I: The Lyric Self as Rhizome
Entryway I: Definition
Whenever I write a new poem, the first question that faces me is the problem of pronouns. Not who is the “they” here or who is the “you” here, but who is the “I” here. It’s not a question of self-identity but a question of fracture or consistency. I begin to wonder how the “I” will travel. Will “I” maintain a similar perspective throughout a manuscript articulated by this “I”? Will “I” represent shifting points of view, locations, times, states of consciousness, states of being? Will “I” always be me, from my perspective, or will “I” sometimes play the parts of others? Will “I” become something other than “I” was at the start, or will “I” remain the same? Whitman’s famous lines, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” come to mind here. In some ways this answers it and ends my essay before it even begins, but where Whitman contains multitudes (I picture layer upon layer of self), I’m interested perhaps not in contradiction but in interruption, in starting and pausing, beginning, becoming: as a necessary and symptomatic dimension of the lyric and, more particularly, of the lyric self.
I’m interested in the rhizome as an autonomous concept, as a term not entirely tied to the theories of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, as a term that might rupture (i.e., engage) those entryways, as a term that enacts that which it names, in other words, a rhizomatic definition of the rhizome as it is related to the lyric self. For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about the etymology of the word “and.” “And” is a rhizomatic word, a word that accumulates, that mimics the motion of becoming, that gestures toward new entryways, additions, a word that builds, not unlike the Winchester house, onto the body of a sentence. “And” is an alchemical word. It begins in our DNA. It winds around us. It stutters forward and haunts our bodies, our edges, our permutations. If I have a poetics, it is related to the word “and.” And if I have a lyric speaker, I would rather she be called “and” than “I.”
Gertrude Stein…in her “Composition as Explanation” (1926) [talks about] beginning again and again. Truth is not something that can be uncovered; it can only be rediscovered, day after day. The value of breaking through the dead rubble each morning and in viewing each object from as many angles as possible is that one keeps one’s mind open, that conclusions are always tentative and that the process of discovery is always more important than any particular end result.
This is the nature of “and.” The nature of “I” is less becoming. “I” is a capitalization, an outsider, an observer. “And” participates. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari also mention the word “and.” They write, “The tree imposes the verb ‘to be,’ but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, and…and…and…” This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb “to be.” The lyric “and,” then, is not about being but about shaking up and uprooting. It is about perpetual becoming.
Entryway II: The Essay
Essayer is the French verb meaning ‘to try’ and an essai is an attempt.—O.E.D.
“The essayist gives you his thoughts, and lets you know, in addition, how he came by them.”—Alexander Smith
“The essay is an enactment of the creation of the self.”—Philip Lopate
“The usual reproach against the essay, that it is fragmentary and random, itself assumes the givenness of totality and…suggests that man is in control of totality. But the desire of the essay is not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal.”—Theodor Adorno
“The practice of experimenting, or trying something out, is expressed in the now uncommon sense of the verb to prove—the sense of ‘testing’ rather than of ‘demonstrating validity.’ Montaigne ‘proved’ his ideas in that he tried them out in his essays. He spun out their implications, sampled their suggestions. He did not argue or try to persuade. He had no investment in winning over his audience to his opinion; accordingly, he had no fear of being refuted. On the contrary, he expected that some of the ideas he expressed would change, as they did in later essays. Refutation represented not a personal defeat but an advance toward truth as valuable as confirmation. To ‘prove’ an idea, for Montaigne, was to examine it in order to find out how true it was.”—William Zeiger
Entryway III: Attempting Embrace
In the essay, the attempt is in the idea. In the lyric, the attempt (reach, embrace, desire, etc.) is toward the self, toward the ever-absent and ever-present speaker “I.” The other day I was talking to a friend about exile and diaspora and why I am drawn to literature that explores these concepts. What could I possibly know about exile or diaspora? From what have I been exiled? From what have I been shattered out of, if not my self, my form, my body, my sight? All linguistic engagement attempts to carve out this form, to give it shape, to give it genre. The lyric speaker pivots on this exact dilemma, to both be the self and not be the self simultaneously, to speak not as “I” but as “and.” The word “residence” and, from within this word, the word “residue” enact this for me. The lyric “I” is a residence, but it is a residence that is visible or conceptual only as residue. Residue, to distinguish from trace, leaves a stain or an echo of itself. The residue of a cup of coffee does not look like a cup of coffee, but it signals this larger residence of the cup. This is not to say that the stain becomes the cup, but that the stain marks a simultaneous presence and absence in residence.
In Lyric Poetry: The Pain and Pleasure of Words, Mutlu Blasing writes extensively about the nature of the “I” in lyric poetry. He notes that “The gap that the ‘I’ occupies is the internal gap of language, and it is also the site that the reader must occupy.” And in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry, we find that “The speaker is a device for making the invisible visible. Paul De Man replaces such standard terms as ‘personification’ with ‘catachresis’ in order to explain the function of the frequent trope of address in lyric poetry. The poet-surrogate is replaced by the figurative voice, a mantic or shamanistic presence that makes the verbal world of the lyric a visible world to the mind of the reader.” “I” is destabilized or rhizomatic in a number of ways. “I” is myself and reader and gap and surrogate and site and device.
Additionally “I,” as we have seen, is not really “I” (as in me, myself). “I” is something larger, something projected, inhabited by something other than “I.” “I” is also they and he and we. Blasing says that the “‘I’ in poetry is both the generic ‘I’ of language and an individuated ‘I’ sounded by the materials of language.” Paul de Man argues that “The principle of intelligibility, in lyric poetry, depends on the phenomenalization of the poetic voice (which is) the aesthetic presence that determines the hermeneutics of the I.” And Jonathan Culler declares that “The fundamental aspect of lyric writing…is to produce an apparently phenomenal world through the figure of voice.” “I” is “an appearance of a disappeared self.” Like the planchette, the voice of the lyric speaker is a tongue that empties itself and allows for multiple inhabitants. As Rimbaud says, “I is Another.” And another and another and another.
Entryway IV: Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman’s “self-portraits” have always fascinated me. I’ve used her work, alongside Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, to introduce composition classes to the personal essay. I use Sherman and Kahlo as examples of destabilizing the “I” while also rendering it as fully intact, witness and witnessed. The idea that one is both seeing and being seen by oneself is important. Transformation can only take place in this intermediary space of destabilized self location. The best writing comes out of this kind of exile. This is also true for the lyric, in which the creation of the self as in the essay is marked and marred by the authorial “I.” Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman represent a visual example of what this marring might look like, how it might manifest from poem to poem, from book to book, or from I to I. Both are essayists or lyricists working through the medium of “and.”
Adorno writes that “the desire of the essay is not to seek and filter the eternal out of the transitory; it wants, rather, to make the transitory eternal.” Kahlo’s and especially Sherman’s images are this transitory made eternal. My main goal in writing is to transcend this notion of the “I,” to speak from an experience larger than the confines of my own physical body and all that my physical body has seen, endured, and enacted. In an interview in What is Poetry?, Lewis Warsh notes that “Identity is often slippery, and the way I write is only synonymous with who I am at the moment.” This is true, but I want something even larger than multiple perspectives. I want to speak from multiple bodies, whatever that entails. Michael Palmer says, “I’m not sure I’ve ever actually met the author. The author passes through my life, a kind of presence-absence, but we do not speak.” I like this idea a little better. The author becomes a kind of shadow self. There is an intersection, a crossroads by which we pass through one another, but we do not merge.
Cindy Sherman’s “self-portraits” also convey a presence-absence. There are a number of essays written about the insignificance of her using her own body to create these photographs. They are said to not comment on identity. For me, though, and I think for many others, the most interesting thing about these photos is the simultaneous presence and absence of Cindy Sherman. Or as Harryette Mullen says, “I don’t know if I’m undermining identity so much as continually rewriting and revising it.” This acknowledgment of a very basic instability, of the eternal transience of “I,” is the face of a lyric self as rhizome.
Entryway V: Revision
Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbau, Madeline Gins and Arakawa’s architectural bodies that attempt to make dying illegal, and the Winchester House haunt me. “…The fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, ‘and…and…and…’” In one definition “and” accumulates, begins again and again, is in a state of perpetual becoming. “And” moves away from linear narratives that might confine us to a paradigm of life and death and saves us from ghosts that will stalk and murder us if we don’t continue to adapt. “And” is a bodily extension, a physical manifestation of externalized nest, a pathway. “And” desires the rupture of addition. “And” is a manifesto.
And to move away from just this idea of accumulation, I’ve noticed recently my shift in love from Georges Perec to Francis Ponge. No longer is the list of objects, the list of accumulation enough. I want metaphorical metamorphosis. Not just the list, but a reading (interpretation) of that list. If I am going to be haunted, I want a séance. I want to be included as an active participant, not a collector, but a diviner. In fact, part of what draws me to Schwitter, Gins and Arakawa, Ponge, and the Winchester house is their spine-tingling alchemy. The strangeness of their inevitable necessity.
This desire to be not a collector but a diviner strikes me as being tied to Levinas’s terms the Saying and the Said. He writes, “The saying in poetry, interwoven in poetic language with the said, calls for infinite interruption.” And that “The saying calls for constant reflection in order to interrupt the said.” The saying exposes a work as “a site of fracture.” Or “The poem must interrupt in the name of the saying.” This is all to say that the Saying is a site of rupture, a site of becoming, of beginning again and again. The Saying is a site of the lyric “and.” The Said, in contrast, is static and closed and no longer participates in an engagement with language, with reader, with lyric self, etc. Revision, both in the sense of Schwitters as expansion and in the sense of Ponge as renewal of perception, exists as an act of interruption. It is “Saying holding open its openness…Saying saying itself, without thematizing it, but exposing it again.” Think of Emily Dickinson’s variants or Walt Whitman’s “preoccupation with the subject of beginnings and the notion of origin…grounded in the notion of repetition.” These two authors/poets use revision to maintain their obsessive engagement with disruption of finalized meaning. Note that their revision exists as part of the presentation, not as something happening unseen and outside of the text. This is the kind of revision that remains open, that fractures the Said by Saying.
Entryway VI: Performance Art & Alchemical Transformation
“To ‘prove’ an idea, for Montaigne, was to examine it in order to find out how true it was.”
About a month ago, a friend who recently completed training as a hypnotherapist came to visit me. While she was here, she performed an alchemical tarot reading for me using the Bruegel tarot deck. To conduct an alchemical tarot reading, you need to have a deck in which each card contains the image of a person. What makes the reading alchemical is that you choose a person in each card to identify with and then you take on their position in the card. By “take on,” I mean that you physically enact their posture and expressions. Then you describe what it is like to be in this posture with this expression. The reading is alchemical because you conduct your own transformation. You are the reader of your own cards, facilitated by another witness. The “magic” in this kind of tarot reading is in the way it takes something invisible (a state of mind or body) and makes it visible (through posture and your verbalized interpretation of that posture). I’ve been thinking lately about how writing might allow or does allow simultaneous expression of the visible and the invisible, the conscious and the subconscious. Writing, or at least what I think of as good writing, hinges between these two things. Writing makes possible this intermediary state and creates a potential for metamorphosis.
I like the way that “metamorphosis” sounds like a parent word to “metaphor.” It suggests that what metaphor is really about is transformation. In a recent TED talk, linguist Caitlin Walker discusses a “language of inquiry” that enables us to inquire, via metaphor, into our own experiences, somewhat like the alchemical tarot reading. She discusses psychotherapist David Grove’s Five Clean Questions and how he applies them to fears and anxieties people are having in order for them to get to the metaphorical bottom of the issue, in order for them to engage a metamorphosis or transfiguration via language. Basically, what happens is that by getting one to discuss the location, attributes, sequence, and metaphors of a fear or anxiety, a narrative attaches to that fear or anxiety and uproots it from one’s body.
My favorite performance artists, Ana Mendieta, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Cecilia Vicuña, engage this same kind of metaphor-metamorphosis. But they do so visually, and, at times, the narrative may be less clear. What draws me to performance art is the engagement of alchemical interpretation. The possibility of giving it voice visually, linguistically, bodily. Performance art allows us to find out how true something is. It engages the articulation of gesture—gesticulation, what is becoming, what is being formed. It allows the self to inhabit many residences. It is a Merzbau for the lyric self, for any self. It is a poetry for the body. It whispers the word “and.”
Entryway VII: the Lyric And 
And here even dreams are like a network of tendons.
And the sky, an accident of stems.
And yes, we think the building looks like a road.
And this branch glues you home.
And I came out in its mouth like a dream of meat.
And then suddenly the parts come together again.
And in this I am—as Poetry is.
And are we gutted now or what.
And here is the steeple.
And there was the idea of thinking.
And above, the clouds stopped in motion.
And yet it turns.
And when we shake it, it looks like a new stranger.
And here we speak with voices.
And all our bodies caught apart.
 Marjorie Perloff, Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama Press, 2004), 67.
 Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousands Plateaus (London: The Athlone Press, 2001), 27.
 Alexander Smith, “On the Writing of Essays,” in Dreamthrop: a book of essays written in the country (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1912), accessed March 17, 2013, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18135. Quoted in Lopate, xliv.
 Philip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay (New York: Anchor Books, 1997), xlii.
 Theodor Adorno, “The Essay as Form,” in Notes to Literature, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia UP, 1991). Quoted in Lopate, xliii.
 William Zeiger, “The Exploratory Essay: Enfranchising the Spirit of Inquiry in College Composition,” College English 47, no. 5 (1985), 455. Quoted in Lopate, xlv.
 Mutlu Blasing, Lyric Poetry: The Pain and Pleasure of Words (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009), 27-29.
 Alex Preminger, Terry V.F. Brogan, and Frank J. Warnke, eds., Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993).
 Blasing, 27.
 Qtd. in Ibid., 726.
 Qtd. in ibid., 726.
 Daniel Kane, What Is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde (New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2003), 161.
 Ibid., 161.
 Ibid., 161.
 In 1923, Kurt Schwitters constructed a grotto-like surface consisting of collaged paper columns and sculptures that protruded from the walls and ceilings of his family home in Hanover, Germany.
 Madeline Gins and Arakawa, Making Dying Illegal: Architecture Against Death: Original to the 21st Century (New York: Roof Books, 2006).
 The Winchester House was continuously under construction by Sarah Winchester, widow to William Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, for 38 years, from 1884-1922. Sarah believed the house was haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester rifle and was told by a medium that she would be punished if she did not build ceaselessly. The odd layout, doors and stairways leading to nowhere, contributes to the haunted quality of the house.
 Qtd. in Colin Davis, Levinas: An Introduction (Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame Press, 1997) 75.
 Ibid., 78.
 Ibid., 164.
 Ibid., 166.
 Ibid., 78.
 Krystyna Mazur, Poetry and Repetition. (New York: Routledge, 2005) 39.
 Philip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay (New York: Anchor Books, 1997), xlv.
 Cento with lines from Suzanne Doppelt, Beverly Dahlen, Gennady Aygi, Oni Buchanan, Olivia Cronk, & Emily Pettit.
Aygi, Gennady. Into the Snow. Trans. Sarah Valentine. New York: Wave Books, 2011.
Buchanan, Oni. What Animal. Athens: U of Georgia Press, 2003.
Cronk, Olivia. Skin Horse. Notre Dame: Action Books, 2012.
Dahlen, Beverly. A Reading 18-20. Boulder: Instance Press, 2006.
Doppelt, Suzanne. Ring Rang Wrong. Trans. Cole Swensen. Providence: Burning Deck, 2004.
Pettit, Emily. Goat in the Snow. Austin: Birds, LLC, 2012.