THOMAS FINK Reviews
“Overpainted Thresholds,” a poem from
DIPSTICK(DIPTYCH) by Tom Beckett
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2014)
TOM BECKETT’S “OVERPAINTED THRESHOLDS”
The exploration of poetics in “Overpainted Thresholds,” the first of two poems in Tom Beckett’s doubly-titled book
DIPSTICK(DIPTYCH) (Marsh Hawk P,
2014), is intimately connected with the poems’ and the volume’s
self-questioning titles. (One might argue that there is a two-page poem, “My
Robot,” folded within “Overpainted Thresholds,” thus making the book consist of
three poems.) DIPSTICK is crossed
out; is the poet therefore bracketing or suspending possibilities of
measurement? Does the wet line where the oil stops constitute only a shadowy
trace of presence? (DIPTYCH), is put
in parentheses: does this make it a parergon, an insignificant aside, or do the
parentheses call all the more attention to it?. “Overpainted Thresholds”
suggests the placing of a boundary under erasure, not through an eraser’s
dematerializing action that nevertheless leaves a residue, but through material
(paint) that obscures the physical marker beneath it. Oil on a dipstick
signifies an “overpainting” and a “threshold,” too. And the poem-title, “I
forgot,” which turns out to be the first two words of most sentences in this
catalogue-poem modeled on Joe Brainard’s “I Remember,” bespeaks the tracing of
a gap, a rupture in memory with consequences for narrative and for human
action. Both sides of this poetic diptych speak to one another as measurement
of displacement and displacement of measurement. As for the troubling third
term, the title “My Robot” refers both to a steely measurement of human
attributes and the question of whether technology really possesses “memory” or
an ability to “forget.”
Asterisks separate “Overpainted Thresholds’” irregularly sized sections, each of which has a varying stanza pattern featuring short-lined free-verse whose visual arrangement is center-justified. These stylistic features tend to promote both leaps from one set of tropes, images, and concepts to another and inevitable return to prior concerns. The “borders” between sections—or “thresholds” from one to the next—are neither arbitrary nor thematically self-evident.
Like Derrida, Beckett in this poem is obsessed with charting reversals and displacements of the binary opposition of inside/outside, which informs the notion of “borders” or “thresholds”: “Inside and/ Outside all/ The time” (20). If a “threshold” is “overpainted, stained/ Smudged, smeared,/ Scratched” and even “half-erased [as or by] pentimenti” (4), then
Or mappable, documentable. (4-5)
Beckett is extremely interested in investigating the border(s) or lack of them between the speaking subject and others: “Your voices/ Shadow mine” (4). To “shadow” is to practice surveillance, crossing borders. But the “you” does not merely do this to an “I”; as other sentences in the poem suggest, it is understood to be reciprocal. As in Bakhtin’s Dialogism, each member of the dialogue both respond to prior utterances and anticipates latter utterances of the other. And in keeping with Bakhtin’s notion of “double-voiced discourse,” as well as Lacan’s concept of how the speaking subject constitutes him/herself through access to pre-existent signifiers in the Symbolic Order, Beckett meaningfully pluralizes “voice” to indicate that each individual as communicator can be represented as the locus of prior and ongoing utterances from other sources. In this sense: “The noise in me/ Is undimmed” (6) and “I am/ A series/ Of interruptions” (20). While “interruptions” surely include events like “a seizure” (11) that can “tear” one “apart” and “rearrange” him differently (12), the interruptions of one voice by another are a two-way crossing of borders. The “threshold” from one “self” to another is continually “overpainted,” and it is not always clear whether early “layers” are visible through the top coat. “Voice-overs” (6), then, are not merely a recording technique designed to create a unified polyphony; they may be a competition for vocal space.
At certain points, Beckett goes as far as to question the I/you split and boundaries altogether:
Social constructs. (18)
The repetition of “thing” paradoxically makes the discourse more abstract and less indicative of the materiality of objects. Beckett’s poetry in general cultivates the “unexpected” as a welcome, if sometimes anxiety-producing disruption of a complacent ensemble of demarcations. Language’s separations such as “This you,/ This I” can be recognized as “most/ Peculiar constructions” (6) only when one follows the poet in subjecting what is most familiar to defamiliarization. One of Beckett’s “voices” knows that definitions, founded on distinctions, are ever dangerous: “I’m not/ Protected against/ 500,000 definitions” (19). Yet he also recognizes that even the continual crossing of borders and overpainting of thresholds, the conversion of an outside to an inside, does not override long internalized perceptions of constructed boundaries as truth. Such perceptions mark the psychodynamics of human interaction: “Wherever I/ Am you’re/ Someplace else” (12). This is especially true, of course, when what appears to be communication with another really functions as one part of the socially constituted split self trying to use language to cross the border line to the other: “Talking to/ Oneself in/ Speaking to another// Is a kind/ Of reverse ventriloquism” (6-7). But which of the self’s “voices” is addressing which interior “ear”?
“My Robot,” the possible poem within the poem, precisely allegorizes the self’s attempted conversation with itself. After the robot that has “just arrived/ In the mail” (16) “emerges grinning” from a “package” that “opens from within” (17). The “owner” crosses the threshold to confinement: “I take/ Its place/ In the box.” Then, the newly boxed subject confers quasi-human identity on the newly mobilized robot:
Opens the box
I am in.
Our eyes lock.
I say. (17)
The social contract may say that the personality-enhanced (?) simulacrum of the human being is the servant of the “real” being. However, when the “I” recognizes this “thing” as a mirror image, he seems “locked” into suffering something like the mythological fate of Narcissus. The speaking subject has engineered his own reification, though a few pages later, we encounter a linguistifying sentence that makes this reading seem reductive, “My Robot/ Is one hard/ To parse sentence,” and then a challenge for us to “try…/ to diagram/ [Their] relationship” (20). In fact, whereas Narcissus drowned and was “reified” into a flower, contemporary consciousness of self-reification can lead to a breaking of the spell.
The ever-questing, ever-questioning philosopher-trickster-tropester Beckett ends “Overpainted Thresholds” with a wry allusion to Lacan’s assertion in his “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’” that every letter arrives “at its destination”:
Rarely received. (24)
The poem’s final word is ambiguous. Is “to receive” equal to “to understand”? Yes and no: the reader does not fully grasp the meaning of this last “message.” For Lacan, the arrival of a letter at its “proper” “destination” does not mean that the addressee knows how to read it—that is, understand how to follow the itinerary of the signifier, the stages in a metonymic chain that ends only by arbitrary fiat. He does not necessarily grant that any character in Poe’s tale, even the private detective Dupin, can fully trace this itinerary, though Dupin comes closest by far. In fact, the discontinuous but thematically recursive form of Beckett’s poem resembles a metonymic chain, and his probing of thresholds, boundaries, interiors/exteriors keeps exposing the difficulties of trying to justify one’s action of drawing or erasing lines.
Thomas Fink is the author of 8 books of poetry, including Joyride (Marsh Hawk Press, 2013) and a book of collaborative poetry with Maya Diablo Mason, Autopsy Turvy (Meritage Press, 2010). A chapbook, Former Sestinas, Fink and Tom Beckett’s collaboration, appeared in late 2013 (Beard of Bees). Fink’s work appears in The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s). He is the author of A Different Sense of Power: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth Century Poetry (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001) and co-editor ofReading the Difficulties: Dialogues with Contemporary Innovative American Poetry (U of Alabama P, 2014) . His paintings hang in various collections.