A review of Feng Sun Chen's 'Butcher's Tree'
“The person I love should love me so much she wants to eat me alive. If I’m going to die this is how it should be,” a writer once told me. I didn’t know what this writer meant until I read Feng Sun Chen’s Butcher’s Tree. This poetry collection wants to plunge itself into your guts and nest there. It wants to engage in corporeal, spiritual, and emotional cannibalism. It is the blood dripping down your chin. It offers you not a napkin but a compact mirror in the shape of a napkin. Butcher’s Tree enacts a poetics of confrontation and entanglement with unlikely pairings: intangible and material, stasis and movement, mythic and mortal. These collisions swerve into collusion. And from collusion, Chen asks us to consider what forms of release we can invent together.
A person is not a single living organism, and as Chen asserts, “it was not about self.” We contain 500 to 1,000 species of bacteria in the human gut and a roughly similar number on the skin. It’s easy to forget this, because, well, it’s freaky to think about and maybe it grates against ideas of autonomy, self-control, and individuality. Hi, microbiota, we need you. The boldly unexpected images in Chen’s collection force us to reevaluate what the body can contain and undo our lingering suppositions. In the poem “Inter,” the speaker’s lungs have “little gumdrop fish” that “camped out in the forest of alveoli” and her friends are “jealous of the new tadpoles living inside [her] body.” We’re constantly reoriented toward the multiplicity within and how it merges with the seemingly exterior world. The initial stanza of the first poem, “By the Dark,” introduces the reader to these strange amalgamations:
Two travelers boil in it.
Curtains of dry rock drink the glue
of their sweat.
The book begins with bodies undergoing a violent, physical reaction to the external temperature enveloped in the night. What seeps through our pores, what splashes off of the flesh does not vanish, but gets sucked into the rocks beneath. Nothing exists in isolation, and the salty water within us, that is part of us, seamlessly passes into the earth. In other poems, people conjoin (“Our skins fuse like early cells to become one sheet”; “Our blood will mix, grape on grape, crushed seed”; “You are the soup that fills my skull”) or have surprising organs and limbs (“your horseshoe heart”; big teeth made of glass”; “your ears were shells”; and “bones made of shale”). Distance and presence collapse via the constant smushing of parts into parts. To know the world is to let it enter us as we enter it in return: “Love and mourning march out of the little holes in your skin.” We must allow and be aware of these entry points. Chen offers, “Every opening meant access to the sea now, or the wind on the sea.” Always, “access” trumps the threats that can coincide with this vulnerability, as learning and being learned about meld together.
These poems, though, extend past corporal plurality and show us how the ephemeral is just as sticky, ever-present, or tangible. The collection is littered with lines like, “every sound reverberated through his fist.” Noise is grounded in body, given texture and power over the physical. The world is a black metal show that shakes us. Chen writes, “Love secretes reptile eggs into the ruptured drum nest. / This is what we hear.” Emotional abstractions accumulate while morphing into visual and auditory instances. We’re forced to listen to the reproduction of love: it’s slimy, oozing, and has scales. It’s not afraid of bloody membranes, of the tooth’s exposed nerve. Chen renders more observably present what is normally negative space or concepts tucked in our heads. Another notable visceral moment, “The word is ripped from me daily,” reminds us of the physical effort it takes to communicate. Words do not gently float through the air, but are torn from a body-site. They must leave a location to reach another. They penetrate. This particular line also brings into the foreground the power structure of language, as it does not seem that our daily vocabulary is inherently given consensually. Maybe the speaker “ripped” the word from her/himself or someone else demanded the extrication. Further into the book, Chen writes, “And so you are taken, instant by instant by what is taken from you.” Are we taken with (as in enamored), taken by, or taken back? Do we rejoin what has departed? Or “taken” could mean dispossessed, cheated, occupied, made sick, sexed? While the ambiguity in this assertion is complicated by the lack of a single “you”/self, I tend to read it as a general tendency in this book: nothing is ever fully discarded and nothing is fully kept.
This flux, this tangling, is caught up in the tension of movement and stasis. I want to return to the first poem in the collection, “By the Dark,” because it begins with the progress of travelers, treads water with potentials, and ends with a false declaration of immobility. Commenting on one traveler’s plight:
He could go back to the woods.
He could go back to the sea if he closed his eyes.
No going anywhere.
His two hearts are growing teeth.
The “he” is given options that are then negated by a command-like observation, “No going anywhere.” Yet, the poem concludes with growing, albeit a deformed version. Are the teeth an offensive posture or a defense mechanism? Regardless of how a reader may interpret this effect, what at first appears stymied is transformed into startling, slightly gruesome evolution. In the second poem, “Fourth of July,” motion occurs as directionless:
You will not understand your pain,
which is shaped like a windmill and moves
by the tug of a terrible moon
but you may learn to live with it, or forget it
for longer and longer stretches.
An outside source, the moon, drags pain through the body. Thus, while the “you” is faced with this initial lack of control, the “you” can also alter the ramifications by learning or forgetting. Interaction is a given but how you react is not. Management of an unceasing emotion becomes a way to channel movement.
Toward the end of “Moontube,” Chen writes, “Pure ecstasy is stasis.” I tend to think of ecstasy as an overwhelming, fleeting moment. Like a giant wave that sweeps over you. I think of it as a movement of revelry-like or euphoric expansion. A passing, joyous sensation that fills you up. Yet, the word ecstasy derives from “ekstasis,” standing outside oneself. So this moment of personal intensity contains “stasis,” inactivity as well as a sense of otherness at its core. To be fully engaged is to be outside oneself in a frenzy that resembles fixedness. This paradox exists within and then evaporates from lines like, “Each day was filtered through the wall made of movement” and “I am small, I am small. Here comes the parade! All that beauty! / I want to die! I want to die! / I want to die!” Movement is the force behind certain desires, some of which appear deceptively still, “I will keep my mouth on your mouth.” Chen exposes the static of our constant churning, churning.
The three sections of this book continually reference religion(s) and reinvigorate mythic/literary figures, situating them in contemporary habitats with colloquial vocabularies. For instance, mystique and tradition unravel when Prometheus announces, “The Olympians can go suck on the clouds.” A poem titled “Epistle” begins:
Words of wisdom collect in the corners of the room.
I gyrate about in a puffy suit filled with hair.
It takes me out of the circus
into the arena of history, which is full of white horses.
What kind of Apostle writes a letter about gyrating in a hair-filled suit? Maybe the kind that realizes history is composed of more than kings and gods and stale advice. History is no longer unreachable (i.e. unsoiled horses) and thus, foreign, because it’s the context for our current movements. And the present tides are goofy, ravenous, honest: “I will show you the common satellite. / We can go grocery shopping or watch the sunset.” Chen places the mythic next to postmodern terrestrial pursuits, the daily. While she claims, “Yes, yes yes. Let the ancient speak for me” and “legendary spots should remain legendary,” the language of Butcher’s Tree invites us into an absurd imagination that disintegrates literary fixity. In the final section of her book, Chen reinvents Grendel as a woman who is “feeling weird because of his body which was full and curvaceous as the moon. // He remembered the first day again. The only other time this would happen was thousands of years later in a university dorm, on salvia.” No idea, deity, fables, or “spots” are out of reach. As we’re told, “God is a girl in love.”
Butcher’s Tree also branches into poems that animate new characters like “the paper queen” “Wukong,” “Xuanzang,” and “the doctor.” However, I don’t think such pieces aim to plant the seeds from which new mythic heroes would spring. Instead, they feel more like someone purposefully overhearing an intimate conversation on a train. This effect — curatorial attention without elevation — offers release from the canon as a form of immortality. Chen writes, “A name in a book is nothing, said those female eyes black with swirling dust, / You will lose.” As you lose both literary hierarchy and the self that could claim this status, you gain the energy that comes from remembering, “There is no such thing as / time for everything, this much was clear.” We’re released into a thoughtful urgency that prioritizes an imagistic, emotive forthrightness. Moments like “you are alone with ashamed talons and alive loneliness. / I am lonely” are direct and vital. They beckon strangely, like “a gash the shape of you my friend.”
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.