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Alterity, Misogyny & the Agonistic Feminine

Hieronymus Bosch, 'Garden of Earthly Delights' (detail).
Above: Hieronymus Bosch, 'Garden of Earthly Delights' (detail), via Wikimedia Commons.

This essay is conjectural and conversational. Conversational with other texts, other minds; but also among the importantly divergent logics of poetry and discourse, discourse and exploratory essay. Decades ago, skeptical about the force of a strictly woman-centered feminist theory whose reactive stance seemed to corroborate the secondary status of the feminine in the age-old M/F binary, I was struck by the realization of a gender and genre transgressive experimental feminine rooted in embodied female experience but integral to all struggles with the cultural coercions of an ubermasculine hegemony.

 

Antigone: I stand convicted of impiety,
the evidence, my pious duty done …
Chorus: The same tempest of mind
as ever, controls the girl.[1]

Despite the fact that gender identities are in increasingly complex conversation with biology and cultural construction the reductive force of patriarchy, with its sidekick misogyny, remains the catastrophic constant. — S. M. Quant[2]

The art of lyrical commentary

Michael Heller's poetic achievement

“Effacement is the action of shifting desert sands. Time rubs away memory, leaving only its remnants, its shadows. The poem comments on literature even as it makes it.” Above: Photo of a dust storm by NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.

Commentary: Notes, memoranda, memoirs, annotations, derivations, slips (of paper, of tongue), and, in the etymological sense of commenta, interpretation of scripture. Michael Heller’s work is replete with commentary, an ongoing lateral additive to the world around him, lyric in intensity, vibrant with life, literary and religious in its concerns.

1. Ozymandias, a commentary

Heller's 'Dianoia'

A briefing

“The sequence shows glimpses of the scoured alpine landscape outside the hotel’s windows: “the distant plume / of a snowslide / on glacial slopes,” but the would-be Tibetan mountainscapes are only backdrop to the poet’s back-and-forth on ego and emptiness.” Above: Photo of the Canadian Rockies by David Whelan, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sam Johnson’s line on the Metaphysicals — that in their work “heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”[1] — is one example among many in Anglo-American letters of how a term of reproach, given some time, becomes a term of praise. Since Eliot in 1921 pardoned the Metaphysicals for all that violent yoking, applauded them for their immunity to the dissociated sensibility of his contemporaries, readers of poetry in English have been taught to admire poets who “ransack,” as Johnson said, art and nature for conceits that are misaligned or unevenly yoked.

Sam Johnson’s line on the Metaphysicals — that in their work “heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”[1] — is one example among many in Anglo-American letters of how a term of reproach, given some time, becomes a term of praise. Since Eliot in 1921 pardoned the Metaphysicals for all that violent yoking, applauded them for their immunity to the dissociated sensibility of his contemporaries, readers of poetry in English have been taught to admire poets who “ransack,” as Johnson said, art and nature for conceits that are misaligned or unevenly yoked.

Blurring realms

Michael Heller's New World

Above: Map of the world by Heinrich Bünting, 1581, woodcut, via Wikimedia Commons.

Heller gravitates toward the patina of age and tradition — to the map of the cover, to the Tang dynasty, to ascetic regions of ocean and heron, and to resonant, gorgeous symbols. 

There is a 1581 map, a woodcut by Heinrich Bünting, in which the world takes the form of a three-leaf clover. A minute drawing of Jerusalem is at the center; three almond-shaped continents extend outward. Bünting’s perfect trefoil of a world is explicit in Michael Heller’s most recent book.

from 'The Premises of Poetry'

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s handwriting, inscribed in a first-edition copy of ‘Éloge de la philosophie.’ Image courtesy of Librairie le Feu Follet.

Editorial note: The excerpts below are from Michael Heller’s decades-long endeavor, “The Premises of Poetry.” They are drawn from Heller’s notes and entries from the 1980s through 2018. Heller describes the work as follows: “‘The Premises of Poetry,’ an ongoing project of prose and citation going back nearly fifty years, is derived from my notebooks and informal observations on readings in poetry, philosophy, history, and current affairs.

Editorial note: The excerpts below are from Michael Heller’s decades-long endeavor, “The Premises of Poetry.” They are drawn from Heller’s notes and entries from the 1980s through 2018. Heller describes the work as follows: “‘The Premises of Poetry,’ an ongoing project of prose and citation going back nearly fifty years, is derived from my notebooks and informal observations on readings in poetry, philosophy, history, and current affairs.