Seiferle & The Dual Narrative

Poetry is most commonly the realm of a single speaker, and the line serves as the primary unit of the poem. However, examples of the primary unit being subordinated, subjugated, or challenged by the presence an interlocutor are close at hand, from Poe’s outspoken raven to Eliot’s multivocality. The dialogic tension of conversing lines can serve a number of purposes in the poem, including exposing an internal, provocative, or verboten perspective, and releasing the speaker from the subjective experience and allowing contradiction or ambivalence to reign.

In contemporary writing, countering a primary narrative with an alternate voice can be an attempt to capture the fractiousness and schizophrenia of contemporary life – one impossible to corral in traditional line and syntax. It can work to recreate thought more realistically – that is, less linearly, as, for instance, David Foster Wallace’s fiction allows an alternate voice (the voice usually subordinated by footnotes, for example) its freedom. Dual narratives can also call attention to form and language, thereby shifting aesthetic interest from the speaker’s perception to the means of conveying perception.

Stichomythia, meaning literally “line speech,” is the term for a line by line conversation between two characters. In its original use in Greek drama, the technique allows for rapid fire dialogue, and can function as debate, as a Q&A platform, or as a vehicle to interrogation. It comes as no surprise that it is on the stage where its dramatic value pays off. In Hamlet, stichomythia heightens the drama in Act 3 when Hamlet first confronts the Queen about her transgressions. Even her “Come, come” is hurled back in this verbal joust as “Go, go”:

Hamlet: Now, mother, what's the matter?

Queen Gertrude: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.

Hamlet: Mother, you have my father much offended.

Queen Gertrude: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.

Hamlet: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.

Queen Gertrude: Why, how now, Hamlet!

Hamlet: What's the matter now?


Stichomythia has been contemporarily broadened from this vocal sparring to include rhyming couplets and split lines that join to form one metrically correct line. A stunning example can be found in leadbelly vs. lomax at the modern language association conference, 1934 by Tyehimba Jess (recently featured on a Poetry Foundation podcast). Here, each voice has a clear (and as it happens, nonfictional) source; it is not an investigation of a single psyche, but the interrogative function works similarly. Each poem can be read separately; each one radiates out from a center margin, but they easily be read across the page, thereby merging the two poems and their respective voices. When read from left to right, the tension between motives, social class, and race between the titular artist and “manager” of the art becomes powerfully evident.

In Seiferle’s poem Night Music, from her new collection Wild Tongue, two poems also create a third, and as Jess uses margins to separate the poems and offer a third reading, Seiferle’s italics and indentations serve a similar purpose. The lines in Night Music are in a state of constant collision. The syntax of the traditional sentence structure pulls us forward while the opposing line pulls us back. The syntax is simple; many lines are self-contained prepositional phrases or assertions, and they are end stopped, yet some offer the option of enjambment because they are married to their alternative line. Where unambiguous syntax lends surefootedness, syntactical ambiguity results in unsteadiness. For Seiferle, it also suggests the mercurial quality of realms of existence.

In part I, the river does double (then triple) duty as metaphor and thing fished in; the waterbird suggests an “absence of form,” and the narrative shifts between the corporeal and the metaphysical, then seem to amalgamate as in an Escher illustration. The word “radio” in part 4 inveighs against Cesar Vallejo’s “rule,” referred to in the competing line, that everything would change if the word were used in a poem. Ultimately, the dual narrative echoes the unity and the separation of loss as one voice accepts “you” as the “body of night,” while the other simultaneously touches the hand in the physical realm.

To a reader confronted with the dual narrative, there is a choice of pattern and meaning – the two voices can be apprehended independently or together. It is this choice that might be the most interesting aspect of this technique. The speaker’s relinquishment of authority serves to intensify the reader’s ownership of the event – that is, the event happening on the page. The poem is not simply a prior incident recounted, or an emotion articulated, but is instead something that discovers itself, in real time, simply through our participation as a reader.


Night Music

by Rebecca Seiferle

I

“voice” is not only a matter of utterance

................there is so much light in the dark water

but a mater of being,

...............the water bird seems to be fishing for nothing

so that form, even the apparent absence of

................but light, its beak, a thin needle of splendor

form

................threading the waters

is the attempt to create

................all the dark at its back, luminous,

another order

.................like that river which was believed to circle

of time

................the ancient world where we are still

that river which is full of prehistories and intoxicating

................watching for the winged messengers

drinks offered to lips of water

................so that we always begin with the simplest of faiths

naked or the color of blue berries

................full of the dust of ourselves

2

that word, like many words,

................I kept confusing

has a person

................the vessel of the supposed

buried within it

................hero with the monster he went to kill

so the mask is fashioned

................its eyes as many as mercy, its mouths as many as death

until we forget ourselves

................trying to stay alive as a happy animal

though at moments in another’s eyes

................for what is a love but that

we still glimpse the face of the beautiful daughter

................night music

peering out beneath that white skull

................of the human heart

a strange and terrible prize

3

there was this ancient rule

.................full of a pain

that words could not be

................as I am now

uttered

................my own horned toad

as a thumb jammed into a mouth

................weeping tears of blood

would choke off crying,

................out in the garden,

piercing the ear of that most distant angel

................the fear of love, the fear of death, the fear of not

who falls to the ground like a dead wren

that idle cat brought home

4

he said that everything would change

................I was listening to the radio

if the word radio were used in a poem

................dancing not in body but in mind

because what is a poet

................when suddenly I am, oh, somewhere else

but a night music

................in another realm of being,

so full of pain and sounding so much like you

................and in that world, too, I love and love you

for what are ‘you’ finally

................and I’m holding out my hand to you

but the very body of night,

................your hand resting lightly on my palm

a folded wing,

................our fingertips just touching

a tree full of birds

.................as we begin to move…

A music

................So close and reserved

It will not show itself

................Except by a dark light

5

where am I

................I’ve gone miles past the turn back

when I’m absent-

................to my life, to the errands of the hungry

minded?

................cats and dogs, which I do easily, mindlessly

my mind, humming,

................loaded down

with bags and papers,

................walking into the house

my skin still strange and full of that night music

................into the bright and busy rooms


Copyright 2007 Copper Canyon Press

1 comment:

EssÄ…n Dragone said...

I had forgotten about stychomythia!