On "The Torso"
Duncan's stylistic and structural disruptions are designed to orient his poems around their own violated centers. Form is a clustering of dislocations: "The part in its fitting does not lock but unlocks; what was closed is opend" (BB, iv). In his introduction to TheYears as Catches, he announces that "These are poems of an irregularity"; the apparent thrust of a poem, its dominant metaphors, must contain its own "inner opposition or reproof" (Y, i). "I attempt the discontinuities of poetry," he writes, "to interrupt all sure course of my inspiration" (D, 91). Poetry centers itself only by establishing a discursive field and then shattering it. There must be, he writes, "no poem / without such a moment, broken, conquerd," but he continues with "only by what we did not know / of the design" (D, 123). Each betrayal projects a larger, more wounded coherence, a wider and less secure vision.
"The Torso" (BB, 63-65), number 18 in the "Passages" sequence, offers a good test of Duncan's aesthetic, for its chief disruption is one word. The title suggests some of the poem's potential for multiple and ambiguous connotation, since the image of a torso invokes the realms of both anatomy and sculpture. A torso's formal perfection can imply either its relative independence from the head and limbs or their actual absence. In either case, a torso invites a studied--potentially ecstatic or skeptical--distance from the human figure, a distance that is significant in what is essentially a love Poem.
The poem begins in a rush of natural images: "Most beautiful! the red-flowering eucalyptus, / the madrone, the yew." The syntax makes the trees analogues to the torso of the poem's title, but the next line, surrounded by white space, trails off in ellipses: "Is he. . ." The line is partly assertive, partly questioning; it makes the opening images hypothetical--castings of the verbal net for a proper central image. The speaker's reverie then incorporates a passage from Marlowe's Edward The Second. . . .
These lines from the play's opening speech are spoken by Edward's young friend Gaveston, who is recalled from banishment when the king ascends to the throne. Since Gaveston is eventually murdered, the quotation adds two connotations to the lover's image--regal and tragic. Those connotations will be foregrounded later in the poem; for the moment, however, the passage serves mainly to elevate and aggrandize the speaker's emotions, effects the next lines extend: "If he be Truth / I would dwell in the illusion of him." The archaic, slightly stilted construction prepares us for the self-conscious avowal of what is very nearly a romantic cliché. Yet the second clause also humanizes and thus comments on the Platonic reference to "Truth." A mixture of resistance and submission suddenly coalesces in the excited wish to be absorbed in the lover's person.
Then a particularly vital image surfaces: "His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body." We can visualize a withdrawal from an embrace, while also reading the line as a spiritual "unlocking," an opening outward of self. The outlines of the image, the meaning of "chambers," is ambiguous, recalling an earlier image of yearning so intense it feels "like the long trunk of another self / turning on his thighs to open life's arms" (RB, 90). Like the pronouns in "Sonnet 4," the pronouns in "The Torso" are almost interchangeable; a romantic fusion of self and other is caught in an image of a single pair of unfolding hands. This is the first of seven spaced lines, only one of them punctuated--at once scattered and provisional phrases, a faltering communication, and a verbal field vibrant with transformations. The next lines are ambivalent: "such an idea in man's image / rising tides that sweep me towards him." The tone is reverent, but also slightly compromised by Duncan's tendency to court a deliberately sentimental effusiveness. The mood brings the poem to its major disruption: ". . . homosexual?":
Duncan is aware that the sexual category can act as a restrictive label that deflates the mythic, transpersonal vision for which the poem is straining. Prefaced by ellipses, it closes the earlier "Is ..." and cancels the organic allusiveness of the opening listing. Italicized, the word challenges us to question whether his varied emotions and the poem's plural effects can be reduced to this single name. The impulse to include the word is at once political, aggressive, confessional, and purgative. The balance of the poem, he hopes, will demonstrate how inadequate the word homosexual is to describe his full experience. Yet we also need to read "Is he. . .homosexual?" as a single line, thereby traversing Duncan's romantic, philosophical meditation with the single essential question about availability. We must now read "The Torso" both as a fantasy about a stranger-- a fantasy constrained by the question of whether a relationship is possible--and as a meditation about an established relationship--one into which language and self-consciousness intrude with their effects of descriptive distancing. For each of these readings the category of homosexuality has the irreducibly double power Michel Foucault has analyzed in The History of Sexuality: it is both an exclusionary nomination and one that generates possibilities of action. By saying the name, Duncan wants to deprive it of its nominative power while retaining its subversive force, but it will always serve both as a political challenge and as an element of doubt in the poem. The decision to include it in the text moves beyond an aesthetic of honesty (whatever occurs in the field of the poem must be given its place) to become simultaneously assertive and self-defeating. Duncan breaks the intimate mood of the poem and probably undermines some readers' empathy in doing so. Like so much of the structural deflection essential in American open poetry, Duncan's decision reveals a sense of guilt and its attendant punishment; it establishes "the poet's own duality between doubt and conviction in writing." Moreover, for Duncan, as for Ginsberg, those emotions are given historical impetus by Whitman's comparable sexual anxiety. Personal and historical guilt finally become indistinguishable.
"The Torso" does very nearly surmount these difficulties, but it has been prevented from doing so entirely. The poem continues as if its syntax detours around the intrusive word. The next line, "and at the treasure of his mouth," proceeds from the line before; there he will "pour forth my soul / his soul commingling." Robert K. Martin uses these lines to argue that the single "occasion of the poem is, of course, an act of fellatio," a reading that is partly accurate but overstated, as any exclusive reading would be. Commingling souls also suggest both breath and a spiritual communion. We cannot choose between an actual physical act, a fantasy, and the verbal changes rung on both. Duncan's aesthetic point about referentiality is that poetry demonstrates the world's multiplicity. "I thought a Being more than vast," he writes, and the verb suggests that every lover is partly imaginary insofar as he becomes a kind of supreme being. The interaction of lovers creates in each a representative, universal body "leading / into Paradise." The erotic figure is also religious, the Christian reference reinforced by the figure of the "Orphic Xristos" in "Passages 17," who "lifts me up to him, / lifted me up to him, embracing every fear I had" (BB, 60). This Being is a communal figure who is also the apotheosis of selfhood. "His eyes," the poem continues, "quickening a fire in me," the body becomes "a trembling / hieroglyph," a signifying field or a sacred text constituted by an alternative, celebratory naming. The body is a joyous cathexis of names. . .from "the clavicle" to "the public hair". . . .
Although this is a generalized, universal male body, this reading of the body as a text is still one of the relatively few successful descriptions of the male body in poetry. There are many unspecific images of bodily life in poetry, images that are essentially nonsexual or pansexual, but very few erotic representation the male body. The four italicized names, given in descending order as the eye travels down the body, are points of origin or nodes of force in a descriptive field, constituents of the body's textuality. Each name occasions an uplifting of substance, countering the eye's descending glance and paralleling the unfolding description: "the stem of the great artery upward," "the rise of pectoral muscles," "sleeping fountains ... waiting ... to be / awakened"; "the stem in which the man / flowers forth"; "his seed rises." The frankness of "nipples" and "pubic hair," the prosaic "navel" will displease some readers. Yet Duncan overcomes the graphic difficulties of the material; he manages to convey the instinctual attractions of his subject and place it in the verbal field of his overall vision. The sequence of vertical motions anticipates the reference to ejaculation in the last section, but the verticality is also overlaid with references to "root" and "stem" that simultaneously reinforce the organicism of the opening lines and recall the etymology of "torso" as the stem of a plant.
But Duncan is compelled again to risk his achievement. The line almost reduces the vision to infatuation: "a wave of need and desire over taking me." Yet we are not quite back again to the rhetoric of the earlier line about the "treasure of his mouth," for the space between "over" and "taking" requires us to read this line in two ways as well--as a description of consummated desire and of desire that overpowers. "Cried out my name" risks the same sentiment but survives because of the multiple dimensions of naming established in the poem. We are not only given a lover's cry; we understand naming as instinct vocalized and as a sound bound in a net of words. Naming is fateful, an imposition of verbal destiny. "(This was long ago, It was another life)," he writes, echoing "Sonnet 4," and we sense a wider eros at work--the attractions of a mythic form. A few lines later the mythic references are reinforced: "His look / pierces my side." The look, the sense of being seen, transforms the visionary lover into the wounded Christ; the speaker's erotic being is crucified. The lovers are caught in a net woven two millennia before. . . .
With delicate echoes of the Gospels, and with clear references to man's fall and to Christ's incarnation and resurrection, the lovers undergo a transformation built into the informing power of words like "falling," "rising," and "gathering." Election as lover, king, and sacrificial victim traverse one another in these ascending and descending displacements. "Gathering me, you gather / your Self," he writes, as the poem gathers its metaphors into an allusive field that moves outward and inward at the same time. As self and other are extinguished in an embrace, the lovers also enact a larger story. Adam, dispersed in all the members of the race, and Osiris, scattered afield, are gathered together in one figure: "For my Other is not a woman but a man / the King upon whose bosom let me lie."
If "The Torso" existed in isolation, we might say that it succeeds in surmounting most of the problems it raises. Its conflation of homosexuality and Christianity--its mixture of anger at conventional American stereotyping with its own romantic effusiveness--its sexual attraction and tension--all these are held together in the poem's verbal net. The formal gestalt Duncan achieves is not one of fully controlled and balanced ambiguity but one of radically fluid though counterpointed allusiveness. Nonetheless, a reader who puts sufficient work into the poem will be rewarded with an experience of a uniquely rich and open kind of textuality. Yet "The Torso" is not simply an isolated poem, and its relationship to the "Passages" sequence radically alters its force, placing it in a network of oppositions that is more disabling than constitutive. Thus the formal dissolution that Duncan courts in "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" and "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" is finally achieved when "The Torso" is read in the context of Bending The Bow as a whole. The associative field through which the vocabulary of "The Torso" resonates includes demonic echoes that are as strong as those the poem offers. The "rising tides that sweep" the lovers together in "The Torso" recur not only in the conviction that "youth will rise" like "new shoots / of the spring-tide" and in "the blood's natural / uprising against tyranny" but also in the "sea of toiling men" in the Vietnam poem "Up Rising," men who have "raised this secret entity of America's hatred of Europe, of Africa, of Asia" (BB, 94, 114, 81-82). One of the larger contexts of "The Torso," then, is satanic violence, a violence that moves through the poem and takes up its images to use them for darker purposes.
By Cary Nelson. From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
Robert Duncan's poem "The Torso" ranks with the most acute love poems of the century. Its shifting focus corresponds with that of a man kneeling to fellate his lover: the collar bone, chest, navel, and pubic hair are examined in turn. But the occasion of the poem involves the two men in reversed roles. While the speaker's mind moves down the torso of the lover, the lover himself is on his knees, fellating the speaker. The fantasy of the one duplicates the deeds of the other. The effect, even if only one man is fellating the other, is of a mutual act, and of simultaneous climax. The parts of each are superimposed on those of the other and the two are, if not identical, indistinguishable. Like the words themselves, which fall over a wide area of the page leaving gaps within as well as between many of the lines, physical fragments are strewn, or seedlike sown, across an undescribed landscape which is nonetheless, in its parts, particular and detailed.
Poem, body, and landscape are one, located directly in front of our reading and kissing lips (the reader shares the speaker's point of view, and is implicated in his sexual act), and in front of and immediately within the locked gates of Paradise, to which the lovers' hands turn genital keys: "His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body" . . . "my hand in your hand seeking the locks, the keys." The features of the poem's gardens, far from being wild, have been carefully landscaped. They include "the red-flowering eucalyptus, / the madrone, the yew," with which the poem begins; the entrance, associated with the lover's mouth; the 'sleeping fountains' of his nipples; the temple of his belly, at the centre of which lies his navel, possibly associated with the omphalos of Delphi, supposed centre of the ancient world; and the root and flower of his groin. Each part of the body's topography (typography) is associated with a point near the entrance to the spiritual domain. Physical and spiritual consummation are approximate, drawn closer together by love.
By Gregory Woods. From Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-Eroticism and Modern Poetry. Copyright © 1987 by Gregory Woods.
Robert Duncan viewed his own poetry as "a figure of unweaving, an art of unsaying what it says, of saying what it would not say" ("Self" 231). Of course the trope of weaving for writing derives from a women's tradition rooted in the myths of Ariadne, Circe, and Penelope, a tradition contingent on the historical fact that women have had little access to formal, written language, let alone "literary language," and therefore have composed in "crafts," primarily in textiles. It is curious that as a man, a self-conscious "man-of-letters," Duncan borrows this feminine trope, but even more curious that he reverses the process. He is Penelope at night, Penelope inverted, but without her heralded modesty. Instead of avoiding other suitors, he seeks them. He is looking for some One more than Odysseus and his simple masculinity to become a new kind of king. He unweaves the cloth of language, not to undo the work of women or to pornographically expose one more woman when the cloth is unraveled, but to reveal the naked male torso. Surprisingly, what gets uncovered is not the inflated phallus, the phallus as transcendent signifier, the phallus of Adam naming everything properly, the phallus of Jehovah/Moses laying down the Law, the phallus of John's Lord Jesus Christ supplanting all words with One, His Own, but, rather, a phallus acknowledging its power source in a historically feminine process.
Duncan reveals this modified phallus most completely in "The Torso," a lyric fragment, the eighteenth in an open-ended series called "Passages." These poems are not continuous but interspersed over several volumes, over years. Unlike Cary Nelson, who believes a more integrated organization would enhance Duncan's work (100), I believe the existing protean structure suits the particularly nonauthoritarian king who rules "Passages." (As Nelson himself points out, "Duncan . . . believe[s] conventional forms manifest imperialist motives" .) Such a king who seeks no empire also acknowledges that he is ruled. There exist rules and principles and their attendant forms and structures that he cannot even comprehend, yet which he obeys.
[. . . .]
"The Torso" begins:
beautiful! the red-flowering eucalyptus,
the madrone, the yew
Is he . . .
Ending the initial exclamatory lines with an ellipsis creates a certain overly poeticized atmosphere, a gauzy wistfulness. And by placing the clause "Is he" at the end of the thought, Duncan seems to be indulging in antiquated poetic convention. However, both the ellipsis and the reversal serve double duty. As the reader discovers later, "the three dots" mark an interruption that, as Kristeva indicates in the work of Celine, "Far from being the mark of a lacuna . . . point to the overflowing of the clause" (Powers 198). "Is he" begins a question, a question of identity, of identification. The question gets detoured or fragmented by eight intervening lines. The single, solitary word signifying both the grammatical and psychic object of the question must wait, and yet it is written supplementarily, out of defiance of the proper naming of the Law of the Father, before its own arrival.
Three of these supplementary lines are of love, taken by Duncan from Marlowe's Edward II:
So thou wouldst smile, and take me in thine arms
The sight of London to my exiled eyes
Is as Elysium to a new-come soul
Duncan notes the source only in the back of the collection, and yet this knowledge adds significance to the poem, as Marlowe was, despite the lack of a precise word/concept for "homosexual" in the Renaissance (although Derek Jarman's wonderful anachronisms in
his film of the drama playfully defy this social-constructionist view), a lover of men, and masculine love is central to the drama. As with the earlier references to Verlaine and Genet, sexual identification becomes secondary to the process of transforming masculinity and male sexuality. In Marlowe's tragedy, Edward cares for poetry, philosophy, and the commoner Gaveston more than war, statecraft, and his politically advantageous wife. He opposes the militaristic masculinism of his lords and his deceased father, Edward I, and is crucified because he does. Here, by historical allusion to Edward, and by identifying with the position of Gaveston, Duncan finds at least a partial object of his quest(ion).
Reading back from the Marlowe quotation to the first lines of the poem, we see that Duncan is subtly connecting history to his own time and place. The madrone is a tree native to the western United States, and the eucalyptus, while originally imported from Australia, is abundant in California, as is the yew. As Elysium is to London, so California is to both. In, effect, Duncan defies masculine measure, that is, chronology.
The next five lines can be read metaphysically:
If he be Truth
I would dwell in the illusion of him
His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body
such an idea in man's image
rising tides that sweep me towards him
The probability or hope that the beloved will guide the speaker to transcendent "Truth" is here offered. Given the orthodox Christian and Cartesian division of body and soul, it should come with a certain degree of irony that the body becomes the site for any truth. In the heretical tradition Duncan follows, spiritual truth gets revealed in the flesh, thus dissolving a dichotomy fundamental to the Law of the Father, a Law which allows His Holy Word to rule over the sinful body (from Eve) of the Mother. This passage suggests that any possible "Truth" may be "illusion," or that it might multiply. In context with the rest of the poem, however, illusion is no cause for abjection. Rather, the illusion provides a pleasurable place in which to "dwell." The dwelling place (the answer to the question) will later get mapped out on the partial body (the torso), the site of jouissance. For now, the echoing and subverting of specifically Judeo-Christian religious rhetoric ("in man's image") offers enough authority to this object of love so that whatever he turns out to be in name, there is assurance that attraction to him is not perverse in the pejorative sense, but may even be a natural bending, perhaps as natural as the tides.
Then, at last, the question is completed: ". . . homosexual?" The arrival of this word specifies the abstract and general state of what he is, the object that until now has been figured supplementarily. It would seem as though a simple answer to this question would stabilize meaning and the object of desire. Yet Duncan recognizes that this particular word, "homosexual," slips between adjective and noun, not quite giving a proper name, and, perhaps, calling into doubt the propriety of any name. On one level, the italics could merely indicate spoken emphasis, casting the whole question as a simple wondering about a stranger as the gay speaker cruises for love. The italics also destabilize, however, and draw attention to the abstract and unnatural aspect of any such category. The isolation of the word on its own line, as its own stanza, with the question mark, casts similar doubt. Cary Nelson suggests that the inclusion of this word "undermines some readers' empathy" and "reveals a sense of guilt" (133), but guilt and lack of empathy seem more a projection of Nelson's feelings as a reader than anything coming from the poet or a generalized reader. More significantly, this word acts as the division between the two sides of the semiotic and symbolic ratio in the signifying process. The word here keeps the "nonsense" of the music and the multiple senses of the rhetoric and allusions from breaking the boundary and completely drowning the "sense" of a simple, direct, rational question. The "nonsense" has of course already spilled over. In fact, this defining word seems to be merely interruption to the flow of the tide—the feminine jouissance—in the previous lines, a flow Duncan's poetry allows and encourages. The ratio will be played out in the answer to this question.
As stated earlier, the soul (at least in the dominant Western metaphysics) serves as vehicle to disembodied Truth. It is important to remember that in this historical and masculinist paradigm, the soul is associated with the male and the body with the female, except in the case of a soldier, whose body is often seen as either machinelike or merely embodying virtues such as heroism. Duncan transgresses this boundary in the lines that read "and at the treasure of his mouth / pour forth my soul / his soul commingling" (64). Whether the exchange of souls comes in breath, tongue, or semen, the body is here insistently and intimately connected with the soul, and "His body lead[s] into Paradise" (63). With Duncan, the soul, which is viewed in various historical dogmas as opposite the body, seems to find substance and a degree of stability in the dramatic breath of the line and in the form of the poetry. The deliberate and insistent naming of parts of the body (the clavicle . . . the nipples . . . the navel . . . the pubic hair) at intervals through the next, highly lyrical section of the poem has an ironic quality to it. The names are all quasi-sexual (being neither clinical nor slang), and yet none of the parts are specifically genitalia. What is most significant about this irony is that just as the soul finds no context outside of language, neither does the body.
Duncan's positing of the soul in the body is not, however, evidence of hedonism (truth as sensual pleasure) or materialism (truth as empirically verifiable). The signifiers for the parts of the body refuse to remain names merely representing the anatomical structure. They reverberate sensually in their italics but do not break into the conventions of pornography or even erotica. The body itself remains incomplete and is no more or no less substantiated than the soul. Duncan remains interested in the possibility of the spirit in language and not in corporeality or a prescriptive spiritual program. Significantly, the phallus/penis is never named, only referred to metaphorically as "the stamen of flesh in which / his seed rises" (64). The phallus/penis—and indeed the torso and the whole body—finds provisional wholeness through the loose, sensual figuration, which approximates the semiotic. With almost equal emphasis on the literal and the figurative, Duncan ties meaning to the maternal space with "the navel . . . the chord from which first he was fed has its temple" (64). And male "breasts are like sleeping fountains of feeling," a comparison that suggests not simply a maternity, but an ejaculatory maternity.
Cary Nelson rightly criticizes Robert K. Martin's reduction of this poem to an act of fellatio (Nelson 133; Gregory Woods has a reading similar to Martin's). Nevertheless, as Calvin Bedient points out in his work on Kristeva, orality is important, as it is closely associated with eros and ultimately, I believe, with the sublime in Duncan's work, contrasting with anality, thanatos, and abjection (Bedient 810).
Only after the erotic commingling of souls does apotheosis occur. Both "Being" and the pronoun "His" find capitalization. Godliness is an act of communion. The body as a whole gets signified as "a trembling / hieroglyph" (63), a metaphor suggesting not only an ancient, hermetic connection between the symbolic process and the physical, but one that is charged and indefinite—so indefinite that it is unclear which of the two bodies or both together are represented by the hieroglyph.
Certainly indefiniteness is valued in many if not most kinds of poetry, and therefore, perhaps, as Bedient suggests, there is nothing so revolutionary about Kristeva's poetic revolution (Bedient 808). In turn, maybe there is nothing so remarkable about Duncan's hieroglyph. I am more inclined to side with Michael Davidson, who sees that for Duncan "sexual and poetic emergence are complex acts of reading by which the poet . . . is ravished by a language he cannot, as yet, understand" (285)—not understand because in this poetic revolution tropes are not objects wrought by a poet-as-craftsperson who chooses indefiniteness but the result of an intricate deconstruction of subject and object, self and Other, which the poet has limited control over.
Indeed, this poem does not objectify the body in the way traditional poems by men have often objectified the bodies of women. After the parts have been dwelled in instead of on, "normal" identity breaks down. Subject and object become unclear. In the second half of the poem, the third person conflates with a second person from the past or from inside the speaker, a "you" who had been forgotten, who then takes over from the first-person speaker of the poem, replacing his self with himself:
I know what you desire
you do not yet know but through me .
In Kristeva's theory this identification illustrates how "The lover is a narcissist with an object" ("Freud" 250), not the narcissist as vain, in the colloquial sense, as desiring to enhance some essential identity, but the narcissist as exhibiting the need for identification, finding in the lover-as-other an ideal identity, an identity that might seem stable but which is, in fact, ever-shifting. But more importantly (because the narcissist cannot symbolize his/her condition), the writer moves beyond narcissism, so that "When I seek (myself), lose (myself) or experience jouissance—then 'I' is heterogeneous" (Powers 10). It is "the artist who, even if he does not know it, is an undoer of narcissism and of all imaginary identity as well, sexual included" (208). The homosexual, the artist, the homosexual artist, does not, then, seek a repetitious homogeneous object, does not produce a dulling sameness. To the contrary, both of Duncan's objects—his poetic form and subject matter—undergo sacrifice to a greater order and a greater love:
pierces my side * fire eyes *
I have been waiting for you, he
I know what you desire
you do not yet know but through me *
And I am with you everywhere. In your falling
I have fallen from a high place. I have raised myself
from darkness in
In revising masculinity, in electing his king, Duncan retains from narcissism an opposition to the paranoia on which our entire homosocial, hierarchical civilization seems to be based. With paranoia, as Jonathan Dollimore posits, homophobia gets enlisted when the idealized object of the same sex is perceived by the paranoid subject as a threat. The subject attacks the idealized object found in others of the same sex in order to preserve self-reliance and some delusory wholeness of ego. This action keeps subjects—male subjects especially—both isolated from and in competition with one another (Dollimore 177). This homophobic paranoia also manifests itself, as already noted in Kristeva, in the abject state. Somewhat idealistically, Dollimore sees narcissism as an antidote. Narcissism does dissolve boundaries between subject and objects which are, of course also their own subjects but which the narcissist could not recognize as such. And though narcissism does involve a kind of (albeit unconscious) cooperation among what would otherwise be competing and competitive male identities, this cooperation, again, occurs only within the subject, not between subjects.
In Duncan's poem, the body and subjectivity are loosely defined and certainly do not produce an explosion of paranoid language, nor does the poem involve narcissistic implosion. Duncan's utterance projects beyond, to an epistemological discovery of an ideal that is never ideologically or rigidly imposed. When the ideal is established in the final movement of the poem, the answer concerning the initial question of homosexuality "comes out" not simply a "Yes!"—the exclamatory political affirmative—but as a process of "seeking the locks, the keys" (64). Once again, even when establishing an ideal object, Duncan does not confuse truth with meaning. For Duncan, meaning and identity are not absolute and ontological, but nonetheless they are important to understanding. They are relational and specific, whereby the homosexual comes into being when he states, "For my Other is not a woman but a man / the King upon whose bosom let me lie" (65). Here, startlingly, even Marlowe's "The king, upon whose bosom let me die" (Marlowe 435; emphasis added) is revised or misread for Duncan to create his own specific mystical king and visionary masculinity. Duncan transforms our civilization's usual brutal sacrifice, illustrated by Marlowe, in order to find peace.
Duncan has created for himself as male homosexual a subjectivity in language he has been closed off from, for, as Kristeva writes, "The subject exists only in as much as it identifies with an ideal other who is the speaking other . . . a Master" ("Freud" 252). No King, no Master, no Lord, no ideal masculinity existed for Duncan, for the homosexual in his society, other than the militaristic and homophobic one. It is important to create "the Other [and here it is interesting how Kristeva's and Duncan's terms coincide] . . . not as a 'pure signifier' but as the very space of metaphorical shifting" (254). It is precisely this metaphorical shifting that Duncan accounts for while at the same time implicitly refuting some psychological accounts of homosexuality as a fear of the female Other or as the wish to be female (Dollimore ch. 17). In saying his "Other is not a woman," the speaker does not repudiate his important female influences, nor is he making a judgment or building a hierarchy; rather, he is stating difference—a difference that has less to do with a preference or "lifestyle" than with the development and transformation of psychic drives and their effects on subjectivity in language.
In usual psychoanalytic development, at the oedipal stage the male Other (the father) does not necessarily replace the female Other (the mother) established at the earlier mirror stage when the child recognizes he or she and the mother are not One. The male Other is often identified with by the subject (especially the male) and therefore no longer completely Other, which can have the effect of making the mother's Otherness more radical. Kristeva complicates this model and sees varying degrees of identification and otherness. She does not prescribe a normative standard. In "The Torso" Duncan's king retains both aspects: he is the object identified with and the Other, as he tells the poet, "Gathering me, you gather / your Self" (65).
Cary Nelson finds in the preceding passage "delicate echoes of the Gospels" (136) when, in fact, the reference is strongly and directly heretical to the Word and the Law of the Father. Duncan is paraphrasing the fragmentary Gnostic Gospel of Eve: "And from wherever thou willst thou gatherest me; but in gathering me thou gatherest thyself" (qtd. in Jonas 60). The concept of the dispersal and gathering of the holy is central to Gnosticism and places Eve and the reproductive power of the female in a simultaneously central and subversive cosmological position, a position not dissimilar to Duncan's idea of the female.
Reading Duncan's work in a literary context, we do find actual kings. Of course there is Marlowe's Edward II who, despite his tragic flaw, stands for the love between men. Other kings important to Duncan are Christ King, Oedipus Rex, the lunar moth king Oberon, and more kings of fairy tale and myth. Duncan's own king is a concept of "king" not exactly equivalent to any of these kings and yet all of them, not just any Christ but the Christ who learned from "her" ("Nature," "H. D."), the Christ Duncan calls "the Spirit of Romance that once had flourished among the heretics of Provence" ("Truth" 40), the other Christ, the Gnostic Christ who "is a new Identity of all persons and intentions" (58) and who razes polarities between female and male.
Perhaps these kings are not, after all, as childish as Duncan himself stated. And perhaps their literary and iconographic functions indicate a profound psychic and ultimately cultural and political function. As Kristeva claims, our civilization suffers because it has loaded on "Maria Regina . . . a courtliness that was still very carnal" ("Stabat" 170). This Mary disappears beneath ostentatious regalia. The honest cloth (language) she wove cannot be seen for the layers of jewels the patriarchs have placed on her. She becomes all embellishment. Under her robes and jewels—the very materiality of the patriarchy—lurks a related materiality—the sensual flesh—associated with the female since Eve. In this system, the female's own flesh is deemed negative, the embodiment and direct cause of Sin, and this Sin is used to found hierarchies of gender and language. Therefore, a king such as Duncan's king, who is not the metonymically safe "head of state" but the body, helps to join the chora with the symbolic. No more disembodied Cartesian ideas. Duncan's naked, sensual king is not simply a phallic king, for this is no striptease. What is revealed is the far more complex relationship between body and language. This king plays no part in the dominant ideology in which the celebrated physicality of the soldier or the military leader is distant and not in the least bit compassionate or sensuous. This king replaces the warrior who is perhaps sexual only in the limited sense of the programmed equation that sex equals violence. This king reconciles traditional attributes once considered opposites and allows language to transcend mere communication without metaphysical Transcendence.
from "Revealing 'The Torso': Robert Duncan and the Process of Signifying Male Homosexuality." Contemporary Literature 35.3 (Fall 1994) pp. 522-545.
Return to Robert Duncan