LYRIC REFLECTIONS Geraldine Clarkson “His Wife in the Corner”

from MONICA’S OVERCOAT OF FLESH (Nine Arches Press 2020)


Lyric deserves more critical attention. It is clearly the genre of the moment.

On reflection, a great lyric embodies the experience of threshold, or attention to transitions within an aesthetic (open) whole of poetry. Minor as it presents itself, His Wife in the Corner presents multiple thresholds that comprise the poem’s dynamic. Thresholds include aspects of the poem’s voice— present, past, self and other; temporal frame (then, now, and a narrative past —that vodka bottle); and attitudes or aspects, distinguishable here in terms of the points of view of the poet as prismatic for man, woman, and (inner?) child. Not to mention the fang-dang urgent message.

The concept of threshold helps us with the old idol unity. There’s a heterogeneity to lyric that defeats the expectation, nay hope, of perfectly expressive communication. But the plurivocity of lyric also defeats the cop-out of nihilism. The self or suchness of the poem, however complex, selves, to paraphrase Hopkins, and that movement, as articulated by the thresholds, is a matter not of determinate knowledge of, say, certain modes of self-consciousness, but of finesse, even of desire.

Some readers will detect in the complexity of His Wife in the Corner a blank from which to settle the scores between the parties. For example, confronting the most obvious option, in what sense is this a “feminist” poem? Indeed, ask that question of the whole book. Or try this: does this poem, this book, assume an authorial point of view inseparable from Christianity?

One final point: The concept of Threshold, indebted to the ultimate notion of plurivocal wholeness, seems to keep the given poem open to the reader’s own “selving.” However we frame it, Clarkson’s poem recapitulates the art of lyric as practicable in light of post-Romantic developments. I like to think of it this way: in light of contemporary debates, the lyric has a dog in the fight with nihilism, boredom, anti-intellectualism, and other popular diversions. For the critical reader, it’s an exciting thing to see. We seem to be in a revival of lyric. Lyric may be the genre par excellence of reflection on limits of our ability to express ourselves satisfactorily.

Experience vs. Narrative

The diachronic study of mysticism turns on an appreciation of the deforming power of William James’s norm of intense personal experience. Deforming, that is, with respect to a different ‘earlier’ kind of mysticism—relevant to the lives of innumerable ‘mystics’ like Julian of Norwich (see Julian of Norwich, Theologian, by Denys Turner).

I think that episode in intellectual history sheds light on the study of poetic form. Usually poems are valued in terms of deep personal immanence. Poems showcase ‘states of mind,’ a belief which encourages a hermeneutics of pathology. This may help explain the endgame of our current habit of apocalyptics.

But if we accept the distinction between Jamesian ‘experience’ and ‘narrative’ (as our principle of emergent form requires), a paradigm shift occurs. Others become the locus of the logos, their stories inseparable from the grammars of the time and the place. “Another fine day tomorrow, she drawled, headlocking a memory” (last line of ‘Muzzy McIntyre’ by Geraldine Clarkson). As function of narrative, poetic style expresses complex values —-humor as well as dead seriousness as here. ‘Tone’ as topic is considerably refined as polyphony or the mix of voices emergent from the narrative.