Reflection by A.K. Huseby
Anne McCarthy’s Awful Parenthesis explores the salutary nature of suspension in an uncertain world. Reaching to Caroline Levine’s work on narrative suspension, McCarthy offers that “suspense and the suspension of judgment…constitute part of a cluster of representative figures of suspension, part of the same constellation of meanings… [as the] involuntary shocks and surprises of syncope” (9). Under McCarthy’s definition of suspense, we find the “measured investigation” tied to empirical habits of mind ubiquitous in the Victorian era, as well as suspended animation, lyric suspension, “habits of hesitation,” and the physical act of being suspended. Understood as both a form and a practice, a suspended state of consciousness brought on by a fainting spell exists on the same semiotic spectrum as the suspended judgment of intellectual inquiry.
I found myself grateful to McCarthy for leaving her readers with many productive questions. I’m especially curious about two entwined aspects of her argument. The first is germane to issues of mind and body as social and political constructs. If suspensions were “something other than a negative form of knowing,” being instead characterized as a positive response or corrective to an age of contingency” and an oncoming “future just beyond the poem’s frame that may or may not take place” (29), what, then, of the negative effects of pauses and suspensions? Those who have fainted can attest to the experience as deeply unpleasant, if not terrifying. Far from soothing reverie or warm dream, syncope can feel like an obliteration of self, an absence of being. By the same token, other forms of “not-knowing” can result in a loss of well-being. If there are “irreducibly physical dimensions of suspension,” then when do such suspensions tip over into the pathological, into perseveration and paranoia, for example? While Wordsworth’s forms of suspension seem gentle in their “serene and blessed mood,” with “the motion of our human blood / Almost suspended” and “laid asleep” (“Tintern Abbey,” ll. 42, 45-7), not all forms of suspension are quite so mild.
In fairness, McCarthy’s title signals that suspension can be “awful,” and I think we need to read this in both senses, for it is at once sublime and can cause misery. What’s more, she repeatedly refers to states of physical paralysis, restlessness, pain, impotence, and palsy. I wonder what might result from a greater focus on the embodied nature of suspense, through a disability studies or a medical humanities lens? Waiting can seem interminable when the stakes of the knowledge are high. As academics who cope with the anxieties of waiting in many forms, such periods of delay, stasis, and “not-knowing” can produce substantial mental health concerns and impact one’s health. On the one hand, far from the dreamy “visionary experience of the sublime” that Wordsworth imagines, some periods of waiting can be brutal. On the other hand, poetry’s deferral and purposiveness enabled Tennyson to work through his grief over the loss of Arthur Hallam, to ponder his religious doubt, and to move beyond suicidal ideations. At what point do negative forms of suspension transform, becoming ameliorative and cathartic? And by what mechanisms?
Further, might greater attention to the formal affordances of poetry account for such transitions in our attention to the phenomenal pause? I want to connect McCarthy’s argument explicitly to the formal. Building on a substantial body of scholarship invested in thinking about the logic of suspension, McCarthy’s contribution is to focus on poetry, whereas others have focused on prose. Yet the thematized gets more attention than the formal in . Many poetic forms build suspension into the very bones of poetry. Consider, for example, enjambment’s ability to withhold information for the brief space of a line, or the ways that dramatic monologues portray a speaker working through their own ignorance, lack of patience, or resistance to moving forward. Take the syntactic dislocations, delays, and jaw-swinging rhythms of Robert Browning, which resist a clear narrative path and a reader’s desire to move forward in a comfortable or confident fashion. Think, too, of modes such as the optative, regularly employed by poets such as Augusta Webster and Michael Field to embed the very sort of “active potential” McCarthy explores in Awful Parenthesis (6).
Such formal pauses, false endings, and acts of troubling knowledge are not central to Awful Parenthesis, however. Although McCarthy acknowledges the “structural features of poetry, such as line breaks, metre, and caesura,” she sets historical poetics aside, noting only that “suspension operates within this discourse” (11). Most compelling, then, are the moments when Awful Parenthesis recognizes the complexity of poetry’s moving parts, and its unique ability to trouble, grapple, contend, and problematize through uncertainty and perpetually suspension. For instance, when McCarthy identifies enjambment, repetition, and alliteration in Rossetti’s The Prince’s Progress as mechanisms through which the Prince is “long held / In sweet sleep” (ll. 117-18). Or when she points to Shelley’s iambic pentameter as a method of addressing the overwhelming character of the sublime. In both cases, I found myself wanting more of such readings. What of the ways that poetic forms enable writers such as John Clare and S. T. Coleridge to explore mental health issues, as in “Sonnet: I am” or “Dejection: An Ode”? Not all find in recursive processes and feedback loops a positive response to ontological crises. In many ways, nineteenth-century poetry uniquely enables writers to sound the depths of their own ignorance, and to treat closure as an ongoing, collaborative, and perhaps never-ending process. Since McCarthy’s work is most invested in forms of suspension that “resist, rather than anticipate, the closure of experiment and narrative alike” (11), in closing I wonder: how might greater attention to historical poetics reveal poetry’s singular value as a revelation of the inner workings of mind during states of suspension, or reinforce what we know of poetry’s effects on the body?