‘I’m useless at this’. (69)
The following are rough notes towards an essay on Scott Thurston's Reverses Hearts Reassembly (2011). They are currently incomplete, but should be read alongside another post soon to appear on his more recent Figure Detached
My initial reaction to Scott Thurston’s Reverse Hearts Reassembly (2011) is fear. Not just fear, but Chorophobia, which is the technical term for ‘a fear of dancing’. I don’t dance. I never have done. For someone like me – over six feet tall with two size twelve feet – that might not be surprising either. What is dancing anyway? Is it a formal arrangement like the Cha Cha Cha ,or is it a classical spectacle like The Nutcracker? In all honesty, this last one correlates most directly with my own experience. My only recollection of dancing, in other words, is watching others do it. Whether standing awkwardly by the speakers at the school disco, or perching gawkily in a nightclub in later life the result has always been an extreme self-consciousness. Dancing makes me feel awkward. More than this, it scares me half to death. But after (belatedly) reading Thurston’s text I realize that this is the necessary point of embarkation. Unless you happen to be Fred Astaire what other response can there be? My hyper-masculine aversion to the contents of Scott’s poem is the perfect place to begin. Chorophobia, after all, is closely linked to Haphephobia and Aphephobia: the fear of being touched. The fear of dancing is the fear of hospitality. It is a fear of the Other. The fear of alterity itself. Thurston is drawing me in to a conversation I wouldn’t otherwise have. That’s why I read poetry. This is surely one of the things ‘poems’ are for. Moreover, the form of dance Thurston is writing of here is a very specific kind. Firstly, because it isn’t actually a form as such. By which I mean Gabriel Roth’s Five Rhythms – the dance Thurston’s sequence is based on – is not the Tango, the Rhumba or any other specific form. Secondly, what is being described here isn’t just a spectacle either. We will never tune in, in other words, to see a performance. It might be more accurately described as a physical state of being. Someplace mind and movement have developed a form of reciprocity, whereby one counteracts the negative effects of the other in collaboration with another person.
As Roth explains on the Five Rhythms website:
Each of us is a moving centre, a space of divine mystery. And though we spend most of our time in the daily details of ordinary existence, most of us hunger to connect with the space within, to break through to bliss, to be swept away into something other than us.
In dancing we lose ourselves. Or rather, in dancing we lose that bit of ourselves that causes the most pain and tribulation. Dancing displaces the ego, and in the case of the Five Rhythms it is meant to expose us to something other than ourselves. So, if we are focusing purely on Thurston’s poem, it doesn’t matter what you think of the dance itself, as long as you accept this central premise. ‘It doesn’t matter where we come from or how we grew up or whether we can or can’t dance’, the website further explains, ‘movement is medicine, and whether we feel clumsy or graceful it heals us’. What I will describe in what follows is my own initial encounter with Thurston’s text, especially as it comes to me from a place of my own vulnerability. By exposing myself to Thurston’s writing – by reading – I will make some initial observations that I hope to expand on in relation to Thurston’s more recent work. Consider this a beginning, as I awkwardly shuffle along to some of these emerging themes. Please forgive my lack of rhythm, I’m still learning.
There is a tradition of dance in poetry, a tradition that I will not go into during this initial foray. Sketching a brief outline, however, it could be said to begin with writers like Mallarme and then later be developed in the work of Yeats, Eliot and H.D. to name just a few ‘major’ figures. Such engagement – as far as my brief enquiries can unearth – start in a completely different place than Thurston. In his Four Quartets, for example, Eliot saw dance as an effective means of achieving the heightened state of a ‘still point’ in ‘the turning world’. Funnily enough it is here that Thurston’s text also begins. Not at the ‘still point’ as Eliot would have it, but with the impulse to ‘turn in the turning world’ (8). This will become a foundational phrase for what follows, and I will come back to it shortly. For Eliot dance was never a collaborative activity (as it so clearly is for Thurston) but a means of achieving individual transcendence, something Susan Jones has linked to the ‘modernist sublime’. ‘[Eliot] equates the activity of dance with a finely poised equilibrium of psychological and intellectual states’, writes Jones, ‘that most closely resembles the modernist sublime he gestured toward throughout his poetry’. For Eliot – at least as Dharmachari Varagho has it – ‘[this] still point is about self-expression, communication’, and consequently ‘notions of integrity and self-awareness’. This would be in direct opposition to a poetics like Thurston’s who seems to be informed by something else altogether. What I love about Reverse Heart’s Reassembly is the way in which it foregrounds cooperation as a necessary part of poetic practice. Dancing is a valid activity, to this writer, because it engages other people in a similar manner to the way writing should. This is against the ego and towards an exteriority that threatens to expose it to something more. Dancing, like writing, is about concentration, whereby something emerges outside of the self. ‘Will I turn verse’, writes Scott, ‘into a bold praise-making record of solid things’ (43). Writing, inevitably, includes such characteristics, but it can also contain elements of so much more. ‘Trying to inhabit ego so strongly’, the poet writes again, ‘so that it changes into something else’ (37).
This kind of perspective reminds me of a (now out of print) text that I subsumed into my own research quite a few years ago now: The Poetry of Saying (2005) by Robert Sheppard. In that text Sheppard identifies an alternative tradition in British poetry much in line with Levinasian theory and a distinction that theorist draws between ‘the saying’ and ‘the said’ Put as simply as possible this marks the difference between an formally open poetic discourse and one that is more ‘closed’ in ambition. One that might be described ‘a bold praise-making record of solid things’. As Shepherd writes on the sociality of the poem:
‘There is a clear difference here between a practice that sees a social dimension for poetry embedded in its artifice, and a poetry that has as its chief dimension mimesis of a recognizable social world. The implication of the former position is at once more radical and more general: no poem is more ‘social’ then any other since all poems are social facts open to social comprehension (or even completion in the case of open works). Indeed, all utterances are social in this sense. The accessibility of an utterance is not a determinant of its sociality. A mathematical formula that is understood only by three experts is no less dialogic than the TV sports news watched by millions (7).
Thurston’s poem, then, takes that boy (or man) perched on the speakers and throws him onto the dancefloor whether he likes it or not. This is not to position Thurston as a bulling Tony Manero figure, but someone engaged with writing in its most undeniably social dimensions. Throughout Reverses Hearts Reassembly there is reference to Martin Buber but it is Levinas that immediately comes to mind. This is mainly due to my own familiarity with Levinas, but I also think it makes sense in terms of Sheppard’s criticism above. Through writing we reject the autonomous subject rooted in a firm idea of him or herself, or a person seeking to directly convey their ‘experience’, and expose ourselves to something more. The Five Rhythms is vital to Scott’s poem, firstly, because it is a dance that doesn’t have anything other than a very loose form. But, secondly, because it divulges a sociality that is the essence of language itself. ‘It is the site and performance of ethics because of the obligation to respond’, writes Shepherd, ‘it is public, yet it does not communicate anything but the desire to communicate’ (12).
The Five Rhythms encapsulates ‘the saying’ because, as Thurston puts it, in dancing it we ‘risk getting smashed’ (17). This is fundamental to the poet’s method, and where the transformative power of the language can be isolated. In section three of his text ‘Knowledge’, for instance, we are confronted with the following arrangement:
in the working world taken out of breath
he took my pay away from the sun
paid it back to me entered the world
stood on it asking where is your relation
what place is there in me to which
you can come if I exist in you
I call upon you to come to me
take me over again and again (27)
For me this is the most indicative section of the poem itself, because it foregrounds a fundamental interactive choice. It also pitches writing as either straight verticality, or something exposed to an exteriority outside of itself. Taking the first section as just a singular left hand column, for instance, we are presented with a subject in the everyday ‘working world’ complaining about what has been taken from him. This isn’t anything like hospitality, but a palpable ‘meanness’ instead. ‘He took my pay’, writes Thurston, [and] paid it back to me’. This is no ‘relation’, or hospitality, when something is expected in return. ‘You can come if I call upon you’, continues the poet, extending the invitation only to someone who is invited. ‘I call upon you to take me over’, demands the final line, in a similar manner. But if we read the same section horizontally we are reminded of alternative possibilities. ‘You can come if/ I exist in you’ the poem now reads, ‘take me over/ again and again’.