Elizabeth Kate Switaj
little red leaves textile edition, 2014
Stitched Cloth Cover, 20 pages
When I read Carrie Hunter’s Scienza Nuova, I feel as though I am hearing the voice of the little girl from the footnotes of the Night Lessons episode of Finnegans Wake several decades later: she is older, and she knows about Facebook (according to “The Notorious Striking Clock”). She plays with language still but with less enthusiasm (or less babbling, depending on your perspective). And, as the title suggests, she has read Vico despite the claims in the Wake that she has no need of book learning because “…all is her inbourne.”
Hunter’s older Issy makes her own use of Vico’s ages of man. “Music in Parts” lays out her adaptations. The first age, theocratic in Vico, for Issy is childish and wise: “on tiptoes. Before we lost our language.” This language, as Hunter conceives it, resembles the language of Finnegans Wake in general: “meaningless / -ful conversation.” That this is further identified as “clitoral” allies it more closely with Issy’s speech. But the age of this language is followed by the heroic, “Borrowed giants,” and the human, “A contest between the prophesy and history.” Then, “After the age of the people. The chorus listens.” There is a falling to sleep, like Merlin, late, in the Arthurian saga. These altered ages suggest one reason this older Issy cannot be as free in her linguistic play: what she desires to convey has become more important to her. She has motives, in other words, beyond free play. These motives drive her through her own Viconian cycle, a fall that recycles itself. “What came before the beginning is continuing now,” “Another Genesis Trickery” begins.
This new, old Issy has also had more exposure to standardized language as she has lived and aged. In my dissertation, I pointed to the irony that much of the humor of Issy’s linguistic play in Finnegans Wake, especially around the “gramma’s grammar” section, can only be appreciated by those with more formal training in grammatical forms than Issy has. Hunter’s chapbook represents a strong effort to resolve this irony. When the speaker inserts extra idiosyncratic full-stops in a sequence such as “The masculinity.’s downfall’s. delusion.” in “Epistemology Involving Mirrors,” she knows what she is doing with emphasis, and with the suggestion that masculinity is a full a though, a full actor and action, in and of itself.
If something is lost in this effort, if an older, more educated Issy is also less joyful, this change does not represent a weakness in Hunter’s prose poems. Rather, it tells us something about the challenges of living in a linguistic world one would resist: the more deliberately one seeks to oppose it, the less playful one can be. As Issy says in the “The Notorious Striking Clock,” “To fall you can’t speak. She is the river lamed.” Your words can’t flow as once they did (just as her mother Anna Livia, as she washes into the sea, no longer flows as rapidly she did coming down the mountains). Joy in usage is sacrificed in the effort to reveal what is arbitrary or violent and allow more freedom for those who remain rule-governed—“How a girl becomes a plurality, an army” as the third part of “The Paradigmatic Plane” concludes itself and the sequence. Issy restrains herself in order to become legion. Poetry, being play within restraints—a kind of ricorso—has the same power in and of itself that she thus claims.
Vico believed that humans created their own humanity and their words made the world. Poetry seeks to exemplify this idea. In this tight sequence, Hunter-in-Issy and Issy-in-Hunter have made new versions of both: a new world to match the new science of the title.