‘limite désir’ by Meghan McNealy

-Reviewed by Éireann Lorsung


Roland Barthes, in The Pleasure of the Text (my version is the 1975 Miller translation), writes that “Neither culture nor its destruction is erotic; it is the seam between them, the fault, the flaw, which becomes so” and, a bit later on the same page, declares that from this distinction we might  find “a means of evaluating the works of our modernity: their value would proceed from their duplicity”.  What the erotic wants, he goes on to say, is “the site of a loss, the seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve [italics in original] which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss”. The more, here, now of linguistic presence, of text on a page or screen, of image in the mind couples with the no, not, almost of language’s breakdown. The limit of desire is also the site of bliss, and the bliss of the text is in its unfurling, its decontainment.

At the very beginning of her chapbook limite désir, in “Prologue” (whose tone and form—numbered paragraphs, a semi-biographical statement on the poems, a footnote—are didactic), Meghan McNealy offers the reader an exegesis of those titular words. The limit to which they refer, she writes, is “not the symbol of impassibility” but “a space in its own right” within which transformation takes place. Like Barthes, she sites possibility in the space of the liminal (at least for herself; she writes that she lives “in a universe where everything is real and anything is possible”—not everyone lives in such a universe). Playing with her own language, McNealy goes on to deform limite désir to l’imite désir—the imitation of desire, or, in her words, the story of desire which we imitate as we go about our own desiring. Thus we are given the two tenets of the chapbooks: the limit, and the desire we imitate and finally, ideally, improvise.

McNealy proposes that “by living in the moment with an awareness of the limits, we are able to create our own story of love, to open it and see what it really is” (an assertion Barthes would likely trouble, substituting an ongoing chain of seams and gaps for arrival at a point where all is revealed—the end of the striptease, as it were, which divorces the erotic flash from the now ‘merely naked’ person). What guarantees the ‘real’ of this story, of these tellings? McNealy points to “extreme awkwardness, anxiety, embarrassment, even destruction”. I presume that these feelings come from what McNealy identifies as “improvising our lines with intelligence and compassion—instead of reading them off of worn-out placards”; the ‘real’, then, as the moment of transformation between the established stories and the limit beyond which we cannot see but toward which we must go.

And ‘must’ is the word. The speaker here is not shy about telling us what to do and how to do it, beginning with the identification of what real is (and how it feels and how we will go about experiencing it) and continuing on through the footnote, in which she tells us that the poems are meant to be read aloud, performed—and informs us of the “subtle sarcasm” and “facial expression” which are important to her work and which “[change] everything”. We are informed that lines “in italics and quotation marks are meant to be sung” and that one of the poems “is performed with specific hand gestures and sounds accompanying it”. A glossary of the French terms used in the poems is provided. If only the prologue to these poems trusted its readers to be in the delicate space of the limit, where nothing is determined and we must struggle with the poems toward diffuse meaning! If only, that is, we were trusted as readers to read “with intelligence and compassion”.

Because we can read these poems, these spacious and intricate and complex and well-made poems, with intelligence and compassion. They demand it, in fact. It is definitely my own preference as a reader for texts which entrust themselves to me—for writers who can do the difficult work of allowing their texts to be read without preamble—which speaks above. In McNealy’s poems I have no trouble finding a concern for the liminal space whether or not I know precisely what the marks she has used signify. In the end, whether the mark is ‘—’ or ‘You’, its exact coordinates are lost between the maps of our readings, our knowings, and (yes) our desires. I will improvise, readerly.

But let me tell you what I very much enjoy about this book.

  • That the poems’ lines are unafraid: unafraid to be exorbitant (long, inclusive, evasive), as in “Rêverie-Flânerie”, where I find so much to like, and much pleasure in language as well—“We will begin again in a small room; the presence of a ghost is certain—/—she comes vivacious” and “In another moment I am in search of the train who can drag me on—/—the soot of the city just lying there” and “Ghost-drawn axis of trees along the sidewalk in front of the station—/—no I haven’t got a cigarette”. Unafraid to join on the page as in life the absent (unseen, inhuman) with the present (known, believed, ‘real’). Unafraid to ask questions (“do you feel weird?” —in “Au début, en fin”) that are not ‘poetic’. The dailyness of language perching beside the image of the flâneuse and her strolling, incorporating much. The daring of these poems’ forms, and their willingness—their desire–to allow their limits in make up for the occasional moment of laxity or lack of tension in them.
  • That in her poems McNealy wants to signify the joining of the body and the voice and the eye and the text; that the text is not lonely, but accompanied. That the body is acknowledged as part of what generates the text. (Not only by the presence of lines we are told have been written to be sung, or marks we are told stand for movement—which in any case do move on the page as well—but also by “breath”, by “tract” and “blood” [“Jetez je/tu”], by “tongues” and “jaw” and—better yet—“jawing” and the skin which is the most human of walls [“Reculer”] and singing and throbbing and being eaten [“Équinoxe”].)
  •  That there is play in the poems; that meaning and its representation are as slippery as the fish which appears in “Epilogue” out of the conjugations of three lines—“a lackluster finish: unstable/a lacquer-finish: un table/a lack of fish”.
  • The fragment “by now the birches ossify” (“Epilogue”).

Limite désir is true to its name. It goes on searching to the limits (which draw back and draw back): is this a poem? What is a poem? What is a sentence? What is my language? Where is my searching? Where am I bound? Who am I bound to? What do I love? Where is desire bounding off to now? We do not arrive (except at an ending: at which point we begin again/anew the life outside the book). We move toward the limit and are asked to reinvent as we go along.