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On "Shooting Script"


Helen Vendler

Giving up the prism, the lens, the map, and pulling herself up by her own roots, Rich, as The Will to Change closes, eats the last meal in her own neighborhood and prepares, deprived of all instruments, to move on, guided only by the fortuitous cracks in the plaster, the innate lifeline, the traumatic rays of the bullet-hole. She could hardly have been more frank; from formalism to--not freedom, but, as always--a new version of truth. If this is a revolution, it is one bound like Ixion on the wheel of the past--environmental past in the plaster, genetic past in the lifeline, traumatic past in the bullet-hole. And if it is revolution, it is one which does not wish to deny the reality of past choices and past modes of life. Putting off in her boat, Rich watches "the lights on the shore I had left for a long time; each one, it seemed to me, was a light I might have lit, in the old days" ("Shooting Script," II, number 13). Houselights and hearthfires, abandoned, remembered, light the departure.

From Parnassus (1973).


Cary Nelson

"Shooting Script, a two-part sequence totaling fourteen poems, uses a simple structure quite effectively: a series of separate lines linked frequently by repeated phrases and syntactical forms. Throughout, the language is direct and spare. Recurrent concerns (like the Vietnam war) tie the sequence together thematically. Yet the sequence as a whole also testifies to the way history attacks the poem from the center, fracturing its stanzas into individual fragments: "read there," Rich tells us in the last poem, "the map of the future, the roads radiating from the / initial split, the filaments thrown out from that impasse" (WTC, 67). To apply one of the words Rich uses, the poem is defoliated, its leaves falling from its trunk.

"Shooting Script" begins with a poem, recalling the method of Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," that works variations on its first two lines: "We were bound on the wheel of an endless conversation. / Inside this shell, a tide waiting for someone to enter" ( WTC, 53). Immediately, a cluster of possible readings is suggested. The first line, which is the poem's only complete sentence, may bring to mind a recurrent scene in Rich's poetry: a relationship between two people, closed to outside influence and largely fixed in a pattern of repeated interchanges. This is, of course, an impersonal template for a relationship. Moreover, if we hear an echo of one of the more famous lines in King Lear, "I am bound / Upon a wheel of fire," along with the images of the wheel of fire in medieval legends and the Apocrypha, we will read the line with a typically modernist sense of belatedness and deflation. Thus the line has enough general connotation for us to hear in it reverberations of all contemporary conversation; it is an image of the way we are situated in language, another of Rich's regular concerns. This is the endless conversation which the poem must repeat, even as the poem tries to differentiate itself from it. The "we" of the first line therefore includes the poem's readers as well, and the shell in the second line figures in an infinite number of sites, from the closed circularity of particular interactions to the encapsulation of a period of history in its own verbal repetitions.

The rest of the poem is a sequence of appositives, each echoing the vocabulary of the first two lines and offering a definition of the poem as a text to be experienced: "A cycle whose rhythm begins to change the meanings of words" (WTC, 53) is one of the subsequent lines; "A monologue waiting for you to interrupt it" is another. In a miniature version of a technique comparable to Kinnell's in The Book of Nightmares, clusters of related words--conversation, monologue, dialogue; tide, waves, ebb and flow; melting, pulsing--are interchanged, interrelated, and finally bound into a net that holds together their differences and similarities. The possibility of change within language is held out to us, but the poem's erosive intermingling of human interaction and natural process tends to take it away. That this aesthetic of opposition becomes echolalia (human speech echoing nature's dialogue of substances) is not entirely negative. The will to change is enacted even as it is undone. And the "meaning that searches for its word like a hermit crab," therein to dwell in isolation, will eventually outgrow its shelter.

The poem extends to us an ambivalent offer to enter this text and its cycle of changes. The imagery of natural rhythms is enticing; even the roughly mock-heroic rhythm of the opening line is appealing. Indeed the whole poem coheres as an appreciative phenomenology of the connotative web woven by its key words. Yet the hermeticism of this phenomenology is also stifling. This "conversation of sounds melting constantly into rhythms," linked to the "dialogue of the rock with the breaker," is also the claustrophobic "turning of an endless conversation," or the apocalyptic stasis of "an ear filled with one sound only." However beautiful we find the poem's rhythmically overlapping meanings, we will also find its entrapment sterile; this "tide that ebbs and flows against a deserted continent" can be picturesque while suggesting, in human terms, repeated contacts that fail to evoke a response. Rich's mixed feelings about the verbal tapestry she weaves amplify the doubts we began to see in Duncan's and Kinnell's comparable efforts.

These affective uncertainties contribute an element of instability to the poem's overall form and to any judgment we might try to make about its originality. The verbal connections worked here seem both to exist before the poem begins, as part of the texture of our language, and to exist only because of the poem's creative energy. As a verbal act, the poem is unresolvably unstable; it must seem at once involuntary and willed. Its field of relationships is neither altogether given nor altogether artificial. We cannot account for this unresolvability by faulting Rich for being indecisive; nor can we recuperate it, in conventional New Critical fashion, by characterizing it as a set of tightly controlled ambiguities.

The whole tone of formal control here is toward increasing our uncertainty, not toward containing it. She begins the sixth poem in "Shooting Script" by writing "You are beside me like a wall; I touch you with my fingers and keep moving through the bad light." The last line repeats this opening, except now she writes of merely "trying to move through the bad light." As she puts it in the middle section, "This light eats away at the clarities I had fixed on." The light is the poem's light as well, a strained light that brings with it the smell of a smell of burning."

More than anything else, it is the issue of history's presence in the poem that accounts for this twice removed, altogether supplementary, but ineradicable scent. History operates as the continual counterpoint to the will to change, to a conviction that individual freedom is decisive in any way.

Consider "Newsreel," the ninth poem in "Shooting Script." Since each of the poems works on its own, the larger structure is not simply used to contain associative formlessness at the level of particular poems. Skeletal structures are frequently more self-conscious and uncomfortable than those articulated through narrative continuity or covert verbal rhythms. Here, the larger structure shows both characteristics--accumulated interpenetrations of private emotion and historical event, as well as an overt structure with, presumably, some claim to more comprehensive vision. As we might expect, the sequence as a whole provides for multiple entrances and interpretations. Yet this very plurality of connections also serves (I think both intentionally and courageously) to undermine the carefully achieved coherence of the individual poems. The two impulses, for coherence and for disjunction, are at war. We cannot rest satisfied in any individual poem because the sequence continually challenges us to a wider and less conclusive perspective. Such risks to our sense of verbal containment and resolution are generally either unpleasant or unwanted. Significantly, political references, too, are generally unwelcome in poetry, so the structural subversions parallel and intensify the subject matter. The form is uniquely suited to its times.

On examination, these verbal and structural qualifications are apparent within the individual poems. "(Newsreel)"--even the title is disquieting. In what political or emotional context is a newsreel parenthetical? As a communication, how can a newsreel be merely digressive, a clarification threatening comprehension? Given the political irony integral to poetry--an irony compounded of relevance and impotence, each inescapable--the word "newsreel" is further compromised as the title of a poem. As it happens, several of the poems are parenthetically dedicated, but only this poem is individually titled. The title echoes the title of the sequence ("Shooting Script") and thereby announces both the poem's method (a sequence of visual images) as well as its subject (our confused internalization of historical process).

Newsreel--the images are so clear, but they vanish and leave us puzzled: "This would not be the war we fought in. See, the foliage is heavier." It is as though we act (and record our actions) through a gray perceptual film, a hopelessly clouded mental newsreel. It is not my war, I know my war. Its images are in me, though I cannot recall whether I fought or not. Yet somehow, in a self I cannot recover, in features I cannot now recall, are assembled those images of my war. Now (and thereby even from the first instant) this newsreel renders those images equitable and properly ordered: "Somewhere there is a film of the war we fought in, and it must / contain the flares, the souvenirs.... Someone has that war stored up in metal canisters, a memory he / cannot use, somewhere my innocence is proven with my guilt." In a few frames, casually recorded, I appear without these muted surroundings. My presence is definitive, even if the image has since been discarded. In some peripheral, ordinary human action, I am set aside and named; inconsequential, like each of my countrymen, I move numb and slow at the center of the vortex of history: "Somewhere my body goes taut under the deluge, somewhere I am / naked behind the lines washing my body in the water of that war."

Extraordinarily, in a single voice, plaintive but unforgivable, Rich summons all the actors in this historical moment: the perplexed foot soldier, taken up by a process he begins to understand only when it is too late to resist; the nation unconsciously pursuing new approval for its past ("I thought of seeing the General who cursed us, whose name they / gave to an expressway") and futilely seeking relief for its collective dread ("I wanted to see the faces of the dead when / they were living"); and even the poet herself, subtly implicated despite any protest. Each of the sentences can be voiced by any of the actors; our roles are interchangeable, our guilt and innocence inextricably mingled.

This collective first-person narrator has its antecedent in a hall of mirrors. Self and history are paralyzed before absolute, irreconcilable needs-to be separate and dependent. And the poem, too, in a voice univocal and omnipresent, collects its lines while giving them over to the fury and boredom of its age. "(Newsreel)" is a poem of merciless aggression, yet a poem also of ambiguous complicity. The historical relevance is immediate but uncontainable. The form--ten prosaic black slats on the page--proceeds through a series of equivalent evasions. Each successive statement seals the poem's moment while at the same time opening the poem to the past and the future. Ironically, then, the poem is genuinely Whitmanesque, certifying his vision of bountiful death in an open form appropriate to our times. One of the very few wholly successful Vietnam poems, it may also be a prophecy of the poetry of the future--cling[ing] tenaciously to their own dissolution.

. . . .

The fourth poem in the sequence begins "In my imagination I was the pivot of a fresh beginning," an assertion that the following lines essentially undo. They juxtapose a series of archeological sites that no longer communicate with a sequence of contemporary acts that are either misguided or unthinking. The result is an image of the present burdened by a totemic silence that makes a fresh beginning impossible. Elsewhere in the sequence history operates to shape individual character into a few unvarying roles. "They come to you," she writes to a young woman, "with their descriptions of your soul." A few lines later, sounding for a moment like Merwin, she adds, "They believe your future has a history and that it is themselves." Here, however, at least a measure of rejection is possible. They may have "old bracelets and rings they want to fasten onto you," but you remain beyond their comprehension. "You are a letter written, folded, burnt to ash, and mailed in an envelope to another continent." She is thinking here both of a woman's indifference to male history and of the process of composition. Yet these options offer only escape or opposition--through either an intense but private consciousness or a ritual gesture of disavowal.

In the last poem, however, she moves beyond these alternatives, as she did in "(Newsreel)," by turning history's devastation into a mode of deliberate composition. History has taken its definitive toll on every option but one--the verbal miming of and implicit mastery of history's own effects. She will "give up the temptations of the projector"; no longer will she replay the images of a past that was never hers in any event. Now she will possess instead the shattered blank ground on which the images were projected, the idealized American field now uniformly splintered, "the web of cracks filtering across the plaster." She presents us with a sequence of aesthetic injunctions--addressed simultaneously to the ruins of our history and to the ruins of the poem's form: "To reread the instructions on your palm; to find there how the /lifeline, broken, keeps its direction"; "to know in every distortion of the light what fracture is." We are given a phenomenology of willed rupture. Its final images are colloquial and playful but nonetheless sobering in their forceful usurpation of both her personal history and Williams's, Olson's and Roethke's notion of the primacy of place in American poetry: "To pull yourself up by your own roots; to eat the last meal in / your old neighborhood." "Shooting Script" succeeds because its disciplined language turns a nearly dismantled form into a vehicle for historical awareness. In the end aesthetics and history converge to become prophecy, as a deconstructed verbal matrix shows us American space in its final form.

From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.


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