Jeffrey Pethybridge—Striven, the Bright Treatise
Page Length: 194
A reality of the postmodern milieu is that a work must be understood not only by what it does but also by what it cannot possibly do. Language, we know, is a flawed and failing vehicle, always falling short of the nonverbal reality toward which it might be directed. Poetry, then, as a radical engagement with language, is a radical, perpetual experiment in failure.
Jeffrey Pethybridge’s debut collection Striven, the Bright Treatise (Noemi 2013) is a monumental failure, but not on account of its brilliant machinery—rather, it fails because it must—because it seeks, quixotically, in Sisyphean adamance, to confront an impossible subject: the suicide of Pethybridge’s brother in 2007. Striven is mourning: a ritual toward acceptance—a stay against the effacement of history.
In the book’s Appendix we find a eulogy dated 3/17/07. It begins:
“We are speaking and praying today less in order to say something, than to assure ourselves with the human voice that we are together in the same thought and feeling. We all know with what difficulty one finds the right words when faced with this moment, when all the common usages of speech seem either inadequate or vain. Although speaking justly is impossible, but so too, would be silence, or absence, or some other refusal to share one’s sadness, for the work of mourning—and it is a particular kind of labor—requires bringing an end to the stupefying pain of this loss.”
This statement can be understood as an articulation of the book’s project: to enact “a particular kind of labor” which seeks to confront loss beyond description. When words fail, to what can the poet turn for stability—for location—except form? Striven is a necessarily obsessive book, and what it lacks in topical range it exudes in formal ingenuity. This is not merely a collection of poems, it is an art book: a visual and tactile experience that pushes the limits of reading, and in so doing takes seriously (and as opportunity) the materiality of language.
“The melancholy science being now sovereign
Science the now sovereign melancholy being
Being now melancholy silence the sovereign
Silence the now sovereign melancholy being
Now sovereign begin the melancholy silence
Melancholy silence being the sovereign now”
(“The Chronicle of the King of the Lonely Grave”)
Pethybridge’s syntactic gymnastics subtly negotiate meaning, and in so doing nudge the reader into the interstices between language and that toward which language points (truth? reality? understanding?), which always eludes rational grasp. In the tradition of the avant-garde (and Oulipo in particular) Striven features a fleet of poems physically constrained by anagrams and visual arrangements reminiscent of Apollinaire’s Calligrams, the most remarkable of which is a fold-out poem in the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge. This poem (titled “Striven, the Bright Treatise, being a vocabulary for Tad Steven Pethybridge (1962-2007)”) utilizes only the letters found in Pethybridge’s late brother’s name.
This formal strategy—combining anagrammatic transposition with concrete/visual symbolism—is also present in “The Book of Lamps, being a psalm-book,” a serial poem that cuts into and out of the larger schema of the collection. “The Book of Lamps,” to quote the book’s Notes, “is composed of 128 lines, one for each of the 128 light poles on the Golden Gate Bridge.” It is presented in bursts of octaves sprinkled throughout the larger manuscript in sets of four, and makes use of the anagrams “palms,” “psalm,” and “lamps.” In taking form literally, Pethybridge attempts to construct objects against meaninglessness.
“Against the tide of definition, custom, ecclesiastical law, against the crown, against
the book, against the slanders written in self-homicide, self-murder,
against the slanders written in felo de se, against
even the bloody-minded warrior-cults, with their gorgeous Valkyries bearing the
reckless, cut-down bodies of heroes to Valhalla, that keg-rich heaven,
that would slander the lonely and exiled woman…
We wrote—operas, odes and propaganda, the usual fare—for the Griffin, what could
we do, we were defeated, and politically humiliated, we thought too
much, we were black-comedians happy that we weren’t widows, or
orphans, or amputees waiting for machine-limbs. ‘You there, poet’
the Griffin purred, ‘sing me a song.’ And because there should be no
war much less civil war, which is rightly called political suicide, I did.”
In “Against Suicide,” Pethybridge offers a litany of strophes that work against suicide. This is a means of resistance—being against something in the political sense. But the preposition here also enacts a physical metaphor: these poems are written against suicide in the way that a painter paints against a canvas—against the blank, silent void, the artist makes meaning. Against suicide, Pethybridge constructs extravagant machines that do the work of mourning: the necessary, “particular kind of labor” in the book’s Appendix. Against suicide Pethybridge offers excess: an excess of intellects and emotions, of perspectives and narratives, of words and forms. This excess is enacted formally with a series of pages blackened entirely with ink, which are often used to separate sections in the book. These black pages, in the 17th century tradition of “mourning pages” in which the printer pours out an excess of ink to honor the dead, are the opposite of the empty canvas, the void—the difficulty of their “understanding” rests not in what they lack but in their overwhelming presence: these pages say so much—too much—at once—that individual words and letters cannot be extracted from the whole to which they belong. This is the grief of abundance—and gratitude—which is also beyond words.
Against suicide Pethybridge not only paints in forms but in data.
“Radically insufficient: at the root,
incapable of making—the material
and sensuous forms of care and sense life
demands. And what really makes for
sufficient preparation for death? My own
practice consists, thus far, of some
training in research, a dull hope
in ascent through research, therefore,
the habit of reading, therefore
the habitat of schools, cafes, museums,
libraries trains etc.”
(“Written in Grease-Pencil on a Large Mirror”)
While there are passages of Striven imbued with incredibly moving emotional exposure, there is also a prominent intellectual apparatus that seeks to approach suicide in its philosophical, theological, sociological and political contexts. Accordingly, we encounter authorities as towering and varied as Dante, Milton, Camus, Augustine, Eliot, Durkheim, Deleuze, Cesaire, Zukofsky, Donne, Arendt, Sophocles, Lacan, Stein, Plato, Seneca, Homer, Virgil and Catullus. In all of this we see that language’s wrestling with meaning is inextricably involved in the mind’s impossible task of understanding. Against suicide Pethybridge positions an army of intellects, and in this opposition research becomes a grasping after knowledge suffused with apposite desperation, and its findings (and failings) produce a field of mourning that is experienced collectively. In this, Pethybridge calls attention to the public problem of suicide, and in so doing elevates private mourning into something that can be engaged collectively. This is ultimately the goal of any elegy: to create a symbolic structure that allows the individual or community to remember and encounter the dead, and thereby resolve the metaphysical tension between life and oblivion both for the lost and the living. In the eulogy in the Appendix, Pethybridge writes, “I want desperately to keep hearing him talk about songs.” Striven’s anagrammatic techniques quite literally build his brother into a poetics that takes seriously its presence as music. Time and again we are reminded that we are bodies, and that poems are bodies with singing parts. If the mind is wounded in its metaphysical wrestling, the body—the spirit—the human—is healed and held together in necessary song.
Bradley Harrison is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers and a PhD student at the University of Missouri. His work can be found in New American Writing, Fugue, New Orleans Review, Forklift Ohio, Best New Poets 2012, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Diorama of a People, Burning, is available from Ricochet Editions (2012).