Dancing with Myself: Narrative Lapses

If there are major constituent weaknesses in When You Bit… as a work of literary art, many of them have to do with the book’s dual ambition— to present sixty autonomous sonnets, and to have them establish, consolidate, and carry along a cohesive narrative threaded through the book. As to what succeeds in When You Bit…: many of the individual sonnets are very strong, both formally and on narrative-thematic levels. Also, the 3-1-2 conceit, how we start with a ménage, move into the solitude of Dancing with Myself, and end in two-person intimacy, is original and interesting. However, the interstices between the three sections of the book are, for my taste, left too loose, too ambiguous, so that the overarching narrative which carries the book along is not as solid as it could be. The opening (3-person) section, Sister Lovers, establishes an ambiance of sensuality and decadence— fair— sets in place how I am using the sonnet form formally, playing with some conventions, honoring others— fair— but also fails to distinguish the two Chicago Muses from each other, so that by the time we get to Dancing with Myself, one Muse is chosen, seemingly at random, to be the book’s Dark Lady, and the other (it seems) fades into the narrative mist. We never learn why the chosen Muse became the chosen Muse, nor how it happened that the situation between the three subjects temporarily dissolved. “Gist” manages to present us with some hints, at least as to the protagonist’s emotions:

Baudelaire conflated solitude
with multitude. He was wrong.
Or, look how good it can get,
& bad, when you’re backed in
to a corner with only work to
prop you up & give you gist.
I’m in love with you, I spit
when I say it cause I feel like
I live in my churned guts, I
look out the window, there’s
a street called Race, ha ha, I
couldn’t be any slower except
if I started popping ludes again.
Once-a-minute heartbeats rend.

The revelation of the protagonist’s being in love is a major one. Sister Lovers works specifically with the narrative thrust that the ménage is rather cold, clinical, and loveless. Somehow, from this context arose a relationship between the protagonist and one of the Muses in which inheres I-Thou warmth, tenderness, and deep emotion. Since we do not see how or why this happened, When You Bit… forces attentive readers to use their imaginations to fill in the narrative ambiguities. Readers can, thus, decide for themselves how important all the narrative blank spaces are, and whether they interfere with enjoyment of the sonnet sequence as a gestalt whole. This is all part and parcel of one of my ambitious objectives when I first began to write book-length poetry manuscripts— the paratactic approach, of a bunch of more-or-less random poems thrown together in a haphazard fashion (this approach is de rigueur in American verse), was deeply unappealing to me. I wanted to write books that were books, books which each had a specific, autonomous identity. So that, reading one of my books would be a complete, well-rounded experience. The challenge, to pull this off in poetry, is a major one. So that, the narrative lapse between Sister Lovers and Dancing with Myself— of the two Muses, one has somehow been selected and fallen in love with, while the other seemingly vanishes— is one of the book’s weaknesses, even as what audience the book has must decide for itself if it is a distractingly major weakness or a forgivable one. As author of the book, I have moods in both directions— accusatory moods balanced by forgiving or forbearing ones.