5 ene. 2003

Reading Harryette Mullen’s poem “O ‘tis William,” I did not at first notice the guiding principle:

--Is it Otis?
--I’m . . .
--Otis, so it is.
--Am I?
--‘Tis Otis.
--I am . . .
--So, it’s Otis.
--I am William.
--O, Otis, sit.
--O, I am Will.
--Sit, Otis.


Only reflecting back on my reading about half an hour later, without the book in front of me, did it hit me. The obviously “oulipean” tone, I concluded, came from the fact that the text is a lipogram: it is forbidden to use the letter “e” in this poem. (As in Georges Perec’s novel “La disparition.”) I came back downstairs to confirm this intuition, and noticed that “u” is also absent, presumably verboten along with “e.” Thus the obvious question “Are you Otis?” must be rephrased.

But this was obviously wrong! There are many other letters missing aside from these two vowels. I started to make a list of the missing letters, but then I realized that the only permissible letters were those included in the names “William” and Otis.” It is not a lipogram, then, but a series of anagrammatic variations on these two proper names. It gets better: the speaker who mistakes William for Otis begins by only using the four letters of Otis. “William” begins by only using the letters of his own name. Only gradually does the first speaker beging to use the w, the a, etc... and vice-versa. By the end of the poem both speakers use all the allowable letters. It is quite late before the letters of the two names merge in the word “still.” Is this the only word in the poem that combines the two set of letters? The “I” of identity is the only letter shared by the two names. I could go on and on with this analysis...

How I could be so slow to realize all this is quite puzzling to me. I should have had it in an instant. I thought the text was a quite enjoyable and hilarious meditation on personal identity before I even thought to look for the guiding constraint in a systematic way. Perhaps I assumed I would just go back later and figure it out, which is in fact what happened.

“Denigration” is a poem that refuses to use the infamous n******* word. The word is definitely present in the text, though: denigration, niggling, nigrescence, niggardly, enigma. Also, words with “neg”: neglect, negligible, negotiate, negate, renegades, renege. The entire poem plays on two unrelated Latin roots, nigr- and neg-.

A poem dedicated to Jayne Cortez makes me think of Ornette Coletrane’s “Jayne,” one of his most tuneful tunes. (It is the same Jayne.)

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