And since the genesis of the objective body is only a moment in the constitution of the object, the body, by withdrawing from the objective world, will carry with it the intentional threads linking it to its surrounding and finally reveal to us the perceiving subject as the perceived world.
–Maurice Merleau-Ponty,?“Experience and Objective Thought,” Phenomenology of Perception
There’s this story I remember from college about Michelangelo, who believed his sculptures already existed inside the veined marble and that he simply had to release them from the inscrutable block, letting the sculptures emerge like wayward objects drawn slowly from below the surface of the water. This Neo-Platonic idea, that the ideal object always already existed and just needed to be realized, worked very well for Michelangelo until, late in life, he attempted to carve himself into a tableau of Christ just taken from the cross. In his attempt to draw his own soul from solid matter, Michelangelo chiseled off the arm of his marble image and likeness. He would abandon the sculpture and, from then on, the realization of the soul by way of rendering the perfected body would torment and forever elude him. The disfigurements in his late sculptures were a record of this final struggle and longing, the phantom limb infusing his late work with its spiritual quality.
I’ve hauled this story around in my memory for decades because it seemed like a canny allegory for what goes into the artistic process, even if what I remember is, at best, an apocryphal mash-up of tidbits my college brain gleaned from introductory lectures on “The Deposition” and the “Rondanini Pietà.” Still, this vision of the artist revising the work through a painstaking winnowing of matter is what comes back to me as I considered the process Katy Lederer used to write the poems in her recent volume, The bright red horse—and the blue—.
In her “Afterword,” Lederer says that she inscribed a series of “unlineated, ‘dash’ poems” in the mid-nineties, when she was about twenty-two years old: “Often, I would open a book I was reading at the time, skim the pages for words of interest or attraction, make what I thought of as music (the content was secondary).” The poems would emerge from the pages of words like wayward objects drawn slowly from below the surface of the water. But what appeared was “un-lineated lyric poems punctuated only by dashes … in block-form with no enjambment or breaks, uninviting and impossible to scan.” Inscrutable blocks of words emerging from the veined pages of books that, at the time, Lederer saw as the “dead remains” of her “desire and abjection.”
These blocks of words were only the raw materials. Within this slivered volume, published this past year by Atelos Press, the poems have been winnowed from the original fifty-six down to thirty-one, and are now presented in terse, notched lines, scored and scarred by dashes. In the lines, both speech and body are anatomized; there are vacancies and interruptions, negative space created by strong enjambments, silences and room for breath in the abrupt, syncopated rhythms. The poems record a struggle to render an underlying desire that shaped a deep longing, with all its frustration, pain, and rage. The book is an attempt to refine a self by rendering emotions that had been trapped in “intimidating blocks” of words by “releasing them from their blocks into an open form.”
With the dash as the only form of punctuation in the book, Lederer marks her pages applying grammar like chiseled hash marks. It is impossible not to evoke the master of the dash, Emily Dickinson, and Lederer’s lines do bear the comparison, to her credit. With this singular punctuation mark, Lederer orchestrates emotional rhythms that resonate with Dickinson’s own structures. In the very first line of the first poem, which is also the title of the book, one hears the likeness between “The bright red horse—and the blue—” and “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” or “The Brain—is wider than the Sky,” or even “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died.” In all these lines, the dash is a fulcrum that interrupts and holds together oppositions. It drives us into the poem, haltingly, and then precipitously. A phrase. A pause. And then a toppling over a cliff of whirling possibilities.
Unsurprisingly, Lederer brings a sophisticated sense of the dash to her poems. She says that, for her, the dashes “represent so many things: parries and thrusts, bars (as in a prison), invitations, suffocations, breaths, and lashes of the heart.” This litany could apply to a reading of the dash in Dickinson as well, because the list says much more about what the dashes do than what they actually “represent.” Lederer’s poems extend toward, reach out, but can never arrive or be complete because they are about desire and longing. As the poet Robert Hass aptly wrote, “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances.” If to gratify desire would be to end desire, then desire, as it is in articulated and performed in Lederer’s lines, must continue to retreat, repeat, pivot, and return.
Throughout the book, the dashes incongruously delay and quicken as if the imagination could stutter step. In the first poem, “Numbers,” after the first line, all the dashes come at the end of lines, pointing out into the blank space of the page, until the first line of the last stanza, where the dash sutures “dogs” to a “so”: “Outside the dogs—so / Those who.” After all the dashed lines, something here, seemingly small, attaches like a recombinant molecule, first drawing attention to the way the “os” in “dogs” gets reversed and condensed in “so” and then reversed back in “Those.” The line then takes us beyond the subtle visual inflections as the “—so” becomes a hinge, giving the urgent pointing of the dashes above it a clear direction. The “so” presents a stark, material possibility that, however precarious, cannot be, as it were, dashed. This “so,” in other words, enables articulation:
Outside the dogs—so
I am throwing on
The poem seeks the capacity to speak to and to speak for the versions of oneself, parts of oneself, even images of oneself that can seem like someone other than oneself. The poems reclaim these castaway selves by mining their utterances, and if it is “a mouth” the speaker “throws on,” then the dash is the tongue.
As the poems are all about being broken, both literally and emotionally, the dash (as in dashed against the rocks) seems like the perfect grammatical marker to shape these lines. In a poem aptly titled “To Perfect an Imitation of Myself,” we are reminded why the dash is the grammar of brokenness:
I will not venture—
To venture—in spite of
To venture—in spite of
My general Defect—
The dash makes “venture” oppose itself while proposing the Zen-like idea of venturing by not venturing. The paradoxical declaration not to venture is then undermined twice by the repeated line “To venture—in spite of.” Furthermore, “Myself—” appears couched between these insistences, either existing outside the vortex of the lines (i.e. “in spite of” the lines) or as a location for spite (i.e. “My general / Defect—).
Remarkably, the opening up of the formal blocks toward precipitous and contradictory possibilities of meaning comes not from efflorescence but from exfoliation: the poems fracture, stutter, and cut themselves off in order to render in the deconstructed body deeply felt emotional states. The poems render the perfected body (myself) through the disfigurements made by struggle and longing (“my general / defect).
There is a level of abstraction in the poems that comes from this non-narrative procedure. The fragmentation and assemblage resembles the technique of Franz Marc, whose painting, Stables, graces the book’s cover. According to the Guggenhiem, where the painting is housed, “Franz Marc searched for ways to reflect inner spiritual and emotional states through art.” It goes on to say that “he completed Stables, the last major work based on his favorite subject, the horse, by the end of 1913.” Importantly, however, while the horse might have been his favorite subject, Marc’s painting is called Stables and not Horses. The painting is about the structure that contains the live animal, its energy, and how that energy is rendered through the Futurist techniques of perspectival multiplication and fragmentation of shapes in movement. In the end, the horse and stable, as the Guggenheim goes on to note, “are almost indistinguishable.”
This link to Marc may help clarify the impulse behind Lederer’s poems, whose poetic technique owes a great deal to the Language School poets but which also pointedly explores “inner spiritual and emotional states. ” As Lederer admits, these poems are also about heartbreak. But not in the sense of being shattered, as the dash implies. Instead, it is a heart-breaking in the sense of breaking a horse. Like Marc, Lederer’s poems do not tame the raw emotions as much as they give unbridled emotions a form, a rhythm that makes them trot, canter, and gallop. And, like Marc, Lederer recognizes that oppositions such as these only destroy one another to let something like a spiritual quality take shape.
Top Image: Stables (Stallungen) 1913 by Franz Marc
Tim Wood is the author of two books of poems, Otherwise Known as Home (BlazeVOX, 2010) and Notched Sunsets (Atelos, 2016) as well as co-editor of The Hip Hop Reader (Longman, 2008). His critical work on poetry can be found at ActionYes, Jacket2,Convolution, and Leviathan. His poetry reviews can be found at the Colorado Review, The Iowa Review, and Boston Review.