Deborah Keenan: Good Heart
- by Deborah Keenan
Who are the writers who put you in a coma? A coma, meaning, whose writing inspires spells of suspended animation while we appear to be reading one page for quite some time? While we are in this trance, this retreat, something is happening below our consciousness. The coma state prompts us to ask questions: what does this mean? What is the author doing? Deborah Keenan’s sixth book of poetry, Good Heart, definitely has the coma factor.
The coma factor is Keenan’s shorthand for that quality of writing that invites a deepening interior experience of reading. The writing calls to us from a considered and crafted understanding. “That trail of language birds refuse to eat,” as Keenan writes in “Hope,” draws us through the unfamiliar, the difficult.1 Traveling from one crumb to the next is usually not easy, in the intervals lay doubt and trust. We have to shuck the need for familiarity, for ease, and wander. This is where the unconscious excels; unfamiliarity and unease are its daily territory. Our unconscious sees a need and plunges in like an IV drip. It injects into our consciousness possible interpretations, possible (dis)connections to our own life, to our current understanding. The vein that the unconscious taps circulates through our mind, and through the poet’s mind on the page.
While we are in this coma, our unconscious does not retrace the poet’s writing journey; it surges in the same general direction. Like water traveling down a dry driveway, it runs, it trickles, until it hits some diversion, a small pebble, or a slight incline. Then the water molecules pile up, rise together, until something gives, and a new direction becomes possible — still, the overall direction is toward the street.
Big questions drive this small waterway. Michel Foucault says, “a work of art opens a void, a moment of silence, a question without answer, provokes a breach without reconciliation where the world is forced to question itself.”3 The coma factor is what makes a work art. However, there is no void, it just feels that way during the coma, before we recognize the signal to question, before our unconscious flows into our conscious. Questions are not unanswered, nor are they necessarily answered, but struck like a bell in such a way that other bells, though unstruck, answer in harmonics. Questions are struck, waves of vibration move unheard, until something with matter picks up these waves, and sounds them out. Nor is this breach unreconciled, if we receive the coma as a signal. Reconciliation, the exhale, the release, is the crossing over from the coma state to conscious thinking through to meaning.
Here’s how the coma factor works when I read Keenan’s Good Heart. Or, how I think it works, how my conscious mind, when prodded, reconstructs this subconscious experience. Throughout the book, the definition of “good” hovers in the background, shape-shifting, ghostly. I notice that all the poems are examining this word, "good," as noun, as adjective. I doubt my understanding of this word I thought I knew. I question myself. I question the text. The text questions me. What is good? Is it hope? More than hope? Or is good promise? Or purity? Pre-failure? Is purity pre-failure? Other abstract nouns and adjectives collect like Keenan’s strays in the title poem: "The backroom filled and emptied / Filled and emptied."3
The text and I continue questioning. Is nature exempt from our abstract nouns and adjectives? Is nature pure? If so, are trees, crows, the wind not abstractions? Are only human things abstractions? If so, what about the made things, do they become pure once they are made? Maybe purity, innocence, promise, and hope stand in for good, until good is — what? Earned? Matures? Is reimbursed? Maybe good requires a history of failure, of despair, of impurity in order to be good, to be inured of these. In that case, what about Keenan’s recurring baby? The baby expects; the baby cannot yet have failed. The baby hopes, or is hope. If good requires failure or despair, then the baby can not be good. Then is the baby, like nature, not an abstraction? Then the baby is a-good. What does this mean to say that the baby is a-good?
This strange thought, that the baby is a-good, shifts me back to the page, like a disturbing image wakes a dreamer. Then I realize that I have been in a coma, suspended in a deep state over page 59 for some time. I remember Keenan’s words, “it is a sign.” I start asking myself what just happened? Then the molecules of my questions crest, and drip through my unconscious IV. I turn the page and resume conscious reading.
It isn’t long, only two more poems, before the coma factor calls me on the abstract noun “beauty.” Again, I fall backwards through what I have read so far. Something is beautiful about “His Red Chair,” but how can that be? How is my thinking about beauty further troubled by the language structure of “still...still...but” in “The Last Lion?” I feel like one of Keenan’s trees, with the leaves taken down by the southern wind.
Leslie Scalapino said that a writer’s goal is for things to come apart. “You enter a space where everything comes loose, everything comes apart. ...[I]t’s more a visceral experience and a subliminal experience that isn’t in language, or not solely. The language enables it to bust apart.”4 Keenan does this, but her “things” — what initiates, what drives her poems — look put together on the page. They are not stripped bare. They are not exploded diagrams of her things. Nor are her things boxed and tied. Scalapino, whose things are not in language, presents her completed text as words busted open into sounds, patterns, and rhythms. For Keenan, though, when she writes, it is because she believes the thing is in language.5 For even more than her immediate subjects, grief and love, Keenan’s overarching subject is the meaning of the abstract nouns: "good," "hope," and "beauty," individually and familially — and what happens to concrete nouns when modified by these abstract nouns in adjectival form. When she enters writing space, the definition of words loosens, meaning comes apart. The thing that was held in language is freed. Then, with as much care as in “Across the Threshold,” Keenan rewraps her undone nouns and adjectives, and lays them down on the page with reverence.
How does Keenan achieve this quality of writing, the coma factor, so that things can come apart for the reader? What is she doing?
Keenan’s language is simple in that it is “disarmingly conversational.”6 We easily enter the poems and Keenan’s personal subjects, which then carry us with them, through them, into her artistic subject, the abstract nouns. And, Keenan’s language is simple in that it has the “fidelity and economy” of William Carlos Williams. Like Williams, Keenan is concerned with the questions: “how do you not only incorporate things on their own terms...but also convey what you conceive to be their value? How, in fact, should meaning enter the poem?”7 Ultimately, after processing her own coma state, after questioning, after dissolution and rewrapping, Keenan answers with “let things be and let meaning enter.”8
Often Keenan writes in long lines, and in lung-emptying, unpunctuated lines. “The line that exceeds natural breath is the line of prophecy, the line of the dream space,” Edward Hirsch says.9 Keenan is “a small queen of prophecy,” as she writes, but her thoughts are “low-key” only because she deeply questions, then places, her “cherished list of nouns” on a threshold, and lets them be.10
The poems in Good Heart, J.P. White writes, “possess a dreamlike danger or threshold where some question must be precariously embraced, shared, tested.”11 Keenan places all of her poems on thresholds, in places of transition: windows, doorways, a car, the beach, a park, a land called Emerald, childhood, family, dreams, dawn, hope, promise, goodness. When we read her poems, we are drawn through these thresholds into the prophetic-like, dream-like coma state.
In this coma state, we slow down, suspend, get drowsy, get up to walk or do the dishes. The poet’s questions come with us. Her questions hum along with our questions, moving in and out of the backrooms of our consciousness, until we start thinking through to something, something that is important. So that even though reading seems to put us to sleep, by virtue of the coma factor, it actually wakes us up. Sometimes we wake literally at two in the morning, with a conscious pop, or sometimes we awake during some mundane activity, like brushing teeth. Suddenly, it seems, the thing we have been thinking through to arises. Meaning, like a perfect art object, enters the poem. To accommodate this new piece, we rearrange the furniture in our brains, until it feels as if that object had been there all along.
And that meaning had been there all along, its potential realized first by Keenan letting things be and creating the coma factor. But how does Keenan start, what happens before she enters the space where things come apart, before she places them on their thresholds for us? “The initial mystery that attends any journey is how did the traveller reach his starting point in the first place?” Louise Bogan writes.12 Bogan is one of the authors with whom Keenan is in dialogue in Good Heart. All of Keenan's poems are in conversation with other poets. Keenan believes that “poets are here to be our spiritual guides,” and in her humility, in homage, she places herself with us, among the guided.13 Reading is being in dialogue with the author, and reading Keenan, we are also in dialogue with whom she reads. She tells us who they are: Bogan, Rukeyser, Ashbery, St. Augustine, Bachelard, Jabès, Yau, and others. And she tells us what these writers said that inspired her own coma, so that we can see how they make her think. We can infer what questions she asks of their texts. Keenan potentializes the coma factor by giving us so much of her own process within her text and within its white space.
Also, outside of her text, preliminary to it, Keenan acknowledges Bogan, Bronk, Mary McCaslin, Jean Garrigue, Stephin Merritt, Anne Spencer, and Ray Patterson as “Guardians to Good Heart.”14 This homage is another, and unique, way in which Keenan intrigues us with her process and further potentializes the coma factor.
The printed text is movement in white space. Keenan inhabits the white space like an experienced dancer inhabits the stillness between gestures. In this still time, inexperienced dancers drop their weight; they push their limits for technical splash, with urgency and bodily risk, transferring a sense of neediness to the audience. Within the same amount of time, however, an experienced dancer takes more time. She holds the breath of the space. She does not drop her weight, she carries it through an unbroken momentum path. The result is a feeling of limitlessness versus feeling at limits. The audience senses a measured flow of moments, all in present time.
An experienced dancer has the technical and performance skill to make her audience feel safe, even when — or especially when — the risk or feeling of danger is greatest. “When you feel safe,” Keenan once said, “the relationship with whom you read layers, deepens, concentrates.”15 Our relationships with the text, also, become more complex. We no longer follow the poems in the order they appear in the book. We hang the poems in a virtual gallery. The gallery walls are white space, and the coma factor allows us to insert more white space than the publisher could afford. The momentum that Keenan carries through the black and white space of Good Heart also swings through this inserted space. In this virtual gallery, in addition to thinking forward and backwards through the poems, we think across, diagonally, in zigzags and circles. The geometry of relationships of the abstract nouns expands exponentially, and initiates a perpetual motion of renewing meaning. This non-linear, multi-planar, self-renewing movement is characteristic of the unconscious, and further inspires the coma state.
The coma factor then becomes both the quality of writing that inspires a deepening interior experience of reading, and the quality of reading this kind of writing, the interior experience itself. The quality of Keenan’s writing that creates coma-friendly conditions is founded on her own dialogue with whom she reads. In her writing she recreates enough of her processing of her own coma states, so that as we are in dialogue with Keenan, we are also in dialogue with her guiding poets. When she writes, she completely enters the space where things come apart. Then Keenan wraps these things back up — her questions, her nouns — and lets them be in her poems. She places her poems on thresholds or in transitional geographies. Keenan takes more time by fully inhabiting the white space in and around her poems. She carries the momentum of the poems, supporting weight throughout the book. She employs long and unpunctuated lines in order to exceed natural breath. And, Keenan writes in conversational language. Combined, these craft elements create the coma factor that so enriches our experience of Deborah Keenan’s poetry.
1. Deborah Keenan, Good Heart (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2003), 30.
2. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Random House, Vintage Books, 1988, 1965), 288.
3. Keenan, 32.
4. Leslie Scalapino, “An Interview with Leslie Scalapino,” interview by Larry Sutin and Rebecca Weaver, Water-Stone 4 (fall 2001): 79.
5. I say “when she writes” because Deborah Keenan is also a visual artist.
6. Susan Ludvigson, review, www.milkweed.org/4_catalog/4_1_3_4156.html [cited 20 August 2003].
7. Thom Gunn, The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985), 23, 24.
8. hor’s notes from Deborah Keenan’s course, “Four Poets and More,” taught fall semester, 2000, at Hamline University, St. Paul MN.
9. ard Hirsch, as quoted by Elizabeth Alexander in “An Interview with Elizabeth Alexander,” interview by Deborah Keenan and Diane LeBlanc, Water-Stone 6 (fall 2003).
10. Keenan, 52, 13.
11. J. P. White, review, www.milkweed.org/4_catalog/4_1_3_4156.html [cited 20 August 2003].
12. Louise Bogan, Journey Around My Room: the Autobiography of Louise Bogan, (New York: Viking Press, 1980), 2.
13. See note 8.
14. Keenan, [x].
15. See note 8.