Doris: the muscular work

Time’s a free illusion of right’s triumph, of reward, which cordons,
Of justice, meaning boundaries; bound. Where law’s unruly or limitless
Respect may be owed perhaps, but at length. Taxing or toxic, continuity’s
Sealed in meager endurance. Finite since unbased, having no source.
So that if we’s could forget entitlement, I might run as some fluid, brimming
With impunity; wrapped in leaves’ rotting to loam, which is, since
Uncertain, a grounds perhaps. Every authority says what is not right and
How it will drown eventually in truths. If a fig moves to even the scent of
Other milk, fruit’s a suspension unengulfed by its own cells. Only stability’s
The humble goal of thinking and sight, so seeks to mirror. So any self will
Digest their own existence, and end it.

Righteousness’s immanence’s praying that preys, so surrenders
Discrimination to thirst. Unmuscled, so trusting in force, fairness swallows
People into passage. Avalanches. Heavy, flawed as rock, legality’s illogic
Excuses; discharges itself in or as death; masks fleeting thus, and based
On time which it founds, chokes, so stirs emotion. Measure’s finite, so of
Limited use, though everywhere applied. So quantity’s mistaken in its
Picture of an absolute; equity’s most partial, yet fine as an impetus once
Culture implies or legislates ends, so everywhere. Whether or not it exists,
Why would doom need declarations? Laws thus emit sentences unleashed
From clear reason; wraps reason as attraction does. So unrelated, words
Can serve it, mingling. In positing a body, rectitude can’t be physically

Envisioned. Trumpets stealth, headless. Pretends to all machinery. Drills.
A ruler who immolates himself is the sole leader to embody integrity,
Which are blind as any judgment or vision, so deems itself impartial.
So a head of state with sight cannot conceive what’s commanded.
If retribution had significance it wouldn’t need such positing as time;
As life’s big lesson. Would not relay myth to inaugurate religion amid
Elements and stuff, storyless. But justice doesn’t work. Except that breath
Ignore requital, respiration; even photosynthesis, would cancel its
Charade. The beat of any heart would.

iii, IV (from Knot)

Stacy Doris, as Anne Carson writes about Paul Celan “reinvents language on the screen of itself by treating her native tongue as a foreign language to be translated into [English].” I Live I See, “iii, IV” reads in parts as an awkwardly translated pre-Socratic treatise on governance and law. Fairness is “unmuscled,” “we” is singularized as a unit, and legality is “flawed as rock.” Doris’s poetry is not only a treatise against poor governance and social collapse, but also against language as we have been taught to understand it. The poem plays with the idea that language, as an authority, “will drown eventually in truths.” How does one pull language from oceans of misuse?

Paul Celan’s drive to do something different with words, to do something he called “measuring out the area of the given and the possible” echoes in Doris’s belief that “poetry is to count, to measure, and such.” For Celan, neologisms were a way to push the boundaries of the poetry of his time – to reinvent language. For Doris, she achieves this through the use of what Knot’s opening poem “Entrance” calls “deformed or queered pronouns and the myriad disagreements between nouns and verbs.” By treating their native tongues as foreign languages, both poets, in the words of Anne Carson, “make use of the void to think the full.”

Disagreement and instability form the basis of Doris’s poetic practice. The supposedly defeatist premise of Doris’s work – that poetry can give no answers– renders her surprisingly vibrant poetry not an attempt to answer but rather a questioning and requestioning in face of the void. Her work takes root in failure (of language and governance) – what she calls “the impossibility of closeness”– and like the metaphor of the flawed rock, is both predetermined and highly intriguing. Doris finds a fertile ground working within limitation. What should be unmuscled by defeat instead becomes muscular.

Doris’s poetic practice is one of palindrome: turning observation back on its head. “Whether or not it exists, / Why would doom need declarations?” the poem asks. In this poem of anomalous equations, there is no distinction between the unruly and the limitless or the taxing and the toxic. To be “infinite” means to have a “base” or “source” but, according to the poem, the only possible “grounds” or root is uncertainty. Immortality blooms from uncertainty; only the void is everlasting. Turning language on the face of itself, Doris proves her own dictum that “the distance between anything and its codification in poetry is by definition a critical, generative distance.” But if poetry holds no answers or can never achieve closeness, then what, in fact, is its role?

Identity, Doris suggests, is motion and slippage, and translation is the only use of language that makes sense of it. The motion and slippage in her work generated in part by her use of deformed grammar coupled with her relationship to translation makes for poetry that, for lack of a better word, flexes. There is no sleepiness in a Stacy Doris poem. No conventional or predictable moment. Her work confesses and challenges the limits of language by using it in “untried ways.” Like Celan, Doris has developed an outside relationship with a language she (or anyone) could never enter. To choose to write in the face of limitation is to reject defeat. It is to acknowledge that to question in the face of the void is more important than the resounding silence at the asking.


Works cited

Carson, Anne. Economy of the Unlost. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.
Doris, Stacy. “I Have to Check My E-mail: Poetics Statement.” American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics. Eds. Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2007.


Sarah Burgoyne is living and writing in Montreal. Her work has been published in Bodega, LAKE magazine, and on Stuart Ross’s blog “The Week Shall Inherit the Verse”. While she’s not making grandiose speculations about poetry, Sarah is learning how to play the banjo, talk to cats, and invent mythical creatures.