. . . But it was sudden

how overnight we could be orphaned
& the world become a bell we’d crawl inside & the ringing all we’d eat.

(Nick Flynn, “Sudden”)

The prose poem is a home where everything is in exile, and where exile is where everything belongs. It is a home where emanation and limitation (or retreat and propagation) share the same breath. A haunted home because there is a feeling that someone has been here once before.

Words too often are used to forget the things they shell. If I am standing, for example, at a podium. If I’ve taken my place. If I’ve carried myself over to the podium because the podium is here. But what if I forgot what the podium was meant to be, or who I was, or what it means to carry. Begin there. At forgetting. Consider these lines from Craig Raine’s “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.”

      Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
      and rests its soft machine on the ground:

      then the world is dim and bookish
      like engravings under tissue paper.

. . . . .

      ... At night, when all the colors die,
      they hide in pairs

      and read about themselves –
      in color, with their eyelids shut.

The idea behind Raine’s “Martian School of Poetry” was to see all our everyday objects and chores as a Martian might, as alien, so that the world can be mystified back into beauty. This exercise makes a world out of metaphor. And what is metaphor if not the act of carrying belongings from one home to another? What if not a linguistic manifestation of a Tsim Tsum—God’s ruthless exile of Himself “from boundless infinity,” in Gershom Scholem’s words, “to a more concentrated infinity”? Like Gregor Samsa who can never be a human again once he has found himself changed into an ungeheueres Ungeziefer, the word ferried out of its shell and into the shell of another becomes immigrant. This begins the history of trauma.

At the level of the word, metaphor provides a new enclosure. But a larger enclosure becomes necessary once all these metaphors arrive (like orphans). They are waiting to be stored.

“This is so nice,” writes Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons, “and sweet and yet there comes the change, there comes the time to press more air. This does not mean the same as disappearance.” In a torn up world, Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) – her biography of objects, food, and rooms – tears the sentence up and makes out of word-assemblages a kind of nonsense that stages the word as a thing infused with fingers that points the word away from itself. Stein cracks open the shell that has kept the word, but does not abandon the cracked-up word. Wrench does not dissolve it: no, no. Nor does it vanish when its keeper (or shell, or name) vanishes. Instead, Stein sweeps up the offspring of its shatter (its deadness, its paralysis) and through a syntactical bartering returns the word to a world saturated in its own exile – and it’s no accident that the world she returns these words to takes the form of a prose poem.

In a 1934 photograph of Hans Bellmer’s The Doll , the doll is open at the torso. Where her navel should be is a wheel. Bellmer’s plan, although never carried out, was to attach to the wheel a rotating disk, lit by tiny colored bulbs (operated by a button placed on the doll’s left nipple), that would contain six wedged shaped scenes: a boat sinking into ice, sweetmeats, a handkerchief dirty with saliva, and three pornographic shots. I often imagine this disk (fixed to where her navel should be) as the perfect image for the prose poem, since both maintain themselves through their doubleness. They both possess a firmly sensed certainty that there exists a reason, a center, on one hand, and a spinning de-centered randomness on the other. Through this doubleness, the prose poem captures fragments, and makes out of its elusive simultaneity of vision a little monastery – as Bellmer had made, for the belly of his doll, a spinning center out of scraps. The prose poem, writes Charles Simic, is “the result of two contradictory impulses, prose and poetry, and therefore cannot exist, but it does. This is the sole instance of squaring the circle.”

Charles Baudelaire, the prose poem’s first pioneer, writes in “The Stranger” (the first prose poem in Paris Spleen (1855-1867)) of an “enigmatical man” who when asked whom he loves best – his father, his mother, his sister, or his brother – replies he has none. When he is asked about his country he replies he does not even know “in what latitude” his country lies. He only loves, he replies, the clouds “...up there...up there...” Like Baudelaire’s enigmatic stranger who cannot be interrupted by the interior boundaries of his origin, like one who is devoted only to the nebulous, the prose poem breaks the poem free from the formalistic interruptions of the line break. Unlike the short story, the prose poem – “that cannot exist, but it does” – must begin (out of the sheerness of its form) in a state of marvel. Often, figures in prose poems will be found a little off-kilter and bewildered. Something often feels as if it’s been left behind. And perhaps this

happens because the prose poem is a form that exists because it has removed from the thing its form. Baudelaire, in his preface to Paris Spleen, admits that the idea of the prose poem is a haunting one, and that it came to him while exploring the city and “the medley of its innumerable interrelations.” This idea of haunt engendered by the dissolution of the line break remains the most potent mark of the prose poem. To free a poem of its line break is to free a poem of its breath. The space on the right hand side of the page is gone, as is the possibility for escape. The prose poem is a box free of interior borders, but it’s struck with exterior borders that square it. The images inside the prose poem, like the images on Bellmer’s disk, and like the images of the unconscious unbothered by formulaic breaks, are tightly packed, and tough, and bright against each other. The prose poem is a chamber with no way out. And what is haunt if not a breathing thing caught inside (the house, or the body, or the box) without the possibility of exit?

Jean Toomer’s “Rhobert” carries this home. The prose poem begins:

                Rhobert wears a house, like a monstrous diver’s helmet, on his head.
      His legs are banty-bowed and shaky because as a child he had rickets. He
      is way down. Rods of the house like antennae of a dead thing, stuffed, prop
      up in the air. He is way down. He is sinking. His house is a dead thing that
      weights him down. His is sinking as a diver would sink in mud should the
      water be drawn off.

                 . . . The dead house is stuffed. The stuffing is alive. It is sinful to
      draw one’s head out of live stuffing in a dead house. The propped-up
      antennae would cave in and the stuffing would be strewn...shredded life-
      pulp in the water. It is sinful to have one’s own head crushed.

Rhobert must keep his head in his helmet, like the creator who must go out to keep his stuffing alive. This situation is eerily in synch with that moment in Addie’s monologue (in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying) when she is speaking about her husband’s name: “I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquefy and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar. I would think: The shape of my body where I used to be a virgin is in the shape of a and I couldn’t think Anse, couldn’t remember Anse.” Like Rhobert who is the dead house he wears, Addie speaks out of interiorized squares: her bed, the window through which she watches her son hammer her coffin, her grave. Like Rhobert, her thinking thinks where she is not. Even the wagon is a moving box that moves her death from city to city. Even the word, she reminds us, is “just a shape to fill a lack.” And it’s these lacks that the prose poem, because of the sheerness of its form, can hold like a dead house holds its stuffing. And it’s in the prose poem where the stuffing can become again alive. 

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