THOMAS FINK Reviews
Parts and Other Pieces by Tom Beckett
(Otoliths, Rockhampton, Australia, 2011)
Parts and Other Pieces begins with “Questions at Ohio State,” which, as Beckett himself tells us in his acknowledgments page, “was composed for and performed at the 2010 Avant Writing Symposium at the Ohio State University.” This, in fact, is the poet’s second massive catalog of questions, the first being “One Hundred Questions,” originally published in 1997 and included in Unprotected Texts: Selected Poems (2007). The prior poem, as I have written in Jacket 34 (October 2007) in an essay called “The Poetry of Questions,” reflects Beckett’s preoccupation with the intersection of thought, language, and the social, and this is also true of “Questions at Ohio State,” but in the latter poem, he is especially probing the relations and constitutive features of self and other, and he keeps testing the Rimbaudian/Lacanian idea that self is constituted by otherness: “Whom among us isn’t an Other’s mirror?” (19) Beckett’s intentional grammar error calls attention to the possibility that an answer might be “no one”: the “who” (not the rock band!) is “whomed” by this being subjected to mirroring, to otherness.
Perhaps some who are invited to present a poem to an audience have no trouble considering the listeners passive “receptacles,” but Beckett is not among them. The fact that his poem poses nothing but questions indicates that thinking subjects aside from himself are designated to complete what is incomplete. The poet is granted the power of performance via a convention that only technically silences all others present in the time that s/he takes discursive space. Although the protocol rejects audience members’ interrupting to answer his questions and express their own subjectivity—“Who wants to stand up and tell us a secret?” (12)—Beckett knows that protocol can be broken and, more importantly, that a temporary monologue turns into a dialogue when the performance ends and especially when readers, gaining access to a book, can exert authority as interpreters and judges without having to strain their capacity for memory. Indeed, the performance is an occasion for the performer/poet’s insecurity to emerge: “If I stand before you, afraid, and speak…what the hell should I say?/ And why should anyone listen?// Confidence is lord and master of the dance, no?” (11). In light of the complexity of communication, “confidence” may seem like a false or arbitrary “master.”
Indeed, the performer must depend on the generosity of any audience, one whose composition is not known at the time of writing or perhaps ever: “Who’s there?” (17). An audience’s attention and the good will that attends the effort to comprehend are gifts: “Do you see what I am doing?// Do you see what I am saying?// Do you hear me?// Do you want to?// Or do you only want to be heard and/or seen?” (11); “Does anyone here want me to shut up?// Does anyone here want to shut me up?” (18). The anxiety is prolonged because the poet is not a mind-reader and the interpretation of facial expressions and body language is not an exact science, as some self-help books might assert: “Why are so many of you looking at me and so many of you looking away?” (20). Fear of negative judgment engenders claustrophobia— “Would you step back a little? Would you give me some space?” (16)—as well as defensiveness—“Do you have any idea how hard I’ve worked to achieve a few small things?//. . . . Do you think you know what makes me tick?”(22)—whereas, in other sentences, the desire to please, like the desire to seduce, comes across as pleading: “Does anyone here want me to do something in particular?” (16); “Does anyone here want me?” (17); “How do you like to be rubbed?// Can I rub you now?” (20); “I want you if not to want me to at least tolerate my need for being needed, OK?” (23). In the interpretation of these charged utterances, the struggle between the possibility that they are actual questions and rhetorical ones is important. On the one hand, the speaker would really not like to know it if no one at the reading “wants him”—at least as their intellectual/aesthetic entertainment for the hour or is willing to “tolerate [his] need,” but he would like to be aware of positive responses.
Aside from the wish to manage his anxiety, the performing poet manifests other desires. Perhaps at times, he wants to use audience clues to correct weaknesses, as though questions like “Why don’t I have rhythm?” and “Am I an asshole?” (16) can somehow elicit instructions about how rhythm could be acquired or how the behavior of an “asshole” can be eschewed. There may be, then, a desire for the other to hold a mirror to what the questioner has heretofore found unclear about himself, as though the analysand takes over the questioning and the psychoanalyst (audience) begins to interpret: “How is it that I feel everything is shaky and in question?// Why don’t I know right away what to say? // Why do I feel so thoroughly mediated by everything/everyone?// Why do I long to be pierced again?” (22). Even if these are rhetorical questions that allow the speaker to complain about his current fate, there is a chance that a respondent may offer a crucial insight.
Another possible goal for the purveyor of questions is to use his ambiguous power to seek alignment with others in reassuring community: “Do you ever think about your life as a series of newly/ constructed,// maybe often re-encountered crossroads// (or roadblocks)?” (9). “When I think about Utopia, I think about something approaching/ a sort of ongoing social orgasm, a kind of universal pleasuring./ How about you?” (22). If he can see the glimmer of assent and recognition in audience members’ faces (and later hear it directly from some of them or from readers of this book), he can be comforted by the sense that others have some of the same desires, fears, and fascinations as he does. Yet desire for alignment with others can also serve the search for social, philosophical, or psychological truth, beyond the need for comfort, in dialogue: “Are we defined by separations?” (9); “Is consciousness mappable?”(12); “How do you see yourself extending in time now?” (16); “Is there a collective reality which can be articulated and/ recognized?” (27). Finally, curiosity about others could be a motivating force: “How do you feel about fart jokes?” (20).
The catalog structure of “Questions” allows the varied desires and fears that I have identified to emerge one by one and re-emerge in an unpredictable fashion. But “Andswerving Fragmeants,” the catalog poem separated from “Questions” by “Between Asymmetries,” raises the question of whether Beckett is really asking anything of his live or book-bound audience or whether the “you” in his questions is actually himself! He answers, it seems, 92 of the (according to my count) 371 questions in “Questions,” but even though the opening sections indicate that the question has the same number as its answer, there is a good deal of slippage fairly soon afterward. In any case, if Beckett had wanted to make it possible—that is, reasonably manageable—for readers to align specific answers with their questions, he would have put the two poems together in some coherent way. Between the question and the answer lies deferral. And the latter is, chez Beckett’s Joycean coinage, an addition (“and”) intention (“meant”) to commit “fragment”ation and a “swerve” from the question, not precisely an answer. Therefore, I am going to assume pragmatically that all questions are directed to both the questioner and his audiences, and I will treat “Andswerving Fragmeants” as a separate poem.
Not surprisingly, Beckett’s third section in the book’s third poem, provides an answer and/or swerve that confounds the question/answer binary. It consists of two questions: “Am I capable of showing anyone anything? Who says one can’t/ answer a question with another question?” (51). Of course, the rhetorical question, if one can definitively situate it as such, does answer a question, so the response to the first poem’s question, “Is revelation on this morning’s programme?” (9), can be said to mean that revelation by the speaker will not happen. If “revelation” implies the achievement of certainty, disclosure of uncertainty and its implication is usually the strongest and most prevalent assertion in the poem, and this uncertainty begins (in part 4) with the speaker’s lack of confidence in himself as a communicator, the precise opposite of the romantic notion of the poet as sublimely adept transmitter of determinate feelings and thoughts through language: “I rarely know what to say, rarely know if I have said what I have had to say adequately, and have an extraordinarily hard time making my feelings plain within the constellations of utterances I move within” (51). Unlike the rhetorical emphasis of the adverb “rarely,” the deliberate awkwardness of the repeated preposition “within” emphasizes not only constraint but the strain of an effort to keep track of verbal and other social conventions—contexts within and also enclosing contexts—as well as seemingly uncontrollable ambiguities, while one tries to be “true” to the “content” of one’s thought and feeling.
The poet’s sentence, “I’m not aware of any certainties” (65), seems to be a neutral statement about his experience, but he can also suggest that uncertainty, connected with motion and fluidity, serves as a kind of creed: “I believe in intersections above everything” (53); “I aspire to live at the intersection of thought and feeling” (64). An “intersection” is a dynamic play of forces, whereas “certainty” is a “freezing” of those forces into static truth. Thus, for Beckett, to embrace some kind of certainty may be tantamount (or conducive) to moral failing. To the question in the first poem based on an unfairly generalizing, ad hominem premise, “Why is it that right wing ideologues are such mean-spirited bastards?” (15), he responds in the equally overgeneralizing (or perhaps just hyperbolic) penultimate “andswerve”: “Right wing ideologues are mean-spirited bastards because they have learned to delight in the unprincipled nature of so-called reality” (70). The implication of all right-wingers’ “delight” in (as opposed to relative indifference or individual charitable response) to others’ misfortune, coupled with the reiterated epithet of condemnation, is unfair. However, the statement is valuable because of its strong implied critique of “reality” defined as effects of enrichment and impoverishment produced by the workings of market capitalism with minimal regulation. Right-wing ideologues may think that submission to the “invisible hand” is an economic or political “principle” that jibes with “nature” and “truth,” but they exclude an awareness the implementation of the ideology produces the harsh effects and makes ethical regard for collective welfare extremely difficult and perhaps impossible to put into practice. In this way, since “reality” could reflect different causes producing other effects, the certainty implied in using the term, which Beckett questions with the modifier “so-called,” is, from Beckett’s perspective and my own, “unprincipled” in the user’s failure to entertain powerful counterevidence and, more importantly, an overall uncertainty about economic means and ends that reflects the complexity of globalization.
In general, for Beckett, uncertainty calls for incessant “testing,” as in an allusion to a great aphoristic precursor, Wittgenstein: “As for myself, the sentences I extrude are the ladders which take me to the edge of intelligibility./ All I can do for myself (and no other) is to try and test each rung” (55). What the poet keeps knocking up against—as implied or directly stated in many of the questions in the book’s first poem—is how a condition of mutual otherness among individuals in contact breeds uncertainty: “The we in “this” moment is severely attenuated/ Sadly, we’re apart” (68). Part of this lamentable separation is the possibility or even likelihood that each person attempting interaction differs in what motivates them: “What seems of singular importance to me, earth shattering in its personal significance, means little to anyone else. I am often uncertain as to whether I exist” (61). Remarkably, the alienation caused by others’ rejection or disregard for one’s most powerful preoccupations is so intense as to make the speaker doubt his own existence. Thus, a seemingly unattainable intersubjectivity and not uniqueness is seen as the foundation of individual existence. Given the contextual limitations of everyone’s perspective, Beckett does not assume that “consciousness could be mapped,” but if so, “no one would be able to read the Map,” as “one would be unsure of what one is looking at” (62).
Nevertheless, Beckett does not give up the goal of “engagement and a certain frisson” (67), something approaching successful communication. For one thing, within whatever can be said to structure a self is found much experience of what is external to it, and so even the outrageous declaration, “I think my penis is a girl” (53) makes sense. The poet accords major value to “becoming other” (66) through imagination, empathy, and what psychologists call “active listening” or at least enabling another to gain rapport with self through the medium of his otherness: “You’re an image. I’m a mirror.// You’re a voice. I’m an ear” (52); “What I might be able to do for you and not myself is to/ mirror you,/ establish your presence” (55). This gift to the other may or may not be “real,” but it provides a potentially satisfying counterforce to uncertainty’s incessant disruptions.
“Parts (30 Things for Geof Huth),” the final piece in Beckett’s book, partakes of an insistent, sometimes phenomenological probing reminiscent of and even more minimalist than Robert Creeley’s Pieces and later series: “Shadow/ of a gesture/ on a wall” (74). In each bite-sized part of “Parts,” Beckett challenges his readers’ desire to grasp a bit of substance by disrupting possible assertion: “Thread that/ doesn’t belong/ to it” (73); “Detached thread,/ car tread,/ frays, fades” (75). The referential fuzziness of “it” (not itself) blocks us from understanding how “thread” fails to do its job of “belonging” or making connections. The pronoun “it” itself is supposed to be a kind of “thread” between utterances sharing the same subject or object, but the function is disabled, as in the “detachment” of the second section which, like the “tread,” merely leaves out an “h,” lacks traction—apparently through repeated use over rough terrain.
If I may resort to personification, Beckett sketches notions of absence and presence disorienting each other: “Undeterminable/ emphases” (73); “Something/ (nothing)/ happens” (74); “Beginning between/ less than/ full stops” (77); “Voices,/ holes” (78). If an “emphasis” cannot be “determined,” then how can it have an effect, and how can a non-happening be recognizable as an event? Language may “begin between” periods or a motion occur temporally between two instances of relative stasis, but “less than” challenges our discernment of spatial or temporal order. A comma is less than a “full stop,” so does language start up between commas? And if so, what does that do to the grammar of a sentence and to the representation of “content”? While phonocentric philosophy privileges “voice,” Beckett as laconic deconstructionist identifies the gap between a voice and the full presence of a communicating self.
The poet discloses language in the act of producing effects, but such effects enact a dis-integration, destabilization, or (in keeping with previous sections of the book) questioning: “Pronoun/ envelope/ or knife?” (74); “Again and again/ (no gain)” (79); “Break/ (brake).// Faux patter” (80). In traditional usage, a pronoun is designed to protect the “mail” intended to communicate identity-differentiations, whereas at the same time, such differentiation can result in the kind of alienation from otherness that Beckett problematizes and thinks about trying to transcend in both “Questions at Ohio State” and “Andswerving Fragmeants.” Illusory or ineffective dialogue (“faux patter”) can stem from misleading “patterns” in an established sign system. Repetition involves the striving for “gain,” a lucky “break,” but may only result in elaboration, the extension of a chain of signifiers—or a disjunction (fracture). One applies a “brake” to gain control over motion, perception, and understanding when one is moving too quickly, but this can also evolve into a “break” with desired coherence) and an impasse. Yet “Parts” and Parts and Other Pieces ends with “Reattachmeant” (80), the will to resumption of communication, the sense that all questions do not have to be rhetorical but intensely exploratory, the hope that supplementary, swerving, fragmentary answers can provide, not only “frisson” but “engagement” in ongoing discoveries.
Thomas Fink is the author of 2 books of criticism, including A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth-Century U.S. Poetry, and of 7 books of poetry, most recently Peace Conference, and co-editor of a critical anthology on David Shapiro. His paintings hang in various collections.