And, Always,We Love Our Chains: Renee Gladman’s A Picture Feeling

The glamor of this magic haunts all reasonable men today, surrounding them with, and then protecting them from, the darkness of possibilities that controls cannot manage, the world of thought and feeling in which we may participate but not dominate, where we are used by things even as we use them.

—Robert Duncanfrom “Ideas of the Meaning of Form”

Renee Gladman’s A Picture-Feeling is built on the foundation laid out by the work of Hans Faverey, as she indicates in the book’s opening epigraph:

and I did not wish myself absent

for I did not know myself that way

Faverey’s work seems often obsessed with absence, disintegration and loss,[1] and is the perfect preamble to Gladman’s study of the boundary between dreams (our imagined existence, wrought irons) and reality (a largely unknown, or impossible, room). Gladman investigates our inability to actively interact with reality, either by choice or by an impossibility of vision, which she argues exists because our “reality” is based on “feeling attached to ideas.”  Critically speaking, Gladman’s collection could be viewed as an investigation of the functions of form and content within poetry. Though it would be irresponsible to reduce the poems of A Picture-Feeling into specifically a treatise on form vs. content, the following stanza provides a framework for thinking of the work in this way:

but speak of it

as it appears


form of

wrought irons

and content

‘wrought iron’

the selfsame (51)

If the work is viewed from this perspective, Gladman offers insight into why we may feel so attached to our forms and, ultimately, to our imagined view of reality, or “box” as she terms it.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that Gladman’s use of the word “idea” is interchangeable with “form.”  M.H. Abrams describes “form” as a word “descended from the Latin ‘forma,’ which was equivalent to the Greek ‘idea’—the term for a central critical concept.”[2] The following lines also suggest that, like certain notions of form, the “feeling attached to ideas,” fails in its usefulness:

configured metal             a cast iron


called ‘feeling attached to ideas’

what matters here

the hardest to name

but takes up the most space

as any ignorance does

also the fear (26)

The comparison made here distinguishes between “wrought iron,” (known for being tough and malleable, useful for shaping and welding) and “cast iron” which, although cheaper to produce, is too brittle to be welded and has a limited number of uses. By comparing the “feeling attached to ideas” to “a cast iron sculpture,” Gladman could be pointing out that the ideas we cling to often lack a useful purpose. Gladman’s focus on wrought iron throughout A Picture-Feeling also suggests her intimate interest in the prisons we create in order to keep ourselves from fear. Her fascination is less on the word iron than it is on the word wrought. When Gladman writes, “wrought irons, I should say”(18), the reader envisions  irons as manacles, and when those irons are broken and “my wrought irons/destroyed” (30), Gladman’s language intimates a kind of timid freedom, threatened by a “fear of loss” (22).

In other words, we have a vested interest in grasping on to what we know: holding on to the known keeps us from fear of the unknown. In his introduction to The New Writing in the USA, Robert Creeley quotes Robert Duncan in this regard:

Form, to the mind obsessed by convention, is significant insofar as it shows control. What has nor rime nor reason is a bogie that must be dismissed from the horizons of themind. . .Wherever the feeling of control is lost, the feeling of form is lost. The reality of the world and men’s habits must be constricted to a realm—a court or a salon or a rationale—excluding whatever is feared.[3]

In Creeley’s own words:

Confronting such rule, men were driven back upon the particulars of their own experience, the literal things of an immediate environment, wherewith to acknowledge the possibilities of their own lives.

Gladman has  enfolded “literal things of an immediate environment” into the symbolism of “wrought iron” and, subsequently, the erosion of these “literal things” is represented by “rust” as in the following example:

I would like to show her these

(wrought irons)

what to do with them?

instead of contriving rust

which has failed to become any

one thing (45).

The disintegration of the “wrought irons” leaves one open to the possibility of oblivion, or an impossibility in Gladman’s view:

life has become desolate

since the wrought irons

fractionated and became

paper strewn

around the unnamed

box        absolutely desolate (48)

The knowledge that our chains are manufactured by ourselves to keep us from fear is represented here by the “paper strewn” and the unknown, or oblivion, is contained inside the ”unnamed box.” In this way, Gladman can place her narrator as one who, like ourselves, is uncertain of what existence would look like without our contrived visions of it. Ultimately, to acknowledge the disintegration of our chains and the uselessness of our contrived ideas would be to finally accept the inevitability of our own death. Gladman’s narrator is also able to confirm that following this knowledge to its conclusion is not necessarily desirable. It is a frightening venture that leaves one homeless, alone, and in the dark:

when the piece I chose to

follow became

a near asphyxiated V

(though smiling)

and the light went out completely

when I put the two together

thought the word ‘home’ (48)

Thus, Gladman’s narrator is not condemning those of us who choose to remain imprisoned by the manacles of “form” (in all of its varied meanings and implications). Rather, the narrator is sympathetic to the plight of the reader, recognizing that neither imprisonment nor freedom results in an ideal outcome.

Gladman’s narrator speaks as one who is

coming out of a dream whose content escapes me into a space

where V is in danger and where lies the knowledge that we are all

full of diasporic shapes that have no memory (13).

As a displaced person, the narrator brings the extremely personal into the sweeping arc of the impersonal items connecting the work (wrought iron, torn bits of paper, box, book,  room). The inflitration of the personal is indicated also by her choice of the word “selfsame” as opposed to “same” in the above example, which she could have used were the focus to be merely on the form (thing) and not the individual’s relationship to the form.

If neither the maintaining or destruction of the wrought irons brings about the preferable outcome, what are we, as readers, supposed to glean from Gladman’s investigation? After the narrator’s realization that the wrought irons have disintegrated from the rust of knowledge and that life is now desolate, a complete breakdown happens. The reader finds a blank unnumbered page that represents the culmination of our knowledge: oblivion. The blank page retains its space in the work even though it is not numbered. (We know this because the book resumes its page count as if the blank page were numbered.)  Yet, the fact that the work does resume gives the reader a sense of tentative optimism.  The poems that follow speak to what is “progressing,” indicating that even though death and oblivion is our eventual destination, all is not lost. What is lost to us in thought is preserved in memory:

what has happened to

the ‘pieces that

don’t know themselves’

about which

she says,

your memory saves you

to not-remember

the desolate

feeling (52).

After which, there is even the hope that, through memory, even after death, we will not be wholly alone:

or to get to the next place

where my piece

finds yours (53).

[1] In his sequence, “My Little Finger” from Silken Chains, published in 1983, are the following lines :

of what has consisted of nothing

so far. Even the waxing moon

rules out of salvation: lapsed

certainty; unravelled existence.

These lines supply for us a glimpse of Faverey’s fascination with the  disintegration of memory, and the inevitability of oblivion: a fitting ancestry on which Gladman could build the poems of A Picture-Feeling.

[2] Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, Seventh Edition. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1999. p. 101.

[3] Qtd. in Poetics of the New American Poetry. Eds. Donald Allen and Warran Tallman. (New York: Grove Press), 255. (from handout).


~ by ImaginaryCanary on September 17, 2010.

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