Electrical Theories of Femininity
Poetry by Sarah Mangold
Black Radish Books, 2015
The first title of this collection - “I meant to be transparent” - put a smile on my face. One thing Sarah Mangold is not is transparent. I refer, of course, to the actual Sarah, the flesh and blood Sarah, the Sarah who constructed these poems. The Sarah whose devotion to the written word is so profound that she brings in an entire community to share it with her as she herself remains behind the curtain. This is among the most ego-less writing I’ve seen.
Mangold is a master of the collage form. Her poems are pure constructions with virtually no subjectivity whatever at their center. One senses her presence as a guiding principle, but it’s an invisible, not a transparent vector of personhood. Mangold writes very much in the vein of a contemporary Mallarmé. The work is based entirely on the life of words and phrases resonating with one another, fragments in drifting, aleatoric collision à la Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard (“A Throw of the Dice will not Abolish Chance”). Mangold’s poems are non-linear mosaics, verbal fragments pieced together in delicate convocation.
For convocation is precisely what they are, different voices from the literary world convened in a chorus of scissored calculus, exploring the sentence and its parameters, occurrences, absorptions, shifts and changes and the space between fragments, the pluridimensionality of different values in diverse lighting. The lines do not call attention to themselves as linear communications; rather, they refocus attention on the space the reader must fill and cross in viewing the lines as volatile combinations, an associational errancy in a state of becoming, aided by the reader’s ability to forge intertextual relationships according to the author’s poetic manipulation of space and elements of design.
Whereas Mallarmé’s “Throw of the Dice” has an evident allegorical element overriding its production in which the dispersed lines evoke the tumultuous waves of a storm at sea, the layout reinforcing the rising and falling motion of the sea waves and bobbing fragments, the loss of meaning threatened by the inherent navigational problems, the spirit overriding Mangold’s poems is one of femininity. Gaston Bachelard identified the spirit of reverie in poetry as essentially feminine in that it is essentially non-utilitarian. Mangold’s collages are pre-eminently non-utilitarian; her constellations invite multiple meanings and forms, a recognition that poetry is ill-suited to carry conviction beyond the sphere of the mutable. The Ondine comes to mind, elemental beings associated with water, first named in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus, and which are generally found in forest pools and waterfalls. Mercurial and elusive, their beautiful singing voices are sometimes heard over the sound of water.
There are three sections in this collection and an appendix which carefully lists the source texts for Mangold’s collage poems. “The Panic of the Multiple Narrative World,” which appears as the first poem in the third section, evokes the spirits of Whitman and Lincoln. Here is the poem in its entirety:
Whitman & Lincoln authorized all my
responsibilities. Two volumes of trauma classroom
a custodian of their hopes. Janitors all aims. Finding
these post national backgrounds new bandages. The
archival madness becomes apparent at this point.
everything that belonged to the lived space. All the
19th century is deeply unrealized. There are certain
writers I can’t think about.
Your eye otherwise
Sound is important.
Sound is successful.
What you do is extend that space.
Add beats within it.
Skirt the work.
Meaningless is a form of meaning. Beauty is
Unavoidable. Salvation is totalizing but salvage is
Pulled and put back into your heart.
There are a lot of intriguing lines here. Which ones belong to Mangold and which have been taken from another source I do not know. Collectively, they hold the breath of a secret, a coition of words and things that propose a lush garden where one is free from assertions and in which “meaninglessness is a form of meaning.”
But I’m intrigued: I want to know what she means by “All the 19th century is deeply unrealized.” Is she referring to the western ideals of that century, the beginnings of Marxism, the literary and political achievements of figures such as Whitman and Lincoln mentioned at the outset, Mallarmé’s metaphysical crisis, the basic unresolved and unresolvable paradox of the human condition, which is to be perpetually hovering between absence and presence, being and nothingness, life and death? Who are the writers the author can’t think about? What is it to not be able to think about certain writers? I have deep, unresolvable conflicts with writers such as Martin Heidegger, Ezra Pound and E.M. Cioran, chiefly because of their affiliations with the Nazi regime. It’s not easy for me to reject them because their creative work is so powerful and influential. I have to separate the art from the artist, the philosophy from the philosopher. Is that what’s occurring here? Is it a crisis of conscience? Oftentimes, just to have these questions provoked in me is its own satisfaction, troubling as it is. What is of relevance is the way this poem has been structured. By arranging lines in non-linear, paratactic settings, Mangold alters their utilitarian function. The words cease to be reproductions which imitate appearance and so reflect experience in that one-dimensional framework; instead, the words become objects, things, essential matter; they don’t imitate experience, they initiate experience.
I particularly like her play on ‘salvation’ and ‘salvage.’ Salvation has strong religious applications, and is generally accompanied by scripture and its “totalizing” dogma. Salvage is pragmatic: that which is slated for demolition is redeemed, repaired, reacquisitioned. There is no dogma, only an effort to preserve, protect from destruction.
In “The Machine Has Not Destroyed the Promise,” Mangold remarks “If motion caused a disagreement of any kind we are regarding the same universe but have arranged it different spaces. That is to be the understanding between us.” Flux is the underlying principle of Mangold’s art. Collage serves her purposes because its elements are reflective of time and space as simultaneities of phenomena contingent upon observable events. Space is supple. No two events will be experienced the same if they’re viewed from different locations.
In his essay “Nature, Abstraction, Time,” Octavio Paz makes some points about modernist art that are pertinent within this context. “Presence is not only what we see: André Breton speaks of the ‘inner model,’ meaning that ghost that haunts our nights, that secret presence that is proof of the otherness of the world…Presence is the cipher of the world, the cipher of being. It is also the scar, the trace of the temporal wound: it is the instant, instants. It is meaning pointing to the object designated, an object desired and never quite attained… Meaning lies elsewhere: always a few steps farther on.”