Thursday, April 07, 2011

“Feelings of helplessness drove me to fantastic and ridiculous extremes.": Celyn Harding-Jones on Mei Mei Berssenbrugge's "Four Year Old Girl".

Four Year Old Girl


The “genotype” is her genetic constitution.

The “phenotype” is the observable expression of the genotype as structural and bio-chemical traits.

Genetic disease is extreme genetic change, against a background of normal vari-ability.

Within the conventional unit we call subjectivity due to individual particulars, what is happening?

She believes she is herself, which isn’t complete madness, it’s belief.

The problem is not to turn the subject, the effect of the genes, into an entity. Between her and the displaced gene is another relation, the effect of meaning.

The meaning she’s conscious of is contingent, a surface of water in an uninhabited world, existing as our eyes and ears.

You wouldn’t think of her form by thinking about water. You can go in, if you don’t encounter anything.

Though we call heavy sense impressions stress, all impression creates limitation. I believe opaque inheritance accounts for the limits of her memory.

The mental impulse is a thought and a molecule tied together, like sides of a coin.

A girl says sweetly, it’s time you begin to look after me, so I may seem lovable to myself.

She’s inspired to change the genotype, because the cell’s memory outlives the cell. It’s a memory that builds some matter around itself, like time.


Feelings of helplessness drove me to fantastic and ridiculous extremes.

Nevertheless, the axis of her helplessness is not the axis I grasp when I consider it a function of inheritance.

Chromatin fails to condense during mitosis.

A fragile site recombines misaligned genes of the repeated sequence.

She seems a little unformed, gauze stretches across her face, eyelids droop.

When excited, she cries like a cat and fully exhibits the “happy puppet” syndrome.

Note short fingers and hypoplastic painted nails.

Insofar as fate is of real order here, signifying embodiment, the perceived was pres-ent in the womb.

A gap or cause presents to any apprehension of attachment.
In her case, there’s purity untainted by force or cause, like the life force.

Where, generically, function creates the mother, in this case it won’t even explain this area.

She screams at her.

A species survives in the form of a girl asking sweetly.

Nevertheless, survival of the species as a whole has meaning.

Each girl is transitory.

[Editor's Note: the rest of the poem, less directly addressed by the response, can be found here]

A change spread in my own poetic thinking when I encountered this poem. At the time, my own work was fumbling with ways of writing and thinking about inheritance and illness, but was suffering from a bout of emotional sappiness. My first impression of Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s poetry was that in between statements of abstract and scientific language, shocking moments of tenderness pierced through the flat surface of the page. “Four Year Old Girl” is an attempt (a poem as an attempt) to understand and grapple with a very personal struggle with genetic disease, traced through mother-daughter relationships. In an interview with Zhou Xiaojing, Berssenbrugge states that the “principle of unity” in her poetry is the “emotional statement” (MELUS, 204). So how does she succeed (in my opinion) in expressing the emotional statement through “concretion of the informed substance of language” as she relies “less on metaphor, sound, or image” (AWP, 62)?

As the poem is quite long, and packed tightly into six parts, I’ll focus on Part 1. I have also integrated quotes from Berssenbrugge’s notes on the poem. The poem begins with two definitions explaining two genetic types: genotype and phenotype. One is a characteristic of the gene that creates what is seen, the other, a characteristic that makes what we cannot see, but what we inherently are. Genetic disease is defined objectively, as “extreme genetic change” (AWP, 53), removing the word ‘disease’ from its negative connotations, putting it into perspective as an extreme on the scale of variability as compared to “normal” genetic structuring. Medical jargon, without the emotional slant. Berssenbrugge then introduces the human subject, “[s]he believes she is herself, which isn’t complete madness, it’s belief,” (AWP, 53) hinting at the disjunction between two concepts of self: physiological or genetic vs. emotional or spiritual. Faced with this binary, the problem of representation in this poem “is not to turn the subject, the effect of the genes, into an entity” (AWP, 53). The speaker confronts the challenge of writing a subject (made up of genetic strands) that does not become representative of a whole—like a symbol representative of something larger (a metaphor) or like a strand of DNA itself, representative of the subject. Perhaps this reluctance to engage in traditional poetic devices like metaphor or the symbolic image is to instead find a way to express emotion in its purest, rawest form: free from the overused or romanticized symbols.

Yet without this “entity”, all that is left on the page is the subject and her genes. There is a space “between [the subject] and the displaced gene” (AWP, 53) that doesn’t become the effect of the genes, but the “effect of meaning” (AWP, 53). This meaning, as Berssenbrugge describes, is “contingent, [on] a surface of water in an uninhabited world” (AWP, 53). For the subject, meaning becomes a poetic image that is present in a world free of people to perceive it. Unlike a symbol or metaphor, this is a meaning that cannot be expressed, or perceived by us, but which only the subject is conscious of. Bringing us back to the concrete reality of the subject’s body, Berssenbrugge reminds us that we “wouldn’t think of her form by thinking about water” (AWP, 53). Representation becomes inaccurate. Further, by suggesting that “you can go in, if you don’t encounter anything” (AWP 54), Berssenbrugge creates a world free of representation: encountering the world would force us to describe it, represent it in words. And so it begins.

Berssenbrugge’s prose-like sentences act as ripples, or impressions on the page, each with its own force and momentum. Just as the effect of a displaced gene and the effect of meaning will be effecting/affecting a mother, a daughter, and a granddaughter. Inheritance is inescapable. And like Berssenbrugge’s lines, a constant reminder of what is at stake for one line of genetic beings. Lines like “A girl says sweetly, it’s time you begin to look after me, so I may seem lovable to myself” (AWP, 54) rings a strong note of emotional impact. Of course the speaker is “inspired to change the genotype, because the cell’s memory outlives the cell”. (AWP, 54). After the body is gone, or the mother has died, the pain and suffering of genetic disease still haunts the family through memory, cellular memory. This desire to change inheritance, “the emotion [of] the hopelessness and guilt of illness, of passing on illness and screaming” (AWP, 61) is acted upon through the poem. And finally, after an interrogation of intellectual and medical reasoning, the speaker rests on the idea that a poem, “like touch, one cell can initiate therapy”. (AWP, 56). A powerful negotiation, an emotional punch.

Master of this poetry, I am not. I still think that the poet says it best: “a ribbon of the heart untying”. (AWP, 61).

Works Cited:

Berssenbruge, Mei-mei and Zhou Xiaojing. “Blurring the Borders between Formal and Social Aesthetics: An Interview with Mei-mei Berssenbrugge”. MELUS, Vol. 27, Contested Boundaries (Spring, 2002), pp. 199-212. January 31, 2010. .

Rankine, Claudia and Juliana Spahr (eds). American Women Poets of the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Berssenbrugge, Mei-Mei. I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems. Berkley, California: University of California Press, 2006.


Montreal native Celyn Harding-Jones' poetry and fiction have been published in Incongruous Quarterly, Headlight and Soliloquies and she won an honourable mention for an essay in Arc. She’s a poetry editor for Headlight, and a freelance editor for Pearl Press (UK). Concordia University considers her a "Master" in English Literature and Creative Writing, but she's not sure one can master such things. She wants to thank you for reading.

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