Ode to Self: a study in Detachment and Self-Distancing
Precision, a poem by Laurie Duesing, is a study in detachment, a multilayered concept whose many interactive elements or functions form a whole. Since these functions tend to merge into one another, they’re often difficult to tell apart. In the raw, however, they can be identified as therapeutic, literary, or substantive. The poet’s masterful exploitation of the concept of detachment in all its facets, with Precision as its fruit, is a tour de force.
Three Moments of Detachment
Emotional detachment –if I be allowed to amplify at the risk of sounding redundant — is an ole’ reliable tool in our vast arsenal of natural, “homemade” remedies, a defense mechanism of sorts or a reflex that simply kicks in whenever we’re faced with all manner of setbacks and disappointments, surely the loss of a loved one among them. If not immediate (for a state of shock often comes first), it’s a frequent human response to help us deal with a personal tragedy that had just engulfed us if only to enable us to carry on for a time, a temporary remedy until a deeper, more prolonged emotional state, such as grief, eventually sets it. [For indeed, it is only during grief that as a rule we finally come to terms with our loss; but grief – see, e.g. , A Grief Observed (1961) by C. S. Lewis — is a full-grown human emotion such as love or faith, and not unlike good wine, it needs time to mature and come of age. In this respect, detachment serves as a kind of preamble, as one of the stages which usually precede and lead to grieving.]
But that’s just one of its many functions: as a derivative of the psychological, detachment is also a technique, a literary device not unlike a perspective or a point of view (though one must add that it encompasses all art forms, not just literature). Related to these is detachment in its substantive mode: as a possible extension of the literary, it takes the form of critique– critique verging on denouncement. In this essay I intend to demonstrate the ways in which the poet’s reliance on detachment while crafting her poem served these functions at once, therapeutic, literary and substantive.
To be sure, the relationship between the first two is already one of give-and-take, one feeding off the other and vice versa. To wit, writing about the event – any kind of writing! – is one common means of attaining a state of detachment, of distancing ourselves from the event and the emotions of the moment. How so?
Simply because the very activity of setting things down on paper is a form of acting, acting in a different key, however, for it calls for reflection, contemplation, and so forth – an activity on the intellectual plane whilst the emotional in us is being put on (a temporary) hold. In that sense, therefore, while writing, we’re always at least at one remove from the event itself and our immediate experience of it – which is distancing. Taking the lead from Kierkegaard’s brilliant turn of phrase (see Fear and Trembling), let’s just say that as we write, we’re engaged in “the intellectual suspension of the emotional.”
Ms. Duesing does all that, of course, and one better. As if from sheer spite –although “rebellion” might be a better term – she manages to transcend what by all accounts ought to be a personal tragedy and turns it into a triumph.
All forms of detachment, whether wittingly or not, contain a seed of denial, the latter being the radical form of the former. Well, the poet appears have taken the concept of detachment to the very limit, its most extreme and radical form, except that in her able hands we no longer recognize it as “mere denial.” By setting things upside-down, topsy-turvy, in a manner we’re least accustomed to (i.e., by means of a technique known as “defamiliarization”), she virtually transforms denial, a negative emotion at best, into an affirmation – an affirmation of a perfectly-led life and no less perfect death. It’s a complete turnaround!
Was the poet grieving while composing her poem? What exactly was Duesing’s emotional state at the time? And why should any of this matter?
I’ll revisit these questions shortly. Meanwhile, let me state at the outset that we’re not told how much time had transpired between her loss of a loved one in a motorcycle accident at Sears Point Raceway and her memorialization of the event by the poem. Let me state further that there’s no reason why grieving couldn’t be interspersed off-and-on with prolonged spells of detachment – sufficiently prolonged at any rate to compose a strong, “well-made” poem: the two concepts are neither contradictory nor are they mutually exclusive.
A question as to what is the best time to write a strong poem – when the emotions are at their peak, at a boiling point, as it were, or after they’ve been allowed by the passage of time to simmer down a degree or two and become internalized – interesting as it may be from the standpoint of the creative process, is a moot point, really: we may as well concede that there aren’t any hard-n-fast rules on the subject, no ready-made formulas; that it all depends on and varies with the writer. Suffice it to say that Ms. Duesing is in perfect control of her material from start to finish – which is to say, in perfect control of her emotions as well! – and she delivers.
Communing with the Dead
Control and perfection, along with precision, the work’s title, are the key kindred concepts which virtually circumscribe the entire poem. Granted that iteration alone (which is to say, the sheer number of incidences which mark the occurrence of any given concept or turn of phrase within a body of work) is hardly sufficient basis to critique that work in its entirety, but it’s a start; and it’s a doubly-significant start if the work happens to be a short one.
Just consider the poet’s use of “variation on a theme of perfection”(if I may be so bold as to borrow and to paraphrase):
you flew in a perfect arc (1)
I broke the perfect formation (3)
swung its flawless pendulum (8)
the proper clothes (15)
your failure to survive was complete (18)
the neck you perfectly broke (19)
your body cleanly draped (20)
Seven nearly-identical entries within a poem only twenty-eight lines long is certainly no coincidence: it’s something to reckon with.
But there’s another set of intertwining concepts as well, concepts which weave their way throughout the poem, internally as it were, and which endow it with its overarching tone: personal pronouns “you” and “I” (and the variants thereof). The poet’s use of those pronouns speaks volumes about her strong emotional connection to the deceased.
The way you flew in a perfect arc …
Your women …
Your grandmother and mother …
Your broken body at rest …
Your breath …
Your heart …
Your chest …
You wore the proper clothes …
Your failure to survive …
The neck you perfectly broke …
Your body cleanly draped …
Your dead face …
since I had seen you alive …
Naturally, this form of address carries over to the poet’s just as frequent self-references as well, for the simple reason that her “you” inevitably invokes the reciprocal pronoun “I”:
I broke the perfect formation …
the stop watch hanging from my neck …
though I never saw the neck you perfectly broke …
I did see your dead face brushing up at me …
I clutched the stop watch …
I could have told …
since I’d seen you alive …
This indeed is striking. Considering that her loved one is found “dead-on-contact”– and we learn of this from the outset — the poet goes beyond mere “communing with the dead,” a rite that is common to many cultures and traditions, past or present. Once again, Duesing does one better!
To wit, not only does she manage to maintain a conversation with the deceased as though he were still alive; she as good as resurrects him for the very purpose. The entire poem as a matter of fact, its very tone, form and content, is that conversation (or so it’d seem). And if that’s not the height of intimacy, of stubborn refusal to let go, of the unquenchable desire to communicate and let the emotions carry you wherever they might, then I don’t know what is.
It is thus that Ms. Duesing traverses a perfect arc of her own – from a state of detachment, a psychological stance required of her as an artist, a stance necessary to compose a strong poem, to one of an unequivocal and total embrace.
A Eulogy or a Rebuke?
Apart from being a conversation of sorts, a one-sided conversation at that, the poem is also a letter, a postmortem letter, an inscription in memory of a loved one, an epitaph. Of course, only a most confirmed narcissist would require an inscription twenty-eight lines long; the tombstone would have to be enormous for such a feat. And so, we must condense it to human-like proportions, proportions we can live with.
The condensed version could well read like this:
Here lies a valiant and fearless man,
A daredevil – God bless his soul —
Who always lived on the edge.
He lived a perfect life and died a perfect death.
It would be a mistake, however, perhaps a category mistake, to treat the poem as though it were a mere eulogy. It is all that, of course, but only in part – or, more precisely perhaps, in form only. The sheer number of iterations of the poet’s “I,” nearly matching one-for-one her frequent uses of “you,” should be our first clue: for indeed, a eulogy, strictly speaking, ought to be about the departed and the departed only; and as such, importing any self-referential material into its corpus would be highly improper. What we see instead, contrary to our expectations, is that the poem is essentially about the poet herself — about her feelings, her emotions, her state of mind. For all intents and purposes, the self-referential “I” had effectively supplanted the reverential “you.”
A number of considerations lend support to this reading, the poet’s language among them. Let’s start with the poem’s structure. There are three distinct stanzas, all sequential, each marking off a separate moment in time, each corresponding to a different phase of the poet’s immediate exposure, and subsequent reaction, to the accident: (i) the event itself, as observed from a distance; (ii) the first point of contact, on the racetrack; and (iii),the aftermath, i.e., the parting, hospital scene.
Now, what’s striking about each of these stanzas, about the way in which they’re being rendered, is the language: it doesn’t change one iota as we move from one stage to the next; it remains the same throughout the length of the poem. And that language is characterized by heavy use of staccato, by deliberate and unvarying rhythm and cadence, by measured if not metric delivery – by precision, for short. All told, it’s an exercise in perfect control, the poet’s control.
What’s equally striking about the poet’s language is the conspicuous absence of any kind of warmth; there’s none whatever, not even a trace.
Part of it is understandable, given Ms. Duesing’s adopted stance, her deliberate posture of detachment and self-distancing to help her keep her emotions in rein, raging within as they may be, and compose a strong poem regardless. Still, considering the most immediate, personal form of address which underscores the entire poem, one would think that, whether wittingly or not, at least a token of anything even resembling warmth or affection would trickle down and manifest itself somehow; but that’s not to be.
Which is why Precision is definitely neither born, nor is it expressive, of a “stream of consciousness” – which typically induces the subject’s thoughts and emotions to carry them wherever they will – but, if anything, the very opposite of that style and genre of works. To the contrary, in spite of the form of address, the poet comes across as being through-and-through aloof, and her overall tone is one of reproachment. It’s almost as though she were pointing an accusing finger at the deceased, saying “how could you?”
How could you’ve been so reckless with your young life, so selfish,
So unconcerned and so uncaring
To leave a path of devastation in your wake?
You had the whole future ahead of you!
And now there are three lonely women you left behind,
Women who had loved you.
Three lonely women with nothing but grief and sorrow
And emptiness in their heart.
It is here that we see the full force of detachment in its substantive mode!
If my reading of this poem happens to fluctuate between high points and low, from an unflinching emotional connection to the deceased, a connection verging on intimacy, to an attitude of aloofness, reproachment, even rebuke, a movement across a wide spectrum of emotions in fact, it’s because the poet’s emotions themselves undergo those very fluctuations — the poem itself serving but as a mirror to the poet’s soul, as the key to unlocking it; and those emotions, for the most part, remain unresolved! But this is only as it should be, because as a rule, emotions come to us as undifferentiated complex wholes — wholes which, more often than not, are mired in internal conflict in dire need of resolution – not as discreet, neatly-packaged and easily-discernible bundles.
Let’s put forth three interlocking propositions: (i) it is the poet herself who is the proper subject of the poem; (ii) the poet’s inner conflict, unresolved (the impulse behind the poem) is its proper object, its content; and (iii), the poem’s form is but a vehicle for expressing that content under the guise of eulogy (content taking precedence over form in this instance, the latter serving as though a mask). Now, if these propositions are a byproduct of the poet’s artful recourse to personal pronouns and the like, and I believe ‘tis so — then what exactly is the function of the first-mentioned cluster of concepts having to do with precision, perfection and control? How do they fit in with the overall scheme of things? How do they contribute to the poem at large?
It is perhaps at this point that we may avail ourselves of T. S. Elliot’s pet concept of “the objective correlative.” Simply put, and I’m citing here from the hyperlinked article, “[T]he objective correlative is . . . [a] formula for creating a specific emotional reaction merely by the presence of certain words, objects, or items juxtaposed with each other. . . like a sort of emotional algebra.”
What other emotions then – one may ask — does the poem evoke? What else is there to learn? And what, in this instance, might the objective correlative be?
“The stop watch hanging from my neck, suspended between gravity and momentum, swung its flawless pendulum [lines 6 through 8] . . . in perfect arc . . . [line 1]”
These four lines, rearranged to complete a sentence, tell the whole story. Therein you will find all the elements which form our composite, Elliot’s objective correlative: “stop watch,” pendulum,” “gravity,” momentum” and “arc.” Consider, too, the way in which these elements interrelate: pendulum is a type of clock; gravity is the constant external force acting upon it; its momentum is constantly changing during its flight; and its flight forms an arc.
The first four of the aforementioned elements symbolize precision, perfection and control; and so does the arc. But the arc is also a metaphor for the poet’s own trajectory as she gravitates from one emotional state to another, from one polar end to its opposite, from feelings of intimacy to a biting critique – in short, a trajectory not unlike the one inscribed by the pendulum itself as it swings back and forth, flawlessly, from left to right and vice versa, on and on.
Since I believe it’s been established that Precision is essentially a self-reflexive poem, it follows that all attributes having to do with precision, perfection and the like are, likewise, self-referential too (one is almost tempted to say, “self-congratulatory”), which is to say that they are meant by the poet to be bestowed by herself upon herself – for perfect language, perfect delivery, perfect poem, for her grace under pressure.
It might be objected that such an ostentatious self-display on Ms. Duesing’s part verges on self-aggrandizement and that it’s totally out of place. Perhaps so, but I beg to differ. In the universe of emotions, there indeed may be times when “anything goes.”