Torso

Gregory Woods: On "Torso"

Robert Duncan's poem "The Torso" ranks with the most acute love poems of the century. Its shifting focus corresponds with that of a man kneeling to fellate his lover: the collar bone, chest, navel, and pubic hair are examined in turn. But the occasion of the poem involves the two men in reversed roles. While the speaker's mind moves down the torso of the lover, the lover himself is on his knees, fellating the speaker. The fantasy of the one duplicates the deeds of the other. The effect, even if only one man is fellating the other, is of a mutual act, and of simultaneous climax. The parts of each are superimposed on those of the other and the two are, if not identical, indistinguishable. Like the words themselves, which fall over a wide area of the page leaving gaps within as well as between many of the lines, physical fragments are strewn, or seedlike sown, across an undescribed landscape which is nonetheless, in its parts, particular and detailed.

Poem, body, and landscape are one, located directly in front of our reading and kissing lips (the reader shares the speaker's point of view, and is implicated in his sexual act), and in front of and immediately within the locked gates of Paradise, to which the lovers' hands turn genital keys: "His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body" . . . "my hand in your hand seeking the locks, the keys." The features of the poem's gardens, far from being wild, have been carefully landscaped. They include "the red-flowering eucalyptus, / the madrone, the yew," with which the poem begins; the entrance, associated with the lover's mouth; the 'sleeping fountains' of his nipples; the temple of his belly, at the centre of which lies his navel, possibly associated with the omphalos of Delphi, supposed centre of the ancient world; and the root and flower of his groin. Each part of the body's topography (typography) is associated with a point near the entrance to the spiritual domain. Physical and spiritual consummation are approximate, drawn closer together by love.

Cary Nelson: On "Torso"

Duncan's stylistic and structural disruptions are designed to orient his poems around their own violated centers. Form is a clustering of dislocations: "The part in its fitting does not lock but unlocks; what was closed is opend" (BB, iv). In his introduction to TheYears as Catches, he announces that "These are poems of an irregularity"; the apparent thrust of a poem, its dominant metaphors, must contain its own "inner opposition or reproof" (Y, i). "I attempt the discontinuities of poetry," he writes, "to interrupt all sure course of my inspiration" (D, 91). Poetry centers itself only by establishing a discursive field and then shattering it. There must be, he writes, "no poem / without such a moment, broken, conquerd," but he continues with "only by what we did not know / of the design" (D, 123). Each betrayal projects a larger, more wounded coherence, a wider and less secure vision.

"The Torso" (BB, 63-65), number 18 in the "Passages" sequence, offers a good test of Duncan's aesthetic, for its chief disruption is one word. The title suggests some of the poem's potential for multiple and ambiguous connotation, since the image of a torso invokes the realms of both anatomy and sculpture. A torso's formal perfection can imply either its relative independence from the head and limbs or their actual absence. In either case, a torso invites a studied--potentially ecstatic or skeptical--distance from the human figure, a distance that is significant in what is essentially a love Poem.

The poem begins in a rush of natural images: "Most beautiful! the red-flowering eucalyptus, / the madrone, the yew." The syntax makes the trees analogues to the torso of the poem's title, but the next line, surrounded by white space, trails off in ellipses: "Is he. . ." The line is partly assertive, partly questioning; it makes the opening images hypothetical--castings of the verbal net for a proper central image. The speaker's reverie then incorporates a passage from Marlowe's Edward The Second. . . .

These lines from the play's opening speech are spoken by Edward's young friend Gaveston, who is recalled from banishment when the king ascends to the throne. Since Gaveston is eventually murdered, the quotation adds two connotations to the lover's image--regal and tragic. Those connotations will be foregrounded later in the poem; for the moment, however, the passage serves mainly to elevate and aggrandize the speaker's emotions, effects the next lines extend: "If he be Truth / I would dwell in the illusion of him." The archaic, slightly stilted construction prepares us for the self-conscious avowal of what is very nearly a romantic cliché. Yet the second clause also humanizes and thus comments on the Platonic reference to "Truth." A mixture of resistance and submission suddenly coalesces in the excited wish to be absorbed in the lover's person.

Then a particularly vital image surfaces: "His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body." We can visualize a withdrawal from an embrace, while also reading the line as a spiritual "unlocking," an opening outward of self. The outlines of the image, the meaning of "chambers," is ambiguous, recalling an earlier image of yearning so intense it feels "like the long trunk of another self / turning on his thighs to open life's arms" (RB, 90). Like the pronouns in "Sonnet 4," the pronouns in "The Torso" are almost interchangeable; a romantic fusion of self and other is caught in an image of a single pair of unfolding hands. This is the first of seven spaced lines, only one of them punctuated--at once scattered and provisional phrases, a faltering communication, and a verbal field vibrant with transformations. The next lines are ambivalent: "such an idea in man's image / rising tides that sweep me towards him." The tone is reverent, but also slightly compromised by Duncan's tendency to court a deliberately sentimental effusiveness. The mood brings the poem to its major disruption: ". . . homosexual?":

Duncan is aware that the sexual category can act as a restrictive label that deflates the mythic, transpersonal vision for which the poem is straining. Prefaced by ellipses, it closes the earlier "Is ..." and cancels the organic allusiveness of the opening listing. Italicized, the word challenges us to question whether his varied emotions and the poem's plural effects can be reduced to this single name. The impulse to include the word is at once political, aggressive, confessional, and purgative. The balance of the poem, he hopes, will demonstrate how inadequate the word homosexual is to describe his full experience. Yet we also need to read "Is he. . .homosexual?" as a single line, thereby traversing Duncan's romantic, philosophical meditation with the single essential question about availability. We must now read "The Torso" both as a fantasy about a stranger-- a fantasy constrained by the question of whether a relationship is possible--and as a meditation about an established relationship--one into which language and self-consciousness intrude with their effects of descriptive distancing. For each of these readings the category of homosexuality has the irreducibly double power Michel Foucault has analyzed in The History of Sexuality: it is both an exclusionary nomination and one that generates possibilities of action. By saying the name, Duncan wants to deprive it of its nominative power while retaining its subversive force, but it will always serve both as a political challenge and as an element of doubt in the poem. The decision to include it in the text moves beyond an aesthetic of honesty (whatever occurs in the field of the poem must be given its place) to become simultaneously assertive and self-defeating. Duncan breaks the intimate mood of the poem and probably undermines some readers' empathy in doing so. Like so much of the structural deflection essential in American open poetry, Duncan's decision reveals a sense of guilt and its attendant punishment; it establishes "the poet's own duality between doubt and conviction in writing." Moreover, for Duncan, as for Ginsberg, those emotions are given historical impetus by Whitman's comparable sexual anxiety. Personal and historical guilt finally become indistinguishable.

"The Torso" does very nearly surmount these difficulties, but it has been prevented from doing so entirely. The poem continues as if its syntax detours around the intrusive word. The next line, "and at the treasure of his mouth," proceeds from the line before; there he will "pour forth my soul / his soul commingling." Robert K. Martin uses these lines to argue that the single "occasion of the poem is, of course, an act of fellatio," a reading that is partly accurate but overstated, as any exclusive reading would be. Commingling souls also suggest both breath and a spiritual communion. We cannot choose between an actual physical act, a fantasy, and the verbal changes rung on both. Duncan's aesthetic point about referentiality is that poetry demonstrates the world's multiplicity. "I thought a Being more than vast," he writes, and the verb suggests that every lover is partly imaginary insofar as he becomes a kind of supreme being. The interaction of lovers creates in each a representative, universal body "leading / into Paradise." The erotic figure is also religious, the Christian reference reinforced by the figure of the "Orphic Xristos" in "Passages 17," who "lifts me up to him, / lifted me up to him, embracing every fear I had" (BB, 60). This Being is a communal figure who is also the apotheosis of selfhood. "His eyes," the poem continues, "quickening a fire in me," the body becomes "a trembling / hieroglyph," a signifying field or a sacred text constituted by an alternative, celebratory naming. The body is a joyous cathexis of names. . .from "the clavicle" to "the public hair". . . .

Although this is a generalized, universal male body, this reading of the body as a text is still one of the relatively few successful descriptions of the male body in poetry. There are many unspecific images of bodily life in poetry, images that are essentially nonsexual or pansexual, but very few erotic representation the male body. The four italicized names, given in descending order as the eye travels down the body, are points of origin or nodes of force in a descriptive field, constituents of the body's textuality. Each name occasions an uplifting of substance, countering the eye's descending glance and paralleling the unfolding description: "the stem of the great artery upward," "the rise of pectoral muscles," "sleeping fountains ... waiting ... to be / awakened"; "the stem in which the man / flowers forth"; "his seed rises." The frankness of "nipples" and "pubic hair," the prosaic "navel" will displease some readers. Yet Duncan overcomes the graphic difficulties of the material; he manages to convey the instinctual attractions of his subject and place it in the verbal field of his overall vision. The sequence of vertical motions anticipates the reference to ejaculation in the last section, but the verticality is also overlaid with references to "root" and "stem" that simultaneously reinforce the organicism of the opening lines and recall the etymology of "torso" as the stem of a plant.

But Duncan is compelled again to risk his achievement. The line almost reduces the vision to infatuation: "a wave of need and desire over taking me." Yet we are not quite back again to the rhetoric of the earlier line about the "treasure of his mouth," for the space between "over" and "taking" requires us to read this line in two ways as well--as a description of consummated desire and of desire that overpowers. "Cried out my name" risks the same sentiment but survives because of the multiple dimensions of naming established in the poem. We are not only given a lover's cry; we understand naming as instinct vocalized and as a sound bound in a net of words. Naming is fateful, an imposition of verbal destiny. "(This was long ago, It was another life)," he writes, echoing "Sonnet 4," and we sense a wider eros at work--the attractions of a mythic form. A few lines later the mythic references are reinforced: "His look / pierces my side." The look, the sense of being seen, transforms the visionary lover into the wounded Christ; the speaker's erotic being is crucified. The lovers are caught in a net woven two millennia before. . . .

With delicate echoes of the Gospels, and with clear references to man's fall and to Christ's incarnation and resurrection, the lovers undergo a transformation built into the informing power of words like "falling," "rising," and "gathering." Election as lover, king, and sacrificial victim traverse one another in these ascending and descending displacements. "Gathering me, you gather / your Self," he writes, as the poem gathers its metaphors into an allusive field that moves outward and inward at the same time. As self and other are extinguished in an embrace, the lovers also enact a larger story. Adam, dispersed in all the members of the race, and Osiris, scattered afield, are gathered together in one figure: "For my Other is not a woman but a man / the King upon whose bosom let me lie."

If "The Torso" existed in isolation, we might say that it succeeds in surmounting most of the problems it raises. Its conflation of homosexuality and Christianity--its mixture of anger at conventional American stereotyping with its own romantic effusiveness--its sexual attraction and tension--all these are held together in the poem's verbal net. The formal gestalt Duncan achieves is not one of fully controlled and balanced ambiguity but one of radically fluid though counterpointed allusiveness. Nonetheless, a reader who puts sufficient work into the poem will be rewarded with an experience of a uniquely rich and open kind of textuality. Yet "The Torso" is not simply an isolated poem, and its relationship to the "Passages" sequence radically alters its force, placing it in a network of oppositions that is more disabling than constitutive. Thus the formal dissolution that Duncan courts in "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" and "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" is finally achieved when "The Torso" is read in the context of Bending The Bow as a whole. The associative field through which the vocabulary of "The Torso" resonates includes demonic echoes that are as strong as those the poem offers. The "rising tides that sweep" the lovers together in "The Torso" recur not only in the conviction that "youth will rise" like "new shoots / of the spring-tide" and in "the blood's natural / uprising against tyranny" but also in the "sea of toiling men" in the Vietnam poem "Up Rising," men who have "raised this secret entity of America's hatred of Europe, of Africa, of Asia" (BB, 94, 114, 81-82). One of the larger contexts of "The Torso," then, is satanic violence, a violence that moves through the poem and takes up its images to use them for darker purposes.