In search of a genuinely adventurous and challenging read that will never obey you? Look no further than Gregoire Pam Dick’s Metaphysical Licks, published this year by BookThug under the official category of poetry but in effect a unique mix of biography, poetry, philosophy, memoir and fiction.
Loosely inspired by the life and work of the German poet Georg Trakl and his pianist sister Margarethe, known as Grete, who had a relationship a little too close for conventions and who both experimented with drugs, the work takes readers on a wild ride in multiple directions. There are no characters in the traditional sense — and getting lost at sea, giving up on finding your bearings, then unexpectedly feeling at home during this aimless floating is one of the great surprises of the work. I spoke with the New York City author via Skype about this and other pleasures in her text.
Xtra: As readers we tend to seek a character behind the words — and as thinkers, the subject behind the statement. But you want to complicate this for us. Tell me about the sibject, traject and other queered subjects.
Pam Dick: There is a main character in the book — Greta — but she’s shifting (and shifty), unstable. She/the book wrestles with the philosophical idea of the subject, with its reinvention. The traject notion emphasizes the idea of change, veering and of being thrown into a world, finding yourself there even as you remake it. The sibject notion is about escaping a sharp subject/object division, such that there is more intimate relation between “I” and world. It also suggests the idea of Greta as a subject fused with Georg — the possibility of a joined or doubled subject. That’s how it’s first raised. Later in the book, the question arises of whether the sibject idea could apply to other terms: world and expression or truth and meaning, et cetera. With the idea of the sibject, for Greta, comes the idea of an incest metaphysics; I’m interested in using these ideas to explore alternate metaphysical conceptions. Of course, Greta/the subject as fluid in gender occurs repeatedly in the book as well. I am more interested in reconceptualizing the subject and the I in these ways than in jettisoning entirely the notions, because of my commitment to the notion of the first-person singular and a sort of subjectivity which is expressive, vital, spiritually significant and ineliminable.
There’s great pleasure in sort of floating between several possible people in the book — the historical Margarethe, the fictionalized Grete, Greta, Gregoire as Greta, et cetera — and sometimes having to give up on this urge to know who or what is speaking right at that moment.
Yes! The I shifts. It goes from Greta to these other figures, and Greta herself seems able to become these others, so there is very much a sense of an open, variable I, not one that’s closed off. And it isn’t clear who’s speaking when, but hopefully the voice compels as it roams. There’s a sort of rebelliousness in this roaming, a refusal to remain one thing or be limited in that way, and there’s also a sense, really, of the impossibility of being just one I or persona or character, even if you wanted to be one. But the sense of possibility in that variability is very important to me. It’s a sort of lateral as opposed to vertical transcendence.
“If it doesn’t brake, don’t try to fix it.” I loved finding little signposts like this along the way. If you’re propelled by the text, stop worrying about fixing it to a permanent identity.
Yes, there’s a speed and momentum to the text that for me is somewhat intoxicating, thereby also gesturing toward the various forms of intoxication felt by Greta, Grete, Georg, et cetera. And also the use of the materiality, sound, sense of language to fuel this motion. Wordplay, word associations, homophones, et cetera, all, so to speak, charge or power the text forward and sideways and backwards, so there’s a kind of word-drunk rushing around. The notion of trans, rapid transit again.
How much is known about the actual Margarethe? Did you research her closely?
I had trouble finding out much at all about her, so I didn’t research her closely. There were contradictions, even, in the info I got (such as what year she was born), so I decided to create a Grete, a version of her, who came from what I did learn. I give some false information about her, I invent things, but I also draw on what I was able to learn, in my rather minimal reading, about her real situation. At the same time, I wanted to respect the fundamental elusiveness of her, her life, her death. I would never presume to think of my book as capturing or conveying her; it isn’t a history or biography of her. It’s, if anything, a biography of Greta. Greta imagines her own version of Margarethe, which is Grete. I was haunted by Margarethe’s life as I understood it and by, in fact, our lack of knowledge of it compared to that of Georg. It’s possible that more is known and coming out now, in German language scholarship, than I was aware of. Anyway, this book was not a research project in that sense; hence, the idea of it being more of a “riff” on the real Trakls. One thing that might interest you, or perhaps you picked this up from the book, is that I did see samples of her handwriting in one book, and they became the visual basis for the graphic score which ends the book.
Aha . . . so the “music score” in the final pages is in “kinship” with the documents showing her handwriting! Tell me about some other music in the book. Tristan und Isolde appears at some key moments.
She had this crazy looping handwriting that seemed very close to illegible to me — but very beautiful. Re Tristan, I do a version of Wagner’s libretto, interrupted at various points, and reinterpret the characters to fit the historical Georg, Grete and Grete’s older husband (who here becomes Nietzsche). I was interested in the opera for obvious reasons: forbidden love, double suicide, the music’s own intoxicating qualities, Nietzsche’s involvement with Wagner, the tonal similarities one might sense between Trakl’s poems and Wagner’s music and themes in this work, the philosophical background (Schopenhauer, who is another figure in my version, namely Ardl). At the same time, I wanted to allude to Austrian musical expressionism and the 12-tone serialism, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, for their (various) formal qualities, their contemporaneity with the Trakls, and the force and feeling, the radicality and gorgeousness I personally find in their music. Then, in addition to the classical references, there are obviously many punk/pop/alternative music references: the Carpenters (in the opera, allowing a parodic aspect), the Silver Jews (silver comes up often in Trakl’s poems), no-wave bands, et cetera. I like mixing so-called high and low in my work in this way, in the same way that I might mix philosophizing and references to TV shows in one paragraph.
How did you cast her “brothers,” husband and other figures? Wittgenstein, Kafka, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer: they all appear, and the fun is that they’re recontextualized, reimagined, often mocked.
The casting was really fun and easy; it just seemed so natural! It’s something I do in my other work as well; it allows me to engage with thinkers/writers I love or am obsessed with but to do it in an irreverent yet still deep way. Wittgenstein’s work is important and compelling to me — it’s something I studied as a philosophy student — and Greta works with some of his (particularly early) ideas in her philosophizing, so he was a natural brother. Kafka for an affinity, too. Nietzsche as a figure both attractive and unattractive, someone to work off of and against, with ideas responding to and rebelling against his.
Nietzsche at one point does push-ups after his tirade in front of the siblings.
You know, he was very sickly but also vigorous and did do exercises. His attitude to the body forms a nice contrast to Kafka’s, and that general issue certainly comes up in the book.