Charles Borkhuis: “Write What I Say”

The following is a close reading of Borkhuis’ poem “Write What I Say.” The complete poem is included in the stanza-by-stanza analysis below, but the uninterrupted text of the poem can be found in the previous post. I open my analysis with the prefatory remarks from the previous post for the sake of continuity.

          The title of Borkhuis’ poem is ironic: the poem offers many images of excess, of the overdetermination of signs, symbols, utterances, so that writing down what a person says is no more guarantee of pinning down its intended meaning than eavesdropping on the mumbling of an absent god through thick walls.
          A less ironic version of the poem’s title might be, “Write what you think I say when I say what I think I’m thinking.” Which is to say that as soon as I start to tease out meaning from the poem, I feel caught up in a catch-22: the poem sings the superfluity of tracing its outlines with my own signifiers. It invokes shadows, drowning, hovering, weedy waters, and above all, the superfluous action or situation that overflows its context (or inversely, invented contexts that overdetermine an event). That which exceeds its bounds metaphorically stands in for linguistic excess, the signified that overdetermines origin, context, intent.
          It’s tempting to say that in this poem Borkhuis captures the essence of poetic language, but of course his poetry does not celebrate essences but rather the infinite splaying of experience in which the words that name it abandon us in a wilderness whose colours language can paint only in wisps, elusive brushstrokes, evocative traces. And in the process of interpretation, I become acutely aware of other meanings lurking behind the ones I choose in order to create my stories, my opera, of the poem.
          The work strikes me as an example of the metapoetics in language poetry that echoed deconstructionist thinking; it brings to my mind Derrida’s “Signature, Event, Context” in Limited, Inc. Has this approach to poetry really fallen in popularity (if I can use such a word to describe a tendency in experimental poetry) in recent years, perhaps following Derrida’s somewhat fallen stock? Is the gesture of pulling the rug from under signification taken for granted and somehow absorbed into political and social critique? My question is vague and problematic, but who these days, among the younger generation of poets, is writing more or less explicitly about writing, speech, words, language, la rupture?
          For now, though, my aim is to explore how Borkhuis richly engages such concepts.


                    Write What I Say

                    write what I say


          The parroting of the title in the first line suggests from the start the idea of excess, redundancy, yet the first line differs from the title: set in italics, it signals a quote. This contextual slippage implies that even if the speaker’s command were obeyed and his words written down, the context will not necessarily follow along with an intended signification—the words might be carved in stone, but their meanings are from the start far less ossified than the cliché would suggest. The amenuensis writes the words of the speaker, but the words have already abandoned the speaker.
          Derrida’s idea of “a written sign carr[ying] with it a force of breaking with its context” is relevant. As I mentioned above, a less ironic (and more cognitively and linguistically lifelike) imperative might be “write what you think I say when I say what I think I’m thinking.”


                    said someone face over
                    water in the weeds


          Here’s context for the quote, but the words, situation and speaker (“someone”) remain uncertain. Moreover, the speaker’s words are aimed not at an interlocutor but (perhaps just as futilely) at weedy water, an image that conveys indeterminateness.

                    drown the instant in ink
                    flickering eyelight to eros
                    walk your shadow across the wall


          The above three lines, continuing the speaker’s imperative mode with a touch of irony, suggest the impossibility of constraining experience in inky symbols—or, to put it the other way around, writing as death (recall Derrida’s association of Thoth with writing in “Plato’s Pharmacy.”) But if the signifier would drown the occasion of its inscription, in other words, conscribe its own horizons of signification, the writer’s gazing at eros embraces the excess, the overkill, of the signified.
          These lines trigger a series of images of excess or futility, as in attributing independent agency to a shadow.


                    a small red ball hangs from a string

          Here’s a lovely image of precision: a single thing with definite and simple properties, a discrete little entity in the midst of a less precise or certain world. There’s a futility in the image as well: the little red ball cannot do what little red balls do best: bounce. Instead, it dangles from a thread, suspended in mid-air.
          At this point I pause as I become aware that I’m attempting to weave a basket (a coherent whole) out of the poem in which to place my interpretation, to dovetail the poem to suit my own exegesis of it. And this realization makes me more acutely aware of Borhius’ theme about writing and death. The end of the poem gives insight into the speaker and context: the sole survivor of an airplane crash apparently tries to describe the experience to an interviewer. His fear of being misunderstood prompts him to command (in a gesture of futility) the interviewer to write exactly what he says.
          By the same token, I see in front of me exactly what Borkhius wrote in the poem, yet because of its disjunctiveness, I become aware of the extent to which I am giving the poem significance. Borkhuis doesn’t give many stepping stones, so a reader must become something of an acrobat, or to continue Borkhuis’ theme, embrace the text as a living process, coterminous with life and death, something that does not reproduce experience faithfully (offering it a kind of immortality) but doubts itself at every turn.


                    the naked woman in the window
                    steps behind the curtain


          . . . thus preventing the viewer from gazing at her nudity. Eros thwarted, vanquished, erased. The presumed object of desire is removed. The remaining desire is excess, superfluity. I wouldn’t exactly say writing (or poetic language) as sublimation of that desire; I think Borkhuis is getting at the idea of absence at the heart of writing.

                    “I’ve been running in place all my life”
                    sneers a fat man on tv


          Perhaps the man is on an exercise show, instructed to run in place, and he puns on the futility of his life as well as the futility of his running in place—he’s still obese. These two lines are rich in their suggestions of excess and futility.
          I realize that not everyone will invent the same context for the speaker’s words, but what I find interesting is the way in which the words hover on the brink of intelligible context and invite the invention of a contextual narrative.


                    an empty train pulls into the station
                    enter with the others and stare
                    at the smudged glass

                    write what I say


          Borkhius invites us to enter a train and “stare / at the smudged glass,” becoming one of many alienated from one another, leaving their bodily traces as smudges on glass. It is a train of the living dead. And when a mass murderer springs into action, the killing in a sense seems superfluous, as does his apology just before he shoots.

                    flesh-dwelling memories
                    caught in a lover’s mandibles
                    or carved
                    into a bird-lit tree stump

                    languorously finger-writing
                    her name on the window
                    while we circle the runway

                    down we go


          I’m struck by the musicality of the language here. The images are strikingly visual, and the rhythm of the language seems to be orchestrating its meaning.
          These images as well speak to futility (“circling the runway”) and violence or death (“mandibles,” “carved”), and not insignificantly, Borkhuis links these images to writing. The carving of a lover’s name onto a tree trunk will not invoke the lover any more than the memories trapped (possessively, violently) in a vise grip of insect-like mandibles; however, the mandibles threaten also to kill, to erase, those mental representations of the beloved (like the naked woman moving behind a curtain).
          In addition, “down we go” foreshadows the plane crash (violence and death) following the signature event.


                    scribbling on the underside
                    of night (the little hairs
                    that go unnoticed)

                    the recitular residue
                    of dead skin and ash
                    stains at the bottom of the cup
                    talk in riddles
                    dream in code


          More images of illusiveness, traces, extinction, mystery, insubstantiality, superfluity, linked with writing. Poetic language might be described as “[s]cribbling on the underside / of night” that recuperates the endangered traces of what goes unnoticed (“the little hairs”).
        And in an image reminiscent of a tea-leaf reading, the networked stains at the bottom of a cup are, surprisingly, composed not of tea leaves but of “dead skin and ash.” These stains speak in riddles and code that must be deciphered (a trope for reading and giving meaning to a text). The stains do not contain inherent prognostications (meaning); they are only symbols that flourish within a reader’s experience and perception, with all of the ephermerality suggested by those realms.


                    awaken
                    with the outward manifestations
                    of a displaced metaphor
                    poised at the eye

                    a photo of the last of her
                    sitting at the fountain
                    the relaxed angle of her arm
                    on cold stone


          I’m again interested in the musicality of the language here, especially in the stanza describing the photo of a woman. But to dive into the significance of the images, they both have to do with representation: “the displaced metaphor” and the photo. The latter is associated with death (“cold stone”): language has once again killed its subject; she seems to be leaning on her own tombstone.
         In the former stanza, the signifier also subsumes its referent, the object described as “the outward manifestation / of a displaced metaphor.” Far from capturing its object, the language only serves to refer to itself (the “displaced metaphor”) describing the object, thus in effect replacing the object.
          As the publisher’s description on the jacket eloquently states, “Borkhuis’ own term for the direction that his work has taken is the ‘critical-lyric,’ which argues that the unpredictable disruptions of the body are in excess of any attempt to contain them in a linguistic system or theory, yet these nameless forces of dynamic ‘otherness’ leave traces in the swirling grains of language through which poetry attempts to speak.”


                    write what I say

                    emptiness folds into itself
                    giving birth


          The latter two lines nicely describe poetic language without trying to pin it down, in contrast to “write what I say.”

                    (parentheses vibrating)

                    a man’s exhausted
                    habit-swollen face
                    on a stalled train of thought
                    our eyes lock and load

                    lock and load


          Borkhuis’ language is finely-honed and evocative. Traces of dynamic forces in swirling grains of language, indeed.
          The man’s “habit-swollen face” recalls the “flesh-dwelling memories” of the beloved. In the case of the latter, the thought of the beloved arouses desire, which grips the memories in its “mandibles,” threatening to devour them. As to the latter, the man’s actions and perhaps also thoughts are determined by habit, iteration. But here his habitual “train of thought” stalls. The common thread between the two images, it seems to me, is the threatened failure of thought and memory to capture en event. Note, by the way, that Derrida is concerned with rupture “not only for all orders of ‘signs’ and for languages in general but moreover, beyond semio-linguistic communication, for the entire field of what philosophy would call experience, that is, the experience of Being, so-called presence.”
          As in other images in the poem, that of the man’s aborted thought reveals Borkhuis’ concern with absence, abandonment. The habitual trajectory of thought stalls, leaving the man stranded. The thought’s origin is perhaps forgotten, unmoored from the impetus that triggered it, and its destination seems unreachable. Habit, iteration, in thought and language, fails because it is from the outset unmoored, absent to the thinking and writing subject.


                    where the words lead and then
                    abandon us . . .


          Absence and abandonment are important linked concepts in Derrida’s thought. For example, in “Signature, Event, Context,” Derrida notes that in the act of writing, “the sender, the addressor” is absent “from the marks that he abandons, which are cut off from him and continue to produce effects beyond his presence and beyond the present actuality of his meaning, that is, beyond his life itself.” And many images in Borkhuis’ poem are marked by absence, abandonment, death.
          The poem ends with a series of metaphors to describe the way words lead us on and then abandon us. Poetry is that site of linguistic abandonment that rescues its offspring and also becomes its own offspring – giving birth not only to the lost significations on the head of a pin but also to itself in mid-song.


                    like the scent of our own flesh
                    that’s always too much
                    and not enough


          Flesh-scent, an invisible bodily trace, both exceeds the boundaries of the body and inadequately defines it. The linguistic analogue is elusive but traceable: writing exceeds, overflows, its context.

                    like the sea gull fallen
                    between parked cars
                    her motionless eye staring
                    at no one in particular


          A dead seagull seems to be staring (superfluously) but at no on in particular (futility): life within death, excess within and beyond limits.

                    like the man on the train
                    who stands and apologizes
                    before shooting into the crowd


          If the action of the mass murderer is beyond the pale, his apology is both excessive (outside the norm and overshooting, so to speak, the correction to alienation), inadequate to the heinousness of the act, and redundant (murdering the living dead in the train). Borkhuis suggests an analogy to the linguistic act, which always threatens to erase its origins and exceed its limits (just as those origins cannot be constrained by that act).

                    like the coyote trapped
                    and gnawing off its foot


          The excessive and violent act achieves the coyote’s freedom. Capturing is unsuccessful, and the coyote escapes, but not without leaving a part of his body behind. Perhaps Borkhuis suggests that poetry speaks through such a violent act of abandonment.

                    like your tongue tracing the ridges and valleys
                    of your lover’s scars


          The theme of violence continues. The image of “scars” comes as a surprise; signs of injury unexpectedly compose the erotic terrain of the body. And these traces of violence (marks analogous, perhaps, to writing) overflow their origins, become part of the erotic life-force.

                    that’s not what I meant

                    winced the sole survivor
                    of the burning 747

                    write what I say


          The last four lines offer a context for the title, but even given the added situatedness of the words, they still convey irony: the survivor can speak, not the dead. Yet the survivor cannot make himself be understood, and he futility instructs his interviewer to write what he says, as though doing so will pin down his meaning. The scope of the disaster is in excess of his words’ ability to convey the experience. The words have abandoned him at a critical point and allowed intention, context, meaning, to shift. He has escaped death, and poignantly tries to hold on to his words, to fix their meaning for eternity. But they have from the outset abandoned him.

Camille Martin
Sonnets
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