Joan Houlihan’s “circumlocution and lousy grammar indicate that her narrator is . . . one of ‘a group of Primitive People,’” writes Fiona Sampson in her February 2010 review [“Long Sight and Reading Glasses”]. I wonder if Sampson is equally offended by the circumlocution and lousy grammar of The Dream Songs or, say, the double negatives in blues lyrics. As Steven Pinker points out in The Language Instinct, “the myth that nonstandard dialects of English are grammatically deficient is widespread,” and that myth’s bogeymen (Sampson’s “lousy grammar”) are “hobgoblins of the schoolmarm.” On the contrary, a dialect such as Black English Vernacular “punctiliously conforms to [its own] rules.” The interesting question is not whether the grammar of Houlihan’s invented lexicon is or isn’t “lousy,” but whether it approximates internal consistencies plausible to the imagined linguistic world.
I believe it does. Houlihan’s carefully managed first-person plurals—the collective language of The Us—consistently conflate the nominative and objective cases. They employ the pronoun “him” as subject (“him may have worn a pelt”), object (“us lifted, put him to the pyre”), and possessive pronoun (“Hims last of meat us took and tore”). Sampson also complains that Ay’s use of “me” and “mine” for objects and possessives “seems inconsistent.” But this is precisely the point. When Ay uses the first-person plural, he speaks like “the us”—as a good scion ought—but when he employs the first-person singular, his grammar reverts to the object “me” and possessive pronoun “mine.” His language is evolving, along with his consciousness of self.
Sampson presumes that Houlihan’s use of the word “primitive” confirms that the action takes place “Long Ago.” “Primitive” confirms no such thing. Houlihan does indeed imagine a nonindustrial, tribal culture, but she scrupulously avoids placing the story in an identifiable past, present, or future. The us could just as plausibly live in a post-apocalyptic world.
In the longest passage Sampson quotes, she finds a “clumsy semantic smudge” in the image of “huts built round with stones,” puzzling over whether the huts are surrounded by stones or are circular structures made of stone. When did ambiguity in a poem become evidence of clumsiness? An ambiguous image allows multiple possibilities of meaning to stand side by side without confusion. Lingering on the same passage, Sampson recoils from an “ugly clatter of compound nouns against each other” in the line, “a sky-hole takes the cook-smoke through.” That I find the line quite beautiful—in part because it introduces the us’s animistic worldview in a brilliant word choice (“takes”)—Sampson is welcome to dismiss as beside the point. Wholly to the point, however, is Sampson’s aversion to “ugliness” in art—personal distaste masquerading as aesthetic axiom. Just as the charge of “lousy grammar” ignores context, the complaint that “clatter,” as a sonic effect, is necessarily “ugly” represents an unexamined allegiance to conventional refinements. The world The Us evokes is more cacophonous than euphonious, and much barbarity occurs. I believe Houlihan finds a language adequate to a world where brutality and scarcity are the norm.
Sampson’s bias against the unlovely comes out most egregiously in her bizarre notion that a death scene—“thems stood and looked at him/who emptied out”—contains a “problematic intimation of diarrhea.” Here, willful misinterpretation so distorts the self-evident that it betrays the reviewer’s own projective fixations.
A final comment on the “thoroughgoing-ness”—Sampson’s term—which she insists The Us lacks. Her first sentence asserts that the “poems require marginalia to explain what’s going on”; her last alleges that the “marginalia are baldly corroborative throughout” (my italics). So, which is it? It’s a shame that Sampson didn’t apply to her own reductive review the meticulous thoroughgoing-ness she advocates.