Bad Naturalisations

By | 1 December 2022

I have tried to demonstrate that we need to attend to the Artifice of a poem like ‘Untitled Wild Geese Game’ if we are to keep its gamesmanship with the conventions of pastoral and with minute verbal instrumentation in play. While the poem does not put overt impediments in the path towards a ‘bad naturalisation’, much of its rhetorical verve and thematic resonance is lost if we do usher its words prematurely into the world. But I want to turn my attention now to a poem where a more apparent resistance to naturalisation has been incorporated into its structure.

Take, for example, Grace Ugamay Dulawan’s ‘FAQ’:

Question: Please explain how to separate a body from a nation.

Answer: First, spread the body-nation out on a clean, flat surface such as a kitchen counter or an ironing board. Next, take a large blank piece of paper and lay it flat over so that it covers it entirely. [...]

We are presented with something like a closed loop that we need to prise open in order to understand what it is ‘about’. An initial guess we might hazard is that such a poem’s subject, say, the pain of exile. But such a reading, while instinctively plausible, has very little to go on besides the infinitive phrase in the question: ‘to separate a body from a nation’. Is the ‘body’ an individual body or a body of people? Why or under what circumstances is this ‘body’ being ‘separated’? We might see a kind of clue in the distinction between the relatively gentle water-transfer laid out rather assiduously for most of the poem and the briefly mentioned ‘alternative methods [which] include cutting, boiling or even vigorous shaking until the elements rise or fall into distinct layers’. The metaphorical potential of these other methods may seem to provide a way out from the poem to the geopolitical: ‘cutting’ may make one think of the partition or ‘vigorous shaking’ the historical forms of apartheid. But in making these leaps, we are no longer reading the poem per se, but substituting for it our own allegory.

To put it another way, this poem very effectively blocks its own ‘naturalisation’ – every attempt to say what it is ‘about’ has to face up to an ingrained tendency to overlook the poem’s most salient (and seemingly banal) aspect: its deadpan enumeration of a procedure that appears to pay homage to the tactile delicacies of domestic ritual (‘then, with damp hands, sprinkling water as you go’) and the mechanical routines of an instruction manual (‘if it is not imprinted go back and repeat the process’).

The curious thing about ‘FAQ’ is that its meaning (if we are not to substitute for it something of our own impressionistic devising) turns not on an individual word or phrase, but rather on ‘the circuit of communication’ (as Jonathan Culler has put it). There is no explicit ‘I’ in this poem, but there is a ‘you’ – a ‘you’ made difficult to place by virtue of the uncertain distance at which this subject position is being held from (and by) the scripted voice, which is at times engaged in intimate instruction, but for the most part offers direction in an officious imperative. The predominance of the imperative mood is perhaps the most obvious way in which the didactic stylisation of ‘FAQ’ is connected to more conventional lyric utterance (cf. T.S. Eliot’s ‘Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair’), where the power of direct address (however fanciful) institutes a kind of fantasy in which it is the poet’s unique privilege to command forces ordinarily unresponsive to human petition (the most canonical example of which is, perhaps, Percy Shelley’s ‘Be thou me!’ to the West Wind).

Without going too far, there is an element of fantasy at work in ‘FAQ’ with its Carollian shifts in scale (‘For a small island nation A4 or A5 will do’) and its reconstitution of a putatively public process as household event – as well as in the impassivity of its mode of instruction. Perhaps there is a sense in which the recipe with which we are being furnished is a kind of spell, or a potent fable gussied up in the language of bureaucratic rationality.

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