Murat Nemet-Nejat on "Skin"

An outtake from Murat Nemet-Nejat's review of Bill Berkson's Sudden Address, to be published in The Poetry Project Newsletter:

The history of the second half of 20th century art, from painting to poetry to photography to film to television to video and computer arts can be understood through an in-depth understanding (here is the first contradiction!) of the idea of skin; in other words, envisioning, speculating on a metaphysics of skin. On the one hand, there is the tautological impulse that the skin is just a skin, a surface, a piece of cardboard, etc., a reinforced surface of its material flatness, words are words. In this impulse, seemingly so proud of its material realism, reduced to its reductive extreme, a surprising transformation occurs. The skin dissolves, into a plethora of words, in a kind of radioactive decay. In this process, the internet is the medium without a skin, with no muscle tone. Kasey Mohammad, for instance, plucks docile words from the net, which do not scream or resist as they do in Dante’s Inferno, being pulled out of their specific locations, to create a parallel, flat (ironic!) surface of words. Starting with Clement Greenberg’s essays on the absoluteness (rather than the ambiguous materiality) of a flat surface to Conceptual Art, Mohammad’s poetry presents the apotheosis of this tautological impulse as the skin/canvas is transformed, swallowed totally through the passion of his art into the body of words. Of course, that passion, besides its religious overtones, has, due to the pure malleability of the canvas it embraces, the qualities of an inflatable doll. I do not mean by that the net by its very nature is only amenable to such treatment. For instance, the passion of Alan Sondheim’s art derives from his obsessive pursuit to make the net grow a skin, in his words, by a legerdemain of his imagination to make the digital become an analog. Looking at his images in the web, this critic at least is constantly forced to ask where do these images come from. His digital action figures create a dance which keeps their mysterious autonomy; they resist to be totally appropriated. I also avoided to use the word “flarf” because some flarf members practice an art the very reverse of Mohammad’s tautological poetry. For instance, in Gary Sullivan’s enchanting comics books series, Elsewhere I & 2, the visual field of the comic, arrived at slowly and painstakingly almost in real time (in Elsewhere II this takes the form of a walk down a Brooklyn Street full of store signs, reminiscent of a walk down a Manhattan street in a Frank O’Hara poem or a Rudy Burckhardt photograph) the skin of the visual field retains its autonomy, letting words out grudgingly. Sullivan must inscribe his own words over them (that is the significance of the comics form), creating two parallel texts where the eye, “the complexity of seeing and its motions in the visual field, has precedence over the ear, words, rather than the other way around. This primacy of the eye and its perceptual motion over the flat surface of a painting is also at the heart of Bill Berkson’s poetry, of the poetics implicit in Sudden Address.

In the collaborative internet novel Swoon also, Sullivan falls in love with Nada Gordon’s writing, addressing it through e-mails. Nada Gordon, the person behind the writing, responds to them resistantly. There are silences between e-mails. The novel is a dance through which Nada, gradually, reveals herself, finally, in a letter of her own tells of her dream of a sleek, beautiful tiger.


mark wallace said...

Actually, my sense is many of the words in Mohammad's Deer Head Nation are violent, screaming, and armed, as they say, "to the teeth." In this way it reminds me very much of another book which views American culture from an outside that is simultaneously partly inside, Linh Dinh's American Tatts. Both of them view American culture "in its own voice" with a fascinating semi-objectivity, creating a series of memorable takes on the language of American (as in U.S.) culture.

Murat said...


To me there is a huge difference between Deer Head Nation and American Tatts. There is despair, a great emotional depth underlying Am. Tatts and a lot of Linh's other work. On the other hand, what I see in Kasey's work -and I tried to see it differently- is "literature," in other words, cleverness.



mark wallace said...

We'll have to agree to disagree on this one, Murat. I don't see that to this point you've grounded your claim in any particular evidence from the texts in question, although I would certainly welcome the chance to read such a piece from you.

Still, I think it might be difficult to prove that the value of either text could be summed up in a single word. Having taught both books to students, I can say that many people find Linh's poems often very clever (my students are especially drawn to what they see as his sarcasm), and I certainly find them that way myself. And while I don't find despair in Kasey's book, I'm not sure I see that much of it in American Tatts either. Shock, horror, and outrage are more the words that come to mind for me relative to both books. There's a certain steely-eyed distance involved that seems to preclude despair, and even to struggle against it, although certainly Linh does more with the concept of character, although that's mainly because Kasey's focus is elsewhere.

With all best wishes for you and your projects--


Murat said...


I think with Linh our difference is to a certain extent semantic. "Shock, horror and outrage" to me are not that far from despair. Perhaps the more accurate word is melancholy.

Linh's book which I have at hand is "Borderless."Here is the second poem in the book:


Where bones always nudge
Against the fuzziest skin.
Where inside and outside
Are confused and flushed.

For me this four line poem has perfect pitch, beyond any cleverness. It knows, it tells so much both about the human body and borders. The poem reminds me of the metaphysicals -of course, the baroque (not sarcasm) age of radical melancholy, of the baroque theatre. By the way, radical melancholy is also the essence of 20th century Turkish poetry.

Here is another poem from the same book:

How It Is

The sun rises
Between your legs.
My name appears
Between your legs.
I kiss the ground
Between your legs.
I disappear
Between your legs.
I dare not look
Up at the sun
As it rises
Between your legs.

I will agree with you about the "steely-eyed" precision of Linh's language here, but where is the "distance"? Can Kasey conceivably write a poem like that?

I must say my view, and understanding, of Linh's poetry is strongly affected by a walk Linh and I took across Manhattan late one evening, his Cassandra-like despair about everything he looked at -he was seeing something no one else saw. The phrase he uttered I won't forget: "I'm losing it." I think it is that person writing those poems.

Here is a section from Kasey's "Puppy Craziness" in "Deer Head Nation":

what we all really need is love
in these horrendous times
in this toxic atmosphere
some believe this thing, some believe that
people here think they need a new car and new clothes
but we see that what we really need
is something adult
sinister and just a little bit dark
to raise our glasses to on that
the most unholy of nights
a freshly poured Guiness, an attentive lap dog

the dictionary defines common sense
I have no clue and if I did I would suck at it
we are asking for information that will give us
an intellectual understanding when what we all really need
is to be compassionately understood so this entire conversation
is pretty pointless because in my humble opinion
what we all really need is a laptop that is essentially instantly on
as soon as the clamshell is opened
what we need is a better corkscrew
go make one
what we need is a tool
which mechanically seals the bung with a ring
which greatly reduces human error during the bunging
operation and get some fiber running everywhere
and maybe a morning wake-up call
of the sort Lucy gave Charlie
a little verbal shock
treatment with a somersault

In the above passage I have a basic question: who does the pronoun "we" refer to? Does it refer to a specific or even ambiguous object -which I doubt- or is it an editorial "we"? To me, as a poet who thinks pronouns, the referential weaves they create among themselves, are among the sharpest scalpels in a poet's arsenal, the use of "we" in the passage is very lazy.

It seems to me its rhetorical function in the poem is to refer vaguely to a stupid multitude over which the sophisticated readers, in-the-know, can feel superior. Such a reader can, for instance, admire the cleverness of the image ""something adult sinister and just a little bit dark to raise our glasses to" turning into dark "Guiness" or the variations on the different -and slightly naught- meanings of the words "bung" and "bunging."

To be honest, I find that pronoun "we" seducing, to implicate me in a posture of alienation and superiority, offensive. As I said in my skin peace, it flattens "the horrendous times," the "toxic atmosphere." The image of a middle class whose main hope and function is to "buy a new cars and new clothes" is a myth that Bush -and the whole capitalist economic machine- wants us to believe. Kasey's poem is essentially reasserting that mythology under the literature guise that it is rebelling against it. As I said, that's why I find it offensive. (Being a tool of capitalism, was that not a charge against Clement Greenberg also?)

Linh's "Borderless Bodies" is also full of bung holes. If one wants to see the difference, one can just read the first few lines of "Assholes": "If I remember correctly, Bruce Chatmin/Declared the camel's to be the most elegant,/Over the cats's, horse's and human's./ I am no fan of the chicken's or the elephant's...." Here we are are in the Rabelaisian/Whitman's world of universal empathy, the reverse of Kasey's disdain.



mark wallace said...

Hi Murat:

Thanks for your detailed reply. My sense is that you and I differ on how to read the "we" in the passage you quote from Kasey.

It's certainly not one with which we are supposed to identify, as you seem to understand. But it doesn't either, I think, act as you suggest, which is simply as a description of some class of others. And yes, I think you are also meant to find it offensive, but not in the way that you suggest, which implies that the author doesn't understand what's offensive about it when he fact I'm sure he does.

Instead, it is the kind of language that is really quite broadly available in the shared media language of America--this language is both real and commonly borrowed by many people; it's not the unique language of individuals, but it's nonetheless everywhere. "what we all really need is love" is a line borrowed and changed slightly from the Beatles song "All You Need Is Love," of course, a song that a huge proportion of Americans know by heart, having heard it once or twice a week their whole lives. Its original context--again, a tune by the Beatles--has very little relation to how it operates, so trying to refer it to some defined speaker, as you seem to wish to do, is precisely what the vagueness of the "we" is intended to obfuscate.

Your complaint therefore that it obfuscates who the "we" is is correct, but you've missed the point of the social critique. You seem to believe that Kasey has been sloppy, when in fact the goal is to ask us to look at language of this kind and examine its limits. Kasey's point would not be to reassert the value of the middle class mythology you mention, but to point out that it is a message piped at us from multiple sources.

You seem to prefer the conventional lyrical voice of the Linh Dinh poem "How It Is." That's fine with me, as far as it goes. I like the poem too, although I may find more ironies in it than you do. It's pretty funny actually, considered in one way: all possibilities in the world are being dominated here by a male conception of the human sex drive, one that's vaguely macho and pornographic, into which the narrator has disappeared entirely. I'm not sure that's lovely as much as horrifying. I don't see a person "losing it" as the author of that poem, nor am I convinced we need to read it as the sincere expression of the author. I think that's not so clear. Even if it were the sincere expression of the author, a claim which I'm not sure you can make, I think I would not empathize with that author: too much of the world is already controlled by such male conceptions of sexuality. The voice is on some level (not every level) monstrous and therefore very much like the language in Deer Head Nation.

Ultimately, I feel that in your claims about these poems there's a kind of nostalgia, in which the world can be understood as being composed of a series of feeling, individual actors: companions speaking their love to each other in the mornings, individual people struggling with complex issues of life and death. There's even a kind of battlefield in the back of all this: one where two men face each other down, and we have to determine which, finally, has more possession of his own phrasing. It's a battlefield very much unlike our contemporary ones, where people kill each other from a great distance, often with little understanding of why. I don't believe that a world defined by this kind of nostalgic, individualistic longing really exists. I think large world-scale ideologies affect and alter all these local specifics.

I think our differences then come down to how we understand the workings of ideology in these quoted passages. Kasey is working with a condition of language that appalls you, yet you seem to believe that he is extending it, while it seems quite clearly to me not to be doing so. And seeing the Linh poem as sincere, and the solution, seems to me part of the problem.

I've enjoyed this exchange very much. Sadly, of course, the differences end up leading to a circumstance in which, from my point of view, you have positioned a potential ally like Kasey as an opponent, and in so doing have only furthered the alienation you seem to wish to do away with. I hope very much we can find another way to bridge those differences.

sa said...

What a fascinating exchange! I like much of what both of you say.

My response to the evaluations of K. S. Mohammad's work here would begin with a slight disagreement with Murat's initial description of Kasey's work. Murat writes that Kasey "plucks docile words from the net, which do not scream or resist as they do in Dante’s Inferno, being pulled out of their specific locations, to create a parallel, flat (ironic!) surface of words." I agree with all of this, except for the word "ironic". I would say rather that the flatness of the work, its lack of hierarchical organization of constituent word and phrases, challenges the reader to determine the work's tone and stance, and that there is not a consistent "ironic" stance to Kasey's poetry. His work often seems to me to be disturbingly accepting of the included materials, with no judgment on them whatsoever. So, in fact, the drama of the poems is in trying to decide when it is that the poems are being accepting versus when they are being ironic (the creation of irony is a form of judgment, perhaps the most passive-aggressive and indirect mode of judging, since it could so easily be missed). There is no consistent irony, there is no consistent judgment, in Kasey's work. There is sometimes judgment, clearly, and there are often calls for solidarity with the reader. Sometimes these are calls for solidarity in accepting and sometimes these are calls for solidarity in judging. But at the heart of the work's affect, for me, are those moments of undecidability, when I cannot surely determine the poem's stance. Those are the moments when the sense of unavoidable complicity with a wonderful but destructive culture become overwhelming.

I suspect there is a similar quality of undecideability in much of Lihn Dihn's work; however, Dihn's work seems, to me, very different from Kasey's in that the lines and phrases of Dihn's work are assembled hypotactically and, as it were, hierarchically--there is no democratic leveling of the content, as there is in Kasey's work. (I should add that the "democratically leveling" in Kasey's work should not necessarily be positively valued--it seems to call in question the value of the whole tradition of "democratic" paratactic poetry--in the same way that the current moment in American society seems to call in question the utility and long-term sustainability of our democratic model, which seems so easily manipulated by hucksters and thieves.)

Murat said...


What a fascinating post, as I am writing a response to Mark's comments. Yours baffles the dicothomy around the argument between Mark and me. Anyway, by tomorrow I should have my response to Mark,.



anne said...

It seems Murat as if you have somewhat misrepresented both Dinh's and KSM's work. This conversation is going to be exceptionally painful if everyone pretends Linh Dinh only writes in a "conventional lyric voice" or that KSM's work is all machine-generated sameness. It just isn't true.

This morning I picked up two more recent works by the poets in question. Here they are:


Ay hello wsup im 14 years old
and well anyways my first time
was very unusual because mg g/f
was juss laying their rollin her eyes
like she didnt feel anything but at least
i fuuuuuucccccckkkkkkedddd her up the as
uuuuuh it fel soo good daym fuck yea
uhh yea give it to me bitch yea uh uh uh



I was a robot
in cahoots with robots
in the beginning

where we first embarked
a narrow dark hole

the mountains surrounding Vrbov disappeared
there set Ezra
his gaze neither oppressive nor demanding

I stand unconvinced that my inner life is lacking
I find it oppressive to think
in purely "genital" terms

I staged my nudity
on a tiger skin
so that others would drool

all I knew was
ensnare a wild horse
entrap an eagle
cage a tiger

thus this
savage Frenchman
suddenly was not real.


Because I have read a great deal of work from both of these poets (and know one of them quite well) it is obvious to me who is responsible for writing what here. But Murat, if I only had your characterization of the work, I think I would be very confused. I could perform the same sort of operation around these poems that you did in these comment streams, setting up one as a speaker of subjective truth in a conventionally lyric way (not that I mind) , the other as a disdainful anti-human word plucker (not that I mind that, either).

It would be very interesting to see you account for more aspects of the work, maybe taking on something like Dinh's poem "Dewey in Bucks County":

"I like any scene with Brad Pritt in it.
I am often told I look like Reese Witherspoon.

I dont smoke weed, whut u
Talkin about, i did NOT inhale
that weed smoke, i did NOT
Smoke that joint."


Murat said...


I will try to continue this dialogue first by setting aside a few coded phrases or words, such as “conventional lyrical voice,” “sincerity,” “[determining] which, finally, has more possession of his own phrasing,” etc., with which your response is peppered and which have little to do with what I am saying. I will try to get to them as I respond to your comments:

a) I don’t think you understand the point of my question about the “we.” It is not that it “does not refer to an individual” (another coded phrase), but that it creates a split between “us” and “them” –the demonizing impulse buried in a technique of quotations (albeit in quotes) of cultural debris. It is Kasey’s poetic process I find ideologically offensive; to me it is not that different from Bush’s name calling the other as “terrorist” or “The Evil Empire” or “we” who “cut and run.”

Unquestionably, Kasey, you and I find the ambient linguistic and visual falsehoods through which one must lead one’s existence in contemporary America very painful. To fight or counter this false consciousness through ironic variations of the detritus, changing the “you” to “we” in “All you need is love,” may be satisfactory or significant in a university classroom. But to someone like me, who is outside it, the process is woefully inadequate, even pointless. This does not mean I am for returning to a “conventional lyrical voice.” On the contrary, I believe in the necessity of a much more drastic transformation of language, of poetry, to fight the leviathan smothering us, to defang, escape (maybe an impossibility for you!) its praxis. All my poems, translations, etc. around Eda, which you so graciously called “project,” is for that purpose.

In what way is Kasey’s poem supposed to be “offensive”? I am not sure he knows why I find it offensive.


“You seem to prefer the conventional lyrical voice of the Linh Dinh poem ‘How It Is.’ That's fine with me, as far as it goes. ... I'm not sure that's lovely as much as horrifying.”

This is what I say about the poem: “I will agree with you about the ‘steely-eye’ precision of Linh's language here, but where is the ‘distance’?”

Where do I talk about loveliness, where do I say it is or is not horrifying?

The way I read it, Linh’s poem deals with the relationship of the speaker with the human body. As in “Borders,” there is something abstract about the poem, basically a “steely-eyed” analysis of human identity within a specific cultural context. So far, we may be in basic agreement. Where Linh’s poem is different from Kasey’s is that it does not create the schism between the cultural “you” and “I.” In Linh’s poem, the relationship, the schism is between “I” and his or her body. The “I” is open to, identifiable with any reader who reads the poem. It is in that sense that there is not distance in the poem, and I suggest it is a poem Kasey can not write.

Here we come to the crucial point in the argument between is. You seem to see “How It Is” infused with the ironic use of patriarchal sexual language, “all possibilities in the world are being dominated here by a male conception of the human sex drive,” and that observation as the coup de gras against my romantic view of traditional lyric, sincerity of individual expression, etc.

Where does “How It is” say that the “I” is a man and the “you” is a woman. Are you not, as a reader, bringing in your cultural prejudices to the poem, practicing in essence a version of individualist, biographical sincerity just because Linh is a man? “How It is” can be read in all its permutations, between a man to a woman, a woman to a man, a woman to a woman and a man to a man. The poem is convincing in all its permutations (as the Turkish syntax functions in all the permutations in the word order); that is the sign of Linh’s poem’s abstract, democratic, ground breaking openness. The “I” in the poem has nothing to do with individualist biography or with “feeling” (the longing referred to is not “individualistic longing”).

In the Eda anthology I discuss the absence of any kind of gender distinctions in the Turkish grammar, that its reader (or translator) must refrain from bringing in one’s prejudices into it. For me, Linh’s poem belongs to this new linguistic territory, its lyric quality having nothing to do with the sentimentalisms (“the conventional lyrical voice” of the “School of Quietitude”?) for which you assume I like the poem. It belongs to the 3000-year-old history of lyric poetry, my guess being that there is as much Vietnamese folk poetry in it as Ron’s The New Sentence, as the varieties of lyrics in Eda have centuries old strains of Arabic and Asian poetry in them. The eye in the kind of lyric Linh practices has no fixed identity, but dissolves into multiple ones, implying a dissolution of the ego.

[Ultimately, coming to “nostalgia,” given the fact that in September 11, nine people crashing into two buildings, ready to face absolute death, changed the course of history, one can not quite say that individual action has no historical significance at all, though these results could not have occurred without wider historical forces surrounding the act. The “asymmetrical” conflict of our time basically involves a clash between technology (“physical reality”) and idea, where the degree of intensity of the idea –expressed in the readiness of the few to face certain death- compensates for the superior power of technology. That’s why the creation of a metaphysical lyric, of ideas, which both “How It Is” and the Eda poems are, is so pertinent. You say in our present conflict “people kill each other from a great distance, often with little understanding of why,” which may be quite true from the American point of view. But it ignores, does not see the subjectivity of the other, where the killing is not distant at all, both as sufferer and inflictor. In the suicide bomber they are one. Instead of being an act “with little understanding of why,” the suicide bomber is the literal and political expression of a central Sufi idea, that the ego must totally disintegrate to reunite itself with god. The metaphysical lyric where the persona “I” constantly changes and dissolves itself echoes the same Sufi idea. In other words, there is nothing nostalgic about all this; it is in tune with the global realities at the beginning of 21st century. In a preface to my translations of the poet Seyhan Erozçelik’s “Rosestrikes,” “Insurrection and the Dreaded Beauty of Sufism – Ideas Towards a Fundamentalist Poetics,” published in “Bombay Gin in 2006, I talk about this in greater detail.



Murat said...


I do not see "How It is" as a conventional lyric at all, as I tried to show in my very last post. That is an epithet Mark put on me, oddly, since he himself does not read the poem in the conventional way I am supposed to be reading.

I did not use a poem from American Tatts simply because I did not have the book available to me at the time. I am sure in those poems also, which I love and where Linh uses proactively jagged fragments of American vernacular, I could show deep differences between his and Kasey's use and why I find Linh's work more satisfactory (if satisfaction is not too conventional a word).

I find Sa's approach to Kasey's work very interesting. Unless I misunderstand it, it is approaching Kasey's work through the lens of John Ashbery -which is a surprising angle, at least to me.



mark wallace said...

Hi Murat:

Sorry I couldn't return to this sooner. I've been busy at work.

Thanks for clarifying your position on Linh's work. I think the reason I assumed you were defending a traditional lyric stance has to do with how you spoke about Linh's work in your earlier post: you denied that there was any "distance" in the poem, and then proceeded to talk about the feelings of poet himself, and your own personal encounters with the poet. That's one of the ways that traditional lyric or narrative poetry gets talked about in the U.S., so I think that's why I jumped to what seemed a pretty reasonable conclusion.

I would have to disagree that the Linh poem in question can be read as open-ended regarding gender markers, or that it is convincing in all the permutations you mention. If it is going for that kind of open-endedness, which I doubt, I would have to see it as a failure. The history of defining others purely by the sexual functioning of their bodies is also the history of what's been called 'the male gaze" and, as we know, it's one that objectivizes and reduces the complexity of female experience. To me, what seems interesting about the poem is its relation to, let's say, the infamous Breton poem "Free Union" ("My woman with her buttocks of sandstone and asbestos"). In Linh's poem, the absolute eroticization of the body of the other makes through its irony a powerful critique of the notion that the male gaze can be associated so easily with anything that's "free." In that sense it strikes me as profoundly like Kasey's work, not different from it.

Now, granted, Linh's poem does not give a gender to the speaker, and in theory, one could say "Well, a woman can be just as likely to see her partner purely as an object of sexual pleasure, and to be destroyed by her obsessive pursuit of sexual pleasure." I can't deny that the possibility lurks in the poem, and in the world, but it doesn't seem to me a persuasive or important possibility relative to this poem. That is, the fact that it could be true does not strike me as greatly significant. The history of reducing others to their sexual function hasn't been an equal opportunity condition so far, at least in the history of most cultures. Therefore a poem diagnosing that condition would have any number of definite gender implications that are anything but open-ended.

You may be more forward thinking than me on this subject, or maybe not, but I'm not sure we're yet in a situation where it's so easy to talk about "genderless" poems, and then use a work by a male poet as an example of such a phenomenon. The male urge to write poems that they would like to think of as "applicable to anyone" has a long and questionable history also. I'll be more persuaded of its possibility, I suppose, when I start to here more women writing about the importance of "genderless literature," and when they do that, I'll start changing my mind. Perhaps. For the moment, I'm still stuck with the fact that here we are, a couple of men, debating whether a poem written by a man can speak equally for women. So for the moment, it seems to me that a genderless poem is mainly a fantasy, and mainly a male one.

What I appreciate about this exchange, though, is the degree of good conversation we've had here. We've done a good job of not letting these differences overwhelm the interaction. You see Kasey's critique of contemporary linguistic conditions as not doing enough to struggle against those conditions, and I see some of the solutions you're suggesting to those conditions as part of the problem of those conditions rather than as the solution to them. Although I doubt at this point that we're likely to agree about these particular pieces of writing, my hope would be that despite these differences, we have at least enough in common to find some meeting ground. And this conversation has seemed to me a good example of what that ground might be: two very different ways of seeing the world that are nonetheless still in conversation.

With best wishes,


Murat said...


Let me first say I agree with you about the civility of our exchanges. We are listening to each other and countering with arguments, rather than throwing dust (in the form of party line cliches) at each others' eyes.

I suppose we see Linh's poem and eroticism in general very differently. Is there a wrong and a correct way to erotic experience?

Also, it is not true that women do not explore erotic experience, in your terms, in unconventional ways. What about Kathy Acker or a poem like Bernadette Meyer's "First Turn To Me..."? Here is just a snippet from Bernadette's poem:

"you tell me you masturbated in the hotel before you came by/
I don't believe it, I serve the lentil soup naked

I massage your feet to seduce you, you are reluctant,/
my feet wind up at your neck and ankles

you try not to come to quickly/
also, you don't want to have a baby

I stand up from the bath, you say turn around/
and kiss the backs of my legs and my ass"

What is "the male gaze" anyway? Don't women look at or desire another body? The assumption that women do not have similar sexual appetites -often acting out power relations- is a Victorian myth, which I think an expression like "the male gaze" perpectuates. Here is another couplet from Bernadette's poem:

"you say you can only fuck me up the ass when you are drunk/
so we try it sober in a room at the farm."

I do not think there is anything particularly male point of view in Linh's poem. That's part of its power and that's why not assuming an automatic gender identification because the poet is a man is important. So, I go to the same question: where does it say the speaker is a man in Linh's poem?

I think we had the same argument indirectly when you pointed your dislike with the Turkish poet Cemal Süreya's sado-masochist eroticism in the Eda Anthology. In the case of Süreya you are right. His poetry does start from seduction seen from the male point of view. But that ego breaks down. Interestingly, one major poem by Süreya also, "In Your Country," has echoes of of the same Breton poem, "Amour Libre."Fragments of the female body appear in that poem also, but in Sureya's poem the fragmentation does not lead to "freedom" ("liberte") but to loss, the dissolution of the self, the very reverse of Breton's poem.



Interestingly, we had this argument indirectly before when you did not particularly appreciate

mark wallace said...

Hi Murat:

My apologies if I didn't quite make my points in my last post clear. I'm not debating whether women can write about sexuality in any number of ways, just that the idea of a genderless poem about sexuality is easier claimed than achieved. And also I'm saying that a poem that objectifies the physical body of the desired one partakes of a long almost invariably male tradition, and so any time that language is used, a specifically gendered tradition is called up. Gender doesn't go away as easily as simply failing to mention the gender of a narrator in a given poem.

The Mayer lines you quote are sexually frank, but not only are they gendered, they also suggest any number of things about the character/personality of the lover. Linh's poem deals only with the narrator's feelings about the body of the other, and thus to my mind successfully satirizes the particular male tradition that I see his poem as part of.

I would define the male gaze as "objectifying the body of the other through a particular gendered condition of power." A man, looking at the sexual object he desires, imagines not only sex but control of the sex object, one that could involve his ownership of the object and much more. Yes, women certainly look at men, and they can certainly wish to control men, but the power condition is entirely different.

Just to forestall some objections to that point, let me say that one can certainly imagine powerful women making use of male sexuality--there are, for instance, the infamous cliches about (I think) Catherine, who was a queen of Russia. Yet even queens almost invariably have to struggle against the male domination of their societies, as in the endless maneuvering of Queen Elizabeth of England for instance. And the stories about Catherine's sexual exploits, of course, were largely created by men who wished to humiliate and control her.

Furthermore, I certainly understand that women of all races and classes can exploit those with whom they are sexually involved; it's by no means only men who are interested in control over others. Of course, the image of the endlessly manipulating and controlling and destructive sexual woman--the femme fatale--is historically an invention of male literature. I'm not going to deny that such women exist, just that in most cases the notion is a male fantasy.

So there's no equivalent for women of the "male gaze" because there's no structurally equivalent power dynamic. Of course, the more that women gain power, the more this might change, at which point the "male gaze" would no longer be male, but would simply be the sexual gaze of power.

Murat said...


Basically, we are looking at the same thing and seeing different things.

To me your argument says that, historically, because most poets one has read are men, erotic poetry is infused with what you term the male gaze. This does not quite make sense to me.

For me, for instance, if a lot of what Bernadette says in her poem were said by a male poet, you would have called it sexist.

What happens in a gay poem, specifically, man with man?



mark wallace said...

Hi Murat:

It could be that this conversation has run its course. But your comments do seem like prompts and questions, so maybe it would be rude of me not to answer them. I never can tell whether it's proper not to answer a question when I'm asked; my tendency is to feel that it isn't.

On some literal level, the comment you make regarding my attitude and the Mayer poem seem purely speculative and therefore impossible to answer. I imagine that the Mayer poem, if written by a man (indeed if written by anybody not Mayer) would be very different in almost all of its parts, so the question is a bit like asking what I would think of the work of Ernest Hemingway if it had been written by a woman.

Nonetheless, were I to accept the impossibility you are suggesting, it would seem to me that the man writing the Mayer poem would have a profound understanding of female desire, sexuality, and social positioning. I would be amazed too that the female Hemingway knew so much about the workings of the rhetoric of manhood.

Re your second question, I see no particular problem in reading the poem in the context of gay male desire. Clearly, the object of desire is not specified in the poem in terms of gender. And while the gender of the narrator is also not specified, I still remain convinced that it participates in the history of male rhetoric about desire.

All best to you--


Murat said...


Not rude at all. I feel an exchange on the web has its ebb and flow, and at one point it ends, sometimes with a question.