On Marie Buck's 'Portrait of Doom'
In a year when the politics of contemporary experimental poetry have come under renewed scrutiny (to put it mildly), Marie Buck’s new book, Portrait of Doom (Krupskaya, 2015), is timely. It’s a meditation on our contemporary political economic situation that refuses the temptation of leftist sigils, Invisible-Committee-light jargon, and ironized hysterics. Instead Buck roots her poems in a more elusive and spectral discourse that better captures the alienation, strangeness, and complexity of actual life within the folds of a collapsing neoliberal world order.
Portrait of Doom is, for all intents and purposes, a book of political poems.
But at the same time, it’s not.
It’s a difficult book to get a handle on. The political signifiers and discourses within Buck’s poems are not static, unidimensional referents. Instead they are radically overdetermined, rendering an intimate lifeworld that, while not exactly realist, has the same texture and nuance of realism in that it indexes the fragments and relics and detritus of the real world only to overcode and mythologize them.
Take, for example, the poem “Pain Funnel,” the syntax and diction of which act as something of a skeleton key to Portrait of Doom’s intersection with discourses currently at play in the most deranged crevices of the information superhighway. On the one hand, it’s a fairly straightforward poem — a conceptually driven list poem of phrases appropriated from the website of some scam private college. The language is depressingly mundane and familiar as it moves across various pithily-worded categories of social position and action, from “Welfare mom with kids” to “pregnant ladies,” “low self esteem” and “low-income jobs,” to generic queries such as “Tell me more about that,” “Have you tried to fix it?,” “What has it cost you?,” and “Does the prospect have enough pain to qualify for the next step?” before ending with “Reality check! So why haven’t you taken these steps yet?” — a question at once aggressive and rhetorical (27–28). The “Pain Funnel” of the title leads invariably to the “reality check” in the final line, illuminating the various meanings of that latter word: check as in an examination, but also a restraint, a curb, a control on the addressee’s actions, and also a bill or promissory note, but one that can neither be cashed nor paid in full.
The language the poem appropriates is familiar, and alludes directly to a world that is immediately recognizable, one that we, in fact, inhabit — a world defined by a series of increasingly grim or desperate social categories that get rerouted through the logic of neoliberal economic formations, an assemblage that is itself in a prolonged state of crisis and collapse. If the theory of interpellation still holds any water at all, “Pain Funnel” shows us how the discourse of economic opportunity — of vitalism, of affective labor, that by-your-bootstraps-on-steroids ideology that defines our current conditions of social being — can narrativize and, hence, define a subject’s place in the world.
But Buck’s poetry doesn’t promote a politics of revelation, a political strategy held, perversely, in common by both conceptualism and the political lyric poetry of the radical left. There’s a world-building function to Buck’s poetry that gives it a serious affinity with the project of science fiction as Samuel Delany understands it, which is to create fictional worlds that refract and clarify our own through a fantastic defamiliarization. For Delany, all writing is inherently about the present, whether it wants to be or not, the minimal difference being that some works recognize this capacity of language and thus use it to maximum effect. Portrait of Doom is one of those works.
The basic strategy of the book: Buck takes the language on display in “Pain Funnel” and reworks it into a sheer hellish miasma of a world, which we are thrown into in the first poem of the first section of the book, “Collapse of Death,” a pastiche of the sort of autobiographical snapshot poem that old mummies might have written back in the stone age:
I crawled out of a spider hole into a fucked up kind of youth.
My parents were fucked up
and my school was kind of fucked up
and my left eye ticked and my ankle hurt.
I felt my soul withering into a tiny shrunken system
but I wore a pin that said fuck the system
and I drilled the bone out
till I deadlifted unimaginable weight. (19)
There is nothing strictly confessional about the work, and any sense of the “personal” is safely obscured by Buck’s preference for both the generic, sometimes-bubbly-sometimes-affectless discourse of web culture, and for jarringly paratactical line breaks, here shifting registers from the angst-fueled rhetoric of a teenager to, in the final couplet, something of a degenerate epiphany — if by epiphany one means “extreme bodily mutilation,” which I do.
The final lines, then, come as a parody of the breathless enchantment with the mundane and trivial that makes up so much mainstream and MFA lyric poetry. But one of the interesting things about Buck’s work is that she’s not interested in the total negation of the lyric form in the mode of various schools of language and postlanguage, conceptualisms and postconceptualisms, but instead works rigorously within this mode. So to say that this poem plays on the contemporary lyric is not to say that Buck rejects that form so much as to observe that she doubles-down on it, opens it up, and recharges it. Just as the speaker of this poem “drilled the bone out,” a feat that allows her to lift a shit ton (technical term) of weight, Buck’s juxtaposition of mundane diction and syntax with grotesque imagery creates genuinely strange associations that reanimate the burnt-out corpse of language. But like any reanimated being — corpse, head, language, dead pet — what is brought back is changed, changed utterly.
I know for a solid fact that Buck is from rural South Carolina, so it’s more than a little autobiographical that the world presented in Portrait of Doom is a backwoods high-school dystopia whose contours most closely resemble the rural existential horror of Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997). Except in Buck’s world, you are the dead cat getting whipped. And also the person whipping the dead cat. And the whip. Like Gummo, the world of Portrait of Doom is a world of contradiction, disgust, and naive fascination. The deeper into this world you go, the more sinister it becomes.
And also just like Gummo, Portrait nestles itself awkwardly inside the folds of that overdetermined category of the bildüngsroman. Though not traditionally narrative, the poems follow an arc as they slouch through the developmental wastelands of maturation, illuminating a coming-into-self-hood in a world sick and brutal to its very core, and entered into via a language both exhausted and hollowed out but, at the same time, crackling with the febrile energy of total rot. Buck’s world is entropic, but it’s only in the decrepit cesspools of daily life and language that one finds a faint glimmer of the utopic.
But that’s just life in the anthropocene, baby, a world filled with flattened yet distorted stock characters such as “the banker,” “the cop,” and the mysterious “Kevin” who has unclear motives but is certainly up to no good if you want my opinion. They operate not so much as characters but as types, whose actions are both familiar yet bizarrely rendered, as in “Feathery Shapes in the Rock Pile”:
On my face sits a stain:
All move me along
to the liberty of horrors.
I had to work very much
and very hard.
The sweat was running down my skin,
my hand was shaken
by the extremely decaying body. (54)
The syntax and grammar of the familiar and the mundane reality is present, even as it is slowly unraveled, made strange, not just through reproduction but through transformation, a potential unlocked by the “liberty of horrors” and building toward the anguish of the stanza where Buck writes,
No, fuck, I’m weeping
because I live in a cage
and cannot deliver myself. (55)
It all builds up to a final stanza, in which the speaker finds some sort of perverse freedom within confinement:
I was dogged like a dog and
handed myself over
to the only digger that helped me
in the shimmering shallows
I rubbed and rubbed. (55)
The speaker’s freedom here takes the form of onanistic liberation, a carnality that does not even appear pleasurable, merely desperate. The speaker of this poem actually does get out of that cage later in the book, in the poem “Dark Dungeons,” but it’s a short-lived victory at best:
It worked! I’m free, I’m like everyone else now!
Then, come, join us, join the rebellion!
Before I decide what to do with my life, I must first learn to
be alive. (87)
Sure, this is obviously a send-up of wishy-washy, self-centered, New-Age liberalism, but it’s also the author castigating herself. After all, what can be more complicit and consistent with the age of “care for the self” than writing poetry? The behaviors learned while imprisoned are not so easily unlearned, and the book’s narrative arc, its bildüng, hinges precisely on this attempt to escape from the prison of the body and its narrow pleasures, and an attempt to expand and explode them in utopic, even revolutionary, fashion.
Indeed, despite the grotesquerie and horror of much of the book, Buck doesn’t leave things in a state of nihilistic despair. Even when these poems are at their most sinister, there is still something strangely utopic embedded within them. The book ends on just such a tenor when, in “I’ve Got a Few Tricks Left,” Buck writes:
I ate through
your dried skin
until your poison
hit my guts
just as I
my odd tastes
opening my mouth
to the clouds. (113–114)
Bodily mutilation, mutation, affect and intimacy, magical realist imagery, a strange syncopated rhythm to the syntax — whatever you want, this poem has it. The myriad images, which are illogically connected to begin with, ultimately unfold, deconstruct, and transform as they progress deeper and deeper down into the mire of the fantastic. It’s at this lower level, in the truly terrible and profane — that moment when “your poison / hit my guts” — that Buck gestures toward some form of radical uplift, which is the very taste of the poison inside one’s own body “opening my mouth / to the clouds.” The deepest, gnarliest level of the self ends up “opening” skyward, a gesture indicative of the aesthetic and political strategy of the entire book.
Let me explain. There’s a relatively recent, relatively mainstream horror movie that maybe some people have actually seen, called As Above, So Below (2014). It’s about a graduate student carrying on the research of her deceased father by attempting to locate the philosopher’s stone, a magical amulet that medieval alchemists believed could turn any substance into gold. Or something like that. The point is, she thinks this philosopher’s stone is hidden deep in the Paris Catacombs, and to get there she enlists a motley crew of club-based urban explorers. There’s a cave-in, of course, and they end up in a part of the catacombs that is unexplored, rumored to be cursed, haunted, taboo to enter, etc. All this, as it turns out, is true, and they soon find themselves in a house-of-horrors mirror world, acting out their childhood traumas, past misdeeds, and other tragic events from the past in a spectral, nightmarish fashion. But — and this is crucial — they can’t just go back up and out of the abyss. They have to keep going further in to get out. It’s not until they reach the very deepest level of the catacombs that they finally find an improbable manhole cover and climb through it. The camera pivots, flips upside-down, and there they are, on a busy surface street directly in front of Notre Dame. The tagline for the movie is “The only way out is down.” The only way to escape the hole they are in is to sink further into it, to ride that trolley all the way to the end of the line.
Portrait of Doom functions in a similar way. The familiar surface of perfectly constructed lyric poems generated by or modeled on the equally familiar discourse of search engine results gives way to a churning abyss of horrific imagery that only becomes more unsettling and nightmarish the deeper down into it you go. It’s terrifying and alarming, yes; it’s profoundly unsettling, true; it’s sick and twisted and doesn’t provide any clear answers to any problems, of course; but it doesn’t turn away from these difficulties either. It enters fully into this perverse and unsettling world. And while looking the horror of austerity capitalism in all of its brutality and violence right in the face by crafting beautiful yet genuinely strange poems may seem like a form of minor politics, it is also probably the most that we can reasonably ask of any art at this point. Or, as Buck puts it, better than I can, in a line that it as poignant and small as it is #acab,
The new world is made of the old world,
the small stretch of the cat as it confronts the police. (43)
On Dorothy Wang's forms and formations
The last sentence of Dorothy J. Wang’s Thinking Its Presence — “It must change” — is a call to action in its redeployment of the title of Marjorie Perloff’s 2006 MLA address. By invoking this address, in which Perloff exhorts scholars to return to more rigorous training within literary studies, “no matter how culturally and politically oriented [their] own particular research may be” (686), Wang attempts to engage with the continued opposition of the aesthetic and social within literary studies and to push back against what she sees as the exclusion of the sociohistorical and political contexts of race from broader conversations about classifications within American poetry studies. Wang begins her text by close reading Perloff’s address, along with an accompanying series of exchanges in the PMLA, in order to show that certain terms like ‘identitarian’ and ‘identity politics’ operate as “placeholders for larger assumptions and beliefs” (10). By rendering the subtleties of these assumptions explicit, Wang reveals the ways they circulate in a discourse that dismisses the value of minority writing in favor of other kinds of writing which are not perceived to bear the burden of representation (10).
Asian American poetry, in particular, serves as a limit case for this problematic institutional opposition of the “literary” and the “cultural” or “political” because of the unique relation that racialized Asian American subjects have to the American body politic, particularly with the memory of historical events like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese Americans. Even the term “Asian American” — a product of strategic institutionalization — is itself fraught with difficulties, as Wang is well aware. Wang observes, however, that “in order to interrogate the category of Asian American, one needs the category to begin with” (28).
Wang’s study, which traces the work and critical reception of Li-Young Lee, Marilyn Chin, John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Pamela Lu, is not simply a reconsideration of poems by these authors but an interrogation of the very terms and conditions of the either-or manner in which these poems and poets have been read. Noting that these writers and their works are often caught between the rhetoric of “yellow peril” and that of “model minority,” Wang asks, “How then does an Asian American poet situate herself in an Anglo-American tradition when she is marked as constitutively alien and unassimilable and excluded from the category of ‘native speaker’ of English? How does [she] labor under and contend with the foregone conclusion that her English will never be ‘good enough’?” (27). Wang attends to the absence of analysis of formal techniques in works by more “mainstream” Asian American writers like Lee and Chin and links these techniques to the reception but also the rethinking of identity through Asian American poetry. Her reading of Lee’s works, for example, foregrounds Lee’s use of the metaphor of “cleaving” as a way of understanding alterity that can “[hold] sameness and difference together in tension without reducing all to sameness” and collapsing into assimilation (89). Similarly, her attention to form in Chin’s poetry reveals how irony codes Chin’s political interventions, making them more “palatable” to a wider audience than her more obvious forms of critique — even as it serves as a “structure [that] captures the rivenness of subjectivity wrought by immigration, diaspora, the violence of assimilation.” Chin’s ironizing of themes like the repeated figure of the “barbarian” challenges ideas of linguistic purity or cultural “authenticity” at the same time that it acts as a “rhetorical means to contend with the trauma of history” and method of grappling with racial melancholia (118).
Alternately, Wang also puts pressure on the tendency to read the work of more explicitly avant-garde poets’ work like Yau, Berssenbrugge, and Lu, who do not thematize or provide proof of ethnicity, as either playing “the race card” at the poet’s convenience (as Yau was accused of doing in a particularly acrimonious exchange with Eliot Weinberger in American Poetry Review), or somehow “post-race,” “a retreat to the idea of a universal subject” which Wang rejects (280). Indeed, for Wang, the questions of how linguistic mastery or credibility is signaled is intimately related to notions of aesthetic “difficulty,” particularly as it intersects with classifications of “mainstream” or “avant-garde.” Yau’s use of parody as well as the vexing of lyric subjectivity in his Genghis Chan poems makes, for Wang, the “erasure of the subject [register] as a generic postmodern move,” aligning his formal experimentation with an American and European avant-garde. But, as Wang notes, the tradition of this avant-garde often leaves little room for discussing how form relates to the politics of “ethnic self-identification” (181).
Given the absence of autobiographical material in Berssenbrugge’s work, as well as her play with linguistic conditionality and exploration of the liminalities between human consciousness and natural phenomena, her poems, like Yau’s, do not straightforwardly disclose information about the poet’s identity; Wang argues, however, that this does not excuse critics from the necessity of engaging with the “impress of the racializing pressures and structures that shaped her subjectivity” (269). Wang observes of Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel that it similarly needs not “announce its concerns with mere thematic markers because its very language […] is inseparable from this subjectivity and worldview” (276).
While Wang does not intend to “[posit] a simplistic causal or reductive link between the world — in this case, being ‘Asian American’ — and the poem,” her project is directed at recuperating the relationship between social formation and aesthetic form and demonstrating how the latter in particular is either occluded in the reception of Asian American poetry, or itself occludes the subject of race (35).
Wang concludes by looking forward to a rethinking of the forms of critical conversation themselves, whether in digital forums where institutional constraints do not weigh as heavily as they might elsewhere. Wang, who points towards a future poetry criticism in which Asian American poetry is read with both an attention to formal qualities as well as the realities of racial interpellation in mind, reminds us that “Poems are never divorced from contexts and from history, even as they are, among other things, modes of thinking philosophically through an engagement with formal constraints. Likewise, what constitutes the social, the cultural, and the political must be analyzed for their linguistic and structural forms” (19). Whatever shape future dialogue about aesthetic form in American poetry may take, Thinking its Presence insists that it cannot do so without accounting for the racialized particularities of Asian American and othered identities.
A review of Tiff Dressen's 'Songs from the Astral Bestiary'
If I were suffering from some kind of loss in the ancient Hellenic world, I could travel to an Asclepion priestess at Epidaurus and spend the night in an abaton, or sacred space, to ride out my dreams after having been given a “sleep” cure suited to my specific needs. In her first book-length collection, Songs from the Astral Bestiary, Tiff Dressen devises her own abaton made of poetry, taking her reader on a lyrical journey via the dreamscape where song is remedy for loss. Staring into the rich mulberry blue, gold, amber, green (and other colors in-between I can’t find names for) brushstrokes of Fran Herndon’s “Triangles,” the cover art, the reader is transported to a world half here, half there, and by the end of the collection realizes that s/he came to “harvest” light too as that “animal / in whom nothing is lost” (52) found in dream.
Offering twenty-three poems, the collection delivers a series of messages (“Message: O you who are” … “Message: book of debris”) and among those, interspersed, are several longer serial poems whose titles suggest propositions with their use of subordinating conjunctions: “If the air we live on,” “As deer (in aurora borealis),” and “Because Icarus-children.” Employing the medieval compendium of the bestiary which depicts animals and mythic animals in their natural history accompanied by moral lessons, Songs from the Astral Bestiary presents bees, deer, “Wapitis,” a “canadensis,” bears, a “trance- / horse,” cannibals, owls, and the hauntingly elusive half-light-half-human “Icarus-children.” The poems, projections from the dream world whose messenger “came to harvest / light” and “to hear the thousands / who signify the future” (2), are in part prayer, incantation, oracle, and their admonitory tone adds a touch of prophecy. Songs from the Astral Bestiary isn’t a first collection that strives through the cadence of language to get somewhere; this is poetry whose songstress has already been there in the “sky-trough” (14) and has returned with the goods to share with “all messengers on their way to / or returning from.” The poem “Message: astral bestiary” appears on the page in fragments as if received from an etched stone shard in antiquity:
helicopter ignitions jamming
Dream interpretation as therapy, when “words once were / healers of the sick temper” (27), is a possibility in the hermetic poem “Because Icarus-children,” which opens with a quote by the Danish poet Inger Christensen, “in greylight, indeed they will / exist, in- ” (24):
Because we believe in the whole helio
centric gaze in the sky as house
of the dreamer
Because of the Ionian sea and
the Ionian scar we ask the absent
body to be restored to the present heart. (26)
The poem’s rhythm is driven by the repetition of the subordinating conjunction “because,” and its continual use of the collective pronoun “we” makes us, as readers, also feel (strangely) that “we are halogens” (25), having traversed the poem and having “perceived light / the natural body can never / account for” (27). The reader senses healing at work, and in awe, entranced “under fluorescent skies,” attends to it. In another poem, “Message: a theory (song),” the poet-diviner reveals “(our common lung our / communal humming / lung)”(43), further connecting the reader with the “breath between us / we share” (45). The poem muses an array of songs (“a song of water,” “a catalytic song,” “a pathogenic song”) entering the body through “a staple in the chest / where the song / stuck it / to the song” (43) and, like neighboring poems in the book, suggests that a “song of self-repair” is what “we” have lost. Refining her lyric, Dressen tunes into the Song of Songs that confronts loss. Whether it’s felt in “the oceans’ / lost speech” (2) or clearly stated as “a loss of heart / a loss / of capacity” (43), this first book engages loss by recovering (via dream) a world in which we know “it came from the stars” to share its “harvest” of light. The reader, implicated, becomes other addressed as you who has a “myrrh fairy” (12), like it or not; for you “who are / a creature of / the signs you cannot / escape” (8) are part of the luminary landscape of Songs from the Astral Bestiary, because “finally your face arrived / to complete / the bestiary” (42).
Nomenclature, the system of assigning names to things in the physical world, is explored in several poems. In “Message: It is as we said” (40), the animals are “longing to be,” yet belong “to nomen” as if the weight of their being or desire to be is held subject to (or hostage by) their names: “It is as we said / the animals naming them / we said name them.” In “In your hypoxia dreams” (47), there is someone “learning / how to say / your name for the first time,” and in “As deer (in aurora borealis)” we, “red giant Wapitis” or “cannibals,” name us “nameless” and “name us useless and / distinct” (18). What does it mean to be nameless or anonymous, and who listens when we “CALL ALL THOSE / BELONGING BEYOND / NOMEN / CLATURE” (8)? In “Message: periodic” (9), the immediate poem that follows this “CALL,” the poet-messenger shares, “there is silence however there is / whenever you are speaking / with another,” and then within the same line in italics sings, “silence is the third / and that is me.”Interpreting “silence”beyond the dream or words (naming it) is best expressed in the forms most of the poems manifest in, some utilizing blank space on the page in fragments or stanzas that are pared down to one-word lines. Silence is “the third,” the poet-cipher avows, mediating herself in the objective third person, as witnessed in “Message: parallel myth”:
The mostly single-word columnar form slows the reader down to a one-two syllable dance between “she,” the poet-dreamer, and you, “now / the / second / person.”
The poems in Songs from the Astral Bestiary are gracefully chiseled, arriving in fragments, set to an open form and sometimes seeming as if guided by the hand of Barbara Guest (“Message: amber”):
At night she went out
to let the bloodtrees
the blue wedged
(collector of midnight-drift
The only punctuation, like all poems in the collection, is purposefully placed, such as the italics and parentheses in the above excerpt (the “third” voice?) from the poem “for Paul Celan.” Blank space accentuates words on the page, stimulating the visual aesthetic of word placement and line breaks, which heightens the enunciation of words and potentially alters or enhances the poem’s meaning. Sound-play occurs in regular lyric breakouts throughout the collection. “Message: O you who are” concludes with:
and the word-dance continues into the next poem, “Message: periodic”:
au aurum aura
gold chromium cesium
The blank page transforms into the “night sky” (24) onto which poems are projected, with each word a blinking active star — a night sky, “northward,” that we can “sing starve-white-dwarf-crater-songs!” (19) into.
A recurring motif of gestation forms a delicate membrane that encases the entire collection and is activein the images of vessels (houses, abatons, silos, cauls) or things that contain and incubate life — like the body itself. In “Because Icarus-children,” the poem, with its curious tone of admonition, unveils that “we no longer live in sensitive bodies lit up […] because of a reversed birth a reviled birth” (24), and later we are caught in a “centric gaze” stationed “in the sky” or in the “house / of the dreamer” (26). In classical times, abatons — literally buildings “not to be trodden” — were specially designed dream incubators or sacred chambers where supplicants of Asclepius (god of medicine) could sleep to cure a variety of ailments by way of dream and enkoimesis: an opium or other narcotic-induced dreamlike state. Hints of healing using dreams are riddled throughout Songs from the Astral Bestiary,and in “Message: forms,” are affirmed in a third-person narrative delivered in disjunctive song:
she did really sink:
into an abaton
(bee cave) […]
(the interpreter mistook) (30)
Repeated images of a “caul,” the portion of the amniotic sac that holds the fetal head, and a storage “silo” fuse together to generate a déjà vu atmosphere in the alchemical “delphic cycle: (turns),” a poem “along the earth” (34) brewing “with iron” and “gas” that requests, if not implores, its audience to participate in a ghostly act of creation, evoking the familiar biblical spirit of word made flesh:
Someone please bury
behind the silo
as a blood / word
for the cause
sleeper earth hema. (37)
Dressen’s Songs from the Astral Bestiary not only reminds us that we, readers, are active participants in a poem’s meaning, but that poetry itself is a collaborative act. The collection opens with a supportive epigraph from Antonin Artaud’s “50 Drawings to Assassinate Magic,” setting up a “Way”(1) through which readers might enter this work, “in nature.” Two poems, “Message: amber” (6) and “Message: telepathy” (31), are dedicated to Paul Celan, proffering him “bloodtrees” and a “blueshiftchorus.” In her first collection, Dressen masters poetry that not only is in conversation with other writers and artists, but does so in a generous way: honoring their work by resurrecting it within her own. Other poems activate quotes from James Wright, “cloister … Closing around / a blossom of”(9), or appear as italicized text as in “As deer (aurora borealis)” (10), which restores parts of the obscure poem “The Wapitis” by Ebbe Borregaard. In this way, the book expands within the local and larger poetry communities byliving on through the “representative / of the other” (39)in an authentic poetics of collaboration’s sublime communion. The collection’s climactic poem, “In your hypoxia dreams,” incorporates quotes from Bay-Area poet Beverly Dahlen’s A Letter at Easter: To George Stanley and text from international poet Eléna Rivera’s Unknowne Land, eliciting the question of who is behind the “I” that speaks in poetry:
“but I want to
descend along the dense,
animate river encircling the earth.” (47)
The poet-sibyl’s arrangement with the ancient Hellenic world of mythology additionally serves as a field of collaboration in which the “lost speech” (2) of the oceans is recovered through psychic connection via the astrally traveled dream. An “Achilles angel” (12) and a “satyr-star” (14) are illuminated in “As deer (aurora borealis),” my favorite series in the collection for its peculiar tones of address: “And so the elk sing / O you and your lumbar ache” (10) and “so name us nameless” (anti-nomenclature)! She, who “tonight and forever I shall be […] your mother lode branch and valley” (12), beckons her reader to join the ride: “ankle light / whip kick open thy mouth” (15). We become Dressen’s mythical “deer” animated in a “diffusion through atmospheres” and her “interlopers” (17) on an uncanny horizon whose “Old World” (18) Christian hues, with their prayerful repetitions of “Blessed are those who breathe and Blessed is she,” commingle with the rapturous “magnetic north” (17) of the “wild iris” (11) pagan.
“Breathing” and the “breath,” as in “Bless our breath sensitive” (16), is both theme and instruction during our song odyssey, prompting us to bethink this most important bodily function, while “belly / breathing” (21) signals toward the tradition of the deep regenerative yogic breath in the “song of self-repair” — a song “we share” during “a long ago event” (20). This ambiguous “event” had me returning back for clues, “to screen / an unknown” (2), long after my first, second, third, or umpteenth readings. The “alchemy” (1) that transpires between poet (messenger) and reader (receiver) in Songs from the Astral Bestiary is aired in the powerful intimacy of the I-You lyric address, fostering “our communal lung,” but also “you begin to see / landscape through the eyes / of a bee” (46) which, by suggestion, convenes the reader with “nature” (1). Engage your dreams to heal the self, this debut collection divinely utters with “pieces of you / in my blood and / in my bones / and together we knew” (59) as synergized invitation. Then we shall dream as Bestiary animals do “in whom nothing is lost” after experiencing these poems over and over, each time taking us a new Way to“or returning from” our past or future, “high on the hips” (60) of the poet with her “10,000 horses” (50) across a wordlit sky.
A review of Hsia Yü's 'Salsa'
Of the Chinese avant-garde, Hsia Yü’s collections of poetry exemplify and perplex. The author of Pink Noise (2013), translated by Steve Bradbury, Yü had a new volume in translation released by Zephyr Press in 2014 — though originally published in 1999. A millennial dreamscape, Salsa asks its readers to follow the logic of order and the everyday so that they may become unfamiliar and distorted, the purl becoming unpurled.
In the first poem of this collection, Yü predicts the journey of the book: “Lovers [fall] to the status of kin.” She thwarts expectations and familiar images of heartbreak. What roots me through this surprise and spontaneity is knowing to keep an eye peeled for the destruction of the relationships and the “I”s that the speaker inhabits as a guiding principle. The death of a relationship is the root, the steady ground from which to consider her simple yet evocative diction.
In the poem “To Be Elsewhere,” Yü speaks of the arc of the text:
… In some other storyline
And so no one asks: Who are you looking so cold and worn?
And the other answers: All I know is the sweater I’m wearing has a loose thread
If you keep pulling it I fear
The whole of me will disappear (4)
With a foreshadowing of death and the close of this collection, we follow the poet’s path. The speaker will ultimately disappear into the world of memory, or that nowhere between people who first meet, then:
… three years later
They met again by chance.
But having been neglected by the narrative
For three whole years
They no longer knew who they were
Only a vague feeling they might have known each other. (4)
The relative semiotic ambiguity of the line “They no longer knew who they were” heightens the sense of nowhereness. The reader can interpret the line in two different ways: not knowing the self, or not knowing the lover. At the end of the poem, the disappearance of the speaker changes the meaning of the poem, a key strategy Yü employs in this text: a delayed explosion of understanding. Even the title of the connection is ambiguous in the same way: the reference to salsa deals both with the culinary or Latin American dance, and with the release of the title poem we understand the complicated dance steps Yü makes along the way.
Translator Steve Bradbury says in his endnotes that this collection can be seen as a post-impressionist Proustian poème-à-clef that lends itself to “imaginative readings.” For Bradbury, the importance of the poem is in its multiple significations and readings. It’s clear Bradbury preserved the musicality of the line, which is a feature of poetry that can be impossible yet imperative to translate given social distance and dissimilarities between linguistic groups. Preserving or transposing the sonorous quality of Taiwanese Chinese into English, Bradbury realizes Yü’s extraordinary wordplay. Take for example the poem “Soul”:
And then abruptly became oblivious
As for the awakening of this moment
Were a rain falling
We would become afraid our parting
Would stop the rain from
Falling there in the warm room
In the warmth of the warmth
Of the warmth of the room in the rain we are
Rarely unaware of how we waver (45)
The assonance and repetition of lateral liquids mimics a correspondence to the water cycle: the sense of return and incarnation suggests that the poet finds herself in similar situations, yet with seemingly new configurations, here at the end of her text. A metaphorical death.
Throughout this text Yü paints haunting images, yet indicates something deeper — something that compels the reader forward. She places us in the most familiar of settings but changes the configurations of objects, time, and space, resulting in the unfamiliar, or more accurately a haunting familiarity that she grapples with throughout these forty-six poems. In this unfamiliar space, the reader is forced into uncanny associations. Following Yü’s images, you will be surprised just where you will end up. These poems are roads that wend over cliffs and to the sea, through strange jungles without ever leaving the familiarity of the mundane cityscape. For instance, in “Jalousies,” the reader starts inside of a house and ends in a bagpipe:
When the wind blows the jalousies drone like a pump organ
The sea by the shore is like a crime you are reluctant to commit
When the wind blows basking in the sun is like an egg
About to burst its shell (7)
The ambiguity of what object actually becomes like an egg in the sun, the connection between the sea and a crime, the jalousie as a wind pump: all delight in their departure from conventional images, in effortless spontaneity. The reader journeys to the unfamiliar through these objects out of place, continuing on in bizarre fashion:
… He is a word I accidentally stumbled on
While looking for another word and so
Some things are no different than taking a piano in the middle of a concert
And the pianist and hurling them both at high velocity to the bottom of the sea
Not yet conscious of what had happened they continue on the ocean floor (7)
A person as a word, an amphibious piano concert, and semiotic ambiguity all work in tandem to create a dizziness that propels the reader forward. At times Yü’s work reads like a frenzy, a spiral into demise with the promise of rebirth. In fact, given Yü’s ideas on memory and temporality, I hardly expected the book’s delightful end: a treatise on the human soul, a familiar yet unfamiliar territory that the poet leads us down, pointing our strange sights along the way: everyday objects and beings somehow distorted.
A review of Divya Victor's 'Natural Subjects'
Divya Victor’s new book Natural Subjects deconstructs the relationship between sentimental notions of authorial authenticity and normative models of citizenship in a way that will add some much needed bitters to your cocktail, at least if you can stomach it. The book is therefore, on a theoretical level, an absolutely refreshing and uniquely contrarian read. But on the level of the sonic and textual, it is also one of the most sumptuous, expressive, and musical books to come out of experimental poetry in recent years. Particularly in a world where postmodern and hybrid and post-selfie lyric is always already so banal as to have lost its musicality, and the sheerly conceptual has forsaken music.
To return to music in poetry means to return to the concrète — signification for the sake of signification, not for the sake of concept or lyric or parodic postmodernism (gestures that are all too communicative).
It helps that the book is topologically set up like a musical score, with alternating text sizes and placements, plus a multitude of references to old popular songs from “one little, two little, three little Indians” to “Do, Re, Mi” — tunes that forge a passport examination of cultural literacy, an exam that seems to never end, even after the passport is received and authorial identity is created.
What do we expect from the author, from her photo, from her bio; how do we assess Victor’s literacy, her ability to sing the songs that we know, so that we can have a politically resonant connection with her, so that she can have connection with us, and so that we all can commiserate over a leftist political problem? These questions are repeatedly provoked in this musical book, through rumination on the problematics of the passport and the author’s photo and identity.
Instead of answering directly to the interrogation of the questions that arise, Victor gives us shocking detours, like a cover image of red meat, as if to mock our impulse to have a humane author-reader connection. Her title, Natural Subjects, so clinicalizes our demand for the natural subjective position of the authorial self that it makes us feel a bit wretched for wanting it. As with Kim Rosenfeld and Trisha Low, the clinic, law room, diary, and church are all sites where identity is born and bred but also resisted, even if this resistance itself becomes a form of authorship, a way of singing. But drawing too from the imaginative dialectics of dialect that infuse the poetry of Douglas Kearny and Julie Patton, as well as the neon art of Glenn Ligon. Enter here Eliza Doolittle’s mispronunciations, that cute show of cockney Englishness, which are peppered throughout Victor’s book and serve as inspiration for her own misheard lyrics.
As with Victor’s earlier book, Things To Do With Your Mouth, instructions are not only sites of grooming, care, and domestication — they are sites of cruelty, discipline, and force, as well as resistant authorial standpoints. But this resistant authorship does not give the reader a “natural subject” espousing caps-locks politics. Nor does it mean you’ll get levelheaded quotidian slice-of-life poetics.
Victor’s “I” is speculatively tuning itself against your expectation, picking from different misheard tunes, and different poetic styles — and the tuning, as in Kieran Daly’s music, is itself a site for the production of musicality.
Here Victor tunes her I:
I is a period of continuous residence and physical presence in the United States
I is a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government
I is an ability to read, write, and speak English
I is good moral character
I is an attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution
I is a favorable disposition toward the United States (24)
Victor’s making of sonic and textual musicality out of expressive and legalistic confession is a new form of concrète poetry that aligns with the work of Low and others working across a post-conceptual spectrum. It bears no comparison to the New York School and its spin-offs, as it is not quotidian and cosmopolitan in a neutral way. Remembering that concrète poetry is both abstract sound poetry and visual page poetry, and that both types share a diminishment of the vernacular communicative voice, then what is privileged is sonic and/or textual abstraction. And yet, concrète poetry has recently begun to blend in with sites of sensible communication, network-building, and expression. An irony always is inherent in the way visual poetics has parodied advertising, but perhaps less funny when used to uncritically promote contemporary art in glossy books, such as The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (Hayward Publishing, 2015).
That said, some of the most cutting-edge of books are not forging a vernacular, affective identity or reaching for a gallery-ready idealized notion of “visual poetry.” But rather, are constructing what Low calls the “not-not I” — a redoubled repression of the authentic voice, and the production of the concrete book, diary, media object, or art project. These projects can be epic pastiche (Cecilia Corrigan’s Titanic), explicitly personal (Low’s The Compleat Purge), or frighteningly impersonal (Steve Zultanski’s Agony), but they are never transparently communicative. Which is a real achievement, considering that “non-communicative” aesthetics have become all about communication and coterie, and that confession has become so omnipresent that it ceases to have value. The confessor, like the analysand, is simply irrelevant, and so is the impersonal poet. But with these new works some sort of opacity enters the page and is difficult to handle.
Perhaps the key work to use confession in an opaque manner is The Compleat Purge (Kenning Editions, 2013), which, rather than being an authentic event of the author vomiting up Asian American post-feminist post-Catholic S/M identity and emotion, is about sublimation through the creation of a concrete object, form, or structure. This sublimation manifests at the level of the text as trepidation around modes of procedural entrapment — notably the repetition of the suicide note — confusing the expected authenticity of the vernacular voice while activating sustained concreteness. Songs have terminal duration, though they are repetitious — as Low writes of sex, “It is fleeting, and once satisfied, begins again, a knot at the base of the belly that moves up against your throat.” Still, never one to stay too long in unqualified Eros, Low ends the cited paragraph with “fucking can kill you” (97).
These new works of Expression Concrète build on an avant-garde notorious for questioning the authentic presence of the Other’s voice. English experimental poetics from modernism forward has often been polyvocal to such a point that musical and textual “presence” is forged in spite of the author’s intentions. On the other hand, sometimes such presences are an intended part of the procedure, hence the double meaning of concrète — presently musical and presently textual. In fact, for the post-structrualist avant-garde, mediation (irony, delay, deferral, simulation, imitation) is often as immediate and swift and violent as Artaud’s cruelty.
Expression Concrète qualitatively represses certain kinds of authentic vocality in order to produce objects of study and concentration that remain always polyvocalizable and musical, no matter how legalistic, speculative, communicative, confessional, pastiched, banal, and doctrinal their content may appear. Unlike prior flat-affect art, Expression Concrète isn’t blank or cynical (illustrating some thesis on “performative intentionality”) but always a musical lull back into the unreadable musicality of the concrète text. Since the unreadability of postmodernism is so thoroughly readable, and the detours to identity and affect are even more readable, a new form of opacity arrives.
Some of these new works are simply using gimmicks and are unreadable not for the sake of art but because of a lenient impulse to conventionalize oneself in a scene: this is bad post-conceptualism. For instance, online publisher GaussPDF is chock-full of works that are unreadable because of laziness but also works that are unreadable because of musical genius. One has to parse quite a bit to tell which is which! But if you can parse, the formal complexity you’ll find in the good work is rewarding and new. Though, most critics will default to reading through old aesthetic lenses: affect, irony, and identity, “disruptive communication in the service of canonical continuity,” or else there will be the desire to see things as liquid, fluid, perofmrative, and hybrid (this one is becoming hot in the art world, where poems are thought to leap off the page and, hopefully, into the market). However, Expression Concrète refuses to give an upper-case I/WE to rally around, or a fluid hybrid accessible lower-case “i,” but instead a complex shuffling of expectations and eluding of conventions. Just as Low’s suicide notes unintentionally make for aesthetic reading material, even as they pose as unreadable, grotesque, and violent.
On a different yet related note, poet Emji Spero sources texts about decentralized networks (from Deleuze to mushroom manuals) to produce a coherently visual book of poetry in almost any shit will do (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2014). And Gabriel Ojeda-Sague’s Nite [chickadees] (GaussPDF, 2015) tracks socio-political turbulence in America through Twitter postings by Cher, interrupted by large emoticons — toying with camp and appropriation in a way that is both effective and affective; but also totally visual, with the heartbreak icon particularly jarring and surprisingly poignant after a childlike misspelling, “ERIC GARDNER.”
And then there is Shiv Kotecha’s book Extrigue (Make Now, 2015), which offers a dryer example of the concrete. As “intrigue” means to be led into (in) a trick (trice), “extrigue” disentangles the magic of poetic absorption, and leads us out of the trick. Which is itself a trick. An old one. The text is comprised of caps lock and numbered, painstakingly described “clues” from the movie Double Indemnity, creating a book that is “blank” and “static” (as Steve Zultanksi describes it). Kotecha attributes this to the black and white nature of the film: “With this movie, I didn’t have to gauge between pink flesh or dead flesh, because it was all just a matter of things being lighter or darker than the things they were next to,” and thus, he chose to not to write Salo but instead Double Indemnity. Unlike Tender Buttons, the catalogue here is pulled from VLC media player, pausing the frames, and is therefore a redoubled simulacrum. Nonetheless, when returned to the page, and the site of “authenticity” that the published book of poetry refuses to not be registered as, we get yet another rendering of expression gone concrete: “A GAPING HOLE ON THE TOP AND BOTTOM OF WHICH IS SHINY WHITE FOLLOWED BY SHINY BLACK FOLLOWED BY A FIELD WHICH MUST BE SKIN A SOLID GRAY WHAT IS LIKELY A SHOULDER BUT ONE CANNOT BE SURE THE TIP OF A CIGARETTE THE CLUTCHING OF KNUCKLES THE FALLING OF AN ARM …” Of course, using the term gaping hole comes with its set of heated connotations, but the book continues to play on and through coolness, conveying the confusion of mediated watching, torn between passive visual consumption and active emotional excretion.
In Victor’s Subjects, the demands we place on subjects to become citizens, issued in all caps, also remind us of the demands we place on “authors,” to be good and moral representatives of their subject position:
BREAKING NEWS: YOU WILL REQUIRE AN ABILITY TO READ, WRITE, AND SPEAK GOOD MORAL CHARACTER; AN ABILITY TO READ, WRITE, AND SPEAK A FAVORABLE DISPOSITION TOWARD THE UNITED STATES. YOU WILL READ, WRITE, AND SPEAK AN ATTACHMENT TO THE PRINCIPLES OF THE U.S. CONSTITUTION. (28)
The tedious nationalism of even the most radical Leftist and anti-racist poetic projects in America is given a bit of a shove here, but Victor’s book is not an aggressive affront to demands like “We encourage the subject to have a natural expression” (30): rather, she offers a formally singular revelry that comes after confrontations with formally deadened formulas. When Victor mis-sings the old tune “My Bonnie” as “my body lies over the ocean,” we think of Bonnie, and also the author’s body; then, with “O bring back my body to me,” we think of the disappearance of the body, and how the fort/da game of the authorial body is unpleasant yet engrained in popular song. Was Bonnie ever even there? Is the author’s body present in the text?
These lines of questioning quickly detour as Subjects becomes about the concrete phrases without heeding polemical efficiency:
I swear / because the terrace / is for kites, the verandah / is where we oil our hair / because the lorries have horns / the goats have kept alive / almond and gooseberry / steeped in glass jars / because we measure / the grain with copper, we know / a month ends later / because tables are made … (47)
We shift into Victor’s inner ear, and rather than finding it branded by authenticity or counter-authenticity, lyric or concept, figure or abstraction, or some “quirky” hybrid that balances both — we get a refreshingly new concrète sound, that is both effusive and compact. We stumble into a vision that sounds good, without ever sounding so good that it is easy-listening hybrid crap. Despite the constriction of cultural memory and enforced cultural tunes, the ear continues to work, bending and unbending the landscape of official culture.
ME, a name I call my self (48)
The problem is not that we can’t get rid of the songs that get stuck in our head after they are hammered in (as Henry Higgins hammers “the rain in Spain” into Doolittle in My Fair Lady) — it’s that we can’t get rid of our selves rubbing against the songs; we can’t have pure unfiltered unmediated access to the authentic folk song or authentic national anthem. In Subjects, Bonnie’s body never comes back. The body remains buried, beneath riddles, half-heard memories, and disturbing headstones, passports, and medical reports. By giving concrete form to the lushly mutable speculative/musical back-and-forth motions of memory/selfhood/text/tune — we are reminded not of the liberating potential of poetry to remix normative cultural standards but rather of how subtle the poetic ear actually can be. And how the poetic ear can rub critically up against nationalist essentialism, even as it craves to belong.
The poetic ear does not always produce coteries or prize-winning books or monuments or raise the dead or bury the dead. Sometimes it just produces a little tune. But the littlest tunes can be the most daunting. Subjects reminds that authors, like citizens, no matter how counter-dogmatic, are always groomed, and postured to be “natural subjects,” spokesmen with author photos and proof of cultural literacy. This is theoretically refreshing.
But no great concrète work ends with a theoretical refresher. Taking steps beyond the deadlock of subjectivity, even when writing about “piles of dead people,” Victor uses repetition and variation to forge a remarkable aesthetic kernel out of routine cultural expressions, without being for or against expression, itself. This is a stunning feat and its own sort of coup d’état.