Type of Culminating Activity
Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing
Martin Corless-Smith, Ph.D.
I write to find the raised scars of the lyre. The Maenads ripped Orpheus limb from limb and Sappho found his head, washed onto the shores of Lesbos, still singing; I find it in the Idaho desert, still singing, but wires tangle out the stumped neck. I have one tattoo, a fragment of Sappho, and I feel its raised letters on my arm most mornings. It reads:
άγι δε χέλυ δια μοι λέγε
φωνάεσσα δε γίνεω
yes! radiant lyre, speak to me,
become a voice (trans. Anne Carson)
This is a lyric scar, inked cuts healed, so perhaps I might know my voice, or perhaps some song crutched through me by the dead. What is this song? Though lyric, my poems are without melody. Can my poems then voice a harmony to the physical body? Diacritical, but not meant to point, but to vibrate parallel notes to the physical, knowing their insufficiency to create, as the word poem implies, descendant of the Greek ποιέω, to make? No. The lyric holds violence at its core. In Erotism, Georges Bataille describes poetry as language approaching transgression. Language that approaches the infinite. Language that approaches death. Can such violence harmonize with our bodies? No. Orpheus must be torn apart.
This kind of violence is central to the following poems, the lacerations and scars, poet’s blood spilled on the meadow. Language too must be lacerated, spilled and rebuilt, pieced together strangely to reveal the oracular. Normal syntax cannot reveal the Arcadian pasture. Like Orpheus, like the poet, language must be torn apart.
* * *
In The Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke asks: “A god can do it. But will you tell me how/ a man can enter through the lyre’s strings?” (trans. Stephen Mitchell). Perhaps this is a rare instance where violence is the answer. Orpheus torn to pieces. Transgression upon language. But the question itself reveals another problem: the place of the mythic in relationship to the real. In his asking, Rilke contrasts the man, the historical poet, with the god, the mythic. Another answer to this sonnet’s question is perhaps an elision of the contrasted elements. How does the man, the poet who breathes and walks the earth, sing as Orpheus? As Apollo? The human poet must seep into the mythic.
The lyric self is at once an exercise in the human poet behind the poem as well as a mythic self created by and for the poem. Arthur Rimbaud writes that “I is someone else.” (trans. Louise Varese). In his poem “The Pattern,” Robert Creeley articulates a similar idea: “As soon as/ I speak, I/ speaks.” When I enters the poem, the poet creates a lyric self, at once composed of the poet themselves as well as myth. It’s in the lyric poem that these spaces may meet. Historical Sappho finds the disembodied head of mythic Orpheus. This is the site of the lyric I, of the lyric poem.
My lyric I is a collage of the dead poets before me; in “The Light the Dead See,” Frank Stanford writes that “The dead have told these stories/ To the living.” The dead tell me the stories of these poems, and the dead tug me around; I become a funny puppet singing their elegy to find my own voice. Sometimes they sing. Titles, images, entire lines have ghosted over from Virgil, Stanford, Spicer, Dante, Sappho, Rimbaud, and others.
* * *
These poems are inked scars. Tearing and gnashing to build and then to find the mythic, lyric self, lost somewhere between the language and me, its author, lost at the lyric site. Still, where is this lyric site? Arcadia. A poet’s pasture lost to never existing. Setting of The Eclogues, Virgil’s iconic pastorals. This is a location invented to mourn its own passing, its own absence. In this sense, the pastoral is closely tied to elegy. Arcadia. This is where the lyric self might sing. Its meadows, its forests, however, are insufficient inventions. The poet has built them. They are plaster. This is the plaster forest. I sing it up out of the earth, a place for the dead to puppet me around.
Gabel, Charles, "The Plaster Forest" (2012). Boise State University Theses and Dissertations. Paper 298.