Wo es war, soll ich Werden: Twenty-Five Ways of Saying “IT” / Reading Robert Kroetsch’s “Seed Catalogue”

[this essay is about my dislike of most modern canadian poetry. there are exceptions, but this is a poet and a poem i thoroughly despise. i have tried to find the text of the poem reprinted online, alas! to no avail. the references are to page numbers, from Canadian Poets x 3.]

An infant is a seed. Is it an oak seed or a cabbage seed? Who knows? All mothers think their children are oaks, but the world never lacks for cabbages. – R. Davies

‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / ‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?’ – T.S. Eliot

Thus will your sons become … sickly and stunted as the scrolls of parchment in libraries, they will be led to revolt, and will step foward and curse the day of their birth and the lewd clitoris of their mother. – I. Ducasse / C. de Lautréamont

Robert Kroetsch, in his poem, Seed Catalogue, has strategically placed the word “it” throughout the work to create a folding structure which bifurcates and collapses several different senses of the word into one multiplicity of meanings. This is a strictly logical conclusion if the sequencing of the word “it” is looked at in the following way, following from the facts: The word “it” appears twenty-five times; The fifth and tenth part of the poem do not contain the word “it;” The word “it” is sometimes very loosely dispersed and sometimes very tightly clustered together; There is a bifurcation when the word “it” appears for the thirteenth time. This is where the meanings of the word collapse into a barely comprehensible multiplicity of non-unified meanings. The word “it” becomes a singularity, which is to be understood in the following ways: semiotic (as a sign or a simulation of a sign), symbolic (as a phallic symbol, combined with white space, which is also a phallic symbol – or, rather, the absence of a phallus), and psychoanalytic (as retrieval of the lost object, fusion with our mother’s body, which is marked with oblique strokes); I will intervene with non-factual analysis of the facts I have selected to produce my argument. Most of the rest of the poem will treated as white space that is pregnant with the excess and remainder of the mysterious “it.”

I shall begin my analysis by analyzing the two parts in which the word “it” is absent: Five and Ten. Part Five follows a long series of anaphora in part Four: the phrase “the absence of …” I read this sequence: each anaphora-stic phrase in part Four is a seed planted in the persona’s garden in part Five. In part Five our persona tells us about his plantings and encounters with gophers; his afflation to “become a postman” (434) and that “there was no one to receive / my application;” (434) and, that he “don’t give a damn” if he “do die do” (435). There is repetition of the image, the sign “gopher” from part Two; there is difference between the two representations of “gopher” – in part Two, it was “the badger” and “gopher’s blood” – here it is “gophers” eating the persona’s melon garden experiment, which are, if you will allow me, the anaphoras’ from part Four (the image of blood, as excrement object, as remainder will be taken up later on; so will the significance of the badger, as phallus, as signifier, as excess). His postal ambition is indented from the garden fiasco, which signifies an echo of the anapora from part Four: “no one to receive / my application.” These seeds of absence sprout into the hysterical “I don’t give a damn[!} if I … do die do.” The way his negation of his being-toward-death looks on the page, the way it might sound in speech denotes a disavowal, but, I’ll say, at the risk of being accused of chauvinistic-patriarchal-phallocentric-Freudo-Lacanianism, that “it” connotes a high anxiety lack … of “it.” The conclusion to be drawn here is: the actual absence of the word “it” – the lack of someone to receive the application “to deliver real words / to real people” (which is, I daresay, the vocation – not invocation, not evocation, not provocation – or one variety of Poet) – and the absence of the melons that the gophers have eaten: they all constitute “it.”

These absences are the spaces where the imaginary images of lost objects dwell; where the images of the objects one has lost, or is losing, or will lose are kept in such security, like the new seed vault they are building, that they may be recalled at will – but not remembered because not forgotten. It is the image that makes present what is absent, the image of the object that is attached to the thing, the way “love” is described in five different ways: the slightest resemblance of physical-imperfect-material-Things to metaphysical-perfect-abstract-Objects is the only way that the drives for satisfaction (be they drives toward pleasure, annihilation, the sheer pleasure of annihilation, or the complete enjoyment of eradicating one’s pleasure) can be transformed into the desire of the Other. (Love, being dialectical, is not based upon drive; it is sustained only through desire. It is also a suspect in the case for what “it” is.) In this sense the mere appearance, repetition, and variation of the word “it” – even when taken completely out of context – has the potential to redirect one’s drives towards (attainable) Things into desire for (unattainable) Objects.

Part Ten is divided into four parts: the beginning, (a), (b), and (c). In the beginning of part Ten we have two series of columns, the right column is italicized, the left is plain text but punctuated with oblique strokes. The last line of the beginning, on the left, is italicized and punctuated with an oblique stroke. Part (a) tells us about the Spencer Sweet Pea and what there is to learned from “your sweet peas / … / taught me the smell / … / of my sweating armpits” (443). Part (b) asks us two different questions: “How do you a garden / grow a garden? / grow?” (443); and transcribes a letter about brome grass – another difference and repetition – and a figure gendered feminine and named Cindy, who corresponds to other feminine figures in the poem by virtue of being represented as feminine: The Mother (part One), Eve (introduce in part Three), Germaine (part Three), Mary Hauck and her “hope chest” (432), “an old blood whore” (433), the subjunctive absent nipple girl (part Four), the muse – equated with memory and those girl/s, one of whom “had on so much underwear you / didn’t have enough prick to get past her // CCM skates” (435-6), Lorna and Byrna, perhaps (part Seven), the waitress that asks them to leave for “shouting poems at the paying / customers” (438), the woman to whom “you’ve got to deliver the pain to” (439), that , if it is the same woman asks “- you some kind of nut / or something?” (440), the “maternal great-grandmother’s birth place” (441), and the muse again, but here equated with forgetfulness, called “the mothering sort. Blood / on her green thumb” (442). Part (c) reiterates the same situation, the same series of declerative statements found in part One, “No trees / around the house. / Only …” (429), the Adam and Eve drowning sequence – but cut short, to introduce a question: “Who was left?” I would like to suggest here, that the question should actually be “What was left” after Adam and Eve drowned. The answer, of course, being “it.”

The absence of the word “it” in part Ten, not unlike the absence in part Five, signifies the presence of other things that closely resemble “it” (whatever “it” turns out to be) – but are substitutions: the oblique stroke that links the first three terms, “bomb/blossoms / city/falls / rider/falls” but separates the last term “How / do you grow a garden,” the word “palimpsest” in italics (which, in addition to “love,” is a good suspect for what “it” might be …); (a) the lessons of the Spencer Sweet Pea, which is also the only catalogued seed that displays only signs of its (purely?) economic exchangeability, (b) the double-different reiteration of the central question of the poem, the first reiteration places the Thing “garden in front of the Object “grow,” the second reverses this order: this I read as a form of emphasis. The former places emphasis on the Thing, the “garden,” the part-object that will come to resemble the Object “grow[th];” the latter places emphasis on the Object “grow” to see how closely the Thing “garden” will resemble expectations of completeness. The four parts, read in sequence, can be interpreted as such: the beginning is the imaginary state of fusion between seemingly impertinent terms; the question of the poem gets bifurcated: “How do you grow a garden?” is asking about a process; “do you grow a garden?” is asking about an outcome; the lost object is established (outcome), the path to it is laid out (process), the outcome it leads to, however, puts us on yet another path. Who was left?

Now I would like to shift the focus to the structurel centre of the word “it,” the thirteenth time it appears. The passage reads: “it came into town on the afternoon train” (432). If this is the point where, as I claim, the poem’s sense of the word “it” bifurcates and collapses then “it” is, in the literal sense, the seed catalogue. The previous statement, the first sentence of part Four, gives us a little more, not useless, information: “It arrived in winter, the seed catalogue, on a January / day.” To test the folding structure thesis of this paper, let us consider the “it” that corresponds to this phrase: “The Strauss boy could piss across it” (434). Literally, what the Strauss boy could piss across is a river run dry – and I would like to highlight the vulgarity of the word “piss.” The fact is that urine is a biological remainder, and that the word “piss” is the excremental from of the word urine – or “urine” is the euphemized form of piss, in language – the surplus form, if you will. The word “it” at this point in the analysis is a seed catalogue, arriving by train on a January day and a river run dry which the Strauss boy can piss over. On one side of the train that centers and bifurcates this poem there is a surplus value, a value to be desired (one of three luxuries: death, eating / drinking, and sexual reproduction) and the remainder of that desire; the equation of surplus value / Object excremental remander / Thing is linked to the difference between process and outcome of all attempts to retrieve lost objects, insofar as it is the process of searching for such Objects that produces such Things – the final outcome.

The passages cited from part Four correspond to part One because we have a correspondence between these passages and the euphemistic first use of the wort “it.” The passage reads: “Then it was spring. Or, no: / then winter was ending” (427), which, to push the folding structure idea further still, links to “c) it is essential that we understand this matter because: / He was the first descendant of the family to return to the Old Country” (442). The first passage uses correption, a kind of palimpsest, that modifies the statement it has just made: it negates “spring” and substitutes it with “winter was ending” – it effaces the image of spring but cannot eradicate the presence of spring on the page. Spring is a trace of “it” – because “it” was spring “then.” The lost object is symbolized in the word “then,” just as “He was the first descendant of the family to return.” The link between the two senses of the word “it” are grammatical: part One’s “it” is in the past tense (i.e. it was), and part Ten’s is in the present (i.e. it is); the former is immediately disavowed, the latter is affirmed as “essential.” There is a “terrible symmetry” about to be drawn: the cousin’s “return” to the grandmother is, in theory, a return to spring, fusion with the lost object – but this sill does not answer what “it” is actually referring to. In the literal sense “it” is understanding, not unlike how the persona says “you’ve got to understand this: / I was sitting on the horse” (428). Regardless of whether the cousin “designed” or “unintentionally, / himself designed” the bombing of his great-grandmother’s birthplace – this did not and would not have prevented him from doing so, nor from enjoying the ex-tasy of his act, “he guided himself to that fatal occasion” (441) (not unlike a man “guiding himself” into the forbidden zone of a woman, because she is a woman, who resembles his mother; not unlike a certain king, who unknowingly but with full enjoyment andconviction killed his father and married his mother …): “you’ve got to deliver the pain to some woman, / don’t you? (439).

I will now abandon the folding structure I have thus far been using in my analysis and interpretation to focus on the relationship between the “blood of gophers, “the badger,” and the image of “a strange muse: forgetfulness / … / oh, she was the mothering sort. Blood / on her green thumb” (442). The badger and the father are at odds with one another: the father is mad at the badger; aggravation here serving as the surplus value that attracts the father’s drive, and turns it into desire (what we may term: the Erotics of Hatred.) The badger is actually a substitution for the father: “the badger stood up, it looked like a little man ” (430). The badger standing up, even though it is a small animal, signifies the presence of the phallus – which the father is aggravated by, and yet cannot bring himself to get rid of the source of his frustration. When he does finally bring himself to actually fire a shot at the badger – this moment should be seen as an orgasm – he ends up hitting a magpie that is, no less, “pecking away at a horse turd” (430); the remainder of this situation, that is, the failure of the father to slay the badger, turns into a surplus in the form of a story, which is then turned into another remainder: “just call me sure-shot, / my father added” (430). It is important that the last remainder, that of the nick-name, is not apprehended as a remainder, but, again as a surplus inscribed in retrospect: “he added.” The father’s question, “Why would so fine a fellow live under the ground? Just for the … blood of gophers” (430), paralels the image of the bloody-mother-muse-Forgetfulness insofar as the badger represents the phallus-signifier, providing “the model for “stand up straight: / telephone poles /…” (433), the gopher’s blood and the bloody green thumb are essential, yet at the same time, and not without paradox, excessive and unnecessary surplus values that turn the survival instincts (i.e. drives) for things into aesthetic preferences (i.e. desire) for Objects. For example, without a taboo on incest, without the structural and symbolic possibility of a transgression via sex with a partner who is not one’s mother, the whole dynamic of sexual relations breaks down: in the absence of human desire – which is based upon limit and restraint, although they cannot be in any satisfied – there are only drives, which are habitual, and, as such, irresistible – even though they can be satisfied, they cannot be restrained or limited. This example is given when “you / didn’t have enough / prick to get past her // CCM skates (436): the prick is limited, and fails to get past skates, which are sharp and indicate the threat of castration. The phallus-object-thing must be barred to be desirable – not driven.

The epigraphs I have chosen, and my reference to the Seed Vault in the midst of bing constructed will be seen, it is hoped, as examples of how the “it” in Seed Catalogue represents a multiplicity of paradoxical, even contradictory, meanings that are somehow still unified – at least on the purely material level, on the level of the written letters and sounds that give body to language, that allow us to distinguish these marks from other marks. I deliberately did not sketch out all the connections between the various “its” for two reasons: it would take far too long and to not logically conclude that this reading is at all definitive, consistent, or even that well thought out. The meanings I have tried to assign the “it” and link together are how “it” at once represents the Object / Thing, the process / outcome, and the surplus / remainder; and these splits resemble aspects of the form and content of Kroetsch’s work: its representation of Objects through Things, the processes of growth and their ultimate outcomes, and the conjunction of the remainder within the surplus can be linked with the excessive length of the poem, the narratives that lead nowhere (nowhere being understood, however, as a kind of outcome), and the juxtaposition, throughout the poem, of “elevated” concepts (e.g. love) with vulgar words like shit, piss, turd, etc.

The fact that some humans are actually making a vault for seeds goes onto show how the search for salvation necessarily anticipates a disaster: the search for Objects (e.g. love, growth, poetry, poets, etc.) reduces subjects (i.e. human beings, organic processes, especially women and their cycles) to Things (i.e. consumable values that are overdetermined due to the phantasmal investiture cathected in only a part of the Thing, that lays waste to whatever does not fit); how the expectation of a desired outcome becomes a habitual modality, which reduces all processes into the dangerously simplistic dichotomy of benefit / loss; and how the surplus value of a thing is bound to the excremental remainder it produces – how the excess of surplus values turns into the surplus of the remainder, in which the remainder comes to replace the surplus as value. Here the archive and habit may be tenuously linked: it is the knowledge of having something readily available that produces habitual excess.

To come to any kind of logical conclusion regarding Seed Catalogue – which Seed Catalogue, as far as I can tell, does not come to – requires that I write in this style because if theory in general and poetry in particular are about something more than logical conclusions then just a response, merely responding to Kroetsch’s poem would produce nothing more than a logical conclusion: Kroetch’s poem is about the object-process of growth: the expectations, the ends, the means, the excess and the remainder that growth produces. Not just the growth of biological life but, also, the growth of abstract concepts, metaphysical objects, the cycles and transformations that mutate them into something both the same and different are what Seed Catalogue tries to articulate. Here is where the word “it” is not insignificant: the “it” represents the unrepresentable presence of the material thingness of our metaphysical objects; or, as Kroetsch might say, “shit we’re up against it.”

If it is true that

A great deal of theoretical writing adopts this very presupposition [i.e. that theory has to produce a discrete, discernible object (a turd of sorts) for us to examine (admire or scorn)], which is essentially an obsessive bias associated, for the most part, with what we might cavalierly call “anal male academic writing” (Fink)

I must now put down what I think “it” is: “it” is the singularity of the phallus, the erection of a signifier – “it” is the word that contains a virtually unlimited number of different significations – “it” signifies everything from the pain delivered onto woman, to the answer to the question Adam and Eve were drowned – / who was left? I hope to have shown how the central, centrifugal, and centripetal appearances of the word “it” creates a folding structure, or an unfolding structure in which the centre both bifurcates and conjoins the various senses “it” has been applied to: just as the fertilized egg unfolds into an infant or the corpse folds, via decay, back into the earth – Kroetsch’s poem both unfolds out of “it”self and, simultaneously, folds back into “its” own meaninglessness.

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