On Lawrence Giffin's 'Christian Name'
Lawrence Giffin’s Christian Name is a tricky book because it’s the kind of book that seems to do one thing and then actually does another. On the one hand, it’s a collection of poems explicitly about a topic: the “feral-child” Genie, who was kept in isolation by her family until age thirteen and then submitted to years of experiments and study and exploitation by researchers looking for clues to language development. The poems reference Genie, name her, address her, describe her situation, and occasionally seem to speak from her point of view, though without making it clear what that entails — it’s not that Christian Name ventriloquizes Genie, not quite, but it may be the case that the poems’ contorted grammar and relatively persistent disjunction thematize the impossibility of trying to ventriloquize her, or anyone.
It’s easy enough to read many passages as illustrations of this problem, and to read the book as a commentary on the difficulty of speaking from a stable position. It’s so easy to read the book in this way, in fact, that it seems like a lure. Something more complicated must be going on. Take the opening stanza from the opening poem, “In Other Words in a Thought in Which a Consciousness of Foundering Survives”:
was at my feet.
I too knew
I knew the word that
named the process
going on inside my head,
was restrained The Sea
herself to point.
Consciousness, process, naming, pointing. You probably get an idea of where this could go: the sea, this big, old, immense, and seemingly empty existential thing (like a void of thought), stands in, speculatively and metaphorically, for the phenomenological experience of a world without symbols. The short disjunct lines and occasional interruptive spacing provide a formal analog to the difficulty of speaking what hasn’t yet been said. Which would all be pretty par for the contemporary poetry course and overly familiar if it wasn’t tied to such specific subject matter. The fact that the book revolves around Genie grounds it in social reality: it’s not just a rehearsal of philosophical questions of language and world; it’s an engagement with a particular world, in which, for example, a child who has been tortured all her life is treated as a science experiment. From there, we’re one step away from an allegorical reading, in which the extended childhood isolation and exploitative collection of data stands in for, say, the processes of the nuclear family and state education. However, this allegory doesn’t quite work, because the particularity and horror of Genie’s story resists being subsumed by a more general narrative.
By both producing readings of itself and pulling the rug out from under them, the book deftly avoids being everything that it is: it avoids being a stylistic exercise in post-Language writing by eschewing a focus on medium-specificity and instead commenting on explicitly articulated subject matter; it avoids being a commentary on its explicitly articulated subject matter by tying that subject to broader philosophical questions; and it avoids being an aestheticized philosophical meditation by aligning its philosophical questions with the questions that were asked by the people who experimented on Genie, suggesting that the forms of such questions are themselves exploitative. In this way, it simultaneously undermines itself and appears to be a coherent aesthetic statement. As I said, it’s a tricky book.
But it’s even more interesting than that. In fact, maybe you don’t think all that’s all that interesting. Maybe you think that’s just some intellectually banal postmodern bullshit. OK, that’s understandable. Maybe it is. But the book, and the poems in the book, are more interesting than what I’ve written about them.
In fact, the poems pretty frequently veer off into areas of concern that are not easily connected to Genie’s story, like depression, religious faith, and the rhetoric of cults. It’s not that you can’t tie these things back to Genie (which, of course, you can), but that many poems seem aimed at intentionally incongruous topics, such that it becomes a challenging interpretive game, which I’m not going to play, and I assume most readers will not play, to fit them all together. What’s more, the poems often become so caught up in their tortured syntax and layered discursive registers that it becomes difficult or impossible to say exactly what they are “about.” Here’s a stanza from “A Childish Passion for Balls”:
Your thoughts turned to low clouds.
They are meat agape. And sprechen veritas.
They are wheelchair effervescence in
hands across my America
that have a little tea service.
And here are the opening lines from one of the longest and most complex poems in the book, “We Laid It Down. We Got Tired.”:
Not more or less deprived
of ground regardlessly given
by a syphilitic’s tube of concealer,
I still have my likes, my dislikes,
caryatids of fecal columns
grown thin and winded
with righteous authority,
that is, by my need for speech.
You could tediously close-read these lines and perhaps make something of them. We’re all adept at pulling out words and phrases and treating them like keys to the poem. But I think that it would be more fruitful to read Christian Name more broadly, in terms of its genre: the lyric. Before doing so, I would like to say a few words about the lyric as a genre, and not as another name for poetry. The lyric is a malleable set of techniques, stylistic devices, and ideas that can be used to create certain literary effects. That is all. It has no privileged relationship to the body, no privileged relationship to the “self,” and no privileged relationship to poetry as such. Historically, it is occasionally seen as the dominant mode of poetry, or the most poetic of poetic genres. This is the case today, and has been the case more or less since Romanticism. But equating the lyric with poetry as such naturalizes it and elevates a few of its specific literary effects to the level of ontological description: as if the difference between self and other could be best rendered by a certain kind of line. The lyric is a genre among other genres, as poetry is an art among other arts.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant or extinct: even if this naturalization is a historically specific lie, it is nonetheless an operative lie. It governs how we read and understand poems, and it governs their production. Because we expect it to, the lyric poem today inherently demands an interpretation dealing with the individual, the individual’s body, the individual’s divided consciousness, and a social divided by individuals. And because Genie’s case is an extreme example of these divisions, it exaggerates the effect of the lyric. For Christian Name, this is a way to totalize the book: because the lyric is a device that thematizes the disjunction between body and language, every time a new topic is introduced, the genre of the lyric ties it to the major concerns of the book. A poem employing the language of cults? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. A poem about parents’ coping with the death of a child? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. A poem that doesn’t seem to quite be about anything? The lyric ties it to the division between self and other. And so on.
This is not to say that all lyric poems successfully thematize this division. Rather, because Christian Name repetitively insists on this point in form and content, it becomes more than an abstracted philosophical musing: the book points to how this same division functions concretely in various situations and social orders (in parent-child relationships, religious formations, education, etc.). Giffin’s choice of a disjunctive lyric mode, then, is not merely a capitulation to the consensus style of postmodern poetry, but a formal way of tying together the diverse threads of the book’s content. By writing poems which explicitly concern a series of divisions (between body and language, parent and child, earthly and divine, individual and collective, etc.) in a genre often interpreted as marking such divisions, Giffin is able to include an array of seemingly unrelated discourses and allusions (literary, philosophical, and political) without abandoning the initial premise. The poems are thus able to concern themselves with problems of dividedness and fracture but nonetheless hold together as a coherent book that can be interpreted as a whole.
This is more of a feat than it seems: the problem with a lot of contemporary poetry is that it uses the lyric as a means of dispersal and not as a means of establishing a structure of relations — often, the only thing the form of the fragment signifies is its being a fragment. But today, the best poets working with the lyric treat it as a set of techniques and ways of reading, as opposed to the natural heir of all things poetic. And so it can be used as a form for figuring, modeling, or negating the world, instead of as an end in itself.
Giffin is one of the most formally ambitious and conceptually odd poets writing in this vein, and in the end Christian Name is not such a tricky book. It’s really good. It’s about things. Things like child development, abuse, neglect, language, religion, education, and grief. All sorts of things, but things that are tied together by the book’s formal and generic choices, so that they seem like interdependent topics and not just a scattershot collage of discourse. Even what I earlier referred to as the book’s persistent avoiding of itself, undermining of itself, is part of the way the book totalizes itself: it doesn’t undermine itself to avoid consistency, but to relate each of its concerns to another concern, to bring consistency to bear on a seemingly disparate array of content. Christian Name is such a terrific book because it subsumes familiar forms of disjunction into a larger formal and thematic project. So if you like a whole bunch of disconnected fragments, don’t worry, you’ll get them. And if you like something that actually has a point and engages with the world, you’ll get that too, which will be even better.