Charles Altieri: On "Silence"

That "nor was he insincere" marvelously fixes a prevailing tone defining the emotional burdens that demand a daughter's Modernist refusal of all of the old representational securities. Facing a father who so willfully manipulates the powers that language confers, the daughter's primary task is to appropriate those powers to her own mode of restraint, which must grapple with the task of fixing him and freeing herself. Such needs, however, also bring extreme risks. Should she either overestimate her power or underestimate the task, she is likely to trap herself in poses of hatred and obsessive resistance that only confirm his victory. Ironically. that is why the father's advice is so compelling. One in her situation must refrain from any self-staging—either as Elinor Wylie's self-pity or as Sylvia Plath's fantasies of revenge. Instead, virtuality becomes a vital weapon, and Modernist formal strategies establish a possible psychology. All of the care that attracts the unicorn or preserves traces of the basilisk here goes into investing herself in the father's sources of strength, without fixating on either his deeds or any single fantasy of her own projected response. This empathic distance becomes formidable power as she replaces melodramatic rhetoric with a withering precision, whose formulated phrases capture in the simple double negative of "nor was he insincere" the essential inhumanity of his reticence. Moore's speaker is by no means immune to the power of his control over language, but this "nor" superbly positions her attraction against the background of a deeper, unspeakable negative, which casts his self-control as bordering on the margin of a terrifying monstrosity. It is no wonder, then, that once the daughter's imagination is released by an extended simile, it dwells on the morbid scenario of the mouse in the cat's mouth, an objective correlative for life with father.

For Moore, however, and for her Selected Poems, that terror must not be allowed to prevail or to generate a counterviolence sustaining a similar self-absorption. The first thing necessary to resist his authority is to do him justice, by acknowledging the style and insight that make his idiosyncratic ways come to exemplify values that she seeks in her own poetry. But one must test what one has made from those beginnings by exploring both the poet's and the daughter's ability to transform the strengths of her internalized father figure into a precursor for her own sense of individual power. In order to understand, she must identify with him, by continuing to quote his characteristic utterances; but in order to conquer, she must be so supple in her identifications that she maintains her own difference, her own perpendicularity, without having to project it into the terms such fathers love to deconstruct. What better way to do that than to use her metamorphic abilities to appropriate the phrase most characteristic of her father's strengths and her fears, "Inns are not residences."

An emblem that she continues to hold in this strange mix of awe and fear becomes, through the testimony of this volume, also the expression that best characterizes her own capacity to make language a provisional and fluid mode of dwelling. There remains the risk that even this degree of accepting the father's formulation will make playing at differences only an evasion of remaining at heart the dutiful daughter. But for her poetry, that risk becomes part of the implicit background, part of the contrast that reminds us that thinking in such global categories either misses or denies precisely what gives Moore her claims to independence. Were one to avoid that risk, one would have to reject the entire culture shaped by such fathers. By quoting that authority, on the other hand, Moore can create a highly complex site where we observe language playing out a drama of affiliation and difference that is basic to life within a culture. Yes, her language then remains dependent on his. But that dependency is a beginning, not a final state. It resounds as an implicit contrastive context, testing her own ability to make language precise and fluid enough to appropriate what it echoes. As Pound would try to do, on a much more theatrical scale, Moore uses her mobile shifts simultaneously to confirm her banishment to a life of inns and to make that instability a residence in its own right—a home won by the power to control virtual identifications with such grace that they need never be tied to forms that invite either the mirror or the dump.

From Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry: The Contemporaneity of Modernism. Copyright © 1989 by Cambridge University Press.

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Title Charles Altieri: On "Silence" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Charles Altieri Criticism Target Marianne Moore
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 31 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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