Susan Vanderborg: On "To my wash-stand"

One striking early poem, "To my wash-stand," seems an ideal combination of both Imagist and Symbolist projects; the narrator looks into the mirror of his imagination and sees the face of the object-Other. As in "'Mantis,'" that visionary identification with the poor is accomplished less by imagery than by a series of word and sound patterns, inspired by an emblematically broken surface:

    so my wash-stand

 

in one particular breaking of the

 

    tile at which I have

 

looked and looked

 

 

    has opposed to my head

 

the inscription of a head

 

    whose coinage is the

 

coinage of the poor

 

"I have / looked and looked": the gazer remains frozen opposite and opposed to its object. The poem focuses instead on the materiality of communication, suggested in the inscripted heads with the prospect of a common currency, as if the poet and the poor were no more than intertranslatable constructions--literally equivalent "face-values."

Why then does the emphasis on language structures seem to block rather than facilitate an exchange? Instead of the two heads confronting one another, when the stanza is broken down carefully there is only the triple mediation of signifiers--the reflected inscription of a head whose coinage is also the coinage of the poor. Acknowledging a common point of origin or speech, the poem speculates, does not in fact balance the two sides of the equation; excess words, and resources, cannot be left out of consideration. The description of the poor as "carefully attentive / to what they have / and to what they do not / have" underscores the far from equal distribution of economic and linguistic currency they have been allowed as their face value. The long, imaginative prologue with its vision of ornamental friezes and circus animals hints that a minimum amount of material leisure may be necessary before one can break down systems to their surface patterns of water, stone, hands, or faces. Oppositions such as top and bottom may ultimately prove to be "invertible counterpoints", simultaneities that can be incorporated within "[o]ne human's intuitive Head." But the position of the translator has not yet become an arbitrary choice. As the poet struggles with the forms he perceives ranged in words, he is aware that others will inscribe "an age in a wash-stand / and in their own heads," with a unique face and a unique paraphrase.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Susan Vanderborg: On "To my wash-stand" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Susan Vanderborg Criticism Target Louis Zukofsky
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Mar 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Upper Limit Music: The Writing of Louis Zukofsky
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