Martha Ronk

On Marianne Moore's "Those Various Scalpels"

In many of Marianne Moore's poems from the Selected 1935, the titles move directly into the first line of the poem. The first words relate to the title in a way that is an echo, a continuation, an adjacency. Each of these poems is a plunge from the title on down, and this device puts one directly into the poem. There is no resting point between title and first line and the title does not sit atop the poem announcing a topic, but is already the kick-off into the waters of the poem itself. To begin in such a way not only underscores Moore's famous specificity, but also enacts it; that is, the specificity is not only in the nouns in the body of a poem (three bunches of grapes, ties with silver; sapphires set with emeralds, and pearls with a moonstone) but also in the tactile, syntactical connection between the title and the first line.

I am obsessed these July days at MacDowell by the poem in my one Marianne Moore book, a second-hand Collected Poems 1951, "Those Various Scalpels," that moves directly into a text that is, it turns out, a description of a woman, although "description" belies the tortured and circuitous artificiality of the process as she is cut up and presented (although it also turns out that it is she too who wields weapons or scalpels):

                               Those Various Scalpels

                      various sounds consistently indistinct, like intermingled
                          struck from thin glasses successively at random—the
                            inflection disguised: your hair, the tails of two
                          fighting-cocks head to head in stone—like sculptured scimitars re-
                             peating the curve of your ears in reverse order: your
                               eyes, flowers of ice

In this initial stanza the "those" of the title is echoed in the first word of the first line, "those," and then other echoes reverberate in the words used to describe the sounds echoing from a struck glass (in "consistently indistinct" and in all the repeated consonant sounds) such that the whole is bound tightly together even as it is cut apart and dispersed. Moore's poem moves forward, also without narrative as some contemporary process poetry, but with sharp edges, strong breaks, mannered artifice, rhyme: eyes/ice; those/echoes; hair/tail .)

In part this relation of title to text suggests a voice speaking and moving right along, but also it enacts a cut at the outset that is repeated in the body of many of the poems. Thus, although there is a fluidity from title to text, there is also a "cut" between them created by the white space. Moore uses this device often to make one attend to what has been cut out and suspended in white space so as to be clearly seen, but the idea of "cut" works especially well in a poem such as "Those Various Scalpels" about dissection itself:

                       other hand,

              bundle of lances all alike, partly hid by emeralds from
                  and the fractional magnificence of Florentine
                      goldwork—a collection of little objects—

The use of blades in the poem is especially disconcerting as juxtaposed to dresses, cheeks, hands (as in Shakespeare's "rosy lips and cheeks/ within his bending sickle's compass come"). Yet it suggests a reading of the poem in which its erotic tension rests in sado-masochism, the poet cutting up the figure who cuts, in which the two women, one writing and one being written, mirror one another, a mirroring present in the opening lines I have cited in which "those various sounds" can refer to the voice being described, the poetic voice, the clashing of their scalpels. The figure in the poem is cut into pieces, each piece then ornamented in fetishistic and outlandish ways—made strange, and strangely, for all the visual clues, too fragmented and freighted to be visualized. The poem attacks the figure described, is critical of her sophistication, instruments of dissection, icy brilliance; yet the poem also makes her bleed: "your cheeks, those rosettes/ of blood on the stone floors of French chateaux."

In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, the duke (wrongly believing that the boy Cesario, whom he loves without quite knowing it, has cruelly betrayed him) pulls his sword and vows to "sacrifice the lamb that I do love." As in Moore's poem this responsive moment is startling in its destructive and erotic power; the poet, like the duke, mirrors the cruel behavior of the woman who holds of the position of a "beloved," and turns on her as one cock turns on the other in stanza #1. The poem seems to fall into the category of a Renaissance blazon and ought, somehow, to be cooly and precisely descriptive, but there is too much heat, too much wreckage ("snow sown by tearing winds on the cordage of disabled/ships"). Why had I thought of Moore's poems as cooly arranged? Here the cut-up lines may offer a pretense of careful arrangement, but they also enact an erotic charge that clings both to the behavior of the woman described and, so it seems to me, to poetic practice. Here is stanza "5:

       brilliance by the hard majesty of that sophistication which
              is su-
         perior to opportunity, these things are rich
            instruments with which to experiment; naturally. But
         Why dissect destiny with instruments which
             are more highly specialized than the tissues of destiny

I am reading The Freudian Body by Leo Bersani (Columbia, 1986) and working on poems about the marble body of Ariadne in De Chirico's paintings; I will close with a sentence from Bersani: "Freud subverts views of pleasure as inherently social by suggesting that even the most sublimated forms of pleasure are ontologically grounded in a jouissance at once solipsistic and masochistic, a jouissance which isolates the human subject in a socially and epistemologically 'useless,' but infinititely seductive, repetition" (90). Not something I had previously thought to bring to bear thinking about Marianne Moore's poems or my own work.

—July, 2003


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