Olivia Durif

Unbearable Things, Scary Monsters, & the Problem of Looking


ISSUE 37 | FASHION | FEB 2014

“Pink wig, thick ass, give ’em whiplash / I think big, get cash, make ’em blink fast / now look at what you just saw, this is what you live for / Ah, I’m a motherfucking monster” (Nicki Minaj).

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There’s a pendulum swing between exhibitionism and self-effacement. I’m somewhere between three and five years old. While the grown-ups are in the kitchen drinking coffee or rosé, I venture off to explore the bounty of my grandmother’s walk-in closet. After having been left to my own devices for an hour or so, I emerge back into the kitchen, mostly naked, adorned in as many of my grandmother’s silk scarves as I could manage to lavish upon my little body. My willing audience meets my dramatic entrance with a flood of praise: “How adorable!” “Look at you!” “So cute!” and I immediately burst into a fit of uncontrollable tears: “I’m not cute!” I bellow, “I’m a scary monster!”

*

Anne Carson’s “Stanzas, Sexes, Seductions,” the speaker begins with what’s good:

It’s good to be neuter.
I want to have meaningless legs.
There are things unbearable.
One can evade them a long time.
Then you die.

The opening argument is not “neuter nouns are better than masculine or feminine nouns” or “it’s good to have a dog with no testicles.” Instead, the speaker identifies with the neuter, and thus objectifies herself, taking on the atributes of a sexless noun or an unsexed animal. But a neuter noun doesn’t mean an easier part of speech to reckon with in a sentence: “to be neuter” is not a way to escape physicality. Similiarly, a body can’t really become neuter, like a dog’s can; a person cannot strip her body of meaning.

These opening lines illustrate a speaker who has become exhausted both by the work of being meaningful in her own body and by making meaning with language. There’s something about the juxtaposition of these two first lines that highlights their respective dubiousnesses. For Carson, a poet and a translator of ancient Greek and Latin, the declaration that it is good “to be neuter” throws into relief the hysterical nature of the following line: “I want to have meaningless legs.” It’s as if the speaker is claiming that a neuter noun is somehow more pure than a masculine or feminine noun, an entity that has escaped the problem of gender. Neuter nouns have to decline just like masculine and feminine nouns—there is still work to be done in order to build a sentence. The desire to have “meaningless legs” is similarly bizarre. Legs are simultaneously a symbol of freedom and a symbol of heaviness. Legs are parts that enable the body to move, but also tether the body to the earth. Legs simultaneously remind a person of her corporeality and promise, like wings, a freedom from it.

The speaker displays an ambivalence here concerning if / how she wants her body to be read. Already having identified herself with an impossibly sexless entity, the speaker doesn’t quite desire invisibility or self-destruction. She’s not interested in cutting off her legs, or in never having had legs in the first place. What the speaker wants is to lack meaning in both her body and her poetry, and as a woman and a writer she knows that these are impossible wishes. Gendered meaning is inescapable because even neuter-beings have meaningful legs. Interpreting a poem is a horizontal catcall, like ogling a woman’s body vertically, from the legs up. Reading, both women and poems, necessarily involves interpretation, which is the project of making an argument (creating significance) based on a visual observation. The first two lines of the poem introduce a conflict from which the following line is born: “There are things unbearable.”

The first stanza’s ambivalence about being meaningful is an ambivalence about being seen. To be seen, for a word and a woman, is to be interpreted. Being interpreted means being endowed with meaning from the outside world and this is a scary business for a person. The fear is that meaning ascribed to the subject from the outside world will destroy, or taint or rupture the meaning that is known, internally, by the self. The speaker’s “sense of self” is threatened by being looked at and consequently given meaning. The speaker’s first answer to this volatile situation is to objectify herself by attempting to escape meaning.

Her second solution, as we’ll see in the following stanza, is to stare back at the world that has been ascribing unwanted meaning to her legs. The speaker knows about looking outside of herself because she’s a translator and a poet, and thus knows about the project of building meaning, in the form of sensible sentences and beautiful metaphor. But the world is as cruel as the gaze of the reader / cat-caller. While the world doesn’t look at the speaker per se, it forces her to look at herself, to remember.

Recollection draws a link between the inside world of memories and emotions and the outside world of landscape and association:

The ocean reminds me
of your green room.
There are things unbearable.
Scorn, princes, this little size
of dying.

It’s not the ocean’s fault. It’s the speaker’s capacity to see the ocean that engenders an involuntary association with the green room, a space of the same color, and all of the painful memories that the room unlocks: “scorn, princes, this little size of dying.” The room is an internal space, a metaphor for interiority. But this isn’t the speaker’s green room, it’s yours. Maybe once it was even “ours.” Either way, the room is a physical space, which at some point belonged to another and, probably through having been shared, has remained in the speaker’s mental space, i.e. memory. “Scorn, princes, this little size of dying.” What does it mean for a thing to be unbearable? The following stanza exhibits how the unbearable agitates the speaker into a state of self-effacement, causing her to want to flee herself:

My personal poetry is a failure.
I do not want to be a person.
I want to be unbearable.

Here is first explicit confession of the speaker’s identity, at least in terms of occupation. “Personal poetry” certainly signifies the poet’s own work, but the question of failure points to something more existentially fraught than an occupational flop. “Personal poetry” is a funny phrase that recalls to me journal entries, notes written on the backs of things, autobiographies, narratives built about the past to help a person locate where she stands in the present. It is crucially unclear whether this poem we are reading falls into the category of personal poetry, or professional (because it has indeed been published) poetry.

Where the green room is an inside-space evoked by the color of the ocean, personal poetry is another space in which the speaker attempts to hold her interiority. Read as the miscellany that holds a writer’s subjecthood, the failure of personal poetry is the failure of personhood. Let’s interrogate the relationship between the judgment “My personal poetry is a failure” and the confession “I do not want to be a person.” It seems to me that the poet’s personal poetry is a failure because it has failed to satisfy her desire not to be a person; because despite her attempts to write impersonal or auto-depersonalizing poetry, she has ended up merely writing successful personal poetry. The speaker’s burden seems to lie precisely in the horror of success, which, for a writer, is the horror of successful communication between internal experience and the rest of the world.

In the following line, the speaker makes a slick and shocking move that changes the course of the poem. When the project of “being a person” becomes unbearable, a person can attempt to project her suffering onto the world by becoming unbearable herself. With the line “I want to be unbearable,” the speaker turns the unbearable outside-in. Being unbearable is a way to fight against the encroaching threat of unbearable things, a way of keeping the self safe from outside burdens. Indeed, “Unbearable” is a predicate. It’s not how the speaker wants to be, but what she wants to be. But what would an unbearable person look like? A strange non-entity with no ties to other subjects, living in some kind of perfect solitude, unmarred by human interaction. A hermit or a monster, the Yeti or a Saint.

The poem doesn’t self-destruct because the poet doesn’t deny her own subjecthood, she merely imagines doing so. This said, midway through the poem, something strange does happen. The poem returns to the theme of greenness, but instead of a perception from the outside that recalls an internal association (as the ocean reminds the speaker of the green room), now “greenness” is ascribed to love as an essential quality:

Lover to lover, the greenness of love.
Cool, cooling.

The adjective “green” becomes a noun “greenness.” Description of a natural element (the ocean) that recalls painful memories about a past lover is transformed into statement about the essence of love itself. “Cool, cooling”: as if the coolness of the color green is a balm for the passionate memories that are so unbearable in the second stanza – as if the poet has transfered her feelings from her own subjectivity back onto the object of her emotion, successfully depersonalizing her personal experience and thus relieving her, at least for the time being, of unbearable things, which is to say, subjective experience as such.

The speaker’s desire to be unbearable leaves her in a state like exhaustion or drunkenness and the poem goes a little crazy:

Earth bears no such plant.
Who does not end up
a female impersonator?
Drink all the sex there is.
Still die.

“Earth bears no such plant” seems like a statement that directly negates the “coolness” that the speaker experiences only momentarily after having transferred a meaningful association back onto the original object of her feeling. Is the speaker impersonating a woman, a seductress, in the lines that follow? What does it mean to be drunk off “all the sex there is,” and still die? The speaker can only temporarily relieve herself of the burden of love by transferring it onto love’s essence. On earth, there is no such cool, green, love, and the subject returns to hotter colors:

I tempt you.
I blush.
There are things unbearable.
Legs, alas.
Legs die.

While the poem has already dealt with stanzas and sexes in various forms, here’s where seduction enters the scene:

Rocking themselves down,
crazy slow,
some ballet term for it—
fragment of foil, little
spin,
little drunk,
little do,
little oh,
alas

What is happening to these legs? It’s as if the lyrical subject has relieved herself of personhood, and her legs have followed suit, have somehow dismembered themselves from the rest of the body. Is this what happens to legs when they are rendered free from meaning? The rest of the poem is as difficult to interpret as it is seductive, and this seems to be precisely the point. Earth might not bear a plant that is cool-ly free from meaning, but there is something simultaneously uncanny and tree-like about the legs in this last stanza. Is this a description of dancing legs or falling leaves? These last lines fall on the page like leaves slowly falling to earth, or tipsy, dancing legs falling to a lush carpet or a lover’s bed, and evoke the sense of having given up. But given up what? Even when the speaker has managed to depersonalize and so relieve herself of unbearable memories, and thus temporarily relieve herself of personhood, her legs bring her back to earth. There is meaning in the body. “Legs, alas / legs die.” Corporeality is unavoidable -- the fact that legs die euphemizes the bigger problem for the speakers, which is that legs are alive. The possibility of failure is only a problem insofar as it is predicated on the possibility of success. The fact that legs die, like the fact that poems fail, comes as a kind of relief.

*

Success still throws me into an identity crisis much like the tantrum my silk-scarved body threw in front of a bunch of grown-ups. Wanting to be a scary monster is like wanting to be being unbearable. It seems to me like my five-year-old self disguised a horror at having successfully communicated an experience of pleasure, much like Carson’s speaker wants to shift the burden of unbearable things onto the world by being unbearable herself. Was the problem that I wanted to communicate to my elders a haptic experience? My lavish display of silken scarves probably felt good on my naked, five year old skin. Was there, then, a horror in my tactile experience becoming a visual experience when I managed to communicate it? Or was I disguising my success at having communicated a visually pleasing display of myself as a kind of miscommunication? But these interpretations leave unanswered the question of why success is so horrible. For some reason, the communication of internal experience destabilizes the experience of subjecthood. Having a body involves us with other bodies, reminds us of other bodies – fills us up, whether we like it or not, with more meaning than we can bear.