Primal Poetry

Earlier this semester, in my 295 class, I read something by Freud that discussed what he called “primal words,” or words which have contradictory meanings. The example Freud used of this was “cleave,” which can mean both to hold onto something and to cut something apart. When I began reading “Notes from the Divided Country,” I noticed how cleave kept coming up and I wondered about how the meanings would change, depending on which definition was used. Here’re a couple of examples (If there’re any I missed, feel free to chime in).

In “Generation,” in the third part, there’s “We felt naked bodies climb each other, / cleaving, cleaving, / as if they could ride each other to a country that can’t be named.”

If you use the “clinging together” definition of cleave, then it seems like the two bodies are coming together, perhaps highlighting how people are united through being intimate. However, if you use the “cutting apart” definition, then it points out what damage people can do to each other in their quest for intimacy (or perhaps reference a loss of virginity).

In “Tree of Knowledge,” we see: “Step by step you’re learning what flesh is heir to, / you’re learning what cleaves.”

This one is really cool, because the differences with definitions are really obviously polar. Either the child is learning what flesh is heir to, what brings her intimacy OR she’s learning what separates her from others.

What might these mean in the larger contexts of the poems?