Double Venus

by Aaron McCollough

Salt Publishing, 2003
96 pp. $13.95

Reviewed by Jonathan Minton 

     The title of Aaron McCollough’s impressive second book, Double Venus, references, in part, Plato’s division of love into the "common," which seeks satisfaction in earthly pleasure, and the divine, which seeks satisfaction in the union of souls.  In Double Venus, the (sometimes partial) reconciliation of the earthly and the divine proceeds by argument, in all the particular denotations the word involves: discourse, essay, and mathematical function.  The book is divided into four sections: "Arguments and Spurious Links," "Common Places," "Essays and Visions," and "Double Venus" (a section devoted as much to the independent variables of mathematical functions as to the Roman Goddess of Love).  The introductory poem "National Hotel" precedes the four sections, and serves as an epilogue to the book’s range of concerns, including the exchanges and negotiations between the common and the private, lyricism and ethics, the material and the metaphysical, as well as the inevitable slippages and double-exposures circulating between them.

     For instance, "National Hotel" begins with a proposition that playfully reverses the dichotomies between public and private, fact and fiction:

      the city in the poet
      is a fact
      the city on the island
      a fiction

The partitions that otherwise trouble such divisions are here "a fleeting faction / swimming to the city," a blurring of public and private life.  The isolated "city on the island," unlike its lyrical counterpart, is not yet "fact" precisely because its raw materials have been formalized into impersonal habit:

      steel and leathern

      the battery and bedsprings
      this is the nature and habit of waiting

In other words, the "fleeting faction" that otherwise undermines the partitions between the public and private, between boredom and desire, is rendered instead as "all these locks without / the arguments."  These isolated materials touch without interacting, unable to be rendered as nascent "fact:" "bees inside the paper tube / like crickets."  Arranged as disparate "things," these objects resonate with a potential lyricism, a potential blurring between the hums of "bee" and "cricket," yet both remain as remote and divisive as the implied partitions between the public life of "nation" and the ostensibly private life of "hotel."

     Much of Double Venus works to suggest that the reversals proposed by the opening lines of "National Hotel" must be realized through dialectical discourse and a careful scrutiny of the blurred relations between the particular forms of the subjective and objective.   For example, the title poem of the section "Common Places" re-enacts this difficult process:

      in line of sight      in line
      through breaks in the screen
      to mean
      a thing
      to be

The nascent logos, or "fact," of a "thing to be" is a negotiation that is always partial, a line of sight mediated by the "breaks in the screen" between subject and object.  This, of course, echoes Merleau-Ponty’s theories of perception in which the physical, as well as the biological, precondition any objective comprehension.

     However, for McCollough, this earth-bound subjectivity is not only a matter of metaphysics, but a matter of ethics.   In Double Venus, the very act of perception, with all its implied lyricism and metaphysics, is an especially fertile ground for a thorough scrutiny of public life, as well as the responsibilities of subjectivity in determining public life.  Part of this process involves an awareness of the conflicts between personal desire and responsibility, between the singular and the communal, as evident in the poem "Shipwreck of the Singular:"

      but we are a government
      me, mine, numerous others’ other

      and we are sick we are all sick

      and tired

      of death      even as we long for heaven

The phrase "Shipwreck of the Singular" is taken from George Oppen, who likewise explores the contours between the private and the public, but in Double Venus, the title takes a particular resonance as it pertains to the "island" in the book’s opening poem.  Here, the "fact" of the "city in the poet," the reality of personal desire, conflicts with the "fiction" of the "city on the island," the seemingly impossible and isolating condition of public life.  The shipwreck may thus be necessary, an inevitable result of irreconcilable forces:

      eros by any

      the same rose blows

      can’t do better than that

      than     a toast

      a toast to thanatos?

The playful allusion here to Shakespeare examines the idea that the exterior world is independent of subjective reference.  A "rose by any other name would smell just as sweet," but "eros" is doubled with "thanatos."  Subjective life, in other words, is given to partiality, rupture, and a doubling of opposing, but dependent, tendencies.  The fact that a "public" is a collective subjectivity ("we are a government") means that both eros and thanatos are imprinted in a politics that is "sick and tired of death" even as it longs for heaven. 

     What then is the role of ethics?  Or, more to the point, what is the possibility for "the common ground of good," as the poem "Common Places" asks, given this subjective conditioning?   Again, Double Venus works from the assumption that any such consideration must proceed from the various forms of argument, as illustrated in the excerpt from Agnes Heller’s essay on ethics in the poem "Time One":

The incomplete ethico-political concept of justice does not design, propose, or conjecture any particular social system as the good or the just one.  It presupposes that there may be several good or just systems . . . if they are legitimized by all concerned in a rational value discourse. . . .

The "good world," then, wavers "between titmouse and a word / for it," between a human reference and objectivity, which do not necessarily resolve each other, but engage in a contingent discourse.  In other words, what is "good" wavers precisely between world and word.  Neither purely objective nor referential, ethics is a value-system that adds "what might spill over / or waver out" from this contingency.  What makes this book so brilliant and important is that this discourse develops alongside, or through, a particular lyricism and subjectivity, as evident in the lines that immediately follow Heller’s excerpt:

      forest acrostics     sea caves    I here     wind

      . . . .

      the angels are there and not there    here

      the broken engines    heaps

      the walls of a tune

The lyricism of "the walls of a tune" both bound and legitimize the otherwise slippery regions between the earthly forest and caves and the subjective "I here."  Likewise, this earthly/subjective "here" exists alongside divine presences that are both "there and not there."  As the additional space and particular line break suggest, "here" may very well exist somewhere between "there and not there."

      In this manner, the book’s concluding section (entitled "Double Venus") proposes a third approach to the proposed reversals initiated by "National Hotel," as evident in the poem "[(-0.12+0.74i) anathanthema]."  The intriguing title, as many of the titles in this section, is written in the form of mathematical argument, or the function and amplitude of a complex number.  The fact that a complex number consists of both "real" and "imaginary" numbers is used here to reconsider the "island" in "National Hotel":

      the island        is land
      but not       a land

        NOT     THE
        NOT    A

The seemingly irreversible "locks without / the arguments" in "National Hotel" are reversed here precisely through the application of argument, a mode of discourse able to track and evaluate both the real and the imaginary.  This is again presented in another form of argument: "the metaphysical is mathematically demonstrable as being always one tetrahedron greater than any physical system."   In other words, the particular form of mathematical argument is able to track all that wavers between the real and imagined, or all that "might spill over" in any ethical, or metaphysical, evaluation.   The result is a kind of subjective/objective "double-exposure."

      This       demi paradise
           s         emi   ar

                            parad  e

This radical artifice, through which both language and its object waver in image and after-image, does not distort the physical, nor the metaphysical, but renders both simultaneously.  The result is not only an ethical system, a system for adding "heaps" of the exterior with the subjective, but ultimately a device for an honest evaluation of both self and world:

                                    that I
                  by which I was changed
         enough to see    world
         in the world
         in my own
      that I

The application of argument, in all its various forms and devices, elides the self/world dichotomies that troubled the book’s opening poem.   However, the final result of a discourse that so carefully mirrors these wavering spaces between, while clarifying the particulars involved, is not self-recognition, nor simply recognition of the world, but a declaration of love for the otherwise elusive "polar thing composite in the world."  The division implied by the title "Double Venus" thus collapses in an evolving (and involved) discourse that ultimately "sings of devices and a positive love: / posits a love."




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