Some writing is born of a dogged faith in the undiminishing power of language. Still more is nursed in the dark, alone, alternately answering and conceding to that most crippling of writerly skepticisms: that words are only ever themselves; that expression fades, falters; that “he won’t mean an egg / and he won’t mean an egg.” And when words fail us—as they will, must, do all the time—where to turn?
Solutions spill out of “Dissertation: Aphasia,” even as the poem seems to land on a question. Dissertation. An intellectual performance; a coming to terms; the imposition of order, logic, and form on argument. Aphasia. The deterioration of the communicative faculties; loss of reading, loss of speech. And so, this poem’s project: to understand through language that disease which would foreclose it. To call it an ironic one would be to slight both the sincere pain of the effort and the queasy tenacity with which the poet builds alternatives (to language, to understanding) against that effort’s impossibility.
As if tasked with the burden of proof, the poem’s objects, ideas, essences set about feeling their way to foreign outlets, slipping into senses to which they don’t belong. How to sketch “Shame” without words, blushes, or tears? How to make vibrations physical in the sky? How to read that “physical” as something other than redundant—try visible—when vibrations are physical by definition, themselves a kind of proof-in-motion that surfaces demand to be reckoned with?
The figures on your father’s muted television are denied voices, their fidgety lips syncing every so often with “a sound that might be the ice box spawning.” The day’s data grow restless, at once cagey and desperate for expression, craftily appropriating other data’s verbs and modifiers, other data’s escape routes from their objects of origin.
With “And how… to tighten these sounds / into something as thin and nearly tangible / as reality, or a single word,” I feel myself to have arrived at a thesis—a question forced into a statement, because the other hand can’t keep pace with the clapping, because “he won’t mean an egg / and he won’t mean an egg.” Ask your father how his day was. Even if the meaning has evacuated his answer, you might still find it in the ice box, spawning.