Fully Not There

Stephen Cain in the introduction to an issue of Open Letter dedicated to Steve McCaffery “Breakthrough Nostalgia: Reading Steve McCaffery Then and Now” (Fourteenth Series, Number 7) references Clint Burnham’s monograph Steve McCaffery and His Works (ECW, 1996) and points out that the book is “notable for the first queer reading of McCaffery’s poetry.” Curious?

Burnham’s ruminations occur in a section on “Lyric and Postlyric”. Queerness is an answer to a question.

What are we to make, then, of apparently “lyric” books by McCaffrey such as Intimate Distortions, Evoba, In England Now That Spring, and Knowledge Newer Knew? Significantly, what unites these various forays into the maligned poetic form is their continuing attention to a maligned social form: that is, these texts are concerned with queerness. Intimate Distortions is a mistranslation of the great lesbian poet Sappho’s lyrics; Evoba takes the homosexual philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s texts and reappropriates them; even In England Now That Spring, cowritten with Nichol, deals tangentially with the gay erotics of literary collaboration. (The Four Horseman were misrepresented over the years as a gay group.)

The Four Horsemen were a Canadian sound-poetry group consisting of bpNichol, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery and Rafael Barreto-Rivera, active from 1970 to 1988. I believe the dates reflect a certain historical moment important to the contexts of the parenthetical disavowal registered by Burnham.

I want to foreground the coming out move by Burnham which appears later in the piece and functions as a kind of undressing to McCaffery’s cross-dressing. Note its expression is triggered by the uttering of a question:

But in identifying certain formal strategies in McCaffery’s work, am I merely doing for poetry what Elaine Showalter claims Terry Eagleton and Jonathan Culler do for theory: cross-dressing to gain some political authority as it is being denied to straight, white, male authors?

But the semiotic cross-dressing rehearsed in McCaffery’s book, instead of gaining authority for the author or the text, calls into question sexual difference, seeing it as a textual effect in much the same way that the subject itself is an effect of “shifters.”

Earlier in the piece, Burnham presented an explication of a passage from McCaffery’s chapbook Shifters. It is worth examining at length for its play of before and after reordering of quotations (something i do myself) and how the passage and its explication plug into material from a review which takes the form of a set of quotations filled with lacunae. Watch for the holes.

As McCaffery notes in “A Note,” “shifters shift within a topography and topology of text where every ‘i’ is an ‘here’ every ‘you’ a ‘there’. poems then of openness and closure. semiotic bars and semiotic centres unfolding as tests of their own meanings” (n. pag.). But just before this is the sentence “a true subject is a barred subject.” What does this mean? Barred in the Saussurean sense, in which S/s is the doxological code for a century of linguistics and theory? Barred as in kept out — which also means kept in (within bars)? This last potential meaning is supported elsewhere in the text by lines such as “instants out of discourse” and “but you’re always outside / of what i’m in.”

In light of the consistent attention that McCaffery pays to the visual, the “bar” also brings to mind how the signifier (S) and signified (s) are separated. As Davies notes in “Steve/steve” (the title, of course, plays with the Saussurean diagram), “It’s troubling to me that the Signifier and signified have been made to assume the missionary position. … [M]eaning is inherent in discernible differences. … [T]he thesis seems homophobic in extremis” (57). He charges that the bar is that of conventional heterosexuality, which schematic is reproduced in Saussurean linguistics; Shifters, then, while formally akin to the gay strategies that Chadwick identifies, is still complicit with compulsory heterosexuality. Although the lyric is being deconstructed, the lyre is still powerful.


Burnham will go on in his career to explore Lacan (and not be so mystified by the references to barred subjects).

Alan Davies “Steve/steve” Review of McCaffrey’s Panopticon and North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986. Writing 25 (1990) pp. 49-59.

Joseph Chadwick “Toward Gay Reading: Robert Glück’s ‘Reader'” in Easthope and Thompson Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory (1991) pp. 40-52.

And thanks to Stephen Cain for pointing out the site of queer content and in some regards queer style.

And so for day 891

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.