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Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Joey Connolly on Ben Rogers' "Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation"

Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation by Ben Rogers

The sort of plant someone might grip a name on, a name 

lodged on a bath’s corner ledge. A trickle from the pot, 
shot with loam. Each leaf is an open hand with gaps 
between the fingers, which imply a loose hold on money, 
and which could connect to having a blank with names. 
A name that doesn’t make you think of cheese. The plant 
is a disorder that hangs over you, a shadow over a sheet 
of water you cannot name, a shade you associate with
the metallic weight of regret. In the mirror, your face
has a tug to it you don’t want to name. There’s a folly
to the multi feather-duster effect that the fronds have

as your father parades the plant down the hall on a plate 
whose pattern you don’t have the wherewithal to name.
The plant has achieved a size where it can no longer perch 

and has been delivered to a new home behind the television, 
there being no name like home. The television is in the room 
named the living room, to distinguish it from the other 
rooms. The fire reaches out to feather the guard. If the fire 
were solid you’d name it a bed of thorns. Your mother
prods for a new channel, but before she does the news 
broadcaster with a name you can’t name announces
the death of a name you can’t name who appeared in a show 

with a name you can’t name. The leaves reach out to smother 
the television. The carpet’s name is soft earth, the wallpaper’s 
name is mountain slate, the ceiling’s name is a heart turned
to ice. The next trivia question in order to win a slice
named a cheese is to name the plant in the corner. Another 

time, the plant there will be named a Norwegian spruce.
The window’s names are outside, reality, growing up
and danger. This time though, the plant is unnameable.

Your parents have left the room, and you are left on the sofa 
with your name, a word that reflects you but you see
through. A glass word and a plant that can’t nurse. You imagine 

the plant will move again, and in years to come will plunge
its many feet into hills spun with pine and flint. Returning 

again to your name, it’s not your name any more, and doesn’t 
even taste like a name, let alone name like a name. 

from New Poetries VI © Ben Rogers

There are still other made-up countries
Where we can hide forever,
Wasted with eternal desire and sadness,
Sucking the sherberts, crooning the tunes, naming the names.
                               John Ashbery, ‘Hop o’ My Thumb’

*Click on the image above to enlarge it

‘Monstera Deliciosa’ is the name of a plant, also called the ‘Swiss-cheese plant’ because of the holes in its leaves; it’s defined by the gaps in it. ‘Semantic satiation’ is the name of that thing where you hear a word so many times it becomes meaningless. ‘Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation’ is a poem by Ben Rogers, in New Poetries VI. But it’s also true to say that ‘Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation’ is the name of a poem by Ben Rogers, in New Poetries VI. The words, weirdly, seem to be both the name of the thing and the thing itself.

This is a poem obsessed with names, and the activity of naming. Naming, I think, is the delicious monster of the poetry world; it’s the violence poets can’t help but do to the world as they obsessively describe and redescribe – name and rename – the objects around and inside them, as they project themselves, sometimes forcefully, onto the world. Its deliciousness is the beauty and the power it can hold; its monstrousness is in its rapacious processing of phenomena and experience into something else, something somehow usable.

In the poem, Ben Rogers is mounts a full scale expedition around the different things that names can do. By the time we reach the second line we’ve had two possible models of names: they can be things to be ‘gripped onto’ objects, separate-to but joined-with. Alternatively, names can stand in for things: the plant’s name, rather than the plant, ending up on the bath’s corner ledge. Because this is a poem: it can’t have things in, it can only have the names of things. This goes on – the poem cycles through loads of cool ideas relating to how names work, but we don’t have time to discuss them all now. I’ll just skip to my favourite bit, which is this: ‘The window’s names are outside, reality, growing up / and danger.’ With the brilliantly placed line-break, what seemed to be a clever and entertaining poem about words snaps complexly into something a lot more emotionally involved.

Windows represent the point at which the outside world is made present and accessible, and for the narrator of this poem, that outside, external world represents danger. Suddenly, the obsession with replacing objects with their names makes sense as a defense mechanism. To conceive of language as replacing the world, rather than as being a window onto it – a way of looking at it – is a way of pushing away the terrifying chaos and disorder of the noumenal, inhuman world of things-in-themselves. The monsters of the too-real world are tamed by naming them. It’s the oldest spell in the book.

And taming is necessary; the window has sprouted four names (note it’s the ‘window’s names’ and not the ‘windows’ names’) which conjures some weird and unsustainable proliferation of designations, like cells dividing too rapidly, and of the same order of creepiness as what we feel when plants grow too fast, the natural world as implacable and voracious. Nature – by standing in opposition to the human – is often a potent symbol of otherness; think of Heart of Darkness, or of the thistles and bulls in Ted Hughes (or nature in all its narrative-shucking glory in Sarah Lindsay’s Debt to the Bone-eating Snotflower).

‘This time, though, the plant is unnameable.’ By now, the plant can’t be contained by its verbal packaging; for a narrator trying with increasing desperation to block-out the exterior world with a wall of words, this is catastrophic. ‘Your parents have left the room’ – some kind of grounding locus of authority is suddenly absent – ‘and you are left on the sofa, / with your name.’ At this point, the narrator is exposed to his own survival strategy, and becomes vulnerable to being neutered into language in exactly the same way as the rest of the world has – for security – been. The narrator’s name is ‘A glass word and a plant that can’t nurse’; there is no nourishment here, only a brittle fragility. The poem ends when ‘your name … doesn’t … name like a name.’ The poem, by this point, has reached the point of semantic satiation; the word ‘name’ stops making sense. This isn’t a stylistic or formal nicety, though: the poem stops here because it literally can’t go any further. It’s obsessed with names, and now they’ve stopped naming things, there’s nothing left.

Again, though, I get the impression that there’s a human psychodrama taking place here, and not just linguistic trickery. Even apart from that danger associated with the external world, there are numerous ominous reachings in this poem; there is ‘a disorder that hangs over you’ (‘disorder’ as chaos, as a lack of order, but also as implicative of a psychiatric disorder); there’s the ‘pattern you don’t have the wherewithal to name’; the way the ‘fire reaches out to feather the guard’ and the ‘leaves reach out to smother the television’. This is a world in which mental stability is constantly under threat from the reaching out of one thing into another. Boundaries are scarily permeable, and neat languagey categories are wont to break down. There’s a huge desire for the safety of pure solipsism, with those dangerous windows bricked up. If, as Wittgenstein wanted to argue, language is the only way out from the crushing loneliness of existential solipsism, then when names and words fail – become meaningless with semantic satiation – we’re left in a very lonely place indeed. Ben’s poem, with great humour and wit, sketches this dry quandary into a plush technicolour.

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