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Textures of Language and Thought: Sarah Rice

Fingertip of the Tongue by Sarah Rice book cover
Fingertip of the Tongue
by Sarah Rice
UWA Publishing
144pp
$22.99 AU
Published October, 2017
ISBN 9781742589527

Sarah Rice and I first became friends when we were members of the same choir and toured Europe in 2003. Sarah had just completed a PhD in philosophy––on epistemic metaphors and ethics in Nietzsche and Levinas––and I was about to embark on my doctorate. Sarah went on to complete further post-graduate study in Visual Art and to lecture in Art Theory at the ANU. Some years after our choir tour Sarah and I reconnected through poetry. While Fingertip of the Tongue is Sarah’s first full-length collection, Sarah’s poems have been widely published and won a number of prizes.

Sarah is one of a striking number of contemporary Australian poet-philosophers – ‘striking’ because there is nothing self-explanatory about philosophical and poetic talent appearing in one and the same person. (Here I will not list all the poets currently writing in Australia who have completed PhDs in philosophy or who show a serious interest in philosophy. For one recent illuminating discussion of philosophy and Australian poetry, see Peter Boyle’s review essay in the SRB, ‘An Amazing Shorthand’.) Poetry and philosophy both work with the medium of language but they are not naturally affiliated in the way that a sculptor, for instance, is also likely to be good at drawing. Philosophy is concerned with sense and meaning, poetry with the sound and tone of language. Philosophy with univocity, poetry with ambiguity. Philosophy is the expression of pure reason, poetry gives voice to imagination and feeling. Philosophy articulates the universal, poetry attends to the particular. Philosophy progresses through argumentation, poetry proceeds rhetorically. Both fields make use of metaphors but poetry is more inventive. I am, of course, exaggerating their differences, but what I think poetry and philosophy genuinely share in common is a concern with apprehending the nature of existence.

Some poetry readers are likely to worry that poet-philosophers might write poems that are overly abstract, lacking in emotion, disembodied. While I object to the anti-intellectualism that generally lies behind such a worry, the poetry of Australian poet-philosophers also tends to be immune to this criticism. This brings me to my hypothesis. Many poet-philosophers seem to share a sense that the rational mode of philosophical inquiry has certain limitations and that the imaginative and aesthetic resources of poetry can facilitate a more adequate disclosure of existence. (There has, however, been a marked tendency within twentieth and twenty-first century ‘Continental philosophy’ towards a more poetic kind of thinking and language. Even so, philosophy can never fully satisfy a poetic disposition – unless it ceases to be philosophy and becomes indistinguishable from poetry. In this respect, a more subtle variant of my thesis could be that the proximity, yet difference, of Continental philosophy from poetry means that it cannot quite satisfy poet-philosophers on its own.)

The fruits of philosophy and poetry emerge from different places but a subterranean spring nourishes them both. Poetry’s voice sets the strings of imagination, reason, feeling, and the senses vibrating in concord. Philosophy plays a distinct monophonic melody. Philosophy, according to Plato, carves reality at the joints. Or, to use a more modern visual metaphor, philosophy’s x-ray vision exposes the skeleton, the framework of being. Poetry is living flesh, the embodied word.

The brain is, of course, the organ that has come to be most closely associated with the rational mind. In Fingertip of the Tongue Sarah draws attention to the limitations of a singularly brainy take on the world. The poem ‘Letter to my brain at 3 am in a plea for sleep’ includes these lines: ‘Some small things I would / ask of you / Please listen more closely / to heart and feet / They have a different intelligence…’ Similarly, the poem ‘Petition to all brains from the corporate body’ states:

...............

We propose the emergence
of a somewhat divergent

philosophy of mind
and seek to remind
that brains should be kind

to the body that houses
the spirit that rouses
and the will that espouses

a raw phenomenology…

Sarah’s poems both advocate a poetry that is attuned to the heart, the body, and the spirit, along with the brain, and embody this poetics in richly metaphorical, euphonious, descriptive, and synaesthetic language.

Two key themes of this collection are the nature of language and embodiment, including the philosophical problem of the mind-body relation. Sarah is especially interested in what could be called ‘the mindedness’ of the body. Various body parts, not solely the brain, seem to possess a mind of their own. In the poem ‘Love and dentistry’, it is ‘the tongue that goes exploring / unbidden’ and can’t resist probing a sore spot on the gum. Metaphorically depicted as a ‘fat fish among coral’ it pushes ‘its flaccid fullness against the pain’. The poem ‘Coogee in two parts’ unfolds a brilliant phenomenology of what Merleau-Ponty, rejecting mind-body dualism, called the ‘body-subject’. More specifically, the poem reveals the role of feet in a distinctive disclosure of the world and sense of community. I will quote only the beginning and the end of the first part:

I think of all the people current-
ly with their feet in ocean
linked by sea

as if all uniting in a common
act of prayer
the praying of feet
on wet sand

............

and the wide world suddenly
becomes smaller
with its circumference ring
of foot-submerged standers
almost like holding hands

and I am one

A defining development of twentieth-century philosophy was a deepened interest in the role of language in interpreting the world. Heidegger famously stated that ‘language is the house of being.’ Gadamer claimed that ‘being that can be understood is language’. Derrida wrote ‘there is no outside-text’. Sarah’s poems explore related conceptions of language. The poem ‘fishing tackle’, which employs a number of fishing metaphors, emphasises how the poem itself is an event in language. ‘On the bus’ takes the reader on a vivid journey but in the final stanza arrives at the meta-reflection that we have all along been travelling within language:

These words on the page fly along curb,
and glide over railing, drift through field
and road and gravel, and the white line
swoops and bends and arcs towards us
in its flight, and catches us at heel,
and reels us in, and casts us forwards.

The poem ‘Adder control’ humorously contrasts the snake encountered in language with the snake encountered in the world. It includes the lines: ‘A poem is the safest place for snakes’; ‘…no better place to stumble on one / than in the middle of a line’.  Other poems invoke the originally theological idea of a ‘book of nature’ but outside the context in which God is conceived as Nature’s author. One such poem begins: ‘I took a leaf / out of the wood’s book…’ ‘Unspoken’ made me think of recent biosemiotic theories of language, which regard communication as a universal process linking all scales of life and culture from cellular interaction to human conversation. It opens as follows: ‘For the way the sea speaks to the sand / And hand speaks along with voice / And alone without voice…’

But poetry is a slippery fish, a chameleon, an ever-changing Proteus that resists the confines of any one theory, in this case any one philosophy of language. Sarah’s poems intersect with various theories, but their wide-ranging metaphors open up new perspectives on and within language. While the philosopher might accuse the poet of inconsistency, the poet’s retort is that the philosopher is prone to simplify the richness of the world for the sake of logical consistency. (This is not to say that there is no coherence to a poet’s body of work. In the oeuvre of a poet, as well as that of other artists, a perceptive interpreter can distinguish an overall stance towards life, which embodies something analogous to a philosophical ‘worldview’. Nevertheless, this is not articulated in the form of rational arguments and is not directed by the principle of non-contradiction.) To partially paraphrase views expressed by the French symbolist Paul Valéry, the philosopher resembles a poet who has become fixated on a handful of metaphors.

Furthermore, Sarah is fascinated by those qualities of language that have traditionally been sidelined by philosophy: its tone, texture, synaesthetic suggestiveness, and resonances, in contrast to its abstract sense and meaning. In ‘Finding the words’ Sarah writes: ‘There is perhaps a god / in words / hiding not in the sense / but the sensation’.

In addition to demonstrating an impressive talent for inventing metaphors that are at once apt and surprising, Sarah’s poems often involve the elaboration of one overarching metaphor, which branches into sub-metaphors. The poems are adventures in metaphorical thought. ‘Against the grain’, with its central metaphor of a ‘grain’, is a splendid example. I’ll share some lines from various places in the poem:

Many things have a grain best not to go against
 ............................
The quiet perfection of a feather
   is ruined with reverse of stroke
   and never returns
 .........................
Friendships too have a grain
 .........................
Time itself is a grain we cannot go against
   even if we wanted to
 .........................

There is only one way to move
   through a night thick with thought
   and thin on sleep
 .........................

There is no way to crawl back up
   the funnelled pitcher plant
   its hairy follicles draw us deeper into the rosy throat.

In ‘Muse’, which is centred around Clio, the muse of history, and is also a kind of ars poetica, Sarah affirms the meaning that can be found in the particulars of daily life. In contrast to the ‘Grand Narrative’ of world-historical events, the speaker asks whether Clio might take an interest in ‘the small story of me / my mother and father / my house / my own brief path / the history of this day / this Tuesday perhaps…’ Many poems in Fingertip of the Tongue address quotidian life and its trials. Sarah has a knack for identifying the interesting and peculiar in the mess of the everyday, humorous moments and foibles, moral dilemmas, telling but easily overlooked details, epiphanies that make an otherwise trying day worthwhile. Sarah’s ear for idiomatic expressions and her skilful employment of the vernacular strike the fitting tone. ‘Govie housing’ contains this humorous advice on how to prevent washing from getting stolen:

It’s best to hang the worst sheets outer and the good shirts 
inner
on the line                     hidden to the roving eye
turn all things inside out and peg them roughly by their thumbs
with scarecrow undies at each corner

Fingertip of the Tongue includes rich evocations of the natural world, which are concomitantly striking objective correlatives of the speaker’s state of mind. ‘The barn and the birds’, which portrays a ruined barn and bird skeletons found on a beach, draws attention to a shared fragility of architecture and animal life and by extension poignantly suggests their kinship with human mortality. It concludes with these lines:

....................
                                             …Both these bony

structures, the bird and the barn,
are churches with empty altars, no
heart, no hearth. The world has broken
in and burgled both.

Connected to the theme of embodiment are the many poems that address the challenges of dealing with a debilitating illness. Never self-pitying or embellishing, these frank poems succeed in affirming life and existence amidst extreme obstacles. I love the conclusion of ‘Rescue’, which at once affirms the entwinement of language and life and poetry’s therapeutic value: ‘A poem throws out life        lines / the way life throws out life        lines.’

Other poems pay moving tribute to the gifts and sacrifices of parental love, vividly recollect childhood experiences, and respond to visual artworks without depending on them in their ekphrastic accomplishment.

Sarah writes in free verse (like the majority of contemporary poets) but her poems show a close attention to the ‘musical’ qualities of language, including rhythm, alliteration and assonance. Sarah is also an engaging reciter of her poems. In light of this, I would like to offer a final reflection. While slam poets often make a distinction between ‘performance poetry’ and ‘page poetry’, these denominations misrepresent the fact that sound or vocal performance is vital to most poetry whether it belongs to the genre of slam or to the literary tradition. (The relevant distinction in this respect is between poets and performers who demonstrate a greater ability and those who demonstrate a lesser ability to vocalise their poems, to render them audible for others.) Even if a poet writes mutely on a page, she hears the emergent lines in the mind’s auditorium. Similarly, a key task of a silent reader of poetry is to give ‘voice’ to the score of black letters, to ‘hear’ the poem with the ear of the mind – or is it ‘the mind of the ear’?

This is an edited version of Luke Fischer’s launch speech for Fingertip of the Tongue, delivered at Gleebooks in Sydney on 5 November, 2017.