Who is the Speaker?: The Self in Collaboration
By Laura Wetherington
Annie Finch's work, which appears in issue 12 of textsound1, perhaps typifies the collaborative spirit as well as any collaborators do. She explains her theory of the self in "Coherent Decentering: Toward a New Model of the Poetic Self"2. In her essay, she begins by describing the Romantic theory of a "fixed, central self" as an "extremely limited" point of view. She goes on to say, "my own selfhood, let alone the self voicing my poems, is not a clear and simple unit, separate from everything else in the world."3 André Breton, one of the founding members of French Surrealism, said "Surrealism is based on the belief in...the omnipotence of the dream," and Annie Finch's decentered self makes the dream a reality.4 She ushers in the expanse of the dream.
Annie Finch circa 1970, when she was spending her summers in Maine. Photo copyright Annie Finch. Used with permission.
In order to illustrate the experience of the "I" in her poems, Finch tells the story of having grown up visiting rural Maine in the summertime. There, she recalls, "I found the boundaries I kept around my supposed self beginning to dissolve with the long months of silence and simplicity. At the same time, I was noticing how each hour of the lakeshore's life had its own personality and presence, how nature's cycles and patterns were coherent and connected, always continuing in the field of their core necessity."5 Whereas most postmodern work reflects a fractured or multiple sense of self, Finch's work is not so much multiple as it is expansive. Rather than a kind of fissure or split between points of view, Finch embraces the Buddhist concept of the non-self, a sense of consciousness that both exceeds and denies the Western concept of the individual.6 She posits a postmodern, decentered voice, the "disjointed syntax, floating margins, random signifiers, clashing dictions, collage structure and found language, shifting or unidentifiable points of view", as an obvious progression from the experience of communion with and deep listening to the patterns and rhythms of the natural world around her. 7
Finch's capacious perspective is capable of encompassing a doubling: she states, "I recognized the feminist critique of the traditional Romantic self of lyric poetry. I loved Keats, but I couldn't put my own lyric voice in that position with a straight face. As a woman, I knew too much about how it feels to be something—nightingale, urn, woman—that is an object in other people's eyes." 8 Rather than imagine doubleness as a fracture, Finch's work sees it as a whole. With her construction of self, the multiplicity of perspectives that women and minority groups straddle becomes a natural extension of the Buddhist belief of the non-self. Without a fixed, central "I" at the center of a poem, multiplicity indicates a movement toward the whole picture, which is a movement toward inclusion and recognition of variance and flux.
Annie Finch. Photo copyright Helen Peppe. Used with permission.
I can see these ideas at work in Finch's "Conversation". The same phrase that begins a second-person command, "Delve past your body, crowned by its hidden stem" becomes, later in the poem, a description of the speaker and an invitation, "Stay. Measure me past my stem." The speaker of the poem shares anatomical structures with the addressee, but the shift from one brain stem to another does more than just pointing out a symmetry of body. The listener's ear is being drawn into the bodies at play in the poem, via a speaker whose access to the other in the poem is omniscient. Not only that, but the brain stem represents the most primitive part of our brains: it's the site of autonomic functions like sleep, breathing, and digestion. This area operates the parts of our daily functioning that is least attributed to the Western idea of individual selfhood or consciousness.
When the speaker confesses "I want to…learn to cradle the concrete crown til it softens" I am reminded of the fontanelle, the gap between the plates of bone in the skull at birth. The soft parts of a baby's head are slowly covered over as the plates of bone grow into each other. This softening of a "concrete crown" also calls to mind an ecological imperative: to take care of the earth and attempt to mitigate human impact on our ecosystem. Finch's call for an expansive "I," which is coherent with nature's cycles and patterns, is evinced here. Finch's reach toward the other in her poems, and her reach toward nature, illustrates a speaker close to collaboration.
1. "Imbolc Chant" (http://www.textsound.org/index.php?VOL=1&ISSUE=12&TRACK=09nbspImbolcnbspChant.mp3), "Conversation" (http://textsound.org/index.php?VOL=1&ISSUE=12&TRACK=08nbspConversation.mp3), and "Earth Goddess and Sky God" (http://www.textsound.org/index.php?VOL=1&ISSUE=12&TRACK=10nbspEarthnbspGoddessnbspandnbspSkynbspGod.mp3)
2. Annie Finch. "Coherent Decentering: Toward a New Model of the Poetic Self." After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography. David Graham and Kate Sontag, eds. (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2001).
3. p. 137
4. André Breton quoted in "A Brief Guide to Surrealism." (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5673 ) The Academy of American Poets.
5. p. 137
6. For example, in English grammar the phrase "How was your day?" would not raise any eyebrows; however, inherent in the phrase is an assumption of possession over external factors, like time, as a result of having experienced them. The Buddhist idea of non-self or not-self calls into question this framework of ownership.
7. p. 138
8. p. 141
Laura Wetherington lived in Ann Arbor from 2005–2009. Her first book, A Map Predetermined and Chance (Fence, 2011), was chosen by C.S. Giscombe for the National Poetry Series. She co-edits textsound.org with Anna Vitale and teaches creative writing at Sierra Nevada College.