On Laynie Browne's " Ambient Language"

Jeanne Heuving

In an early poem by Marianne Moore, " A Fool, A Foul Thing, A Distressful Lunatic," she inquires into the misnaming of the loon:

That most precocious water bird, the loon--why

Is he foremost in the madman's alphabet;

Why is he styled

In folly's catalogue, distressful lunatic?

In reading Laynie Browne's new book, Drawing of the Swan Before Memory, I am reminded of Moore's early poem because of a shared desire to unname and rename and because of a subtle ethical address. While Moore takes issue with the derogatory meaning that the name loon has acquired, her response is to dislocate the loon from these fixed associations. The poem's whimsy and ethical address so interpenetrate each other that there is no ethical position apart from the exact wording of the poem itself.

In Drawing of a Swan Before Memory, Browne repeatedly asks her reader to go to the place of newly forming perceptions and verbalizations before they harden into determinate sense. This poetical exploration is an ethical adventure because Browne suggests it is in these subliminal or partial formations that connection with other human beings and a larger world occurs. The volume's six meditations frequently focus around the interactions between parent and child, although to name these as such, over identifies the actors that produce the subtle liminalities between knowing and not knowing, observing and remembering, perceiving and languaging that are Browne's subjects. In this volume, Browne radically revises any conventional sense of such highly sentimental markers as home, parent, child, while studying their centrality in a life.
In the opening sequence, " Plane Trees," the question of naming is approached quite directly, as the poetic speaker meditates on mistakenly thinking that by " 'plane' trees," it had been said " 'plain trees.'" As such, " She (namelessly) persists to name them," and then quixotically remarks, " The trees have been named precisely." Through these subtle dislocations, the speaker concludes, " This is where we are walking, between language which has not been counted."
In " The Emergence of Memory," in which both the parent's and child's memory emerge through the event " the child did not know he had a memory," " [t]he relation between memory and sign is ambient language." In the child's drawing or imagination of a sea coast, " The pretend coast emerges . . . which may be represented by the color of unset eyes." The sequence concludes with an assertion about naming: " Thus the word 'pretend' is inferior to its purpose. There is nothing pretend about the pretend coast, except the notion of misplacement." In so far as the word " 'pretend'" debunks imaginative activity as less than real it wrongly names. But in so far as it dislocates, its " purpose" exceeds its misnaming and so becomes a desirable promontory of this seacoast.
In the concluding sequence, " White," we come to the house itself, the sense of enclosure, sought for, but never entirely available in these poems. How fitting then that this house is a paper fold up and this meditation draws attention to itself as construction through its boxed shaped stanzas:

She must get inside this box

so that I can carry her down

the silk road. You didn't fol-

low my instructions, said the



My dear girl, what are you

doing inside that box? This

flute is for you, said the

widow. The painted forms

began to stir as they heard the

children's white music.

In Drawing of a Swan Before Memory, and most of Browne's preceding work, the sentence and its fragmentation are her primary poetic mode. Her poems transpire through subliminal states that can become uncanny as Browne's sentences and sentence fragments skirt a perennially frustrated familiar. In " White," the box-like stanzas restructure her poetic voice by making the line more prominent, a restructuring even more pronounced in " Sonnets," published in Golden Handshake. Here, the line's prominence produces a voice seemingly more direct and sociable:

There is no line within time

Which will tell you for certain

Or certain telling only--o

To recognize your footing

There is no time within the line

I read in secret or write as a form

Of transport trespassing into

You of ribbony sight

That the beginning of this poem turns on the opposing sentences " There is no line within time" and " There is no time within the line" creates a sense of how time is unrepresentable, while drawing attention to how time is being construed through these lines of verse. Through this change in form, " Where you undress the sentence / In full light without apologetic green," Brown shows just how inseparable the form of her writing is from its content. And while the sonnets seem to offer Browne a new sense of concreteness, if anything hard, object-like is forming here, it is inseparable from the form itself. Here, the attenuation of the earlier volumes, the deferral of meaning, produces itself as the instruction: " please cut / Words only by hand or mouth."
In Browne's work, extreme care is taken not to misname.
Or as she writes, " The self possesses form--abandoned."