In psychiatric terms, “clangings” is a thought disorder experienced by those with schizophrenia and manic states in which words are connected by sound rather than concepts, and speech and thoughts can quickly veer in a new direction in a disconnected way. In Clangings by Steven Cramer, each page has a poem of five quatrains that stands alone as a self-contained piece but also furthers the book’s connected story of a narrator reflecting on his life “in his way.” There are two pages that break this pattern and provide clarity of the narrator knowing his misaligned place in the scheme of things. Close to the end of the book:
I feel well, but keep hoping to get well—
Not just better, you know. But every day
I get well, I hope on the following day
I’ll feel better, but instead I feel . . . Well
At the end of the quatrain, “Well,” as an open-ended sigh, sound-wise duplicates “well,” as health: two different meanings of the word “well” is an example of how our subjective world and the language we use to understand ourselves is “approximate” only—a technique Cramer uses frequently. The narrator, with that ending sigh, knows his plight.
His story is not unusual in itself. He is an older adult who was an outcast in his family with parents who were negligent, perhaps randomly abusive. He is an outsider in society in the common ways of processing reality. He knows he doesn’t fit, is not the norm in his functioning, in his gender. His use of language serves a function other than just telling his story even though the story of his life comes through in mundane, shattering bits. We are given the facts of his mother, father, his lover Dickey, a pedophile priest, and a grade school friend, Serena. He uses language to soothe himself, smooth over reality’s punch. On the death of Dickey, his companion, he says, “My ‘he’ is ‘O’ / who once flicked hearts, a lamplighter.” “My ‘he’ is ‘O’,” hero: the narrator’s looking burrows into the sensation of language, language turned into rocking to tamp down dislocating estrangement in his mind:
bunny. I’m itching poppies in my ears.
Dig too deep, I’ll scratch my tympanum
(been meaning anyway to anvil the villain)
Coated shark teeth, like pinking shears.
‘Anvil’ with ‘vil’ of villain and ‘villain’ with ‘tympanum’…same line and the line above. This kind of assonance with phoneme units and abba rhyming is constant throughout the quatrains . . . and even brings a soothing, smoothing, rocking sensation to the reader. It does not matter that the words are not logically connected, because the feeling of what the narrator experiences comes through. We know “he knows” that he is not dealing with the same mental organization that most people have . . . and we are assailed with a sense of compassion for him. The narrator has transmuted the world’s elusive obstinacy like any artist does, knowing and not knowing what he is doing.
Cramer has given us a thought piece on language and selfhood. Connecting words based on sound seems like nonsense, but the sound captures the feeling of chaos, loss, wonder and, then, that is the meaning, meaning produced by qualities of the words other than definition and their place in the grammatical structure alone . . . parts of words, the phonemes, become important and determine word choice to create the self’s grounding in rhythmic, sensory-oriented lines. The sound is foremost and converts the common use of words to fulfill the sense-memory, sense-reflection of a world that doesn’t quite make sense . . . but a world that is lived and known anyway. Wrenched word combinations arise out of using sound in this way: Obituary magi, greener chameleon, turquoise girls, blue-sprained boys, head’s high beams, glittering snow loaves, glister of venom, seraph cigarette . . . combinations that make our hearts beat faster, our synapses glow. The other moment of the narrator’s clarity comes on the last page, and is the poet’s question too: “The worst fate: to spend a life / thinking, until that life is not / the life you felt you lived.” Selfhood. . . . The artist. . . . A swaying, ineffable pointing at language.