by Angela Rockel
Rogue intensities roam the streets of the ordinary.
Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects
There’s a memory I carried as a series of sensations, wordless, all through my childhood:
I’m looking at something that fills my visual field. It’s a surface, squarish, textured and undulating, patterned with lines. Around its edge it separates into projections – I discover that I can move the thing, turn it and find another side, a different texture.
Eventually words attached themselves to this experience – surface, line, projections, move – but it was twenty years or more before I put them together to make a story – an adult hand, my infant hand reaching to hold a finger.
Another memory – this one with words in it:
Bright colours, their soft edges on a flat field which can be moved, turned to show more. A yellow animal, a blue animal and words connect them. My sister knows the words, the same each time. I lean against her, feel her voice in the bones of my face and chest.
But being read to brought both comfort and danger – stories were full of violence, misunderstanding, betrayal. Malevolence and damage rode in on the bodily conviction of a voice. Rustem and Sohrab, father and son, manipulated, unknowing, fought in the dust between the camps of their opposing armies. Grendel and his mother erupted from their den beneath the lake. Relentless, my sister read on as the prince gave away even his eyes.
I wanted to read for myself, to find out whether or not stories would be more intelligible if I had control of the book. Impatiently I pursued the skill, though words and their fixed meanings didn’t match my world and left me feeling mysteriously askew; my moon and sun travelled backwards in their skies. Stories were interlocking collections of fixities that moved inexorably to their conclusions; they were artefacts, found items, inscrutable, finished. Stories were, as words seemed to be, closed.
Then when I was about seven, my mother gave me a prayer book filled with the wild laments and praise-songs of the old testament:
My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me like a shepherd’s tent; like a weaver I have rolled up my life; He cuts me off from the loom.
Deep is calling on deep in the roar of waters; Your torrents and all your waves swept over me.
Poetry showed me that fixity can be turned, unfolded; these voices spoke a response, had their say about the stories they were caught up in. I began to recognise that while language had created the world-view into which I was born – where experience was prescribed from outside by a monstrously capricious He – it also offered possibilities of resistance and change.
Divinities and the cultures they ratify are modes of (un)consciousness at play in language; consciousness widens with attempts in language to encompass styles of thought that are adequate to experience. As Rilke puts it, this stretching out is the process by which der Gott beraten sein (‘As once the wingèd energy of delight’) – from rat, read, riddle – this is how god works things out, takes counsel.
But it’s a risky thing, to offer advice to a culture or a god, to seek a way to work with those inhuman voltages. Exhilarated as I was by the opening-out achieved by poetry, as a reading child I didn’t yet understand that the attempt to confront and reorganise received consciousness is costly, undertaken out of necessity. Anne Carson speaks about this cost in an essay on the poet Stesichoros. She says:
Born about 650 BC on the north coast of Sicily in a city called Himera, he lived among refugees … A refugee population is hungry for language and aware that anything can happen …
What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives… are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being … In the world of the Homeric epic, being is stable and particularity is set in tradition … Into the still surface of this code Stesichoros was born. [He] began to undo the latches … All the substances of the world went floating up … To Helen of Troy … was attached an adjectival tradition of whoredom already old by the time Homer used it. When Stesichoros unlatched her epithet from Helen there flowed out such a light as may have blinded him for a moment … (Autobiography of Red)
Temporarily or permanently, writing can be disabling. Escaping ‘the still surface of the code,’ the writer must tolerate exile and bewilderment within what theorists Deleuze and Guattari call a ‘foreign language within language’:
The writer uses words, but by creating a syntax that makes them pass into sensation that makes the standard language stammer, tremble, cry, or even sing: this is the style, the ‘tone,’ the language of sensations, or the foreign language within language that summons forth a people to come. (What is Philosophy?)
But first this ‘foreign language’ summons a self to come. As a young woman I wrote to make a song in the bleak standard English that was my inheritance as a mid-twentieth century New Zealander; I knew that this was possible because of the work of Janet Frame and others who wrote a particularity of place ‘unlatched from its epithets,’ in a syntax which stammered and sang. But in learning to do this for myself, I had to meet and come to terms with the existence of a non-standard cast of internal characters or modes who could make this local music, with whom I had till then been unfamiliar. I had to endure understanding that I didn’t know myself and I was panicked at times by what I learned.
The process of writing brings change, both freeing and frightening; it sends me out to practise a riddling conversation with the world that steps towards me each day, each night. Sensations – ‘rogue intensities’, as Kathleen Stewart calls them – bring me into a new relation, through thought and narrative and song, with ‘all the lived, yet unassimilated, impacts of things, all the fragments of experience’ which would otherwise be ‘left hanging,’ in the absence of this habit of attunement, of paying attention through writing.
The blog posts I offer in the coming weeks are part of this conversation – a winter suite in which things continue to unlatch from what I know about them and, looming close, emerge in all their strangeness. I touch, I turn things over, I wonder about them. I answer.
Anne Carson. Autobiography of Red. New York: Random House, 1999.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Rainer Maria Rilke. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Ed. and trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Picador, 1982.
Kathleen Stewart. Ordinary Affects. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2007.