amongst books

amongst books

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Wander Through Liminality in Poetry

I pack a large bottle of water. My cell phone is charged.
I am ready to step into the elevator. If I am trapped I will
dial 911. If I am trapped I will sing. If I am trapped I will
take deep breaths. I will try to breathe. First the sound
of metal upon metal grinding. Will the cables snap. Will
the elevator car lose its grounding & shake us like rag dolls.
I am a rag doll. Every day I feel it. A dog can pick me up
& carry me away in its jowls.

[Fear of Elevators, 2012]

In his article "Thresholds and Liminality," Dr. J. Michael Stitt tells us that Limin is Latin for threshold or doorway. Liminality is a threshold period or a time of waiting. I think elevators, escalators and revolving doors are liminal urban spaces. They represent a period of non activity in our lives. We are simply waiting to pass from one realm into another. We are in limbo.

Perhaps then even fear itself represents a kind of liminality in its anticipation of what could go wrong. there's a stillness, a kind of waiting, we are on hold until the inevitable happens. we always have a packed suitcase on hand, should we need, suddenly, to flee.
Googling around to find instances of liminality in literature, I came across this very lovely blog, which explores " the fragile borders between landscape and people. Of architecture, cities, geography, maps, mythology, drifting, perambulation, wanderlust, deep topography, psychogeography, the creative spirit and the environment." I like the idea of liminality representing the concept of borders. There are posts about snow, the river & Ballardian space, which if I understand is a kind of fusion between past & present memories…There are references in the blog to Ulysses' wanderings, Ben Jonsons' poetry etc.

Another blog makes me think about liminality as a form of stillness or rather, stillness as a form of liminality: Shawna Lemay's Calm Things which offers still life photographs of dried flowers, & frost on fences, food not yet eaten, the play of light and shadow in a room. The quote on the day I looked at the site comes from a poem by Galway Kinnel called "Saint Francis and the Sow": "The bud/stands for all things,/even for those things that don’t flower,"

Off the top of my head, I can think of other poets who work with liminal spaces. Sandra
Ridley' in Post-Apothecary about a woman who is ill & confined to her bed. she thinks of
the dark and the woods and the outside. sometimes the outside takes on a malevolent
potential, but all of this is within her imagination.

Writers, such as Anne Carson & Nathanaƫl, who blend or blur genre lines come to mind
as possible practitioners of liminality, if one can practice it like it's a religion or a violin.
Liminality is also seen as a transformation from one state to another. Just another way
of restating the above, I guess, but the idea of transformation seems to add a new idea.
In this article, Liminality in Literature by Sarah Scott , the author talks about speculative fiction as a genre with liminal beings such as werewolves etc. I can't think of too many contemporary poems where
such a literal transformation appears. Dennis Cooley's Seeing Red (Turnstone Press, 2003), a re-imagining of Dracula, comes to mind, but there are less literal transformations in poetry. Transformations from one state to another.

To fall is a downward movement
that stops breath [Nathalie Stephens'
paraphrase from At Alberta].
Elevators are liminal. Neither here
nor there, but somewhere in
between. To pass each floor is to pass
residents in the process of being
alive: cleaning floors, baking a cake,
making love, talking on the phone.
While the elevator redraws its
vertical line over & over, the
building's inhabitants reach
outward. Elevator riders fall into the
middle of what has already been
going on before they arrive.

[Fear of Elevators, 2012]

Jane Hirshfield suggests that writers ourselves must be liminal to maintain openness. In this case, liminal seems to mean fluid, changeable.

Given the preceding thoughts, the dream state also seems to be a state of liminality. The dreamer is in an unreal world of dreams where anything could happen but also lying in her bed in the real world, a kind of hybrid. Dreams themselves are liminal in nature.

What about longing? Longing seems to be a liminal state to me. It's a state of waiting for something to happen, even if it never does.

Oana Avasilichioae's We, Beasts (Wolsak & Wynn, 2012) opens with The Distant Song, a song of longing. The whole book has a dream-like feel to it & includes liminal spaces & concepts such as shadows, borders, the activity of listening, half-opened hands, time displacement: this hourless hour, an uncertain heart, the outsider: the muse sits on a stoop, a valley between slippery rocks and creek where something is happening, tales of witches & wolfbats, transformations of caterpillars into butterflies, thresholds: a home knocks on the door of itself, a hybrid of multiple languages, wings, tears, personified natural elements such as dawn, the use of "about to," interiority, as an outsider element: the violet season turns interior, etc

Maybe poetry itself is liminal in that its status in society is often questioned, written by marginals, reprobates, those who live outside the bounds of mainstream convention. Contemporary poetry is often hybrid, often mixing formal constraints with experimentalism. See my favourite poetry anthology American Hybrid (Norton, 2009), edited by David Saint John & Cole Swensen . Contemporary poetry, thankfully, often escapes genre classification. It is neither one thing nor another, is a threshold, an entrance to the real or a return to the imagination.

This article talks about Aristotle's poetics, saying that poetry was placed separately from history & philosophy, thereby making it liminal. ‘The poet’s task is, Aristotle writes, to speak not what has happened really, but of what may have happened, i.e. of the necessary or possible as need might arise’. The poet is a kind of mediator between history & philosophy, between the real world & its possibilities.

A poem,
like trying
to remember,
is a movement
of the whole body.
You follow the
into more fog.
Maybe the door ahead
the facts
from natural affection. How
can I know. I meet
too many
in every mirror.

Rosemarie Waldrop, from section 1 of “The Ambition of Ghosts: I. Remembering to Sleep,” Another Language: Selected Poems (Talisman House Publishers, 1997) [found on Tumblr via LiteraryMiscellany

Also consulted:

Charles La Shure, Liminality, the space in between 

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