Letter 1. Hello World, Hello Kitty.
In this first letter, I write about Nuar Alsadir’s poem ‘Quantum Displacement’, published by Granta Magazine and available to read here: https://granta.com/quantum-displacement/
The lacuna is the extra-long space between words that appears throughout 'Quantum Displacement'. Much greater use is made of the lacuna than the line break in this poem, where enjambment is the norm rather than the exception; the poet’s privilege of line breaks is used to make a slim block of prose which is then re-broken down into sub-sentences, often self-interrupting or complexly parenthetical. Lacunae in poetry always take me to the work of Hoa Nguyen; I think of it as her visual trademark, as she uses it throughout her writings with a similar effect of setting expected line breaks against a different kind of unit of meaning within and across lines. However, almost all of Nguyen’s poems are far shorter than ‘Quantum Displacement’, and might be expected to total five lacunae instead of a hundred and twenty. Nguyen builds up the habit over a whole body of work (which I hope to talk about in another letter soon), and this establishes a pattern of how we should read these lacunae, but in ‘Quantum Displacement’ we have to learn as we go, seeing them stand in for undefined punctuation marks, separate items in an endless list, or indicate new interjections into the conversation. This is further indicated by italics for quotations, but these are always bracketed by lacunae. Alongside this is the use of "^", the caret, which functions as a kind of super-lacuna: it appears much more sparingly, and can be at any point in a line, and it appears to delineate sections, or perhaps puncture them, creating a relation of simultaneity, like the scientist’s pen. The caret originates as a proofreading symbol, indicating a necessary addition, and its name is Latin: it lacks. (Only having heard the word spoken, for years I thought all proofreaders affectionately knew it as the carrot.) The poem is not broken into conventional lines and stanzas, but keeps interjecting and intervening in itself.
Some of the key interjections in the poem come from the poet-speaker's daughters. One of them ‘likes Hello Kitty even though she has no mouth | and looks sad' (ll. 13-14). Hello Kitty returns in the second half of the poem – as she is denied the possibility of the oral stage of development, the ‘oldest impulse’, eat vs. spit out, the question is posed: would Hello Kitty, having never gone through an oral stage, be unable to decide to accept or reject anything, but to process her experiences purely by repressing them? One of the daughters explains something (hyperspace? quantum displacement?) like a character in a science fiction film – 'You are here [...] in the fifth dimension [...] folding the paper & here simultaneously to a spot directly above | I get it said her sister like when I'm reading & feel | I'm the character but know I'm myself at the same time' (ll. 29-33). Parallel existence on parallel planes of reality, the lived and the literary, the conscious and the unconscious, which, we are reminded via Jung, 'will direct your life if it's not | made conscious & you will call it fate' (ll. 35-6). The other side of this is that the process of contact with displaced/repressed experiences is seldom voluntary, and even if we are the bearers of the demonstrative pencil, its puncture is likely to be surprising, accidental, or have unintended consequences: the drop it down the sink (l. 39) or, ‘left to memorialise the moment reading stopped’, it ‘cracks a book’s spine […] memory a fault line’ (ll. 70-2). Movement between dimensions is not a benign teleportation with no consequences; it always leave behind a break, a gap, a puncture/ation mark.
[Image description: Sam Neil as Dr Weir in the film Event Horizon, a middle-aged white man with brown hair in a jumpsuit aboard a space ship, punctures a piece of paper in two places with a pen.]
Throughout the poem, men press themselves on women, and the women repress the pressing ‘downward’. Freud’s patient, Dora, repressed her assault by ‘Herr K’, manifesting it as a ‘persistent cough’. Fanny Brawne is ‘disturbed’ by Keats taking her letter to bed, her writing-self pressed unconsentingly against his body, so that by morning her signature in the sealing wax, the sign of her intention and agency, has been ‘obliterated’ (l. 61) by the heat of his body. Even the poet/speaker, in an anecdote pressed between references to two male analysts, Jung (l. 36) and Freud (l. 42), loses her pencil down the bathroom clog. Near the beginning of the poem, she rejects being the woman in John Wieners’ ‘A poem for the insane’ who Wieners describes as mouthless, ‘waiting | for me to kiss it on’, replying ‘kiss off | to that’ (ll. 9-10) (mid-century USian argot, i.e. kiss off = piss off). This leaves a line with ‘kiss on’ at the centre and ‘kiss off’ at the end, the acceptance/rejection pair of responses that is so problematised in the rest of the poem. Part of this is because you kiss no matter what you do – even a rejection is a kiss. Alsadir quotes the aphorist E. M. Cioran: ‘To be happy you must constantly bear in mind the miseries you’ve escaped’, then questions him: ‘But wouldn’t that mean | your miseries had caught up with you?’ (ll. 18-19) The unwanted kiss is there whether you accept or reject it.
[Image description: Bug Out Bob, a toy head with bulbous eyes, nose, and ears which pop out as a pale hand squeezes it.]
The repressed, of course, is constantly returning in the poem, in the 'fold & fractals' (l. 76) of its self-interjecting form. 'Language | is a Bug Out Bob' (ll. 84-5), the toy that when squeezed bulges from certain specific holes. When the poem's pressure of made-ness is applied, the repressed swells, 'bugs out'. Bug Out Bob is Hello Kitty's double in the poem, at opposite poles of affect: Hello Kitty’s mouthless face is kawaii and likeable because of what we project onto her, whether that is friendship or sadness, while Bob is an initially flat repository for the fear we squeeze into him. There is a whole other letter to be written about this poem’s train journey – the details about commuters who appear throughout it, the Romantic poets imagined as riders, the flashes of the cityscape it travels into backwards, and the poetics of poems written on time stolen from/by the commute – but the ‘woman | waiting’ (ll. 48-9), an otherwise un-described commuter, aligned with Hello Kitty in her total mastery of repressing, is the figure with which ‘Quantum Displacement’ most intimately involves itself. Being spoken about, described, linguistically known is contact from which we pull away: ‘I don’t want | to be a figure others lean their names into’ (ll. 6-7) – where a figure is a body, a personality, and a written symbol. When another person presses himself on you, either your figure/signature/mark is either obliterated from the wax, or you wane, reduce yourself, get smaller, ‘to survive’ (l. 61). To ‘displace downward’ is not a third alternative but part of a function in language/the world, and one required of feminised subjects in particular (ll. 60-1). The mute/cuteness of Hello Kitty is subjected to the squeezing that means bugging out like Bob.
I think the reason I care so much about poems, and why I want to try and write about them in a way that makes sense to me, is because I feel like I’m bugging out in the grip of language, but I found that my academic criticism and reviewing both got me further away from what I experienced when reading a poem. This series of letters will be experiments towards understanding that feeling, and also to see whether I can sustain a critical practice without an institutional framework, and while having an unrelated day job, and what that might look like for me. Thank you for reading – please feel free to share this letter, write back if you have any questions or suggestions, and I hope you’ll read next week’s as well. Til then –