“Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.”
—Wallace Stevens, “The Man on the Dump”
The Tranquilized Tongue
City Lights Books, 2014
Although the poems in The Tranquilized Tongue confound our typical ways of reading, they have surfaces that suggest straight-forward legibility. The book as a whole has all the hallmarks of a basal reader: short sentences; uncomplicated syntax (SV or SVO, for the most part); and a limited lexicon. Certain words—such as king, voice, tongue, mirror, egg and microphone—appear repeatedly throughout the book, almost like a vocabulary lesson. Some poems are simply lists of phrases, vaguely suggestive of some pedagogical purpose:
The word glass.
The word hand.
The word milk.
The word mirror.
(“The Molting Mouth” 14)
But these are clearly not your typical reading lessons. Consider the first poem, “The Illuminated Egg”:
The word moon assembled its intestines inside the king’s saliva. The letters cried. The birth of each letter contained one hundred films. The merged nerves dropped to the ground. The arrows were injured by what the speech spread. The microphone was looking for an echo to explain. The picture of the burst tongue offended the crowd. The birth cloud reddened between rains. The city’s moan drowned underneath the first growls. The voice atomized the line between the children’s clinging hands.
This poem fetches a fourth-grade reading level on the Flesch Kincaid readability scale (which looks primarily at word and sentence length). But what would a 4th grader make of “The word moon assembled its intestines inside the king’s saliva”?
Yet the poem engages our sense-making mechanisms. For instance, in terms of sound, there’s the subtle modulation of “its intestines inside,” with “intestines” sounding like an aural unfolding of “its” and “inside” repeating the already repeated i-n-s of “intestines.” In terms of content, “voice” appears to be a central concern, from “tongue,” a means of articulation, to what might be articulated (from “cries,” “moan,” and “growls” to “speech”), to various means of conveying voice (“letters,” “microphone” and “echo”).
Perhaps most obvious is the repetition—especially the “the” initiating every sentence in the poem and every sentence in the entire book. I’m fascinated by Baus’s relentless reiteration of the definite article. Typically, “the” sets up an expectation of specificity, but here, “the” often precedes something impossible to imagine: “The city’s moan downed underneath the first growls.”
In any case, through what must be hundreds of repetitions, the “the” no longer offers specificity but becomes a sort of drone, a constant sound with no specific meaning, over which the other words sing. Interestingly, in an interview, Baus suggests listening to drony music while reading this book.
Finally, there’s the repetition of specific words, within this poem and throughout the book. Repetition, as I mentioned above, is a useful pedagogical tool: seeing the same word in different contexts, we begin to understand its meaning. Also, code breaking often begins by zeroing in on repeated symbols or sequences, and building from there. In both cases, repetition is an “in” to understanding.
Baus, however, works against this almost intuitive way of decoding by placing the repeated words in irreconcilable contexts. Take the word “microphone”: we see it in the first poem (cited above): “The microphone was looking for an echo to explain.” No microphone “looks” or explains, unless we simultaneously personify it and allow a synesthetic shift. Even if we accept that reading, that doesn’t help us the next time we encounter the term, about 20 pages later, where it’s repeated in 5 sentences:
THE PLAGIARIZED REMAINS
The microphone embedded imploding glass in the mouth of the king’s collapse. The microphone married a flock of shrouded grouses to the hydrogen behind an iris. The microphone unwound the wool in the chests of one hundred surly lions. The microphone trained the ants to pray to the birds colliding with windows. The microphone learned to swim inside an arrn. (19)
The word makes its final appearance in the penultimate poem, “The Exhumed Antenna”: “The sacrificial microphone swallowed its tail” (61). No interpretive gymnastics will reconcile “microphone” with these various usages. Instead of helping the reader build an understanding of the term, each repetition makes it more difficult to assign any sort of stable meaning. It’s a sort of unnaming: “The names of all the animals reversed” (27).
Yet these are reading lessons for the reader willing to undergo their rigor. But instead of teaching us the meanings of words, these poems work “to loosen some of your habitual patterns of reception,” as Baus has said in another context. “The tranquilized tongue renamed its aphasia”: as we spend time with these poems, we relinquish our search for paraphrasable meaning and attend instead to the extremities of voice: not to concepts, but to how concepts shift and change; to how language cries and growls and moans and sings.