Reviewed January 1, 2016 by Todd Fredson.
“Hear the Murmuring Birds?”: A Reading of Louise Mathias’s The Traps
The Traps is Louise Mathias’s second full-length collection. It follows Lark Apprentice, which won the New Issues Poetry Prize and was published in 2004. The Traps, published by Four Way Books in 2013, is a collection of poems that, as she said at a reading at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California, Mathias bled from herself over ten years. That violence, that self-cruelty even, is here. The poems work to ford it. And much of the joy of reading The Traps involves being hovered where pleasure and pain coincide. Their edge becomes an erotic blade for Mathias.
In “Prone, November,” for instance, love-making is slowed. It is not minutes or hours, but days, weeks, a month: “Bale of hay, almost made for a woman bent over. / Her pale, sweet hedging (which, // in certain landscapes, / is an early form of love). // I want you slow: birds hover near my waist.” The speaker invokes a stillness so complete that the body becomes inanimate. Birds are not startled from, but, rather, approach the body as if it is an element of the landscape. As the speaker in “Birth Bell,” the poem following “Prone, November,” states, “Undoing the want // takes a long, long time. Sometimes / you never.” These speakers are not concerned only with an object of desire, they intend to eradicate the want itself. Pleasure is laid bare, flayed to reveal the microscopic nerves titillating also with pleasure’s withdrawal.
As the body is scoured of its desiring agency, pleasure loses its corporeal bearings. ‘Pleasure,’ of course, is an inexact descriptor. Loss, Mathias seems to posit, is the resting state of desire, its prelude, where the will is sublimated. The senses operate without necessitating action; consciousness eyes oblivion. “I’ve been thinking a lot about will. How it serves / and doesn’t serve us,” Mathias writes.
I am reminded of a passage from Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on the phenomenology of the spirit in which he addresses Hegel’s work. Distinguishing animal desire from anthropogenetic desire, Kojève explains: “Desire is only human if the one desires, not the body, but the Desire of the other.”1 That is, animal desire satisfies itself by the destruction of the object of desire; human desire, though, sets up social relations, wants that cannot be satisfied by the object alone. In The Traps, Mathias’s speakers reach into otherness to assert themselves, to become the hands of the other, the craving of the other, the imagination of the other. Mathias places her speakers in a morphological, if not entirely post-human, landscape.
The speakers are attuned to the nuances of a will that might initially be mistaken as submissive, but is more often summoning. The speakers are gone into languages of otherness in order to summon more completely. The speakers are gone into modes of experience about which the dignified human body can only imperfectly report. In “Still” Mathias rotates through the dynamics of control between intimates. “Confess: you wanted the world (and you) // to just shut up. / And what is there to say? He posed / me like a dead girl and I liked it.” The author first commands the speaker (and the reader), but then, with the italics, becomes the speaker (or, the speaker is made subject) and this scenario’s submissive. That submissive posture, though, is briefly assigned to the “he”—the line break poses him—before “he” is given control. As the necro-fantasy completes itself, “he” exerts a power. But that power proves useless; the “dead girl” provides no resistance.
The Traps provides a suggestive aesthetic artifact for consent theorists. Mathias confounds the assumptions upon which liberal consent-based models of sexual harm rely. Grounded on talk—“yes” or “no”—consent is performed; it is a visible, affirmative act. But in these poems silence is not experienced as exclusively negative. Like the Mojave Desert that Mathias literally inhabits, the absence is actually rich microbiotic terrain. Spareness requires minute attention to the pivots of each moment. The Traps aligns with third wave feminism’s increased morphological sense of the body—where permeability is constant, and intimate exchanges are more continuous. Penetration (or being penetrated) is not the completion of desire, nor does it not represent the full force of desire. These poems reject such a sexuality. The violence that feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon perceive as the primary event in (heterosexual) sex is more diffuse. Desire is less singularly issued.
The Traps, then, might be in conversation with a genre of films that have troubled the “ambiguous physiology of sex and desire,” as Sandra Macpherson observes.2
[I]n the last decade, around the time that feminist theory thinks it might profitably return to materialism, a genre of international art-house cinema has emerged once again focused on the ambiguous morphology of consent. Films such as Catharine Breillat’s Romance (1999), Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), Gaspard Noe’s Irreversible (2002), and Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her (2002), have been associated with...a large-scale shift among directors at the turn of the 21st century determined to ‘break every taboo…’ (Quandt, 2).
And, most recently, Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 (2013) and Vol. 2 (2013) explores these considerations of what, exactly, bodily affect reports, and what the role of an other is in exposing the operations of power that are at work on the female body. Mathias’s poems, though, do not participate as directly as other third wave poetics, such as the Gurlesque, in aesthetically representing the physiological, in viscerally foregrounding the body. Gurlesque poets, Lara Glenum explains in her introduction to the 2010 anthology, Gurlesque: The New Grrly, Grotesque, Burlesque Poetics, “share an interest in aggressively deconstructing female rituals of self-display and the libidinal economies that encourage / depend on them.”
Many of these poets work toward exposure. Consider the seemingly un-edited transparency of Arianna Reines, for whom the poem is life disgorging—a graphic happening—or Danielle Pafunda, for whom the organs and the oozes are worn as externally as another skin-organ. The poems are relentlessly energetic, pushing things out, challenging gendered notions of composure, of private / public distinctions. Mathias’s poems do not present such immersions in or interruptions to the bodily; they are not so explicitly courting the Kristevan abject or re-appropriating the Gothic’s monstrous feminine. Mathias’s speakers are not so completely disenveloped. They interrogate a surface that, for many third wave feminists, is already peeled back. For those third wavers the un-coveredness is implicit to the conceit. The self or selves in Mathias’s poems is not or are not already entirely unbound. They hold reservations, concerned with inter-relational dynamics that tether then untwirl then hoop then unlatch then abate then resume with the exchange of each glance.
Mathias situates us within the project of “[u]ndoing.” This is the experience of locating, as minutely as possible, where touch is felt, and how acutely, and how long the effect; the speakers are concerned with otherness as a condition of themselves. “In the narrowest spaces, she doth unravel, as if / a forest fire. // In its simplest form, starving: lack of food // but also (archaic) to bludgeon with cold,” Mathias writes in “The Cartesian Other.” Any Other, for Descartes, was unprovable. Outside the cozy bounds of that consciousness meditated into existence beside a fireplace, there was no affirmable otherness, he concluded. Mathias breaches this Cartesian Self through abnegation, through self-violence. Refuting the antiquated proposition of cogito ergo sum, she offers a self that extends into the morphological terrain. In The Traps, speakers secure points of reference beyond themselves, beyond what they are able to express of themselves. “Your face / is like a house that no one owns,” one speaker remarks. And from whatever investments these intensities of self move into, there exists a vantage; it reveals the forces of containment that pressure the abandoned subject into isolation.
This reflective, looking-back vantage places the experience somewhere between an Orphic over-the-shoulder gaze, where separation from the desired is a felt disaster, and a Lacanian apperception, in which these instances of division are cognitive recognitions. Mathias’s tone suggests that these escapees, these losses, these pieces of the self that are othered, are not automatically cause for grief, or for grieving. Sorrow, the affective response to loss, is separate from loss. For Mathias’s speakers, the result of being undone (of Being, undone) is a new awareness. An exterior for the self is, for the first time, self-identified. The subject as formed by social and historical forces becomes visible to herself. And, therefore, her subject status is potentially self-determined. She finds herself readable. She reads herself.
If, as I have supposed, Mathias’s speakers, initially mistaken as submissive, are really going into otherness to more completely summon, then of course we must ask: to summon what? Our answer seems to be that in these forays the speakers summon observer selves. Speakers station and safeguard witnesses to that self, that subject, who must navigate the incorporated world (and its rules of consent). …Unless, consciousness eyes oblivion… . Unless the will luffs into the periphery and becomes arrhythmic, atrophying. For Mathias, though, it is the self-determined reinstatement of boundaries that confirms autonomy. And she is meticulous in her reconstitutions, strict as she gives expression.
Mathias’s control of language recalls Louis Glück’s early work. Glück’s terse lines and spring-loaded fragments, each word tested—Mathias risks this same precision. Mathias’s world is less familial and less cinematically revealed—ultimately less narratively framed—than Glück’s. In The Traps, stanzas often pivot elliptically—truncated observation, sudden self-inspection, query. Mathias more often folds back into the language itself than trusting its symbolic capacity. In “Clavicle,” for instance, italicized words bring attention to the act of speaking. “Imagine someone speaks, but they’ve got no hands. / Flute and ravine and permission.” These words as words demonstrate a perception keen to atomize, to focus our attention on the micro-variances of individual meanings. But, perhaps more to the point, we are made to sense the formation of those words with our lips, our tongues, and our breath.
Because without us, the readers, that subject cannot be reinstated. The poem’s fragments hold taut in tonal relation, while the secrets of their narrative alliances remain submerged. In this way, readers are drawn into the page’s white space, materially heightening these fragments into language-objects. And like this, the poet builds one more escape: that ladder into the reader. The book feels as if it might erase itself without this final act of witnessing. “Yes, it was a kind of terror. As if fingering / the spine of a book, then finding / every page is gone,” Mathias reflects in the concluding poem, “Silt.” Mathias leaves more space for the reader than either Glück or the performative poetics defined as Gurlesque. In The Traps we are confronted with the prospect of pushing our fingers right through the poems.
The poems make their artifice, their surfaces—they texture themselves—out of the abrasion of this exchange. This tension, the cover of language, its stretching, confirms the subjective boundary. Mathias never forgets how this cover or boundary is stricken by language’s patriarchal obligations. “As if a man is speaking underwater. / You’re owned, / and thus, you’re charmed. / Quid pro quo. Ever think / for every bird // we’ve bred this terrifying syntax?,” Mathias asks in “Future Trees.” In this post-human terrain, a figuration is complicated, not clarified, as it is pressed, as it encounters a reader with intention, an active witness. In these poems, the reader is made present structurally, part of the poem’s ultimate enactment—a Minimalist gesture whereby the frame becomes part of the art and extends the art beyond any frame. These poems dare us to read too intentionally. Mathias is unobtrusive. Because of that I worry that a reader might breeze through the The Traps. The collection’s touch may seem light but it is like the “jumping” cholla—the cactus’s needles attach to passers-by unnoticeably, and the moment of contact is extended until its impact is only later revealed by some other encounter.
How much pressure to apply to the other, how to make landings so carefully as to leave no evidence—or, most fundamentally: how can bodily desire, even toward an oppressor, be leveraged? How is possession, even self-possession, established, dis-established, re-established? At the moment we think we have understood what these poems have to say about the dynamics of intimacy, eroticism, loss, or escape, we must remember the title and acknowledge that this glimpse of certainty is also a trap. Mathias’s collection is vertiginous and absorbing.
1Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Trans. James H. Nichols Jr. New York and London: Basic Books, 1969: 6
Return to Reference.
2Macpherson, Sandra. “The Look of Rape: On the Cinema of Sexual Subjection.” (Draft: from The Shape of Form). Presented at the panel “Consent, Autonomy and the Riddle of Rape: Rethinking Why Rape Matters” at the USC Center for Law, History and Culture, West Coast Conference on Law and Literature, November 9 2011.
Return to Reference.
* * *
Todd Fredson is the author of the poetry collection, The Crucifix-Blocks. My country, tonight, his translation of Ivorian poet Josué Guébo’s collection, Mon pays, ce soir, will be out from Action Books in 2016, and Think of Lampedusa, his translation of Guébo’s collection, Songe á Lampedusa, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Fredson is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California and a 2015-16 Fulbright Fellow to the Ivory Coast.