Review of Speech Acts, by Laura McCullough (Black Lawrence Press, 2010)
In Laura McCullough’s Speech Acts, we are treated to a collection of poems focused unabashedly on the sensual pleasures of language, on the giddy spill of language—of speech particularly—through and from the body. It is no surprise, then, that a highly charged sexuality drives many of the poems, coyly troubling the reflexivity and the nuanced emotionality of the others. But McCullough, unlike many less adept poets, does not rely exclusively on that sexuality to excite and to hold our attention. Instead, she weaves a series of meticulously structured narrative poems into a story about both desire and desire’s uneasiness that demonstrates an incredible intelligence and wit that means to mean. As she has the speaker in the poem “All Day I Dream About Sex” state (let us take a moment to acknowledge the wonderfully ironic complication McCullough adds to our discussion of the poems by teasing us with the critical convention of referring to “the poem’s speaker” while we addressing a collection of poems oriented toward the very act of speaking): “I am trying to say something as clearly / as I can” (23).
To be fair, both to this poem and to the poet, I must admit that I have taken these lines slightly out of context. To complete the stanza from which I have quoted is to acknowledge that McCullough is also a poet keenly aware of our contemporary moment and the vicissitudes of American poetry and poetics: “…like this bacronym for Adidas / which isn’t an acronym at all, but portmanteau. / The owner is Adolf Dassler, nicknamed Adi— / you see, Adi Das?” These twinned impulses—toward clarity and ambiguating play, both intellectual and sensual—animate the poems of Speech Acts and provide an engaging tension that further enhances the eroticism and the poignant witnessing of the collection.
The individual poems, organized into three sections in what I presume to be deference to John L. Austin’s linguistic taxonomy of “speech acts,”1 often trouble the threshold at which thought and speech remain coupled and at which they begin to separate into the misleading “before” of thought and the “after” of speech, that strange, sometimes discomfiting moment in which we can utter with a presentiment of the answer already embedded in the question: “Did I just say that out loud?” The poems, however, resist these neat categories of “before” and “after” and instead present a conspicuous and arresting trope that I identify as the physio–textual body: the body as erogenous vocalizing instrument and agent, the material housing (or perhaps “network” is the better term here) by which we thrill at language and its various actions and activities—not to mention its many transgressions. Take for example these lines from “Lanolin’s Just Another Name for Grease,” a poem from the third section of the collection: “Hold the back of my head, / your hands knotting my hair; / sing that thing / that comes from your throat / while I do / what I do / with mine” (71).
Setting aside the explicit sexuality of this scene for just a moment, let us turn to the musicality of these lines, which is emblematic of the entire collection. Here, internal rhyme, assonance, and consonance jazz the lines, allowing “that thing”—so crucial to the poem—to go unsaid without distracting us by its imprecision. The lyricism is itself gratification, is “that thing” that in such self–aware, self–eradicating moments escapes us, enacting to a degree the very pleasures of the tryst and confirming what Frederick Smock observes in his essay “A Poet’s Education”:“Poetry, then, is physical. Words embody our experience of the world. Words body forth the meaning of our lives” (77). This “bodying forth” gives rise to poems that range from tenderness and desire to rupture and violence, as we see in both “What Burns” and “Speechification” respectively:
I want to kiss the mouth of another
language, feel the small muscles electric
and tingling around their vowels,
the consonants swallowed, the silences
like small maps of a small
engine that rests on both our lips. (16)
poem is not made of speech acts, but is an art installation
like found pebbles twisted in wire around rebar, nothing
suave about it, and lasting only until someone fills its boots
with cement and drowns it in the river like some lousy informer. (11)
Throughout the collection, then, we are privy to (note the etymological echo in “privates,” as well as in privacy) the inexorable meshing of the body and its saying, the vocalization not merely of pleasure but as a means of pleasure—both positive and negative pleasure—that we as “the talkers talking” of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” so often disregard or leave unexamined whenever we use language instrumentally (2). McCullough challenges us instead to take notice of the edginess of our shared English language2, itself historically flirtatious and etymologically promiscuous, by becoming minutely aware of the many ways in which and for which we communicate. Take, for example, the following lines from “Beauty, I Said”:
I never said that thing you said
I said that time when we were dancing
and everyone was so drunk no one
remembers what anyone said. I’m sure
I said something, but not what you
said I said, and what I said doesn’t bear
The repetition here is both mask and undoing. Something is said, but again, it is not named; in fact, it is not recalled as anything other than “that thing” (here transformed from the pleasures of “Lanolin” into something ominous, threatening even), despite the fact that whatever has been said has created a fissure between the speaker and the poem’s beloved. That the repeated word is “said” only adds to the point I am making: that within these poems, the act of speaking itself becomes the decisive moment; the “how” of speech takes on as much significance, if not more, than the “what” of speech.
Then, too, there is the fact that what I have referred to as the physio–textual body is not merely a trope but also an operative principle throughout the collection. The poems tease us, and themselves, into positions of excess and compromise. They sprawl across the pages—in orderly fashion, yes, but excitedly, energetically, pushing at the bounds (or the binding?) of the page. Because of that, they succeed in doing something of lasting consequence: they confront us with ourselves, our own identities, our own zones of comfort and understanding, our own concepts of self and of language. Ultimately, what McCullough gives us is a concomitance of poetic “speech acts” that are at once provocative, erotically charged, intellectually complex, and shockingly aware. In the context of 21st century Euro–American hyper–sexuality, I count it as quite an accomplishment that a collection of poems can titillate us so mischievously, so daringly, and so affectively while resisting the sordid ease and vacuity of sheer spectacle.
1 “Austin identifies three distinct levels of action beyond the act of utterance itself. He distinguishes the act of saying something, what one does in saying it, and what one does by saying it, and dubs these the ‘locutionary’, the ‘illocutionary’ and the ‘perlocutionary’ act, respectively” (Bach).
2 I use the singular “English” here merely out of convention. For an interesting and sustained discussion of multiple “Englishes,” see The Story of English, particularly Chapter 1, “An English–Speaking World,” and Chapter 9, “The New Englishes.”
Bach, Kent. “Speech Acts.” Kent Bach, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry. N.p., n.d. Web. 8
January 2011. <http://userwww.sfsu.edu/~kbach/spchacts.html>.
McCrum, Robert, Robert MacNeil, and William Cran. The Story of English. 3rd rev. ed. New York:
Penguin, 2002. Print.
Smock, Frederick. “A Poet’s Education.” The Writer’s Chronicle 43.2 (2010): 76–79. Print.
Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. Ed. Susan L. Rattiner. Mineola: Dover, 2001. Print.