Forfeiting the Self: Research and Contemporary Poetry

By Black, Ryan | TriQuarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Forfeiting the Self: Research and Contemporary Poetry


Black, Ryan, TriQuarterly


  Remember you are no one / in this story.
  Nicole Cooley
  "Directions for Ordering the Voice"

There is a movement in contemporary poetry towards collections unified by a researchable thread, spanning from biographies-in-verse to the exploration of a single, historical event. Themed books certainly have a precedent, as W.S. Merwin points out in his introduction to David McCombs' Ultima Thule, in "the Greek pastoral poets, to Petrach, to the Spoon River Anthology." But, a collection drawn primarily from academic research comes as a modern hybrid. We can only speculate the catalyst of this occurrence. It may concern the increased presence of poets in academia and, further, academia's insistence on cross-discipline. Or, perhaps, more simply, it is another strategy intended to avoid a state of "morbid self-consciousness," the infamous criticism John Stuart Mill wrote regarding Robert Browning's first published poem, "Pauline," which consequently assisted in the poet's adoption of the dramatic monologue. Whatever the cause may be, more important are the opportunities that arise; opportunities of an extended discourse with the material, a heightened engagement and risk, and the availability of a diction that can refashion the lyric.

Nicole Cooley's The Afflicted Girls begins with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson:

  Witchcraft was hung in history
  But History and I
  Find all the Witchcraft that we need
  Around us, every Day--

Dickinson's verse anticipates the central preoccupation of Cooley's collection--the relationship between the poet, or the "I," and the poet's use of historical documentation. The triggering material for The Afflicted Girls is the Salem witch trials, though the process of researching the trials, including the poet's attendance of a modern reenactment, is equally fertile. In the book's first poem, "Archival: Silence," Cooley splinters herself, merging her identity with these historical victims:

  On Gallows Hill rope burns the neck
  before the body breaks Up
  on the scaffolding Have you last words?
  I don't have words because I'm nothing
  but a collection of evidence stories splintered in all
  Directions voices I can't fasten
  to the page history
  disappearing before I write it down
  Say it Unsay it

This poem functions as an ars poetica for the collection. In expressing the unavoidable conflict between the presence, or non presence, of the poet's identity, it moves to dramatize Keats' elusive notion of "Negative Capability."

Early in the collection, Cooley subtly explores her attraction to the afflicted girls by employing the imperative mood. She begins one poem, "Invent a bad angel / who guides the ship off / course, down to the ocean floor" ("The Great Migration, 1630"). And, again, in "Prophecy" which opens, "Hold the dandelion, pale halo, all stalk. Listen / to the lesson." Once more, Cooley writes, "Remember the shelf / crowded with local histories, maps to the past. Pretend / to remember" ("Directions for Ordering the Voice"). The imperative tone serves both to heighten the drama and to invoke the imaginative moment which involves their affliction, or, as Cooley might argue, their gift. We, along with the poet, engage in the metaphysical exercises both prompted and experienced by the afflicted girls. Thus, identification is threefold. Furthermore, the girls possess a sort of second sight "beyond the visible" akin to the visionary consciousness of Romantic poetry.

Still, the poet continues to question her engagement in the material--whether it is her imagination that seizes upon this moment in history, or her personality.

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