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How Poems Work: Elizabeth Bachinsky’s ‘God of Unfulfilled Longings’

26 August 2014

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of pop music. And I’ve been hearing really abstract arrangements, huge production, and big, inescapable metaphors. This is the cultural form for people that want to feel as loud as the music, as if their skin is all that’s stopping them from going everywhere at once. In some respects, pop’s big sound makes a space for those who otherwise feel small. Perhaps this is why it’s so popular with young girls. But who bears the magnitude of all this? There’s a really honed approach to metaphor that must feel constrictive as the thing – titanium, diamonds, a chandelier – gets well and truly milked. For all the soaring of synthesisers, pop stars are trapped in metaphor, stuck in on-topic angst. Perhaps, conversely, there’s happiness in drifting off point, wandering loosely away from the sign.

And this flaneur’s pleasure of straying off topic, escaping the jaws of metaphor, is one of the principle pleasures of Elizabeth Bachinsky’s ‘God of Unfulfilled Longings.’ In a flat, detached tone, three fragments are delivered to the reader. Given Bachinsky’s terrific gift for dramatic monologue, one might demur the poem suffers for its lack of obvious narrative. But there is drama here, hiding in plain sight in this inventory of impressions. The fragments read like fabula: ‘Gina – pretty, thirty-two, and who wears a lot of black … has started making love with a boy of nineteen on / a semi-regular basis’; ‘This one time, Gina’s boy (trapped in an elevator) thought: / I’m trapped in an elevator.’ These documentary statements evoke the brevity of journalism, the matter-of-factness of a crime sheet, the therapist’s notepad, and online dating copy. Textual echoes accumulate like debris: heterogeneous, contingent and contradictory elements growing into what de Certeau might call a ‘sieve-order’ poem. Surface order is punched and torn open by drifts and leaks of meaning.

The second fragment emphasises the unsettled disunity of the poem: ‘Elephants, having been hunted into near extinction, paint! / Sometimes better than people!’ In an elevation of indirection, the speaker shifts from the impersonal delivery of personal account to the effusive delivery of an unrelated fact. The elusion of legibility here feels intentionally absurd and staged, calculated to draw attention the human drama of fact itself. Like many of the human dramas, it’s a drama of accumulation. There are too many facts. What are we going to do with all these facts but put them with other facts? The paradox of the poem – that something so clear is so illegible – is also its revelation. Disarticulation of fact is the procedure of failed realism; it is also the freedom of everyday life.

In a kind of anonymous dream-state the speaker wanders through the poem’s facts like a walker in the city, accessing prohibited paths and narrative short cuts. The potential metaphors – the painting elephants, the elevator and its emergency button – are positioned within a form of rhetorical forgetting. One narrative moment fragments into something else, supplanting the previous image. Distraction and detachment are made the productive means of signification. The final line of the poem sees Gina’s boy literally exit the poem’s signifying system: ‘He walked right out.’ Earlier in the stanza he’s trapped in an elevator, rising ‘thirty-six floors at an astonishing speed.’ At this celestial height the story doesn’t truck: ‘I’m trapped in an elevator. You hear stories like this and never believe them.’ This almost prompts a gothic reading of pop music, as if all the lyrics say, ‘I’m trapped in a metaphor. You hear stories like me and never believe them.’

Bachinsky’s is a walking poem where narrative is set in motion at ground level – fragmentary, improvised and makeshift. An Eytan Mirsky lyric supplies the poem’s sonic metaphor, a piece of overheard nostalgia that hangs like a weak radio signal around the stanzas: ‘Happiness, where are you? I haven’t got a clue.’ The sonic cue is sentimental, tinny, and above all, small. There’s psychic space in the poem for anything to drift away from signification; that’s one clear intention of the work. Though not an obviously happy poem, I suspect the epigram is not entirely or simply ironic. The looseness of its imagery and the mobility of its actors imply the poem’s serious contemplation of this drift. It’s a strange yet everyday freedom that’s difficult to depict, to wander, happy and detached, through open metaphors without the ‘clue’ of determination.

Here the poem is again:

God of Unfulfilled Longings

Happiness where are you? I haven’t got a clue. —Eytan Mirsky


Gina—pretty, thirty-two, and who wears a lot of black, not
because she is in mourning but because she’s got nothing else
to wear—has started making love with a boy of nineteen on
a semi-regular basis, a practice she finds vastly rewarding
although occasionally problematic, which is not to say the boy
hasn’t demonstrated a remarkable learning curve.
 
Elephants, having been hunted into near extinction, paint!
Sometimes better than people!
 
This one time, Gina’s boy (trapped in an elevator) thought:
I’m trapped in an elevator. You hear stories like this and never believe them.
The elevator rose thirty-six floors at an astonishing speed before
he hit the emergency button which, to his surprise brought him
obediently, politely, to the ground floor. He walked right out.


‘God of Unfulfilled Longings’ from the collection God of Missed Connections by Elizabeth Bachinsky, published by Nightwood Editions. Used with the permission of the publisher.

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