Converse, from the French converser: to talk, usually informally. Also meaning reversed, from the Latin conversus—to turn around. A less common usage is to commune spiritually. Con, meaning together; verse from the Latin versus, a line or a furrow: thus a line made by turning, a line then a turn, as in ploughing, or the weaving shuttle.
So a coming together, a spiritual commune, a union of sorts, made of turning, returning. One supposes that the process here is a line from one poet or a part of a line, stretched out, and then another returned, so that the field of the poem is ploughed. The last line followed attentively to make the most of the ground for planting and growing.
And a reversal, as the book is written backwards. Ending with the two prologues. And then it is a con-verse, a coming together of verse. The riddle, the sonnet, and terza rima.
Canto is the last chapter: an homage to Dante’s terza rima, losing its final “o” to become the Cant of Anglo-Saxon riddles of the first chapter. Cant as in sing-song (chant), but not without a hint of the religious canticles and the secret jargon of riddles. That lost “o” (from canto to cant) is one of many repeating and interweaving symbols. Its disappearance in the riddles sections places an absent “o” at their centre.
The knowledge one accesses in poetry is the end of the will. Consciousness plays itself to the limit of knowing—this language game pushes to the limit of what the self can assert and thus what can be called self at all. At the centre of all lyrics is a hidden mystery. According to Alain Badiou in Handbook of Inaesthetics: “the mystery is, strictly speaking, that every poetic truth leaves at its own centre what it does not have the power to bring into presence.”1 Language builds a disappearance. The riddle is in this way exemplary of this absence at the heart of the lyric.
The book opens:
I have a face none can see
Immediately calling attention to the historical dominance of the speaker in the lyric form. A lyric’s validity is often seen to rest upon the authenticity of its voice, and that authenticity is often conflated with the person of the poet. As Allen Grossman argues in his Summa Lyrica “the poem has the same singularity as a self.”2 We require the consciousness and form of the poem to present unity, in the same way we require any other person to exhibit unity. It is the “you” up against which the “I” becomes coherent. But the unity of the lyric “self” is a consciousness brought into our recognition through a body quite other than the form of the human body. It is another example of a mind/body relation providing coherent otherness. It is might seem that the lyric is the most enduring game of ventriloquism, but the doll needs no other’s breath. It is a voice without a breath. In this way it is immortal. And in this way it is never the poet. It is a body without a face. Though as with all “selves” we encounter, we reserve one for it.
The second poem opens:
Lipless lidless absent a mouth
And here is the immortal eye and mouth of the faceless self of the poem. The eye and mouth are two “O”s missing at the centre of our lyric riddle. The riddle on page 6, comingles with lines from an Anglo Saxon riddle from the Exeter Book. The Exeter riddle in its Penguin Classic translation is:
My home’s not silent, but I am not
Loud-mouthed. The Lord shaped
Our course together: I’m swifter than he,
Sometimes stronger, he’s more strenuous.
At times I rest: he must run onwards.
But I live in him all the days of my life;
If we’re divided I’m certain to die.3
The usual “solution” to this riddle is a fish and a river, but I’ve always seen a much more spiritual assertion in the Lord shaping their course together. I am inclined to notice the relation between spirit and body (perhaps blood and heart—the blood being silent and the heart beating, though even here one sees the possibility of body and spirit again). The I of the riddle acknowledges the need of the home of the body. The I needs the lyric body in the same way. We read the body and see in its movements the spirit. Without the body we have nowhere to read the spirit.
So we have the poem as an erotic encounter where the reader looks for evidence of otherness, desiring, and partway creating, a union with that otherness (which would in the end unify the I/you, or the reader/speaker(poet) or object/subject dichotomy).
The next two sections are sonnets. The sonnet is a self-conscious erotic machine. It plays both sides of the erotic gap, seeing otherness as both biddable and seductive. The speaker is simultaneously the besotted lover and the seducer, inviting the reader into an erotic exchange. The fantasy of the sonnet is of the written self outlasting the erotic crises of union. The sonnet form itself enacts a single-voiced “dialogue” pivoted around the Q and A of its featured turn (answering its own question) that supports the idea of the sonnet as the arena of erotic exchange. The speaker is both lover and beloved.
So the next section, entitled Mobius Crown (indicating a crown of sonnets), marks a development in the dynamic of the I/you relation. The missing “o” of the riddle is now transforms into a Mobius crown, where both sides (the inside and outside) of the erotic union inhabit the same plane.
This crown of sonnets does not partake of the usual connective structure (the last line of one sonnet being the first line of the next), but perhaps that is because the crown is now a Mobius strip which outstrips the notion of beginning and end. The apostrophic “O,” the open mouth of the poem, is now the “I” bending around to meet itself as other.
And here it is perhaps necessary to discuss the obvious drama of having two writers inhabit one speaker. Other poetic collaborations are often constructed as dialogues that uphold the possibility of identifying the speaker with the poet. Here, until we read the prologues (and only when Srikanth names Dan as the other writer) do we identify the single poet/single speaker relationship. Up until that point the conversity maintains a fluidity that does not allow easy separation. If we look at the sonnet on page 20:
Our mothers lay down and we stepped on them
Dust in the womb. We stepped on the dust
And entered the woods. White moon in branches
Broke the months. Now that winter’s broken.
King informs us dust is a manor of snow
We shed in the shroud (yellow arrow points
Down) we kneel among grey moths
Falling upwards like leaves lost in a meadow
The wind gathers back into a cloud.
But there is no meadow, there are no leaves,
No moths, no kneeling, no kings. Blank days
Rattle in the jaw, the skull’s loose teeth.
Our mothers whispered and while whispering wept.
A year to learn to shiver while our bodies slept.
The first thing to notice is there is no simple tit for tat sentence/line-ending exchange between two writers. But beyond that the texture of linguistic coordination is dexterously involved. Mothers, moon, months,
manor, moths…ties the poem thematically and sonically. Snow, arrow, meadow, meadow, provides end rhyme and internal rhyme connections, while perhaps most conspicuous is the use of “w”, the “rattle in the jaw” that the mothers “whispered.” If the poem is about a subject, that subject is the absence of objecthood. The poem sheds identities, shrouds, negates the certainty even of the changing months. If we inherit anything from our mothers it is the shiver of language whispered to us in the womb. The self is a learned rhythm that cannot hold onto a solid form, but must dance through them. The poem enacts this as much as it describes it. And the instant of this poetic I is not a stable identity. It never was. The poem’s linguistic flourish is its movement. Only in this fluid body can the self make evident its passing. Even the King is dead. The crown was never placed on an individual. The I is dead. Long live the I.
With the terza rima of Cantos, we compound the dynamic of the sonnet’s double inhabited speaker with Dante’s three-in-one tertiary rhyme in tercets. Dante’s toy of interconnectivity—a lover’s daisy chain developed out of his more straightforward prosody in the Vita Nuova, where his obsession with threes is evident. Our figure here is the spiral, a circularity that rises out of itself. Unlike Dante’s 33 cantos (34 in Hell) here we have 14, as if the spiral of the Cantos is the crown of the sonnets bursting into another dimension. The drama of interconnectivity between the two writers is perhaps drawn into a form given to transcendence, with the ideal that here the dynamic of exchange moves beyond the self-consciousness of the riddle’s absence, and the erotic play of the sonnet into a form that collaborates into a movement inwards and upwards. The spiral is a musician’s sousaphone, and the chorus is a rousing symphony of poetic authorship.
…Enter author in shabby overcoat
and battered top-hat. The groundlings bow
in unison as he applauds from onstage, poet
player, and bespectacled spectator,
a one-man standing ovation, I wrote,
I write, I will write, he declares to the dictator
Slinking off to stage left…
The poet figure is more Beckett than Shakespeare. The figure plays himself playing himself to his own audience, the three-in-one of the poet, the speaker and the reader all married in the form of the poem. The conscious articulation of the poet is to respond to the plot of his own emptying out; he sits on the temporal pivot, as a language-user being written through. His writing is no more or no less than his moment on the stage of language, his subject, as he writes, is his own act of selfhood performed for his own self-listening audience. It is a drama that intoxicates him enough to listen and continue. Without continuing to write he disappears as a poet, a player and a self-reader (the learned spectacled spectator, as onanistic a phrase as any I can recall). But the one-man standing ovation, the “I” continues its necessary immortality, played elsewhere, inevitably and infinitely by the coterie of players called self.
The exchange between these two writers is really a chorus of self in a unison of generic extravagance. Each plays into themselves and each other with grand humility. The drama of the lyric self is brought out onto centre stage with the curtain raised high above the proscenium. The stage rotates, and we see audience and chorus embrace, the crown is raised above the poet’s head and again the play begins.
1 Badiou, Alain Handbook of Inaesthetics, “What is a poem?” (Stanford University Press, 2004) p.23
2 Grossman, Allen The Sighted Singer, “Summa Lyrica” (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) p. 235
3The Exeter Book Riddles ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland, (London, Penguin Books 1979) p. 80