COLIN LEE MARSHALL Reviews
Lower Parallel by Amy De’Ath
(Barque Press, 2014)
“Let’s Spit on Hegel”, exhorts the epigraph to Amy De’Ath’s 2014 chapbook Lower Parallel. The specificity of this excerption is at once odd and clever: odd, because the quoted sentence is a title, rather than an excerpt from the main body of a text; clever, because it is thereby hyper-directive and- referential; because its incendiary suggestion is powerful enough largely to negate the oddity; and because its very deployment creates a host of questions about the provenance, schema, and politics of Lower Parallel.
A kind of offshoot manifesto of the Rivolta Femminile group (to which it is attributed by De’Ath—perhaps rhetorically, in light of its sole authorship at the hands of group founder Carla Lonzi), Let’s Spit on Hegel has undoubtedly dispersed some of its propositional spores into Lower Parallel. Compare, for instance, the following two excerpts (the first from Lonzi’s text, the second from De’Ath’s):
By trusting all hopes of a revolutionary future to the working class, Marxism has ignored women, both as oppressed people and as bearers of the future. (Trans., here and hereafter, Veronica Newman).
[…] the rhetoric was meaning, the actual history of women and the body
and women as a body but a man manifested the only body the only one
Marx got, resembles me not in thought or love, but eternally working
In another manifesto published the same year (1970), the Rivolta Femminile wrote: “Woman’s first reason for resentment against society lies in being forced to face maternity as a dilemma”. De’Ath peppers Lower Parallel with language that evokes this dilemma (whether directly or tangentially): “say ‘womb’ is a verb, ‘aborted’ is a feeling”; “I didn’t want a baby in mind / I didn’t want a love-nest of broken eggs”; “tread softly in fear of even crueler / children who’ll kill you”; etc. One could likely write a long disquisition on the relationship between the Rivolta Femminile and Lower Parallel; but I – treading circumspectly under the admonishment “We warn male observers against making objects of study out of us” (Let’s Spit on Hegel) – am surely not be the person to author it. That being said, it does strike me as worthwhile to at least keep the epigraph (and the denoted text) in mind while reading Lower Parallel—not in the interest of reducing De’Ath’s chapbook to something crudely schematic or elucidatory of a particular kind of political and philosophical position, but as a means of foregrounding the question of how engagement might be both practically and poetically realized.
Poetically speaking, such engagement might best be discerned in the arch games that De’Ath frequently plays with tradition. In the very first poem (which is untitled), she writes “Since LOve tackles DEbt, I will follow it to / the marrow”. One might see in this conjunction of capitalized consonants and vowels an evocation and torquing of Petrarch’s fifth sonnet; but even more striking are the bathos and abasement that occur in the dense weave of orthographic, homophonic, and etymological suggestion. ‘Love’ doesn’t just sink under the weight of the usurping plosive, and thereby become (by homophonic misconjugation) ‘lowed’; it also becomes the lucre (“load”) of its own contraband nature, as well as the diachronic “lode” that is at once a journey, a road, an aqueduct, an open drain, a loadstone, an object of attraction, and a geological deposit rich with “the marrow” whose very deliquescence it entails (“In 16th–17th c. love was often said to ‘burn’ or ‘melt the marrow’” OED). If this fool’s errand doesn’t seem ardent enough, De’Ath leaves no room for doubt in the eponymous poem, whose hilariously cloying line “love will save us love will save us love will save us love will save us” seems to negate the possibility of its own proposition. A later epizeuxis is far richer: “out on the winter’s wish well well well well” (“Holey”). Contained herein is a stuttering interjection, an expression of gloating surprise, a quartet of well-wishes, a skilful optation, and a stunted wishing well. The wish, or act of wishing (even more so as it is accompanied by the adverb well) is made to fracture under the weight of our reading, to become (like love) as difficult and pernicious as it is easy and desirable.
Such splintering into polysemy occurs at almost every turn in Lower Parallel, and often implies similar challenges to inured ‘knowledge’ or custom. In “Hinterland”, De’Ath writes “we might / develop in our sights a flaming I // can pay snow / for anything, / I can’t like it / for nothing”, forcing two poetic staples (snow and the lyric ‘I’) into a contractual relationship wherein they become mutually meretricious. Snow is ‘paid for’, and thus bereft of the purity habitually arrogated to it, just as the luridly ‘flaming I’ is left to dangle without plausible agency. Elsewhere, there are noticeable semantic bifurcations of various language parts, especially verbs/phrasal verbs (“restaurants at that time would / not serve animals”; “Kill the dust then wear them out”; “I bought into a hole in the roof”, etc. [my italics]). The polysemy is most impressive, however, as it emerges through the laxity of De’Ath’s punctuation. Consider the following lines from the poem “Camel”:
and no turn can contain the big now,
Ridiculous what do you mean what
do you stand so fortuitously for you only
see your own orange grove, your own
mauve trove Hitler Youth blue cranberries.
At first glance, this laxity might seem to be nothing more than the sprezzatura of a cool young poet; yet when one attempts to recite these lines aloud, their suprasegmental (and, by extension, semantic) richness becomes undeniable. It is impossible to know precisely what is being modified here, since nouns, pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives permute according to a series of mutually lacerating intonations. Less punctuation thus becomes more punctuation, with the reader having to wade through a flotsam of hidden commas, italicizations, exclamation marks, question marks, and quotation marks.
To what extent, then, do these games at the expense of tradition relate back to and justify the epigraph? One could well imagine the absurdity of a contemporary book of poetry – or, indeed, of any book of poetry – opening with the epigraph “The Futurist Manifesto—F.T. Marinetti”. But far from being absurd, the epigraph to Lower Parallel seems entirely apposite. Let’s Spit on Hegel is highlighted as a text that should be read, if not necessarily a text that should be reckoned with (especially if the reader be a man). The Rivolta Femminile’s desire to “[subvert] the order of the patriarchal structure” and “effect a total change in the culture” might be thought to have something of a warped poetic mirror in De’Ath’s work:
A teal balance and ombre heart you have. What limb thrown down-
stairs hallway when I discovered prosody like thin paint like discourse presumes us
What prosody like blown-up flower and dripping box, coming up on an open
state and running dog, going out on starry starry axial breaks,
The difference is that De’Ath is more than happy to invoke tradition as something that is tantalisingly withheld. Nested within these odd like breaks and concatenations is a prosodic goad, a challenge to the reader to subject the poetry to scansion. But the hints of iambic trimeter and tetrameter are imperilled by the words that surround them, swallowed up into something highly prosaic. De’Ath’s wariness of “a discourse [that] presumes us”, “a common logic structurally grounded”, manifests itself by keeping the enemy near, at the same time as it redefines the relationship with the friend. Things must not be considered finished, or even close to finished. Instead, just like the Marxism that is castigated for its oversight of women, they must (and must not) be considered “eternally working”.
Colin Lee Marshall is an Englishman based in South Korea. Other reviews have appeared in Hix Eros and Intercapillary Space.