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Death in New York (End)

Conclusion: Koch's Seasons on Earth

By way of a conclusion I want to consider three things in relation to Koch’s “Seasons on Earth.” The first is the nature of the edge of absence that Derrida calls the nonpassage, a paradoxical territory called death into which we cannot travel and yet simultaneously must travel both eventually, but also within everyday life. It is against this radical absence that all our structures of presence are constructed. The second is the paradox of the elegy which is a structure of presence to give a voice or an extra life to absence. And further how this is problematised in structures which are themselves elegiac, in this case New York School nonrational poetics. How can one deal with the presence of absence in a mode of expression that is itself structured through absence before presence? What is the poetic nature of absence dealt with through absence? Finally, the third issue is that of the text or what is left over after the damage of mourning, melancholia, elegy, the nonpassage and the like, has been done.

The inner edge of “Seasons on Earth” is the second season of uncertainty and, in this fashion, its structure closely follows that of the wave operating at the meta-level. The first season is mythical semantic plenitude, the second the moment of scission between the poem and life, and the third the retrospective season of experience during which the poem is written. Of these three seasons, the second season seems to negotiate between the two other seasons, of certainty and uncertainty, and so forms not so much an edge as a border. This is, however, all brought about due to the proximity of death:

You, six months pregnant, lost the baby; it was
The saddest thing that ever happened to us.

You almost died. They tried to give you oxygen
In the wrong way, in the bare-beamed Municipal
Hospital. I helped save you. They were lax again
With blood. Good God! All life became peripheral,
A mess, a nightmare, until you were back again.
My poem had not a trace of these things medical;
But it was full of dyings and revivings
And strange events, that went past plain connivings— (Koch, Seasons on Earth 10)

The miscarriage and the threat to Janice, Koch’s wife and the absent “you” to whom the poem is addressed, are neatly versified by enjambment, a stanza break, a caesura, and the internal rhyme died/tried, all of which work wonderfully to convey the threat of a permanent absence within a structure of poetic semantic presence. There is also a further artificiality of the actual death in one stanza, that of their foetal child, and the near-death in the next. The gap between the two stanzas, therefore, defines a difference between the edge of mourning, which deals with death directly in a form which comes to an end, here a full stop and stanza break, and of melancholia.

With melancholia there is no such neat point of closure, and so the threat to Janice’s life is extended through the rhyme oxygen/again/again, whose aural repetitions could go on indefinitely, placed against the complex feminine, Latinate rhyme scheme Municipal/peripheral/medical. The first rhyme grouping expresses in miniature the process of attempted revivals through the administering of oxygen, incorrectly, the second, the hostile institutional forces which seem at this point to conspire against the couple. The closural vs. processual “deaths” in the poem seem to be a matter of contraction vs. extension within the poem’s versification, so that the concluding couplet rhyme of the ottova rima, in which the poem is composed, is lengthened to a triplet in the second stanza, whereas the end of the first stanza is fittingly a self-enclosed unit with the key masculine rhymes “it was/to us.”

The small community of rhyme posits the non-identity of the dead baby through the event rather than the being, hence the anaphoric “it” refers not to the dead child but the act of losing the child. The pronominal “us” is itself pluralist and communal in contrast to the personal experience of Janice in the following stanza, her battle for life against the incompetence of institutions, which Koch places against the background of his own self-confessed poetic betrayal of her. Poetry is, after all, another aspect of the institutional, a fact Koch spends a good deal of his early career dealing with. The rhyme revivings/connivings further adds to this as the death/non-death edges of his poetry of the time seem to contradict the ordinary poetic practice of association. The complicity between Koch and Janice expressed in the “us,” is followed by a separation of the two in the next stanza, with Koch joining the institution by helping the doctors to save his wife, and also failing her institutionally by not being able to deal with this part of their lives directly in his work of the time.

The metonymic surface aesthetic of Koch’s first season is not an associative process but a causal and truly physical one. And so his inability as a poet to deal physically with death and absence is the turning point for a poetry of contiguity, where enforced and threatened absences seem to make association more necessary as a solution to the inevitability of death. One cannot take a part of absence to stand in for the whole of absence, nor can one make a causal link to death. In the end there is no contiguity with the realm of the dead and this is why elegy is an edge and not a border, and why the nonpassage does/does not occur. One cannot pass into death or even conceive of it as a place one might pass into, although we regularly do so. Death is the limit of thinking and when Koch tries to stretch a poetic epidermis over death in the same fashion as he had been doing with life, the fabric of his poetry, and therefore his life, is torn.

Elegiac language is a cadaver or fallen body shed as the subject strives for the metaphysical union it perceives to be waiting for it beyond death, and this is why mourning and melancholia operate in this articulate, desiccated fashion. While Ashbery openly exploits this in his four part trope of the wave which both rises up and falls, as well as moving across wreaking havoc as it goes, Koch shies away from this in his assessment, in the third season of his poetic career, of the damage done by his earlier poetry. Speaking of the now absent truth of his earlier poetry, absent because in a processual surface aesthetic presence is only accorded in the moment of initial expression, he notes:

It’s gone but in the head it stays and sizzles,
It’s gone but in the heart it stays and sings.
It’s gone, sometimes, like boomeranging missiles
And it comes back, and makes, and breaks up things. (Koch, Seasons 18)

This seems quite clearly a classic elegiac statement, the lost beloved—here Janice, his youth and the first idea—is openly lost but given an opportunity to return. The result is damage, as with Ashbery’s wave, and the process of mourning at the limits, but the language here operates a kind of elegiac damage limitation. It’s gone but it never really goes as it is in the head, the heart, on the page and, due to the boomerang logic of Freudian nachtr√§glichkeit, it will always, anyway, come back.

The difference between “Seasons on Earth” and “A Wave” is that between mourning and melancholia. While Koch is recovered enough to write an elegy about his aesthetic, Ashbery is still caught within the process of elegiac edges. This being the case, Koch is no longer at the limit of conceptual thinking which perhaps occurred only briefly for him during the second season when he first learned about death, and in some ways his poetry since the eighties has rested on its laurels. Ashbery, however, is still caught up in his cheerful melancholia, withdrawing his attachments to meaning while simultaneously reinvesting them. His poems continue to resemble elegiac dejecta or marks left over after his passage through the realm of the nonpassage.

In this way it can be seen that these late elegies comment on two early concepts of New York School, nonrational poetics: the surface and the process. Koch, however, treats the surface archeologically, presupposing its non-articulate depthless membrane is now over and fit to be folded up and stowed away. Ashbery is, quite simply, still going on. However, whatever the individual merits of each trope, both poets in these later works, demonstrate three central issues in relation to nonrational poetics. First that the nonrational is elegiac, that is a means of dealing with absence. Second that elegiac language places us at the limit of what we can say or do. And third, that while elegy is a means of dealing with absence through presence, elegiac nonrational poetry is a means of demonstrating the non-presence of absence. The marks it leaves over or drops, the poems in this case, are not there to resolve the paradox of death but to prove its irresolvability and bravely to face up to the damage this does to our seemingly unassailable structures of presence.


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