Addressing the Wound: Anadiplosis in Recent Poetry

In past posts, I’ve explored the use of anadiplosis in modernist and contemporary poetry, from Laura Riding (link)  to Geoffrey G. O’Brien (link). Anadiplosis is a rhetorical ordering technique in which the last word (or words) of a phrase is repeated at the beginning of the subsequent phrase. For example, consider this passage from Troilus and Cressida. Ulysses explains what will happen if the “rule of degree” (roughly, hierarchy) is neglected:

Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Anadiplosis is often—though not always—climactic, building from minor to major, less important to most important, etc, creating a sort of hierarchy itself. The nifty thing about this passage is that it forms what you might call an anti-hierarchy, from bad to worse to worst. It works by degrees to describe the loss of degree.

I most recently encountered anadiplosis in last week’s Guardian Poem of The Week, “The Lake of Memories” by Howard Altmann. Click here to read the poem. Carol Rumens’s discussion of the poem is outstanding, and I encourage you to read it. I won’t attempt anything as encompassing here.

You’ll notice that anadiplosis structures the entire poem, with the last word of each stanza initiating the following stanza. Before I dig into that, however, I’d like to look at a couple other salient structural characteristics. The poem describes a house and its surroundings, which bleeds into being a sort of metaphor for the self. It begins:

Voices sit
like broken chairs
in a room.

A room stands
for the ceremony
of impermanence.

Impermanence cracks
the façade
of self

The progression of the poem’s 7 stanzas is interesting. It starts inside the room of the house, then progresses to the room, to the facade, to the walls, and concludes all out of doors. The camera, so to speak, starts with a still life, and slowly pulls back to an aerial view.

However, not all aspects of the poem line up in a tidy sequence. For instance, each stanza is governed by a single verb, located at the end its first line. In order, they are sit, stands, cracks, builds, frames, bridge, and winds. Looking at them like this, I see no obvious sequence, but 3 pairs of quasi-opposing terms: sit/stands, cracks/builds, frames (as in, enclose)/bridge (to connect), with “winds” standing on its own.  

That “winds,” and its prominent placement as the final verb, may be a clue regarding Altmann’s use of anadiplosis and how it fits into the poem’s thematics. Here’s the rest of the poem:

The self builds
its walls
of healing.

Healing frames
the house
of wounds.

Wounds bridge
darkness and light
over time.

Time winds through
the lake of memories
in frozen tongue.

To wind is to move in twisting motion; it suggests complication and entanglement. Each successive use of anadiplosis—room, impermanence, self, healing, wounds, time, [tongue/voices]—creates its own sort of entanglement, with “healing” happening before “wounds,” and wounds doing the unlikely work of bridging. Anadiplosis is essential to the poem’s calculated confusion of categories, where abstractions like “impermanence” and “self” are somehow embodied by architecture.

The prepositions—especially “of,” which appears 5 times—do a lot of heavy lifting, and underscore the irresolution of the poem: “the self builds / its walls / of healing.” “Walls of healing” could be walls created by means of healing, or walls that are a source of healing. “Of” allows for either reading, and this spare poem does not provide much evidence to support one reading over the other. The other instances of “of” work in a similar fashion, as does “over” in the 6th stanza, and “in” in the final line.

The poem is an accumulation of the complicated, the not-quite-resolved, with each successive stanza attempting to join past and present, abstract and concrete, and not fully succeeding. This is not a fault, but a brilliant poetic strategy. If the poem is addressing a wound, then anadiplosis serves as a kind of stitching, and the poem itself becomes the record of imperfect healing: a scar.

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge: Seeking By Feeling

I see it feelingly.—Gloucester, King Lear

I recently came across Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s 10-page poem “Fog,” a topic of keen interest to me. Beyond a few poems I’d read in journals, I was unfamiliar Berssenbrugge’s poetry, so before taking on this long, intimidating poem, I prepped/trained myself by dipping into her selected poems, I Love Artists. But training was difficult, and progress hard to measure.

However, after spending some time with I Love Artists, I’ve acquired a feel for the associative and oblique manner of Berssenbrugge’s work. To say I “understand” would be an overstatement; it’s more a matter of becoming comfortable with the uncertainty that seems inherent to the reading of these poems, especially “Fog.”

Out of my fog, a bit of clarity has emerged: for Berssenbrugge, fog serves as an emblem of not only her poetics (much like the Ponge poem I discussed in my previous post) but also her metaphysics (for lack of a better term). In the 4th section of this 12-section poem,  Berssenbrugge spells out her guiding questions/concerns:

She can describe for you the phenomenon of feeling her way through the fog. For whom does she describe this?

What ignorance can her description eliminate?

Which person is supposed to understand her description, people who have been lost in fog before, or people who have lived on the desert and never seen what she would describe? (sec 4)

These questions are central to the poem and, I’m suggesting, to Bersessenbrugge: questions of audience, of the other to whom her words are addressed; questions of knowledge: not only what we can know, but also the question whether knowing—western philosophy’s quest—is our best (or only) way of relating to the world and to others. Ultimately, the question that she explores is the tautological nature of experience and communication: that we tend to see only that with which we are already familiar; that what we call experience is more often than not simply a mirror or echo of our disposition, fears, etc.  

Behind these questions is the paradox at the center of all language/communication: if language depends upon not only the shared understanding of words, but also shared experience—common frames of reference—what can be communicated, beyond what we already know?: “What ignorance can her description eliminate?” How can we describe fog, the experience of it, to someone who hasn’t experienced that sensation? How do we escape the echo-chamber that we so often mistake for understanding and communication?

The poem decidedly rejects the ideal to which all communication allegedly aspires: clarity. The poem also challenges our general, seemingly hard-wired will-to-clarify, our impulse to dispel all doubt, uncertainty, or murkiness whenever we encounter it. Berssenbrugge suggests that what we call “realism” and its clarity is more a matter of oversimplification “smoothing over or ignoring discontinuities” (section 1) than of true understanding—or, perhaps more accurately, intimacy (to borrow a term from one of Berssenbrugge’s best readers, Charles Altieri). Clarity, paradoxically, prevents us from seeing:  

The bright light slows the senses. A picture of the space is bright light, as if etched by a laser, can slow your sense.

When we see or experience something with the senses, and the senses get slowed, we can stop at this object, for example, a person who is beautiful.

As soon as we see this person, perception is blocked by the desire to go toward the person, with the misunderstanding of fog as thought that just runs on and on. Her awareness is completely lost in distracting clearings of space. (sec 9)

Berssenbrugge points out that we are conditioned to see “lack of clarity” as “tormenting,” something “shameful” whereas “In any serious interaction between them, not knowing your way about extends to the essence of what is between them” (sec 7). The “them” here is, appropriately, unclear, but means something along the lines of two or more individuals.

Berssenbrugge posits a poetics that’s the complete antithesis of imagism, “clarity of expression through the use of precise visual images.” In the context of “Fog,” imagism not only reduces richness of experience, altogether disregarding or suppressing its shadowy, unclear, and unseen elements, but also falsely makes an instant, a moment, stand for all moments. This snapshot understanding is more clear precisely because it ignores what makes experience, experience: time and duration. And of course, time is what exposes us to uncertainty, “not knowing your way about.” Berssenbrugge explains, “Therefore we appreciate the fog, as the power to make the space continue beyond the single perception… “ (sec 9).

Berssenbrugge expands this poetic insight into how way we comport ourselves towards the world and others. True intimacy, the poem suggests, occurs when we enter into a searching relationship with that which resists synoptic vision: “The fog of the way we feel our way into this focus, seeking by feeling, lies in the indefiniteness of the concept of continuing focus, or distance and closeness, that is, of our methods of comparing densities between human beings” (sec 10). Seeking by feeling: our vision limited by fog, we are compelled to use our most intimate and vulnerable sense, touch, and cautiously find our way, our awareness intensified by uncertainty.