This article was written on 21 Oct 2013, and is filled under Literature.

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On Jane Gregory’s My Enemies (The Song Cave, 2013)


Jane Gregory My Enemies


Discovering a new poet whose first volume promises greatness is only half the fun; the other half is trying to share the pleasure by sketching one’s reasons for this judgment.

Consider first the title. Speaking generally, we could say this is a poet who hears the oddities that language affords. To have an enemy that shares the very term by which we claim a self is to force self-consciousness into quite strange places. Is the enemy the basic condition of wanting to claim possession, so that we are always doomed to try to protect what must vanish or change? Or is the enemy to be embraced because of the kinship in naming, as if recognizing an enemy at the core of “my” made the struggle to secure possessions all the more enticing? For one has the possibility to encompass what is alien and so to learn to make self-division a livable and even a fascinating state–a state that might even sustain a volume of poetry.

In this brief note I will indicate why I am especially taken by the originality and subtle power of three poems. The first introduces several poems with the title “Book I will not write.” The poems could be prose poems since the endings of lines all align with a right-hand margin, but there is too much regularity in the syllable count and in the play of monosyllabic and multi-syllabic words to treat these texts as in any sense as prose. Perhaps this ambiguity extends to another, based characteristically on grammar: is this title a prediction or a decision, a sign of pathos or self-determination? The great term of self-assertion, “will,” is also a disturbing predictor that, once again, the self is determined by forces that reduce it to an epiphenomenon. Reading Gregory becomes an object lesson in how our language itself mimes (or perhaps creates) our fundamental confusions about what we can control and what controls us. The Structuralists developed this theme; Gregory puts it to work in ways that develop both ends—the willed and the imposed, and the difficulty of telling the difference between them.)

I think the opening version of this motif is the most interesting because of what Gregory makes of how such self-divisions constitute affective conditions:

This is the book I must and know how to write because

and therefore it helps you. Music to your ears, if you

will. Music made of the music your ears make from

what reaches them. We are made close that way, ear to

ear. In this book you come to see in what use we make

of language, everyday “I don’t know” and “you know”

are identical. This is a book of petty kindnesses, neither

endearing nor ingratiating. In essence, even after this

book   you   are   alone. The   kindnesses   are   just

propositions, one a promise that if I have powers and go

deaf you will only maybe become mute. If in this

book I am a monster, what you get is the benefit of

leaving it and going on to look like what you’ve been

through rather than what you are in.  (4)

To think of a book is to think about possible dialogue between author and reader. To think of a book you will not write is to confuse author and reader, since one must justify this “decision” through internal dialogue. For Gregory this dialogue gets quite complex: the proposed reader of this non-book takes on intense imaginative reality just because that person will only exist in the imagination, sharing the needs of the author who also dwells on imaginary powers that may afford the poem’s deepest sense of reality. I love three aspects of this poem. First there is the extraordinarily intricate enjambment that I suspect is based on a syllabic count, but I do not understand the principles involved. What I do recognize here is the terrific pressure on monosyllables as building blocks of the line and the language. It is as if “the book I will not write” permits control over the language on a more elemental level than if one were trying to write the book. For then one would be locked into self-protection and fear of judgment. And perhaps monosyllables are the only way to avoid how syllables combine to become my enemies.  Then there is the internal semantic sequence in the first half of the poem, where what narrative the situation allows is built on the transferential power of repeated simple operatives (like “music,” “ears,” and especially versions of “make”) to enact the strangely generous yet aggressive stance the poem takes toward “you.” No more saccharine second persons, and so no more hiding of the self-division inherent in the imaginative effort it takes for “I” to work out the dependencies that make it so wary of that second person.

Finally there is the imaginative scope and freshness and complexity of this last sentence. What is the benefit of leaving this book “and going on to look like what you have been through, rather than what you are in”? I suspect that to look like what you are in, when this poem is imposed upon you (making the author a monster), would be to change appearances constantly. When you are in the poem I will not write, you have no recourse to any separate or stable identity—ever. You are only a figment of my imagination that I want to reject.  (What a great way to imagine punishing others, although it also involves punishing the self by dwelling in what will give no substance in actual accomplishment!) But looking like what one has been through is a badge of accomplishment. The past now gives substance to the self. And more importantly, the self would emerge in real time, perhaps capable of developing her own intentions to write a book actually coming to terms with its vulnerabilities (and aggressions toward this author).

A second, frequently repeated mode in the book involves titles that are quasi-palindromes (like the title of the volume). “Monster Demonstrate” is concise enough to quote entirely:

“To show the handled, what is the handled, I had planned to dig up the deep

entwinement and use the rope, once untangled, to guide us.  I’ve but discovered

money and misfortune, whose mode is the abscess I found at the point at which I

thought I’d find the point at which monster, a demonstration, and a demon conjoin

or build a triangle in which to contain a mild invocation, after the fashion of a

powerful dictionary. Only a diagram could undo the horrible truth that it goes

like: warnings’ spirits’ showings.  Surety, near future, my limits are withering leaky

but not unbinding. I was given hope by the modal, but we could only use the

etymology of money to triangulate their location, at which point you hated me

for the just unveiling of more surveillance.”

It should go without saying that I do not understand this poem. The best I can hope for without the help of other critics is to begin to share its senses of entanglement and to identify provisionally with how the writer manages to have a human presence emerge out of a necessary self-protective indirection. The poem seems forced to ask “What becomes of any dream of authenticity in a world where finding one’s way seems blocked by diverse forces.”  To seek increased powers of agency is to risk finding oneself even more impotent than one had thought. And to pursue the point is to risk encountering an “ abscess” at the core of possibility. No wonder the poem maintains such distance from the “I,” who seems to accept the distance as a precondition of learning sheerly abstract modes of location. What else can “you” do but intensify the hatred for the speaker’s “just unveiling of more surveillance.” The speaker is right, and the speaker finds minimal ways to characterize that unveiling. Yet every achievement by the speaker is a blow to “you,” who has to accept not only the surveillance, but also another person’s authority in pointing it out. This hatred of the reader circulates where modal possibility might be because “you” presumably knows that she already hates herself for both knowing and pursuing the hopeless task of understanding what she knows. I think Gregory’s intricate lyric psychology not only recalls T.S. Eliot, but also extends his sensibility by way of Gertrude Stein into conditions of lacking control undreamt of even in Eliot’s worst nightmares.

This interplay of effort and paralysis runs through the volume. It might be most complexly addressed in a little poem that follows the collection’s acknowledgments page as an unstated because un-stateable “afterword.” This seems the only hope that there can be abstract measures of cognition called for by “Monster Demonstrate.” The poem is titled “Document,” in part because the hope that poetry might be an effective cognitive instrument seems by the end of the book sheer illusion, perhaps even useful illusion since if poetry could bear knowledge, audiences would shift from indifference to hatred at stirring hope for change:

1                                       0                                  -1

now                                when                             then


for                                    to                                 from


about                              around                            away


of                                    of                                      of


this                                  as


above                              in                                    below


here                            where                               there


as                                  as                                   that


begin                         before                                beyond


I                                   II                                        III

I assume that position +1 is our old friend the domain of modal possibilities. O is the sensibility characteristic of orientations toward action in the immediacy of present tense experience; and -1 is the position of “my enemy,” the otherness within that constantly breeds doubt and despondency. One could treat these as three kinds of character. But I prefer to see the grid as representing three sets of grammatical expectations that characters move through. What for the hopeful and eager self is the “now” of the present tense becomes, for the realist transactional self, the fundamental orientation toward narrative, relating both to past and future. The place of despondency knows only remoteness, or aspects of the past and the future where there are only traces of anything so satisfying as “now.” I think “of” is repeated in all three states because there are three distinct versions of that preposition—the hope for participation, the fact of both possession and dependency, and the horrible reality of being owned by others—other persons and habits or dispositions that always declare power over us. Also worth noticing is why “as” is the only connective phase repeated twice. The first time “as” is a mode of judgment, the power of simile or what I call aspectual thinking, contrasted to the dream of “this” as the power of accurate naming, for which despondency has no figure. The second “as” is probably a figure for how we experience time. The same word has three different modes of impact. “As” can confirm desire; it can note similarities and equivalences in our modes of experience; and it can be a constant reminder that everything we posit can at best produce mere likeness and no accurate representation.

The crucial feature of the poem is how attitudes can be summarized in sets of adverbs and prepositions that define as much of human behavior as any depth psychology. This is what it means to have expectations and be active. And this grammatical possibility is all that it takes to feel (or to render feeling in an impersonal mode). After the theatrics by which criticism and philosophy introduced feeling as a major way of humanizing and complicating experience, Gregory shows how elemental feeling is, and perhaps how disappointing are both the feelings themselves and the people who make a big deal out of them. “Document” documents how we are bound to the world, and thus are trapped in time. What begins as a structural map of three orientations toward the world that coexist as possibilities morphs, in the end, into narrative sequence, where -1 seems always to get the last preposition.


— Charles Altieri, UC Berkeley

One Comment

  1. linda levine
    October 25, 2013

    Well done, Jane Gregory. I look forward to reading more and attending a reading.