ESSAY Sarah HoweNWR Issue 96
Skipping to the Apocalypse
In his work on dreams, Freud took an interest in the phenomenon of words that contain opposite meanings at once. For example, our English word ‘clamour’ comes from the Latin clamare (to cry out) but has a near-obsolete twin of contrary meaning, born of clam (softly, secretly). Such linguistic relics, Freud believed, suggest how primal man could only begin to think about concepts by holding them up
against their opposites, gradually learning to separate the two halves of an antithesis. Elyse Fenton’s first book of poems, Clamor
, charts the experiences of an American woman whose husband has been deployed as an army medic to Iraq. The collection structures itself around ‘this word’ (which chimes through many of the poems) ‘that means sound and soundlessness / at once’. The title’s compressed antithesis also shapes these lyrics in more subtle ways, leading them to interrogate other apparent contraries: man and woman, combatant and spectator, distance and intimacy, complicity and guiltlessness.
And so when Fenton depicts the blast of an IED (improvised explosive device) in terms of the ensuing deafness, this comes to stand for the unequalness of words to conveying war’s reality: ‘the hard dust / beneath your feet could breach like a cleft / in meaning.’ Aware of its own desperation, ‘Love in Wartime (I)’ tries valiantly to pitch itself against language’s inadequacy: ‘When I say you I have to mean / not some signified presence [...] but your mouth and its live wetness.’ Central to the collection is the conjuring trick by which letters – and poems – seem to make an absent person bodily present. ‘Word from the Front’ is one of numerous poems set at the end of a telephone’s receiver, as the speaker struggles to visualise her lover’s everyday life in Baghdad from nothing but his ‘voice over the wind strafed line’.
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