Reviewed by Anthony Hawley
Representing Absence, Deborah Meadows' first full-length collection, devotes its attention to history, myth, historiography, and, literally, “representing absence.” The book's three parts--two long poems and one faux translation--wrestle with interpretation. Examining, dismantling, and recreating “multiple versions” of history and subjectivity, they come to terms with our changed (and changing) sense of self. The first section, “from 'The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick',” contains chapters one through twenty of Meadows' long serial poem. While I'm not familiar with the full range of this mammoth work (parts have been published in chapbook form by Krupskaya Books and Tinfish), these twenty chapters' multifarious tongue--part Meadows, part Moby; part Ishmael, part Queequeg--is exemplary not only of this project's linguistic scope, but of the book's as a whole.
The poem interrogates constantly. In “from 'The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick',” Meadows finds ground for cross-examination in the 19th century's cultural, social, economic, and architectural facades: “the dreary sleep in the governor's cottage,” the “knowledge by formula,” and “the companies inheriting / the earth by asserted claim.” It researches surface tensions and asserted misapprehensions: “. . . cement / banisters merge public and private lives, / how can order disguise the bows, bowspirits, etc.” But these aren't simply questions for questions' sake. Language slips into and out of disguise, infiltrating “small towns [that] / sweet by appearance, destroy what fugitive / kind they don't understand.” Ingesting other tongues, integrating the “stuff” of Melville's milieu, Meadows creates an identity turned pastiche:
Made of patchwork, this self
interminable squares and palimpsest scrivened
As a procedure
to fill or to empty: my mother of circumstances
the sea of scholarly conditions and strange
questions contribute to the misfortune
of selfhood, punning at the window
with blankets and the sound of a house
going from bad to worse--at least
I got circular in the garden, steeped
Indeed, much of the poetry here is procedural, a poetics designed “to fill or to empty,” even to “contribute” to the selfhood muddied by “the misfortune[s]” of industry, imperialism, and “the sound of a house / going from bad to worse.” The more time I spend with these poems, the more I feel like Meadows is taking stock, archiving components of subjectivity, not establishing a fixed vision. Perhaps getting “circular” in the garden speaks to the continual going over that is the “palimpsest scrivened / language.” For the “patchwork self” serves as both the means and the end in Meadows' first full-length collection:
The clutter of implements mounted here
turn utility to historic trophy
to faceless, headless objects of conversation
barwise. What belongs to what? A pasture
for slander, this is me and my parts.
“The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick” takes issue with the “historic trophy,” with things stripped of their “utility,” contending the presumptuousness of ownership: of the seas and of the self; “boats arranged to capture oceanic / wealth, power and multiple meanings / attributed to whales.” Expressing its concerns with history-making and myth-making (and the confusion of the two), the poem cum “pasture” both accepts and invokes “slander” as it grapples with the question “what belongs to what?” Here, the tone of the poem seems both accusatory and cautious. Meadows constantly girdles her chapters with queries like the following: “squares have a sameness, yet do they extend or segregate ignorance?” Sure the “self” may be of “patchwork” but do we profit from this? The broad range of voice and the various guises the voice subsumes make for constant dialogue. Meadows' great accomplishment here is her ability to fuse tongues at once indigenous and “fugitive.”
If the first third of this book amounts to an investigation into the social, economic, and physical malpractice of Melville's 19th century, the second third seems to me a similar treatment (though less directly) of the 20th century. However, Meadows does not confine herself to a single landscape as she does in “The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick.” “Not a treatise on the line segment” draws on a wider variety of sources, including Dante, Edmund Jabes, and Osip Mandelstam. This second section is as entrenched in a multi-faceted concept of the self as the first, but highlights circularity as a conceit. Take the invocation of the ouroboros in the second line:
From a silence, many versions…
with a mouths full of gravel, these ouroboros,
symbolizing selfhoods' extent--
range, might be more accurate, in their baby agitation feed.
The semantic possibilities between the ouroboros--the snake or dragon circling around to eat its own tail--and this poem are numerous. But for Meadows the notion of continual return that this image evokes is of utmost importance since palimpsest consists of devouring, refertilizing, erasing, and reinventing very much in the vein of the ouroboros. All this suggests to me a violent effort to efface linearity.
And as Meadows contemplates “return,” violence surfaces throughout “Not a treatise on the line segment.” The image's initial cruelty--the snake constantly snacking on itself--begs the question “how.” How does the snake live through such horror? How does it reconstruct itself? How do we recover from violence? With this in mind, Meadows frequently invokes Emond Jabes and his poetic project as she reconciles not just the snake and violence, but language and disaster:
to return from there
to return from there
confounds all language
Lines like this seem to wrestle with the very issue Jabes did: the problem of writing poetry in the wake of extraordinary “atrocity.” How does the poet represent death, represent, in essence, absence? But with Meadows' work, the reader must also factor in the violence on the page, the violence of writing over, through, or upon another text.
A haunting quiet permeates the spare lines and the page in-between throughout “Not a treatise on the line segment.” While “The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick” is a compelling journey, I am more drawn to this project's lyrical contemplativeness. If the reader is meant to view the poems as a whole, “Not a treatise on a line segments” doesn't congeal the way “The Theory of Subjectivity of Moby-Dick” does, but it sometimes offers more resounding fragments:
even how we think
The formal choices here allow the reader some breathing room to ponder the “atrocities” at the foreground of this section. The lines' conceptual content (i.e., “how we think”) and the poem's broad application of the word “atrocities” add to this. At one point Meadows writes the following:
words picked out of the historic document like eyes
or tidbits leaving the thing with holes and gaps
word      word word
But at times, I can't help but feel aimless while navigating Meadows' pocked terrain. It's then that I get skeptical. Is there an overabundance of the “tidbit?” Do the “gaps” and “holes” leave too wide, too deep a void? Of course, Meadows doesn't simply have a passing interest in the “tidbit,” in the “holes” and “gaps;” they are as integral to her project as her own diction, and proportionally, there are as many in the final section as there are in the first and second. False cognates, fake cognates, and willful misreading are characteristic of the last part, “Faux Translation of Charles Baudelaire's 'To the Reader'.” Like Zukofsky, Meadows translates against meaning, letting her sonic impulses guide her. By joining accuracy with inaccuracy, Meadows makes a humorous, hodge-podge text sucked of much of its original denotation.
I worry about palimpsest. I worry that the theoretical cart sometimes comes before the poetic horse. Palimpsest makes for a thought-provoking, but arduous journey. Then again, isn't this what Meadows intends? Doesn't she want to make it tough-going? Perhaps palimpsest, perhaps writing over, through, and within the unchangeable horrors of history, that is, by accepting and integrating, though always with a scrupulous eye, is the only way we can move forward.