Michael Simeone: On "A Colossal American Copulation"

I'd just like to briefly comment on the standing conversation on MAPS regarding Adrian Louis' "A Colossal American Copulation." It seems that at present, most of the critical work treating the poem is largely concerned with Louis' paradoxically resistant and cooperative relationship to dominant culture. Both Marsh and Beatty see the poem as taking dominant culture as its object, a model that is mostly accurate but effaces a crucial element of self-hatred present in Louis' work; the speaker of the poem is just as much a reflexive target of the poem's invective as the U.S. culture that surrounds him. This is not a poem about "flipping off the U.S" (Beatty); rather, it is a poem that treats the speaker's haunting dissillusionment with his own life given the frivolity of U.S. culture and the inevitable decay of the physical body.

Firstly, before anything else, I'd like to make a case for the moral indignation present in these lines. Beatty notes that "Louis undercuts the moral force of any item in his long list of 'fuck you's," but this is far from the case. Louis' poem is veritable freight train of "fucks," all irreverantly applied, accumulating a kind of vitriolic, hateful, and sanctamonious momentum that simply cannot be offset by the injection of lines such as "fuck a duck" (which, by the way, I have never heard uttered playfully. In fact, "fuck a duck" is far from harmlessly playful; it is the epitomization of frustration and agression without object. It is anger without a path of release. The line may be absurd, but it is a cruel, contained, and frustrated absurdity). This and similar "playful" variations (fuck you very much, fuck it again Sam, etc.) certainly contain some ludic interpenetration of tradition and discourse, (as does the whole poem), but it is a stretch to say that, given the violence of the poem's speech and the moral valence of many of its targets (vietnam, for instance), the poem's moral force has been undercut.

Indeed, the poem is a kind of angry whirlwhind, sparing little (only mother teresa escapes, but not unscathed; she still gets to be the object of a blunt "fuck you," and despite its retraction one line later, the illocutionary act of telling mother teresa fuck you speaks to the poem's near total lack of concern for the sacred, the respected, and the empowered). Through cursing things like his first sexual experience, his first cigarette, and Bob Dyalan, the speaker not only implicates elements of his life in the upkeep of a frivolous culture, but he also self-loathingly denies the pleasure that any of these things gave him. He thus not only negates the world around him, but also negates himself as a creature capable of happiness.

Crucial to this disillusionment with existance (NOT just U.S. culture) is a realization of the decay of the human body over time. The recount of his personal history through substance abuse serves as a grim reminder of the deteriorization of the speaker's own body, and his pre-emptive fuck you-ing of the man that will see him dead again speaks to the materiality and transience of human flesh. Most notable to this point, however, is his choice to round out the poem with an attack on the disease that affect's his "woman."

Here, the speaker is not lamenting his own choices, attacking the U.S., or even engaging in any kind of disturbing irreverance; he is literally shouting against decay, "Fuck Alzheimer's."

The conclusion of the poem, then, functions less as a nihilistic assertion of the middle finger (Beatty) and more of a frustrated realization of the speaker's position within a frivolus and unjust culture, an aging body, and the unforgiving attrition of life experiences and the passage of time.

Stephen Cushman: On "The Fish"

[T]he familiar poem "The Fish" can be reread profitably as a configuration of simple parallels and more complex subordinations, culminating in the paratactic connection reminiscent of biblical syntax: "And I let the fish go." The careful avoidance of subordination, as in "so I let the fish go," reveals the speaker’s reluctance, even refusal, to impose a more obvious moral closure on her narrative. Instead, Bishop reserves subordination for the shift from the speaker’s simple narration of her fish story to an imaginative identification with the fish she catches. Through the first 21 lines the only conjunction is ‘and" and several statements are linked without conjunctions at all. Then, as the first-person speaker shifts from "I caught" to "I thought," comes hypotaxis:

While his gills were breathing in the terrible oxygen -- the frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood, that can cut so badly – I thought of the coarse white flesh packed in like feathers.

In this poem, with its paratactic skeleton of "I caught," "I thought," "I looked," "I admired," "I stared and stared," "And I let the fish go," hypotaxis signals the journey to the interior, as the mere recounting of events yields to personal reflection on, and appreciation of, those events. As in "the Map," in which hypotaxis accompanies the printer’s excitement "as when emotion too far exceeds its cause," parataxis in "the Fish" governs emotion, whereas hypotaxis releases it, even in the vision of a "pool of bilge / where oil had spread rainbow."

From Stephen Cushman, "Elizabeth Bishop’s Winding Path," Chapter 5 in Fictions of Form in American Poetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 131.