This Sin Does Not Show

John Wieners - The Garbos and Dietrichs (1'03"). For Wieners the great screen divas were figures of sublimity: remorseless Circes unmanning all comers. In this poem Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, if not in person, than as dreams and legends, circulate through the island resort of Ibiza draped in the purchased "dreams of men," which they wear carelessly as any other bangle.

The audiotext, as recorded in 1972 for radio broadcast in Boston, represents a substantial revision of the poem printed five years earlier in Pressed Wafer (and included in the Black Sparrow Selected Poems of 1986, from which I'm working). The title, which doubles as first line, has expanded from "The Garbos and Dietrichs" to "The Legends of Garbo and Dietrich." Where the print version gives "buying...hearts / to hang at dressing tables, how many ornaments / to wear for dinner," the audiotext sets up a play on the first syllable of "ornaments" by choosing the verb "to adorn" in place of "to hang." It also shifts the scene slightly from "dressing tables" to "dressing room tables," though it keeps the sibilance of "selfish supper parties" (note also the consonance on /p/).

The second and third stanzas are even more drastically refigured in Wiener's 1972 performance. Here is stanza two as printed:

this sin does not show by candlelight, their children
do not hear that cry in the night, odd pregnancies
abortions are not counted, smashed faces

wrenched hearts left behind at harborside
when their ships pull out.

The voiced revision changes the moralistic "sin" to "sales" (pronounced as a very deliberate disyllable). This not only puns on the homophone "sails" (as realized in the nautical imagery at stanza's end), it also refers back to the hearts purchased in the previous stanza, the commercial transaction now naturalized "by candlelight." The enjambed phrase "their children / do not hear that cry in the night" becomes "their children unheard / stray in the night"—a stunning redistribution of agency within roughly the same rhythmic and phonetic material. "Odd pregnancies" have become (to my ear at least) "hard" ones, and the abortions are now "uncounted," which is semantically closer to "countless" than "are not counted" (which connotes negligibility) was.

In the printed version, the first three lines of the last stanza open anaphorically with the phrase "I speak of." In the audiotext, Wieners retains just the first instance ("I speak of suicides, men dropped at tide"), counting on its virtual presence in the trimmed down second and third lines: "sleeping pills that still our aching mind / lovers murdered because they are so kind." The reduction in lexical material makes the many rhymes on the long vowel /aI/ all the more audible. All five lines in the stanza end on it (tide, mind, kind, blind, swine) in a sort of phonic extension of the terminal syllable in the stanza's key word "suicide."

The Pressed Wafer text concludes thus:

Anything to stay beautiful and remain blind
To those men they turn into swine.

Again the audiotext is quite different:

Anything that remains beautiful must stay blind
to those men turned past swine

After observing a lengthy caesura at midline, Wieners pauses markedly between each the three stressed monosyllables of his final line, delivering them with a diminished force that softens the parallel between "múst stáy blínd" and "túrned pást swíne." Again, the revision redistributes agency in an interesting way: in the printed version, the women banish from their sight the "swine" they have created. In the audiotext, the averted gaze is generalized. A willed blindness before an unnamed horror, not just sub-human but sub-animal, is the price demanded of "anything" that would make continued claim to beauty.

Pamela Petro offers an introduction to the life and work of John Wieners in The Hipster of Joy Street on Jacket 21 (February 2003). • And PENNSound has a new look as of this morning. Among the new features, Al Filreis's pick hits for August, including Bob Perelman's "Revenge of the Bathwater" and Jena Osman's "Dropping Leaflets."

[Originally posted on 8 August 2005] XML feed here. • Elsewhere on Third Factory: index, ensemble, nb.

Wednesday -- 20 December 2006 -- permalink

The Lipstick of Noise is a product of the Third Factory • Inspired by the music blogs • And by Paul Blackburn's reel-to-reel deck. Intending to make good use of PENNSound and other sources of digital audio files of poetry • Comments welcomeXML.