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The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue
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The Purloined Lyric

Some theses on the epistolary poem:

  1. The epistolary is an elaborate ruse. I write in the second person, but even if I pose you very interesting questions I'm indulging an excuse to talk about myself—maybe in the anticipation that you care about what I have to say, certain in my knowledge that if you don't I'll get away with it first.
  2. Selfishness is the real scandal of the letter's necessary fictions, over and against the open, comparatively boring, secret of its fake privacy. I write you a letter to make eyes at a reader I don't know from Adam.
  3. In their epistolary poem "All I Want By Joni Mitchell" Jo Barchi begins every paragraph "I want," as in: "I want to tell you about when I had crabs so you'll believe I'm sexually adventurous." Barchi indulges a you the faster to slide into the first person singular, the letter's more honest mode. The addressee who scarcely matters in the letter's logic can scarcely reply to it, so the letter is like an exposed nerve, soliciting and recoiling from touch.
  4. Epistolary poems have a third fiction, occasion, which differs from the more famous occasion of the lyric poem to the degree that the latter doesn't pretend to tell you about an event like the news. Letters do: "I'm writing to tell you…" Only you aren't a wire service; you tell people news, probably bad, over the phone. Letters are more contingent, or totally contingent. Contingency, in turn, allows the letter to get deluxe about its aesthetic choices.
  5. Letters aren't for their addressees, but what's a letter without one? In the ninth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Byblis writes a letter to her brother confessing her urge to jump his bones. Why resort to a letter? "If shame seals my lips," she says, "a secret letter [littera . . . arcana] shall confess my hidden passions." Reader, I call bullshit—Ovid wants to show you what happens next, an orgy of composition. "She starts and hesitates, writes and condemns the writing / makes a mark, deletes it, alters, faults, approves it," writing, in other words, with the faltering self-critique of a poet. Producing a letter in faultless dactylic hexameters, Ovid's epistolographer becomes, by virtue of her meter, an epic poet too; for thirty-three furious lines Byblis takes the wheel, Ovid's reader buckled into the passenger seat. The brother scarcely reads the letter, which is really sent to you, dear.
  6. Bernadette Mayer removes the addressee line from her letters in Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters. Generalizing her address absolutely, Mayer swaps the gossipy thrill of biography in exchange for (her words) a "plural dream of social life."
  7. Mayer thereby literalizes Lacan's aphorism from the seminar on the purloined letter, that "a letter always reaches its destination." For Lacan letter-writing furnishes, mostly, a convenient metaphor: the failure of language to communicate its intended content to its desired target is just language doing the only thing it can do, communicate permissively to anybody who intercepts it. Still, why not take Lacan at his word? It doesn't matter very much, for instance, that Mayer's letters were "written, but never sent." They're already here.
  8. On the other hand, letters are only contingently related to the mail: the epistolary is a genre, not a medium. Specifically, it's a genre without a received form. Poets, who like to talk about themselves without constraints, love writing letters, which impose none.
  9. Or almost none. Shiv Kotecha discovers Viktor Shklovsky's avant-garde principle of estrangement at work in Zoo, Or Letters Not About Love. Shklovsky composed his letters to Elsa Triolet, who received them on the constraint that the infatuated Formalist write to her about anything but. "Shklovsky is just as interested in breaking up his thoughts as he is in substantiating them. But it is love that makes this breaking up, or estrangement, possible," Kotecha writes. He calls estrangement, in this instance, "getting blimped by Elsa."
  10. Thinking along Kotecha's lines: if "every letter is a love letter," like one celebrated maxim goes, you could say that's true only in the sense of love that Mayer encodes in Midwinter Day: "So when I write of love, I write of: // Binding referendums, bankruptcy intent . . . / I write of bribery and surgery." Love names a blistering aspiration to totality, and the blithest occasion for any kind of dispatch.
  11. You could also say that love is where the actual, more concrete, desires of the epistolary are hidden in plain sight.
  12. If I've been slipping to distraction between the epistolary as such and the epistolary poem, it's maybe because I've got too much skin in the game. Then again, the poet Niel Rosenthalis wrote to me in a letter recently: "There's not a big whoop-di-doo difference between poetry and prose, or more precisely verse and prose, since if we want compression, quickness of thought, big radiance, a shining-outward-all-around, we can get that in any form." If the epistolary is, as I want to insist, the poetic genre of mediated intimacy, it matters relatively less whether those mediations arrive in the form of lines or sentences.
  13. Quickness of thought: the letter leaps from place to place, taunting response.


Kay Gabriel

Kay Gabriel is a poet and essayist. She’s the author of Elegy Department Spring / Candy Sonnets 1 (BOAAT Press, 2017), the recipient of fellowships from the Poetry Project and Lambda Literary, and recently completed her PhD.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues