The Volta: Friday Feature

Fledge: A Phenomenology of Spirit by Stacy Doris. Nightboat Books, 2012.

cover of Fledge: A Phenomenology of Spirit

Reviewed January 25, 2013 by Sylvia Chan.

I think good poets have a strong command and understanding of sound. All language has something to do with the way we listen, and Stacy Doris’s language fully embraces the episodic, attentive, syncopated parts of listening. On the first page of Fledge: A Phenomenology of Spirit, I find this part of her note:

Except for flexibly taken compounds, there

are mostly no two-syllable words in this book

of six-syllable lines. The attempt is to push

musicality-duration and naively literalize


I’m attracted to willful female writers who work and rework a variety of texts, whether they are philosophy, poetry, music, or the subject-matter of love. And love is Fledge’s subject: There is little, if any, distinction between love and the speaker’s self or her streams of consciousness. Her philosphical outlook is developed by interjecting humor and intimacy into trajectories of thought, which exhibit the speaker’s child-like characteristics. She speaks with unexpected precision about love, imagination, and technical concepts of music. For example, musical duration, which is one structural component of the book, is the only component of music that contains both sound and silence. As such, a text created from the structure of musical duration is “correct” because all texts include rhythmic time and phrases. The other components of sound – pitch, timbre, loudness – contribute to “incorrect” harmonious music structures: pitch, for instance, has no relevance in silence. Why would anyone be driven to read or write these poems? How does emphasizing the parts over the whole, perform Doris’s thinking through love?

Fledge’s associational structure emphasizes the subjective, the dream structure, and arrangements and rearrangements of words. By association, devotion is one purpose of love. If, as Doris claims in her note, one kind of devotion is appropriation-at-arm’s-length from some of Celan’s poems, then devotion is fidelity: Celan’s influence is prevalent throughout Fledge. Doris uses his formal, technical, and lyrical style in her poems, including his unique use of enjambment, sporadic end stops, syllabically-timed lines and subjects of music, such as undying love, disasters, and miracles. Why enjambment, which breaks the language into perishable units of syncopation? Why inconsistent use of end stops, in terms of sometimes providing it and sometimes appearing to:

I’m organizing clean

myself in myself lured

so long as there’s no sticks

only flux, teeth known as

waves and the rest. Nothing

the glue in which lungs all

dip, a glass folds your names

Found on the second page of the book, this brief poem takes on Doris’s termed duality of “a log of disasters” and “a register of miracle.” “Organizing clean / myself in myself” is the biggest disaster – one of extreme personal violence. The speaker takes the responsibility of rearranging herself into some working order, to give credence to a structured whole. She aims to fix herself and her language so that she is more coherent; cleanliness is the musicality of language in which she can invert herself. This can be internally violent: by placing words in a different order, or moving musical notes up or down an octave, the speaker changes her voice or pitch. She risks her devotion to Celan’s poems, her lover, and herself. By what organization of language and lyric does she know when to stop rearranging her words, herself in herself? So long as there is flux, the biggest state of ongoing change, of magnetic or chemical energy transferred to oneself in oneself, there is another kind of cleanliness, or “teeth known as / waves and the rest.” This is a glimpse of miracle – sinusoidal or not, there are sound waves and a literal rest, a metaphoric silence in the middle of this poem of six-syllable lines. Nothing is particularly silent about the lines, just as “the glue in which lungs all / dip” never shuts a person up; at worst, one coughs, at most, one has spoken. The speaker’s last register – “a glass [folding] your names” – suggests the streams of consciousness that pervade the collection, especially those whose relevance varies in proportion to time.

Fledge is Doris’s first posthumous collection. I haven’t been her most consistent reader, having read snippets of most of her books and remembering mainly the invariable subject-matter of undying love, and being struck by her bold use of mathematics, music, line breaks, and a devotion to desire. I wonder now why I never finished her books; I’m reading and rereading Fledge and I can’t stop. I think about Hegel’s self-consciousness as desire. Doris’s style emphasizes what is true about the semantics of a line break as well as the sentiment: lines offer a place of rest, during which the reader pauses to determine what is the sentiment or where it will go, pending where the next line takes us.

Either in connection to her sensory reactions to actual occurrences or in relation to her dreamed or undreamed thought processes, the speaker gives an equivalent of herself in Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness. This is the use of syllabic time. Why syllabic time, which acts contrary to some of Fledge‘s earlier syncopation and which is not usually associated with the English language? I think of Spanish and Cantonese, which consist of syllables that take up the same amount of rhythmic time; English does not do this. But Fledge‘s language does that and much more; it questions a rhythmic determinacy in Celan and more closely, in Hegel, for which Fledge stands as “a close translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit”:

Where the sky launched this thrush

to my call, a cat strikes

rocks to my call I name

strands through your song I-know

I-know I-know I point

and name myself not took

to be rocked, then sweep me

if not mouthed you flood with

yourself but I need to

sound each particular

Again, violence marks the poem’s beginning. Instead of this thrush launching the sky, the sky launches the thrush – the songbird and its birdsong and the female singer. All tendencies are forced to their limits. There can be disaster with such a consciousness uninhibited by taboo: where a cat strikes rocks to her call, the speaker names strands of her person’s song, knowing and knowing and naming herself in spite of not taking some part of the song. She pleads, repeats, and plays with the song strands and writes her own commanding language: “if not mouthed you flood with / yourself but I need to / sound each particular.” If violence is the sky thrusting an animal or person, a register of miracle is the change in the speaker, in growing up and wanting to fly – to tell each disaster and miracle herself.

Music is made from modulation, which is to say, from change. Doris roughly divides her collection into imagined rough sections, with the last of three sections beginning with “To sink to a field warm” and ending with “This starts in emptying”:

To sink to a field warm

not dragonfly where if

hung there can you get to

ask everything to ask

for both? If not or stilled

can you get everything

save for both in asked where

the rope of me by me

. . .

This starts in emptying

the crate: “dump, dump.” The words

cart away as in “pink”

or “bulge.” Uplifting the

mouse-rag buzzed drips to glass

our climb in big sized shoes.

The change in the scope of this last section is significant: the poems are no longer merely a log of disasters and miracles. She starts in a field where, if hung, does her person get to ask for or get everything? Is there salvation for the one who questions “where / the rope of me by me?” Miracles have become not just the abstract emptying of the crate. Singular words – “dump,” “pink,” and “bulge” – summarize the subject of undying love. Specifically, the alveolar repeat of “dump” suggests the waste or mess of a relationship. The “pink” and “bulge” of the “cart away” refer to both the physical act of speaking and the excess of love: we pronounce “dump” by pushing our tongues against our teeth, speaking with the tips of our tongues. That is excessive in terms of making our sounds vulnerable, a bulge. It is why I look for another kind of language so I can distance myself from the speaker’s undying love. In “Uplifting the / mouse-rag buzzed drips to glass,” I’ve enough to begin “our climb in big sized shoes,” to get away from a body of text that is violence and desire, all reworked and rewritten through love.

Despite some of its dark implications, Fledge is funny. Doris’s humor is sweet and intimate, making use of end stops that don’t ever seem to stop. The speaker combs owls, grabs rose colors and pants, tracks hair in bursts, falls in love then offers the imperative of “[holding her] hand or / else [she] won’t walk.” She is fearless, sensual, hopeful, ambitious: “since all acts are love / nothing stops our fingers.” I feel safe, knowing that every substantive difference between song and poem, disaster and miracle, Hegel and Celan, music and desire, is not relative, is not the entirety of the language that I can aim to read and write.

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Sylvia Chan hails from the East Bay and lives in Tucson, where she is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona.