The Reddest Herring by Francisco Guevara
University of Santo Tomas Publishing*, 2015
“We attend to each other,” says the poet Norma Cole. We attend, that is, we go to a place where quite likely there is an occasion, and by attending to each other we find in another this place, an occasion, and the poet possibly finds this place and occasion in a poem. This attending attention, this tending, is vital, all the more critical, if we are ever to imagine a community, formed out of writing and art.
The question of place and occasion, which we can think of as the poem, is allegorically rich in the two figures, Adam and Alice, who are in attendance in Francisco Guevara’s The Reddest Herring. Adam whose place and occasion in the biblical garden is marked by the event of denotation (the event of naming), as denotation is conditioned and enabled by speech; and Alice whose places and occasions at the garden party, in the forest, and in the courthouse are formed by signification, as signification it is authorized by language.
In his book “The Logic of Sense,” Gilles Deluze makes us consider the three relations that exist in propositions: Denotation or the relation of propositions to objects (the domain of logic); Manifestation or the relation of propositions to the subject who utters them (the domain of speech); and Signification or the relation of propositions to other propositions (the domain of language). We attend to the meeting of these three relations in “The Reddest Herring,” through Adam and Alice, through its biblical gardens, forests, and courthouses inscribed in language and speech. The opening poem beckons to us to enter a garden’s garden (and already how else might we enter this garden, inscribed in another garden, if not through sound?) with an emphatic, accented “O” sound:
O, once Adam’s address revolved
around Alice’s many addresses in the red
she wore as Adam’s only breath upon
the song she became by being spoken
by the inability to copyright air
thus called rest in the garden’s garden,
where Alice was who Adam never knew
he always was in the sense of a question
thus asked for without knowing tomorrow
had already arrived in pieces of each
and every one of Alice’s passing away
with every kiss Adam devoured in her name:
(“In the garden’s garden”)
A number of wondrous things happen “In the garden’s garden.” Take for instance, the line: the song she became by being spoken – alluding multiply to one’s becoming-song, to being being engendered by speech, and even to how being is immediately song (the song she became by being). A line that is wondrous even its prosody (the song she became by being spoken) – the iambic the song inverted in the amphibrach-trochee of by being spoken. The title itself leads us from the biblical garden into a prosodic garden: In the garden’s garden where interestingly the stress in gar of the possessive garden’s is accented more strongly than the stress in the object possessed garden; the difference in accents allowing us to imagine not just the geometric enclosure of a garden within a garden, but also aurally a garden prosodically enclosed in another garden. And all these aren’t mere fallacies of imitative form if one were to consider the precision with which the 4-beat, 3-beat and 5-beat lines are used in the poem. The poem ends with a colon followed by silence, and we imagine the implications Alice has on the list – the objects Adam named – which potentially follows that colon but which we read only as the silence, the rest (in its musical and Sabbatical implications) at the end of the poem.
The poems in The Reddest Herring lend themselves well to a reading for prosody, and quite interestingly so, if we think of prosody as a structure found somewhere at the boundary between language and speech (a side note: In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze talks about a fourth relationship: Expression, which happens at the domain of sense, at the boundary between propositions and things). The most interesting things happen at the boundary. One can find analogues of the importance of boundary studies in semiconductor physics, in the socioeconomic and sociocultural importance of port cities, or in neuropsychology, if one thinks of the space between brain and mind. In the poem’s sense, between language and speech, composing through prosody is perhaps a way of keeping the “I” lyric while keeping the ego away.
Yet as much as boundaries are potential sites for emergent forms, and possibly the new, working at the boundaries demands that work be done as well to understand the limits of such workings. In reference to the Greek proposal for the existence of an atom, the Greek atomos meaning “undivided,” the Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko makes insightful notice of physics falling into a “linguistic trap in its quest for the indivisible particle.” Language in its endless play of meaning grants us both: emergent forms and linguistic traps. In the poem “Jus ad bellum,” we are made wary that such linguistic traps can have ethical implications:
its warmth inhaled & whistle – blown for a future
free of tense & a sentencing of one’s stutter
kissed/ galloped in and around burning flesh
she read for swarm. With no makeshift wind –
mill, I revised/ was infected in the automated
sense I took for her coursing office; until its
scape could play itself out of glasses I spit-shined
in the shadow play you dated creaturely, in
a classical sense you nursed and, therefore, was
complicit with what my father’s father drafted –
thou tallied in disavowal. O, another glister one
invokes for dutiful, another kill box to ward off our
disquiet – my frequency coalesced then undone
(from “Jus ad bellum, to awe”)
The linguistic trap of “jus ad bellum,” particularly when taken with jus in bello, is that language has allowed us to imagine a just war, and that we have taken the ethical to mean ethical in terms of a measurable proportionality between political objectives and collateral damage. The absurdity is taken further in “Jus ad belum, to awe” in its presentation of an anesthetizing image of war and this image’s capacity to deliver simultaneously all of amazement, a sense of security, and indifference, a lack of accountability: complicit with what my father’s father drafted –// thou tallied in disavowal. O another glister one/ invokes for dutiful, another kill box to ward off our/ disquiet – my frequency coalesced then undone.
The poems in “The Reddest Herring,” with their dark humor, and precise prosody, certainly do not stop with our contemporary condition, that is, that meaning is always already frayed. They continue to seek: what then of us when both Adam and Alice have beautifully failed – the feeble power of names, and the endless proliferation of meaning. We proceed, by shifting and shifting the caesurae, to find in the silences what possibly amounts to us, then continue to proceed from there:
is to be missing the air about to die
as pages left intentionally blank return
to you in protest: Turning what was left
of your resistance into sails was the ink
I was wading in – an epitaph you renamed
laughter in to cast land out of the living.
O, you can become a plaza if you sing
the ink enough if enough meant someone
you knew as you walked through them.
Didn’t through mean being able to notate
your silence in what amounted to us?
Or, were we merely waiting on the traffic
of each and every tomorrow when giving
oneself up to the day? Or, were we the flood
learning to fill our every crevice with
every breath? Our spit to spite our dwelling
returned to us as it passed once upon
a time: We were curious as the flood
trying to feed, and we were fed once
the flood weighed on that time’s remains.
(“To be more or less of ash”)
Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester, and Charles Stivale. 11 York Road, London: Continuum, 2004.
Dragomoschenko, Arkadii. Description. Trans. Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova. Gertrude Stein Plaza, Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1990.
*Editor’s Note: This title is only available through UST’s online order form, ISBN: 9715067447
Raymond de Borja is a writer and visual artist from the Philippines. Some of his works can be found on High Chair, Kritika Kultura, HTML Giant, Lemonhound, The Volta Blog, Matter Monthly, Entropy Mag, and The Capilano Review.