Who Wants What Edge: The Poetry of Denise Newman
Dale Going
Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer 1999

Fish, fowl, human, mushroom
all gilled and seeking––

is the opening moment of Of Later Things Yet to Happen and could stand as epigram for all Denise Newman’s work. Koanicly odd, it at first seems untrue, like the statements in logic exams where one must circle the word that doesn’t fit, this is to that as that is to this. Humans and fowl have no gills. Are any but human seeking? But I’d flunk––a fowl’s wattle is its gill, a human’s, the loose skin under the chin. And yes, concede, all seeking. As Newman writes it, all human. Her poems and novels are full of inquiry, as dialogue and discourse, a flaying of layers to “that shy island back behind memory, back before the blood fish egg beginning, the tree and body, layer preceding all layers.” Her questioning begins with “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” with the answer being, “Yes.” Erotic sources are mineral, salt water and the blood of stone, her origin as island, as sea creature: “there was iron in the rocks back home”(BF), “not yet seeing herself as a limbless bolus of sucking gestures…imprecisely that which the two would be…rolling sea water without rupture such as inquiry”(OLT). The sought place is that origin beyond seeking yet it is got to through seeking. The Blood Flower is a catechism of erotic origins. Its Christian form gives way in Of Later Things Yet to Happen to a flood of other cultural references, but a watery, undifferentiated world continues to prevail as the desired source and destination.

All potential has its erotic push
bound to it––blood yolk
with an ocean source

Her lyricism is operatic or Gothic, the dark Grimmness of a northern fairytale, “stone cold genitals of black winter earth/flowers” [BF]. Yet the clarity of her hermetic verse, a kind of delicacy and plainness of space and breath and speech, seems more like fragments of Sappho, in a third generation xerox, blown up and nearly empty.

a Greek god tourist in photocopied love time…but they look so real…He is fake…Camouflaged as a person/anyone…Twice-born god…in a boat/on a plate/chipped and cracked…No warranty…As is, I’d been saying/as is, is as, as is ––[WP]

“Is as” is metaphor, not origin. As is, with no warranty–– its meaning worn, chipped and cracked––in a boat on a plate not at all the same sea ride. Is the original available in language, or is all language worn metaphor? Is questioning––idea––by its nature derivative?

Her questions are koanic, her metaphors resemble the Persephonic haiku by Issa about the field of flowers being the roof of hell. [can someone supply it?] “Not the ‘dead floor of Hell’ catching corpses as they fall/nor dirt at the end of shovel squirming wormy things/ but tamped earth rubbed red by soles and shiny as chestnut/To return to after idea lets go” [OLT].

She is Persephone; her hell is of the pre-adolescent verge/virge, that moment of clarity, desire, horror at the blood cusp of girlhood and womanhood. Just as one really starts to think, sex and death comingle in a black blood bath under the tree of knowledge of the loss of self. Newman’s vegetative world is inhabitated by trees, by red and yellow flowers, each with its meaning. (“The flower is yellow is sweet like heavy eyelids––its name is/ freesia/ free, out of doors by sea and heads of these yellow sweet/bells quivering madly/light touch of your cheek (erotic is in the/contrast).” [BF] “Skins touch passing/human forest” [WP]. There are the pupa, flies, serpents associated with cycles of transformation among her botanica. Her animal world is littered with the familiars of childhood, distortions of the nursery-rhyme rhymes, rhythms & cast––cats, rats, lambs, birds (being eaten, if not in pies, at least “in light sauces”[B&C], or hopping about “unsure…Is it allowed to/be sexual in the street?”[OLT]). The origins of nursery rhymes themselves were in the violence of the adult underworld––the Ring Around the Rosey/ London Bridges Falling Down death knell of the Black Plague, the various political machinations satirized in child chants (Humpty Dumpty, etc.). There is an impossible nostalgia for the songs of innocence acknowledged in Newman’s songs of experience.

As in a dream where the dreamer is represented in each of its elements, Newman’s identifications of the human float among the animal/ vegetable/ mineral and the four or five elements. When she writes:

You could be a star/You could be someone

already in the big sky travelers
are floating lights
each with a window asking
is this it?

the reference to fame seems only secondary or tertiary to a more elemental, literal, aerial reference. “Give us that perfectly/eluding all and earth bird/talent” [WP]. An earth bird is Icarus or a pigeon, not a gift of the gods (“a star”)––despite the prayer––but something riskier or more plodding.

Here are her risky, shifting borderlands:

to divide?/No, devour

what’s a window––/which side?

Surface as absolute limit/of inside, lacking

Nearing/distance/person having nothing to do with place

One part want/ one part memory
all of it a loan

Her desire ingests the image
where it once was so complete

Who am I then he asks
as though he’d recognize himself

I only pretended to climax when I did she says
as though just now introducing herself

And all along I envied your pleasure, he tells her

See then how we resemble each other?

Moving deeper into debt with reader she fears there’ll have
to be some kind of justification explosion to get out

hunter and hunted
trading coats every hundred feet or so until they both must
die or together live

The danger, the desire, the devouring, the defiance, are in the word, the mouth, the tongue:

Licking around outside/the bloody sack wants in–– [WP]
Lips have a blood source/tongue licks and again/I am hungry, so hungry [End]
This wine illusion of oneness/tongued to death [WP]
Two look out of the word/kisses,/ one shut/ the other/–Am I dying? [End]
He warns: Lick life gently behind its ear so as not to be/noticed/She inserts her tongue in his and blows [OLT]

Animal, vegetable, mineral ? is only the first of twenty questions. To continue the game:

2. Have you ever gutted a fish and found eggs inside the dead white belly?
3. How do we know when we can’t go deeper?
4. What color will your dress be? [BF]
5. Am I sleeping?
6. Tell me, who wrote it––But first,/how may I get out?
7. Is the only egress/indifference?[Tristis: the boy]
8. Where is Place?
9. Missed it?
10. Am I dying?
11. And then? [End]
12. As if to evaporate rubies into chaos?
13. Couldn’t we go on climbing into infinity like lambs quaintly passing time?
14. I mean if only I were this whole lake myself staring––then what?
15. Who is awake to feel alarm…[OLT]
16. Is there money for this?
17. What is it you came for?
18. Tell us please…what is personal? [Please]
19. Are we almost there?
20. why passion, why pear? [WP]

“Who Wants What Edge” is from “Whose Bull Her Blind Hat” (ROOMS, Spring 1996)
BF: The Blood Flower (Em Press)
OLT: Of Later Things Yet To Happen (Meow Press)
WP: Why Pear? (Em Press)