Friday, November 20, 2009

Claustrophilia VIII: Cary Howie

These words will not reproduce what I said in the long, narrow conference room at George Washington University last week, as friends and strangers and one stuffed elephant looked on. But take it—I tell myself, I tell you—as an occasion for putting some distance between authorial intention and the object, the text, so eloquently enchanted by others (beside and around me) in that space.  
I wrote Claustrophilia as an account of a specific set of medieval and modern tropes (within and around enclosed space) but also as an exercise in critical poetics. The book began as a dissertation, but it was never my intention to write a dissertation, at least not in the sense in which I hear—from colleagues, from students—the conventions of dissertation writing enumerated with astonishing certainty. I wanted—and if wanting is not at the heart of this book, then tell me what is—to evoke enclosure, not prove that I had read all of the secondary literature about it. I had nothing to prove.
What I could not know, much less prove, was that the book would end up being taken in hand by a remarkably charitable community of readers and thinkers and lovers, not least among them the folks who spoke, last Friday, before sunset, in that narrow room. I could not know that Patrick O’Malley would speak of the “alchemy of metonymy” by which books and persons become transformed. I could not know that Karl Steel would speak of the doubleness of locking: up and onto, confining and adhering. I could not know that Michael Snediker would observe—would affirm—that the literal “teems with figuration”; or that Eileen Joy would show how, in a short story of Calvino’s, “generosity engenders space”; or that Madhavi Menon would translate claustrophilia beautifully, and again metonymically, into a clusterfuck. I could not know that Jeffrey Masten would bring the materiality of connectedness—“but / and,” the hinge between opposition and its non-opposite, in terms of what he calls “the difficult erotics” of the book—suddenly to the surface. 
There was so much I could not know.  I had never even been to Washington.
Claustrophilia was always caught—like a zipper, like a fly—between the specificity of its central figure—enclosure—and the worlds onto which that figure opened. Tell a story about claustrophilia (admit that you once liked, or still like, hiding behind couches) and you’re bound to hear other stories (many of them, curiously, about elevators). You will be reminded, repeatedly, that an enclosed space can disclose a series of spaces; that limits and the limitless need not be thought in strict opposition. 
If this book has done and may be allowed to do anything, I hope that it makes room for something, for someone; that it shows how there is always more room than there might seem to be—for various forms and figures of speech, for various kinds and kindnesses of bodies—and how this abiding roominess may be enhanced precisely by paying attention to what might “seem to be”: our surfaces, our semblances, shot through with our depths. 
Elevators and closets are not the only enclosures. Nets are enclosures, too. Linda Gregg writes: “there are fish in the net, / lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.”1 This miracle—something we thought was empty is now suddenly full—does not announce itself grandly. “There are fish,” the poem says. It is ordinary; fish are ordinary. But it is also miraculous. There are fish, yes, and “lots of fish,” and lots of fish “this time,” this time which is not every time, although—why not?—it could be. Something closes; something catches. And suddenly—or slowly, since fishing is not necessarily fast—there are unexpected, ordinary, temporary things, things that bulge and ripple like a heart. The net closes abundantly. It makes room.

(1) Linda Gregg, “Fishing in the Keep of Silence,” All of It Singing (St. Paul: Graywolf, 2008), p. 111.

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