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Issue 130

The Lake Is a Plate of Itself: On Anne Carson’s “Dave’s, Lake Michigan, Early June”
by Fan Wu

Ⅰ.

The power of a poem so depends on its expressive performativity. “Dave’s, Lake Michigan, Early June” (published in the London Review of Books, October 2015) performs a flowing scene of non-identity through the mouthpiece of its speaker. (We will call this speaker “Anne” for the sake of convenience, acknowledging our ignorance of her connection to the Anne who authors her.) How I mean non-identity: the poem performs a specific textual self, but it cannot exhaust the self that is its object, the self that the poem creates in its composition. Something of the self shimmers beyond the poem as a mystical lining. Some evoked feeling remains unspoken. What poetic language creates is greater than itself.

Anne has her own ideas about inexhaustibility:

old monk saying.
Don’t look for a kernel

of [whatever you need]
in the forms of things,

seems to be the message.
You peel off the shell,

get another shell.
Thunderstorms (evening)

Poetic non-identity is turtles (hells) all the way down; each reader peels a different layer away to reveal a different self underneath, endlessly. Just as things in the world resist your desire to pull “whatever you need” out of them, in this poem-object, there is no locatable essence that would grant Anne the coherence of an identity. The self never coincides with itself, as a moment never coincides with its occurrence. The non-correspondence between language and its subject casts a shadow from poetry upon our daily lives. Even when Anne sings of the “same joy and joy and joy,” no two joys are the same. The second and third utterances bear the temporality of repetition with a slight but undeniable difference. This poem speaks on behalf of the non-repeatability of each instant; the self is a layered thing infinitely unpeeling.

Ⅱ.

Anne’s poem begins with a PJ Harvey quote, “…_until my middle name is excess_…”, a scrap of lyric excised from the song that includes it, “We Float.” Another clue to the intertwinement between Anne’s mood, half-adrift in limbo, and the lake in which she swims.

Lake Michigan is the poem’s excessive middle; it is the tumultuous or restive vessel between two shores. First shore:

I will sit on the porch and
try to think.

Prepare for thinking
(in the car as we go)

The shore that opens the poem is the present casting a wish upon the future. My journey has a destination only through my will. Yet already some things are in the way of thinking, namely the verbs “try” and “prepare.” There is so much concern with forethought, which takes the form of laying the ground for thinking. Who knows what distinguishes thinking from its attempt, from its preparation. And Anne won’t tell: the poem is structured exclusively in tight-lipped free-verse couplets that hint at psychological depth without showing you what’s inside. The second shore:

on the lake.
Packing up I consider

how I mostly spent my time here
avoiding thinking.

Thinking, which at the trip’s outset was Anne’s goal, turns out to have been the evaded kernel that the poem circles around. The lake overwhelms the thinking self with its wealth of possible experiences, its crickets, its overhead lightning, its bone-chilling depth. It becomes for Anne the perfect place to arrest the question of thinking. (Of course, this excerpt investigates its own performative self-contradiction: doesn’t one need to think in order to write? Doesn’t the composition of the poem demand thought to put it into place?) Another question that reaches straight to the reader: Is there something traumatic or disturbing in thinking itself that she was avoiding by avoiding thinking? No answer. Only more avoidance when Anne invokes “some monk advice / to prevent / lofty thoughts on departure.” Leave them both behind, the thought and the thought of failing to think. Between two shores:

Nightlong thunderbolts
move me from thinking

to rethinking.
A lake,

Here, nature is the trigger for an unusual movement whose distinctions are unclear. What’s the difference between thinking and rethinking? Anne suggests that rethinking is not a matter of generation or creation, but a shift of perspective. After reading about “leac (leek or garlic)” and “luxus (excess, of ‘plants / growing obliquely or too much.’),” she begins “Rethinking garlic and bent plants.” We’re hardly able to find an instance of thinking that is not rethinking: where did the original, unrepeated idea go? Poetic language turns the world over for us again and again after the world is realized as devoid of a first thought.

Ⅲ.

The poem is divided into three parts. Roughly there is a chronology: I. Arriving at the lake; II. Settling in at the lake; III. Departing from the lake. Time takes place at most as a rough template, and within time the poem moves by free association. Anne switches registers; she looks at the root men – in her book of etymology and discovers its relationship to monks; whereby she recalls an old monk’s parable, turns it around in her mind, before then turning her attention to the material world and how “A burning haystack / topples cleanly, ingeniously / into the lake.” Anne mixes the descriptive technique of haiku, which attends to the objective landscape, with the hushed lyricism of confessional poetry. In doing so, she stages poetic language’s passage from interior to exterior, its liminal position between psyche and lakescape.

So the poem, against the stability of identity, performs not a personality with qualities fixed by arrangements; but rather the impression of a process of thought whose loops and whorls are wildly connected, moving outward into the world, only to involute back into the non-identical self:

Generally I admit
my spirit strays all over the place

but there
in the numb stream

it narrows to an absolute.
An absolute what?

An absolute crossroads.
Breathe or die,

As her spirit strays, splitting herself from itself, the poem’s attention keeps wandering away until a dire moment erupts. Suddenly the body, closed into stillness by the cold of the lake, “narrows to an absolute” and locks into place as a locus of identity. But even here, in the absolute centre of the poem, nothing is absolute except an option, a possibility, a “crossroads. Breathe or die.” And, having chosen breath, Anne’s spirit strays forward, onward.

The poem gently invites you into the space of the Lake: I remember the calm of the body expiring in a minor pond in North Ontario, storm piling clouds into the pebbles. And thinking plainly about loss, and inquiring about language, all while the duskladen shore loaded up against me. Anne from the poem merges with my remembered self, in thunderstruck intimacy. Two non-identical moving spirits passing each other in the nightlong depth.

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