Gunslinger
Ed Dorn

 

Inasmuch as symmetry has long been an important element of the lyric, when I think of poetic turns I think, too, of “re-turns”; for every strophic movement there is a corresponding antistrophic one, just as every volta promises the possibility of a “re-volta,” a small rebellion (if you’ll forgive the cuteness) against the presumed singularity of the volta as well as narrative and intellectual presumptions of progress and linearity. If we take the volta to be a turn of thought effectuated by a turn in language, we must also note that any thought or speech-act—even performative ones—can as easily be undone. Just so, the turns of lyric poems, however dramatic, may be erased through the same linguistic operations that birthed them. Any “but” can be followed by yet another “but” that renders the first logically and even grammatically inoperative. With this in mind, I’d say that the turns that have interested me most as both a reader and a writer of poetry are those that produce symmetry by somehow undercutting the volta’s rhetorical force. Sometimes this is accomplished by duplication of the volta, sometimes by its contradiction, sometimes even by that sleight-of-hand/bait-and-switch in which a presumptive volta is subsequently revealed to be little more than an unremarkable bend in a poem’s organic crookedness.

Many of the poems we admire most exhibit a sort of reflexive responsiveness—they’re aware of the poetics that formed them, and they bear the sometimes symmetrical, sometimes asymmetrical marks of that self-awareness. Self-knowledge can as easily destabilize as stabilize, of course; so while turns without consequent “re-turns” can undoubtedly be rhetorically effective, intellectually provocative, and technically superlative, what such gestures cannot do is exercise the mirroring function of all seeing and all language (a function that structurally stabilizes even as it rhetorically immobilizes). Poets who are interested in reifying this phenomenon in verse often eschew a single iconic volta for a continuous string of voltas and “re-voltas,” a sort of (il)logic chain that resembles a DNA strand: twisting and twining, yet all the stronger for it.

But how does a poet produce such a chain? One way, and it’s one of my personal favorites as a poet, is to reproduce classical rhetorical structures or mathematical causal chains which do not, in the event, discharge the sort of sense normally expected of such structures and conditional connectives. To use the simplest example, “If X, then Y” can subsequently be contradicted by an equally rhetorically convincing “If Y, then not X.” Likewise, the use of the classical rhetorical structure known as the “periodic sentence”—a sentence that is not grammatically complete until its final words—gives the poet ample opportunity for erasing or duplicating or otherwise mirroring any turn encased in one of the sentence’s preceding clauses. One of the best examples of an almost obsessive deployment of tiny “re-voltas” is found in Book I of the late Ed Dorn’s western epic, The Gunslinger. If we consider the first six stanzas of this long poem (ending with “no thing is omitted”), we see that Dorn has a rather full bag of tricks when it comes to avoiding the smugness of narrative linearity. Such resourcefulness is of particular utility in a long poem, as the archetypal volta is difficult to execute in this context. Indeed, it is the absence of identifiable turns that often makes lengthy verse narratives exhausting or even intolerable. Not so with Dorn; we can immediately detect that there is narrative experimentation afoot here, and just the sort that both gives Dorn’s tale its snaky form and also elicits our abiding attention as readers.

It would take more space than is available here to fully unpack Dorn’s rhetorical toolkit, to lay all his instruments neatly in a row, but a few are worth discussion in thinking of how “re-turns” or “re-voltas” counterweight turns and voltas that generate narrative but also, consequently, render it predictably unpredictable and, therefore, rhetorically inert. Dorn’s use of the conditional tense is particularly noteworthy, as it constitutes one of his most significant rebellions against commonplace lyric sense. The Gunslinger begins with a declarative in the simple past tense and a series of descriptions of just the sort we’d expect in a traditional lyric. Yet in the fifth line of Dorn’s description of the Gunslinger, it is revealed that the titular figure has been frozen in the act of “knocking”; the reader might intuit from this that the result of that knocking was the opening of a door, perhaps even the subsequent introduction of the narrator to the Gunslinger. Unless we pivot and read “knock” as a metaphysical rather than physical intrusion, this necessarily eradicates the first line of the poem, as it frustrates our sense of when the meeting of the narrator and the Gunslinger occurred. This frustration of the temporal continues with the final line of the stanza: “He would show you his map.” Perhaps “would” is meant here in the antique sense (“wishes to”); perhaps it indicates a habitual action; or perhaps it transports the narrative to the realm of the speculative. What we know for certain is that the third stanza ends with the line, “He will unroll the map of locations,” a seeming narrative duplication that relocates the first stage of the Campbellian monomyth identifiable in The Gunslinger—namely, the Call to Adventure—from the first stanza to the third. In duplicating the critical moment in which the poem’s tragic anti-hero presents the narrator with his Call to Adventure, Dorn effectively elides that structural turn from the poem altogether. All the more so because the second instance of the Call, in the third stanza, is not, in the event, in the simple future tense, but rather the conditional future tense: it’s causally predicated upon the stanza-starting, “If it is where you are…” (emphasis mine).

In the same way, Dorn undercuts the introduction of the narrator’s “society”—for there to be a Call to Adventure, there must also be a home the hero is compelled to leave—by first identifying it unambiguously as “your domain,” and then casually recharacterizing it as a theater. As no one is ever “at home” in a theater, Dorn thus denies us, again, a critical datum without which the Campbellian monomyth is an impossibility.

There is a danger, of course, in this sort of New Critical close reading of a text more invested in poetics than aesthetics. A fuller consideration of The Gunslinger would likely taxonomize Dorn’s endless “re-voltas” not as technical compositional gestures but featured elements of some larger philosophy of meaning-making. What even this brief close reading reveals, however, is that Dorn’s approach to the epic poem—whose rhetorical “turns” must necessarily be of the grandiose kind, the better to initiate the next stage of the myth-cycle—is one which circles us back to those dramatic narrative turns we thought had already been successfully activated. In this way, the concept of the “turn” or “volta” is refashioned as part of an organic spiral that almost certainly is a truer reflection of lived experience. How many of us can honestly say that the critical “turns” in our lives never once led us back to a reconsideration of (and thus a re-habitation of) the countless essential moments that preceded that turn? Because no turn short of death is, either in the performance of Life or in the language of Art, permanent, the most engaging uses of the poetic turn are those which in some way self-elide, self-mirror, or (at least in their duplicative function) self-aggrandize. Whichever form of “re-turn” or “re-volta” a poet chooses to use, the effect is an accumulation of sound and sense—and perhaps, too, a powerful form of non-sense—that elevates the work in a way a more conventional lyric gesture would not.

 

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A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Seth Abramson is the author of two collections of poetry, Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose, and The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009). His poems have appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Gettysburg Review, AGNI, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. He is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

†In the original text, the poem is broken into stanzas. For a more accurate version with the original stanza breaks, please see The Gunslinger, Duke University Press, 1989.

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