Troubled, by R.M. Vaughan
Reviewed by Alessandro Porco
That R.M. Vaughan’s poetry might break your heart and punch you in the gut at the same time isn’t news. His Ruined Stars (ECW Press, 2004), for example, includes “The Tool Shed Bar, East Sunny Dunes,” a brilliant elegy for AIDS victims but also a scathing critique of self-imposed political, ethical, and linguistic blinders to human suffering. That poem told of “a legend, from 1977.” The then-aged actress and singer Dinah Shore — she would have been 61 — is stuck “11 miles from anywhere” and “6 yards from the Toolshed” (a gay bar) on account of her “car [stalling].” Shore’s on her way to some decadent high-society function or meet-and-greet: “Now, boys, here’s the situation — I’m already 20 minutes late.” “Triple A needs 20 minutes to get here,” but more importantly, “there’s my hair.” Her hair’s not yet styled! Shore cannot show up looking anything less than the Diva that she so clearly is. Thus, The Tool Shed is, for that moment, transformed by necessity into a makeshift salon, with “Ken, 20 years in hair,” and his “Marine” assistant, performing the timely make-over. It’s an act of disinterested generosity, performed without any desire for monetary recompense (“Master Ken refuses the folded 20”). One human — whatever his sexual orientation — helps another. Vaughan’s poem’s narrative is simple enough, though the full effect of its storytelling imperative is realized only in the final lines: “3 years late, Dinah Shore will campaign for Ronald Reagan,” and “President Reagan will not say the word AIDS in public / until 1988, until Rock, until Andy & after Ken, dead by ’84.” Unfortunately, there’s no real reconciling these two Dinahs. What Vaughan’s finale indicates is how a willful loss of memory has disastrous effects when we are trying to determine responsible courses of action, political or otherwise. Furthermore, this willful loss of memory is attended by the conspicuous silence of the “word.” Vaughan’s last line’s particular act of naming the dead — “Rock,” “Andy,” “Ken” — is a poetic act in direct response to, and contestation of, that silence.
Vaughan’s Troubled: A Memoir in Poems and Fragments (Coach House, 2008) is a book-length confession and self-reflexive analysis of the rise and fall of the poet’s love affair with his therapist. This includes everything from the early flirtatious sessions between patient and doctor, weekend getaways, physical and emotional abuse, the revoking of the therapist’s license to practice and, eventually, said therapist’s reinstatement. Vaughan’s new book has all the nuance and technique of a poem like “The Tool Shed Bar.” However, something’s changed. It’s not that the scope of his poetry has somehow expanded: no, Vaughan’s always had a sense of expansiveness, as exemplified by his iconic sprawling poetic line or his interest in travel (“All autobiography is travelogue, map play / some of us just get around more,” writes Vaughan in “Palm Springs International Airport”). Rather, what’s changed with Troubled is the sustained intensity of imaginative energy expended over sixty pages, focused exclusively on the physical, psychological, and emotional minutiae of love and hate, of sex and death. It’s not the scope, then, but the magnitude of Vaughan’s imaginative energy — so intensely channeled to “the rotten sweetness of corruption” (that’s Vaughan, quoting Faulkner) — that contributes to Troubled’s brilliance.
The first thirty pages of Troubled is composed, primarily, of single-page poems titled “Sessions.” The “sessions” include the constantly critical and refracting interior monologues of Vaughan, sometimes as patient, sometimes as lover. Other “sessions” are devoted to the typical “[calling of] all the old [therapy] gods to harvest,” that is, the father (“mad as a paper kettle, / as three glass balls in a blender”) and mother (“her sleepy violence, / a limbless she-cat, all caterwaul and cant”). As these “sessions” develop, so does the intimate relationship between patient and therapist. The doctor is repeatedly characterized as some sort of magician, lulling the patient into “love” with magical spells; and, perhaps more significantly, he’s figured as a betraying Devil:
Here is where you said Relax
and meant Come to my house, take dinner, meet my children,
buy me a book, sit in my lap,
grow used to the hiss inside.
Also interspersed throughout the book are excerpted passages from psychiatric texts, especially passages related to the “code of ethics” to which doctors must abide. In the latter half of Troubled, Vaughan also includes evidentiary documentary information: “private and confidential” letters and emails, for example, exchanged between Vaughan, therapists, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons. All of the recreated sessions and documentation ultimately find release in the cathartic final poem, with its repeated refrain, “It stops here”:
better to empty a symbol than sink, sopping
blood-drunk. Better wound down
than winded. It stops here.
The “wound” magnitude of this drama is completely and utterly Greek.
Love changes one’s relation to language. That statement, however sentimental it might seem, is an essential if unheralded fact, I think. Let me repeat: love changes one’s relation to language. This is particularly important to poets, whose primary working material is, of course, language. How do we effectively connect the word and thing (feeling, object of desire) or language and memory — that’s what compels both the poet and the lover. Vaughan understands this. “Enough tugs and coverlets, hand jive,” writes Vaughan, as he cheekily figures figuration in a statement against figures, then, adding, “I love him and comparison / is odious.” So, there’s one possible effect of love on language: a desire for direct statement. Indeed, there are passages of unadorned statement throughout Troubled. Yet only a few pages later, Vaughan also suggests that writing “love” in a direct, plain mode is, inevitably, impossible because love itself is neither direct nor plain. Love is far more mannered than that:
To tell love, name attraction …
catching bats with envelopes.
The ellipsis is the mark of the impossible (i.e. love). The ellipsis is the existential limit of love. Vaughan’s only recourse, after staring into the lexical, grammatical and syntactical abyss, is to compose the most audaciously mannered figuration in the book: its egregiousness is the source of its astuteness. The envelope — through which love notes once were exchanged — is now the obsolescent vehicle of delivery for that vile flying rodent which exceeds or resists envelopment. But Vaughan also take things one step further: Plainness or figuration are not the only linguistic effects of love. Love, a few pages later, in a section titled “Last Session,” can cause both parties of a relationship to become “indifferent to signs” altogether, including linguistic “signs.” Instead, actions in love become guided by something else entirely — something the linguistic sign cannot contain. That reckless “something else” has the potential to uphold, yes, but also to harm the fragile human heart.
Ultimately, what Vaughan recognizes is that poetry and poetic language is the time and space of “circumventing.” As the etymology of circumvent suggests, poetry is both a coming and going, turning and returning, versing and reversing — in that, it’s like the experience of love. “All my poems double back,” explains Vaughan. Thus, he is continually placing and displacing similes and metaphors. They are “false starts, MacGuffins.” Vaughan affirms and negates via accumulation:
[The sex] was hardly Jamesian not baroque, syntactical,
not a meandering Castle Walk or One-Step,
a ballroom of sweet bits mashed, necks pressed to thighs,
bumping, unshaved bon mots. Not Bridge or Heats,
anything calculated only cock, plain cock,
fussed between low circles of muscle, then jiggered shook out.
In via negativa mode, Vaughan “circumvents” on what sex is not and implies, at the same time, what he imagines love is. Vaughan offers a total of eight points of comparisons. Each point of comparison is the right one, momentarily, and the wrong one eventually. I would add, too, that this passage should not be read solely as a lament on the physical and unimaginative limits of sex. In some ways, Vaughan lauds and appreciates that simplicity, that ideality: “only cock, plain cock.” Sometimes poetry and love are just too much navigating and calculating for one heart to bear; a little “plain cock” goes a long way.
Or, consider another example, in which Vaughan attempts to describe poetry as “outmoded”:
poetry, for pity’s sake … a broken knife
outmoded as telegrams, protest
postcards to Burmese generals, tide-kicking
sun worship, hoodoo, Methodism,
silent movies, menorahs in June, my career,
horseshoe charms and flocked paper,
the practice, performance and very idea
Ten converging and diverging points of comparison over eight lines. Vaughan laments that poetry isn’t a vehicle through which one can successfully take revenge. It’s not real in that way. As a revenge technology, poetry’s obsolete. Yet it’s that very condition of being obsolete that enables Vaughan to confess and critique and make metaphors and similes freely and accumulatively. More importantly, poetry enables Vaughan to forgive his therapist and to forgive himself. Vaughan might have gone “unheard” (as he writes) in the censorious legal proceedings he endured, yet in poetry, being “unheard” is a freedom that enables him to say whatever he damn well likes and, in an unlikely dialectical twist, to be heard. That is, to be heard proper, Vaughan turns to poetic language that exists outside the purview of legal proceedings. (Here, Derrida’s insights prove useful: “When testimony appears guaranteed and then becomes a demonstrable theoretical truth, part of a legal proceedings or report, a substantiation of evidence or even a piece of evidence, it risks losing its value, its sense of status as testimony… For it to be guaranteed as testimony, it cannot, it must not, be absolutely certain, absolutely sure and certain in the order of knowing as such.” Vaughan poetic language is outside that “order of knowing as such.”)
Vaughan’s lists are not limited to the accumulation of multiple points of comparison that graph various emotional, physical, or psychological conditions. Lists abound throughout Troubled, and I’d like to circumvent my own review and double-back to this particular device. Page 24 is divided into two parts: the top half is a list of fourteen “Harlequin Romance Titles,” while the bottom half of the page has a list of fourteen “Porn Titles.” These are cultural markers of a fantasy Vaughan is himself performing. Lists are composed of the essentials, and accordingly Vaughan also uses lists as a means of communicating that which is essential about a particular scene or person. For example, he describes a dream sequence in which “[his therapist] directs me down silvery canals, / past low lichen wastes pocked with flowers-of-sage, / over turtle bed and railway ties, / pop-cup mounds and raccoon nests, / sunless undersides of bridges best for kisses.” Each detail, here, not only describes the scene but also emphasizes that the perception of details unfolds, like drama, in time. Vaughan uses lists self-reflexively as well; he admits to hoarding items: “A blue pen and ragged cap, for the impression of his [therapist’s] teeth,” for example, or “a tin Eiffel tower from his desk.” The list is the formal organizing structure for collectors, for Freudian hoarders. Troubled, then, is the poiesis of an anal character.
I’ll end, here, by drawing brief attention to the most important poem in the collection: “A Break in the Proceedings.” The “proceedings” refer both to the legal proceedings related to the case against Vaughan’s therapist but also the dramatic “proceedings” of the book itself. The “break” is a break away from the anger and hurt that occupies much of the later half of the book; it’s also a break away from the legal discourse that has come to stomp all over what was once a discourse of love between Vaughan and his doctor. He writes:
Because I do Love you, careless and evil man,
and I do fall, every day, and it is not balletic, not feline,
it is belly first, arms wreathing head
in disbelief, cascades of neck fat, butter ripples
and foot bottoms ass up, pink as slapped foreheads,
a clown show, this Love, with full cannon
confetti and pop guns.
In his composing his memoir, Vaughan has come to remember the love he was once capable of sharing, even if with a “careless and evil man,” the devil. Poetry enables empathy, understanding, and forgiveness— three things altogether absent from legal proceedings. Poetry is how Vaughan circumvents losing his memory, his futurity, and the “word” (his language). Poetry is the means through which Vaughan recalls to himself his potential to love. This revolution (literally, a rolling around) in love is a revolution in poetic language.