To hell with the category
This article is meant as in introduction to the poetry of a writer of exceptional talent. I introduce Connie Scozzaro’s debut collection Contrapposto Action Queen (2013) to argue that it explores the inherently patriarchal history of lyric poetry, through the figures of Venus and Lamia. I propose that both are male fantasies of womanhood and that the poetry subjects the male imagination to critique to reveal its inherent violence. Looking at Scozzaro’s work alongside examples of masculine fantasies through the prose and poetry of male poets, I will address how the collection subjects these fantasies, as well as fantasy as such, to scrutiny. If we take the long history of English lyric poetry to be a record of male sexual desire, Contrapposto Action Queen repeatedly punctures this desire through the debasement and destabilization of its fantasies. In the book the gendered-lyric subject is often in a position of being observed or being the recipient of unwanted attention. In the opening of ‘Poetic Artifice’, the lyric subject is, ‘Frightened of the love poem’ (line 1).1 Throughout the book images of poetic myths about womanhood are problematized through the impingement of the abject or banal. Furthermore, the poetry makes explicit the damaged subjectivities constructed by a patriarchal society. It does so by centring questions of the relation between labour, social life and violence. Importantly the work’s critique of male fantasy and patriarchal violence does not affirm an opposite feminine fantasy as a positive alternative, but subjects the economic conditions of fantasy to scrutiny.
‘Poetic Artifice’ conjures the whole gamut of the pastoral literary imagination, as well as ‘the love poem’, containing ‘Dante & Beatrice, Troilus & Criseyde.’ Being masculine is premised on the activity of georgic labour:
O, to be a man & have total self-belief,
to dig your fork into the road & know it yours,
your corn, your horse, your ox. (lines 7–9)
This wannabe-Virgil identified through the second person possessive is in direct conflict with the reader’s known world of experience outside the poem. For comparison, in Book II of Dryden’s translation of Georgics the idealized lands of ‘sweet Italy’ (line 192) and their ‘victim ox’ (line 203) are set in the following scene, ‘Perpetual spring our happy climate sees:|Twice breed the cattle, and twice bear the trees;|And summer suns recede by slow degrees’ (lines 204–6). 2 The pastoral image is set in balance by human interaction with nature. The directives act as instructions for labour. The fruit trees will be harvested and the ‘victim ox’ will be put to work on the land. By comparison the majority of road surfaces known to the reader of Scozzaro’s poem are impenetrable to the agricultural tool identified by ‘fork’; the fantasy of pre-capitalist agricultural possession encapsulated by the singular nouns ‘your horse’ and ‘your ox’ is therefore as penetrable as the road is impenetrable. It is capable of being disproven by experience, whilst still identifying a typically masculine image of labour.
Whilst the masculine fantasy is punctured and revealed a conceit, its elaborate metaphorical impact on the world (like all fantasies) is not without consequence:
these poetic displays of affection are so tedious,
gentleman poets scoring my love,
deciding whether I am heavyweight
or featherweight. Ugh. To hell with the category,
but today I’m a woman, too broke to heat our house,
no hero of love, just a regular player,
writing a poem on your side of the bed,
cornflakes for lunch
no sword, no shield, no trumpet for my arrival. (lines 23–31)
Lines 23–6 present the internal thoughts of the lyric subject who cannot escape being made into a poetic muse, Venus bemoaning her carnal veneration by the endless attentions of male poets. From line 26 onwards there is both resignation and defiance. The category of woman is inexorable but there is proclamatory celebration in consenting to its bounds. In the closing line the attempts at the negation of the conditions of the fantasy of heroic courtly-love, ‘no sword, no shield, no trumpet for my arrival’, are overshadowed by the presence of that very fantasy. In the absence of any fantasy, being at home in the world of the poem means not being able to pay the bills. Courtly love is discounted by the inexorable modern game, ‘just a regular player’, as the symbols of modest abjection clash with the chivalric imagery, Criseyde surely did not dine on cornflakes for lunch. The poetry draws the reader’s attention to the economic structuring of gendered fantasies, as conditions of impoverishment.
Venus and Lamia in the male imagination
Scozzaro’s book is directly engaged with working through the inherently patriarchal gender relations of the history of lyric poetry by subjecting its normative fantasies to critique. Two such normative fantasies of womanhood are Venus and Lamia. This is the poet Royall Henderson Snow’s description of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus:
That the luminously gentle sky should sprinkle flowers at the rising of Venus from the waves was but right and natural, and that the sea should be stilled to a graciousness of sunshot water. And it was right that Flora should be swiftly at hand to sheathe the scimitar body in the softest of old rose velvets. But that Venus, born into the warm radiance of the spring sunshine to a downfall of flowers, should come with sadness in her eyes and a bowed head, was also right and natural—right to the inscrutable laws of art and truth, at least, which have little commerce with the preconceptions of this world.3
The theophanic arrival of the Roman goddess and artists’ muse, Snow’s description holds true to the etymology of the goddess’s name. Venere implies reverence as a carnal worship. In Botticelli’s painting, Venus has been bestowed upon the shore of the world in human form, given figure in an entirely mature conception; the goddess arrives on the earth in an adult body free of the impurities of the personal histories of development. Her conception is like the work of artifice. She arrives to the observer as perfect as the lines and surface of the painting are finished. In Snow’s account we can read that the conception of Venus is untarnished by ‘the preconceptions of this world’. Renaissance art is ‘free’ from the commercial exchange that is the condition of modern aesthetic conception. Within this truth is the assumption that the ‘sadness in her eyes’ is an immutable fact of natural law.
In 1864, another poet, Charles Algernon Swinburne visited the famed Uffizi gallery, Florence, to observe the work of Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, reflecting on his observations in ‘Notes on Designs of the Old Masters at Florence’. He describes Botticelli’s Venus as ‘Divine […] no longer, but not as yet merely porcine and vulpine’, and for that reason ‘not yet wholly modern’ but caught between classical antiquity and the advance of modernity symbolized by the ‘brutish’ realism of Shakespeare’s work.4
Swinburne’s comment infers the Renaissance’s historical movement into the modern; the polymathic seriousness of Michelangelo or Leonardo would give way to the intense specialization of modern capitalist production, as the sezione aurea of Botticelli and Leonardo would be supplanted by the ‘ratio of values’.5 Furthermore, the comment presupposes the European Enlightenment as a process of demystification, as Venus is stripped of her divinity she remains a rational animal. In Swinburne’s description of Venus, we see that her exposed body is removed of its religious taboo. However, in the demystification of the sacred world one form of myth is supplanted by another, the reader must hone in on Swinburne’s description that Venus is ‘not as yet merely porcine and vulpine’. Whilst ‘porcine’ implies Venus’s proximity to Circe -her piggishness is perhaps in her power to reduce others into beasts- in ‘vulpine’ the reader can sense that the demystification of Venus as goddess through the exposure of her physical form is replaced by her re-mystification as an earthly woman. She is ‘not as yet’ crafty, cunning, or prone to the use of her feminine wiles, but in her profane image Swinburne projects the possibility of her powers of manipulation. If for Snow, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus presents the artistic method of the Renaissance as part of a separate historical moment from the advance of modern commerce, Swinburne imputes the preconceptions of the myth of modernity onto the figure of Venus. For Swinburne, we have fallen from classical antiquity, the advent of the modern leads to the world of vice represented in his fantasy of the image of the female temptress.
Comparing the significance of Michelangelo to Aeschylus or ‘The Bard’, Swinburne does not hold back, ‘The least thought of these men has in it something both intricate and enormous, faultless as the formal work of their triumphant art must be.’6 The minds of these ‘Great Men’, whose smallest reflections are elephantine in stature, are like behemoths:
The fatal labour of the world, the clamour and hunger of the open-mouthed all-summoning grave, all fears and hopes of ephemeral men, are indeed made subject to them, and trodden by them underfoot; but the sorrow and strangeness of things are not lessened because to one or two their secret springs have been laid bare and the courses of their tides made known; refluent evil and good, alternate grief and joy, life inextricable from death, change inevitable and insuperable fate.7
What does Swinburne grasp of the gargantuan prowess of the master artificers? What secret springs of fated profane nature have been exposed in his examination of Michelangelo’s work? A woman’s head. It is Michelangelo’s sketch Head of a Woman that Swinburne revisits in great detail. If the image of Venus represents the advent of religious demystification that prefigures the female temptress, then in the sketch Swinburne finds its embodiment:
Her throat, full and fresh, round and hard to the eye as her bosom and arms, is erect and stately, the head set firm on it without any droop or lift of the chin; her mouth crueler than a tiger’s, colder than a snake’s, and beautiful beyond a woman’s. She is the deadlier Venus incarnate; […] for upon earth also many names might be found for her: Lamia re-transformed, invested now with a fuller beauty, but divested of all feminine attributes not native to the snake […] readier to drain life out of her lover than to fade for his sake at his side[.]8
Venus is named Cleopatra, Amestris and Jezebel, with allusions to Aphrodite, Medusa and the Whore of Babylon. All of whom, as Thomas Albrecht suggests, are ‘common nineteenth-century exemplars of the Fatal Woman.’9 Within all of these names she is Lamia the devourer; Swinburne dedicates great swathes of descriptive prose to this ‘Lamia re-transformed’. His description is an archetypal sexual fantasy. He wants to stress the mystery of this woman’s beauty through ornate descriptions of her appearance. He refers to a literary history of fated woman to stress her mystical qualities.
As serpentine, ‘her hair […] seems ready to shudder in sunder and divide into snakes’, she is ‘Cleopatra, not dying but turning serpent under the serpent’s bite’, and ‘between the maiden body and the scaly coils of the serpent and the priestess alike […] do the snake and the queen of snakes caress and cling.’10 Swinburne sees the two figures of Venus and Lamia as a Janus-like face meeting in this sketch; her jewelry is ‘plaited in the likeness of closely-welded scales as of a chrysalid serpent, raised and waved and rounded in the likeness of a sea-shell.’11 She is united in the image of Venus arising from the sea on her clam shell and the serpentine surface of lustre. Both of these combine ‘to partake of her fatal nature […] her brand of beauty fresh from hell’. 12 Her ultimate desires are sex and money, ‘Her eyes are full of proud and passionless lust after gold and blood’.13 This is an egregiously chauvinist description of a pencil sketch. Whilst the woman is wearing a headdress with squamous detail and the sketch is suggestive of a mythologized antiquity, Swinburne’s remarks are irreconcilable with any brief glance at the sketch described. Furthermore, it is a projection, she is imagined as the property of sex and money because her gender can only be imagined in relation to these properties now made sexual.
I want to propose that from Swinburne’s reflections on the works of the grand masters at Uffizi, we can take two poetic mystifications of femininity. The first of these is woman as Venus and the second is woman as Lamia. What is significant about these two fantasies is that they are inseparable. Furthermore, they are both bound up with notions of artifice. Lamia is a devilish inspiration as much as Venus is an angelic muse, where descriptions or depictions of their appearance in poetry or painting, extend into digressions regarding both their fate and character when considered as emblems of womanhood. We can see this in Swinburne’s description. The ‘fatal nature’ of woman as Lamia is her ‘lust after gold and blood’. Her serpentine beauty is a ravenous power that damages men by removing them of their lifeblood, their ‘natural’ and economic possession.
Veneration and demonization
What the last section revealed is that Venus, as veneration, is woman as idolized goddess, the object of male contemplation, and the producer of human life as the figure of fertility. She is the myth of the equation of woman’s ‘purpose’ to natural law. By contrast, Lamia is the image of a woman’s ‘true nature’ revealed by her transgression of the law. Where Venus is worshipped for her appearance such that her true qualities are hidden, Lamia is a male revelation; she is the realization that Venus is demonic, a devourer of children, a sucker of lifeblood. The two figures are inseparable, Venus is the over-veneration of female appearance, Lamia is the demonization of the female appearance. One is holy, sacred, and without fault to the extent that the other is evil incarnate. One stands for virtue, the other stands for corruption.
Scozzaro’s collection begins from the perspective of the observer. In the opening lines of the first poem ‘Elena, Whatever: You Are But Dreaming’ an absent third person female pronoun is being seedily observed. If Venus is to be contemplated, then it occurs from the angle of ‘Upskirt, upshot, the camera gasps’ (line 1). This Venus is clothed but the angle is pornographic and provokes a moral response. The opening stanza considers the ‘Suitors [who] buy her roses, or posies’ (line 4), like the flowers on the wind propelling Venus, blown by Zephyr and Aura in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. This prospect of the suitor aiming to woo ‘the girl’ is concluded abruptly at the end of the second stanza, ‘harm swoops down and gets the girl, dries her eyes | which pour uncomplicated brine’ (lines 27–8). The love conquest is purposefully blunt, merely functional as ‘Deliverance of romantic egg displaces your | self-worth’ (lines 23–4). Consequently, the poem laments the reduction of self-worth to biological reproduction, the woman on the way home from the supermarket implores her observer ‘I suggest you look at my heaving basket! Eggs, fruit’ (line 40), the exclamatory begins a trail of thought trying to avoid allusion. Each consequent noun accidently furthers it. As Rebecca Comay states, ‘The aptly named chain of signifiers is anything but uncoerced’.14 In the concluding two lines of the poem the lyric voice tries to imagine another possibility for itself, a creative desire, ‘dream I’m a bee making poems | but I’m really a tree, my sex mortified’ (lines 45–6). This mixed metaphor of a typically pastoral image of re-productive nature contains the labour of poetic creation. In Book IV of Dryden’s Georgics, ‘those [bees] at home | Lay deep foundations for the laboured comb’, the worker-bees represent nature characterised as an organised productive society, created by the poetic imagination. 15 ‘The bees have common cities of their own’.16 Scozzaro’s lyric voice dreams to imagine that she can embody the Virgilic bee, labouring in poetic construction, she is frozen into the tree bearing fruit, ‘my sex mortified’. This is Daphne metamorphosing into a laurel tree to escape the unwanted affections of Apollo. However, in the pastoral scene this escape is doubly bound. The female body in its poetic equation with nature is reduced to the function of pastoral reproduction, where nature is still sexualized and dominated.
In ‘Happiness Roller Eclipse, Or, A Poem About Money’, there are several references to gendered labour where, ‘six pounds an hour isn’t enough’ (line 7). There are descriptions of being unemployed and a recipient of child support benefits, prostitution ‘selling handjobs back to fraudsters’ (line 32) and the labour of childcare in the final stanza. In the poem’s opening lines the image of woman as Venus is presented as a character mask configured by work:
Wear my job on my face like a woman
but I don’t have a job. When I feel for her next she is gone,
& in my hands is my vagina. I find myself to be on the M25
& to have been thrusting into traffic
all night long. (lines 1–5)
The poem states that to be ‘like a woman’ means to contain one’s waged (or unwaged) social function as part of one’s gendered appearance. In the sudden realization of the lyric subject’s temporary exclusion from such a purpose, the beginning of the second line breaks the imposition of reality through the conjunction ‘but’. The next four lines enter into fantasy; in temporary freedom from the burden of wage labour, the character-mask of womanhood is suddenly cast aside. This burden removed kickstarts the launch into a fantasy of sexual indulgence on a late-night drive. ‘[A]ll night long’ (line 5), it is reminiscent of a Hollywood movie. Except Thelma and Louise never entered the M25 orbital, passing Slough McDonald’s or Basildon Little Chef. Consequent to this the only means of reproduction are state benefits and prostitution.
If Contrapposto Action Queen presents the prescribed social position of being Venus as a burden, a tiresome malaise, it also describes a consequent set of actions resulting from it. In the performance of feminine perfection, every Venus slips into Lamia. In ‘Happiness […]’, during the M25 road-trip the lyric protagonist is pulled over by a police oficer, except there is a celebration of a fantasy of vengeance as, ‘I decapitate him and add him to my cop coat | I wear his mouth like a hood’ (lines 11–12). The mask of Venus the observed has slipped to make way for the Lamia the devourer, whom like Circe sat at her loom stitches the policeman’s skin into a fugitive mask. More revelations of the ‘true nature’ of the feminine occur in the book. In ‘Women, Swum Through the Cracks’ the lyric ‘I’ is a ‘toughgirl’ who declares her heinous crime, ‘[I] kicked down New York on the internet’ (line 20) and is imprisoned for her crimes: ‘I’m a mother, a mother I cried. You are a thug, a thug, they said’ (line 22). The lyric voice is the demonized Lamia whose behaviour is deemed beyond explication. Lamia appears again in ‘In Uterine Beach Dream’, where the second person feminine ‘she’ is expressed to desire to witness violence on the beach, ‘It is so sad | to be ruthless to desire the living to crunch down on shells | just to hear a scream in the night’ (lines 4–6). Later in this poem this ‘she’, an inflatable plastic tiger that climbs out of the lyric voice, takes revenge on one of the children that have been playing with her at the beach, ‘She punches him in the eye’ (line 32).
Whilst the etymological origin of Lamia is the Latin laimos for ‘gullet’, thus insinuating the cannibalistic and sexual appetite of the demonized snake-woman, it also contains an assonant proximity to the noun lamé, a silk made from metallic threads, a thin plate of armour, a lamina, or laminate.17 Like Circe weaving at her loom, stitching piggish skin, within all of these cognates there is the image of a smooth or reflective surface, something glittery, alluring or sparkling. In Swinburne’s description of Michelangelo’s Head of a Woman we read of her ‘shapely splendour’ and ‘luminous breasts’.18 In John Keats’ poem ‘Lamia’, the serpentine woman is similarly iridescent (lines 51–60):
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolved, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries –
So rainbow-sided, touched with miseries,
She seemed, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar;
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete19
The lustre of appearance in the serpentine, its profane mystery, is endowed upon the lyric subject of Scozzaro’s ‘Women, Swum Through The Cracks’. As in Keats’ ‘Lamia’ the mysterious woman is identified through the second person feminine pronoun, she is similarly glittering with adornments.
The opening stanza of the poem reads (lines 1–5):
She’s got the glittery feeling down town,
sitting in the bathroom with her hand mirror, so psyched
to find at last her twilight sparkle, her own
tiny cheerleader pumping her fists, tickling as she goes
but when she looks harder, she see its just a rash, maybe disease, or thrush.
The use of continuous verbs indicate the protagonist in her action poise, ‘sitting’, ‘pumping’, and ‘tickling’ her Queen-like transformation, masturbating at the end of the working day. She’s on her way to the insalubrious admixture of a private and public ‘down town’ and she is compounded through a string of possessives. For Keats, Lamia is all dressed up and ready to devour. What Scozzaro’s poem articulates is that her properties are a ‘glittery feeling’ owned by the present perfect. This woman is ‘so psyched’, the adjectival expression of future possibility, the expectant libido. The repetition of the possessive pronoun emphasises this is ‘her hand mirror’, ‘her twilight sparkle’, these owned attributes of inner agency reflected in the glass. The psyche she is overjoyed ‘to find’ herself fit into, are compressed into a phantasmagorical homunculus of womanhood. ‘[H]er own | tiny cheerleader pumping her fists’; Kirsten Dunst in statuette. No longer O’Hara’s ‘My quietness has a man in it’, the inner feelings memorialised in verse are of a subcutaneous depth, whilst the social damage of gendered subjectivity is brought to the surface.20
However, like all surfaces, courtesan or Wetherspoons, there is always something concealed. Scozzaro twists the expectant libido covered with schön frivolities into the banal reality of bodily dysfunction. Whilst her sparkle is a private sexual pleasure, gender identity is stretched out by the generic such that possession of its qualities could be identified in a variety of all-consuming personhoods. However, this woman is ‘so psyched | to find at last her twilight sparkle’, as if that twilight sparkle was not already pre-determined on the shelf of possibility. The phrase ‘so psyched’ is the third clause of the stanza. The occluded subject and verb can easily be inferred to be the third person pronoun with the identifying copula: ‘She is so psyched’. ‘So’ has two possible meanings. The first and most obvious reading would understand ‘so’ as an adverb. She is ‘so psyched to find at last her twilight sparkle’, the phrase is built up of three pairs of monosyllables. In the first ‘so psyched’, the repeated start of each word with the /s/ phoneme brings off the slip of excitement, emphasising its temporal immediacy. In the second, the /t/ phoneme in the infinitive particle temporarily closes and punctuates the anticipated excitement. The initial phoneme is mirrored as a minimal pair (/t/ and /d/) in the final consonant of the verb, this punctuates the rhythm, which is built up in the third pair of monosyllables where the /t/ phoneme is repeated in the final consonant. The phoneme /aː/, a marker of accent variation so dependent on the regional and class distinctions of the English language, is threaded through the second and third lines of the stanza in ‘bathroom’, ‘last’ and ‘sparkle’. The long vowel sustains a measure of pace to the line accentuated by the use of consonants. In the fifth line the measure of pace in the preceding four lines is suddenly interrupted by the conjunction ‘but’. The line is broken up by three commas. These commas do not slow the line down but mirror the sudden interruption of the fantasy of self-presentation by bodily dysfunction. The list enacts the neurosis of thought at one’s own image; at first it’s ‘just a rash’, next it’s ambiguously the worst possibility ‘maybe disease’, and finally the commonly abject ‘or thrush’. All the calm of ‘at last her twilight sparkle’, the temporality of something long awaited has suddenly been punctured.
The lustre of Keats’s Lamia was a symbol of her mystery, a demonic yet alluring threat, Odysseus observing the sirens glistening beneath the waters. In Scozzaro’s poem the image of essential integrity mediated by sparkle is part of sexual pleasure and the condition of the possible. Avoiding the alternative risks of projecting a woman’s demonic mystery or castigating her profane attachment to use values, Scozzaro’s poem interrogates the condition of the possible as a conditioning by making the everyday violence of gender and labour explicit. ‘She’ is ‘so psyched’ in such a manner that her psyche has been determined. This determination of the psyche is interrupted by the stresses that fantasy places on the body as the body places fantasy under duress. Rebecca Comay discusses the body’s inflictions, marks, and wrinkles as showing ‘just how ambiguously time inscribes itself on our mortal bodies. Like every mark, it seems to hint of a discrete and datable moment of decision or incision, while ultimately frustrating the desire to identify any such moment.’21 A temporally specific mark of bodily dysfunction, a rash, or thrush, can punctuate identity in a present moment, bringing it into a state of incoherence. ‘[H]er twilight sparkle’ illuminates shadows. The glitter stands in contrast to Keats’ admonition of Lamia, her demonization and celebration through mystery.
In a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds written 3rd May 1818, John Keats describes his vision of intellectual maturation. After thoughts initial dwelling in ‘the infant or thoughtless chamber’, we enter ‘the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, […] we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders[.]’22 Conceptual and sensory, the lightness, pleasure, and intoxication of adolescent maturity is airy and bright. However, maturity’s initial beam of reason is not only a de-light. Mere breath exposes thought to the burden of the actual:
However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man – of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression – whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought become gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open – but all dark – all leading to dark passages – We see not the ballance of good and evil. We are in a Mist – We are now in that state – We feel the “burden of the Mystery,”23
Where Swinburne’s description of the work of Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Aeschylus stated that ‘the fatal labour[s] of the world’ were under the foot of these masters, as art could supplant suffering in its scale, Keats places a duty on the poet to express suffering. Exposed to the external weight of suffering thought’s initial lustre fades; the airy atmosphere is supplanted by a fug. The burden of responsibility means no more time for Lamia-esque fantasies. However, this suffering can be obviated.
Keats makes reference to Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, in which the promise of thought can mature in a stately domestic interior:
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies24
The move of thought’s transcendence becomes comfort when it is habituated in an agreeable property relation. This agreeable property relation is like a developmental psychology of happy families, the thinking of the infant is thoughtless, the thinking of the maiden is naïve yet delightful, the focus on suffering is an experience that is ‘fathered’ like a Beckettian clip round the ear by one’s progenitor.
In Hix Eros 5, Brandon Brown describes Conttraposto Action Queen in a manner comparable to Keats depiction of intellectual maturation. He pins the poetic thought of Scozzaro’s collection as a form of dwelling in the present at the disjuncture between thought and fantasy. It intimates a move beyond suffering:
There are many species of dream, fantasy, phantasm, and image in this book. In this particular dream, another world is longed for but also partly repudiated in advance of its coming to be. Scozzaro’s poems don’t tell the future with certainty or pretend that they are able to—they try and tell the present, which includes by definition a state of suspension between what we know and what we prophesy.25
I have made an unfavourable comparison between the status of utopia for Brown and the radical limit of such schema as strictly a thought process in the move beyond the actual in Keats’ letter. I have done this to characterize what I see to be a common argument in contemporary poetry criticism. This argument states that poetry is located within the dialectic of the actual and the possible. It is the midpoint between knowledge and conjectural fantasy. It is not an invalid position. However, it should be the point from which poetry criticism starts rather than ends. Poetry does gesture towards a future from the standpoint of the present. However, what is significant is the dependency of thought on its own activity. Poetry can reflect upon the nexus of activities that the poetic body may find itself within. Brown states that the present is mediated by gender and that Scozzaro’s work urges to go beyond that limit through, ‘the radical refusal to accept the patriarchal narrative about what signs mean’.26 But how does poetry specifically call that limit into question? Within Scozzaro’s book that radical refusal is not premised on a positive future -as the future is so often for Scozzaro a condition of fantasy under duress- but by the exaggeration of the lunacy of the present. That lunacy is drawn to the reader’s attention by stressing how conditions of immiseration put strain upon fantasy, experienced through relations of gendered violence. In this poetry what signs mean is taken up within the use of tone, voice or irony. In the next section I will focus on how exactly poetry dwells, in Keats’ words, in the Chamber of Maiden Thought. How does poetry articulate the present in artifice?
Contrapposto is not the friend of action
In Words of Selves Denise Riley stresses the distinction of modern irony from its Socratic origin. She writes:
[I]rony’s question is no longer of how you tolerate or admire uncertainty, but how you tolerate or admire knowing, as it tips dangerously towards knowingness.27
Exhausted by the possibility of its own interpretation, Scozzaro’s book presents the knowing nod to the better world just around the corner as always ironic in poise. The shot of narrative voice in the second stanza of ‘Women, […]’ switches into the first person in exchange with a non-specific ‘you’:
You can tell me anything you want, but this confidential manner
is an affectation, &, if you tell me something, I will tell it everywhere;
in the mean time, well, I am well meaning. (lines 6–8)
Engaging in impossible dialogue, in one sense the ‘I’ is superficial, whispering its desires in the ears of the expectant sociologist. It is also the voice of the artificer, the poet creating desires for character construction. If the reader attempted to trust the first stanza of the poem, her glittery feeling as something approximating realism this is discounted as an ‘affectation’. The poem draws the reader into the sphere of the confidential as poetic disclosure. What lies under this surface, the simultaneous subcutaneous itch and flexing of the libido is now, ‘the artificial or studied assumption of behaviour’ (OED). The identification of ‘her twilight sparkle’ becomes a form of untrustworthy market research. The lens of access is mediated by the judgement of the observer. Any representation considered as affect is obscured by the preconditions of conceptual judgement.
Scozzaro’s poem pre-conditions affect poetically. It asks us to consider whose hands or through which lens it is being twisted. The lyric ‘I’ will divulge all secrecy as ‘it tips dangerously towards knowingness.’ Winking, the contrapposto ‘I’ claims to know all your secrets as it reveals the projection of trust onto the poetic text as a falsehood. Furthermore, ‘in the mean time, well, I am well meaning’ (line 8), as artificer it does not matter if the ‘I’ is accurate only that it means well. Aside from being the paternal consolation upon the foolish, the ‘I’ asserts its own bias and moral falsehood by reinforcing its counterpoise where ‘well meaning’ also distinguishes knowingness from conceptual knowledge. In the book the knowingness of irony is a mode of dealing with facts based on intent rather than success, to be contrasted against success as a form of knowledge mastery.
Within Scozzaro’s book the lyric subject describes the posture of a body to its environs, the sense of the world and the subject’s position within it, through the use of irony, humour, and other literary strategies. The language of Keats’s letter, stressing thought’s dependency on the sensory and experiential, places the body in its environs as the basis for activity and thinking. It is also heavily weighted with the domestic; its use of metaphor is located among property relations so historically dependent on a violent, gendered division of labour. Keats’s de-light of youthfulness is punctured in Scozzaro’s ‘Happiness[…]’. Images are presented from the labour of childcare. ‘Fun’, the freedom to enjoy is also the freedom of violence as, ‘a kind of dumb baby who is pushed about by two bullies’.28 Personified into a child needing care, ‘Fun gets to do what he wants’ (line 40). His youthful delight, Keats’s dwelling in the chamber of maiden thought, is symbolic of a bourgeois freedom that impinges upon the labourer as unfreedom, as they are unable to complain. ‘He’s just a baby’ (line 42). Thought’s lustre is a boisterous activity enforcing waged servitude.
As in Swinburne, in the book’s title-poem ‘Contrapposto Action Queen’, Venus and Lamia meet, ‘and let me tell you, she was a total slut’ (line 31). With reference to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the lyric subject proclaims ‘I find myself | caught in the clap of a shell’ (lines 4–5). The clamshell in Botticelli’s painting is made commensurate with the common name for gonorrhea. If Botticelli captured what the Renaissance scholar Paul Barolsky has called, ‘the wondrous moment of the goddess’s theophany, the miraculous advent of her divinity in our world’, in Scozzaro’s poem the intermingling of the realization of the sacred within the profane is replete with absolute profanity.29Contrapposto, the body is carefully careless. It is sculpted such that its artifice is fixed in an outward appearance of composure. What lies under the surface? We could consider the figure in opposition to Vitruvian man. Vitruvius on the dissection slab states, ‘look at me, interpret me, I am completely accessible’. It is an object that wants to be understood. Contrastingly, the ‘Contrapposto Action Queen’ is a Castiglionian measured nonchalance, a character armour. Contrapposto, the subject is simultaneously ready for recognition and batting off interpretation. David Summers elucidates the history of the term in Michelangelo and the Language of Art. He states,
The word contrapposto, now exclusively used for a figural posture in which the weight of the body is shifted to one leg with a consequent adjustment of the other parts of the body, is taken from the Latin contrapositum, in turn translated from the Greek antithesis, a rhetorical figure in which opposites were set directly against one another. In the Renaissance, contrapposto had a wider meaning than it has now, and could refer to any opposition—chiascuro, for example, or the juxtapositions of old and young, male or female.30
He describes how it emerges from the study of Latin rhetoric within the Renaissance, it was also important for poets such as Dante. Within rhetoric and painting it regards the use of opposites or counter-points to conjure or strengthen a vivid argument. As Summers states, contrapposto is related to ‘the tradition of allegory, […] the idea of concealing mysteries from the profane […] critical debate […] within the same pair of alternatives, set by rhetoric.’31 Scozzaro’s poem grapples with the use of opposites, allegory, and concealment. I will now elucidate how it does so. I will also demonstrate how the poem contains an argument about the opposition between art as artifice and its distance from social life identified ‘In the name of praxis’ (line 36). Importatly, this poem works through the irony of the gap between high art and the social, as Venus is made into a figure representing ‘low life’.
Throughout the poem the main counterpoint is that which will not fit into the social. It is Venus herself. She is opposed to a group, whom in the first stanza are ‘muses’ (line 1), then ‘lovers’ (line 6). In the third stanza they are ‘angels’ (line 19) and finally in the fifth stanza ‘women’ (line 41). Venus herself is subject to a contrapposto twist. In the first stanza ‘she is comely, bright. She is Muslim’ (line 10). The reader is informed by the gang of angels in the third stanza that ‘Venus | is a bad leader’ (lines 22–3). At this stage in the poem she is still in her painterly form, ‘lasers defend her night & day’(line 24). By the third stanza she is an incompetent leader. She is rejected from the group due to her static position as a painting hung on a wall. It is in the fourth stanza that she undergoes her definitive transformation:
Venus is greedy, not a team player,
we found her, after dark, glutted on the supplies,
furiously suckling on a bottle from 1486.
She was naked & unconscious, we could see everything,
and let me tell you, she was a total slut.
& like the worst mother
on the whole estate (lines 27–33)
She becomes the group’s bête noire as the angels conspire against her. In a pose reminiscent of Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, she has become Lamia inebriated, a harlot beyond the pale. Where previously she had been the pinnacle of artistic endeavor, the sacred image of beauty beyond compare, now she is equated to a stereotypical embodiment of social disintegration, a single mother, limited by patriarchal society through their perceived exclusion from wage labour. The single mother is a figure that has to perform domestic labour, whilst their ability to economically reproduce themselves have been severely restricted.
If allegory is commonly used for instruction such that literature might have an educational purpose, in Scozzaro’s poem it is both purposefully inconsequent. The poem is strewn with directives to the group ‘Faster, muses: bury her in your bellies’ (line 1), ‘Regroup, lovers’ (line 6), ‘haul yourselves to the top of the tower’, (line 7), ‘Regroup, angels’ (line 19), ‘cry’, (line 20), ‘Meet and conclude, Venus is a bad leader’ (line 22). The description of events in the present tense demystifies any sense of mythic retrojection, such as the kind the reader would find in Keats’s ‘Lamia’. The use of directives predetermines the purpose of allegory, it reveals at the beginning what should be known by the end. It flattens suspense into present fact. It does so by not allowing for any readerly expectation. The second stanza conducts its own mini allegory of complete inconsequence to the rest of the poem. The address to the reader through the second person pronoun draws the reader into opposition with the pariah-figure of Venus as Muslim:
I’m sorry, Sir, this is not Laser Quest, this is Raisin Quest,
you have the wrong clothes, we must ask you to leave.
You leave, dressed all in white,
everyone on the street is black,
they have thousands of children. You join the EDL,
you get better at fighting. You go on lots of marches. You live
for five more years. One day someone kills you,
it doesn’t matter. (lines 11–18)
Contrapposto, ‘You’ are ‘white’, everyone else is ‘black’. This sets of a chain of present tense actions playing out a bad sociology. It is predictable in its significations. Racists are disenfranchised and feel threatened by those who are not them, so they join Far-Right organisations, they get in fights, they die. However, this attempt at narrative allegory declares its own insignificance ‘it doesn’t matter’. Allegory deflates into its own predictability, like a Banksy stencil of a racist in a life raft. This flat allegory withholds any possibility of the reading of the poem acting as a comforting palliative for the reader.
In stanza six the threat of violence against Venus from the third and fourth stanza, the conspiratorial group opposed to the individual beauty of louche Venus, becomes the violence of bad art production:
In the name of praxis, she was removed,
Contrapposto is not the friend of action,
& it is hard to hold a bazooka
if one hand is always over your vagina. (lines 37–40)
Like Botticelli’s Venus, the protagonist has one hand over her vagina. She has been taken down from the gallery wall by some sort of pernicious social force that prefaces praxis as the function of artworks. Artworks are too inert for people who demand they do something. Similarly, the reader is left wondering how does the poem’s ‘you’ avoid joining the EDL and therefore its death. Throughout the poem, the idea that artifice might perform a direct translation of social meaning adaptable to either purpose or ‘praxis’ is continually withheld. Artifice is subjected to a crude sequence of the quotidian: Venus becomes a single mother, Venus is in debt. The demand that the allotted leader of the muses -the action queen- perform any sort of action removes her of any function of critique. Both the object of high art and the low life are removed of their social function. Contrapposto is a form of critique. It draws from opposites to reflect upon the world from which it is borne but it ‘is not the friend of action’. The Venus figure is a space where critique might form. Its minimal possibility is maintained by the exaggerated caricature that a painting be the possibility for praxis. The demand that it becomes the friend of action leads to Venus’ sacrifice by the collective of women, the bad reproductions of Art as Craft, the inconsequence of middle class leisurely pursuit:
In fact, the women skinned her, cross-sectioned her,
and remade the painting twenty times over;
half the women painted
the shitty non perspectival blue
& the shitty flowers
& the breathless boy angels
and the other half laid the Venus slices over the top like cheap ham. (lines 41–7)
Lyric Poetry and Concealment
In ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’, Adorno writes:
In the lyric poem the subject, through its identification with language, negates both its opposition to society as something merely monadological and its mere functioning within a wholly socialized society.32
The emergence of the subject in modernity shifts the power struggle within the lyric poem between the ‘I’ and society in the favour of the latter. With reference to Baudelaire, Adorno states that at the fin de siècle, European lyric was in a situation where pushed to the extreme it responded by risking all. By so doing it maintained its stance of reflection on society but at a cost: it was freed from its dependency on verbal communication.33 Within this manoeuvre lyric poetry responds to the pressures that society places upon the text, ‘language both distances itself from the objectivity of spirit, of living language, and substitutes a poetic event for a language that is no longer present.’34 Lyric poetry had to distance itself from its proximity to ordinary speech to salvage its ability to reflect upon society.
Within Adorno’s argument a particular adeptness of literary thought to interrogate the relationship between the subject and society has been overlooked, especially in relation to the subject’s inherently gendered position. Scozzaro’s poetry approximates ordinary speech, rubbing up against it by taking up colloquialisms so as to flex out their secondary meanings. It bears the weight of the world and is the basis for casting judgement onto it. Nevertheless, in its reflexivity, Scozzaro’s work has not succumbed to the pitfalls that Adorno believes modernity places underneath the attempted leaps of nineteenth century Romanticism.35 I believe the reason that Scozzaro’s work is capable of doing this is through its use of tone and irony. Irony is a form of radical ‘self-awareness’ as knowingness. It allows for the voice and tone of the lyric poem to take up and tarry with communicative language. It simultaneously neither affirms the subject’s domination by society as lyric resignation, nor elevates the subject above its complicity with society as an autonomous monad. Furthermore, the lyric subject is inscribed by the poet’s own gendered experience, but not identical to it. The work thinks through womanhood as a shared but non-universal category. As Scozzaro writes in the third stanza of ‘Women[…]’:
I’ve been living in the victory pool, salivating for the future,
dreams chlorinate, aquatique, I earn what I deserve,
its always gold & labour sparkles on a toilet floor. (lines 13–15)
Back in a toilet cubicle, no dark corridors out of the present aside from crawling up the U-Bend, these three lines switch between social processes presented as judgements of natural worth, ‘I earn what I deserve’, and ‘natural’ objects always mediated by those social processes. The ‘victory pool’, is the Scrooge McDuck fantasy of the future filled with gold, but also the monstrous accumulation of commodities in continuous circulation that maintains the fantasies of wealth amassed in the form of gold. ‘Chlorinate’ is a verb meaning to treat silver or gold ore with chlorine so as to remove the pure gold and silver from the ore, it also means to impregnate with chlorine. Our dreams (and fantasies) are chemically treated by the industrial processes enacted upon raw materials. The lyric ‘I’, scrubbing the toilet floor with unknown chemicals ‘salivating for the future’ of recompense, remains firmly in the present even in a poetic language Adorno states is ‘no longer present’. Furthermore, the value of this lyric ‘I’ is enscribed by its gender, ‘I earn what I deserve’ because womanhood has a particular relation to the commodity form. As a form of property, capable of bearing children, women are sexualised objects whose value is contained within their reproductive capacity. This poetry highlights exactly how female experience is directly related to class and socio-political structures. It does so by revealing the violence of male desire and its relation to female desire. Within desire, the transcendence of thought is subjective fantasy. Both transcendence and fantasy are entwined with toil. The possessive on this third line, that which is always gold, might be what ‘I earn’ but it also might be ‘the future’; both are false opposites as the lustre and promise that illuminate the chamber, reflected by the product of the day’s labour: the shimmering reflection of the ground of being ‘on a toilet floor’. Taking up the everyday, this wry knowingness is neither resignation nor lament. Irony freezes and presents a surface that simultaneously conceals and reveals. Moral positivism reacts to a surface as a surface to judge upon it and not grasp its hidden labour.
The problem I want to pose for readers of contemporary poetry is how do we engage, as critics, with poetry written ex post facto Adorno’s argument to consider the development of poetic technique wrested inside the pressure of the elements of the social we in part share. This is an important claim as much contemporary poetry tests the limits of the lyric ‘I’, by elevation, abrogation, irony, concealment or whatever other method. Adorno states that:
The elevated poeticizing subjectively violent moment in weak later lyric poetry is the price it has to pay for its attempt to keep itself undisfigured, immaculate, objective; its false glitter is the complement to the disenchanted world from which it extricates itself.36
Consequent to my consideration of Scozzaro’s collection, where irony neither elevates or strengthens the gendered-lyric ‘I’s superiority, how are we to consider Adorno’s ‘weak’ lyric subject and its elevation as forced by external circumstance? It is ‘unverschandelt, fleckenlos, objektiv’, the adjectives press the material suffering of the weak subject into language.37 The lyric ‘I’ must be undisfigured to the extent that real subjects are disfigured. A better translation of ‘fleckenlos’ would be spotless or unsullied. The subject strives to be clean. It shimmers with ‘falscher Glanz’.38 In Adorno, this false glitter is the enchantment of the disenchanted world of rationality. The remnants of magic, rationality’s promise considered as the shining light of the concept, are underpinned by the perennial irrationality of suffering inflicted by a logic of exploitation. The falsity of this glitter is that its production is part of a second nature where production exploits human labour to sell people commodities, such as make-up, through the creation of false needs. In Keats’s ‘Lamia’ glitter, as lustre, is the basis of sexual fantasy, the, mystery of the Circean seductress, as a false woman. Like the flick of a rabbits tail, glitter is a warning sign of the bad nature that will devour or dispossess the masculine. By contrast, Scozzaro’s book understands that glitter is a condition of the fantasy of survival. It is admixed with the ‘dirt’ of the human body. Much like concealer, false glitter is a component of artifice that sustains contrapposto, ‘I punch the attendant, the attendant is me’ (‘Women […]’,line 16).
In its closing lines Scozzaro’s title-poem ‘Contrapposto Action Queen’ rejects the Rousseaun amour-propre as the basis of virtuousness with society, ‘if you are Rousseau, I am not Rousseau’ (line 52). For Rousseau the proper love of the self is distinct from amour de soi, an asocial form of love. Society is dependent on the individual’s ability to be loved by another and so seek validation from others in one’s actions. This is the basis of morality. In the preceding lines of Scozzaro’s poem the identifiably female lyric subject asserts its independence from the projection of other people’s fantasies, ‘Everyone just loved them, of course, experiencing the | original, or the idea of origin, fantasy permits whatever’ (lines 48–9). The reflexive pronoun ‘them’ refers to the craft paintings produced by the women in the previous stanza. The adverb ‘just’ acts as a modifier enforcing the coercion of celebration. The paintings are ‘just’ fabulous as to dissent from common opinion would be improper. However the reflexive pronoun also refers to the individual’s disregard for the social. The reasons for social activity were merely amour de soi. Within this exchange of activity Rousseau’s valuing of moral worth, ‘the idea of the origin’, the innately good individual is accused of being a fantasy. The individual is not reducible to bad sociality; the poem contradictorily announces its momentary freedom from social life and personhood, a discrete personal refusal, ‘if you are Rousseau, I am not Rousseau’ and that is because ‘I am plagued by | secrecy of my own’ (lines 52–3).
Adorno denies the volonté de tous of Rousseau. There is no collective will within the lyric. Its secrecy is the kind of universality that he describes as ‘making manifest something not distorted, not grasped, not yet subsumed.’39 In stating ‘I am plagued by | secrecy of my own’, Scozzaro’s gendered-lyric subject performs the poem’s glimpse of freedom. The ‘I am’ is not limited to personhood but also an art object describing its own concealment. If Adorno claims that, ‘The lyric work hopes to attain universality through unrestrained individuation’, that is to miss the self-reflexivity of lyric expression.40 The lyric voice is certainly capable of exerting a maximal self-presentation through a masculine musculature of ‘unrestrained individuation’. However, like ‘false’ glitter, lyric can also work through its own concealment, through the counter-posture present within irony and tone as authorial constructions. Whilst one cannot counter-pose one’s way out of a social relation, if Adorno claims that lyric’s universality is premised on ‘rückhaltloser Individuation’, an individuation without holding back, that is a rather masculinist conception of lyric that states that it has nothing to hide.41 Adorno’s reading of the lyric subject stands akimbo like Vitruvius, revealing all. Lyric poetry is permitted to express itself without restraint but strategies of refusal and concealment can constitute the possibility of its reflective distance from society.