In Slavoj Zizek’s book, The Indivisible Remainder, we are treated to the dense account of Schelling’s notion of the beginning of the creation of the universe. Rather than a central intelligence dividing light from dark or earth from water, Zizek’s divine mind (and, we presume, Schelling’s) is caught up in a cyclical process of thought from which it cannot escape until it finally comes to some kind of decision. For a vast and unknown quantity of time it weighs the pros and cons of uttering the creative word which leads to a calamitous degree of anxiety until it defers a decision to the next cycle. Of course the rotary motion Zizek speaks of is a simple metaphor, and yet in reading it, I imagine a place of utter darkness with a ship’s wheel or metal gear spinning in it. What if, in fact, the content of that indecision was the world in which we find ourselves, the newest links in a long chain we’d like to be free from, without actually severing ourselves from the preceding links? I think then we would be stuck fast with Silenus and Diotima, caught between thinking and being, on A. F. Moritz’ A Houseboat on the Styx.
And who, precisely, are we? For my own part I first read this ship’s log while mired in the reveling muck myself. I had come up through a violent childhood marked by extreme poverty and occasional displacement at women’s shelters in Toronto and Hamilton. Our defense against these things was on the one hand a scathing antipathy for emissaries from the middle class – social workers, doctors, teachers and the like, “professional do-gooders” as the letter-writer in William Carlos Williams’ Paterson called them, and on the other an equally scathing and fanatical Pentecostalism. Through my teen years and into my twenties, when many were constructing an intellectual edifice upon the bedrock of their received tradition, I was wielding equal parts literature, science and philosophy to distance myself from the austerity of my youth. So it was that I found myself, on the eve of my departure from university to return to help my still-impoverished family, taking on the task of writing a review of this long poem for the University of Toronto’s the newspaper.
The conceit of the Styx poem, adapted from the work of the same name by John Kendrick Bangs, is that there is a houseboat inhabited by a faun (Silenus) and his beloved (Diotima) that has become mired in its journey down the River Styx. Moritz’ poem quickly becomes distinguished from the original: where Bangs imagines a motley collection of the shades of famous people enjoying themselves while engaging a perverse desire to mock each other’s accomplishments and occasionally undertaking a jaunt to haunt the living, the boat of the modern poem becomes “stuck fast/in an endless expanse of reeds” and becomes the occasion for a meditation on modernity and tradition centred on the critique of the figure of Diotima. In the immediate environment Moritz is able to evoke the ancient Hebrew/Babylonian notion of the creation and the flood and set it alongside a more scientific view of the universe. Both seem to exist together, first with the notion of land being divided from water and then a reference to Ligeti’s Atmospheres which gradually develops into an account of background radiation carried over from the eruption that began the universe:
And the dark background
in which all such music is enchased,
most constant sound,
the one next to silence itself,
the great noise, without feature:
suddenly you heard it too:
the roaring of the sun where its river falls
over the archaic fault line, the black
with exhilarating power.
In between these two extremes, where we might expect to find an account of creeping things, we get instead the invocation of Whitman, who in some sense is the poet who most exemplifies breaking with the past to cultivate a vision out of the materials of the present: ‘endless regiments/of the lightly clashing/leaves of grass’. I imagine also that Whitman might, for an American-born poet, represent a poetic genesis in the same way as creation or cosmic eruption. Whatever is the case here, the environment will eventually develop into civilization.
It’s at this point that Silenus seems to suggest that the journey is not his as much as it is Diotima’s. I had always wondered, despite the foreword’s explanation of the poem’s title, if there wasn’t some allusion to John Ashbery’s book Houseboat Days, and this suspicion was confirmed for me by correspondence with the author: “A contention with Ashbery, a sort of acknowledgement of filiation combined with a separation, was a spring of the book”. In some sense, then, Silenus’ critique of Diotima is in fact Moritz speaking to Ashbery about how his craft has become becalmed. We get an endearing picture of Diotima scouring the city gathering
a heap of loved pieces saved from this time
to be built up into the Knossos of any queen
who would consent to give birth to you anew,
but this time not regret you, not
direct her womb, the moment you had appeared,
to swallow you up again.
It is impossible for me not to hear in Knossos the shadow of the concept of gnosis, and to think that what is being built here is an intellectual palace that Moritz might associate with Kant: “And he built them, on the Rhine,/what? What is that castle? No one can say”.
It’s tantalizing, also, to consider the use of the word queen rather than mother, given the fact of Ashbery’s homosexuality, and wonder if there is some indication that Moritz sees Ashbery as constructing a structure that gay men, as well as others, might be tempted to inhabit:
It was a redoubt
against all progress and the planners,
like a walled convent or a menstruation hut:
secret impregnable fortress of superstitious guilts.
No one but you knew what went on in there
and you weren’t telling.
Shut up inside, grimly defended, your sex,
your picture of yourself, your love, writhed in secrecy,
cringed in self-doubt….
The poem seems to suggest that the structure which finally emerges is a kind of failure in the sense that the Diotima character ultimately gives up on the possibility of having her existence affirmed and loses herself in hyperaesthesia:
This misery is always with you
even to the end of time:
and never more painful than when it takes this guise
of a new love of life,
alertness, free espousal, and a taste for every detail….
What is intriguing here for me is that it suggests what I have always felt about Ashbery, and about much of the poetry being written today: that it is concerned primarily with aesthetics and gives everything equal weight, or perhaps no weight at all. It’s all description and no depth, and we are mocked if we think that we can use poetry as a method for thinking through real problems.
And yet it was this sense of poetry as a type of thinking that drew me to A Houseboat on the Styx and solidified my decision to devote the bulk of my literary activities to poetry. It seemed necessary to disavow all that my early life had been built on, but I had an awareness that doing so would leave me no provision for the journey. I saw in Diotima a figure for myself, a “stone of your city” whirling aimlessly, “tethered to the litter and despite/of your endless birthplace”, so that no matter what attempt I might make to isolate an aesthetic moment from the vagaries of my biography the past was still there, and indeed the aesthetic moment was dependent on it. There seemed these two things in me: one, a desire to learn and explore the world, casting no judgements upon it, to see all creeds and ideologies as equal attempts to combat what Moritz called in an email “miserablism”, and the other to build an intellectual edifice of my own that could unify experience and thought. I often felt in reading Silenus’ gentle criticism of Diotima that my own desire to escape the hard work of coming to terms with my existence was being criticized in turn, and was often torn between anxiety and joy; anxiety that the things which afforded me temporary relief were untenable, and joy that someone recognized the problems of that kind of existence and understood them, even if that was expressed through criticism.
I have written here about a very small part of A Houseboat on the Styx. There are extraordinary things I would like to explore in great deal, such as the juxtaposition of returning to a primitive notion of divinity and the evocation of Nietzche’s well-known metaphor of atheism as having swallowed up the sea, or the similar evocation of Lacan’s comment on Poe’s purloined letter and its implication of a Kafkaesque final judgement on the part of empire. There is also, it seems to me, a sonnet-like turn at the end of the poem: after a brief consideration of poverty reminiscent of Christ’s “the poor will be with you always” Silenus identifies Diotima, and by implication himself and the rest of us, into the figure of an unidentified everyman characterized by poverty and hard work, scarred and scabbed but loved by children, who transforms into a Christological figure in the midst of their work.
All of these things, and particularly the last, would form excellent ground for further explorations, and I hope to make them one day soon. The one thing I have come to dwell on, though, is Moritz’ choice of Diotima as an incarnation of Ashbery, or at least of the problems he sees in Ashbery. The most obvious point here is that it comes off as a bit of an evasion as it avoids the fact of Ashbery’s homosexuality. Given the structure of the book as a lover addressing a beloved, we might reason that the author, presumably heterosexual, would naturally think of his beloved as female. This is, of course, a very traditional way of proceeding, and yet I feel it opens the poem up to all the standard criticisms of the portrayal of women in literature. Could Silenus have fulfilled Diotima’s role, and vice versa? There’s also the question of whether having the Ashbery analogue be male, straight or gay, would create too great a distraction and overwhelm the other content of the poem, which does seem to depend on a small degree of fidelity to historical gender roles. But then, why not have Ashbery play Ashbery? That still calls, I suppose, for a throwing of the poetic voice if the principal character is male, and the possibility that some might come to see the writer as homosexual himself.
I have no answer to this conundrum, and have to admit that my preference is for the approach Moritz took. The fact that it’s not a direct questioning of Ashbery is of course friendly to him, but also less alienating to those who don’t know of Ashbery or who have no interest in his work. The fictional figure of Diotima seems to allow this criticism of Ashbery to stand for several different personalities at once: Ashbery, the fictional Diotima, the reader, and an analysis of contemporary culture, which seems to have abandoned (or tried to ignore) what it has been founded upon for a proliferation of ideas and solutions it does not have the desire or ability to evaluate. These are the qualities I have come to admire in Albert Moritz’ work: the ability to conjure opposite sides of a problem at the same time and just have them sit together for the reader to consider, and the sense that when his poems seem to be speaking to one thing, they also speak to another. They are classic poetic tricks; in some sense all I am saying is he uses metaphor. And yet metaphor is seldom used to this sort of effect.
Note: Throughout this essay I refer to the poem as A Houseboat on the Styx, which is a slight difference from its published title Houseboat on the Styx. The title I have used is the poem’s original title, which was changed at the request of the publisher. The author prefers the title I have used.
Autumn Getty is the trans female author of two books of poetry published by Nightwood Editions. Reconciliation won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Hamilton and Area Arts Council Award for poetry and was nominated for the Trillium Award for Poetry. The Winnipeg Free Press named her second book, Repose, one of the top ten books of poetry published in Canada in 2008. She has also received the Hamilton Arts Award for Literature and been nominated for the Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts as an Emerging Writer in the Literature category. Autumn is currently at work on a novel, a book of poetry, and a collection of essays.