Stories that Listen via Ulysses via the Odyssey
Stories that Listen by Priscilla Becker functions as an (incomplete) retelling of Homer’s Odysseus and Joyce’s Ulysses, in reverse. As in Ulysses, Becker’s tale includes modern references and frameworks interspersed with key tropes, imagery, and themes deployed by her literary predecessors. The Odyssey is a tale depicting Odysseus (plus a host of crucial female characters) lost on his journey home to his wife, Penelope. On this journey, Odysseus escapes the cyclops by the deceit of un-naming himself. Thus forth, Odysseus endeavors to reclaim his name and personhood. Ulysses’ character, Leopold Bloom seeks to rename himself and “re-key” himself after losing his house key and is subsequently dubbed “Mister Knowall” by the unnamed “citizen” at Barney Kiernan’s pub (aka the cyclops’ cave). Becker’s contrary narrative depicts the subject retracing her steps as she emerges from the cave, moving backwards as one whose identity has been negated by the cave, not to be rebuilt as consequence of the cave, but to say “no” and retreat to untethered freedom.
Stories that Listen’s table of content features a large “O” symbol on both pages. Whereon the second page, the “O” appears at the end of the list of titles, on the second page, the “O” appears just before the collections final poem, “Neglect”. Early editions of Joyce’s Ulysses similarly emphasized the first letter of the first word of each of its three books (“S”, “M”, and “P”, or, in the context of the Greek story, The Telemachiad, The Odyssey, and The Nostos). In Ulysses, the physical shape of letters “S”, “M”, and “P” provide a map or entry point into each book and call forth infinite verbal references. In Becker’s work, the table of contents includes two “O” shapes (as mentioned above). The collection itself does not begin with the letter “O”, however, a filled in “O” is situated before the final poem in the collection (Neglect). In the odyssey, both ocean and cavern represent the feminine womb, or that which is mysterious, undiscoverable, and dangerous. The shaded “O” is Becker’s progressive (or regressive) iteration on the concept.
As in Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses, Becker’s “Stories that Listen” is a quest for identity and consummation of the self. Unlike Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses, Becker’s primary and only important character is the speaker. The speaker is often juxtaposed by an “other” or a “you”, or the absence of the other or the you. As the collection progresses, the speaker fixates on defining themselves as none, no one, nothing, one, or a unit of two (folded into the other). The most crucial scenes in the Odyssey and Ulysses hinge upon the “un-naming” of the titular character (by Odysseus himself in a scene with the Cyclops in the Odyssey, and by an ironically unnamed barkeep in Ulysses). Both Odysseus and Leopold Bloom spend the remainder of the text “earning” back their names / re-naming themselves. Becker’s speaker is nameless throughout the text, however, the project of “naming” may be correlated to the project of defining the self not as “nothing” (insubstantial, to use a Joycean term) and not as part of a unit, but as “one” alone.
The speaker uses the word one/once in the following passages, “There is a certain smell/ that overtakes me, for instance/ once, in a button shop” (White Tone, page 3, lines 8-10) (it is also notable that the title contains the word “one” in “tone”), “It’s just the kind of thing/ one notices-” (A Minor Language, page 19, lines 30-31) (here the word “one” is followed by the word “notices”, essentially the inverse of “no one” or “not one”), the speaker sets up a similar inversion later in the stanza, “that must mean,/ because it has no/ meaning to anyone but me,” (A Minor Language, page 19, lines 34-36), “the only one I know” (Sedentary Sea Organisms, Mostly Algae, page 13, line 14) (again, the speaker negates “one” by following it with the word “know” and uses the word “only”, another word that is repeatedly used throughout the collection), “Once I wanted / very much to say I love you-that,/ but bodily” (Recurrence of Childhood Paralysis, page 27, lines 13-15), “Once there was something/ to erect,// a miniscule monument/ un-analyzed// Once there was something/ to drag out// Then it was like/ increments that won’t/ collection// an occasional bout/ of coincidence// Once it was possible/ to idolize…” (Simulation, page 29-30, lines 14-25), “not a flying dream but a walking one” (On Nothing, page 44, lines 14 and 17), “I’m not hurting anyone-” (Roman Tone, page 54, line 19).
In the poem Psalm for No One, the word “one” surfaces in the title of the poem, and the first line addresses someone whose name is represented by a blank line, the speaker references “no one” again in the third stanza, “It is hard to picture/ no one so I think of the girl/ who died // her bright face, the way/ she says yes to everything” (Psalm for No One, page 23, lines 5-9). Here it is easy for the reader to assume the speaker is addressing the other, but upon closer reading, it is more likely that the speaker is addressing herself, un-naming herself, referring to herself as “the girl who died”. This girl says “yes” while the speaker says “no”. In Joyce’s Ulysses, the famous line in the famous final chapter from Molly’s soliloquy is “Yes, I said yes” – indicating Molly’s choice to consummate her marriage. Again, Becker’s poem On Being Left for No One literally contains the eponymous “no one” in the title of the poem. The poem depicts the speaker “choosing nothing”. Again, the “you” addressed by the speaker is likely the speaker, not the other. “There is no argument for yourself” is a sentiment directed to the self by the speaker. In Homer, Odysseus argues his way out of many complicated and dangerous situations, here, the speaker refuses to speak to the lack that confronts her. Where “no one” is near palindrome, “On Nothing” (poem title, page 44) contains the same crux in reverse. Words twisted into meaninglessness – only sounds carry weight in this universe. This notion is well-illustrated by the final stanza in poem, Last in Water Series, “The sound it will make,/ a calling./ Not my name/ but my name/ before there was speech” (Last in Water Series, page 42, lines 24-28).
That the phrase “no one” literally translates to nothing, or no 1, ie zero, is relevant. Circling back to the “O” stamped on Becker’s table of contents, It is worth surfacing the prevalence of “o” sounds, “o” shapes, and “o” wordplay. The word “no” itself is an “o”. “Only” is an “o”. Snow is an “o”. “So” is an “o”. “O” is “coast”, “slow”, “awoke”, “smoke”, “shadow”, “tone”, “afloat”, “low”, “old”, “open”, “wrote”, “broke”, “bones”, “close”, “post”, “stone”, “motion”, “go”. “No” is the negated “o”. If “no” is the negated “o”, then “on” and “one” are “o” negated and inversed. If so much hinges on the “o”, what is the “o”?
Contextualized by Joyce and Homer, “o” is a cave, a womb, a symbol for unity. “O” is at once shallow, hollow, whole. In Stories that Listen, the literal exclamation, “oh” occurs only once, “Oh but sometimes you see it/ in the suicide light/ of the moon// And that is its terror// its pure arbitrary body,/ its sheer hormonal skill” (Disambiguation, page 38, lines 25-30). The word “hormonal” contains its own string of “o’s”. If “o” is stripped down to the a priori, its most bestial state outside of the context of language, “o” is a sound elicited by pleasure or pain. These are visceral feelings. These feelings are connective. Through pleasure and pain, we can relate to each other.
For this reason, the poem “On Nothing” exists at the crux of the collection. It begins and ends with the line, “The other morning we woke” and features Becker’s signature palindromic inversion in its title. The poem teases form with repeating lines, but here, form is unfamiliar, or arbitrary. On Nothing depicts sleep, a dream shared by presumed lovers. The dream contains sex, a fantasy of home, “(the existential night with no boundary):” (On Nothing, page 45, line 22). In the dream, lovers are connected, a “walking one”. The poem itself makes a full circle with repeated lines throughout, and repeated bookends, “The other morning we awoke”. The word “awoke” signifies breaking, the harsh moment, a prerequisite for breaking into dreaming. The word “awoke” contains both “aw” and “o”. For “o” to occur, an “aw” (moment of pain) must also occur. If “o” represents pleasure through connectivity, to disconnect to negate connectivity with “no” (and other such negations).
Stories that Listen is structured around concepts of wholeness and connective mechanisms (such as “o”, such as literal ligaments). The collection is also structured by the destruction of connective mechanisms, breaking of the whole, becoming two, then nothing, only something, then one. The poem Only Something depicts speaker at the height of boundarylessness,
“Only something/ with no/ mother, a boat on its water,/ afloat and nowhere// could refuse the harbor// Something with no vacancy,/ no hunger, cropping its own/ low capacity// No birth wound, no age ring,/ something strayed/ by spontanaeity// Only something with primal/ border, with mineral/ armor// could turn from this offering// Like a peak you sometimes/ see, not a chain of anything” (Only Something, page 49, lines 5-20).
This selection contains multiple images of the borderless, unhinged, un-faceted, and the disconnected: something with no mother, an unmoored boat, no vacancy and no hunger, at low capacity. This selection also depicts a creature devoid of birth wound or age ring. These images mimic the “o”, “o” as womb, “o” as wound, “o” as natural cycle of aging. The final image depicts a lone mountain peak, or detached chain of things (perhaps a reference to DNA, Andromeda). This selection is reminiscent of stanzas that appear in poems, On Being Left for No One and Moving Images. “From your shallow space/ you contemplate the attraction/ of the coast, the line/ between two things,/ choosing nothing:// There is no argument for yourself” (On Being Left for No One, page 28, lines 19-24). This stanza depicts the border between ocean and land (coast), and the speaker choosing neither – in pursuit of boundarylessness. In this context, the “o” creates a boundary for the unit, or whole, while the “no” negates delineation, making connectivity impossible. With this logic, in order to connect, boundaries function as connective-mechanisms, or ligaments. The poem Moving Images deploys sound images to reinforce the above logic, “Its freedom is what troubles me,/ the borderless quality of its city, a sound/ that in the day seems part of a scene/ and one could see the black/ heaving by.// But at night the sound divests itself,/ like those other awful independent/ sounds…” (Moving Images, page 31, lines 6-13).
The penultimate and final poems in the collection, “The Sound of the Closing Door” and “Neglect” are bifurcated by a “filled” “O” symbol. The Sound of the Closing Door depicts exactly what the title suggests, the “o” closed by a door. Additionally, the final stanza of the poem makes a reference to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (a clever innuendo related Becker’s wordplay pertaining to one), “This first fragment of division,/ the private room” (The Sound of the Closing Door, page 55, lines 19-20). The collection’s final poem, Neglect, makes reference to the usual suspects of Becker’s repertoire, “gone” and “one”, a reference to “close”, the words “motion” and “own”, “planning to go thoroughly” (O, O, O), “slow”, “closed”, “once it loved nothing”, “objects come from home”, etc. Neglect closes with the following stanza, “In a certain way,/ nothing’s much/ changed. It’s like/ not knowing to count/ and then counting/ to one” (Neglect, page 61, lines 53-56).
Becker, Priscilla. Stories That Listen. Four Way Books, 2010.
“Episode 12, Cyclops.” Online Literature, http://www.online-literature.com/james_joyce/ulysses/12/.
Navarette Franco, Ricardo. Boots in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Jan. 2010, http://www.siff.us.es/iberjoyce/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/POJ-8.pdf.