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-..spiripp w r BOOKS & THE CULTURE Subjects and Objects BY PAUL CHRISTENSEN Under the Sun By Rachel Levitsky Futurepoem Books 96 pages, $12. It may well be that gay and lesbian literature has been quietly solving one of the central problems of modern writing: the habitual privileging of relations between subjects and objects, most often presented in heterosexual literature as the age-old tendency to view the pursued, man or woman, as an object of one’s desire. Gertrude Stein was among the earliest experimentalists to show that an unbiased attention to surroundings, in Tender Buttons, could liberate objects from their usual relations as inert or passive things before a central, and empowered observer. While Stein always played a certain dominating role with her companion, Alice B. Toklas, in matters of art and writing, the two women enjoyed a complex reciprocity in life by being of the same sex, which Stein translated into an art of seeing the parity of things. Her prose describes a bewildering, barely recognizable wonderland where everything appeals to her with the same intensity. Use and value were not important to herbut sexually depoliticizing experience was essential to her imagination. Throughout the 20th century, writers advanced her argument little by little, weakening the predatory nature of the observer, and enhancing the object until it became something like an alter ego, a shadow of the observing self, or some other relation in which high and low, user and used, are beginning to atrophy. The long exploration of self in John Ashbery is a direct extension of Stein’s parity inter alia, with the consequence that we are never sure what is real in his descriptions and what is purely subjective play. The self is weakened in his poetry, and he does it by mimicking the genteel gravity of Victorian empirical prose to achieve it. By undermining that orderly, rational speech of English novels and essays, by subverting its empiricism with strains of surrealist illogic, the self loses its imperial austerity as the only subject in the world. Rachel Levitsky’s first full-length book, Under the Sun, knowingly pursues the ongoing project of lesbian poetry to topple sexual hierarchy by presenting an even more vaporous self, whom we know only as Lady, or as Lazy, involved in a nervous, sometimes fractious relation with a lover called Turtle, sometimes called Urt. Levitsky’s prologue warns us that we are in a landscape of clouds and unstable identities as we first meet Lady in an airplane. Her world is composed of photographers and painters, and their shadowy reproductions of the world are not to be taken as willfully executed statements, but as ruminations of selves whose outlines, egos, and boundaries are hardly defined. Her war with the philosophers is mainly against the use of abstractions, intellectual objects drained of life, whereas she believes only in “the flesh,” presumably the unbounded dimension of bodies without selfish wills. “A Meeting, Not Upon Arrival” takes Lady off the plane into the arms of Turtle, whose interest in her is couched in odd terms of the turtle and the hare. The little epigram preceding this opening section asks, “Shall we race?” But competition is not the goal between themrather, orienting, figuring out, cautious bits of foreplay ripple the surface of Levitsky’s tight, almost taciturn reporting. At first kiss Urt and Lady look away. Should they? Name it Lady’s other identity as Lazy seems to suggest a willingness to be acted upon, and Turtle, the slow one, moves deliberately but without aggression. The progress of the relation is wayward, plotless, with most of the language tracking Lady’s introspection, her Steinlike observations of a world of selfwilled things swirling around her. Some of her thoughts are put into prose: Days like that. When we are in them we question our existence, the sound we watch exit our mouth, the sound staying stuck between our ears. We doubt the reality of the couple, two hundred feet away even when right upon them. Days like that. Days like heaven, even if we are sad. We remember them and doubt the memo ry. We wonder if the memory of heaven is memory in fact \(or fact or This is not “language poetry” in its usual sense, the derailing of syntax and argument by another Steinian strategy of logic-leaping and dissociative diction, but Levitsky’s poems run parallel in showing “thought” as a reaction to Lady’s quick-shifting attention, her gazing here and there. What she sees \(like a Berkeley’s apprentice in this, since what she is looking at suddenly springs to its own authenticating presence, with the implication that it has always existed already, but in noting it she participates, she joins the world. Hence, her feud with the philosophers, who would deny the will of things or their self-creating truths beyond human attention. 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 1118/03