Elena Karina Byrne: “Incongruity and the Captive (an interrupted essay)”


                                                                                                Here into presence, there into absence––
                                                                                                                                                    Heidegger







Making It Formal: That’s the headline caption for a Los Angeles Times cover story about President Bill Clinton’s mission to secure a pardon for two reporters who strayed over the border into North Korea, and were thereby sentenced to twelve-years hard labor. “Making It Formal” caught my attention, or rather, the photograph of the setting caught the attention of my inner eye. Kim Jong Il, Bill Clinton and six other official-looking officials, nearly all in black, sat in sober repose for the historically significant photograph. Beneath their feet: a bright chartreuse green carpet covered in giant flowers, reminiscent of the Hello-Kitty items my daughter loved when she was five years old. Set behind them: a massive wall-sized painting of the raging sea      I wonder if the carpet, I wonder if the carpet smelled like candy too      in the glory of its green-lit waves, with white foam and scattered seagulls. It resembled something one might see in a tacky Las Vegas lobby, themed for exotic beach lovers who have never managed to make it to the beach. All these contrasting disjunctures, these visual non sequiturs: This is poetry, this is poetry’s art of juxtaposition.

Juxtaposition is a propellant. Juxtaposition in poetry, like metaphor, carries over one image to the next, one idea to the next, one insight to another, and as an intuitive art, makes lively play of the mind’s associative bent. In placing things close together for purpose of contrast, it relies on destabilization. Juxtaposition delightfully alarms us; it interrupts and disengages, celebrates disjunction. Yes, it is anything but “formal”; however, I think juxtaposition is key to formalizing that shift in our perceptual attention from the symmetrical to the asymmetrical. Juxtaposition is not static and so, it

Juxtaposition creates attics, basements, alcoves, cupboards, crawl-spaces,
corridors, empty stairwells, windows facing windows, and foyers…

thrives in a state of alarm: It presents dissonance as part of the rhythmic, and imagistic variety it creates. It upends expectation and exists within disruption of both idea and/or image. Poetry’s active vectors of misdirection through juxtaposition delight us by virtue of surprise. In order to move toward persuasion, juxtaposition requires an imagistic and linguistic resistance to the force of habit and the demands of order. In adjuratory terms, the accelerants of juxtaposition and metaphor make us “think outside the box.” It’s a way of continually refreshing the mind of the poet and the reader. This seems to works best when some revelatory likeness emerges from the leap between unfamiliar images. Hello death, hello Kitty…      Juxtaposition, which requires risk, moves from seeming fullness (presence) of concrete image, to emptiness (absence) of abstract idea, and, certainly, vice versa. This kind of shift in perception actively undermines reality, or at least the reality we thought we once knew. We don’t feel compelled to

In order to perceive fullness, one must retain an acute sense of the emptiness which marks it off; conversely, in order to perceive emptiness, one must apprehend other zones of the world as full. (In Through the Looking Glass, Alice comes upon a shop “that seemed to be full of all manner of curious things — but the oddest part of it all was that whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded full as they could hold.” )
                                                                                                –Susan Sontag

separate fact from fiction. Here, the unfamiliar recognition of the unfamiliar occurs and these shifts of consciousness work as leaps of faith, gladly killing predictability.

Juxtaposition can move a poem into sensory action-cohesion and into dislocation at the same time; it instigates a constant fleeing toward or and away from a subject and its inner dynamics. A poem’s (a mind’s) active progression can become one of the primary sources of its intended mystery: This movement in a poem convinces and energizes both what is there and not there.                  there must be fish swimming between my ribs

Poet Judith Taylor unleashes this art of indirection. Here’s a poem from Sex Libris (What Books Press, 2013):

The Cards’ Last Laugh

The doll’s dilemma: should she be lyric or play the sax?

If you wander, there will be a sequel, not an exit.

Shall we try and solve the riddle of fossils and decorative clothes?

Ship ahoy! The wind’s insistence that you walk across the bridge.

It doesn’t matter if you button up, it always comes undone.

Sax aurally mutates to exit in the mind’s ear. The subject/objects displace each other for the final “insistence” when everything comes undone–– like a natural entropy of understanding (because knowing also must never be static).

      Mystery is disguised understanding in motion, a juxtaposition in thinking itself.

In one of Susan Sontag’s well-known essays, The Aesthetics of Silence, Sontag might as well be talking about poetry when she says: “Silence and allied ideas (like emptiness, reduction, the ‘zero degree’) are boundary notions with a very complex set of uses… the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence.” Silence is the unconscious mind, frame for frame, in acts of dreaming and day-dreaming, in the act of making art or writing. Here are some excerpts from an exciting new poet, one of former students, Kelli Anne Noftle (Omnidawn, 2010), from her poem “Afterlife” and her poem “Parasomnia” in The Journal:

I placed you in a shallow dish,
watch the water touch your body, touch my hand.
Preservation holds our minds in salt,
light, formaldehyde. I say crystallize and you’re
tongue-tied. Heaven opens just wide enough to slip through.
They told me you were impossible to care for…

The reader pauses to consider the relationship between “you”, “I” and “they” as the poem shifts in focus. The eye moves like an internal film camera from “crystallize” to “tongue-tied.” Each “pregnant pause” draws us deeper (“Heaven opens just wide enough”) into the poem like a black hole and its caesuras and enjambments stand in as positive enslavements of time. What is not immediately apparent in her poems is kinesthetic time even though we are very much in the body. There’s an implied action in the poem and its subject’s imminent movement forward. Subsequently, the breathing absence Noftle creates is juxtaposition’s form of liminality, of being on/in/under/between the threshold. Have you ever seen an arrow shot into the sky? The suspended image of a poem, like

Liminal space is like a mirror facing a mirror…

the language of question, hinges upon its use of where and when: the prepositional motioning intointo. The poem implies that crux-place of action, an on-going ascent, or, then, its everlasting descent. Perception’s own caesura. Here’s Noftle’s one on sleep-eating from the book I Was There For Your Somniloquy:

Experts say that loneliness is prone
to peanut butter. That we’ll walk in our sleep at least
once. The second hand on the kitchen clock tells
the dream it can go forward. That delicious ticking
in the mouth. When you remember
eating, it’s almost three days
after. You’re sitting in a coffee shop chewing
on a straw. It doesn’t taste like peanuts, but there’s something
oily in the plastic.
How does it go in the fairytale? Someone’s been licking
the linoleum. Someone sliced a bar of soap
and polished it off with your wine.

This poem tastes like sleepwalking toward the edge of a rooftop, toward the edge of identity. A

Ideas are sublimated for a sense of prolonged experience.

strange tension arises because the poem juxtaposes its forms of address, moving from the generalized “experts” to the more specific “we” and “you,” back to the generalized “someone.” As with the nature of juxtaposition, we may find a shift in proximity and pronoun reference. You represents the reader, a specific person addressed, the speaker of the poem, anyone. Yet this passage feels so intimate.      Me as you?      Note that the speaker does not use the direct personal pronoun I, and declares, “we’ll walk in our sleep.” Suddenly there’s the suggestion of complicity with each visceral

My brother ran in his sleep, tried to open the front door with both hands…
you remember his standing on his bed, suddenly jumping on my bed, standing on top of her!

example of sleep-eating.

In his interview with artist David Salle, Peter Schjeldahl surmises that in “popular culture you never know who is talking to you.” David Salle talks about his own “generational shift in sensibility” and the “ways to push away from pictorialness toward something else, toward a perverse situation where the picture is at war with itself ” ––much like a poem full of combatant juxtaposition. In his painting “Savagery and Misrepresentation” 1981, Salle

But the greatest spoils of war were, of course, films!––Joseph Brodsky

juxtaposes three dramatically different styles of painting overlaying the single canvas. The warring elements often work like film’s contiguous juxtaposition of several contrasting elements. When looking
ORIGIN early 16th cent.: from Latin contiguus ‘touching,’ from the verb contingere ‘be in contact, befall’ (see contingent ),
+ -ous.

at Salle’s painting, one gets the feeling of being in a public place hearing three overlapping conversations. There’s a juxtaposition of three nearly opposing styles and colors; so it has the appearance of an artist’s practice sheet. Perhaps the painting is like the three functions of the mind: thinking, feeling, wanting. The title’s “savagery” is certainly underplayed. Perhaps the implied savagery exists in the realm of the conscious, subconscious and in the unconscious, a triptych familiar to poetry.

L.A. poet Douglas Kearney pursues his fevered subjects through the natural chaos of juxtaposition. I listen and again listen to the verbal music build toward repeating images. They aurally build until the images become something else. That “something else,” the “hidden” subject, resides in juxtaposition and performs an allegorical rite of passage for the reader. This is also a good example of how juxtaposition serves as a third voice between the self and the other. In Kearney’s poem “The Six Cities,” (interchanging child, you, I and we) a child “un-becomes.” Existence,

It is always necessary to deprive the subject of its natural strength… before
recovering that power and replacing it …

… like the pause left behind by a noisy train ––William Gass

race, ecology, and personal geography, all represent the place itself, where the child resides–– here, he is “a city, a green one.” The shifting identification of here and “not there ” dramatizes these shifts in identity.

…teach your child that people can be places, can be coppices,

can be groves, a stand of trees. and I learned this. I’ve been so many places

in my life; once, perhaps a city with emerald colonnades and spires
like a thousand jackets hung on steeple-backed chairs.

but that wasn’t it. I was a forest whose roots hadn’t destroyed

a green city but had tasted it into themselves, even as I did,
when I found myself at the mouth of the place you are called river.

and when I drank to be changed, I became a gully. right there,

in the hollow below the city that was not there at all—

but distant, like a place in a brochure. still, we had become several

rushes, so to dream of paper would be to dream of children un-becoming—no,

I am riverbank, silt pulled slowly back into the current, where the salmon,

weary in its crimson envelope says: children are a place; drift too long

they will be behind you. you look at me to name the place we become.

The juxtapositions are perfected by a deliberate, grammatical confusion. Body as place or absence of place, becomes spatially re-identified through juxtaposition. The speaker becomes “forest” and “gully,” and he interchanges “coppices” and “colonnades,” and with him, from “steeple-backed chairs,” “back into the current” we are pulled.

Artist Jack Goldstein, a close friend of my parents, was one of several conceptual artists and painters who, like so many during the 70’s, moved away from his traditional authoritarian background in art and painting. Jack’s painting, photographic
      … two presences…of a spatial order, but they are so linked that the spatial order ceases to be a matter of indifference: it is only thought itself which can see itself in the forest and away from the forest. ––Magritte

experimentations, and conceptual films influenced a generation of new artists. His performance art included burying himself six-feet underground. Visitors spoke to him through a small tube; a bare red light bulb above ground was attached to his heart and responded in time to this interaction by flickering at different intervals. With melancholic immediacy, he became a living metaphor for our relationship to death. The disjunctive exchange between the one speaking and the one listening, meant signaled communication arose between      mother and Jack sat side by side, laughing on our lawn      two disembodied voices: one buried voice translated into a heart beat’s triggered light and another, absent-from-body responder’s voice carried down a tiny lightless shaft. The annunciated absence of a visible face on both sides of the communication meant that a new, hidden and imperiled third person was created as the two “live” personas materialized in transaction and transition.

      He lay down behind the blade of grass
To enlarge the sky.
      ––Noel Brureau, Les mains tendre tendre – Les mains tendres

Another Californian poet, our new Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, knows the past breaks bread with yearning as a subject seeks out reciprocity from its unexpected image partners. In “Giraffe on Fire,” the poem wants to imply inattention’s between-space with the contrast of its very focused referents:

My leg stiffens. The crutch that holds me has become my aromatic rosary.

My exact duplicate sits behind me. He wears the same sickness.

The cabinet in the front is halfway open. Dali says that this is proper,

that I should find the ecstasy on this shore, in the form of a wooden box,

in Van Gogh’s love for green boats sliced with bloody stripes.

The sea goes through me.

I remember my mother’s death this way: the last taxi

in San Jose, the wrong street, 4th street to the abandoned

apartments of the homeless instead of the hospital…

The first two lines of the last stanza are hallucinatory juxtapositions that stand in for the speaker’s intense feeling. Sharing what comes undone emotionally,      breathe, breathe…      we follow the speaker, his duplicate, Dali, Van Gogh, “to the abandoned apartments of the homeless instead of the hospital…” to be placed in a geography of disorientation. Gaston Bachelard called this “exhalation of space” and the “topography of our intimate being.” The speaker, with the loss of his mother, finds himself abandoned, homeless in the heart. There seems to be no transition for these kinds of experiences. That being said, juxtaposition stands in as transition, its transitive moves on the speeding image-highway, creating a blind spot where we know there is a hidden vehicle. There’s a geographical/emotional space
..because comparison is motive, which is why one writes with one’s heart. ––Jane Miller
created especially in the reconstruction of memory poems. Emotional detours become linguistic mazes in the garden-body’s exigencies of digression. The heart continually juxtaposes.

my watchdog appeared and crouched beside me,
behind the fish tank, in the darkness.

Juxtaposition is a refuge for dream-knowledge. It is language that moves like pain or desire itself, deliberately askew, precarious, unfettered, evasive. Parataxis relies on a lack of transition. Logic weaves from stanza to stanza through the mind’s natural sense of indirection. Polyvalent associations create linguistic insecurity, yet this syntactical angst also drives the poem
      And why did Thelonius Monk insist on making all his hung pictures askew?

forward, out of the claustrophobia of a familiar environment, into the open-sky Eros of the beautiful unknown. Look at these sections from

ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: from Greek parataxis, from para- ‘beside’ + taxis ‘arrangement’ (from tassein ‘arrange’)

Calvin Bedient’s poem “Polyester Perversities”:

suit #1
      Missing on the other side? north wall. I got him back. He could have been someone
wasn’t for me.
      My immense heil didn’t bother him until he sat on the river bottom, head back, silver fish
thrashing head down in his throat, and slapped his hat against his knee in time to the pleasure is all
mine.
suit #1a
      I represent the captain in all legal matters.

suit #2
      A fish knife with its oceanliner gleams’s the school for me.

suit #3
In heavenly harmony fully dethinged they came, the hours, mention of why declined, and went
on their way as prettily as possible, not looking, swiftly easily on their way, their teeth laughing at
the foretaste, more easily killed lying down, imagine the sounds of people eating together in another room, barbarians.

suit #5
If I had a pet my life said it wouldn’t be you it would be an intended thing.
She juts out from my dissatisfaction like the deck at night when it’s black and bright yellow, the
She juts out from my dissatisfaction like the deck at night when it’s black and bright yellow, the
conversation a bee on a bush of darkness.

“It would have been an intended thing” if pleasured in formal logic; but we delight in the necessary misadventure and pervasive fallout of realigned meaning. This is the language of subtext and the syntax of insistence. In “time to the pleasure” this poem achieves, Bedient creates a delectable “foretaste.” Sometimes we have to forfeit logic’s volition in order to find unfettered beauty. The paratactic collision between two

Art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote — evolved from within
consciousness itself–– there goes the phone ringing again!

stanzas without direct transition delights the unleashed lyric mind. Bedient’s work successfully
doubles simultaneously its conscious/unconscious perspective––”a bee on a bush of darkness.”

… a craving for the cloud of unknowingness beyond knowledge and for the silence
beyond speech, so art must tend toward anti-art, the elimination of the
“subject” (the “object,” the “image”), the substitution of chance for intention, and
the pursuit of silence.            ––Sontag

And so, where (which is a part of who) are we in Bedient’s poem? Near the oceanliner’s gleam, in a room full of people eating, in heavenly harmony, in dissatisfaction, in childhood, by a lake or pond, on a deck at night, at the well, over the fence… the poem creates an anteroom of inexact time (inexact emotion) where the speaker has been “dancing a long time.” Juxtaposition lives in this whorled, futural and subjunctive grammar-place of the imagination.

Poetry creates an intuitive art of concomitant consciousness in the great conditional realm of juxtaposition’s implied if … and, as the thought process doubles itself, arrives at two places, two spaces at the same time, its imagination creates an illumined geography (visible and hidden) and architecture.      Who, who holds a gravitational pull in the margins?      How many times, in conversation, have we heard someone say, It’s not what he said, but what he didn’t say… Think of

His is covered in blue broken glass,
            the spit and polish of years.
            She will consort with death, raincoat on,
                                          splitting with the last verb’s axe

the wonderful “pregnant pauses” in an actor’s delivery of lines, in the poetic line like the withheld breath-moment of understanding.
You leave space for the body, imagining the other part even though it isn’t there.
                                                                                                ––Henry Moore

Consider the use of “negative space” in sculpture. So much of Japanese architecture relies on the spaces between objects and rooms, the emptiness in interior space, and seeks out the relationship between positive and negative space (“notan”); the Japanese term “ma” means an empty space between two structural parts. This seems to rely on the fact that there will be movement, both by the eye and with the body, as they navigate through (between, into, out of) space.      “Ma,” manifest, “ma,” mother, “ma,” making first word formations from mouth, from breath.      Rachel Whiteread, a contemporary British sculptor, makes huge

and Ma climbing backwards, out
                        all the surrogate windows, Ma, Me

negative space casts of interior spaces. She cast the entire insides of a Victorian house and other smaller emotionally significant spaces like the underneath spaces of furniture. Her replica interiors make absence whole, giving them a weighted physical presence to absence. While she intends to “mummify the air in the room,” she makes what’s not there, unfamiliar spaces, appear.
      My favorite mantra in Flaubert’s voice: “it is not the houses that were built, but the spaces            between the houses.”

These giant casts work like tangible juxtapositions. Isn’t it often the lack of transition, the
      You leave space for the body, imagining the other part even though it isn’t there.
                                                                                                ––Henry Moore

counterweight, the ballast in the bilge that keeps the poem afloat? The turning point, pre-reflective empty pause held within creation is actually full, like a glass of water about to spill. There’s a fresh authority of the twice-removed original, now running amuck in the streets, looking for its home,      Do I have a home?      the torn pieces of a map held in its breast pocket… this ambient voice astonishing the open space.

Juxtaposition, synthetically allows us to experience poetry in the margins of thinking––like Remarques, etchings, in the margins, that often

Sometimes it was like riding the shoot-the-shoots, a steep plunge and then
a spray of tingling sea-crabs, the bulrushes swaying feverishly and the gills
of tiny fishes lapping against me like harmonica stops.
                                                                                                ––Henry Miller

play on meaning. Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s rich resolute work enters a perceptual playing

This “exaltation of space” (Gaston Bachelard) holds a gravitational pull
in the margins.

field, which is at times more like a mine field (or mind field), where we never quite lose a limb or a life. Yet, like Valery, you retain “everything you are not”–– the poem’s mechanism becomes circular: “[T]he mind hunches in the mind” and the “woman inside the woman, man inside the man, blackbird inside the pie” where the “error is in the equation” manifesting what is hidden. In these agitated, flux-moments (fluere, fluxus flow, “radiant energy”), Beckian demonstrates Rilke’s “innerworldspace,” yet she always finds the windows and doors –– a way out.

      …if one fell into a black hole, one might be sucked down a tunnel (called
the “Einstein-Rosen bridge”) and shot out a “white hole” in a parallel
universe! … This “wormhole” may connect two parallel universes, or even distant
parts of the same universe.
                                    ––Michio Kaku

The implied “other” objects fill the void made by silence and transition, silent juxtaposition in poetry, making it not so empty in our perceptional grasp. Juxtaposition’s meta-perspective carousel makes creative disruption possible, deliberate interruption possible, scattering its bright pearls to the floor. Imagine capturing the dream-time transformations created between dream-actions and places–– the two-headed coin of belief/disbelief spinning in the palm of the writer’s
                        it’s a problem of astonishment whoever makes it. ––Enzo Cucchi

hand, revealing a discriminating/indiscriminating attention to time. Juxtaposition becomes its own time temporal counterpart, and yet it contains the metrics of time’s inherent lack of acquiescence.












maybeFormer Regional Director of the Poetry Society of America and and Executive Director of AVK Arts, Elena Karina Byrne is an editor, Poetry Consultant / Moderator for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Literary Programs Director for The Ruskin Art Club and one of the final judges for the Kate/Kingsley Tufts Prizes in Poetry.

A Pushcart Prize winner, her publications include Best American Poetry, Yale Review, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Verse, Kenyon Review, Volt, The Dublin Review, Colorado Review, TriQuarterly and Denver Quarterly. Her books include: The Flammable Bird (Zoo Press / Tupelo Press), MASQUE (Tupelo Press), and the forthcoming Squander (Omnidawn 2016); she’s just completed Voyeur Hour: Meditations on Poetry, Art and Desire.

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