08 May “Not” “Quite” “Yet:” A Lesson in Linguistics in Schuyler’s “Dining Out with Doug and Frank”
Line count starts at the title. (Oh, let me go back.) First, the traditional title serves as an amuse-bouche of the poem, a compendiary taste of the lyrical feast to come: for example, Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” promises skunks and delivers skunks. However, in the conversationalist trope of Postmodernist poetic aesthetic, the title is the first line of a poem and is to be read first, the first line is read as the second, the second as the third, and so forth. The title is the first breath of narrative, and an author encourages his or her readers to read on—a rhetorical trick of unadulterated authorial intention as he or she strikes his or her first strokes to the page. James Schuyler breathes his first breath, “Dining Out with Doug and Frank,” as this promise of this narrative. Through the first several words, a rhetorical analysis suggests that the ambiguity between converging and diverging definitions, as well as being attracted and yet straying from narrative, demonstrates the isolation or fortitude one can feel surrounded by water in the middle of Manhattan.
Yet, upon his first exhale, the reader is faced with a negation followed by two adverbs in the first line. (The second line if his reader includes the title as the first, which she does.)
“’Dining Out with Doug and Frank’
Not quite yet.” (244)
Directly following the first stage of the story, the negation, “not,” is the first suggestion of divergence in the second line. “Not,” as a negation, stunts the reader’s eye flow: A capitalized “N,” a gaping “o,” and a perpendicular set of crossed lines. A word not at all sinuous, nor insinuating a story, the short negation stunts the readers flow and casts doubt on a “dining out” storyline. Further divergence ensues with two more adverbs. By itself, “quite” implies wholeness or entirety, but when paired with “not,” “quite” morphs into a black hole of nothingness, acting as nothing but a qualifier for the act of negation. “Yet,” the second adverb, offers a hope of timeline. The reader, though denied the promised narrative, may accept from the third word of this clause that there is indeed a time she will be handed the rest of the story during the remainder of the “dining” plot. “Quite” qualifies the negation, “yet” qualifies the delivery of the continued narrative.
(“Yet” also acts as a conjunction in other linguistic and syntactical structures elsewhere and links multiple clauses, yet implies a divergence from the initial clause. “Yet,” in certain contexts, and in possibly this one, may suggest that one clause is more valid, superior, “ephemeral” than the one that precedes it. If the reader can understand the divergence as offering two narratives, one subordinate—or more “ephemeral”—than the other, then “yet” is quite pivotal in the third word of this clause.)
Phonetically, this subordinate clause in the second line creates a cacophonous and abrupt stop in the declarative sentence. The [n] in “not” is a voiced alveolar nasal, a strong, resounding negative hum ending in an subtle, unvoiced alveolar plosive [t]. The [k] beginning in “quite” has a similar effect in that it moves along the tongue from an initial cacophony to end in another [t]. The sentence ends with the heart-breaking, broken promise “yet:” [j], a palatal approximate, escapes the mouth without even meeting the tongue or lips, and again ends with the unvoiced plosive at the front of the mouth. Pronounce it again: the [n] subtly resounds over “Not quite yet” and permeates through the discord of the second syllable, stumbling along to shake off the initial jolt (and perhaps residual disappointment) of rejection and ends each of the three beats with a small, unvoiced explosion that briefly and subtly shockwave through the tri-syllabic clause.
First, this sentence ends with a period. However, without a subject, the declarative sentence takes on the role of an imperative, creating a quasi-imperative/quasi-declarative, cacophonous, resounding rupture in the reading. A fragment declarative with the force of an imperative. Linguistically and semantically, this qualifying quasi-clause introduces divergence, but also introduces convergence as well because though the reader is denied the narrative, she is not denied the promise of one. “Not quite yet” does not mean no, but instead, later.
(Divergence introduced, this brings Schuyler’s reader to concentrate on the term: “bifurcate” in Part II:
“so I went with Frank (…
…) to dine at McFeely’s
at West 23rd and Eleventh Avenue
by the West River, which is
the right name for the Hudson
when it bifurcates from
the East River to create
Manhattan “an isle of joy.”
“Bifurcate” stands out. Structurally, Schuyler intricately weaves “bifurcates” through a fabric of tightly woven patterns of syntax and images—it’s difficult to unfurl every thread. Tucked between two, long, run-on parenthetical phrases with intentionally loose conversational conventions and questionably loose punctuation, “bifurcate” is not a weightless word in Part II. Dancing around the narrative, Schuyler weaves over and under the nature of Frank and Doug’s workweek, a brief account of John Ashbery’s grandfather, the rigor of writing poetry, a touchy subject of suicide, and in between two parenthetical clauses, “bifurcates” sits in the middle of the finally addressed narrative of dining at McFeely’s. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “to divide into two forks, branches, or peaks.” Even in “divide” there is a divergence in meaning: does the subject itself divide, or does the subject cause division? Does the river bifurcate, or does it cause bifurcation? Ambiguity plays into Schuyler’s hands because there is a wide range of interpretations that can be rounded up within a radius of possible definitions: meanings diverge from a single word in multiple definitions that resound and revolt from one another, but still rotate in a semi-fixed imaginary space around the word itself.
Between the fibers of this attention deficit description, “bifurcates” sits at the intersection of an image of the Manhattan grid. McFeely’s is given a precise location “at West 23rd and Eleventh Avenue” (246). The imagery of the island of Manhattan has both qualities of divergence and convergence: the gridded location gives the restaurant weight; there is an intersection of perpendicular streets that is precise, certain, sturdy. The bifurcation of the rivers, on the other hand, mimics divergence of the promised narrative and the actual, weaving structure; the bifurcating river suggests parallelism, isolation, but also fortitude. If Schuyler meant divide in that the river itself divides around Manhattan creating an “‘isle of joy’,” this could indicate that the river isolates Manhattan and thus “‘isle of joy’” is sardonic, or this could indicate that the river fortifies Manhattan into a self-contained unit of livelihood and city life et cetera. Metaphorically, the River around Manhattan image serves to create undulating senses of coming together and waning away.
(Oh, back to the promised narrative.) Schuyler’s hedging from the story speaks to the nature of the city. Lively, busy, impersonal, Schuyler uses “Dining” as a demonstration of both isolating and fortifying qualities Manhattan provided to himself as an individual as well as this community of friends and artists. The resounding effect of fragmented and the danced-around “Not quite yet” speaking to the very personal affect the city has on Schuyler. Finally, when his reader is re-acquainted with dining out, the weak poetic closure is harsh sad and superficial, rearing back from the personal and intimate details undulating like a river from the beginning.