Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hard-core Divas Hit the Stone: Sharon, Gertrude, Lynn

I have recently attended a conference in Reims on the interesting topic The Cultural Kernel. On popular demand, for those that can't wait for the paper to come out in Imaginaires, here's a preview. This pre-publication is also in response to Stuart Noble's call for papers dealing with American women writers.

My essay takes its point of departure in contemporary poet Lynn Emanuel’s work. Emanuel’s poetry is engaged in making cultural statements which are often based on a link between portrayal and ideas – character portrayal, object portrayal, and depictions of places and personalities from Gertrude Stein to Sharon Stone. I argue that Emanuel’s poems establish themselves as cultural texts, and as such, as discourses that address several levels of reality: 1) in order for the poems to work communicatively, they have to put into operation and activate the author’s and reader’s cultural awareness; 2) in order for the poems to make themselves intelligible, relevant, and aesthetic, (a tall order for any text) they have to be involved in a deliberate reworking of cultural elements. We never experience culture as something complete or at a distance. The cultural kernel is not just an object that is in the poems, but can be thought of as more of a process of collaboration between the author, poems, and the reader. These levels show the extent to which the author’s intent of pulling the reader into her world can be said to change the reader’s perspectives which in turn rework the interpretations of the poems.

By means of illustrating what culture does in terms of the collaborative, I begin here with a consideration of the title of the conference: The Cultural Kernel. When the call for papers came, I looked at the keywords and I could see that the ones I liked were the ones that hit me in my own poetic gut. Thus, my first question to myself for a potential paper was this: will there be any stones in it? I stumbled over Lynn Emanuel’s poem "Homage to Sharon Stone" from her 1999 collection Then Suddenly, and decided that it was no small pebble. In it there were definitely stones. I was ready to dig. I reproduce the poem here:

It's early morning. This is the "before,"
the world hanging around in its wrapper,
blowzy, frumpy, doing nothing: my
neighbors, hitching themselves to the roles
of the unhappily married, trundle their three
mastiffs down the street. I am writing this
book of poems. My name is Lynn Emanuel.
I am wearing a bathrobe and curlers; from
my lips, a Marlboro drips ash on the text.
It is the third of September nineteen**.
And as I am writing this in my trifocals
and slippers, across the street, Sharon Stone,
her head swollen with curlers, her mouth
red and narrow as a dancing slipper,
is rushed into a black limo. And because
these limos snake up and down my street,
this book will be full of sleek cars nosing
through the shadowy ocean of these words.
Every morning, Sharon Stone, her head
in a helmet of hairdo, wearing a visor
of sunglasses, is engulfed by a limo
the size of a Pullman, and whole fleets
of these wind their way up and down
the street, day after day, giving to the street
(Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh, PA)
and the book I am writing, an aspect
that is both glamorous and funereal.
My name is Lynn Emanuel, and in this
book I play the part of someone writing
a book, and I take the role seriously,
just as Sharon Stone takes seriously
the role of the diva. I watch the dark
cars disappear her and in my poem
another Pontiac erupts like a big animal
at the cool trough of a shady curb. So,
when you see this black car, do not think
it is a Symbol For Something. It is just
Sharon Stone driving past the house
of Lynn Emanuel who is, at the time,
trying to write a book of poems.

Or you could think of the black car as
Lynn Emanuel, because, really, as an author,
I have always wanted to be a car, even
though most of the time I have to be
the "I," or the woman hanging wash;
I am a woman, one minute, then I am a man,
I am a carnival of Lynn Emanuels:
Lynn in the red dress; Lynn sulking
behind the big nose of my erection;
then I am the train pulling into the station
when what I would really love to be is
Gertrude Stein spying on Sharon Stone
at six in the morning. But enough about
that, back to the interior decorating:
On the page, the town looks bald
and dim so I turn up the amps on
the radioactive glances of bad boys.
In a kitchen, I stack pans sleek with
grease, and on a counter there is a roast
beef red as a face in a tantrum. Amid all
this bland strangeness is Sharon Stone,
who, like an engraved invitation, is asking
me, Won't you, too, play a role? I do not
choose the black limo rolling down the street
with the golden stare of my limo headlights
bringing with me the sun, the moon, and
Sharon Stone. It is nearly dawn; the sun
is a fox chewing her foot from the trap;
every bite is a wound and every wound
is a red window, a red door, a red road.
My name is Lynn Emanuel. I am the writer
trying to unwrite the world that is all around her. (53-54)

Emanuel’s poem here is an example of how the cultural kernel as that which resists us can be overcome by observing domestic practices. While we may not always understand another culture and thus be able to crack its literary productions due to missing implicit referents and indigent symbolizations, daily routine is something that most of us can relate to. We all have bad hair days. Not only does Emanuel establish a close proximity between herself and her reader, by bringing her reader into her house, but she also collaborates with the reader towards understanding the workings of collective cultural competence. If the kernel resists us, or creates a gap, we go for the nearest association. We will understand something, if it must be through misreading. In considering Sharon Stone, the reader who may not know the famous actress, may be prompted to think of the infamous 70s hit song by Smokie: “Who the fuck is Alice?” (Sharon, Gertrude, Lynn):1

Sally called when she got the word,
She said: "I suppose you've heard -
About Alice".
Well I rushed to the window,
And I looked outside,
But I could hardly believe my eyes -
As a big limousine rolled up
Into Alice's drive...

Oh, I don't know why she's leaving,
Or where she's gonna go,
I guess she's got her reasons,
But I just
don't want to know,
'Cos for twenty-four years
I've been living next
door to Alice.
Alice, who the fuck is Alice?

If we don’t stumble over stones in this song, we certainly get hit by a car. A big car. A limo, to be more precise. Is Emanuel thinking of Alice, when she sees Sharon, one would like to ask? Lynn Emanuel, the speaker of Emanuel’s poem definitely wants to know what Sharon is up to. And she clearly knows who Sharon is. But Sharon is taken out of her context, which makes the act of observing even more significant, particularly as it relates to consolidating the condition of all cultural understanding and subject constitution: look first, imitate, and understand later. So Lynn does what any good amateur anthropologist should: observe what’s going on. In this poem it begins with her taking a seat: by the window, by the door, by the desk. She positions herself strategically in relation to the objects and people that surround her. The aim is to put something on paper. Encircle. What she notices is that the neighbors are also engaged in their routine, namely, playing the role of unhappily married.

The poem shifts quickly between observations that depict cultural manifestations as they happen and their aesthetic translation into text. Characters in their roles, while taking their roles for granted or accepting them as part of societal constraints, are also in a position to pass judgment on their culture’s relentless emphasis on creating sameness. The poem thus suggests that even though we all do the same things, culture itself is a generator of difference. The poem concludes with a desire to “unwrite the world that is all around her,” Sharon Stone, and presumably Lynn Emanuel alike, but not before the reader gets to witness “the carnival of Lynn Emanuels” as a composite of another character embodiment expressed in the wish to be “Gertrude Stein spying on Sharon Stone at six in the morning” (53). What this example demonstrates is that we never experience culture as something ineffectual. The assumption is that we learn to distinguish between the internal and external origins of inspiration by standing in close proximity to “actuality”, or the very thing that happens while it happens.2

As Emanuel’s poem writes itself through the metaphors of cracking the kernel and smashing the core-stone, the style that emerges from the collaboration between the poet, her subject, the poem, and the reader, also demonstrates that the act of portraying establishes a close relationship between the verbal and the visual. While the depiction of Sharon Stone relies on creating an image-world for the reader, which goes beyond language, the fact that the images conjured up are all context-based and anchored in cultural competence points to the significance of how language works in use and the consequences of its being self-referential. What we are dealing with here is a poem which expresses not just ideas (as poems often do primarily) but also a conscious awareness of the workings of language in and through time. While we can easily see Sharon Stone diva’ing about in a limo in 1999, we do not in the same breath associate the idea of a diva with the 50s tradition.

Emanuel portrays herself as a 50s housewife, mocking the last decade of glamour, and contrasts herself here with another ‘housewife’ of the new millennium for whom even the chore of curling the hair involves external agency (as Sharon Stone probably has somebody else attending to her hairdo). The 50s housewife is thus recast in the passive role of watching, observing, and ultimately identifying, yet not with the character under scrutiny, but the character’s role. The irony is that the 50s housewife is endowed with double agency: on the one hand, she has to make sure that the status quo is maintained, (she stays a product of her culture: she is a housewife, before she is a writer), and on the other hand, she has the potential to become someone else, precisely because this potential is activated by the writer within the housewife.

The subtle point that the poem expresses is that while Emanuel may not be a confessional writer who writes in the same vein as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, and Frank O’Hara, at the same time she both acknowledges and subverts the long tradition of articulating mundane situations in highly crafted poetic constructions. She brings in literary figures such as Gertrude Stein, whom the reader familiar with either her writings or photos of her will instantly recognize as being situated in the opposite direction of glamour: not thin, no curls, no housewife. The fact that Stein, who was also concerned with craft and composition, and wrote in a most ordinary language, is here taken as a barometer – as Emanuel would like to hear Stein’s confessions about Stone – indicates a performative gesture on Emanuel’s part which consists of pulling the reader into the image world of ‘stone on stone’, and ultimately letting her carve her own inscriptions.

This example points to the way in which language works as a cultural construct, and how it configures the human condition according to a specific aesthetics. Emanuel’s poem with its concatenation of language awareness and cultural images is ultimately a poem on portraits, a portrait of a poem, a portrait of a (self)portrait and a poem about itself. In other words, a narrative in verse that is not only a manifestation of, but also a gesture towards cultural understanding.

One of the other implicit messages in the poem that we can extrapolate an understanding from is that where culture is concerned events come and go. What remains are portraits, photographs, descriptions of people in other media. What connects us to events either current or the ones that remain distant in the past and thus only have significance for people who have experienced them first hand is that they remind us of something else. In Emanuel’s poem, language itself traverses with and through these events and is shown to adapt itself easily to new modes of representation. We thus go from the event of writing, in which something must be recorded, to activating a memory about a film with Sharon Stone, or a picture that Gertrude Stein portrayed with words. Thus, what Emanuel suggests is that pictures collaborate to inspire writing, and that writing in turn ‘reminds’ us of fleeting visual moments.

All these alternative modes or representations that are the result of cultural manifestations following a dominant in a certain time and age – writing, film, music, painting – are furthermore shown to collaborate towards the process of de-mystifying seemingly strange relations. We take seriously Emanuel’s advice, not to think of big, black cars as symbols for something, but a quick glance at the way in which her writing shapes itself on the page, shows that her “Symbol for Something” is spelled in capital letters which makes us think that Emanuel’s writing betrays her at the very moment its graphical representation takes place. Where this reader is concerned, I can’t stop thinking about the mob driving mysteriously in their black Cadillacs in the 50s. The depiction of Sharon invites that very association insofar as she is portrayed as being a bit mysterious and distant. Any diva with respect for herself will know how to play the mystery part. Roles are thus played seriously. Actors are generous. Directors are merciless. And bit-players take it all in, and then they write about it.

In Emanuel’s poem, the smart move from the trivial associations that we get from linking picture to picture – film to film, song to song, writing to writing – to overcoming the state of ‘this merely reminds me of something’ is done through bringing in a master who knows a thing or two about strange relations. In her famous book, The Making of Americans, written in 1909 and published in 1925, Gertrude Stein repeatedly insists that she writes for herself and strangers. What can culture do in the face of such enunciations, or questions, one is tempted to ask? Or what is the textual cultural practice that enables or conditions the articulation of such enunciations, or questions? What can strangers do for one’s writing, and what can one’s writing do for them? This reminds me of my own writing practice these days when I find it difficult to get out of the essayistic mode, especially when attempting to be most scholarly. More than ever technology has enabled what Stein has prophesied: I blog to myself and strangers. So we associate. But there is nothing new in that. So we associate incongruous events. Nothing new in that either. Perhaps it’s more interesting. So we associate symbolic events. While the situation of ‘nothing new’ presents itself again, we can at least claim self-authorial legitimacy for this or that interpretation.

The knack to dealing with the cultural kernel is not in the cracking, but in the playing of parts. Lynn Emanuel finds Sharon’s question: “Won’t you, too, play a role?” attractive. She is a bit-player, like the rest of us. What is suggested in the line immediately before this question: “amid all this bland strangeness is Sharon Stone” is that in the face of remaining speechless in our encounter with the strange, especially the bland kind, or strangers, especially the blond ones, we can start singing our own praises. The picture that Lynn Emanuel depicts of the other Lynn in the poem, the one who is engaged in a very similar writing practice to our nowadays blogging, is suggestive of the kind of impersonations we are capable of in the face of performing. We assign roles to one another and play the parts too by taking turns at being the other.

But what about the third of September? Is that Sharon’s birthday? Or Gertrude’s? Or Lynn’s? Or is it really about the 15th of November when T.S. Eliot went to see Gertrude in Paris, which made Gertrude write that portrait poem that has wool and silk in it? Lynn says Sharon’s head is swollen, and Gertrude says Eliot’s mouth is woolen. Speech impediment. Or is it about me, having to skip a meeting on the 12th of March, because I have to bash my brain and write on the writers of dates for this gathering here? I collaborate too. I let my friend and colleague, a polyglot punster and professor of German, Hartmut Haberland, know that I’m on my way to France – no pilgrimage on stones – but by flight through air, and this is what he gives me: “Gertrude Stein was born on February 3 as so many other good people. (Joyce was one day early, which must have been a mistake. Groundhog day! Who would eat a ground hog? Well, I better mince my words ...) I was always wondering if Alice B. Toklas was a real name or a pun. I hope your topic doesn’t leave you speechless. ‘Talkless in Reims’ sounds like a take-off on ‘Speechless in Seattle’ (You have my permission to use it.)” And so I do, here, now, to our collective stunning astonishment.

We step around the cultural kernel by looking at the alphabet. Grammar of the stepping-stone. It’s all in there: in the stoning of the text. Gertrude says in her To Do: Book of Alphabets and Birthdays: “alphabets and names make games and everybody has a name and all the same they have in a way to have a birthday” (Stein, 2001: 5). Groundhog day is here to stay. Baptism day.

P.S. The story doesn’t end here. There was a mail from my colleague, one day after he had sent me the above, in which he says: “of course I meant ‘Sleepless in Seattle’. Maybe you thought it was intended (and since we are talking about open texts here), who gives a fuck for my intention?”

It goes to show that if the cultural kernel resists us, we have a couple of choices we can make, at least where authors’ intentions are concerned. The tongue won’t know the difference, if it sleeps, slips, or remains speechless.


[1] In the original version played by Smokie, there is no reference to the f-word. However, whenever they often played the song in Ireland, the audience would shout "Who the fuck is Alice?" when the main line was sung, "I've been living next door to Alice". The band then decided to do a spoof of their own song and insert the line in their subsequent recording of it. They collaborated for this with the foul-mouthed Roy Chubby Brown, a stand-up comedian.

[2] Russell Edson wrote a collection of prose poems, The Very Thing that Happens (1964) which influenced a number of poets interested in the relationship between readers, writers and the materiality of power in language.