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John Steen on R. Erica Doyle

Proxy by R. Erica Doyle

Belladonna, 2013

 

We know that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. R Erica Doyle’s first collection of poems, Proxy, offers a more specific observation than Thoreau’s oft-chewed chestnut by reminding us of the extent to which we, most of us, lead erotic lives characterized by a desperation so quiet it only permits us the speech we direct at ourselves.  But it’s not quite fair to use the word “we,” as if these poems spoke for all of us, or told a story we all have in common. Instead, each of these short prose poems outlines the contours of an individual experience made more isolating by the fact that it can’t be shared, much less understood by the one who experienced it. The poems of Proxy begin speaking at the threshold of this particular unintelligibility, but they feel intimately familiar. And despite explicit accounts of sexual experiences, Proxy doesn’t read like a tell-all. Why, or how, is this the case?

 

In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick argues that the “trope of the closet,” and along with it the concepts of secrecy and privacy that it entails, stands at the heart of “a whole cluster of the most crucial sites for the contestation of meaning in twentieth-century Western culture.” Proxy builds its poetic approach to queer sexuality on the basis of this claim. If an engagement with or a need for concealment is a constitutive element of any discussion of homosexual relationships, then poems produced under this enforced privacy enjoin specific difficulties and, perhaps, enjoy unexpected revelations. Such, in Doyle’s poems, is the role of the proxy: it draws attention to the limitations placed on this kind of erotic speech and mines it for insights specific to the predicament.

 

For a text so unlike Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero, it’s a surprise that many of Proxy’s stunning effects, too, derive from the poems’ second-person narration, which characterizes the self-directed speech of the volume’s proxy. Rather than address the reader or invite identification, this “you” permits the speaker to address herself from the shortest possible safe distance. Any closer and the intensity of her self-regard would prove corrosive; any farther off and the barbs of self-censure it lobs would risk missing their target. The following lines describe the impossibility of speech in the aftermath of lost love. Note how differently they would read were “I” or “she” to replace “you”:

 

They make all the useful gestures but you can’t reciprocate. Your

gills flap feebly in the eaves. This mouth, that mouth humming a

stillborn melody. Bees fall from your lips.

 

The second-person pronoun also governs the volume’s affecting ability to admit us into intimate spaces while preserving the uncomfortable sense that we’ve newly become interlocutors in a conversation that grew intense before we entered the room. “You hope to perform an autopsy,” one poem begins. “She’s throwing telephones at cars,” begins another. With many of its verbs and all of its proper names suppressed, Proxy gives us quiet desperation, but lets us overhear it at an intimately close range.

 

Much like Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, Doyle’s poems mark out the moves by which love maps its domain and its damages. Proxy is decidedly more focused on the physical domain of love than Barthes, and is unwilling to disguise the details of sexual experience; the surprise of the work derives, as it does in Barthes, from the breadth of the spectrum it permits love to occupy. Beyond the desperation of lust (constantly described as an intolerable hunger) and the painful recognition of its psychological wounds, Proxy attends to subtleties that most erotic writing ignores or marginalizes. Self-debasing in the aftermath of an affair, she discredits her own assertions: “I’m just as confused as the next person, you said. Ridiculous.” Shame and the defenses one deploys to forestall it figure powerfully in these poems. (“All the while your tongue barks how vile you are, how vile.”) So does the recognition that suffering, with its private histories that must be borne privately, is publicly recognizable, if only as eccentricity:

 

You are a child pulling your lips back from your teeth in a mirror.

Two fingers deep along the side of your cheeks and pull, pull, pull

until you see the bones of your face, the skull that lurks behind

your eyes.

 

You’re dying. Doesn’t everybody know it.

 

In addition to showing how often “everybody” plays a role in the intensely private life of the individual lover, Proxy also reorients our understanding of erotic life by depicting the saturation of personal space by political investments. When an inexperienced lesbian lover claims, “Women are sensitive and caring,” the lover responds with single-minded vehemence. “You fuck her tiny cunt with three/ fingers while you patiently suck her clit. You are unceremonious. / You disabuse.” At the same time, the speaker recognizes her complicity with monolithic versions of “woman” when, in her own desperate need to satiate sexual desire, she acts like a proxy of herself, aiming to fulfill others’ desires rather than articulate the shifting contours of her own:

 

You hold back enough to keep them curious. Women like that.

Wounded enough to be salvageable. Women like that, too. Fixing

things. Take in the broken wing you drag like a decoy.

 

The letter p, with which each of the book’s five sections begins, lends its plosive power to the very act of speaking, as if to emphasize that to do so were not merely to describe but to perform and to direct performative speech toward a pole of address. With a similar thrust, Proxy takes epigraphs for each of its sections from the mathematically-themed poems of David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus. “A limit is a fixed something toward which other somethings are tending,” one proclaims. This structural intertext allows Proxy to conceive of prose poems as Cartesian planes within which the wild variants of speech can be more effectively plotted and contained. The functions that determine such speech remain inexorable and unmanageable, even as they are determined by the coordinates of a specific erotic life.

 

You graph the words only after she has spoken. Open the door

and they come tumbling out. Voice, voice, you are calling. Are you

her puppet, or a channel?

 

As such, Proxy questions the extent to which the experience of love is distorted by the discourses that make it accessible to speech. Doyle’s poems’ texture manipulates speech so that it is faithful to the distortions to which love is constantly subjected. The book enthralls, however, by managing to be just as faithful to the distortions by and through which love is, in the first and last place, made and unmade.

 

 

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