Reviews

Resurrectional poetics

A review of Raúl Zurita's 'Dreams for Kurosawa'

Dreams for Kurosawa

Dreams for Kurosawa

Raúl Zurita (Translated by Anna Deeny)

arrow as aarow Press 2012, $10,

Raúl Zurita’s Dreams for Kurosawa belongs to a very small genre of what might be called “posthumous poetics.” Its practitioners are few: Dickinson, of course, but also Rilke, Celan, and Beckett. It was Roland Barthes who, in “The Death of the Author,” consigned the persona of the writer to the grave of textual effects, a symptom of the cult of authorship and the chain of its material production, distribution, and reception. But it was also Barthes who resurrected the author out of a desire for his presence, a desire to call back the ghostly trace into the warmth of human company. For Barthes, the text sometimes permits a transmigration, as he calls it, from the author to the reader. It establishes a coexistence.

In Dreams for Kurosawa, Zurita writes toward this coexistence from the other side of consciousness, a place to which the living have been disjected, but which poetry stubbornly reclaims. It is a place endowed by language with faith in being’s persistence, which is not the afterlife at all, but the voice of the poem as it speaks from the flow of logos, lit by a mortal darkness.

In these harrowing and ecstatic poems dreams of dying and resurrection commingle promiscuously. The presiding angel of these scenes of repeated nullity and affirmation is Akira Kurosawa, whose film Dreams allowed Zurita to imagine the possibility of a life after the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet, who seized power in Chile in 1973 through a CIA-backed coup. For Zurita, this sorrowful territory underlies all he has written since 1979’s Purgatory (also translated by Deeny). His imprisonment and torture were etched, most memorably perhaps, in the ephemeral skywriting poems of 1982 that appeared over New York City, spelling out “My God is Cancer / My God is Emptiness / My God is Wound / My God is Ghetto.” Dreams for Kurosawa is in some ways a less radically formal book (the poems have been assembled from three separate collections). But their seemingly calm hypotaxis belies the excruciating trauma that informs them. 

The calm emanating from these poems is eerie, though. Emotion recollected through loss, not tranquility. Zurita’s primal aesthetic scene, as it were, is drawn from Kurosawa’s film and provides him with an image by which he can begin to address the horror of Pinochet in a new key: a squad of Japanese soldiers emerges from a tunnel and are confused to find that they are dead, and the war over. Like the soldiers, these poems wander restlessly through a posthumous landscape, searching for the remnants of the life they once knew. Unlike the lost revenants however, who must return to the darkness of the tunnel, Zurita depicts his former life with an incandescent glow, albeit stained with profound melancholy:

I saw the first cities of water heading north, in Atacama.
They were suspended in the sky, like gigantic
transparent aquariums, and the luminous reflecting
lines swayed on the ground covering the immense
ocher plane. It was 1975, the end of summer, and I
suffered then. (“Poem 5”)

Suffering haunts these poems with recollected pain and the yearning for the lost object. It is that very yearning which constitutes the poet’s resurrectional poetics. His family and friends come back once more, vivid with life, as in a dream. Yet the matter-of-fact tone, which moves between calm dignity and anguish, imparts both a piercing immediacy and a kind of finality to these scenes, preserving the distance death imposes even as it strives to close that distance. The dreamer suddenly wakes and realizes he’s been dreaming:

                                            Now he had died and
I dressed him while mother and sister waited in the
living room. As I opened the door to tell them they
could come in the fury of the wind and hail thrashed me
stunning me and blind I ran across the field. Kurosawa,
I cried out then, he returned to die again with me.
As I opened my eyes above me I saw the dizzying
white of the summit and much further below the first
lights of the city illuminating. Only then could I cry.
(“Poem 12 — Papa Has Returned”)

Moving with the logic of dreams, their sudden shifts in register, their condensing of time and place, these poems are cinematic and fluid, a continuous montage of images culled from a childhood of deserts and waterfalls, life in the city, life under the tyrant, and the liberating interior life that only the movies can give us. Like the movies, poetry lets us live out a second life. We may die, but we can still be called back. For the dead in fact are never gone; they are the ones who are always returning. The crisis of living is in how we remember them — the shame and struggle of remembering them — and how we also look ahead into the horizon of our own finitude.

This is a beautifully crafted book, with hand-sewn binding and individually silk-screened covers, produced by Michael Slosek and Luke Daly’s arrow as aarow press in Chicago, and translated with extraordinary sensitivity by Anna Deeny. In her eloquent afterword, Deeny links Zurita’s resurrection poetics to Paul de Man’s explication of the central trope of poetry, prosopopeia. For Deeny, the act of poetic figuration “marks the ultimate limit of the self that is death at the same time that it imposes a greater concern for the limit of the other, that is, the other’s death.” In Deeny’s reading, Zurita’s concern for the other, what he himself calls “the resurrection of the dead,” aims toward and is affirmed by “language’s infinite yes.” But getting to that ‘yes’ means dying.

                                                                   As I opened
my eyes my small body floated at the base of
the falls, and it wasn’t a dream Kurosawa because
I was dead and the waters were tearing me apart.
(“Poem 4”)

Then my eyelids froze, I saw the dark blue of the
sky open up above me, I tried to tell them and died.
(“Poem 17”)

                                                                  As I
got up I noticed I couldn’t move my arms frozen
beneath the snow. Kurosawa, I said, I was just a
typewriter salesman and now I’m dead and it snows.
(“Poem 19”)

Dying is the central predicament of these poems. It occurs over and over, with the repetition compulsion that colors dreams. For Zurita, dream is the portal to the imaginary of the afterlife, its capricious logic reenacting scenes of catastrophe and rescue through recurring images of the sea, waterfalls, the Atacama desert, Pinochet, and the poet’s deep sense of shame at having died only to come back again, forced to relive his trauma. A sense of lucent vertigo carries these twenty-three poems forward. Their brisk narrative pace has the momentum of a diary composed under duress. Laid out in block-like single stanzas, each roughly twenty-five lines long, their regularity reinforces the power of repetition, of a compulsion to retell the same scenes, the poem pushed to the point of exhaustion and, beyond that, to a floating transparency, to the voice of a recording angel that both inhabits and testifies suffering.

                                                                      Then I plunged in
and saw that the sea was endless plains of
torsos and backs exhumed, of stomachs that
waved like rags extending themselves to the
horizon …
                                        they were millions
upon millions of faces with their mouths open,
infinite hips, arms and legs sweeping again
and again the beach as if painted ropes. Kurosawa, I
managed to cry out, this isn’t a dream, this is the sea.
(“For Kurosawa/The Sea”)

Raúl Zurita’s sea is both an actual repository of the victims of Pinochet’s cruel regime — not a dream at all, but the nightmare of history — and a surreal site beyond sitedness, where the dead are received, first as the mangled corpses of massacre, then as the hallows of living memory. They do not so much haunt the poet as allow him to reimagine what it means to be. In a word, they are messianic, since their return intervenes in the trauma of their violent deaths, re-potentiating the present for those who, like Zurita, can still speak for its dream of becoming.

The care and the courage

A review of John Mateer's 'The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009'

The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009

The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009

John Mateer

Fremantle Arts Centre Press 2010, 152 pages, $24.95, ISBN 9-781-921-361-869

With The West: Australian Poems 19892009, his second review selection of his work — following Elsewhere (2007) — John Mateer has decidedly happened to Australian poetry. The impact of his work is one of example rather than stylistic influence: that of an individual writer concerned with their relationship to the world, rather than a quarrel with it or himself, and rather than a self-portrait of sensibility — though quarrels and self do occur in these poems.

Mateer’s use of English makes his estrangement of Australian culture seem like a reflex, making a phrase like “Supreme Court Gardens” sound foreign (“Strolling in the Supreme Court Gardens”). Are poems products of tensions? Or do they rather stream (or step) from a poet in inconsistent variations of bicultural glory? Two qualities that colour Mateer’s poems are the formal and the melodramatic. In this sense the poems are like serious photography: Mateer has a very steady hand. Any extant discomfort is in the viewer-reader.

And yet the poems have a definite 3-D quality also, like a photo being shaken perhaps, or a slowed down accident: where nothing bad has happened necessarily, we’re just checking. I shouldn’t generalise: an early poem like “Outside the Nightclub” has a particular curling around itself that reads a bit like Mateer is asking what enjambment’s all about, doing it and then moving on. (“The sandstone architecture sailed / upward. She asked: “Where?” My / fingers clambered between hers.”)

What makes a Mateer poem? It seems standard enough in some ways: a narrator is somewhere, describing something; something is happening, someone says something banal or striking. The poems are distinct through their attention and their democracy. What happens at the beginning of the poem is as important as what happens at the end — and the end is a happening, not an anticlimax. Mateer’s is an ethical narrator: there to think and question, not to go around having sentimental experiences at Mateer’s expense. If there is awkwardness at times, it is the awkwardness of honesty. The (unawkward) poem of defeated compassion, “Exile,” ends, “And I thought of comparable tortures, / those I’d read of and my friends in / other countries that I can’t imagine. / And I said nothing. I thought: ___.” Another, thematically — albeit subtly — related, is of a dream of being a black cockatoo; its conclusion is: “I / was uneasily considering if I had the right perch” (“Last Night”).

Mateer is fearless in his use of metaphor and simile — like these from a series of poems dealing with bushfire: “I approach a tree, / trying to tell its type from reptilian / evenly scaled charcoal skin: / apartheid?” (“Aftermath”); “Then bushfire // reduced the plantation to ash. After thirty years, like a nation after decades of martial law, bodies unclenching, eyes opening, native seeds are sprouting” (“At Gnangara”); “When the living fire comes, the flames advancing in a straggly line, / like Emergency Services people searching for a lost child.”

The West contains some ambitiously short poems. “On History” is just nine short lines. Even shorter poems make up sequences, or are stanzas or fragments dispersed over a number of pages. While at times Mateer achieves simplicity, the poems are mostly complex — in their composition, their implication (such as the apparently throwaway conclusion of “To Jack Davis”: “You have your own culture. Go back to the Greeks”) — even, occasionally, in syntax: “on the freeway void / and infertile as the European idea / of desert” (“In Real Time”). Mateer’s is at times a bitter sympathy.

Mateer grew up in South Africa under apartheid, a place more difficult than Australia to ignore the privileges of being white. He is unusual in acknowledging whiteness (“between the demolished white man’s school / and the whispering grove of London plane trees,” “The Brewery Site”), and also unusual in his direct address of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and in his use of (West Australian in particular) Indigenous material. Three great long poems all justify purchasing The West: “The Brewery Site” (a poem of mourning), and two sequences on Yagan, the Aboriginal General: “Talking with Yagan’s Head” and “In the Presence.” As Martin Harrison, in The West’s introduction says, “Much Australian poetry flees from this sort of history.”

Creatures (including humans), things, realities tend to have equal weight in these poems — an equal call on existence; mountains breathe, digging-sticks are “hungry.” This might be the influence of Indigenous philosophy, or maybe it’s just what happens when Mateer writes the world-as-poem, the poem-as-world. There is much more in The West: poems of Melbourne, of sex, of a statesman (white) cockatoo; an ironic “Nocturne.” It’s a book that requires far more consideration than a review can give, and while those considerations may not be in the newspapers where should be, they will happen.

Mateer isn’t pretentious enough to have a “collected” at thirty-nine. Or perhaps he knows it would do his work a disservice to be read in bulk. The West is an attractive volume, pocket-sized for anyone tough or sensitive enough to carry it around. Take The West with Elsewhere and you’ll see, that for range, care and courage, Mateer is as good a poet as we have. Whether we have the care and courage enough to hold onto him is another matter.

Method for facing a chaotic and threatening world

A review of Chad Sweeney's 'Parable of Hide and Seek'

Parable of Hide and Seek

Parable of Hide and Seek

Chad Sweeney

Alice James Books 2010, 88 pages, $15.95, ISBN 188229582X

In Parable of Hide and Seek, Chad Sweeney offers highly allusive and sonically textured lyrics that bring the reader to the edge of darkness, but always with a wink, the sense of menace tempered by the taut music of the pun. “Diurne,” the book’s first poem, gives us clues to the ways Sweeney’s rigorous imagination works. Here, he conflates time and frequency, subverts the ordinary much as Chagall subverts the laws of gravity: “I listen to my heartbeat / on the radio, 89.6 A.M.” Whimsical distortions continue as the speaker tells us he hears his heartbeat as “a prolapse then a whimper.” With a bow to Eliot’s “This is the way the world ends / “Not with a bang but a whimper,” Sweeney warns us — whimsy is deceptive. The day (“Diurne”) is dark. “It’s fear and something else — / black milk,” and we can’t help but taste “Black Milk of morning,” the visceral refrain of Paul Celan’s Holocaust masterpiece, “Death Fugue.” What follows, “static from a sermon, initially seems a pun, but becomes charged when the reader questions whether “static” implies irritating noise, or lack of progress. Here, as in many of the poems in this collection, Sweeney plays hide and seek with clues as opaque as Malevich’s painting, “Black Square,” the poet’s method made clear in “Captain’s Log”: “The only art / is the opaque art / of surfaces.” In the final tercet of “Diurne,” the reader is pulled back to the initial image:

 … a feeling of dread.
In the memory of that day
I can’t keep the wind in its box. 

Sweeney’s speaker must release that mouthful of air to convey his concerns.

“Diurne” serves as an entry into Sweeney’s large themes: What are the possibilities for a self, a society, a world? What does history tell us about restriction, oppression, annihilation? Life is fragile — “the ribs of the tiger are rippling” (“The Piano Teacher”). 

In “The Factory” workers build cages with careful preparation: “Each cage has a unique serial number.” As Sweeney explores restriction, the kinds of imprisonment humans have imposed on self and others, surreal details accrue:

We refrigerate each cage for one month.
We bury it in lime.
We sleep three nights inside each cage.
We hang it from the eaves.

Work numbs where only “once an hour the sun was caught inside our cage. / I swear it, the colors changed, / wind paused for the outcome.” While sun signals freedom, the freedom is transitory. The speaker reminds us that numbing happens so slowly, we’re unaware it’s happening: “It takes one year to grow a cage … / Long enough to teach a child / to weave a clothing from the keys,” something to protect the child from cages he or she will endure — perhaps in school (Paul Goodman’s notion of miseducation) or at work (the shuffling Chaplin in Modern Times, a hapless cog in the machine). The speaker suggests keys to unlock the cages:

One key is a rib.
One key is a cypress.
One key is a hammer.
One key is a sound.

Here again, we puzzle over Sweeney’s koans: Does rib as key refer to Eve, to a rib used to support a structure, or to the rib a potter uses to shape and smooth a vessel? And surely it’s the rib in our own rib cage, and the rib/the joke’s on us. We soon discover the speaker’s playful tone’s a ruse: “We line up the keys and paint them with water.” But water will quickly evaporate. The paint is ephemeral. The cages have no protective coating. Not so easy to change things. The speaker continues: “We export our cages everywhere. / Packed in sawdust. Packed in wool.” Ah yes — the rest of the world can fashion itself after us, but our influence, packed in soft stuff, will be insidious. These cages recall the cages sculpted by the late Louise Bourgeois, cages she named cells. Uncanny how both poet and sculptor lock us out while at the same time drawing us in. We can’t help but wonder who will occupy these cages. Finally, the speaker “inspects the locks,” says, “One cage is a method. / One cage is a story.” These lines surprise, reverse the mood. Irony plays against order. A method, though it may cage, can serve for making art, for structuring a life. A story can be a key to knowing, to being in the world beyond the cage.

Joy and delight dominate “Embark” and “Little Wet Monster.” In “Embark,” we hear endearment as the speaker addresses a beloved in lines that kindle images of pregnancy and parenthood: “Sit here little mumsy, a red pillow / for your bunion.” But “Mosquitoes climb the delicate. / Thus in a back alley / archaeologists maneuver a pirogue.” Mosquitoes bite; the pirogue (open boat) is stuck, not fit for a journey. Risk is everywhere, but the speaker is lucky; he faces risk with a beloved: “Help me, sweet bread, / mountains unravel by the hour. / This isn’t what we came for.” Ah “sweet bread” — sustenance in a soul mate and beyond — the speaker seeks sweet, not bitter, and sings so with assonance: unravel / hour / for.

 Befitting the title, opposites, overt or implied, appear frequently in Parable of Hide and Seek. Gratitude opposes despair in Sweeney’s rollicking loose ghazal, “Little Wet Monster,” a celebration of impending fatherhood. We hear the speaker implore his unborn child:

The cornfield winds its halo darkly
Come home my little wet monster

Time in the copper mine, time in the copper
Come darkling soon, come woe my monster

Distance shines in the ice like a flower
Come early little bornling

Images startle, convey foreboding. Birth is a trial; woes will pile up. Yet the speaker’s voice is gentle; the child is wanted, already loved: “Come whole my homeward early” intones the speaker. “You devour the night’s holy sound / Come home my little wet monster.”

Throughout this collection, we find disparate images yoked together, lines that tug in opposite directions, yet images and patterns recur, reveal the poet’s preoccupations. Most salient perhaps is his focus on language as method for facing a chaotic and threatening world. Sweeney’s speakers tell us “I rent / this language / to stay dry in” (“Holy Holy”); ask: “What is the method for hatching an act of speech” (“A Love Song”), the method for when “we’ve nowhere to go // and the oblique syntax of bones / repeats its inquiry / in the language of the world” (“The Sentence”). Ultimately, what Chad Sweeney shares with mischief, thoughtfulness, and generosity, is infectious joie de vivre to help us survive as self, nation, and planet.

Leaving language

A review of Maureen Thorson's 'Applies to Oranges'

Applies to Oranges

Applies to Oranges

Maureen Thorson

Ugly Duckling Presse 2011, 59 pages, $13, ISBN 933254852

The experience of loss most often presents itself in the form of sensitivities: not just to the vacant space formerly taken up by the missing object — a beloved, an earlier way of life, a prized possession — but also to the environment we see on a daily basis. Almost immediately, the sense of deprivation starts to seek a new wholeness. The mind of the mourner looks around, attaching new weight and firmness to the previously inconsequential. In this sense, the rhetoric of the elegy is one of filling a void — looking for pattern, discovering surprising beauty in the trivial, and, most often, leaning on the power of utterance. We make speech and look for the patterning of language as a way of seeking a new totem, a new love that can replace what’s missing.

               You took off
with the oranges and spiders,
the endings and the plot, and left me
with the Zenith’s chrome housing,
the cruise ships in their moorings.
The tender tourists with their trinkets
and tight-fisted maps. The orphans
and beachheads, so lovelorn and solemn.
The satellites’ red signals. The hotel’s
common gestures. Once you were gone,
there were only these few things left.            (1)

Maureen Thorson’s first book, Applies to Oranges, functions as a project of elegy: a lyric sequence that tracks the speaker through a period of grief into a new semblance of wholeness. Located on a nameless tropical island, the poems inventory “these few things left” as the speaker moves through solitude and grapples with loss. At times the language is restrained, grafting the speaker’s interior state onto the environment that surrounds her: “Three months on, the stumps / remember being trees, waving in the wind” (14). Elsewhere, the sentiments of grief are directly owned: “I gather / your fallen phrases and soak in them / until my skin is wet with promises / that only one of us believed” (33).

Yet, as its title suggests, Applies to Oranges also maintains a consistent self-consciousness of the processes of language and of representation. The voice in these poems allows for the sentimental through the familiar rhetoric of loss: things used to be this way, and now they have changed. All the while, though, Thorson animates the poems with the awareness (and suspicion) of the linguistic mechanisms of mourning, like a grieving lover who can say, “I know everyone says this when they’ve lost someone, but …”

The object in Thorson’s title is the primary device for acknowledging the always-familiar in the language of loss. The word “orange” appears in nearly every one of the fifty-nine lyrics in the book. As a result, the elegiac process is thoroughly conscious of its own fruit: something is growing into fullness here, as the speaker gradually gains emotional strength after the beloved’s departure.

But still, a tension suffuses. The orange becomes a peculiar floating ghost throughout the book. It has considerable totemic value, but it is also estranged from its meaning. The very fact that the reader quickly learns to expect oranges on each page erodes the signification of the word. Orange. And consequently, this repetition becomes a value in itself: as when we seek comfort in loss, the words mean little, but saying them, over and over, is crucial.

Thorson’s grace with rhetorical strategies is immediately visible in her title. The phrase “apples to oranges” suggests the need to compare things, but also the inherent failure of doing so — the objects are not equivalent, so likening them is false. And the applying of “orange” to each of these poems performs a drama of repetition, intending to grapple with loss through the word’s very superabundance.

The arc of Thorson’s book runs its course from sadness to a new fulfillment, in keeping with the elegiac tradition. The act of consolation seems to have worked. But more alarming is the new absence that replaces it. By performing such an elaborate study of repetition, Thorson draws attention to another loss, as language risks the bleeding away of sense. In the end, these poems may elegize the words themselves, as they fall away from meaning.

At first, heartbreak made me beautiful.
My skin fluoresced. I hypnotized trees.
The orphans followed me around town,
drunk on my pain. I ate only my own
hunger, gave off a scent like bitter oranges
or chlorine. Loss left me strangely whole,
as if my sadness, were it strong enough,
could turn your ship around. That was back
when I aged. Now, like an astronomer
who seeks no first causes, but only to map
the connections pinned out over the sea,
I want to diagram the light that shines out
through the holes you pricked into me. (6)

The process of reading Applies to Oranges, at least at first, is a peculiar form of self-awareness. As soon as the patterning of “orange” on every page becomes evident, the reader’s focus begins to waiver: it is harder to pay attention to the content of the individual poem when you need to keep your eye on the single word that moves and flits around, that hides itself in the tall grass of the lyric. Like a callow reader who peeks at the end of the book prematurely to know what happens, one can’t help, upon turning to each new poem, first looking for where “orange” will show up. The reader becomes that edgy, partial person who mourns and awaits the return of the single, critical element to the island of each page.

For that expectant reader/lover, nothing else seems to matter. Thorson’s lyrics cleverly endanger themselves: for awhile, the reader can’t give full attention to any of the other rich substances in the poems — not the “horse opera” played on the Zenith television, not the orphans selling snow globes of “the whole island made in miniature,” not even the table “where / a hardbacked Sonnets from the Portuguese / stands idly tented in its orange binding” (37, 27, 19).

But gradually, the reader’s attention returns to the substance of the poem, to the actual world growing full on the page. One comes to notice the precious word as it recurs, without being arrested by it. Still, though, through repetition, “orange” can never again be a proper sign. Its recurrence makes an absence: the reader becomes too conscious of its artificiality, too aware that it arrives here, on the page, against its will. Orange — as fruit, as color — is no longer active in the poem; not in itself, at least. It becomes a shadow of its meaning, a shell — or peel, perhaps — the albedo of its former light.

The more time Thorson spends on the word, the more one wonders whether it is out of love, or out of hate. What can we do with this word any more? How can we use it again? But there may be a reason here, too. There is a freedom that comes when the sign breaks down from overuse. This, in a way, may be a stratagem for untangling oneself from the attachment to a lover: as if saying the name until it’s robbed of meaning might rescue one from love.

In his work on the elegy, Peter Sacks has suggested that one of the primary functions of repetition in the poetry of loss is as anáklisis, or “leaning-upon.” Thus, the bereaved finds a new thing to attach to, in lieu of the lost love-object, as “a form of verbal ‘propping.’”[1] While typically in elegy this work is performed by repeating the name of the beloved, Thorson circumvents this act of consolation, and moves straight into repeating the name of the stand-in. “Orange” is, in a sense, the name of the lost love, but it is also an absence. The word is used with full knowledge that it marks the spot that can’t be filled on the page, giving name to the unnamable. The speaker in Applies to Oranges simultaneously repeats herself in order to recover from the loss of the beloved, and repeats something other, as a way of getting out from under the weight of the beloved’s name.

This strategy is highly successful in terms of the character’s arc in the book. The early lyrics are etched with a sense of emotional deprivation: either in “a memory that won’t fade away” or in dreams of revenge: “I am reading up on horticulture and boats. / I am making a plan of attack” (14, 20). After the mention of “forgiveness” in the exact middle of the series, the speaker’s process of healing becomes more evident, admitting to “what I said or failed to say,” and finally acceding to “the demand that I get up and go” (39, 48).

But at the same time that the voice in the poems seems to recover, another element drains away. The elegiac use of repetition saves the speaker, but perhaps at the cost of the words themselves. This demise is inevitable: when we say a word too many times, its meaning blurs and breaks, even if its musicality heightens. We lose the sense for what we say in saying it over and over. And, while that loss might be a welcome one to the mourning lover, who needs to shed a certain skin, it carries with it a flouncing of language’s ability to mean.

Thorson is deftly aware of this bait-and-switch. In one poem she refers to her “handbook on the mechanics of gloom,” providing rules and methods for herself: “it shows exactly / how to ratchet up the melancholy / by accumulating neutral symbols” (29). But how long can symbols remain neutral, before their repetition bleeds them empty?

               We’ve found cracked gray pictures
gummed in albums, and stripped
them slowly, fed them to a fire
of blue-then-orange flames. We’ve
all hid our feelings in the greenery
and when the greenery whistled,
we set our phasers to terminate,
and — no quarter asked, none given —
made sure no words escaped. (34)

Elsewhere, when not destroying the words, she sends their meaning packing, shipping it off into the ether, much as the beloved has abandoned the speaker:

                           I resolve to exploit
these mnemonic boxes, their tapes
and reels and electric sparks, to transfer you
from one tune to another, spinning
like an orange into the cosmos,
lonely locus for twisting in the wind,
for recalling all the anger I can sing.            (47)

The strategy is a sound one, but it means death to certain faculties of language. Thorson’s poems move from observing the absence that she describes through language to acknowledge instead the absence within language itself. The sense of loss within the self is transferred to the medium of speech, and the loss now must be carried by language, with a hole where the meaning of orange used to be.

This is a masterful alchemy, albeit a frightening one. While Thorson plays with and gives in to the conventions and the succoring powers of the elegy, she also laces the form with its own destruction. What happens, then, if in order to shrug off the weight of one’s own loss, one must transfer that absence into language? What if the means by which we heal ourselves is to make a hole in meaning? Thorson’s sequence posits a chilling idea: that perhaps our own capacity to communicate — to love, to make poetry — is constantly being harmed by the losses we endure. In the end, the remainders in the poem are oddly ambivalent: “the things that fail are the only things that stay” (59).

 


 

1. Peter Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 25–26.

The light of happenstance

A review of Colleen Lookingbill's 'a forgetting of'

a forgetting of

a forgetting of

Colleen Lookingbill

lyric& Press 2011, 64 pages, $12, ISBN 978-1-889098

In the first of five poems that share the book’s title, Colleen Lookingbill’s “a forgetting of” introduces the book’s alertness to the body as place and planet. Both domestic and cosmic, intimate as impulse and DNA but open as a portico, identity forms according to the unpredictable terms of mortality:

radiant once
our spiral lineaments
impulse here a portico
she who opens
safekeeping or because traces unfold (7)

Each of us is a “radiant once” whose illuminations burn against the clock, our brightness fed by the concentration and release of experience, knowledge, biology, and memory. This spare lyric suggests we tend to realize our radiance after its passing, the way a star becomes visible on earth years after its light dims.

The poem further implies, however, that to see ourselves as “radiant once” is less the consequence of nostalgia for youth than the reward of maturity and its keen vision. Here and in many ways, Lookingbill limns the celestial and the terrestrial to twist and expand Wordsworth’s proposal in “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” which states famously “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” Lookingbill’s poetics sees more than just hints of immortality, but its primary concern is with the sublunary world of everyday things and actions — what we have to forget, all that slips our minds. “water bearer” begins with a witty invocation of the universal ordinary, the bland blindsidings of housework and family:

eternal familiar
river of rhythms
without sadness
more food and stories
wood against wood
bundled between us

all at once
everyone is up
ordinary domestic appliance
like a bell or
fresh coat of paint (11)

The expansion and contraction of attention under the pressure of daily expectations, like keeping house or leaving the house to interact with other people and scenes in the course of our errands, leads to creative immanence, a relatively peaceful way of living “clear enough / to go on looking” that will “save us from / a real fight” (11). Choosing our domestic battles — as well as picking fights — protects against real damage, irreversible conflicts — and prevents flight from our precious annoyances, the household noise that distracts from writing, which, like food and stories, is as necessary as water.

The book’s creation testifies to the mixture of drive and rerouting, purpose and accident the lyrics articulate so beautifully and varyingly. In an interview with Kate Greenstreet, Lookingbill explains she tried to publish the manuscript that later became “a forgetting of” in the 1990s, not long after she published her first book. Many years later, she brought the poems out again and into a writing group. There, she got the idea to include visual art, which created new contexts for the poetry and inspired further revisions. The production of the color illustrations nicely parallels some of the book’s meditations on time. Lookingbill explains the pictures combine “scanned assemblages” of photographs and layers of “visual ephemera that [she’s] collected” in a process she describes as “relatively low tech,” made with “the image program that came with [her] printer.” What strikes me about this sweetly apologetic description is the ways in which technology and circumstances contribute to art. Until very recently, color art has been prohibitively expensive to print for most poetry presses, and in the nineties, many of us were still marveling at the speed of our inkjet printers — a color printer capable of producing layered collage work was beyond imagination.

Yet the poetry seems unimaginable without them — they are not merely add-ons or supplements to the stripped verse. The collages keep in view what the printed page conceals: the palimpsestic nature of words and of identity. These interacting mediums further changed the poet’s view of a long prose poem that had been part of the original collection so that she welcomed a friend’s suggestion to break up the poem, which appears in urgent italics, interleaved among art and lyrics. Together, these mediums, each carrying multiple contacts with genre, consider the body’s experiences and the ways in which those experiences create and elude consciousness, periodically shuffling to make a self of consciousness.

These works recognize the body as a changing but specific biological materiality that matures and ages in patterns very different from the linear rise and fall accompanying evolution and history, like those chronologies we’re given in textbooks to help us imagine the progression of literature or the important years in an author’s life. In “near the coast looking out,” who we are and how we become resemble “handfuls of spindrift / unwilling in every direction,” part of a process “too rapid for intervention” (10). This process includes the random quality of attraction, impulse, and memory. Throughout, the poems track the attendant consciousness of one’s body as it recognizes and responds to the condition of living as a visible object in a land of scopophiliacs, a body marked by sensory and linguistic contacts, the looks and remarks offered about one’s appearance and its meaning.

In “glimpsing venus,” Lookingbill remarks with good-natured wit on the always-already over-read occupation of gender — of being a woman writing in a time of writing the body: “writing female subjectivity introduces a shift in the allegorical as / our body approaches void and tension” (14). Here, Lookingbill laughs at the critical discourses that read women’s writing as only either a subversion or a reiteration of traditional representations of “female subjectivity” we glimpse in the mythical (and planetary) Venus. These interpretive frames encase the body in theoretical, cerebral territory — “subjectivity” is a far less vulnerable state than being a person, especially an American woman. Such forms of intellectual armor may only jostle the gender scripts of western civilization, but they can also provide real sanctuary for the woman writing — or, really, any woman wedged into the impossibly tiny space for social approval allotted mature women, who must find ways to wrinkle “without / seeming eccentric or deficient” (15).

In “she is laughing,” the sense of meta-selfhood pronounced in critical theory gives the speaker command of her own narratives:

our heroine crowded among cupboards
and an old paint box, waiting house of poetry 

better to say we are alive, completely invented
while etymology wanders among
more suitable artifacts (35)

These moments don’t dismiss feminist hermeneutics or literature, only note what they’re up against: “sparks of opulence amid extreme scarcity” (14), a scarcity often disguised as the abundant fulfillment of romantic love. At the heart of romantic ideals lies the pleasure (and fear) of looking at a beautiful person and being seen as beautiful. The literal and figurative ways we are seen keep us all caught in the web that caught Venus and Mars — the net of Hephaestus — as well as the web holding the romantic and intellectual promises of the internet, those often championed for offering a disembodied (and therefore safer and more neutral) identity.

What makes the book tick, though, is that it doesn’t settle on one theory of beauty or selfhood or the body or mortality. The assemblage of forms, voices, and images allows a panoramic consideration of identity, of selfhood as something we inhabit and abandon and to which we return through different doors at different times and in different ways. Theoretical consistency is no more a priority than style or genre, although the book holds together well. I would never have guessed the circumstances and long history of its making. The line “impulse here a portico” from the first “a forgetting of” sets in motion the book’s multiple lines of consideration — the many wrinkles in concepts of self and experiences of life. “Impulse,” impudently,” and “impulsively” show up throughout the book’s first half to circle questions of free will and self-making. Dostoevsky’s underground man contends that whim or impulse provides the only real evidence of a self independent of biological, environmental, and even economic imperatives to survive and triumph. Our ability to sabotage ourselves on impulse, for Dostoevsky’s sad fellow, is our greatest asset. Impulse seems equally important in “a forgetting of,” but not because it can defy the self that’s programmed to survive at all costs.

For Lookingbill, impulse echoes divine consciousness that is an escape from self-consciousness, a forgetting of self. It is pure intention without object, energy overriding aim. Impulse is “she who opens” into possibility, a doorway into immortality: “I have a feeling I am responsible / happenstance is all light anyway” states “she is laughing” (35). Impulse disrupts and delights, opens and connects — it is the residue of creation and the substance of friendship, too. Friends, like poems, are the porticos in which we live and through which we enter ourselves. “where you find me,” one of my favorite poems in the collection, recounts friends’ contradicting opinions that body forth their personalities in mere phrases. The poem concludes, addressing them and the reader, “relax half of me in last year’s calendar / tethered to an offering meant only for you” (46). Readers of “a forgetting of” will feel, as I have felt, this sense of private connection, of having received a personal gift, the lingering light of happenstance.