USEREVIEW 021: Grammar Poetics (An Experimental Review of Four Books)
Grammar is often relegated to the status of pedantic concern, if it is noticed at all. Yet in this experimental review of 4 books — spanning 32 years of Canadian poetry — Klara du Plessis wields the twin powers of scholarly attentiveness and literary imagination to drag the study of grammar out of drudgery and into a new vitality.
Grammar — a suspension of disbelief in which rules repeat themselves, and words enter an invisible structure, formulating themselves according to prefabricated patterns and value judgements. Linguists might describe the historicity and coherencies of grammatic processes, but I prefer to think of these regulations as arbitrary, a wink-wink, nudge-nudge in the economy of language production. Strange things happen in grammar.
An instance of uncanniness (canine / canonize) is the similarity between plural noun forms and he / she / it verb conjugations in English. Take: one form, but many forms. Multiplicity adds an -s. We form, but she forms. A singular speaker adds an -s. Or differently put, the singular speaker adds an -s, pluralizes its verb form. She (many) forms. We (only one) form. Indoctrinated into the whimsical regularity of grammar, my analysis is bonkers. But think about it, how strange it is that the verb of a singular subject gets syntactically tied to the plural noun form. Or conversely, that the verb of a plural subject (we, you, they) contracts into a singular noun. In other words, subject-verb agreement holds an inherent speculation about the nature of identity. A supposedly singular subject position refracts into many when its action adds an -s. Likewise, the apparent group identity of plural pronouns unifies into a verb which could also be a singular noun.
Stranger still, this interplay of singular and plural within noun and verb formulations is accentuated, or obscured, or complicated, in combinations of collective nouns and prepositional phrases. While this is something I’ve privately been reflecting on for a long time, a line from Annick MacAskill’s 2020 poetry collection Murmurations, which for me exemplifies this phenomenon, recently brought me to a standstill. In a poem called “May 6,” this line shakes the presumptions of grammar and “An imperative of crows emerges.” One imperative (many) emerges. (If emerge could momentarily be imagined as a possible noun form alongside its identity as a verb.) This follows the grammar rule that has been established — a singular subject connects to its plural noun-as-verb. And yet, this line sneakily juxtaposes the words “crows” and “emerges.” Each time I read MacAskill’s line — for the fluctuating breath of a second — my eyes simultaneously absorb “an imperative emerges” and “crows emerges.” My eyes mark the dissonance of what I know to be grammatical and what I intuit as correct; “crows emerges” with its aligned plural -s, links, doubles, performs its own plurality in morphology. An imperative, a rule, a grammar rule, emerges, but gets exploded into a thousand pieces as its group formation, those crows, also emerges. Little, black crows speculate their own grammar across the sky, peering inwards towards their unification as a flock, but perforating this oneness into words that emerge as specks of nonsense from the page.
“I am tired of the same old interrelated logic of the signs that we insist upon as if it were true” writes Erín Moure in “The Acts 2” from her 1988 poetry collection Furious. Forcefully questioning grammar, she attempts to release parts of speech from their predetermined roles — or at least to trouble the unconsidered use value of words. She draws attention to the fact that when one unquestioningly applies a noun as a noun, that noun adopts the subject position it was fated to be. Or, when one uses a verb as a verb, there are implicit power relations at play, which allow that verb to activate the sentence, which allow other words to be governed by that activation.
That the noun and verb possess the strength, power, force in language has been ingrained in us from our earliest school. The signs for object/names, and the signs for the movement of these objects. This re/presents reality … To try to move the force in language from the noun/verb centre. To de/centralize the force inside the utterance from noun/verb, say, to the preposition. Even for a moment. To break the vertical hold. To empower the preposition to signify and utter motion, the motion of the utterance, and thereby Name. The Motion before the Name.
(“The Acts 10”)
It would be a stretch to suggest that nouns and verbs aren’t relational — the connective nature of syntax implies alliances, associations, parallel vectors and intersections between words. Grammar itself is relational too, in the sense that by using it and following its rules, a web of understanding is generated between speakers, listeners, writers, readers and all users of language. But possibly even more so than nouns and verbs and grammar as concept, prepositions are themselves relational by default. That is, prepositions as parts of speech create links between words, activate positionality and mobility between words. They create specificity in the interwoven word world of the sentence.
“In spite of us, the connection / between words, are words things, are they names of things,” Moure reflects in “Pure Writing is a Notion Beyond the Pen.” It’s convenient to equate names with nouns and nouns with things — and then, in the process, to forget that every word is a name for its own grammatical function. “Towards” is the name for the preposition “towards”; “towards” is also the part of speech that places nouns in an arc of motion in relation to other nouns and their actions. The elongating movement of “towards” overlays its act as preposition with the proto-act of gesturing towards a verb. The preposition frays the artifice of a grammatical division of labour.
Then it is this simple. I felt the unordinary romance of
women who love women for the first time. It burst in
(“Hard Against the Soul X”)
In Dionne Brand’s 1990 poetry collection No Language Is Neutral, a handful of prepositions are positioned as the final words of poetic lines — as illustrated by “of” and “in” in the lines cited above. This practice by no means becomes a rule throughout the book (and I continue to fixate on marginal reflections), but it might become a habit — creating unusual caesurae that strike the reader with this slight awkwardness of emphasis. While writing this, I realize how nonsensical it is to suggest that placing a preposition at the end of a line is a faux pas; yet as an extremely generalized observation, the reader of poetry acclimatizes to the poetic line as either a completed phrase, or a sonic play of sorts. The final word of a poetic line has, across generations of poetry, adopted a position of power, perhaps partially due to end rhyme protocols, perhaps due to its visual prominence, less hemmed in between surrounding words (like the extra windows of a corner apartment). This expectation that the poetic line should conclude with a sense of authority (and thus not with a preposition, for example) further drives home Moure’s claim of the verb / noun hegemony in grammar.
In Brand’s “Hard Against the Soul III,” seven of the thirteen lines — and in other words, the majority of lines — end with words that aren’t verbs or nouns. These are not all prepositions, but also include articles, forms of negation and markers of possession: “out”; “an”; “not”; “the”; “in”; “as”; “your” (“Hard Against the Soul III”). Articles are parts of speech that generally articulate hierarchy of indefinite versus specific; negation is a form of excision; possession may imply passivity on the part of the possessed. What prepositions, articles and markers of negation and possession have in common is the ability to structure the dynamic scaffolding of a sentence or a line without drawing much attention to themselves as entities. Yet in Brand’s writing, there is a trend of little words occupying optical positions of power at the ends of poetic lines; physically little words play materially substantial roles as the poem unfolds, as the mirage of “an / easy thought” merges with the significance of “the / sun dripping orange” in the negation of the entire scene — a potential death negated in the choice of living. Brand activates the fact that the end word of the poetic line is the centre of the sentence, of the praxis of the poem. The end word of the poetic line literally pulses the reader’s eye from line to line like the machinery that maintains the flow of words called language, interpretation and poem. By placing prepositions, articles and more as end words, Brand allows grammatical marginalization to mark a transformed relationship to the caesura; the connective tissue of grammar fibrillates line breaks from end to centre.
Canisia Lubrin’s 2020 poetry collection The Dyzgraphxst includes a list of dramatis personae: “i: First person singular. / I: Second person singular. / I: Third person plural … I choreographs.” That is, the first person singular speaker is refracted to likewise identify as you and as they. Pronouns move, expand and contract. “I’s own vagrancy,” Lubrin writes, “who were you before I.” On the one hand, an individual fluctuates. On the other hand, the delimitation of identity usually associated with a pronoun is destabilized to swerve back and forth between the individual and the collective. I and i are simultaneously an individual, and the product of who those individuals are expected to be in relation to community, society and culture, or the product of who they are expected to be once those forces exert pressures onto the lone identity of i. Moreover, when I is also you, the reader is always implicitly being addressed and hailed into the poem through the voice of that which takes on the appearance of the lyrical I. As Lubrin notes, “I was not myself, i am not myself, myself // resembles something having nothing to do / with me.” The dramatis personae enact a drama through their very existence; even preceding action, the malleability of identity, through the disruption of pronouns, is a drama in and of itself.
This multiplying of what I is identified with has the effect of disarming expectations of verb conjugation too. Sometimes I’s verb is conjugated as if it were a different pronoun. Some variations seem grammatically correct, so to speak: for example, “i hadn’t.” Other variations create the sense of I being a name for another individual: “I is” or “I enters.” Occasionally, conjugation could be the same for any pronoun I might be standing in for; whether I is I or you or they, the verb form would stay the same: “I must” (and you must, and they must). This grammatical fluctuation destabilizes the reading process too; the reader stops noticing these shifts in conjugation, seamlessly processing new grammars in which pronouns and their actions become less dependent on one another. Relationality flutters through the eyes. This play with first person pronouns conveniently feeds back into my opening statement. Grammar is a construct by which the linguistic world abides, with some minor fluctuations and dialect-based modulations. Mouths and hands speak and write — create and consume literature — more or less according to the rhythms of preconceived language. And yet, the fluency of flow showcases the very destabilization of linguistic structures through, what I’m calling now, grammar poetics. The ability to move upstream in language, to reroute rules and regularities and definitions, to make meaning through the unmaking of structures of meaning, this is poetry. Poetry makes its own practice, its own poetics through the (non) grammatical raw material of its existence. Or, poetics — the undoing of grammar through grammar in poetry.
Dionne Brand’s No Language is Neutral (Coach House Books, 1990)
ISBN 978-0-771016462 | 56 pp | $16.00 CAD
Canisia Lubrin’s The Dyzgraphxst (McClelland & Stewart, 2020)
ISBN 978-0-771048692 | 176 pp | $21.00 CAD
Annick MacAskill’s Murmurations (Gaspereau Press, 2020)
ISBN 978-1-554472086 | 96 pp | $21.95 CAD
Erín Moure’s Furious (House of Anansi, 1988)
ISBN 978-1-487004286 | 112 pp | $16.95 CAD