Emerging Poet: On Christina Mengert
"The Sound We Set to Fire"
I have a soft spot for witches, those women who were different, some no doubt malicious, many of them intelligent and knowledgeable. Reading about witch trials, I always thought, here, but for the grace of history, go I.
So when, some years ago, Keith Waldrop showed me a sequence of poems by Christina Mengert, each titled "Suffer a Witch to Live," I was immediately intrigued. Even more so when I learned that the title invoked and opposed the Old Testament law, do not suffer a witch to live. The poems were small, elliptical, elusive, and enchanting. But I would have been hard pressed to explain why they were marvelous—except for the clear widening of scope and meaning when the sixth poem is titled slightly differently: "Suffer to Live."
The cycle was published in Aufgabe 6. Mengert continued her moves across the country, from her native Georgia via Rhode Island to Denver (where she earned a Ph.D. in English/creative writing) and now on to New York State.
I have in front of me a manuscript titled As We Are Sung. It is in part a response to years of training as a vocalist. Mengert found herself wanting to explore in language what happens both in the body and in the mind when we go from speech to song: the seemingly simple transformation from I am speaking to I am singing. She also wanted to explore where exactly poetry fits on the continuum between these endpoints, between Zukofsky's "upper limit music" and "lower limit speech," wanted to track the "varying degrees" in which poetry "as movement and tone (rhythm and pitch) approaches the wordless art of music as a kind of mathematical limit."
This ambitious task is of course further complicated by the double nature of words, whose axes of concept and visual/auditory "body" intersect, but not at neat angles, the coordinates she set up for herself. Needless to say, there are no answers in this investigation except in the form of individual poems.
The poems set out to examine the subtle, the inaccessible, what is too fine for our senses, "the song that is sung between notes." We might say their element is air, the most intangible of the elements, though followed closely by fire (which Mengert "sets sounds to"): the fire of passion, eros, desire—including the desire to ink the unnoticeable into at least an inkling of possibility:
I've heard him call I've answered
who could tell these things apart.
Often the process seems "neither song nor / argument" but purely physical: "the extension / of the tongue into one's / butterflied body." A complicated image for the crucial role of language, to have the tongue become the entire body—and take wing. If we feel slightly uneasy about this fluttering off into the air because butterflied also reminds us of the butcher, the next lines show that this is fully intended:
agonize their unfurling
the body agonizes its
There is a restlessness in the poems. They move in abrupt shifts (sometimes humorous, as when a classical, high-toned invocation of the god of marriage, "O Hymen, Hymenaios," is followed by "ah, ah, thump!"—bridged, it is true, by the double-entendre of "I believe / you are coming"). It is as if the poems navigated ever changing and interpenetrating planes where you cannot stand still, where you are always between. Sometimes it seems the poems almost disperse; the words float off into a space as vast and indeterminate as that of Barbara Guest's poems. Mengert admires the way Guest's poems are "omni-located, not here or there, but here and there." And Mengert adds, "if it were possible to enact such a thing in my work I would want to do it."
Perhaps it is not music, not "the thing that fills the spaces between matter," not "the formal site of resistance." But it is an attempt. It is always "the year of one foot after the other and go." If not song, it certainly is singing: "that sound / we set to fire."
The whole of sound, like
the whole of thought we step into
and out of; it changes
or we change.
Though it may seem almost to dissolve, the poem, as Celan has said in Der Meridian, "constantly pulls itself back from an 'already-no-more' into a 'still-here.'" And "the poem holds its ground on its own margin"—a place where seeming emptiness can turn into a fullness of motion, potential, song, being. To end with Emily Dickinson: "though there is no Course, there is Boundlessness."