Lysistrata Motley

There's a discussion of Corinne Lee's poem "Lysistrata Motley" over at The Virtual World. After seeing the poem on Peter's blog, I bought the book it's in, Pyx.

I was a little surprised when I looked this afternoon and discovered that commenters have found the poem baffling, except for the last four lines. The exception was Pamela Johnson Parker who knew the scene in Lysistrata referenced in the opening (I didn't). Even without that, though, the poem strikes me as repaying attention. So, I'm going to describe what goes through my head when reading it, going sentence by sentence. Herewith, the poem:

Lysistrata Motley

Even the quitch loves, sashaying
belly-blade to blade-belly

when wind is low. Most days,
we fail to notice
that elusive, Rastafarian

canoodle. The poems
therefore darting away, sunken,
through the halls.

Our words becoming escapes,
not spoor. Why can't
our selves intersect
with the exterior?

Because something is sclerotic,
strung high
in the Burundi
Salvador trees. Where dewdrops

are slaver. Listen up:
The Egyptians jettisoned

a mummy's cerebrum, knowing
the heart should do
all thinking.

Lysistrata Motley Let's start with the title. Lysistrata, of course, is the main character in Aristophane's play who organizes the women to withold sex until their men stop the war. In the poem she becomes a figure placing a principle above the natural. Motley, of course, has several meanings. It can suggest a dissonant sort of patchwork. That might suggest a working method for the poem. But the word is also a synonym for "fool." So we have Lysistrata Fool, in another way of reading.

Even the quitch loves, sashaying belly-blade to blade-belly when wind is low. The way the sentence begins implies the speaker is different from what she is observing: (Unlike me) even the quitch loves. Even the quack grass shows and gives in to attraction. "Sashaying", of course, is slangy and sensual and a come-on all at once. And notice how in the construction, by reversing the compounds, the blades of grass are brought together: "belly-blade to blade-belly." "Belly," of course is slangy and, to me, calls to mind Stein's "Lifting Belly" and all of its sensuality. The phrase "wind is low" heightens the attraction between the blades of grass. Even when there isn't much external to force the blades together, they come together.

Most days, we fail to notice that elusive, Rastafarian canoodle. Here, the speaker is further distanced from attraction. Not only does she not experience the force of attraction, but most days, she doesn't even notice that it's about in the world. "Rastafarian canoodle" is a wonderful phrase, suggesting the long tangles of the mutually attracted blades of grass. It also brings together words from two very different vocabularies, heightening the playfulness of the poem and also suggesting, as subtext, that even very different things get together, unobserved by the speaker. The etymology of "canoodle" also has senses of "fool" or "foolish lover", connecting it with the "motley" of the title.

The poems therefore darting away, sunken, through the halls. Because the speaker doesn't sense the attraction about in the world, her poems keep leaving her. They are heavy, sunken, unlike the lightness of the canoodling grass. The halls suggest that the poems never stay with her, never become a part of her, and that the speaker in a sense never comes out of the house (the self?) into the world.

Our words becoming escapes, not spoor. "Spoor" is the droppings of an animal and, thus, a way of tracking it. Without the connection to the world, to the vividness and sensuality of the world, language becomes an escape from the self rather than signs that lead back to an organic world and, perhaps to the fullness of the connected, sensual self.

Why can't our selves intersect with the exterior? For the speaker, this is not a rhetorical question. The interior of herself, her self, lacks a connection with the sensual world, "the exterior." Hers is an impoverished self. It is this lack of connection that turns words into escapes and poems into escapees rather than aspects of a full self.

Because something is sclerotic, strung high in the Burundi Salvador trees. Something blocks the connection between the speaker's impoverished, wholly interior self and the world. It's a sclerotic connection. Now, I confess that I don't know what "Burundi Salvador trees" are. Google was no help. But the something that is sclerotic, the connection between the self and the sensual, is "strung high" up in the trees and, therefore, out of the speaker's reach.

Where dewdrops are slaver. This seems a little problematic to me. I read it as telling us more about the location, high in the trees. There, beyond reach, what is romanticized and therefore emptied of meaning and sensuality (dewdrops) is really animal slobber (concrete, sensual, real, and animal). Again, this adds to the difference between the speaker and the world, and the speaker's interior self and the fuller, possible self connected to the sensual.

Listen up: The Egyptians jettisoned a mummy's cerebrum, knowing the heart should do all thinking. Folks over at the Virtual World wanted to seize on this as the principal theme (solution) to the poem. I understand the temptation. But I'm not sure that's right. First, it's not clear to me that the speaker knows the solution. She is certainly aware of her inner poverty and, occasionally aware of the sensuality of the world, but I don't think these lines show that connection being made. The speaker goes back into her catalog of knowledge to retrieve a fact. All it really says is that the Egyptians, too, knew the problem. (It may also imply that, for the Egyptians, it was only after death that the primacy of the heart was achieved.) Second, I'm not entirely sure the speaker is trustworthy. Notice the imperative. The impulse to teach others comes through. Sometimes this impulse comes not from knowledge but from lack. This could also be a speaker in motley, a fool, presenting a truth, but couching it in a way so as not to entirely reveal herself. Finally, given the complex thematics of the poem, even as short as it is, I don't think all of those elements could possibly be resolved in the final lines.

In a sense, then, the poem works some of the same ground as the Romantics: the connections among self, language, and natural world. The Romantics, of course, in happy moods, thought they had the mainline to the divine in nature. But not always: Shelley's Triumph of Life, Keats Lamia, etc. I think that it's that dark suspicion on the underside of Romanticism that gives rise to Lee's poem. But the poem is very much of our time, with its wild, slangy vocabulary; self-consiousness about its nature as a constructed thing; its disjunctive structure; and its refusal to provide a short, paraphrasable solution.


Blogger Pamela said...

Great explication--thanks.

2/11/05 13:59  
Blogger The Sublibrarian said...

Oh, gosh—thank you for the gloss on Lysistra and for being one of the folks who gave the text some serious time.

2/11/05 18:26  
Blogger Peter said...

Thank you for your reading Ron!
I read the poem over and over for several days, and didn't get much more out of it than you did. And I still believe this poem (and this style of writing) commits a grievous error: the language is far more complicated (*extremely* more complicated) than than simple idea(s) it is trying to express.

2/11/05 18:35  
Blogger The Sublibrarian said...

Peter, I guess we disagee. I didn't/don't think the language is that complex and I certainly don't feel that there's an imbalance between the poem and its purpose. There are gaps, but a little attention and they're filled in.

I did the explication not because I thought the text needed it but because it seemed sufficiently straightforward that I was baffled by folks missing it. The explication is pretty much my second reading of the poem.

Given that this was selected by Pattiann Rogers I was pleasantly surprised that it took any effort to get from one end of it to another.

I haven't yet read anything else from the book, so we'll see how this all wears and whether or not Lee can keep it up.

2/11/05 19:09  

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