The light of happenstance
A review of Colleen Lookingbill's 'a forgetting of'
In the first of five poems that share the book’s title, Colleen Lookingbill’s “a forgetting of” introduces the book’s alertness to the body as place and planet. Both domestic and cosmic, intimate as impulse and DNA but open as a portico, identity forms according to the unpredictable terms of mortality:
our spiral lineaments
impulse here a portico
she who opens
safekeeping or because traces unfold (7)
Each of us is a “radiant once” whose illuminations burn against the clock, our brightness fed by the concentration and release of experience, knowledge, biology, and memory. This spare lyric suggests we tend to realize our radiance after its passing, the way a star becomes visible on earth years after its light dims.
The poem further implies, however, that to see ourselves as “radiant once” is less the consequence of nostalgia for youth than the reward of maturity and its keen vision. Here and in many ways, Lookingbill limns the celestial and the terrestrial to twist and expand Wordsworth’s proposal in “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” which states famously “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” Lookingbill’s poetics sees more than just hints of immortality, but its primary concern is with the sublunary world of everyday things and actions — what we have to forget, all that slips our minds. “water bearer” begins with a witty invocation of the universal ordinary, the bland blindsidings of housework and family:
river of rhythms
more food and stories
wood against wood
bundled between us
all at once
everyone is up
ordinary domestic appliance
like a bell or
fresh coat of paint (11)
The expansion and contraction of attention under the pressure of daily expectations, like keeping house or leaving the house to interact with other people and scenes in the course of our errands, leads to creative immanence, a relatively peaceful way of living “clear enough / to go on looking” that will “save us from / a real fight” (11). Choosing our domestic battles — as well as picking fights — protects against real damage, irreversible conflicts — and prevents flight from our precious annoyances, the household noise that distracts from writing, which, like food and stories, is as necessary as water.
The book’s creation testifies to the mixture of drive and rerouting, purpose and accident the lyrics articulate so beautifully and varyingly. In an interview with Kate Greenstreet, Lookingbill explains she tried to publish the manuscript that later became “a forgetting of” in the 1990s, not long after she published her first book. Many years later, she brought the poems out again and into a writing group. There, she got the idea to include visual art, which created new contexts for the poetry and inspired further revisions. The production of the color illustrations nicely parallels some of the book’s meditations on time. Lookingbill explains the pictures combine “scanned assemblages” of photographs and layers of “visual ephemera that [she’s] collected” in a process she describes as “relatively low tech,” made with “the image program that came with [her] printer.” What strikes me about this sweetly apologetic description is the ways in which technology and circumstances contribute to art. Until very recently, color art has been prohibitively expensive to print for most poetry presses, and in the nineties, many of us were still marveling at the speed of our inkjet printers — a color printer capable of producing layered collage work was beyond imagination.
Yet the poetry seems unimaginable without them — they are not merely add-ons or supplements to the stripped verse. The collages keep in view what the printed page conceals: the palimpsestic nature of words and of identity. These interacting mediums further changed the poet’s view of a long prose poem that had been part of the original collection so that she welcomed a friend’s suggestion to break up the poem, which appears in urgent italics, interleaved among art and lyrics. Together, these mediums, each carrying multiple contacts with genre, consider the body’s experiences and the ways in which those experiences create and elude consciousness, periodically shuffling to make a self of consciousness.
These works recognize the body as a changing but specific biological materiality that matures and ages in patterns very different from the linear rise and fall accompanying evolution and history, like those chronologies we’re given in textbooks to help us imagine the progression of literature or the important years in an author’s life. In “near the coast looking out,” who we are and how we become resemble “handfuls of spindrift / unwilling in every direction,” part of a process “too rapid for intervention” (10). This process includes the random quality of attraction, impulse, and memory. Throughout, the poems track the attendant consciousness of one’s body as it recognizes and responds to the condition of living as a visible object in a land of scopophiliacs, a body marked by sensory and linguistic contacts, the looks and remarks offered about one’s appearance and its meaning.
In “glimpsing venus,” Lookingbill remarks with good-natured wit on the always-already over-read occupation of gender — of being a woman writing in a time of writing the body: “writing female subjectivity introduces a shift in the allegorical as / our body approaches void and tension” (14). Here, Lookingbill laughs at the critical discourses that read women’s writing as only either a subversion or a reiteration of traditional representations of “female subjectivity” we glimpse in the mythical (and planetary) Venus. These interpretive frames encase the body in theoretical, cerebral territory — “subjectivity” is a far less vulnerable state than being a person, especially an American woman. Such forms of intellectual armor may only jostle the gender scripts of western civilization, but they can also provide real sanctuary for the woman writing — or, really, any woman wedged into the impossibly tiny space for social approval allotted mature women, who must find ways to wrinkle “without / seeming eccentric or deficient” (15).
In “she is laughing,” the sense of meta-selfhood pronounced in critical theory gives the speaker command of her own narratives:
our heroine crowded among cupboards
and an old paint box, waiting house of poetry
better to say we are alive, completely invented
while etymology wanders among
more suitable artifacts (35)
These moments don’t dismiss feminist hermeneutics or literature, only note what they’re up against: “sparks of opulence amid extreme scarcity” (14), a scarcity often disguised as the abundant fulfillment of romantic love. At the heart of romantic ideals lies the pleasure (and fear) of looking at a beautiful person and being seen as beautiful. The literal and figurative ways we are seen keep us all caught in the web that caught Venus and Mars — the net of Hephaestus — as well as the web holding the romantic and intellectual promises of the internet, those often championed for offering a disembodied (and therefore safer and more neutral) identity.
What makes the book tick, though, is that it doesn’t settle on one theory of beauty or selfhood or the body or mortality. The assemblage of forms, voices, and images allows a panoramic consideration of identity, of selfhood as something we inhabit and abandon and to which we return through different doors at different times and in different ways. Theoretical consistency is no more a priority than style or genre, although the book holds together well. I would never have guessed the circumstances and long history of its making. The line “impulse here a portico” from the first “a forgetting of” sets in motion the book’s multiple lines of consideration — the many wrinkles in concepts of self and experiences of life. “Impulse,” impudently,” and “impulsively” show up throughout the book’s first half to circle questions of free will and self-making. Dostoevsky’s underground man contends that whim or impulse provides the only real evidence of a self independent of biological, environmental, and even economic imperatives to survive and triumph. Our ability to sabotage ourselves on impulse, for Dostoevsky’s sad fellow, is our greatest asset. Impulse seems equally important in “a forgetting of,” but not because it can defy the self that’s programmed to survive at all costs.
For Lookingbill, impulse echoes divine consciousness that is an escape from self-consciousness, a forgetting of self. It is pure intention without object, energy overriding aim. Impulse is “she who opens” into possibility, a doorway into immortality: “I have a feeling I am responsible / happenstance is all light anyway” states “she is laughing” (35). Impulse disrupts and delights, opens and connects — it is the residue of creation and the substance of friendship, too. Friends, like poems, are the porticos in which we live and through which we enter ourselves. “where you find me,” one of my favorite poems in the collection, recounts friends’ contradicting opinions that body forth their personalities in mere phrases. The poem concludes, addressing them and the reader, “relax half of me in last year’s calendar / tethered to an offering meant only for you” (46). Readers of “a forgetting of” will feel, as I have felt, this sense of private connection, of having received a personal gift, the lingering light of happenstance.