The Road to Nowhere

Bahti, Timothy, Ends of the Lyric: Direction and Consequence in Western Poetry. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Michael O'Leary

Marcel Duchamp's passion for chess grew with age. On one occasion, when asked bout the current state of his work, Duchamp remarked that more than anything in the world, he wanted to become a better chess player. No doubt, he was serious about chess, and maybe he was trying maintain his detached and irreverent public image, but perhaps more importantly, by mentioning chess in response to a question about art, Duchamp was saying something about the nature of art.

After finishing Timothy Bahti’s The Ends of the Lyric, a book consisting largely of a series of close readings of major Western lyric poets having little to do directly with late French Modernism, the intitially surprising anecdote Bahti relates about Duchamp and chess at the close of his introduction echoes anew:

[Duchamp] was interested in some endgames precisely because their construction was so improbable...that they were what he called "utopian endings." Apart from the beauty of this formulation, its collocation of ending with a nonplace has stayed with me in the years of finishing my study. My understanding of the ends of the lyric in some of its poetry's most interesting and powerful instances is that they are utopian not in that they do not occur–for they do–but in that they direct us to a place of language and thought the promised consequences of which are still, and always, and rightly elsewhere.
Duchamp is interested in chess as a game that contains the possibility of an improbable or unthought completion (utopian ending) despite its logical frame, and such an ending casts one back into the already absent game, peering into the unimaginable yet crucial elsewhere. And lyric poetry, despite its grammatical structure urging us ever toward an end, improbably inverts itself back towards a re-beginning or re-reading by the very means of getting there, either mimetic or chiastic (the crisscrossed pairing of similar phrases or semantic units central to Bahti's understanding of the Western lyric). Imagine the structure of the lyric as the sign for infinity and one approaches Bahti's interpretive frame: always turning back on itself in search of its own origin, the poem always directs itself toward and yet misses the unthought or unimaginable elsewhere.

Nowhere does Bahti make this clearer than in his remarkable close reading of Paul Celan's "Aber," one of Celan's two well known boomerang poems. Celan's poems particularly call for close readings, and Bahti brings an incredible breadth of knowledge and a methodical patience to clear away the text's obscurities and trace the infinite missing of an endless ending. "Aber" begins with a question from an “I” to a “you” and continues with a dense mirroring of the two, introducing deliberate, thought-provoking pauses. And suddenly, out of nowhere, the boomerang appears nearing “the target of the soul.” After a reappearance of present time, the poem ends rather strangely with the “I” hearing the present “whizzing” of the boomerang “not/ next to me, not,/ where you cannot be”. Yet Bahti, with painstaking attention to the movement of the poem turning back on itself by its unthought ending is able to mine deeper ambiguities beyond the initial and apparent ones:

The “you” addressed, and marked as a question mark, to whom a shaping and misshaping eye is wished, and who then is rejected through its power of bestowal: this is a reading eye that can see, there in the last three lines, but cannot reach or be at its end. Like the boomerang, it draws nearer to its goal in order to fly back whence it departed.
Bahti’s study is filled with equally keen, often very satisfying and sometimes dazzling close readings of Shakespeare, Leopardi, Coleridge, Keats, Holderlin, Baudelaire, and Stevens. Emphasizing chiastic inversions where he can (and sometimes where he forces it), Bahti's own method always insists on the structure of the improbable end that does not end. In fact, Bahti’s occasionally overdetermined insistence on the inverted reading of the ends of the lyric into the rereading of the unthought sometimes has the grim consequence of reducing everything to the same. Duchamp may have had similar reductive tendencies, but he always recognized and was able to use something that Bahti himself notes in his introduction: that all repetition (central to poetry, and all art, for that matter) presupposes the principal of difference, and that such difference possesses the possibility of different structures, and thus, different interpretations.

Ends of the Lyric itself ends improbably. Bahti briefly summarizes the crucial role of chiastic inversion in the Western lyric, and immediately analyzes two pre-modern poems, Pindar’s "Pythian 8" ode and Dante’s Commedia, and shows them in their overall structure to be not chiastic and not inverting. In the case of "Pythian 8," he rather beautifully suggests it to be shaped like a Q, with the essentially circular structure of the poem leaping out of itself to its end with Pindar’s bright praise of Zeus. Oddly enough, however, it is Bahti's refreshing reading of Pindar and Dante against his reading of the Western lyric at the end of the book that cast me back into a rereading of his method: the chiastic close readings to that “nonplace” of the book, that elsewhere. By reading against himself, Bahti elegantly mirrors Duchamps' avowed interest in improbable endgames.

Michael O'Leary is a poet and edits, with Peter O'Leary, LVNG: an independent 

journal of poetry, fiction, and art.


Copyright  1997 ebr
and the author. All rights reserved.