A review of Gale Nelson’s ‘This Is What Happens When Talk Ends’
Gale Nelson’s most recent book, This Is What Happens When Talk Ends, is his first full-length book in eleven years. In earlier works such as stare decisis and ceteris paribus, both published by Burning Deck, Nelson displays acute and often humorous attention to the sound in language rather than the meaning one may derive from language. In the serial poem “Corporate Blessings,” from ceteris paribus, for instance, he writes:
great gobs of goose grease
following tie culls
sweat on the
representation of jar.
One gets the feeling reading Nelson that language is a physical thing. Read any of his poems aloud and one’s mouth will feel thick with speech.
This Is What Happens When Talk Ends is similarly invested in the texture of language. Here, the work derives some of its energy from Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet. Nelson’s book, in fact, consists of eight sets of eight poems that follow the vocalic pattern within eight different Shakespeare speeches. Regarding titles, Nelson also works a rotation of eight. In “Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc,” his informative afterword detailing his method, the author writes, “Where Shakespeare cleaved music to sense (or was it sense to music?), I have done my best to persist with each verse as problem at hand, and hope for the best.” The mathematical sounding “problem at hand” makes clear Nelson’s Oulipian lineage as does the procedure he followed while composing these poems.
Nelson’s first step in his Oulipian procedure was to strip the soliloquies of all their consonants, leaving only the vowels. In this system, the author mentions, Y does not count. Next, he “did [his] best to forget what Shakespeare had written and sought [his] own set of words to build (italics mine) from these vowel strings.” This notion of building poems illustrates further the materiality of language for Nelson. The goal, he goes on to write, “was to simply get somewhere else,” someplace other than where Shakespeare had gotten. The poems within This Is What Happens are translations, though not versions focused on sense. Instead, as Nelson suggests, the poems shed light on vocalic structure.
The second component of Nelson’s method is yet another link to Oulipo. After culling consonants from plays such as Macbeth and The Tragedy of Richard the Third, the poet wanted to avoid organizing the poems by play. Instead, he recalled George Perec’s usage of the knight’s circuit in a game of chess to shape the action in his book, Life: A User’s Manual. Where Perec mapped out his own knight’s circuit, Nelson’s eight sets of eight poems corresponded perfectly with the standard sixty-four squares of a chessboard. This correspondence enabled Nelson to rely on the earliest surviving knight’s circuit, which dates back to 840 AD and is associated with al-Adli ar-Rumi of Baghdad.
Throughout these procedural poems Nelson writes in diction that occasionally conjures past literary figures such as John Milton. In “Lycidas,” Milton turns towards closing his pastoral poem with this famously attention-shifting line: “Thus sang the uncouth Swain to th’ Okes and rills.” Nelson reformulates this line in the first rendition of his pastoral, “Sparse Fields Plowed Last,” when he writes, “thus spake / this bad-shamed boy in long, loud cadence.” In both Milton and Nelson the word “thus” insists that the preceding lines be read in a different light. Within Milton’s poem, the reader sees a distinction between the shepherd’s song of loss and the final eight lines that are spoken by another voice.
In his book, too, Nelson plays out this tension between song and speech in poems where words such as argot, jargon, and patois continually crop up. Argot and jargon refer to specialized language, such as Cockney Rhyming Slang or Esperanto. Patois, on the other hand, refers to any nonstandard language, such as pidgins and creoles. Interestingly, the French word signifies rude, incomprehensible speech. Nelson’s second rendition of “Sparse Fields Plowed Last” closes with these lines:
as egret’s shrill emboldens avis argot. Send
this bitter age in dust, send us swans,
another eagle. Ovations doom tug’s lost
exacting droplet. Is that it, or is no
gem sparkling? Egret’s eggs!
The “Shout” here, perhaps rude, turns up the volume on notions of speech while the poet links the “egret’s shrill” with “avis argot.” The piercing sound of the egret instills courage into the avis’s specialized language. In Latin, avis is a word for bird. So, this argot would be the specialized language of birds, song. Nelson’s attunement to birdsong links his work to one of the oldest and most traditional tropes in poetry. Notably, though, this song in contrast to Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” would be shrill. In conjunction with the opening shout, this makes clear that Nelson wants readers to consider heightened instances of talk and song rather than so-called normative forms. Perhaps This Is What Happens When Talk Ends is another way of saying “song is what happens when talk ends.”
Nelson’s intention “to get somewhere else,” as mentioned above, starts in Shakespeare. But where does Nelson get to exactly? A place? A state of mind seems more apt. One that is unhindered within the constraints of what one might call traditional tradition, Milton and Keats et al. Nelson’s other companion from the outset, Oulipian technique, opens up this crowded path. In a book indebted to two literary traditions such as This Is What Happens When Talk Ends it’s clear that the poem for Nelson is a place after all, a place where the ear attunes to the textures of language.
A review of Caryl Pagel’s 'Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death'
Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death concerns itself with liminal states, the between and beyond that haunts the here and now. It is apparent from the opening lines of “Levitation,” the book’s first poem, that the very experience of having a body is going to be difficult and complex in this world of ghosts and shadows:
It is night & I am lying — my body level — low along the floor until I take a hold of me; I slowly rise Each scientist in the room reaches for his pen (breast pocket) at once (13)
The speaker’s levitation is experienced as an uncanny split in her self-awareness; an “I” takes control of a “me” to produce the mysterious motion, rising from the floor and eventually floating “out an open window & into the evening” (13). The scientists, meanwhile, behave in machine-like synchronicity, reaching for their pens in unison and drawing the standard, unanimous conclusion that everything they’ve seen “is made: string smoke mirrors” (13). So who is pulling whose strings? The speaker is eerily both present and absent, the object of the investigation and woefully unable to investigate herself: “Tell me how that is possible; I could not see it but I was there” (13).
In this poem, and throughout this collection, the body appears uncanny and alien — both to those inhabiting it and those observing it. A series of poems called “The Botched Bestiary” draws on a variety of source texts and replaces the names of specific animals with the word “body,” to intriguing effect: “The body from North America was considered . . . extinct in the 1980s but recently it has resurfaced. Little is known about the body, but what is known is very strange. It can grow up to three feet in length[,] and when handled gives off a smell like lilies. The body is believed to be able to spit in defense” (16). These archival assemblages challenge us to think in unusual ways about our own human bodies, but their cumulative effect is curiously deadening: instead of a rich and varied “bestiary,” these animals are stripped of their identities and appear as blank “bodies,” which perhaps they are. Like the levitating woman and the mechanical scientists, animals are animate without awareness — a state that suddenly appears uncomfortably close to “undead.”
In addition to bodies without names, Pagel gives us names without bodies in a poem titled “Common Plant & Animal Names (Existing & Not Existing).” This alphabetical catalogue begins this way:
Abandoned Eyelet, Absenting Fact, Absolute New Bus Stop. Alarmwireseed, Amberweed, Appalling Forgotten Flavor. Army Ant, Arson Day, Asphalt And, Awe-to-Death With Breakage. (28)
Some of these names are real (“Army Ant”), some sound real but are not (“Amberweed”), and many sound (and are) completely absurd. The poem works as an amusing, fanciful litany — but to read it is also to realize how much humans have projected themselves on the natural world, understanding it in their own terms. If there is a plant called “Forget-Me-Not,” why couldn’t Pagel’s inventions “Lie-To-Me” or “Magnificent Not” also be real? If such names are arbitrary, they are also intriguing, inviting questions about both the namer and the named.
Each of the three sections of this book begins with an epigraph about names, suggesting their centrality to Pagel’s concerns. Perhaps the most interesting is the one from Jacques Derrida, who writes that names inherently signify their own longevity beyond their bearers, “announcing a death to come” (33). All names, that is, are destined to end up on tombstones — or printed neatly beneath a specimen in a naturalist’s collection. In one poem called “Herbarium,” which Pagel explains was written with Emily Dickinson’s girlhood gardening album in mind, the identities of the namer and the named are perilously intertwined. In this section, the specimen seems to speak on its own behalf:
CORRECTION OF IDENTIFICATION:
I is stem with no leaves I
is body with
no mind I blooms in sight of pressed stem still
yet blooming When first did I
body that pressed this body I mean when
first did I inhibit it
Mis-named have I (40)
The pairing of the first-person pronoun with third-person verbs (“I is,” “I blooms”) suggests an object struggling to understand itself as a subject. Like all specimens in an herbarium, it is suspended in a two-dimensional imitation of life, its fleeting bloom fixed for eternity in “living” color. The shift from “inhabit” to “inhibit” shows how serious misnaming can be: one letter makes the difference between the presser and the pressed. Pagel’s investigations of names, bodies, and classification systems reveals them as a complex series of containers “inhabited” by the elusive spark of life, constraining it while also being its condition of possibility.
One reviewer has read Pagel’s frequent use of gaps and caesuras in this book as similar to “a moth-eaten journal or ancient scroll,” inviting the reader “to wonder what may fill the space.” But I don’t see anything missing in these spaces; syntax, ideas, and even words flow smoothly across them. Here are the final lines of a poem called “Occult Studies”:
one more soul could crack the surface (No) Why not collect your own throat in order to
answer yourself later from beyond We are a scientist We say: “you are not
your body you inhabit it” No name can contain this in- visible protest (65)
I read these gaps instead as the thresholds with which the book is so obsessed: the chasm between life and death that is so profound and yet so narrow that Pagel can write “I held his hand / I did not / know when it was over” (53), and the chasm between subject and object that collapses in a construction such as “I blooms.” Particularly in the several poems that are both right- and left-justified like this one, Pagel seems to have created separate spatial regions where words can interact with one another along a different axis, in new combinations, as though in another world alongside the “real” one. From start to finish this book howls, rattles, and whispers like a ghost trapped in the walls, reminding us that a different, stranger world may be closer to hand than we realize.
A review of William Corbett’s ‘Elegies for Michael Gizzi’
Late in September 2010 Michael Gizzi passed away. This shocked all who knew him. He was young, only sixty-one. During the course of his life he lived mostly in New England, and was in the lineage of other great New Englanders such as Frank O’Hara and John Wieners. If you listen to Gizzi’s readings on PennSound you will hear how fine an ear he had, an ear that descended directly from Jack Kerouac’s own demotic taste. Amongst his contemporaries Gizzi found himself with Clark Coolidge, William Corbett, Bernadette Mayer, and Craig Watson. During the 1980s through the 1990s Gizzi lived in Western Massachusetts where he ran a series in the barn behind Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s house in Pittsfield. Notably, James Schuyler gave one of the few readings in his life in this barn. As Corbett puts it in his new book, Elegies for Michael Gizzi, a brief and beautiful book of poems with drawings by Natalia Afentoulidou, “[Michael] was one of those generous souls who served poets and poetry.” When I met Gizzi in the early 2000s he was back in Rhode Island and running yet another series in Providence with Michael Magee. During a memorial reading organized for Robert Creeley in 2005, Gizzi mentioned that Creeley always wanted to be where the action was. The same was true for Michael.
William Corbett, like Gizzi, is a New Englander in the New York School lineage, a point he touches on frequently throughout Elegies. The first poem, “Answer,” opens with a question that O’Hara poses in “A Step Away from Them,” “But is the / Earth as full as life was full, of them?” Following those lines Corbett thinks through the question, parsing it out:
These lines get to me, always have.
We stumble over what in death
Is uneven — “as life was full”
For my friend, the handsome tree surgeon
Michael, poet of soul-ache and slapstick
Played poker-faced, who saw double
And minded two voices that didn’t rhyme.
In the stutter of the dash after “Is uneven” and line break that follows “as life was full” is a burst of emotion that brings Corbett to the conclusion that “You can answer O’Hara’s question, / Yes, fuller. The depths we enter / Have room for everyone.” “Answer” sets up wonderfully what’s to come in the interplay between Corbett’s poems and Afentoulidou’s visual art.
A native of Greece, Afentoulidou has illustrated Greek editions of Leo Tolstoy’s Three Hermits and The Power of Darkness as well as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth. Her work in Elegies, lovingly reproduced by Kat Ran Press, consists of abstract curves of bright color mixed with white and black suggesting amoebic sea life. These drawings are also astounding in their gentle playfulness, feeling as if they’re still under water. The drawing after “Dubrovnik and Split,” for instance, looks in part like a tongue sticking out. This dovetails nicely with Corbett’s humor in the poem:
I’ll be Alan Hale
To your Errol Flynn
Pineapple to your ham
Bonkers to your apeshit
Though this is a book of elegies Corbett’s and Afentoulidou’s willingness to be funny makes sense, because Gizzi’s poems, even at their most melancholy, were always out to have some fun. Since there are only sixteen poems in Elegies Afentoulidou’s work encourages the reader to slow down. Her images become objects of reflection and meditation between Corbett’s poems. This is exactly what’s needed. It’s as if these drawings help the reader, whether you knew Gizzi or not, parse through the emotions of death. And the emotions of death are really questions.
In his book, Corbett never asks the trite “Where are you now?” Instead, Corbett focuses on the concreteness of living in the untitled poem that begins “What was the last food tasted, / The last music heard, / Last line read, last line written?” In other words, it’s not where the deceased has gone after life that holds concern so much as what he did during life that matters to Corbett. In this regard, Corbett draws attention to Gizzi’s service in the name of poets and poetry in the last couple of pages of Elegies. It’s this aspect of Gizzi’s “life and work that needs amplification,” according to Corbett, “because it will, as part of what made the world go round, be lost or obscured in a footnote.”
In these final pages Corbett, who in addition to being a poet is also the author of the memoirs Philip Guston’s Late Work and Furthering My Education, shares some wonderful anecdotes from his friendship with Gizzi, all of them focused on the various reading series that Michael had organized over the years. One of the first was at Embree’s Restaurant in Western Massachusetts, Corbett tells us. “Poets,” in this series, “received $100, drinks and a good meal for entertaining a room full of people with an ear for poetry, many of them friends.” What Corbett mentions next might tell us more about his own taste in locations than Gizzi’s, but it’s scene-setting nonetheless. As the author puts it, this series at Embree’s wasn’t held in a “grim basement once frequented by Trotskyites or John Birchers. [Or an] art gallery with floor to ceiling mind-numbing art.” Corbett goes on to mention the real advantage of this series when he writes, “The reading over, we did not have to look for a Chinese restaurant no one had ever been to that might be empty enough to accommodate us.” Because they were already comfortable in a welcoming place they could sit around to drink and talk. Corbett’s description of the Embree’s series is telling, because it demonstrates what he sees as one of Gizzi’s most valuable contributions to poetry. For Corbett, Gizzi “was a natural scene-maker unintimidated by the size of the crowd or the out-of-the-way-ness of the scene.” Gizzi, like Creeley, wanted to be where the action was, even if that meant creating the atmosphere necessary for it. Thanks to Corbett’s skills as a poet and memoirist this aspect of Michael’s life will not obscured in a footnote.
What’s also notable here is that Corbett draws attention to the fact that poets like Gizzi are rare, closing with this thought: “Now he is gone and someone will replace him. But not, I’m guessing, right away. Michael’s kind comes along infrequently, does what they do outside of any system and leaves the memory of all that.” While poets with Gizzi’s dedication certainly are uncommon this is only part of what’s important here. Read through any of Corbett’s work, whether it’s his poems, art writing, or memoirs, and the reader will find the author continually placing value on what’s done “outside of any system.” For Corbett, as for any poet perhaps, the value of any undertaking ought to be determined by one’s own need to do it, not whether the project will bring you any prestige. Because of the author’s own willingness to disregard the system, whatever it may be, and focus on his memories of Gizzi, Corbett and Afentoulidou’s book is a testament to one of the most prestigious gifts of all: friendship.
Miranda Mellis’s survivable devastation
Mellis’s newest work in print, The Spokes, takes us on a fantastical journey into the unpredictable afterworld in search of a deceased parent, Silver, whose absence has left a pervasive sense of self-questing perplexity and a fierce thirst for history in her surviving daughter, Lucia. While Lucia’s journey of attempted recuperation provides the primary “plot” device of the story, like in all seriously delicious writing, there is on the one hand what “happens” and, on the other hand, all those indefinable, indismissable sensations that these “happenings” further evoke or induce. I refer here to those sallying waves of prescient feeling whose linguistic footprints and circumference are far more extensive, amorphous, and difficult to map. And which produce in turn all those uncapped psychosomatic landscapes that leave us hanging precariously in the balance while also providing us with necessary ballast against the precipitous drop-offs of everyday life. As Vladimir Nabokov has described it in his “Lecture on Metamorphosis”:
We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss.
“To vibrate in answer” strikes me as a fine way to sum up the energetic aura of residual desires, questions, and nervous responses (meaning occurring in one’s very nerves!) that continue to hover in the reader’s body long after her encounter with The Spokes has come to a close.
In Mellis’s work, such bits and their variously patterned fittings (as Nabokov would call them) kite to the surface of the page not as events, but rather as fountains of inventive attention given to language itself as a form of experience and action. Responding to a section in Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin which describes “a tablecloth as white as a layer of newly fallen snow, upon which the place-settings rise symmetrically, crowned with blond rolls,” the painter Paul Cezanne attempts to convey the strong forces of desire that Balzac’s words produced in him. “All through youth,” Cezanne writes, “I wanted to paint that, that tablecloth of new snow … Now I know that one must will only to paint the place-settings rising symmetrically and the blond rolls. If I paint ‘crowned’ I've had it, you understand? But if I really balance and shade my place-settings and rolls as they are in nature, then you can be sure the crowns, the snow, and all the excitement will be there too.”
And miraculously, as Cezanne endeavors it, so it is; the excitement is there, and it is elsewhere also. Just as when I am reading Mellis’s writing, I’m repeatedly struck by how acutely aware of and assiduous she is in her efforts to tackle a parallel set of aesthetic dilemmas that present themselves within her own chosen medium. I find myself swept up and wired into a state of lively surprise in response to the unique ways in which her dreamiest scenes are constantly anchored by an entourage of concrete bureaucratic banalities, while the mazes of concrete bureaucratic banalities that her characters encounter are electrically charged by the ceaseless intrusion of magical absurdities. I find that I often can’t locate the pulse of such episodes with my finger alone, because the whole horizon is pulsing. “I mean,” says Lucia at one point in The Spokes, “I couldn’t locate the mind, but I could echolocate it.” Similarly, although Lucia can’t ameliorate the circumstances in which she finds herself, she can coradiate in concert with them. And, as a reader, one quickly gets the sense that echolocation and coradiation may indeed be among the best and most prophetic procedures available to us; the text suggesting, if only indirectly, that we might learn infinitely more this way, that we might be buoyed upward by this limitation rather than thwarted by it.
The fantastical light of the highly materialist afterlife
It must be added however that, while remarkable, the gift of echolocation doesn’t necessarily always serve as a viable alternative or equivalent to the act of speech. And unfortunately, the lack of adequate language with which to articulate their state of affairs can sometimes make it nearly impossible for Mellis’s characters to understand the conditions that they are facing, let alone to transform them. As Lucia so aptly puts it, “those things that we can talk about are subjects subject to change: They change under discussion.” Lucia’s observation draws an important distinction between the richly evocative progressions of dialogue versus the more rote practices of mere dictation: the dialectic versus the autocratic. And yet, ultimately, following Silver’s disappearance from the lives of Lucia and her siblings, it is neither the presence of static reportage nor of discursive banter that leaves the family feeling so discombobulated and full of doubt. Rather, it is the reverberating silence, an occurrence that presents them with neither commands nor oral channels for negotiation.
Lucia in particular finds herself most singularly upset not because of having been haunted by Silver since her passing, but instead because of having been left entirely alone by her — without so much as a single Ouija board call out, a midnight door knock, or a non-climate-driven change in living room temperature. Mellis’s story emerges from this site of Lucia’s profound loneliness and the related dilemmas of self-definition and identity that this provokes. The narrative asks us to consider again and again: what are the kinds of recognition that we want from others and to what ends? What are the kinds of recognition that we tend to extend in kind? In this text, these questions thankfully never seem to get reduced to strictly philosophical and/or metaphysical inquiries, all the more since the afterworld that we enter, as we walk alongside Lucia on the sidewalk, contains subway stops, jello glops, and copious quantities of customs officials.
From within Mellis’s otherworldly environment of misplaced ferry schedules and peculiar bouts of jet lag, trying to draw a clear distinction between one’s self and one’s habitat is no easy task. Much like our own contemporary world, Mellis’s otherwise unfamiliar and invented landscapes are populated by odd combinations of: alienated functionaries who (wo)man the phones and read the mail; pervasive regulatory orders accompanied by impenetrable, but highly enforced, timetables; occasional heart-warming displays of unity on the front of lukewarm customer service; and a permanent hum of acoustic bustling caused by the “amnesiac hustle” of empty requirements for productivity. In a fashion that is unnervingly akin to our daily lived realities, there is the problem of far too much mandatory self-reporting and far too little individual self-determination, to leave aside altogether any and all prospects for collective realization of the same.
Mellis’s characters find themselves constantly caught up in the grips of those countless “quotidian wars in miniature” that surround each person, mimicking as they do the larger psychoses of militarized globalism, rapacious capitalist exploitation, the pillage of the natural world, and the imperialist necropolitics of the nation state. In The Spokes, even the afterworld can’t relieve us of the painful frictions of these conflicts; if anything, it exaggerates them. The compulsion toward meaningless efficiency and ceaseless output is not diminished by death; it is amplified by it, especially given the fact that in the aftermath of fatality even the pretext of a nominal monthly wage proffered in pitiful exchange for one’s efforts has long since been subtracted from the equation. As a result, we finally get to see these mechanics fully uncloaked, in the total visibility of their absurdity and despair. “How much simpler life would be now that I was dead,” Silver recalls wistfully predicting, “No more feeling or feeding, hunger or rage. And no more patriarchy — no more of that five-thousand-year-old boulevard of crime.” Only, unfortunately, the boulevard doesn’t terminate at the point of morbidity. Even the fatal forces of gravity and sudden surface collision offer up no secret elixirs or solvents for Silver; she finds herself still waiting for a future message that might somehow relieve her of her burdens.
It could be argued that part of the art and the gift of fiction lies in the very fact that it allows us to experience certain volatile economic and social dynamics/burdens from a temporarily less than deadly position, if only for the reason that everyone in question is already dead. Mellis herself is well aware that off the page this is not always the case. Indeed, the myriad ways in which bureaucratic inanity and the obligations of conformity fester in constant close proximity to the realities of acute harm and human damage (if not outright massacre) are everywhere evident, even when the lines of causality cannot be easily or neatly drawn. Part of the additional opportunity of fiction then, and of Mellis’s fiction in particular, is that whereas in the actual lived realms of global geopolitics, the capitalist state tends to see people’s anger and frustration and, with the accompaniment of incredible displays of entrepreneurial prowess and the powers of political cooptation, subsequently hires still other people to teach “anger management”; in Mellis’s stories, there is room for unmitigated anguish and rage to alternately bubble up outright and be touched. Such emotions appear in blissfully unremedied rawness; they are fondled even, open to exploration.
Upon being asked to name a few of her favorite artistic or intellectual allies and inspirations, Mellis refers to her love and appreciation for Alexander Kluge’s dystopic sci-fi novel, Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome: a piece which, like Mellis’s own work, constantly couples the wildly visionary with the most undecorated domestic mundanities. In many of Kluge’s passages, the fantastical and paranoid future uncannily resembles, even directly samples from, the panicked and persecutionary present. As Mellis notes: “In Alexander Kluge’s novel, if locations do not conform to maps, in order to keep maps current and accurate, locations, places are destroyed. In this way, the territory is made to conform to the map. Do not our punitive policies, such as No Child Left Behind, our textbooks, anthologies and systems of canonization, forms of cultural cartography, have something of this tendency?” From this standpoint, both Kluge and Mellis can be recognized as mobilizing their prose in the name of a powerful counter-tendency, a means to rally collective concern and resistance against this obscene devotion to abstract forms. Both authors variously rail against those orientations of obedience which we have been socially instructed must be followed at all costs; they reject the celebrated elevation of data records and statistical logs which, once produced, are then deemed more essential to the system than the very life worlds out of which they emerge. How do we get beyond that, Mellis asks. How do we respond to real environments and real lives, in real time?
Post-traumatic automatism of the living and the dead
As readers, we were unusually lucky in 2012 to be able to pursue such provocative investigations not only through The Spokes, but also via Mellis’s most recent short story collection, None of This Is Real. The titular story of None of This Is Real likewise features a young adult narrator, named only O, who endeavors to find both a means of articulation and also compensation for the struggles and solitude that so mark his life. The tale further accumulates its remarkable density of inquiry from the dozens of other humans and animals who populate its pages and who are constantly confronted with significant troubles in their basic efforts merely to get their bodies taken seriously by others, let alone their thoughts. Indeed, in almost all of Mellis’s stories the idiosyncratic and vibrant characters who fill them are full of ideas, petitions, research projects, grievances, and proposals; it is not the prospect of generating alternatives that is the main problem, so much as it is the process of figuring out where or how or to whom to deliver said objections upon their completion, provided one intends to hold onto any aspirations of future success. The prototypical epistolary outcry — “To Whom it May Concern!” — feels all too poignantly and devastatingly futile in this context. To the concerned onlooker, it can sometimes be strikingly clear that the networks and infrastructures of support that O, Lucia, Silver and others are seeking throughout these texts don’t yet actually fully exist there; they must first be built before they can be accessed. Moreover, it is evident that this construction task is destined to be a daunting one, cluttered by substantial and numerous obstacles, if also kept afloat by tender hopes.
Unable to persuade those in authority to either address their basic needs or to mend the lack of connection they feel in relation to their surroundings, Mellis’s figures find instead that the only viable option lies in learning to address, listen to, and fend for one another. This requires some painstaking work on their parts to startle each other from the diverse range of solipsistic compulsions and obsessive drone-like behaviors from which they suffer. God knows that on certain occasions it can be so hard simply to even open one’s mouth and moan, let alone to mutter and/or to hear the mutters of others. The further act of striving to make sense of and to take in earnest the content of what is muttered, thus involves yet another order of commitment altogether. Sometimes no order whatsoever — be it higher or lower, formal or obtuse, committed or lackadaisical — prevails; indeed, it is as if no enunciation that currently exists can even begin to clarify, let alone to salvage. In the case of “None of This Is Real,” such moments of relentless sucker-punching sometimes require that the narrator O, having been utterly emptied of any language of his own, simply take another’s word for it, giving himself over to and trusting the diagnoses of others in those instants when the circumstances leave him incapable of generating his own. Though as O does so, he also stores inside himself a deeply seated well of doubt. “What is told to me about the future of my body,” O asks, “can I believe it?” Is it wise to?
Be it wise or unwise, the fact remains that Mellis’s characters are frequently dependent upon others for confirmation of both the most crucial and the most superfluous details of their own lives and origins. This actuality is experienced, by each person in turn, as a concurrent source of paralyzing trauma and acute relief. “We don’t possess our selves you know,” Silver says to her daughter Lucia with adamant feeling. And as readers, we sense that at least one part of the emotionality that Silver displays in this exchange comes from her gratitude concerning the roles that natural and chance operations have played in relieving her of some of the weight of cumbersome ownership. The prospect of maintaining a “pure” proprietary relationship to personhood proves to be as false or impossible as that of encountering a “pure” laissez-faire capitalist economics or a “pure” map of seamless plate tectonics. However, the mere identification of any relationship’s basis in erroneous precepts or outright phony assumptions doesn’t, unfortunately, in and of itself negate the reality of its felt consequences. In the face of this upsetting and laborsome distance between accrued knowledge and lived experience, it’s no wonder that some people should seek out and succumb to the availability of far more repressive, but also comfortingly more definitive, arrangements. “If nothing else,” the compensatory platitude runs, “one always belonged to the state.” However, as O and his mother (who makes her living as a medical test subject) each independently discover, “for some the state weighed less than a feather, while others it crushed.”
On our own recognizance
Last summer, while seated within a peculiarly angled nook of a modular wooden barn assembled from a 1920s Sears & Roebuck home construction kit, I found myself reading in quick sequence not only Mellis’s work, but also Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849). In the course of doing so, I was particularly struck by Thoreau’s diaristic description of the events that followed his one night of confinement at the local jail upon conviction as a war tax resister. In his concise report of those post-release moments, he writes:
When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand [to visit the shoe cobbler], and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour, — for the horse was soon tackled, — was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off; and then the State was nowhere to be seen [emphasis added].
I have to admit that when I finished reading that specific paragraph, I could do little more than lean back, my face frozen in half-smile and half-sneer, and whistle a nostalgic “if goddamn only.” In today’s modern urban landscapes of surveillance cameras, ID scanners, electronic data tracking, facial recognition devices, and GPS monitoring, Thoreau’s quickly achieved removal from any and all vestiges of state oversight feels nearly akin to impossible. And such facilely accomplished escapes of this kind are not easily performed in the invented worlds of Mellis’s contemporary fiction either. Rather, the people whom we encounter in these stories tend to be a bit more uniformly “crushed” as it were and don’t necessarily have access to the options of an elsewhere-bound or horse-drawn carriage ride at the ready in order to remedy their disparagement.
In the face of these arguably fiercer and more ubiquitous displays of state force and oversight, however, the quality of said inhabitants’ resistance also tends to be fiercer, more clever, more mobile, hardier. It exhibits a deeply situated, if not always equally enactable, belligerence to the very logic of power. In the words of Emma Goldman, ““The mere fact that these forces are legalized by state statute laws, sanctified by divine rights and enforced by political power in no way justifies their continued existence.” Or, alternately, but with notable parallels, as expressed in The Spokes: “She [the passing stranger] looked up at me [Lucia], surprised, and asked, ‘How can I continue this way without knowing?’ I said, ‘Why do you think you need to continue this way?’” And so there it is, the essential question of Mellis’s texts and the enormous gift that they offer to us as readers in our encounters with them: the opportunity to foundationally ask not only “why?” but “what if not?”
Subsequently, we are left with a sense of anticipation that should our struggles and our research succeed, our victories over complicity and over mindless obedience will be substantial ones. We may find ourselves in the presence of a good bit more than a tasty berry cobbler to be thankful for; rather, we may have significantly cobbled an enormous beast that has been bearing down — with inexorable, if also under-acknowledged, pressure — upon each of our lots and a hell of a lot of our backs for quite some time now. We may even be so lucky as to achieve, if not freedom, then at least a shower of reprieve from our current grievances and a small, but fighting, chance at real collaborative discovery.
In The Spokes, we repeatedly see the character Lucia’s frenetic motions as she clamors to achieve a measure of belief in a cosmo-vision of clear causes and effects but is not to be granted it. Lucia wants what she is facing to be reducible to those things that she has induced and thus can also eliminate. “Was my invisibility the result of some thing I had failed to do?” Lucia asks, adding, “I had yet to learn the laws of recognition here.” Unable either to be seen or heard by her mother Silver when she first arrives as an adult into this purgatorial afterworld, Lucia comments, “It was not the first time in my life that I was invisible in a public place, if one can say of the afterworld that it is public.” Here Lucia has, without a doubt, stumbled onto one substantial and mighty insight. For there are indeed so very many ways for people to be made invisible or, conversely, to make others feel that way; perhaps even as many ways as there are for people to be recognized or to make others buzz in the wake of their own recognition.
Those delicate ankles wherein capacity and debilitation collide
If recognition as a process of communication can convey approval or sanction, permission or denial, validity or erasure, then our physical bodies are perhaps just as double-edged in their potential. In “None of This Is Real,” the narrator pauses at length to ponder the fact that the fatal flaw of Achilles should be located in precisely the same anatomical quarters as Hermes’s tiny foot wings. Debilitation and unexpected aptitude are found to emerge from one and the same site of flesh. To my mind, The Spokes closes, if only by soft inference, on those fantastical winglets, on the efforts to try and find them. It comes to a finish not on severance (on tendon-ripping), but on the prospect of flight. As Mellis describes it, the organs or environments from which such levitations could conceivably occur are “easily localized, but not easily remediated.” Our collective imaginations and blueprinting skills have been substantially dampened and dulled by too much rebuking and the failure to leave or step outside the frames of logic that have been handed us. “What are the ancient dead like then, the pre-capitalist, the pre-clock-time, the pre-imperial dead?” Lucia muses. And while it should be readily admitted that any “true” contact with these earlier histories is impossible, as well as fraught with all manner of problematic ideological nostalgias, it is perhaps for that very reason that it must all the more be tried. Not so as to falsely fantasize returning there, but so as to at least refuse to continue from exactly where we are now.
In Jonathan Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, one of the central characters finds the occasion to explain, “One morning I awoke and understood the hole in the middle of me. I realized that I could compromise my life, but not life after me. I couldn’t explain it. The need came before the explanations. It was not out of weakness that I made it happen, but it was not out of strength either. It was out of need.” As I see it, the characters that Mellis creates also operate from that nebulous space between weakness and strength, between certainty and the paralysis of doubt. And, of course, the reality is that we compromise our own life and the lives to come after us nearly all the time. Indeed, in the current habitus of life on this continent and elsewhere, it is infinitely harder to document those actions when we don’t compromise future life, than those actions when we do. For this reason and more, Mellis’s figures can never get rid of those holes.
Accordingly, it could be argued that in Mellis’s fiction there is often surprisingly little evidence to show that optimism is warranted; however, at the same time, there is also surprisingly little evidence to show that it is illusory. By optimism, I do not refer to merely pedantic wishful thinking; I mean something more like unfettered attention to the earth’s materials. In Mellis’s words: “Sometimes the impossible is the missing ingredient.” Sometimes the impossible is simply that obstacle of another survivable devastation that we find ourselves once again smack in the face of. The grace then of Mellis’s art is how, in the wake of this, it surprises us with the discovery that not only can we still move, but we may want to have a dance party. We may want to destroy our files. We may want to get really close to something and to press outlandishly hard against it, to discover what shifts and resistances persist within that dangerous gift of proximity. The internationalist avant-garde artist group, the Situationists, once made posters that said, “Our ideas are in everybody’s heads and one day they will come out.” One day, the posters seemed to imply, these ideas will be shouted. In Mellis’s own stories, we as a society have not yet managed to reach the point of shouting — such a collaborative mass display of belligerence to actual conditions still hovers at an arm’s distance; it still requires further cultivation for incarnation. But certain individual figures within these tales are uncovering promising incipient forms for their words, acts, and ideas, and some of them are even finding company. There is a sense that they are gathering their forces … and ours.
In the same lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphosis with which this essay begins, Vladimir Nabokov writes: “Unless we see them [the characters] in a fantastic light, there is no enchantment. And if the enchanter leaves and the storyteller and the teacher remain alone together, they make poor company.” We are lucky that in Mellis’s work the enchanter never once takes leave of us. Or as O observes during one of his many eccentric encounters with a very singular self-taught divinator: “Wherever she touched [me], she left a trail of froth.” Mellis’s work happily leaves one like that also: frothed-up, vibrating, keen to discover.
A review of Tony Leuzzi's 'Radiant Losses'
In his new collection Radiant Losses, Tony Leuzzi writes poems that are not only universal in topic and emotive power, but also very personal. Poems such as “Now” explore the physical and emotional connections between men: “The / less / he was / and the less / I was the more we / disappeared behind bodies not / our own …” In the last stanza of this poem, Leuzzi’s speaker reaches a metaphysical realization: “But / now / with you / I can’t think / of anyone else / hell! I can’t think at all! Your skin / against mine / my flesh, your flesh, the immediate this” (53). In these last lines, a unity has been achieved: sexuality is more than simply raw substance; it is divine and now.
Radiant Losses explores other erotic possibilities. In the poem “Today,” Leuzzi addresses the games played in seduction by telling the reader about the Cavalier poets and describing the rituals of attraction and seduction: “But they were men who pined for girls, / who teased the locks of chambers free.” Leuzzi sets up desire with a sense of urgency: “let’s do this now before we die” (16), suggesting the carpe diem theme of the Cavalier poets’ work. However, there is also irony in that statement: oftentimes what we so desperately want is spoken of and written about in tones that are lighthearted in order to hide our passion and desperation.
Two recurring themes in Leuzzi’s collection, longing and regret, are intertwined with each other and with the book’s title. It is not difficult to see how the title refers to loss that takes on the power of radiance through so much longing for an unrealized or lost love, event, or emotion. In “Joe Brainard,” Leuzzi’s speaker regrets that what is so obvious to him in retrospect was not so obvious to him at the time. He ends the poem with a luminous description of what he found through his regret: “I / re / member / this I re- / member that, and each / time the phrase appeared there was this / magic, pure and simple, a cold raindrop on my skin” (45). The poem reminds us of the way this longing for spiritual fulfillment helps us endure personal losses and regrets.
Leuzzi describes the interplay of emotion and intellect in “At Albright-Knox, 2003.” Through the purity of language and the unfolding of a vignette, the poem reveals how emotions and intellect are so closely aligned. The setting for this poem is a room that contains “nine abstract expressionist paintings.” To the uneducated eye, abstract expressionism is merely chaotic design. To critics and lovers of this style of painting, these works create both emotional and intellectual discovery. The speaker sees someone he desires, and the interplay is electric as the two figures look at each other, although briefly: “as if one’s undivided gaze / was a hand caressing the taut skins of canvases” (43).
Leuzzi leads us word by word and syllable by syllable into each poem; the poem’s vignette style further teases us with the simplicity of the idea, laying it all out very logically. However, by the last line of the poem, Leuzzi gives us the full emotional impact of the poem’s meaning. For example, in “Log Cabins,” Leuzzi moves the reader through a consideration of the gay Log Cabin members of the Republican Party. His last line contains the central image of the poem: “save a few huts collapsing in the wilderness” (41). Everything that Leuzzi had written up until that point points the reader to this conclusion; in some ways, it almost reads like a syllogism.
A poem with particularly powerful use of imagery is “On Ribera’s La Mujer Barbuda,” in which we see a series of images: “but a stout man with sturdy hands / and one enormous breast suspended from the center // of / his /chest like / a swollen / gourd soon to be plucked / and hollowed, then carefully strung / with gut for the lyre, on which a bard might weave weird tales” (49). The interpretation of visual art through language art tantalizes and gratifies that sensory need which many poets have to sustain themselves and to “weave weird tales.” It is an interesting and rewarding exercise to look at a piece of art or listen to music and rewrite the sensory images and feelings as a poem, and Leuzzi does this also using music as his muse in “Tchaikovsky’s ‘Impromptu.’” He uses the same tightly controlled style of other poems in which he slowly leads the reader into the situation of the poem, beginning, “In / F- / minor / begins with …” The first stanza ends, “swift as the pitter of kittens / across linoleum, patters like a little boy …” The poem builds in energy with more syllables that then move quickly to a conclusion. The music takes on the persona of a little boy, who changes his intent as it moves through the various movements, and surprises the reader with this ending: “surrenders arms to air and asks for cake” (47).
The language in this collection contains tightly controlled emotion hidden beneath more obvious meaning. Leuzzi uses compression to create emotional power that expresses itself as “radiant losses.” As a poet, I am also searching for the banal parts of life to be translated into those radiant moments and losses.