the clothes she has fabricated herself as an unexpected confluence of feminism, history, and labor rights activism: “Always when I sew I think of Emma Goldman with her sewing machine, or Emma Goldman during her first night in jail ‘at least bring me some sewing.’” To stitch a garment by hand is to reclaim agency in a culture that constantly requires her to trade choice for efficiency.
This interest in sewing, its connection to labor that has traditionally been coded as female, is enacted gracefully in the book’s larger structure. Although in Boyer’s narrative, sewing is often an affirmative choice, there are some things that the speaker of these poems doesn’t stitch together. The book is a series of linked prose texts, which move through various psychic landscapes: economic anxieties, transformative experiences of art and literature, and friendships. We transition quickly from the aisles of Target to the “heroic refusal” to participate in this consumer culture. The fragments refuse a narrative arc that would situate meaningful relationships within an economy that is hostile to them.
I will leave no memoir, just a bitch’s Maldoror. There’s a man. He tells me he does not like the version of the story in which he is like Simon Legree who ties me down to the railroad tracks. This is because he is like Simone Legree who ties me down to the railroad tracks.
Here, as in the larger structure of the book, the absence of narrative implicates. In her refusal to construct a memoir, we see the structures of economic power silencing her, and that quietness is one that arouses only guilt in the reader. We all participate in, and maintain, a system that is persistently unkind to each of us.
Boyer does not have to trace sorrow through the hand, or count each stitch of the dress. We see that we are already folded in its dark cloth, weighed down by its seemingly endless embellishments.
Suzanne Scanlon’s recent collection also interrogates the economies in which objects, labor, and texts circulate. In much the same way that Boyer calls our attention to the systematic placement of women’s labor on the peripheries of the marketplace, Her 37th Year: An Index offers a carefully rendered account of intellectual and emotional upheaval that is confined to the marginal spaces of a text: those small, succinct, and orderly entries in a book’s index. Like Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, a series of blank pages populated only by footnotes with wildly imaginative content, Scanlon’s formal choices immediately evoke the hierarchies of value that we impose upon different types of writing. The marginal text moves from the periphery of our attention to the center, and becomes the main text. The textual hierarchy is not only questioned, it is reversed.
The sorrow of inhabiting a marginal space is a kind of affect that is well-documented in women’s writing. It is a mourning of voice, agency, and visibility. For Scanlon, form offers an incisive commentary: the narrative, which depicts a female academic whose greatest hopes even she feels are unspeakable, is indexical. Married and at an age where the expectation is stability, she involves herself in an affair with a married writer, of whom we glean only one identifying detail: he is “the man in boots,” whose name cannot be spoken, but who soon becomes the absent center of a gorgeously fractured narrative. Scanlon’s index, then, is both an enactment of this silencing and a resistance. As the unruly narrative sprawls from one index entry to the next, we are made to see the violence inherent in cataloging language, intellectual labor, and desire. To sort, to organize, to assign value is to create a hierarchy, to elevate one thing at the expense another.
As in Boyer’s work, Scanlon’s discussion of women’s labor is grounded in familiar objects: “perfume,” a “medical bracelet,” and a quote from Anaïs Nin on a “thumbtacked index card.” We are reminded that a literary text is also a “made thing,” another product to be circulated within a larger economy. For Scanlon, even the failure of “Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors” and other treatments for depression become the focus of trying intellectual labor, the meticulous cataloging of experiences and things in such a way that they will be legible within the marketplace. In this sense, her particular variety of resistance diverges markedly from Boyer’s. Rather than refusing to construct a narrative edifice that conflates the personal and the economic, Scanlon rejects the attempt to render even bodily suffering “useful.” Though recounted by a narrator who expresses a fear of “being marked,” Scanlon shows how we are all “marked” by our complicity in a system that limits what is possible in language, limits our ability to organize the world around us, and limits the very structure of conscious experience.
Because little is assumed to be at stake in peripheral textual spaces, the margins of a text are rife with possibility. Scanlon writes in her entry on “Exceptions”: “as when your husband declares that he loves you but feels three things: bored, lonely, and invisible. Also: he thought this sort of longing, desperation, was only for sad old people.” Marriage and one’s spouse “declaring that he loves you” is the normative ideal, while an affair is presumed to exist on the perimeter of this supposedly more valuable relationship. Yet this husband, as an “exception,” is now confined to the margins of the margins. As Scanlon dismantles the hierarchies we impose upon texts, other hierarchies, of labor and relationship and desire, are inevitably called into question.
Scanlon provocatively situates desire within a discussion of women’s labor within the academy. When the narrator of Her 37th Year is offered admission to a graduate program that could increase the perceived value of her intellectual labor, it is not her husband but “the man in boots” whom she cannot leave. The economy in which these characters circulate seems to value the wrong texts, the wrong relationships, the wrong desires. Yet an entire infrastructure depends on them — the work of the professoriat outsourced to the precariat.
Much like Scanlon’s use of of the index and its abecedarian constraints, the poems in Lisa Fay Coutley’s Errata inhabit the inherited and seemingly innocuous forms of a received intellectual economy — in Coutley’s case couplets, tercets, and quatrains. Though offering us what Hélène Cixous once described as “marked writing,” Coutley appropriates these familiar structures only to reveal their inherent artifice. We are reminded that one renders an orderly account of an experience or a perception so that it may circulate in a marketplace of labor and goods: “Consider the going rate / for hormones, then picture an eager group / of eBay bidders.” The impulse to commodify is not limited to material things, but rather, it encompasses affect, the body, and the very words we use to describe them. The strict formal constraints that govern each poem suggest the impossibility of escaping this economy of texts: “Call it a burning building or a sinking ship, / either way you’re in it […]” Coutley asserts in pristine tercets. As the book unfolds, these orderly stanzas, like our systems of valuation, are revealed as yet another form of containment — of voice, of affect, of possibility — for the speakers of these beautifully crafted poems.
As in Scanlon’s index entries and Boyer’s fragments, formal choices offer a powerful commentary on content. The seemingly uniform stanzas highlight a persistent desire to impose order on our experience of a disordered world: “Even the dentist is muttering prayers // for the last tooth in his gums, though my father’s / certain there’s no good reason for such a thing / to be saved. Open a mouth & pull. Done.” Here the decay of the human body is ornamented by the work’s formal flourishes. Elsewhere, Coutley evokes the myriad ways that the received structures of language, grammar, and narrative are internalized: “even before I learned the word I knew / the shame that came from fearing / fear rooted in the fiction of my mind.” Her enjambments, particularly the oddly timed pauses (for example: “fearing / fear”), suggest the speaker’s unease inhabiting a linguistic framework that is not her own. Coutley renders us startlingly aware of the flaws of received forms, as well as their undeniable necessity. These familiar structures, after all, make the complexities of inner experience (“fearing / fear”) intelligible to the larger world. They allow for dialogue within a community bound together by its shared forms of discourse.
“Each day this year, one of us has declared / some state of emergency,” Coutley writes: “a broken wrist, / a faulty video game, an unwashed dish.” The state of alarm in each line exists in tension with the pristine tercets that house the narrative, suggesting the precariousness of the various types of order we have come to expect: the routines of domestic life, the wholeness of the body, even the grammar that renders voice and affect intelligible. Yet any resistance to these received forms, any critique or alternative model, inevitably borrows from very intellectual economies that it dismantles. “Under this influence,” Coutley explains, “it will take years to learn she’s a room she drags / with her.” Language and its accompanying philosophies haunt the speakers of these poems. Errata skillfully works within familiar frameworks to expand our sense of what is possible within them. In a house that we are certain is burning, Coutley offers us a “tourniquet,” a “suture,” and lastly, a “match.”