Diane Raptosh–”American Amnesiac”–The (Non)Self as a Thousand Localities
Diane Raptosh’s Cal Reinhart/John Doe is a nephew of John Berryman’s Henry—“Named after/ my father’s uncle”—hence possibly named after Berryman’s good friend “Cal” Lowell, as his disruptive speech is also strongly marked by Lowellian deep concerns regarding (American as part of a wider) modern culture. But he is also a grandson of Beckett’s Molloy, while also having the penchant for ‘aberrant logic’ arguments and dislocated common wisdom of Ionesco’s characters. Although self-declared American, he is a citizen of the global age whose speech contains surprisingly scanty popular cultural references—or quite ‘honorable’ ones, Frank Zappa appears in a couple of poems for instance, alongside (in quite a Zappian fashion) Zorro, Nietzsche, and Dali—but profuse high art, world history, multilingualism (a rare gift in nowadays US verse, have you wondered why?), and philosophy, while once in a while seemingly quite well-versed in business, cuisine, word games, puzzles, and ecology.
The result is a philosophical fata morgana in an ever fresh playful language spiced with self-irony, political sarcasm, and mordent humor. The character’s pretended amnesia is infecting in the sense that the poems manage to distract us by their continuously funny and captivating surprises, thus swiftly transforming us from bewildered witnesses into pervert accomplices to this psychological suicidal (as we enjoy the riddles and pretend to forget they are actually about us too). Therefore, Raptosh’s ingenious scenarios speak not only about contemporary human condition, but also about the cultural and linguistic conditions of engaging with that condition.
In such a context, any identity marker is curtly rebutted and contradicted in a zigzag of misleading assertions, sudden shifts of perspective and register, and (suspiciously) ingenuous refutations. The map of this self-description is thus a continuously distorted and delocalized one, but the cartographer is nevertheless obsessed with locality and specificity. “The name’s Joe Doe. And I am a place, the holder of a pose” begins a poem, typically orchestrating the gradual alteration and corruption of meaning in Raptosch’s fluctuant poetics. A no-name speaker introduces himself as such, but then the locus (as in “common place”) seems to become a literal locality. The Shakespearean “habitation and a place” conferred by naming things is here (apparently) a strong assertion of identity and, at the same time, the possible inception of a captivating geography of the self. But this is once again twisted into a mere frame for readymade postures and attitudes, “poses.” The “common man” belongs in (and therefore fundamentally is) the public place, the agora, but at the same time he craves the exceptional; whence the cloned stances and… the masquerade. Still neither the raving speaker nor the ironic poet holds elitist views here, they both rather circumscribe the topos of public interactions as melodrama and (in Peter Brooks’s terms) (melo)dramatic psychology and posturing.
Here comes the punch of the second line of the couplet though—“All selves serve as other people, and I’m no exception.” An agile sparring partner, the poet seems to anticipate our suspicions and knocks them out even before they actually loom in our minds. The self appears in the plural and thus the brilliant phrase “selves serve” consists of two words almost identical in sound but triggering multiple tensions and complications. Although it is pretty close to “self-serving,” it most likely means the opposite, but as we read the whole line we realize that it may actually accommodate all opposite partial or transitory meanings.
Yet even the inclusion of so many conflicting messages is in its turn no more than one of the several things the poet strives—and the speaker off-handedly allows himself—to include. As we read in the last couplet, the soul is declared global, planetary, but only after it requests a definition by “something kind and specific,” which one suspects may be a distortion in the speaker’s rambling speech of “something kind of specific”…; besides, of course, the allusion to one’s tribe or kind, the kith and kin to whom he has been anything but kind (the suspicion arising in a previous couplet about his killing his wife is confirmed later on in the book):
Since then I’ve searched for something kind and specific. Der Tafelspitz
in den Fleischtöpfen Wiens, to start. The soul’s composed of the entire planet.
Raptosh articulates a credible psychology of the ‘global man’ whose daily life is connected to or even incorporates “the entire planet” but at the same time is hungry (even literally so, as in the quote above) for the local and the specific. Still, the latter is inevitably delocalized as the “soul” is (de)“composed” now on a global scale, and thus what is expected to become a landmark ends up by spawning disorientation and confusion. Whence the obsession of those suffering from this “Transient Global Amnesia” with localities, itineraries and connections, mazes and architecture, (crossword) puzzles and word games (a poem simply consists of a wordsearch table with a “theme of the day” actually so relevant for the whole book, “get and give”), and (brilliant pun,) You-Q tests.
I have mentioned cartography already [and I shall further look into certain possible aspects relevant to topology and graph theory in a future posting in the “graph poem” section of this website], but here I would like to insist a little bit more on the configuration of place and the role of toponyms in this book. In Poetry & Geography. Space & Place in Post-war Poetry (University of Liverpool Press, 2013), the editors Neal Alexander and David Cooper draw in the introduction (among many other brilliant elucidations) on Peter Barry’s distinction between “setting” and “geography,” the former being urban generic while the latter loco-specific (toponymy included). In Raptosh’s case, we have an interesting simultaneous combination and deconstruction of both setting and geography. Ravenna is in that respect a very telling example, one that appears a couple of times in the collection as part of almost identical formulations. First time, in italics, as a possible quote, “How mad would I have to be// to say He beheld a better order in Ravenna, where he began/ to unbelong from every place he knew?…” and later on in another poem, “I beheld a better system in Ravenna, but I didn’t stay there,” where we realize that the feared madness has already happened, as the speaker assumes the voice he has earlier resolutely censored. This is symptomatic of how voices and identities (along with localities) shift throughout the book, and typically several times actually in the same poem. Still, can we solve the puzzle? Is that “he” by any chance Dante who died in Ravenna, thus “unbelonging” from his beloved Florence, and is the order he beheld there his vision of the Comedy, entirely written while in exile? Or is this about Antonioni’s celebrated movie The Red Desert (shot in Ravenna), whose haunting theme is indeed unbelongingness? Or about Byron’s sojourn in the city and his political realizations and disappointments? Or is it Oscar Wilde who in “Ravenna” extols the same Byron right after bowing to Dante, but not before describing the legendary place as the site of, again, ultimate unbelonging: “here, indeed,/ Are Lethe’s waters, and that fatal weed/ Which makes a man forget his fatherland.” Yet what if this mysterious character in Ravenna is one and the same with the “[o]ld man cuffed in Italy” in another poem later on in the collection? The latter may very likely be Pound while locked in a cage outside of Pisa, but then the “order/system” in the quotes above is a fiercely ironic opposite of the one advocated by Byron and Wilde. It may also very well be something (also) autobiographic, since Raptosh is herself of Italian descent. Maybe either, all (opposites included), or none of the above, and anyway certainly also something else that has eluded me here.
In Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) Ian Davidson argues that contemporary poetry increasingly “refuses a fixed location and shifts between places” (31) thus actually redefining place as “a kind of open field or three-dimensional network with unlimited potential combination and connectivity” (30) (again a view relevantly converging with our own graph poem project and computational graph poetics). One can indeed sense this unlimited connective and combinatorial potential in Raptosh’s treatment of place, as seen in the particular example above. Not only that her poems shift from one place to another all the time, but even the apparently fixed geography proves to be an intersection of so many other cultural loci and localities. Just like the “self.”
“The self is a thousand localities” begins indeed another poem, and then is seized by the anxiety of being/representing a(n emerging but already dissuaded) transnational nation. Unlike Walcott’s character who trenchantly rules that he is either a nation or nobody, Raptosh’s everyman is a “nobody” (a… John Doe) because of being a nation (American) and an inter(net)nation. The former—Americanness—is just a “term” shattered by his manic (and mnemonic?) punning that uncovers the property and production-centered gravity forces interacting, through consumerism, with family and private life—“America is one such term. It contains acre and cream/ acme and ma, crime and me. America has a mashed car in it” (author’s italics). As for the latter (the global/virtual nation), its definitory interconnectedness still requires cartography to reach—through demarcations nonetheless—a possibly actual togetherness: “assembly required: borders and roads…”
The poet’s shrewd language memorably charts the paradoxes of being connected (across various kinds of distances if not divides) and astray, outside and inside (or ‘in the loop’), in ways that x-ray the ongoing negotiation of social relationships in a world where things have apparently become easily or instantly reachable but overwhelming nevertheless. In such a world, poetry is a huge effort for no more than a ditty, but therefore (who would have thought?—not even poets maybe), through its both integrative and discerning processes, possibly on of the most typical act of this age. The poetry of this age, says Raptosh, is this age. But the courage of such a vision results, in her case, in neither celebratory, prophetic stances nor in dismissive irony or detached ennui. She does not take sides, she does not look down on anything or anybody, and she does not take things lightly either. Raptosh’s speaker wants (and actually has no choice but) to experience this age to the full, and his total immersion into his time as personal sociopathic disease is the poet’s way of bearing witness of a transgressive culture not (only) of “anarchy and futility” but mainly of infecting and fundamentally mutual (or should I say collusive?) beautility:
Which reminds me that everyone I’ll have to live without
I must help to find a place within. Which is an act
of granite will. A strain. A ditty.
An exercise in utmost beautility.
A brief note on the form too. The vast majority of the collection consists of sonnets, most of which are written in couplets with erratic rhymes and irregular meter (generally gravitating around an alternation of loose iambic octometers and heptameters). Why sonnets? Well, this is almost like asking why poetry. For one good reason, the cacophony between the speaker’s gaudy Americanness (is he one of Santa’s reindeer, by the way, a rein… hart?) and the high cultural European references. But why couplets? As a deconstruction of the clarity and impetus of the classic heroic couplet? Maybe; but also, one may suspect, as a means of crossing the sonnet and the ghazal. The poet needed both the methodical pace of the former and the capricious unaccountability (or mischievous non sequiturs) of the latter to illustrate best the manic dissociative disorder of her speaker. Moreover, with this choice she also proves to be quite un-amnesiac about Adrienne Rich’s, John Thompson’s, and Phyllis Webb’s work in this vein, thus joining a motley contingent of other contemporary maybe less consistent but as unpredictable practitioners of the form, such as Jill Peláez Baumgaertner and Amanda Earl.
Diane Raptosh. American Amnesiac. Wilkes – Barre, PA: Etruscan Press, Wilkes University, 2013