Will wonders never cease?
Laynie Browne's 'You Envelop Me'
I wanted to share both the narrowing and broadening of perception. I wanted to enter the space where all separations are illusory. — Laynie Browne, interview with Rusty Morrison
There is a risk, when reading a book of poems, that the lens of the interpreter will skew in some way the meaning of its object. To this reader, among the many motifs of You Envelop Me, language is implicated as an essential variable among the subtle and dazzling images deployed throughout the work. At once figure and ground, the parts of speech, their corollaries in writing, and their metonymic associates in the parts of a material book get taken up in the very fabric of an already textured selection of poems. When poetry contains metalanguage, it opens a somewhat dizzying domain for the critic, and Browne’s tendency toward polysemic structures — choreographed through enjambment, em dashes, and dependent clauses — generates problems above grammar and rhetoric that cannot be put to rest by the critic in isolation. These are the activity of the work, their immense generative power, that structure and define a space of play in which these possibilities of beauty — call them wonders if you will — remain open without end. What outwardly reads as a lamentation doubles as a love song to language, an homage to its inner absence as much as one addressed to those who are absent.
Indeed, the opening pages are “Owl Pages,” to start, not simply “Owls”; here, “pages” opens a chain of metonymic associations that links the bird to language. The page is the material ground and substrate that mediates between spoken verse, its written form, and the images that it represents in the domain of semblance. Pages are quickly linked back to “plumage” in the prozeugma that comprises the opening lines: “Say goodnight to a page, petting morning / Fetching listen — to plumage.”
Here the reader might see “petting morning / fetching listen” as an aside, an injunction squeezed into the larger prozeugma that asks her to “say goodnight” to both “a page” and “to plumage.” Or, “to plumage” can be the grammatical object of listening — a possibility reinforced and threatened by the ambiguous em dash. This alternate reading remains consistent with the injunctive mode of the opening verb, “say,” as well as to that of “listen” — and already we are in the midst of a reference to the earliest of English literary forebears, the Beowulfian “Hwæt!” often translated (to some, erroneously) as “Listen! —”
Whether “to plumage” is the object of either saying or listening, the use of the injunctive suggests that the reader is the addressee, unless the words are ventriloquized in an apostrophic address to an absent listener, not signaled to exist by the text nor by quotation marks to designate the presence of a voice that speaks. So, provided that the reader is in fact the text’s addressee, “petting morning” signifies firstly as a gerund, descriptive of an activity, coupled with a direct object, so the reader paradoxically “[says] goodnight to a page” while “petting” the morning.
Yet the work of the opening clause is not done; “Fetching listen” remains to be accounted for. It can be another gerund coupled with an imperative verb, as in, while fetching, listen, or an adjective, British in style, coupled with a nominative object, as in, that’s quite a fetching listen. Such a possibility reverts us to the previous gerund, where we see that in a certain sense, petting morning could operate in the same way, and in such a case, unlikely though it may have been at first, morning becomes the apostrophic addressee to whom the injunctive verb is posed: “Say goodnight to a page, [Mr.] petting morning, [and while] fetching, listen — to plumage”!
If we grant that the text does not address a morning that is “petting” in nature, then the reader is interpolated through the injunctive verb “say,” with the added possibility of “listen” as a command. So the activity of reading, marked from the volume’s very opening, has been metaphorized as both a kind of listening and a kind of speaking, and writing has already been ventriloquized as speech through the substitution of “listening [to a page]” for reading, and reading has already been substituted for speaking in the injunction “say.”
From the outset, then, reading, speaking, and listening are refracted through the prism of the figural owl. Through that mechanism, the book takes itself as its apostrophic object and fashions itself as its own addressee. The third poem of the “Owl Pages,” where the movement of the owl’s head fades into its part of speech, plays on the participle “wrung,” as movement and as the effect of speech, as when it “rings,” (e.g., “her cries rang out over the yard.”)
If you walk around an owl in a tree — copper tree
it would turn and turn its head — how is it possible
for her to twist — to watch you until it wrung
Past and past participle of ring
It rung — a horizontal support for a foot
Whose own — a sign of — her copper — book (15)
When we move from “Owl Pages” to the eponymous “You Envelop Me,” the owl remains a prevalent motif, and the text continues to make explicit its association of the owl with the parts of a published work. Yet the formal conceit of these poems, too, implicates language in its mode of address. Taking lines from Nachman’s ten healing psalms as epigraphs, the nine poems of “You Envelop Me” mourn their subject in the elegiac mode, seeking healing from the activity of reading their biblical forebear. The text is dedicated to Patricia Browne, 1942–2011, the author’s stepmother, whom she acknowledges in her interview with Rusty Morrison of Omnidawn. That their names yield from the numbered psalms gestures toward incompleteness — in their titles, in their form, in the decision to write into nine of the total ten — in an homage to absence. When the poems literally write into the earlier text, they lend a new resonance to the enveloping of the title — the apostrophic “you” doubly signifies the lines of psalms as much as the subject mourned in this elegy. Within the elegy, then, writing itself is also commemorated: you (language) and you (subject) envelop me.
These carefully orchestrated rhetorical tensions escalate in “Mendicant: Dear She,” where abrupt, staccato line breaks give way to a more measured, prose-poetic style. Here, rhetorical and literal meanings verge on canceling each other out. Browne’s speaker dramatizes the dilemma in a brief prose poem: “The one message which brings me close transposes the salutation so as not to say ‘dear she’ but instead begins: Thank you so much ‘dear she.’ Does that make she more dear or do I imagine this hopefully? As if to make oneself more dear to another were reason enough to lift one’s head” (37). Resonant, nuanced, tragic, and measured, this prose poem takes as its object a tension that accompanies the inclusion of metalanguage in the figurative imagery of the text: in the literal version, the inclusion of “dear” makes “she” more dear, but the rhetorical reading, alluded to by the question, “or do I imagine this hopefully,” suggests a more distant relationship to the addressee. The question posed in this somber tone presents a corollary of the dilemma sketched by Paul de Man in “Semiology and Rhetoric” with reference to the rhetorical question, specifically when Archie Bunker’s wife asks him whether he wants the laces of his bowling shoes tied over or under, and he replies scathingly, “What’s the difference?” Therein, the literal question asks for the concept of difference, whereas the rhetorical one effaces its existence (i.e., “I don’t give a damn what the difference is”). Here, Browne’s speaker asks in one reading whether, literally, she is imagining the possibility of endearment (i.e., “am I imaging this?”), wherein the emphasis would be on the imagining; on the other, she poses the question rhetorically to subtly limn the melancholy of emotional distance, wherein the emphasis would be on hoping (i.e., “am I imagining this hopefully?”).
As the dramatic development of the work mounts, the consideration of language through the formal infrastructure of extended metaphor and metonymic substitution layer in an increasing attention to abstractions of physics and metaphysics, their attendant problems, and their imbrication with mourning. What began as a somber, monochromatic portrait of an owl as symbol and cipher for writing itself — widening with a Hegelian resonance to knowledge obtained in hindsight — takes on a reflection of how minute and granular aspects of experience link with entities on a sublime scale: Time, the planets, their orbit, a drop of rain.
The section “Phoebis and Psaltria” marks this transition most explicitly. The dialogic poems stage a conversation between a butterfly and a bird who follow a mourner. The appearance of metalanguage begins to drop away, taking up the phenomenal world as the items and fodder of experience, accumulating images of ether, yellow, particles, owls, and molecules. Abstraction finds a widening place amidst the panoply of carefully selected images.
Indeed, what Browne achieves in formal terms at the level of enunciation with a telescoping of grammatical and rhetorical meanings is refracted onto an apparent fascination with physics and metaphysics, early modern and modern, which link the sublime to the immanent. From “Continuity of Mind” through the esoteric “Ground” and “Path Luminosity,” to the “Opening of the Door,” culminating in the masterful “Rainbow Body In the Mirror of Death,” abstraction is elegantly balanced by formal precision that recalls the structure of sonnets but without the precise metrical restraint. This coda, “Rainbow,” offers not a definitive conclusion but an opening to the future, at both the level of rhetoric and of metaphysics. It ends with the phrase “Impermanence is a parachute or a paragraphic intent,” looping to the linguistic considerations of the opening, not unlike Joyce’s ending of Ulysses, whose final word, “Yes” (no period) is echoed in its opening word as a palindrome: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead …”
Browne’s final poem, “Illuminated Sleep Beneathe Trees,” reads like an epilogue, where the poetic voice is at its most elevated; studded with images of matter’s immanent dynamism, the text does not resign itself to the static repertoire of elegies, but opens a futurist aesthetic that illuminates possibilities for reconciliation beyond or after mourning. The book’s abstractions, when paired as they are with invention at the level of form, use figures to enact their temporal modes, and these rhetorical features are then reflected back into semblance amid a candelabrum of celestial images. With these metagestures intact, the book trumps conventional expectations of its genre.
2. Browne: “I wrote this book as a daughter mourning her step-mother. As a mother mourning the loss of a grandmother to her children. As a sister mourning with siblings. And as an intimate friend to an amazing woman. My step-mother was a wise confidante, a generous spirit, and a person of enormous strength and radiance. I wrote this book as a person experiencing abandonment and depths of sadness, as one who seeks a conversation with that which is indivisible from life. I wrote this book inside the human question of ephemerality. I listened for voices and sought signs. I found some comfort in the universality of my situation. Mourning can feel extremely isolating. Often it was in quiet, and in silence that this book wrote itself. This book was a collaboration with much I cannot explain. I could say about myself that in this text I am personally standing with everyone who strives to find meaning in impermanence.”
3. In the well-trotted territory of de Man’s essay “Semiology and Rhetoric,” the critic examines the concluding line of Yeats’ poem “Among Schoolchildren”: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” — in terms of its rhetorical and literal readings, which
engage each other in direct confrontation, for the one reading is precisely the error denounced by the other and has to be undone by it. Nor can we in any way make a valid decision as to which of the readings can be given priority over the other; none can exist in the other’s absence … On the other hand, the authority of meaning engendered by the grammatical structure is fully obscured by the duplicity of a figure that cries out for the differentiation it conceals.
Given de Man’s caveat, the reader must then decide whether we are content to call Browne’s meanings simultaneous, or whether the “vertiginous” possibilities of rhetoric undermining grammar demand answers greater than we are equipped to provide. Paul de Man, “Semiology and Rhetoric,” Diacritics 3, no. 3 (Autumn 1973): 30.