Dialogism and Elegy 415

The cast of characters introduced by the Cheltenham Elegies invites interrogation on all levels. It is not merely that the dramatic intricacies between characters are awash, sodden with ambiguities; what Bakhtin calls dialogism, the sense of interplay, in works of literary art, between multiple voices, which manifest dualities within or against the integrity of individual works, is acutely present. Once it is acknowledged why and how the dialogism in the Elegies functions (always to add richness and nuance to the dual sense of Cheltenham as both a physical locale, objectively existing in standard space/time coordinates, and a metaphysical stage, subjectively existing in the individualized space/time coordinates of individuals, affirming both substance and essence and lack thereof), the interactions, abrasive or supportive, between the various, plaintive voices (if the Elegies have an analogue in Keats’ Odal Cycle, it is Nightingale) can move into focus as another textual site. They are a drama being performed on the physical/metaphysical stage that is Cheltenham, which is a stage both solid and evanescent. Yet, what angles we see of the actors are always dependent on textual “lighting effects,” which add to the sense of ambiguity, and both ambiguity’s potential enchantment and its eerie, debilitating darkness. In Elegy 415, for instance:

There’s something sweet and sickly
about teenagers fucking. Even laid
down by the jagged rocks that bordered
Tookany Creek. I think of them there,
and know he’s getting wasted. What’s
draining out of him is the will to live.
She always gets him off somehow. Then
they would walk over to the Little League
field and huddle in the dugout. He didn’t
even wind up graduating from Cheltenham
on time. I can’t get over thinking who he
could’ve been. Am I the only one?

The idea, among various conjectures, that this particular protagonist is both a first-person narrator and also the fallen, manhandled victim being referred to in the third-person, is a relevant one, creating a sense, within the dialogism of the Elegies, that single characters are allowed to generate multiplications of themselves within the poems, out of the emptiness or hollowness of their own solitude. This is a motif in the Elegies which takes Bakhtin’s conception or formulation and torques it more towards metaphysics than Bakhtin perhaps intended— the acknowledgement, first, that individual consciousness can encompass, within its confines, multiple voices. Or, that dialogism subsists between competing voices within the consciousness-space of autonomous individuals. Then, that the manifestation of these competing voices in the work of literary art, their (as it were) eruption into text, manifesting a new “set” on the stage which is Cheltenham, and what Cheltenham is. The dialogism between Cheltenham itself and its voices creates a complex mandala with the various voices manifested by autonomous protagonists in the Elegies; and the crux of the mandala is to create and sustain drama within the Elegiac Cycle.

Within the Cycle, Elegy 415 stands as a signification of dramatic tension and ambiguity, around the metaphysical import of a voice which initiates a dialogue which may or may not constitute a meta-dialogue. One inversion of these usages— the attitude and atmosphere of the Elegies is not carnivalesque, but an anti-carnival. The atmosphere embodies an assortment of rides and swings whose purport is a purgatory for souls, or (as an analogue) the purgation of ghosts, phantoms, and demons from individuals who dare to pass through it. This Cheltenham carnival/anti-carnival of souls is a ghostly or shadowed one. As is typical, the ghost presence in Elegy 415 is merely a multiplication of the protagonist’s presence from the first into the third person— and this metaphysical imbroglio moves Bakhtin into a space in which dialogism evinces dramatic tensions which enumerate that dialogism itself can manifest from fathomless depths and beleaguered subjectivity (rather than a more conventional third-person omniscient perspective), as well as from carnival impulses issuing from the multiplication of surfaces.