I squirreled away Pattie McCarthy's new book Table Alphabetical of Hard Words the moment it arrived by post, and I've been savoring it in little mouthfuls ever since. Her prior (brilliant) collections BK of (H)rs and Verso are sinewy and athletic and structural, and this new collection is certainly no different. I have the same experience reading McCarthy that I do reading, say, Stein or Zukofsky: a tuning to the rhythm of thinking that requires a balance between vertical and horizontal pacing. When the book arrived, I read super slowly over the first few poems, negotiating the diction, the almost haptic materiality of sound, before really tuning in and moving much too fast for comfort. And then, of course, to really stay on board, it was back to the beginning: two pages forward, one page back.
The opening gambit "askew: latelye done to death" perfectly sets the stage for what's to come; an overture really of the tension established by an erotic sensorium of language coupled with a deep distrust of how this very language slips—askew, askey, asquint, assay, astry—just out or reach, serving pleasure with one hand and use with the other. Carol Mirakove nails this delicate balance in her blurb, calling the work "exceptional in its scholarship & intimacy" a curious pairing that brings to mind Luce Irigaray or Elizabeth Grosz. The work is deeply studied—language clearly worn and lived in and worried over—but McCarthy springs this mechanism that unravels the very dispositif of scholarship she relys on.
Take the very first poem:
joint & several, mine
as nauger begat auger thus endeth
the first examynacyon
askey looking aside asquint or awry assay proofe or a triall
the history of the world is always played out at dawn
then he asked me, why I had so few words ?
I am not she that list
& it is here that I went astry, here
that I was mistaken, here I was
unmade at newgate
allow me to add something about fire—
I might (he said) deny it later vexed sore sick cease & desist
the sinews & the strings & the spaces between
all the matter that holds one together. albeit unsavory, there is this odd
resemblance (thys unsaverye symylytude)
notwithstanding, after much ado & reasoning to & fro—
The key, I think, to properly hearing this new work is listening to "the sinews & the strings & the spaces between / all that matter that holds one together." Reading McCarthy, I was immediately reminded of Deleuze's description of Francis Bacon: "the bones are like a trapeze apparatus (the carcass) upon which the flesh is the acrobat. The athleticism of the body is naturally prolonged in this acrobatics of the flesh." There is a similar acrobatic movement in McCarthy's poetry in which language plays both apparatus and acrobat, both bone and flesh, now hardening from operativity, littering the page with cultural detritus, now viscous, suddenly florescent, slipping and sliding between the bony signposts of capital and use (one part gloaming, one part glowing).
My favorite poem in the book comes only pages later:
null & void, mine
& jointed—diverse & sundry
sundered till the sinews & the strings of her eyes perished
in her head in my opinions led desist
pinion (as in to bind, wing joint) & pinion (as in crenellation)
the articulation of the body
alack poor alias whereunto I made them no answer but smiled
schismatic what meate he is
what herbs in my garden
shall I vild wretch
then he siad I was a parrot I might (he said) deny it again
if need were a token to be recieved at the mouth
still & did not (how still) in my
opinions the law a token at the mouth (none where none) here
I was unmade assay (more had they never)
I love the joint McCarthy establishes between pinion and opinion, the rich play between gear and shaft and bird's wing and voice. To bind or cut. This is precisely how the poem moves, slipping between "cloistered" nets of knowing, immediately drawn into stark relief by the sinews of activity dismantling the "mourning gesture usually reserved for women, for one woman whose entire / oeuvre of gestures is a language of mourning."