On Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's 'Nest'
“And what a quantity of animal beings there are in the being of a man!” — Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre takes a moment to castigate Gaston Bachelard for an embarrassing failure: Bachelard has a soft spot for the home, sentimentally taking it out of the realm of social space and identifying it with the natural dwelling of animals, the nest. Space, Lefebvre famously argues, is produced. Far from being a neutral and preexisting medium or natural resource available for use, it is both a product and a means of production, fashioned dialectically through a confluence of historical, material, and cultural factors. Yet the home is all too often made out to be the exception, the space outside production, the space outside space, even. “The [human] dwelling,” Lefebvre charges,
passes everywhere for a special, still sacred, quasi-religious and in fact almost absolute space. […] The contents of the House have an almost ontological dignity in Bachelard: drawers, chests and cabinets are not far removed from their natural analogues, as perceived by the philosopher-poet, namely the basic figures of nest, shell, corner, roundness, and so on.
Bachelard himself is unsentimentally aware that the affective nexus around nests that he describes rests on a certain tautological reason. But Lefebvre is not missing Bachelard’s point so much as reading against the grain, the better to remind us at what cost we naturalize the house when we make of it a “nest.” Lefebvre thus indicts not only a failure of rigor but also the feelings and longings that surely produce that failure, the feelings and longings that are Bachelard’s real objects of analysis: a delight in hiddenness, nostalgia for lost intimacy, the desire to mold space to the body, a longing for safety.
Bachelard and Lefebvre reveal the power with which the figure of the animal — the figure of the bird in particular — triggers actions of metonymy and allegory in an otherwise literal analysis. The birds’ nest becomes an allegory for the home, and the birds and their habitat become a metonym for nature, such that the human home is itself granted the status of nature, absolute space. It is Bachelard’s reliance on metonymic and allegorical logic that leads Lefebvre to call him a “philosopher-poet.” The gesture that makes the home autonomous from capital and exempt from production is also a gesture of slippage, a sleight of hand, visible, yet pardoned for sentimental reasons. The poetic here looks very much like mystification, in other words.
Below: Mei-mei Berssenbruge at KGB Bar, New York, in December 2010. Photo copyright © Lawrence Schwartzwald.
When we read Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s 2003 book of poems Nest, we must therefore do so through the complex that the word “nest” conjures up: of domestic space, its reliance on the animal, and its sentimental-poetic failures. Nest is about space, and especially the privileged so-called domestic space, rendered in relation to the animal as well as in relation to the “experimental” poetics for which Berssenbrugge is known. Berssenbrugge’s poetry is often characterized by a scientific and philosophical vocabulary that points toward a commitment to knowledge and, consequently, an experimental tradition associated with sinewy, even ascetic forms. Yet the poems of Nest are neither sinewy nor ascetic, nor even lush in the emotionally satisfying sense we might imagine, but rather something more like “downy.” There is a self-conscious excessiveness to Nest that examines, and toys with inciting, the very longings that Bachelard investigates and Lefebvre fingers with suspicion. Nest is embarrassing, in the way that the “poet-philosopher” Bachelard’s analysis is embarrassing — in the way that the poetic functions triggered by the animal are themselves embarrassing, when we find ourselves using them to sentimental ends. By invoking the old allegory and presenting human dwelling as a nest, Berssenbrugge suggests that domestic spaces depend not only on a nostalgic analytic failure but also on an embarrassed recognition of that failure — that a certain sentimentalism is the necessary concomitant of (as the final three entries of the table of contents read) “SAFETY.”
1. Domestic space
Nest inquires into the human dwelling and the things that make a house a home: enclosed space, light and shadow, family, friends, pets. Domestic space, for Berssenbrugge, is imbricated with its uses, its occupants, and the fleeting energies that traverse it, so that it is at once fundamentally material and easily abstracted, even dematerialized. The opening poem of the book, “Permanent Home,” establishes the precariousness of domestic space’s materiality, as the domestic space that the poem describes constantly slips into translucent impermanence:
I seek a permanent home, but this structure has an appearance of indifferent compoundedness and isolation, heading toward hopelessness.
The boy pulls an animal on a leash.
The house with a red roof rests between two hills.
I can look through its windows to the sea.
His aggression opposes what in a domestic animal, cold open space, large enough
to work with isolation?
House is the projection, space around it intermediary, theater.
You don’t have to consume the space to exist, distance, point-to-point, in which a beloved ruin is middle ground, for example.
The structure given as a possible permanent home fails: the “appearance of indifferent compoundedness and isolation” indicates both an aesthetic-structural inadequacy (indifferent compoundedness) and a spatial inadequacy (isolation) whose meanings are ultimately emotional, “heading toward hopelessness,” disclosing the degree to which affections define space. The house is situated in space, “between two hills.” That it is a “projection” encapsulates the contingent physicality of the domestic space; it is at once a projection in the sense of a physical protrusion from the ground and a projection in the sense that it is a set of immaterial forces superimposed on a landscape. The ordinariness of glass windows with an ocean view thus takes on an unsettling significance here; the house can be “look[ed] through,” as if it lacks substance, and yet an ocean view is also an immaterial attribute that adds “material” — that is, monetary — value to the house. The sea and the hills are not interrupted by the presence of the house; “[y]ou don’t have to consume the space to exist,” Berssenbrugge notes, and the home whose permanence is denied seems to be proof of this: it exists, but it does not consume the space that it takes up. The physical space of the home is always partly constituted by immaterial elements.
In this sense, Nest conceives domestic space as a form of social space, which, as Lefebvre describes it, “contains a great diversity of objects, both natural and social, including the networks and pathways which facilitate the exchange of material things and information.” But material things and information do not exhaust the description of social space: Berssenbrugge would add to these the pathways of affection, obligation, and need, among humans as well as among animals and the surrounding environment. Externally, the house is situated with respect to hills and sea rather than political or social markers, while internally, it is situated with respect to a child and a pet — specifically the energetic, striving relationship between them, marked by the tension of the animal’s leash. The boy and the pet — surely a dog, but the poem insists on the more abstract term “animal” — seem to intrude into the meditation on space and landscape. At the same time they ballast the scene, centering it in the domestic space, the affective ties between domestic human and domestic animal literalized and visualized by the taut leash. The line of tension between child and dog parallels the lines of sight and the spatial grid that Berssenbrugge evokes in “distance, point-to-point.” Thus affective interactions, too, structure this space, and are indeed perhaps the most solidly physical thing about it.
To insist that the production of space includes an affective dimension would amount to a substantive enough point, but in the special case of domestic space, the stakes are raised, because domestic space always carries with it ideologies that resonate specifically with the notions of affection, obligation, and need. The concept of domesticity and the ideologies of gender, class, and family that it entails have been roundly critiqued, notably by feminist writers and critics, especially when conjured up by way of a comforting (and naturalizing) image of the nest. As Donna Haraway dryly notes, “animal societies have been extensively employed in rationalization and naturalization of the oppressive orders of domination in the human body politic”; thus to invoke the nest is necessarily to call up its history of shoring up an oppressive ideology of domesticity. Yet as Cathy N. Davidson observes out in her introduction to a 1998 special issue of American Literature (pointedly, perhaps exasperatedly, titled “No More Separate Spheres!”), the idea of a “domestic sphere,” whether referring narrowly to the middle-class home or more broadly to a (white, middle-class) feminine cultural domain, has remained a comfortable conceptual model, one to which, as to the imagined nest itself, we constantly return. This is, Davidson points out, in spite of domesticity’s empirical inadequacy to historical evidence, and in spite of repeated, concerted critical efforts to decenter it. The very convention of the domestic home-as-nest takes on a power quite apart from either empirical fitness or philosophical rigor: as Lefebvre puts it, “[t]his memory […] has an obsessive quality: it persists in art, poetry, drama and philosophy” despite everything.
For Berssenbrugge, domestic space is not the separate sphere that we are so tempted to make of it. It is not exempt from the production of space, and if it is defined in part by the pathways of affection that we typically associate with domesticity — a child, a pet — that is only because such pathways always play a role in the production of space. Affective ties are not merely confined to the home, but are rather asserted as a vital component of the social, and as productive of space itself. Thus later in the poem we read of a boy playing with a pet mouse: “He relates wanting to catch the mouse with the room, ground,” the affective tie of desired proximity again structuring the space (12). Yet as Davidson indicates, we are inclined to think of the home as constituting a separate sphere at the slightest instigation, such that the mere conjunction of “affection” and “home” sets off a chain of unrigorous yet dearly treasured associations, associations with which Nest deliberately flirts. Even Lefebvre admits that Bachelard’s and Heidegger’s privileging of the home as an “intimate and absolute space” is “most emotional and indeed moving”; more radically, he even concedes that the home may be in some sense legitimately anachronistic, a little apart from history, an “invariant, surviving or stagnant elemen[t]” in the midst of the unmistakably historical, produced “urban fabric.” But despite this brief interlude of naturalizing domestic space, Lefebvre also observes that the ideology that underwrites the pleasure of Bachelard’s “moving” description is a gendered one, with direct consequences for any serious attempt to analyze the production of space: “In the background […] stands Nature — maternal if not uterine.” Lefebvre’s equivocation — is the image of the nest specifically uterine or more broadly maternal? — marks the very problem that nature always raises: in an image so highly charged, it is difficult to disarticulate the material and symbolic registers, the distinction between uterus and mother. Indeed, as Timothy Morton argues, nature is always “a transcendental term in a material mask,” signaling a refusal to settle for either materiality or abstraction but fluidly transforming the one into the other and back. Consequently, as soon as nature (or its metonym, the nest) is invoked, the femininity of domestic space is almost tautologically confirmed. Domestic space thus becomes the very definition of a separate sphere, a “natural” realm autonomous from the social, exempt from history, feminine, private, immutable.
Thus to recur to affection and need, in the case of the home, always means to recur to the always pre-denied natural metaphor — the home as a “nest” — as well. Nest therefore acknowledges the theoretical claims of, and offers a corrective to, both Lefebvre and Bachelard: that, on the one hand, domestic space is produced, not natural or autonomous from the domain of the social (it is not a “separate sphere”); and that, on the other hand, domestic space cannot be thought apart from networks of affection, and therefore cannot be thought apart from the ideology of separate spheres that so often organizes those networks. To analyze the affective elements of domestic space returns us to an ideology that we either cannot let go, as Davidson and Lefebvre suggest, or that we do not, for sentimental reasons, wish to let go, as Bachelard suggests. Charles Altieri has argued that in Empathy (1989), Berssenbrugge “focus[es] directly on the desire for intimacy — with herself, with other people, and with the reader as an extension of both those projections — while struggling against pressures to theatricalize or thematize or otherwise flatten intimacy into idea.” But in Nest, Berssenbrugge does not so much resist those pressures of theatricalization, thematization, or flattening — what we might succinctly gloss as the pressures of sentimentalism — as open up to them, knowingly succumbing in order to reveal the aesthetic and social implications of the sentimentalization of domestic space.
2. Affective work and the debts of sentimentality
If space is produced in part by networks of affection, then the issue of affective labor necessarily comes into play. “[N]ature,” Lefebvre argues, recapitulating the separate spheres argument in spite of himself, “does not labour […] it creates”; thus “nature does not produce.” But as soon as domestic space is assimilated to nature, it appears to lie outside the realm of production — what Marxist feminists have pointed out is a space in which all work, typically that done by women, falls under the rubric of reproduction. Women’s work in the home is, in Silvia Federici’s words, “defined as non-work,” therefore “appear[ing] as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.” It is not clear whether the naturalization of the home precedes the appropriation of women’s work or the reverse: as we have seen with Bachelard, the two movements are hardly distinguishable. It is not an accident that such work is regarded as reproductive; as Lefebvre points out, nature is “maternal if not uterine.” If, working with Berssenbrugge against the supposition that the “nest” is a sphere apart, we attend to the role of ties of affection in the production of space, then we must see those ties as something other than a pure emanation of nature, however closely they bind us to nature’s metonyms — nests, animals, and the like. We must, in short, register the concept of affective work.
In her 1983 study The Managed Heart, the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild observes that the management of feeling requires work. While all adults must engage in emotion work with great frequency, women must do more and different kinds of emotion work than men due to their lower social status. As Hochschild observes, tradition dictates that “Middle-class American women […] feel emotion more than men do”; at the same time — contradictorily — they are also “thought to manage expression and feeling not only better but more often than men do,” for instance in crying to get their way. Women’s emotions are thus suspected of being at once excessively powerful and genuine, on the one hand, and potentially duplicitous, on the other hand, precisely because women are so frequently engaged in emotional work. Hochschild’s key insight is that these emotional patterns do not “simply exist passively in women,” but are rather “signs of a social work that women do” to cope with social circumstances largely beyond their control. In this sense, emotion work located in the home is an instance of domestic work whose status as work is discounted, a powerful element of what Hochschild, in another work that pointedly targeted the ideology of separate spheres, called “the second shift.”
Affective work always involves the application of the will to something classically construed as by definition spontaneous; it is therefore necessarily predicated on a certain affective inauthenticity, one that can be difficult to pin down. There is something inherently contradictory about willing oneself to feel a certain way: if it is willed, then one perhaps does not “really” feel it. Like a synthetic gemstone, the willed feeling is at once “real” and somehow worth less than the spontaneous feeling. Hochschild documents the complexity of this inauthenticity in cases of flight attendants who find themselves unable distinguish between their professional (managed) and private feelings — for the job demands not just smile but a sincere smile. But of course the constraints of affective work are not limited to the sphere of paid work; the need not only to manifest but actually to feel warmth toward a family member, for instance, can be as urgent as the demands of any paid job. There is, moreover, an economic dimension to the gendering of emotion work even when it is unpaid. As Hochschild writes,
lacking other resources, women make a resource out of feeling and offer it to men as a gift in return for the more material resources they lack. (For example, in 1980 only 6 percent of women but 50 percent of men earned over $15,000 a year.) Thus their capacity to manage feeling and to do “relational” work is for them a more important resource.
Affective work thus always crucially, if ambiguously, involves inauthentic feeling — feeling that is really there, perhaps, but elicited, required—sometimes very materially required.
In this sense, affective work replicates the form usually attributed to the sentimental mode, which Oscar Wilde famously characterized as “hav[ing] the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” The emotion evoked by sentimentality is thought to be “cheap,” manipulated, ill-gotten through formulae, in a way that does not seem to apply to the catharsis of tragedy (which is in some sense “earned”). Sentimentality, too, is predicated on inauthentic feeling, and like affective work it also entails leveraging feelings against money one doesn’t have. Thus affective work — traditionally the province of women — also structurally describes the work of sentimentality. Both are a kind of manipulation, if you like, but a kind of manipulation that is effective, one that is work, and one that is in demand — even necessary, as Lauren Berlant argues. Affective work crisscrosses “productive” (public) and “reproductive” (domestic) spheres to “produc[e] social networks, forms of community, biopower,” as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri put it — and, Nest would suggest, to produce space as well. (Can it be an accident that the foundational study of affective labor is a sociology of flight attendants, whose job it is to traverse continents over and over again, always carrying the performance of domesticity with them?) Thus space, domestic and otherwise, is produced by a thick interaction of material, social, and affective networks hinging in part on affective work (paid or unpaid), the altogether necessary work of inauthentic feeling. As the saying goes, home is where the (managed) heart is.
I recur to the conventional phrase “home is where the heart is” because it foregrounds the forces that continue to work to frame the domestic as a separate sphere. They are forces of the heart, despite the fact that “the heart” ascends toward “the hegemonic position” in global labor, as Hardt and Negri suggest — which is to say that the heart is everywhere, that no place is “home” in the sense of a nest under late capitalism. As Antonella Corsani, among others, has argued, late capitalism is marked by a “feminization of labor” that radically destabilizes the public/private distinction by extending the features of female labor to the general work force — its precariousness and hyperexploitation as well as its affective and reproductive qualities. Yet the total breakdown of any pretense at “separate spheres,” signaled by the broad hegemony of affective labor and other immaterial labor, does little to diminish the power of a phrase like “home is where the heart is.” It is pardoned for sentimental reasons: it is no less necessary than the flight attendant’s smile. Affective work shares the structure of sentimentality, yet while one seems to undermine the ideology of separate spheres by permeating labor, the other seems to shore up separate spheres by drawing on that fund of non-accountability, generating sensations unearned (in this case) by any correspondence with reality. As Berlant describes it, this double action, permitting survival yet complying with that which oppresses, is a feature of sentimentality more generally.
The sentimental mode, in Berlant’s account, hangs on convention: convention supplies a familiarity that is at once an alternative to and a correction for the familiarity of what is real. Conventions need not correspond with lived experience; indeed, they create out of disparate experiences a mass-marketable and often frankly ideological “intimate public” that offers psychic compensation for the inadequacies of individual realities. Yet, as Berlant argues, “[t]he convention is not only a mere placeholder for what could be richer in an underdeveloped social imaginary, but it is also sometimes a profound placeholder that provides an affective confirmation” of a “shared […] imaginary,” a union of readers that exists “in advance of […] a material world in which that feeling can actually be lived.” The temporal displacement of the sentimental subject should perhaps remind us of Bachelard’s reading of a poem by Jean Caubère, which, in speaking to the evanescence of domestic space, also illuminates Berssenbrugge’s “Permanent Home”:
The poet rightly thought that, at the mention of a nest, a bird’s song, and the charms that take us back to the old home, to the first home, a sort of musical chord would sound in the soul of the reader. But in order to make so gentle a comparison between house and nest, one must have lost the house that stood for happiness. So there is also an alas in this song of tenderness. If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy.
Lost intimacy is a constant and indeed constitutive feature of the nest; the “permanent home” is always somewhere else, unpresent even to itself, always somehow phantasmatic despite its materiality. For Bachelard, the nest is evocative because it is an object of nostalgia, always both idealized and past.
Though Berlant and Bachelard differ on the direction of temporal dislocation, they agree that the work of convention does not consist in fitly describing a present reality. Counterintuitively, convention’s very recognizability and ability to bind lies in its lack of correspondence to present reality. Though it is apt to the occasion, when Bachelard declares that the image of the nest necessarily transports “us” to thoughts of home he displays just the kind of sentimentality that Lefebvre decries. The troubling undertow of that sentimentality is its universalizing impulse, daring to speak not only for “the” reader but also for that reader’s “soul.” Almost predictably — and here Lefebvre’s critique bears fruit — a discussion of the home plays out in the grossest of conventionalities. And though Berssenbrugge’s touch is lighter than Bachelard’s, in the end her own elaboration of the home relies on the same conventions — the identification of the domestic space with a nest in particular. Berssenbrugge rewrites in spatial terms the temporal absence that Bachelard describes, rendering the nest-like permanent home absent, not as a result of time past and memories gone, but rather of an the difficulty of negotiating space, of arriving at a conception of space that is adequate to a human home. Like Jean Caubère, Berssenbrugge “rightly” relies on animal dwellings to evoke a fleeting and longed-for human domesticity. “Rightly” because, as Berlant suggests, “to love conventionality is not only to love something that constrains someone or some condition of possibility: it is another way of talking about negotiating belonging to a world.”
The logic of convention supplies the central tension as well as the central metaphor in Nest because convention is a domain of comfort that inevitably tips over into the hokey and the false. Because convention is constituted through its lack of correspondence to present reality, it never stops being hokey and intellectually suspect, and embarrassingly, it never stops being comforting and, in the end, intellectually powerful as well. As with Bachelard, for Berssenbrugge, figures of animals that have been literally or imaginatively domesticated pointedly reveal the tragicomedy of convention. The compromises of domesticity and domestication appear nowhere more awkwardly than in the second section of “Erring,” in a narrative episode in which an already domesticated family pet, Fluffy, is rendered again as kitsch:
The bell rings and a man delivers a dog made of flowers to me.
My brother rolls over on his back, arms and legs up, tongue out.
He ordered the flowers.
Our dog, whom the flowers resemble, bites his cuff.
I realize relating flowers to our dog is perfectly normal on his part, even
though life hasn’t turned out as he hoped.
Everyone in the room exclaims, so cute! but the resemblance is slight.
Except for instructions by phone, the technique of the florist was outside control.
It was part of reality, like Fluffy herself, though blurring with flowers gives some
It’s an unstable image in which style carves a difference in potential, through
which he hopes something will pass for him, but his exhaustion signals. (35)
The section opens with a breach of the home’s boundary: a stranger delivers a floral arrangement in the shape of a dog — modeled after a real dog, it turns out: the family pet, Fluffy. The commissioner of this crime against art is the narrator’s brother, who enacts a second mimesis by rolling over and pretending, himself, to be a dog. In this domestic arena, the terms of artistic or intellectual rigor must be torqued to accommodate the exigencies of love; questions of craft, interpretation, and intertext are out of bounds in this space. A debased mimesis is the only possible criterion for evaluating the flower-dog as an artistic production: how close is its likeness to Fluffy? Berssenbrugge therefore substitutes for art criticism a restrained acknowledgment of the novelty sculpture’s conditions of production: “Except for instructions by phone, the technique of the florist was outside control.” These aesthetics find their culmination in the familial judgment, really the only possible judgment for a flower arrangement shaped like the family dog: “so cute!” The conventional impulse is not to create but to mimic, indeed to conform oneself to something recognizable, and thereby ameliorate a life that “hasn’t turned out as [one] hoped.” The work of the familial nest, itself a convention, is to support that ultimately tragic negotiation, and to say “so cute!” when confronted by its metonym in the form of kitsch.
If the failures of the floral dog disturbingly echo misogynistic critiques of women’s art and domestic “women’s culture” — as merely mimetic, sentimental, critically unrigorous, pre-commodified — they are also unmistakably failures, not a recuperable “alternative” aesthetic but forms of retreat from the aesthetic, a domain where aesthetic criteria can find no purchase. “Erring” argues against the theoretical utility — or honesty — of simply revaluing the domestic as a category, even as it acknowledges domesticity’s power to shelter. The gendered notion of the “nest,” which proposes the home as a fundamentally feminine and somehow “natural” sphere separate from an outside, commercial world, produces the necessity of reacting to the kitsch dog with “so cute!” in lieu of a genuine aesthetic response: the necessity of affective work, in short, elicited from “[e]veryone in the room” precisely because they are in the domestic space. What are you going to do, hurt your brother’s feelings?
Affective work thus limns the domestic space; the delivery from the “outside” corporate (“productive”) source is the center of and the occasion for the convention-bound women’s work of declaring the kitsch dog cute, an aesthetic compromise demanded by affective exigencies. The sentimental artistic modes so often understood as “women’s culture” are at once aesthetically and emotionally “cheap,” and yet also, as Berlant argues, at times a matter of survival. As Berssenbrugge writes, the kitsch dog is “an unstable image in which style carves a difference in potential, through which [my brother] hopes something will pass for him.” The brother’s disappointment with life is briefly held at bay by the aesthetic falsity of the dog, into which “everyone in the room” must now enter, sincerely or otherwise. It is precisely “style,” the flower dog’s debased aesthetics of convention, that “carves a difference in potential” — that is, between reality and what “he hoped.” Convention generates a gap within which to hope for “something [to] pass,” rendering possible a more livable world. Sentimental art, with its aesthetic compromises, structurally mirrors affective work in the willed production of feelings, and thus, likewise, in its ability to serve as emotional compensation for otherwise untenable circumstances.
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in New Mexico. Photo by Emma Bee Bernstein.
3. Kitsch is a bitch
In Nest, that domestic space is produced in part by affective work has aesthetic consequences, as we have seen. Domestic space has an aesthetic analogue in sentimental art, and the two categories find confirmation in one another. And just as we saw an animal anchoring domestic space in “Permanent Home,” repeatedly, animals also serve as catalysts for affective work in Nest, repeating the title’s allegorical action. The home is a nest, fashioned, as the nineteenth-century naturalist and historian Jules Michelet writes, from contact with the body of the animal: “a bird’s tool is its own body, that is, its breast, with which it presses and tightens its materials until they have become absolutely pliant, well-blended, and adapted to the general plan.” This is indeed work of the heart: as if in homage to a human gesture of affection, the home is constructed via the action of pressing materials to the breast. Interspecies affection is therefore conceptually implicated in the construction of domestic space.
Yet “[t]here is nothing more absurd,” Bachelard concedes, “than images that attribute human qualities to a nest.” Why so? Perhaps, as Tobias Menely suggests, “there is something emblematically sentimental about loving animals.” But the sense of absurdity to which Bachelard points is, I would propose, more than a historical curiosity, and more, too, than the gesture of authoritarian anthropocentrism that Menely later implies it is: for loving animals, too, can be anthropocentric, as Berssenbrugge reveals in a poem of excruciatingly self-aware sentimentalism, “Dressing Up Our Pets.” Dressing up pets is the oppressive, sentimental act of love that registers and yet cannot comprehend the animals’ alterity:
I sew a bright hood for my pet mouse.
I make holes for the eyes, the nose and ears.
I stand it on two legs and it stands on its own, a while.
My friend, the white mouse, is iridescent, not an image that began in my intuition
as ready-found material.
I sew a hood for the rabbit, eye and nose holes, sheathed ears.
Its movement, the difference between a thing and its color, burdens this activity of
dressing our pets.
The mouse is old, but its image is light.
Between its alleged color and its alleged visibility is a lining, like the double of a
mouse, latency, flesh.
The surface of the visibility of a family doubles over its whole extension with
In my flesh what’s visible, by refolding or padding, exhibits their being as the
complement of possibility.
Since possibility is this situation as thought, as a universal. (23)
In this moment, domesticated animals serve as a site of interpenetration of human and animal domains where ethically suspect sentimental conventions flourish. The act of costuming the animals seems at first to honor the animals’ bodies — “holes for the eyes, the nose and ears.” Yet to honor “[m]y friend, the white mouse” is to hood it in a material alien to it, to dress it up as one might dress up a doll, or, troublingly, a child. The act of dressing up pets is either a quasi-maternal or a quasi-childish anthropomorphization. The speaker stands the mouse “on two legs and it stands on its own, a while.” The speaker seems to approve the independence and competency of the mouse “standing on its own.” Yet the coding of standing on two legs, suggesting vigor and autonomy, is a human one, for mice stand on their own as a matter of course — on four legs.
The relation to animals thus invokes a troubling dialectic of empathy and anthropocentrism, an interplay of affective and epistemological impulses with unclear ethical consequences. If the sentimental mode stands in for an ethically suspect literature of feeling and the so-called experimental mode stands in (as I have argued elsewhere) for an ethically upright literature of thinking, Nest, by its invocation of the animal, wrests these two categories into conversation, formally as well as thematically. As I suggested in the first section of this essay, the conflation of home and nest is at once conventional and, in its power to provoke metonymy and allegory, fundamentally poetic. It thus serves as a conceptual crossroads where kitschy genres and forms — the immersive, formulaic narratives and mechanical feeling-generators (“tear-jerkers”) that are typically characterized as sentimental — come into contact with the non-narrative poetic forms that we often — problematically — call “experimental.”
I am arguing, in other words, that Nest is sentimental poetry in the strong sense that it embeds sentimentalism, with all its problems and embarrassments, into its very structure. This accounts for the elusive yet unmistakably embarrassing quality of a number of syntactic moves that transform the lines of Nest into the downy architectural lines of an all-too-domestic nest-like space. These are all forms of going too far, going on too long, or in some way pushing it, insisting on an explanation, clarification, or narrative not subtended by any strong logical connection. These syntactic moves subvert the forward-moving logic of production, exceeding what is appropriate or necessary and contaminating the lines’ logical tightness with the reproductive and affective intrusions of parataxis, association, and mere juxtaposition. Such moves include a preponderance of sentences that conjoin two independent clauses with the paratactic link of “and”; reliance on narrative connectors that are merely temporal (“then”) rather than causal; and the use of adjective clauses, which conscript the assertive subject-verb pairing for the non-narrative, decorative (we might say domestic) aims of description and modification.
For example, in the first of the trio of poems titled “Safety” that close Nest, we read: “Increasingly in our world, forgiveness is asked, granted, withheld, face-to-face or below the surface, like slow combustion, and I need to elucidate the chain of oxidation” (67). The sentence can be granted a certain logical rigor, even as, word by word, the various past participles, and then adjective phrases, accumulate — even when we encounter, in the final adjective phrase, the logical flimsiness of a simile, “like slow combustion.” The sentence can bear no more by the time we arrive at that weak link, “and,” which adds insult to injury with a declaration of need that rests on the least logically rigorous component of the foregoing clause, the simile between forgiveness and combustion. The simile is itself incongruous and faintly inappropriate, for while a metaphor imposes a likeness (“forgiveness is a slow combustion”), a simile relies on a pre-existing likeness. Here, no indication of any real similarity between forgiveness and combustion supports the “like”; ironically, “like” therefore only attenuates the connection. But it is the paratactic tacking on of the second clause — “I need to elucidate the chain of oxidation” — that goes too far, by insisting further on the simile while continuing rather ostentatiously to withhold any logical grounding for it. The sentence ends by making a “chain of oxidation” into the site of “I need,” physicalizing and spatializing an emotional state through the kind of empty simile that is sentimentalism’s hallmark.
In this, then, the syntax of Nest delimits a poetic space whose boundaries are in question — poetry threatening to dissolve into sentimentality, poetic form already complicit in the making of sentimentality, not through its “transparency” (as in nineteenth-century sentimental poetry) but precisely insofar as “abstraction” resolves into convention. In doing so this syntax models as well as invokes the myriad pains of the domestic space, its tendency not merely to be read as the product of sentimentalism but in fact to be unavoidably constituted by it, insofar as the abstraction of the dwelling space is always pre-naturalized, pre-gendered, and cast out of the realm of production. To describe the home is to need to seek refuge in abstraction, an impulse we see over and over again in these poems: “the boy” and “an animal” in “Permanent Home” (the animal surely a dog, but called “an animal” nonetheless) (11); “the child” in “Dressing Up Our Pets” (27); the repeated turns to a phenomenological language of perception. We see it, too, in the insistence on abstract relations that seem designed to be substitutable into any story: “He relates wanting to catch the mouse with the room, ground” (12); “There’s a relation between them in which she’s involved” (17); “Each line connects” (27); “By connecting images, not meaning, she transforms her boredom into pure time” (36); and so on. Connection and relation are themselves abstracted and are, in their loss of specificity, rendered as floppy and “downy” as the poetry’s syntax. The sentimental convention is a story, as Berlant puts it, “about the bargain ‘a woman’ makes with femininity, which is to measure out a life in the capital of intimacy, opening herself to a risky series of sexual and emotional transactions that intensify her vulnerability on behalf of securing value, a world and ‘a life’ that are financially, spatially, and environmentally stable and predictable enough.” The ever-contingent boundaries of the nest are shored up by convention, by the abstraction that is “not only a mere placeholder for what could be richer in an underdeveloped social imaginary, but...a profound placeholder”; in other words, the naturalized affective labor that subtends the home, when rendered as sentimental convention, can serve as a near-adequate substitute for the “universal” quality to which Berssenbrugge repeatedly alludes.
It is no accident, I would therefore argue, that the tragicomedy of convention in “Erring” must center on the family pet — the animal — and on what the brother “relate[s]” to it. Sentimentalism is an aesthetic crime and an ethical one: a theft of unearned feeling necessarily committed over and over in order to make ends meet, a domain fictively placed outside the realm of production because the economy of feeling has already failed. The dog, a “domesticated” animal, already belongs inside the domestic space; when its simulacrum, the flower sculpture, intrudes as well, we are shown that the domestic space is already populated not only by a human and animal kin group but also by a commodity system that profits by re-rendering the domestic unit’s reality as convention: “blurring with flowers gives some universality.” Berssenbrugge chooses to name the generic quality of the floral dog by the great artistic desideratum, “universality,” slyly travestied here as mere evidence that the sculpture is after all only a flower arrangement ordered over the phone. Here and elsewhere, we see that “universality” has an unsettling tendency to resolve into the abstractions of commodity and of convention. Fluffy abstracted is Fluffy commodified, and Fluffy commodified is a comfort to the disappointed brother. The faintly aggressive assertion of the real dog in the poem, a live, individual dog capable of biting the brother’s cuff, serves as a reminder of what is being abstracted, and for whose benefit.
The awkward dog episode in “Erring” brings into relief the affective dimension of the spatial problem already posed by Bachelard’s meditation on the nest, the target of Lefebvre’s vigorous critique. “Erring” more broadly meditates on tensions within a family “so wrong in how they’re laid out, no ethos of being together” (33), a complaint that registers affective inadequacies in spatial terms, as if affections could be repaired by improving the way the family is “laid out.” As in “Permanent Home,” the domestic space is inevitably self-distant, even from the vantage point of the living room. The language of distance does double duty as an affective metaphor, mediated by the presence of a camera eye in the poem, which the speaker’s emotionally distant (so to speak) daughter wields. The camera repeatedly appears to record the home with the impersonality of abstraction, reinterpreting domestic space as sheer composition and distance — thus the moment at which the floral dog is delivered is less a snippet of reality than “an unstable image,” a kind of defective photograph that cannot persist through time. When the daughter returns on the scene, the abstraction of space produced by her camera repeats the abstraction of affection embodied in the kitschy flower-dog:
Space between her image and my perception allows her to store other images, by
subtracting what relates to me.
This alteration produces blurring, camera shake.
Door, windows are remembered, blurred. (35)
Blurring, the same faculty that lends the flower-dog “universality,” now characterizes the perception of space itself. The domestic space is in this sense always doubly abstracted, spatially and affectively, into convention.
A loss of specificity then becomes the ameliorating theft that compensates for the originary theft that underwrites sentimentalism: the removal of the home from historical space with its concomitant assimilation of female and affective labor to (appropriable) nature. As soon as we move into the space of the home considered as such, the abstraction of universality resolves into floppy syntax and “blurred” perception, and becomes indistinguishable from the abstraction of sentimental convention. What is work is not work; what would be paid for elsewhere is too priceless to be paid for; what is done with difficulty is natural; what is (domestic) space is not space; thought is feeling; art is kitsch. We pardon these gendered slippages for sentimental reasons, and they are the slippages that constitute sentimental reason, that necessitate sentimental style. These thefts create the deficits that put one in need of a little unearned feeling. Thus in “Dressing Up Our Pets” the sentimental, cute, empathetic/aggressive act of costuming a rodent is freighted with philosophical (abstract) questions about how to perceive the animal: “Its movement, the difference between a thing and its color burdens this activity of dressing our pets” (23). The convention of wearing clothes, and the domestic convention of dressing a being for which one cares, emerges as a moment of deeply inappropriate abstraction. Convention’s abstraction here amounts to a refusal of the pet’s specificity and difference. But how, then, are we to distinguish between the abstraction in this convention and the kind of abstraction that renders dressing a pet a phenomenological problem? It is not so much that Berssenbrugge “raises” sentimentalism to the stature of phenomenology as that phenomenology “burdens” it, intervening in the very physical practicalities of dressing a mouse. It squirms: but in what does squirming consist? Nothing about that question allows us to answer the more pressing one: why are you dressing a mouse? Berssenbrugge thus explicitly flags the way in which a dense passage suffused with the phenomenological terminology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (visible/invisible, extension, flesh) renders “this situation” — the exceedingly sentimental, rather improbable situation of sewing a costume for a pet rodent and making said squirming rodent wear it — “as thought, as a universal” (23),
From the perspective of a longer literary history, then, Nest raises all the ghosts of gender wars past, and especially the tensions within late twentieth-century self-identified “experimental” poetry. In 1983 Kathleen Fraser founded HOW(ever), a journal of feminist poetics, in response to what she and many others diagnosed as a gendered split between an anticapitalist, critique-oriented “language-centered” writing and a commodified “mainstream” poetics. Significantly, these concerns arose in parallel with a feminist poetics of subjectivity founded on the confessional tradition. As Linda Kinnahan puts it, “the framing term feminist poetry has not historically admitted avant-garde/experimental/innovative approaches, while the framing term Language writing [implicitly, also, “experimental”] has generated a history built up around men.” The writing that was, in Kinnahan’s word, “innovative” (might we say “productive”?), was rendered masculine, while regressive, stylistically “conventional,” commodified or at least commodifiable writing — in a word, sentimental writing — was by the same stroke feminized and identified as the site of feminism. Since that time, the division between “experimental” and “feminine” writing has been deconstructed in numerous essays, manifestoes, monographs, and anthologies, in part on the basis of the work of Fraser and many other women writers who have identified strongly with terms like “innovative” and “experimental”; moreover, even the “experimental”/“mainstream” split on which it is founded has been repeatedly refuted, notably by an anthology brought out by the ultimate anthologizer, W. W. Norton. In the literary-critical age of the “post-,” the problem of domestic space has been declared obsolete, along with the other gendered binaries that have structured intellectual life. Yet placing Nest in 2003, when, in Lynn Keller’s words, “we are now a generation past Fraser’s launching of HOW(ever) […] with the Language writers now a senior generation among experimentalists,” we see how easily that chord again sounds within, how swiftly the dwelling is naturalized, and with what difficulty the sentimental may be excluded from the feminine as a category. In 2003, Berssenbrugge could not have quite anticipated the literalism with which your making a “friend” would make Facebook, Inc. profits; yet Nest’s sentimentalism reveals infinite relays of the unearned that underwrite the diffusion of unpaid emotion work and the visualization of affective ties. It still seems “unnatural” to be paid for feeling, even as profiting on the feelings of others is the status quo. The embarrassments of Nest mark that basic contradiction, the gap between what is and what is longed for that sentimentalism both compensates for and creates. If we are “post-” all those gender wars, it is only because that gap now characterizes production of all kinds, conferring on all space the evanescent and sentimental character of the nest that can never quite be a permanent home.
I wish to thank Dan Blanton, Julia Bloch, Eric Falci, Hillary Gravendyk, and Patrick Pritchett for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. This essay was written with support from a Roberta C. Holloway Postdoctoral Fellowship in Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, Berkeley.
8. Cathy N. Davidson, “Preface: No More Separate Spheres!,” in “No More Separate Spheres!,” ed. Davidson, special issue, American Literature 70, no. 3 (1998): 443–44. Davidson points specifically to “Politics and Culture in Women’s History: A Symposium,” Feminist Studies 6 (Spring 1980): 26–64, and “Beyond Roles, Beyond Spheres: Thinking about Gender in the Early Republic,” The William and Mary Quarterly 46 (July 1989): 565–85. Davidson’s own special issue of American Literature (1998) makes the third such intervention in the series.
12. Charles Altieri, “Intimacy and Experiment in Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s Empathy,” in We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics, ed. Laura Hinton and Cynthia Hogue (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 56.
15. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri distinguish sharply between affect and emotion, writing that “[u]nlike emotions, which are mental phenomena, affects refer equally to body and mind. In fact, affects, such as joy and sadness, reveal the present state of life in the entire organism, expressing a certain state of the body along with a certain mode of thinking […]. One can recognize affective labor, for example, in the work of legal assistants, flight attendants, and fast food workers (service with a smile).” From their description, it is clear that what they term “affective” is identical to the “emotional” phenomena Hoschschild observes in her flight attendants. Except when explicitly discussing Hochschild’s work, I will use Hardt and Negri’s terminology. Hardt and Negri, Multitude (New York: Penguin, 2005), 108.
16. Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 164–65. On emotional and affective work, see also (for example) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Hardt and Negri, Multitude; Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); and Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
20. Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, January–March 1879, in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), 768. Part of this famous letter has been published elsewhere under the title “De Profundis.”
21. Ironically, the sentimental, like emotion work, is “cheap” precisely because it isn’t free. For the price of a movie ticket you can be made to cry; an airfare will buy you unlimited human smiles. As soon as these things are paid for, they lose the status of nature.
25. Antonella Corsani, “Beyond the Myth of Woman: The Becoming Trans-Feminist of (Post-) Marxism,” trans. Timothy S. Murphy, SubStance 36, no. 1 (#112, 2007), 124–26. See also the special section “Devenir-Femme du Travail” in Multitudes 12 (Spring 2003), 125–77.
26. On the concept of “intimate publics,” see Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 5–13. Chapter 2 of The Female Complaint first appeared in No More Separate Spheres!, cited above.
29. Bachelard here echoes Gertrude Stein, specifically in the guise of one speaking for another’s soul: “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them.” See Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in Writings 1903–1932, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Chessman (New York: Library of America, 1998), 661.
38. On the history of HOW(ever), see Lynn Keller, Thinking Poetry: Reading in Contemporary Women’s Exploratory Poetics (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010), 3–4; Linda A. Kinnahan, Lyric Interventions: Feminism, Experimental Poetry, and Contemporary Discourse (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004), 1–40; and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 1–19.
40. That the assertion of a female “I” was not admitted as a kind of “innovation” speaks to the very peculiar ways in which the word “innovation” continues to be used concerning and in the vicinity of poetry.
42. See also Jed Rasula, Syncopations: The Stress of Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), especially chapter 1, “Women, Innovation, and ‘Improbable Evidence.’”