Beyond the Bother of Sunlight
Sheila E. Murphy and Lewis LaCook
Buffalo: BlazeVOX, 2011
(cover art: Sheila E. Murphy)
Sheila E. Murphy is not only one of the most prolific contemporary poets; she’s also one of the most generous collaborators with other poets. Sometimes, collaborating poets engage in a clearly-delineated dialogue and indicate who wrote what, as in Leslie Scalapino and Lyn Hejinian’s Sight. But Murphy’s collaborations with poets such as Douglas Barbour, Charles Alexander, mIEKAL aND, and Peter Ganick tend more or less seamlessly to synthesize their respective contributions so that the textual offspring, so to speak, blends genetic material from both.
This is the case with Beyond the Bother of Sunlight, Murphy’s most recent collaborative effort, in which she pairs up with Lewis LaCook, who publishes much of his work on his blog, Xanax Pop. Beyond the Bother of Sunlight consists of fifty-two untitled poems, suggesting perhaps one poem for every week of a year, as well as a series exploring related themes. Though their collaborative process is not described, knowing LaCook’s proclivity for digital manipulation of text, it’s possible that this played a part in the compositional method. But whether or not this is the case, there is ample evidence of a very human, joyous, and intelligent shaping of the material. And the result is, to my mind, a smooth blending of their poetics and a serendipitous duet. To borrow their own words, the poetry creates “accidents of startled symmetry,” “birthing fluid children.”
It’s not surprising that both Murphy and LaCook have musical backgrounds, because reading the poetry is like listening to music whose complexity becomes more apparent as the piece progresses: gradually the listener becomes aware of themes and motifs, and during the course of the composition part of the pleasure is in the recognition of patterns and the recontextualization and development of those melodic fragments.
The word that comes to mind to describe this intensely musical poetry is relational: Murphy and LaCook bring words from particular realms of signification in relation to one another so that their meaning shifts as, for example, when a words from the semantic fields of spirituality and sexuality are juxtaposed. A bit later, a word with sexual connotations might be set next to a mathematical term. Thus words such as “wafer” and “bless,” “tryst” and “moan,” and “fraction” and “equation” surface in varying contexts throughout the book, suggesting a kind of musical grammar in which words recur within different syntactical and semantic frameworks. Very early into the poems I began to perceive and enjoy the deft interweaving of themes that give the poetry an inner coherence but that also allows it generous room to breathe semantically due to the contextual shifts.
In the following four passages, taken from different sections of the book, note the recurrent themes of consciousness, sexuality, spirituality, mathematics, language, time, and light/colour:
What if sleep were as translucent as desire?
Desire breaks out of its equation
As mathematics clarify, language amples
The frozen integers lacking this much space
Become a world thus far undocumented
The more I simmer, the more you pave
The more you reverence, the more I stave off
Glyphs tearing into torpor
Only a certain paradise knows
How to pause a shape of color in your sleep
These and other themes are subtly intertwined throughout the book, giving the poetry (to use an analogy other than music) the texture of an intricate fabric woven with colourful threads that create recognizable but shifting patterns. There are sonic patterns, too, as in the assonance created by “lacing gaps” and, later in the same poem, its anagrammatic echo, “lapse of grace.”
The semantic field of Beyond the Bother of Sunlight is constrained by the vocabulary derived from particular realms of experience and knowledge yet also expansive due to a kind of lexical synesthesia that blends terms from these realms and enriches their experience. The result is poetry in which “language amples” into “a world thus far undocumented.”
This is a book to which I’ll return to savour its mysteries. To appreciate more fully the beauty of Murphy and LaCook’s collaboration, you should read more than just a couple of poems to experience the sympathetic vibrations of the motifs that surface throughout the book. Nonetheless I’d like to offer two in their entirety, which I hope will entice you to to read more:
Pacing bequeaths to water
What water and the sky do best:
Smile extinguishes all traces of significance.
We motor our way home, inventing machines to carry or to carry us.
Punctuation creeps into our codes, lacing gaps
Into our bodies, bracing pauses
Through which topographies of lingo
Merge, filling the map
That way I’ve got everything flattened
And before me, ready to be folded
Along all the wrong spines,
Awaiting translation in the temporal plain.
But there’s nothing so-so about you.
Only every once in a while in the crackling
That swept over my brain text like viral winds
Swallowing scorched information affords
So beautiful, so suspiciously pure, you
Doubt your touch of it.
Purity eventually is traced
To touch. Suspicion twines around
Topographies that embrace
The merging of sweet spines.
A singular fulfillment rescinds the stencil
That reduces bliss to genuflection.
Are we there yet?
A physicality endears itself to lapse of grace
Whose map occurs to us. In time,
A blossom purrs with listening.
We hear in our flesh the tension of it,
The awful urging pulsing breaks.
It was eventually found that the paint
Would pane around the letters in ghost
Plains, and this complicated into
A false sense of depth.
When walking on
The surface her feet sometimes
It was all she could do to keep herself
Inattention was her fated goal.
It had been a long time since he looked you in the eye.
We’re a conquered people, servants
In our own land. Tranquillizers, accidents
It is forbidden for anyone to open that book
Until physicality becomes religious combustion
I see it as hopeless to try to reason with you
Just in case the flowers didn’t work
He burrowed into the fields of narrativity
Slipping through the confluence of probable branches
Until he walked on translucent panes, interlocking,
Layered. Tranquilizers conquer you. Lovely tranquilizers,
Accidents. It is forbidden for anyone to open that book.
Tranquil is a word. Speech.
Ventilation coughs up
Translucence and transmission.
Changes lock open
The book of wheels, the book of patter, the book
Of a religion
Killing beams no episode at all.
All out of kilter then, the plot’s made simple
And advisement borrows shrapnel of nativity.
Bloom time once crescent shaped is domed
Its wheatened blue comes close to venture
But Freud reserves the coup de grace dealt to “human megalomania” for “the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind.”
Freud’s reference to the “megalomanic” view of human consciousness brings to my mind that most sinister creation of the post-9/11 Bush administration: the Total Information Awareness Program (TIA), brainchild of John Poindexter and Brian Hicks, devoted to ferreting out information on the identity, location, and plans of terrorists. There is an aura of unreality to the hubris of their creepy fantasy of omniscience, which would be appropriate to the surveillance ministry of a totalitarian regime in a science fiction dystopia—say, 1984. “Total information awareness” also seems to me an apt, if hyperbolic, way to describe the folk-psychological tendency to attribute to consciousness greater powers of awareness, concentration, objectivity, and memory than are warranted by this relatively focused and limited aspect of cognition.
In a more historical vein, Enlightenment thinkers extolled human consciousness as a supremely rational “master in its own house.” The belief in the power and scope of consciousness must have erected an enormous pedestal for it—a butte might better describe it—because after decades of hacking away at it, scientists are still discovering ways in which our over-inflated assessment of consciousness is based on illusions. It’s humbling to read about the experiments that demonstrate the conscious mind’s limitations: working memory is more limited, awareness of perception is more selective, memory is more fallible and susceptible to distortion, and sensory perception is a more creative process than previously thought. These illusions remind me of the sobering truism that consciousness is only the tip of the iceberg of cognition.
And that iceberg beneath the surface, with its vast storehouse of information and its inner workings, remains for the most part tantalizingly out of reach. The experience of hypnogogic dreams sometimes gives me the feeling that I’m dipping into a part of its vastness and getting a glimpse of its machinations. But mostly I’m unaware of the means by which I’m constantly being fed bits and pieces from my unconscious mind by countless little creatures of the deeps.
The tip-of-the-tongue syndrome
A mental phenomenon that we all know as the “tip-of-the-tongue” feeling can give us insight into the mysterious relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind. In a typical tip-of-the-tongue moment, we are unable to retrieve information that we are sure that we could remember if only we had access to it. But the link seems to be faulty, and we struggle. Perhaps we remember that the word we’re trying to remember begins with a “b,” and we might try different syllables beginning with that letter to see if we can trigger our memory. This kind of experience reveals to researchers some fundamental lessons about the way the brain is organized:
One of the key lessons of tip-of-the-tongue research
is that the human brain is a cluttered place. Our
knowledge is filed away in a somewhat slapdash
fashion, so that names are stored separately from
faces and the sound of a word and the meaning of a
word are kept in distinct locations. Sometimes when
we forget something, the memory is not so much
lost as misplaced.
The messy reality of the mind contradicts the
conventional metaphor of memory, which assumes
that the brain is like a vast and well-organized file
cabinet. According to this theory, we’re able to
locate the necessary memory because it has been
sorted according to some logical system. But this
metaphor is misleading. The brain isn’t an immaculate
file cabinet – it’s more like an untidy desk covered
with piles of paper. (Lehrer)
If my memory is anything like my own office desk, I’m in deep trouble. But conducting experiments into the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon can give us a glimpse into the way in which memory is actually stored—not neatly categorized but fragmented and scattered. In fact,
the brain doesn’t have firsthand access to its own
memories. Instead, it makes guesses based upon
the other information that it can recall. For instance,
if we can remember the first letter of someone’s
name, then the conscious brain assumes that we
must also know his or her name, even if we can’t
recall it right away. This helps explain why people
are much more likely to experience a tip-of-the-
tongue state when they can recall more information
about the word or name they can’t actually
In the study that Lehrer refers to, conducted by Lise Abrams, a person trying to recall the word “bandanna” can be successfully prompted with a word like “banish” because the latter word “activate[s] the same network of brain cells devoted to the sound” of the former. According to Abrams, tip-of-the-tongue experiences occur because the semantic connection is strong, but the phonological connection (the sound of the word) is weak. We have the feeling that we know what the word means, but we cannot speak the word.
And here’s where things get even more interesting: successful prompts need not be so direct. For example,
Abrams has shown that showing people a picture
of a motorcycle can help them remember the word
“biopsy.” Because the idea of a motorcycle is
connected in the brain to the word “bike,”
which shares a first syllable with “biopsy,” the
seemingly irrelevant cue becomes an effective hint.
Even when the subjects, asked to name the object in the picture, said “motorcycle” instead of “bike,” the tip-of-the-tongue problem of remembering “biopsy” was more frequently resolved than when a picture of, say, a helicopter was shown. So apparently, the proximity of “motorcycle” and “bike” in the brain can trigger the associative chain from “bike” to “biopsy,” even though one would be hard pressed to come up with an obvious associative link between “motorcycle” and “biopsy.”
Lyn Hejinian’s “incompletely reciprocal” lexicon
This kind of information flow reminds me of Lyn Hejinian’s remarks in “The Rejection of Closure” about lexical disjunction:
Even words in storage, in the dictionary, seem
frenetic with activity, as each individual entry
attracts to itself other words as definition, example,
and amplification. Thus, to open the dictionary at
random, mastoid attracts nipplelike, temporal, bone,
ear, and behind. Turning to temporal we find that
the definition includes time, space, life, world,
transitory, and near the temples, but, significantly,
not mastoid. There is no entry for nipplelike, but
the definition for nipple brings over protuberance,
breast, udder, the female, milk, discharge,
mouthpiece, and nursing bottle, and not mastoid,
nor temporal, nor time, bone, ear, space, or world.
It is relevant that the exchanges are incompletely
Although the analogy between Hejinian’s lexical disjunction and memory’s associative process isn’t precise, the idea in common is the sidereal associations that produce a circuitous path: the two degrees of separation between “mastoid” and “transitory,” and between “motorcycle and “biopsy,” result in two words with wildly different meanings but nontheless with a filament of associations connecting them. And it is possible for a chain of very selective indirect associations to lead us to the word that was on the tip of our tongue.
Tomorrow, Part II:
“I hate my birthday!”—Or, what do elegies by New York school poets have in common with the story of an Italian anarchist?
Abrams, Lise. “Tip-of-the-Tongue States Yield Language Insights.” American Scientist. May/June 2008.
Lehrer, Jonah. “What’s that name?” The Boston Globe. 1 Jun 2008.