'Besieged by grief'

A review of Rachel Tzvia Back's 'A Messenger Comes'

A Messenger Comes

A Messenger Comes

Rachel Tzvia Back

Singing Horse Press 2012, 108 pages, ISBN 978-0-935162-48-6

In Rachel Tzvia Back’s collection of poems A Messenger Comes (Singing Horse Press, 2012), the poet, like a biblical Deborah bearing a torch, arrives to illuminate the dark, devastated, and devastating space of grief. Following the deaths of both her father and sister, the poet is spiritually “called” to apply language to mourning. This calling is revealed in the epigraph to Messenger, a passage from Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish, the profound elegiac work for his own father, which also gives the collection its title: “A messenger comes to the mourner’s house. ‘Come,’ says the messenger, ‘you are needed.’ ‘I cannot come,’ says the mourner: ‘My spirit is broken.’ ‘That is why you are needed,’ says the messenger.” In the first section of poems, “The Broken Beginning,” the poet imagines grief and grief’s counterpoint, love, being formed with the creation of the world itself:

(In the beginning)
In the beginning
it was sudden —
the world

that wasn’t
all at once

out of formless void —

of the infinite
into pieces — God

to make way
for perfect human

Adam and Eve

in the beginning
of a world that wasn’t
and wasn’t yet

broken either (13)

The poet must pave a way through the world after it, and she, are “broken” — after grief has befallen humanity inescapably: “Thus the sudden rift / opens // to define us — After and / then // Before” (66).

Many themes of Messenger — among them Judaism, the Bible, Israel, and Hebrew — are prominent in Back’s past collections, On Ruins and Return (Shearsman Books, 2007), The Buffalo Poems (Duration Press, 2003), Azimuth (Sheep Meadow Press, 2000), and Litany (Meow Press, 1995). Back was raised in Buffalo, New York, and studied at Yale and Temple universities, but has been living in Israel for three decades. Her work is thereby dually informed by American traditions (Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Adrienne Rich make appearances in Messenger), and Israeli ones. In an interview, Back has discussed the complexities of her choice to reside in Israel: “I have a great passion for Israel, even now — a passion for the Israeli landscapes and sensibility, for the rhythms of the Hebrew language, for the ancientness of the culture, and its raw newness too. My heart feels most connected to itself in Israel — I feel most myself there.” Indeed, Israel, Jewishness, and Hebrew permeate Messenger; for instance, in an image of olive trees (55); in a poem that enumerates the names of sacred Jewish texts, some invented by the poet herself (51); and in a poem which meditates on her father’s passing using the English letters a-b-a, which join in the last line to spell the word Aba: “father” in Hebrew (39).

Back’s work has long been engaged in and concerned with the atrocities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Andrew Mossin writes in his 2008 review of On Ruins and Return, Back has sought to bring a new mode of “seeing” to this conflict. Her poems, in the tradition of women poets of witness, such as Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Carolyn Forché, and Alicia Ostriker, frequently juxtapose the personal and political. In On Ruins and Return, this is achieved when the lyrical “I” is used in the service of describing a disputed, embattled land: “I live on the ruins of Palestine.” Sporadic references to conflicts of the region also appear in Messenger. In a passage from the long poem “Lamentation,” the poet writes about a dream in which her elderly father climbs “a grove of old olives” atop “the wounded land”:

(21) Dream inquiry (2)

pillagers have gathered
              stones from the wounded land in
                                       their angry hands and when

they raise weapons for harm
              my father lifts both his arms
                                     into the unblemished blue

a bird
             spreading white woven wings

over us all
                in the ancient grove

sun glistening
              still through the wings even

he’s gone. (55)

As her father morphs into a white bird, presumably a dove, spreading his wings “over us all,” the poet thus envisions his spirit bestowing peace to country that is torn, but their home nonetheless.

In Messenger, however, the poet primarily writes of grieving in a way that is personal, rather than political:

Every moment of every day and
Every night I am

Besieged by grief
Closed to any loss but my own. (97)

The last lines of this poem (from the section “Elegy Fragments”), display a turning inwards, away from the Other, following the poet’s terrible loss. In Messenger, the poet’s sense of self is so utterly shaken, shattered, that she writes (in another section of “Lamentation”) of being embodied by loss — “at” and “in” loss:


Cut loose (not
yet)    we are

a loss
we are

a loss
lost in

lost to
we are

bound to
bound by
now slowly

in days
and numbered

hours. (42)

The series of enjambments affirm the harsh rupturing of the poet’s selfhood and the life that was known to her. With the use of the plural “we,” she reminds us that while this rupturing can be shared to some extent, we must cope with its impact alone; in the case of Messenger, through a dialogue with one’s own poems. Though the poet certainly never addresses a higher religious authority (such as God), the incantatory poems are forms of "secular" prayers in themselves.

The poet’s father and sister occupy their own sections in the collection, highlighting the individual significance of each. In the first sections of Messenger, the poet writes of her father, depicting him as larger than life: “Six feet tall broad and bearded / traveling a world / (in a hospital bed) // professor and scientist / (huddled under / the covers)” (40). In a later poem, Back writes of his “wide-armed gestures, voluminous / stories detailing each / memory in grand trajectories / of arced blossoms” (65). In the final section, “Elegy Fragments,” Messenger turns to the early passing of the poet’s sister: “My sister died / in mid-summer, in the middle // of the night, in the middle / of her life” (87). In a subsequent fragment, the poet revisits the notion of shattering, or coming apart, which is so prevalent in the collection: “Steadfast / sister, there is steady / unravelment / in the vastness of your / absence” (89). Back courageously writes of the longing, even guilt, that can accompany the death of someone beloved, “How I try, and fail / to return you to us // in every word and verse / ever faltering —” (90). Although the poet cannot write her sister (or father) back to life, solace is found in the vision of her sister (like her father) as a bird:

Sometimes in the birds’ flash
of white-winged flight

I think I see you
delicate delicate

your lovely name
in that winged instant written

across all the skies (100)

As is often the case in Back’s poetry, layers of meaning are revealed with a knowledge of Hebrew; here, the twice-repeated word “delicate” (perhaps echoing the birds’ wings flapping), is the English translation of her sister’s name, Adina, to whom the section, and the book in its entirety, is dedicated. Thus, Adina’s memory inheres in English and Hebrew, the two languages from which so much of Back’s writing springs. In the last elegy fragment, we thankfully encounter not a contrived notion of grief’s finality, but a recognition of its perpetuity:

As though I am not
in Secret and
with every breath

Waiting for your return. (101)

Readers are advised to explore the moving, well-executed poems of A Messenger Comes. If the book begins with the poet being called, Messenger is a remarkable answer to this call. By hearing Back’s words, we become braver in the face of our own grief, as well as love, two sentiments the collection wonderfully articulates: “Enduring / love: How // is it to be endured / in your absence” (93).

'The architecture and ambience of the maze'

A review of Marie Buck's "Amazing Weapons"

Amazing Weapons

Amazing Weapons

Marie Buck

Scary Topiary Press 2011, $10, ISBN chapbook

Let’s find our way out of this maze, the title of the opening poem in Marie Buck’s Amazing Weapons, draws an etymological fact to our attention, the relation in English between the noun maze and the verb amaze. All the maze words stem from old Germanic words referring to labor. So to be in a maze or to be amazed are similarly to undergo occupation, to recognize the inhibitions and prohibitions that condition one’s autonomy.

You know how they put mice in mazes in those scary labs so we can have better shampoo and cancer drugs? Those mice are supposed to get out. Amazing Weapons thematizes the recognition of political distress and jussive plea for solidarity as a means of “solving the problems” that distress produces. And yet I think that what’s at stake is a countervailing argument against finding the “way out” at all. What the book attends instead is the architecture and ambience of the maze itself. The contemporary subject represented in these poems includes the optimistic, positive desire of altering current conditions and an affirmation of the glamorous objects that keep us amazed.

Or, in other words, there is no way “out” of the maze, but there is a lot of way through it. It occurs to me that so much of the contemporary writing I’m most excited about, and this absolutely includes Marie Buck’s work and Amazing Weapons, is the particular affective orientation it occupies vis-a-vis catastrophic current conditions. And what I mean is that this writing tends to refuse stable, coherent modes of affective relation — including the stable, coherent modes that the avant-garde appropriates as its own. Instead, this writing articulates the nightmare of contemporary ecstasy (especially as it cathects to pop culture) and likewise the glee adjacent to the most abject, its comfort zone for paradox is vast.

And, fittingly, the comfort zone includes a lot of discomforting material. Did you ever hear about the bugonia? It’s one of the nastiest things ever. Virgil goes on at length to describe the process in his didactic poem called Fourth Georgic. Basically, ancient apiculture formulated that bees were born in the rotting carcass of a cow. So if you’re a beekeeper and all your bees die, you go get a cow, you put it in a little shed, beat it to death, and then in a few months you have a ton of bees. Ew. But I mention the bugonia because it seems to me an apt image for the relational economy of Amazing Weapons: the sense that getting as close as possible to the most abject conditions is where you find a way through it — if not free of it. So in “Scope of Emotions,” Buck brings this ancient association of decay and flourish to bear, “all of my oceans’ dead and wounded / Brilliantly executed, several kinds of touch / In the warmth of the freshly-deceased.”

I guess this means for Buck’s book to achieve its maximal effect we’d have to be living in the most debased time in history and “luckily,” we are! It’s a time in which “terror strikes / in the home of my dead sisters.” It’s a time in which all previous systems of transcendent relief have gone Darth Vader at best. Here’s the entirety of “God In Heaven”:

What is the watchful eye upon you? The glitter-covered father
slashing and burning across the North American continent?

Amazing Weapons confronts its speaker paratactically with the objects of this ruined landscape. Parataxis, though, isn’t just a rhetorical figure in this book. The poet “herself” (I use the pronoun “her” although the gender of the speaking subject in the book is under extreme, sublime duress) emerges in an array of times and spaces in the world of the poems. Throughout, her orientation is marked by patiency. Rob Halpern defines patiency as “agency’s inversion and complement. Located in a situation of suspended action, patiency nevertheless contests impotent privacy and docile quietude.” The lyric speaker of Amazing Weapons manifests agency’s inversion by the stoic, hyper-bored way in which her body becomes the object of consumption by others.

This encounter of the patient subject and the hungry other inside the maze (the “situation of suspended action”) is often shown in terms of sexuality and power — which speaks to the sense of patiency as that state which “contests impotent privacy and docile quietude.” This contest is nuanced in Buck’s book: the subject drifts between poles of power in the encounter and assumes many forms of perspective. For instance, in “Underwear,” Buck writes, “I make you mount me / I am a boutique owner.” This represents an awfully complex picture of dom play inflected by the assumed agency pertinent to small business capitalism. On the other hand, the patient subject who appears and reappears in Amazing Weapons is under something like attack, which it confronts in the language of sexual pleasure and, simultaneously, the language of contesting docile quietude, “there is something rubbing my clit / it is the army of unalterable law.”

The spatial adjacency appears in the many landscapes that populate the poems. No individual object is ever allowed to survive the degradation and intricacy of the amazing present. Gestures of penetration recur throughout the poems, also emphasizing the essential patiency of the speaker, “yet another guy / inside you / a detailed view.” And finally, in this scene of “inescapable” parataxes, rational scale is ruptured, so “the small stretch of the cat … confronts the police state.”

Indeed, the police state is the dominant key governing all the spaces of Amazing Weapons. Tempting as it might be to simply read this book, though, as a response to the spectacular violence perpetrated by police regimes around the United States, time is subject to a similar juxtapositional pressure. The temporal adjacencies are emphasized by the insistent “ands” that dominate the book’s composition.

Like any great paratactic writing, the side-by-side propositions point to the breach between them. Buck exults in those breaches, inside of which are the real broadcasts from amazed life, from life enduring regimented mazeness. And part of the reality of that life, the everydayness of that life, is the articulation of “minor” desires and needs at the same time as major demonstrations by capital’s army attempt to crush formations towards autonomy, “I anticipate complete and utter destruction / And I want a maxi pad and I need a maxi pad.”

The economy of vacillation and ambivalence in this book is often articulated in terms of “emotions” and “feelings.” What I wanted to finally figure out about Amazing Weapons is whether these poems suggest that our condition is imminent by their juxtapositions, paradoxes, rhetorics of affective jouissance as well as malaise. Whether the law really is “unalterable.” I mean I want to figure out how hopeful the poet is, or how ruined is her optimism, or how unbelievably charged is her despair. But then, to have an “answer” to those questions, to “finally figure it out” would be, after all, a getting out of the maze, not getting through it.

Getting through it, all of those registers collapse into a desperate, fucked-up, hilarious, beautiful world populated by Hitler-fighting kittens. A spectacular expression of an effort “to bring the heart of the uncertain future.” The disenchanted ambivalence that completes the composition refers back to the forces of dominion and situates the poem in sight of an unsolvable world “prettily snowing on the police as they are.”

'As a friend seated beside the poet'

A review of Pam Brown's "True Thoughts"

True Thoughts

True Thoughts

Pam Brown

Salt Publishers 2004, 88 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-84471-515-2

The title of its first poem, “Existence,” signals that True Thoughts may be aiming for the high rarified light of metaphysics, but Pam Brown’s version of existence links a series of lived moments delicately by chance, proximity, irony and imaginative association, such that existence is this embodied bricolage of moments arriving obliquely at the unhurried pace of living. Brown’s embodied fragments render a texture which is accretive rather than dramatic, and paratactic rather than metaphoric, though at any moment “ready to blur / into a field of speed … [as] one less path / to torpor.”

Suspicious of rhetoric, these poems don’t avoid its use but render it harmless by revealing its mechanism — by showing the hinges of its operation. This builds trust between poet and reader, as the poems wryly comment on the method of their making, which is on one level transparent, but by no means simple. With haiku-like poignancy and brevity, the lived moments traverse multiple registers of self-awareness, observation, social critique, and literary memory, including sudden brutal humor:

Sydney goes sailing

Indeed, war is ever present as background noise, and Brown is ever aware of an Australian middle class indifference, as long as the sun sheds sparks over the sea. Brown’s artistic eye claims for poetry a plethora of “unpoetic” materials, such as radio wheeze, text messages, Blockbuster, Google, commercial fonts and cooking shows on TV: “the kitchen man / agrees / it’s all about oil,” yet here the “all about oil” doubles as the reason for war, as both monetary plunder and the lubricant of economy and media. This kind of layering of meanings describes much of the action in Brown’s poems, as the ordinary surfaces of the day radiate messages prismatically, even as they resist symbolism in favor of an embodied materiality in pastiche.

The book’s second poem, “Amnesiac recoveries,” comments on war and this new kind of war media, which turns destruction into a business of entertainment, as a holocaust of national collective memory in the bombing of Iraq’s ancient library generates new memories for a distantly safe TV-watching audience:

I know the war continues
   on tv
    in the background of the frame
the investigator yawns.

memoricide —
     bombing the library.
collective memory,
       the treasures of manuscript,

the bombing filmed

as I write       as you read!
      the USA
            is bombing
             ______        ______                  ______
              (please fill in the blank spaces)

The poet and reader are held accountable for complacency (or merely powerlessness), and the fill-in-the-blank predicts that the bombing will go on, that fifty years from now a new generation of readers will be able to fill in the names of the current victims of America’s endless war. The “as you read” is ironically measured against, though distantly, Denise Levertov’s poem “To the Reader,” wherein “as you read / the sea is turning its dark pages.” Levertov’s absorptive image may hint at the turnings of history, but its mythic grounding provides a comfortably theoretical space for the reader. Brown creates a different effect, where the reader is hurled through a window toward “turrurrism // war on turrurrism cramped / by cost bungling.” Brown’s aping of George W’s pretend-to-be-Texas drawl is hilarious and even more so, perhaps, for an American reader, yet at the same time the power behind this idiotic neocon is terrifying. As is Australia’s response to Bush’s war:

we rally for peace
        we play with the kids
the armada heads for the gulf

But this book is not about war as much as it’s about living. Or better said, it’s not about living, it is living, neither a dramatic enactment nor a referent, but the thing itself. Brown’s lived spaces link naturally and horizontally without the imposed vertical arc of Aristotelian drama. In reading, one passes time with the poems, in the poems, and comes increasingly to trust and to like this poet, whether she’s listening to punk music, waiting for a bus, making tea or reading Samuel Beckett. In “Death by droning” we are given Brown’s not-autobiography. She compares her method to what memoir is not, a droning on, “I couldn’t write a memoir / to save myself.” Rather than linear biographical progression, Brown’s poems adumbrate the traceries of mind, which, among her political insights and lyric moments, include the daily, even bored, material of work-thoughts — and from this a life does come into view:

droning on is not
                          my way,
mine’s more a kind of
or         maybe,
simply,       to make art
through spaces

Brown’s not-autobiography collages poems that think on the page, often as notes passed from self to self through some internal space neither wholly private nor meant for the public. We don’t so much overhear them as an unintended audience but hear them as the speaker hears them, still inside the self, intimately bound to the thinking in which they float.

seems like   Brisbane
             summer grey
and I’ve come so very far
               to make this small comparison

This commentary is self-derisive, and self-directed, yet, once more, we overhear it not as a reading public, but from some privileged inwardness, or at the very least as a friend seated beside the poet. A remarkably intimate experience, not autobiography but auto-intimacy. This, then, is where the title True Thoughts earns its authenticity, a title so literal as to be ironic. The “truth” behind these thoughts is entirely subjective, and in making no claims beyond this lens, such thoughts are irrefutably genuine, and the experience of reading them is fresh and rewarding. Here, in the hands of an artist, subjectivity is not a weakness, but the very basis of intimacy, of honesty. Likewise, from the subjectively human experience, a new kind of nature-in-the-city materializes: Brown’s poems, whether in Australia or Europe, are committed to the cycles and bric-a-brac of urbanity, yet one which allows for calm and beauty, as of an urban pastoral:

all afternoon in a car
parked at the ferry wharf
gazing at sparkling waves,
not reading 
not listening to the car radio,
just looking out          at the boats
and the sea planes       setting off
and returning

These seaplanes seem as natural as migrating geese, their small circling replacing the seasonal cycles in a new rhythm entirely of our own making.

The poem “In europe” takes this reversal one step further:

a bird flock swarms
in folds & turns,
in geometric patterns
like a screen saver. 

Here Brown’s brilliant reverse metaphor, the “screen saver,” is afforded a priori status, yielding primacy to the simulacrum, the signified pointing backwards, bemused, toward the sign. Even as Brown takes pleasure in this reversal, the poem is asking how we can stop the war and ecological disaster when the culture has lost its connection to the real, to any natural point of reference. In the poem “Darkenings” Brown sketches a scene of going camping in which the natural darkness is non-normative, a disruption of the natural order of the light bulb: “you go on vacation / to an unmodified landscape, / towards a blackout / the cause impossible to source.” Yet, Brown remains an alert naturalist, and her urban spaces are deeply observed for those species that share in them:

                   it’s October so
the bogong moths
                           are back
and the koels  — the October
                      crack of dawn racket —
          are back again too,
mauve jacaranda petals
           are stuck
on the window screen wipers rubber

A large portion of True Thoughts takes place in Rome where Brown is living in residency. In another reversal she playfully positions this adventure as an exile from Australia, “remote, / yet, / in touch!” — far away, even as she resides in the center of the old empire, a wonderful irony, and again a profound subjectivity, to be exiled to the center! Despite Europe’s eccentric pleasures, one gets the sense that Brown would rather be back home. All that remains in “No action” is to “join a group to / combat complacency.”

Brown’s sophisticated wit and honesty resist easy lyricism, yet there are several places in the book where Brown artfully navigates between quotidian and lyric spaces, as in the poem “Lab face” where the soul finds its footing in the food court:

heavenly shades  of night
      are falling          it’s twilight time,
  thinking outside the tick box
                 on the last day of the past,
         to ready my selves
                   for an inurement of toil
I’m sauntering over
                     to a cheap eats turn
      at the food court,

The plural “selves” reinforces the book’s collage effect, as if identity is at best a momentary phenomenon, the self moving among selves as temporary frames, as the mind fills and empties of sensory experience, of memory and cognition. From there the poem swings into the elegiac, yet at once we recognize this has been a tone present all along, the struggle against helplessness and inertia felt throughout are merely the precursors to mortality:

but later, tonight, 
  knowing this is the last century
       of which I’ll partake,
             (my lassitude,
                  my dis-belief, and
           mon dieu, my grief)
     I’ll lie on the laboratory couch
(I’m looking forward to it too)

We might hear the distant sound of Prufrock’s “I grow old … I grow old … / I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled,” yet Brown’s self-elegy is undecorated and entirely convincing, as here: “my eyes ringed / and sagging, / like a beagle’s eyes.” A more apt comparison can be made to Woolf’s Dalloway, as Pam Brown is a Flaneuse, a wanderer through urban and intellectual spaces of which she is a product — a flaneusing of mind, of which we partake intimately. Her inquiries range widely from public to private, through humor, irony, outrage, and surrender, asking, “how shall we live?” and (dare I say it) “how can we be happy?” — yet it’s this elegiac tone that leaves the most lasting impression, a paradox of revelation and helplessness — as in, “I know how to fix everything / but, / obstinate in my resolve, / withdraw.” This self-awareness proposes a terrible irony which blurs the boundary between a politics of resistance and a mere personal exhaustion, a space in which many of us middle class (or culture class) progressives find ourselves. For this reader, Brown’s inquiry and her art are entirely satisfying and necessary.

The gestural lyric and beyond

A review of Amy King's "I Want to Make You Safe"

I Want to Make You Safe

I Want to Make You Safe

Amy King

Litmus Press 2011, 87 pages, $15, ISBN 0781933959238

Amy King’s poems are written from a place without an overview. The opposite of Olympian, this poetry is down here with the rest of us, mired in the details, some of which may be tedious while others astonish — a poetry just trying to keep its head in the air, mainly for survival’s sake. Sometimes those details come in lists, like this one from “The Strange Power of Lying to Yourself”:

I don’t know. A bunch of things. The mail, a bi-racial couple,

songs about a boyfriend who doesn’t understand, Thai people

gathered, mostly transsexual, sushi for the masses, bacterial

moments of half-crazed drunk when no one touches

your bag or wallet across the bar, a lovely candle refusing

to flicker, one wind, one shirt, one sky teeters

fireflies asleep between paperbacks,

their names that SOS me,

a painter’s bird red as plumes,

a bodily silence in dead-layered flesh,

and a hole, among other things, as I am a learning actress. (18)

This breakup of lived experience into a scatter of oddly vivid yet disconnected fragments — registered with greater or lesser accuracy by a good deal of contemporary poetry, but rarely with quite the conviction that King brings to it — may have something to do with what Fredric Jameson famously diagnosed as one of the symptoms of postmodernity, namely that “waning of affect” whereby the supposedly stable bourgeois self has devolved into a congeries of depthless intensities. In retrospect, though, Jameson’s periodization (and therefore his whole argument) seems less than convincing. After all, this rejection of full-bodied representation in favor of a direct rendering of sensations was already the intention of modernist abstraction in painting; in 1947, for instance, Clement Greenberg had seen in Jackson Pollock’s art “an attempt to cope with urban life; it dwells entirely in the lonely jungle of immediate sensations, impulses and notions, therefore is positivist, concrete.” And of course Pollock was just going further along the path the Impressionists had already started on more than seventy years earlier, not long before Rimbaud’s Illuminations showed that something similar was possible in poetry. Today King, like many of the rest of us, is still trying to cope with urban life; and Greenberg’s astute turn of thought, in which what might have been thought utterly private and subjective (“immediate sensations, impulses and notions”) turns out to be what’s most evident and “concrete,” is just as applicable to her poetry as to Pollock’s paintings. King’s poetry is full of emotional content, sometimes harsh, often poignant — and for that matter consists of almost nothing but that — yet it never demands that you feel along with it. Instead, the feelings brush lightly across your skin like a passing cat.

When I read King’s first full-length book, Antidotes for an Alibi, in 2005, I noticed a series of basic words that recurred through the book — woman, love, God, sex, mother, child, man — and that seemed to structure its emotional plot. In I Want to Make You Safe, by contrast, such recurrent words don’t make themselves felt; they’re probably still there but more subtly. Yet the emotional tenor of her verse remains evident and I can’t help suspecting that words like love (the book’s final word), death, art, earth, and body occur more often in I Want to Make You Safe than in most of the new poetry that comes my way; even in those poems where such words don’t occur, they somehow seem to be lurking somewhere in the background. The puzzle is how King manages to square her work’s emotional openness with its semantic obliquity. I don’t think it’s entirely a matter of technique. It’s more an awareness that words were not born to be filed away in dictionaries and retrieved at leisure, but to lie heaped up around us waiting to be scooped up by the handful in the spontaneity of a linguistic gesture that can make do with whatever verbal objects come to hand. Thus a certain degree of arbitrariness or at least approximateness is not simply acceptable but absolutely essential to her writing — otherwise, the calculation of the gesture would cancel out its import.

There’s a paradox here: to make her poems work, King must be accurate in her arbitrariness, precise in her approximations. And she almost always is. It may be hard to specify why — but it becomes clearer in contrast to the relatively rare instances where things go awry and one senses the poet making a mannerism of her own method. One poem where this happens is “Our Eyes Register the Light of Dead Stars,” which overuses the device of combining a noun and adjective (or adjectival phrase) catachrestically: in short order we find “a glassy sun,” “the stewing universe,” and “our glassy brow,” followed by “That devil’s tuxedo promise,” “piano fire cures,” and “soft-focus silt” (20). As Kasey Mohammad pointed a number of years ago, “it is very unlikely that two different people will ever have exactly the same sense of when catachrestic language produces a dynamic poetic effect, and when it simply produces uninteresting noise,” but in this case I’d suggest that the quick succession of similarly structured catachrestic phrases gives off a clangor that diminishes one’s interest in the poem to the extent that it feels too mechanical (but on the other hand, if it were a mechanical effect that was desired, not mechanical enough); this diminishes rather than accentuates what is always the real content of King’s poetry, which is the concrete world of our everyday lives with its unfiltered sensations and sudden shifting microemotions.

Given that King is in this sense a poet of the concrete, of “sensations, impulses and notions,” it is not surprising that hers is a lyric poetry through and through. At a time when the lyric is widely denigrated and often practiced in a defensive mode if at all, her insouciant confidence that it will serve any end is heartening. Typical of the lyric, her poems are compact: mostly self-contained structures of a single page or at most two. But I Want to Make You Safe brings something new to King’s work: a pair of longer poems (the title poem and the final one, “This Opera of Peace”), allowing her lyrical impulse greater range. For a poet like King, whose subject matter by definition resists extension, the poem is most easily drawn out by dint of juxtaposition. After all, the shorter poems are already built out of juxtapositions, so the difference between a long poem (or, rather, long-ish: we’re talking about poems of eleven and thirteen pages here) and a long one is more about the decision to cut than anything else. The important thing is maintaining concentration — first the poet’s own, then the reader’s. In parts of “This Opera of Peace” King seems to be experimenting (very successfully) with the way more elaborate syntactical structures — the poem’s first section alone is twenty-seven lines long — can be used to maintain attentiveness through time while asserting a multiplicity of sensations in relation rather than simple juxtaposition, so that

This opera of peace

whirls and whorls around us

stretching darkness into light (75)

I’d love to see King continue “stretching” like this. The poetics that she’s been working with over the past decade seem ready to morph into a different sort, perhaps even stranger and more exigent. The prospect is electrifying.

'Imagined lexicography opens onto imagined anthropology'

A review of Ben Marcus's 'The Flame Alphabet'

The Flame Alphabet

The Flame Alphabet

Ben Marcus

Alfred A. Knopf 2012, 304 pages, $25.95, ISBN 030737937X

The Age of Wire and String (1995), Ben Marcus’s debut collection of stories, gave us the manual for a bizarre and wonderful alternate reality, a “catalog of the life project as prosecuted in the Age of Wire and String and beyond.”[1] As in Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus or Raymond Queneau’s 1948 novel Saint-Glinglin, important predecessors, Marcus’s alternate universe emerges out of the methodical strangeness of his language.[2] Fabulism and verbal experimentation become mutually entwined. Marcus’s primary method is the imaginary lexicographical definition, and the bulk of The Age of Wire and String might be thought of as a collection of entries from some unreal dictionary. For instance: “Yard, the Locality in which wind is buried and houses are discussed. Fine grains line the banks. Water curves outside the pastures. Members settle into position” (65). Imagined lexicography opens onto imagined anthropology, with impossible rites and technologies described in eerie detail. Here’s one of my favorites, an entry for “Intercourse with Resuscitated Wife”:

Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household’s walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an improvised friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom. Then the vacuum rides by and no one is pushing it, it is on full steam. Days flip past in chunks of fake light, and the intercourse is placed in the back of the mind. But it is always there, that moving into a static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages in the morning when the sun was new. (7)

In Marcus’s fiction, sex always occurs somewhere on a bandwidth between the disappointing and the grotesque, but bound nevertheless to powerful emotion. The electrical energy generated by the fucking of the dead wife might stand as an emblem for much of Marcus’s work: intensities both affective and physical are systematically sublimated into fantastic set-pieces of ritualistically exact verbal artifice.

Imaginary definition remained central to Marcus’s follow-up novel Notable American Women, but tethered, there, to something like a plot. A young man named “Ben Marcus” must navigate a strange land called Ohio. His father has been imprisoned underground. His mother has joined a women’s group — the Silentists — committed to eradicating language. The bulk of the novel is taken up with Ben’s depiction of life under the Silentist regime, though this portion is bookended by first-person narratives in the voices of Ben’s imprisoned father and Silentist mother, respectively. (Incidentally, these parents — Michael and Jane — are, like “Ben Marcus” himself, given the real names of real members of the real Marcus clan.) It’s as if the protean world of Age of Wire and String had been invaded by a dysfunctional family on the run from their group therapist. But unlike the earlier work, the distortions of idiom in Notable American Women could feel forced, precious, a flaw perhaps attributable to the novel’s uneven integration of its narrative and poetic possibilities.

In The Flame Alphabet, Marcus has made peace with plotting, and the result, which might with comic inadequacy be labeled an experimental medical thriller, is in its very different way as radical and surprising as The Age of Wire and String. The Flame Alphabet is a horror novel about an epidemic of toxic language emanating from children. It has all the generic trappings of an apocalypse-by-epidemic thriller, but filtered through an avant-gardist technique that somehow doesn't seem derivative of anyone. Imagine if Stephen King spent a year studying Carla Harryman’s Gardener of Stars and then tried to write The Stand.

The novel’s narrator, Sam, and his wife, Claire, have become physically ill by exposure to the speech of their teenaged daughter, Esther. “At first we thought we were bitten,” says Sam, and indeed the zombie flick hovers at the generic margins of the story. Esther’s speech poisons literally, but, in one of the novel’s many humorous strokes, its toxicity is also figuratively repellant, in the manner of any discontented adolescent’s perpetual grumbling and self-involvement:

Nice things, mean things, dumb things, just a teenager’s chatter, like a tour guide to nothing, stalking us from room to room. Blame and self-congratulation and a constant narration of this, that, and the other thing, in low-functioning if common rhetorical modes, in occasions of speech designed not particularly to communicate but to alter the domestic acoustics, because she seemed to go dull if she wasn’t speaking or reading or serving somehow as a great filter of words.[3]

The Flame Alphabet’s focus on family life is continuous with Notable American Women, but whereas that novel transformed parent-child psychodynamics into a panorama of charged symbols, this one hews closer to something like recognizable reality. Sam and Claire are eventually forced to evacuate their town, leaving Esther behind with the other toxic children in quarantine zones. To be near their daughter will kill them, but to save themselves is to abandon her — this impossible conflict is the novel’s emotional heart. Claire would rather die of proximity to her daughter than leave her; Sam wants to survive. The shame of his will to live threatens to overwhelm him: “When [Claire] looked at me I felt the high disgrace of being known for what I am” (135). Having escaped the children does not solve the problems of the adults, since their own speech, too, has become toxic, as has writing and sign language. All activity must henceforth take place not only in enforced silence, but under a general prohibition on any form of symbolic communication.

Much of the power of novels like The Stand or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (The Stand’s pretentious, faux-literary poor relation) depends on the negative sublimity of radical depopulation. The Flame Alphabet works adjacent territory, but the terms by which the world is stripped of the human are different. Not the postapocalyptic landscape of a world emptied of people, but instead the equally unimaginable condition of human being without human language:

The lack of speech, the absence of language to build us into full people, had turned us into a kind of emotive cattle. Perhaps a raucous inner life produced shattering notes inside us, but with no extraction tool, no language to pry it free and publicize it, even if it was moronic, one sensed that the whole enterprise of consciousness had suddenly lost its way. (190–91)

In the beginning was the Word, and in the end there wasn’t. Sam and his family are, importantly, Jewish, and in what is perhaps a riff on the well-trodden novelistic tradition of representing Jewish family life as charged, claustrophobic, pathological — think Portnoy’s Complaint — Marcus initially limits language toxicity to Jewish children, though by the time of the evacuations the disease has become general. But Jewish tradition remains central to the plot, with the Hebrew alphabet as potentially both source and cure of language toxicity. When asked in an interview what “the flame alphabet” means, Marcus explained thus:

It sounds made up, but it’s an existing concept in Judaism. The flame alphabet is a way to refer to the Torah: the word of God, written in fire. When I first read about it I was amazed. The idea of a language too blinding to look at, something too intense to understand.

Marcus has said that he’s “always wanted to invent a religion,” and his earlier fictions abound in occult patternings, in the construction of surreal technologies of the spiritual and the mystic, but The Flame Alphabet’s focus on Judaism proper is a departure. Sam and Claire belong to an invented Jewish sect — referred to by outsiders as “Forest Jews” — who worship secretly in isolated huts spread throughout the woods. In a sort of Jewish inside joke, Marcus makes the Forest Jews a wing of the (real) Reconstructionists, a progressive offshoot of American Conservative Judaism opposed to religious orthodoxy but emphasizing traditionalist practices. The Forest Jews are “[r]econstructionist Jews following a program modified by Mordecai Kaplan, indebted to Ira Eisenstein’s idea of private religious observation, an entirely covert method of devotion” (41). They retreat in groups of two (violating the Jewish requirement of a minyan, or minimum of ten adherents, for worship) to their huts, where they attach a “listener” to a hole in the ground (the “Jew hole”) from which sermons are broadcast by radio. This “listener,” a biomechanical contraption out of early Cronenberg, must be carefully fitted over the Jew hole to receive a signal, an eminently disgusting process:

Behind the hut I extracted the listener from its shit-caked bag. At the rusted orifice in the hut floor I squeezed the hole until I could pull on the fitting, but the hole was stiff. After a finger-mincing effort, it ripped wider with what sounded like an animal cry and heat spread into the hut as the listener shriveled in my hands. Soon the bag stoppering the hole swelled with air, inflating gently as if a sick person lay beneath it, breathing his last. Now, at least, a transmission might be possible. (77)

The Forest Jews’ “listeners” are mutant tools, and, like the video game controllers in Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, their working parts proliferate obscenely. “Sitting there as the day grew dark, the listener perspired on me, and one part of it, a fin canting from its rear that seemed encased by a soft wood, was so hot that I felt sick when I touched it” (80).

This is the stuff of horror, but horror crucially inflected (as it so often is) by religion. The fantastic Judaism in The Flame Alphabet works towards an end central to Marcus’s project from The Age of Wire and String on: the evocation of a reenchanted world. Appropriately enough for a horror novel about disease, this reenchantment proceeds along the largely negative path of the scientific grotesque, though the “science” is filtered through Jewish mysticism. Having retreated to a research facility in which investigators work in involuntary silence (all speech is now fatal), Sam pursues the development of a special Hebrew letter which, he hopes, will hold the antidote to the language epidemic. “The Hebrew letter is like a form of nature. In it is the blueprint for some flower whose name I forget, and if this flower doesn’t exist yet, it will” (208–209). Sam eventually synthesizes his mystic letter, though it doesn’t exactly sound benign:

I’d never held a shrunken head, but this was what one must be like: a cold, wrinkled organism submitted to a blistering round of dehydration, then crushed down to alphabet size. There were letters based on body parts, activities, feelings, but this was different. This letter, composed of what was missing or inferred in all the other Hebrew letters, was a species unto itself, and while I worked under the bright shield of the child serum, immune to the sluices of resonance, of comprehension that flowed so jarringly into me, my experimental letter gave off the unmistakable stink of organic matter left too long in the sun. (223)

Sci-fi theology as a means of reenchantment works, in The Flame Alphabet, hand in hand with the slightly warped idiom Marcus applies across the whole surface of the text. The euphemisms of medical-bureaucratic jargon assume special prominence. After being “medically ambushed” — that is, jumped by a security squadron and forcibly injected with a mysterious serum — Sam discovers that the real powers at his research facility have developed an antidote to language toxicity. The shot he’s been given allows him to converse with others, for a time. It would be churlish to reveal the turns of the plot, but suffice it to say that the means of acquiring the anti-language-toxicity serum are rather unsavory.

The serum itself is, furthermore, imperfect, and the sinister bigwigs hope Sam’s Forest Jew expertise might contribute to its refinement. (The exact nature of the help Sam can provide is unclear.) Will he cooperate? Will he ever be reunited with Esther? Like any good horror novel, The Flame Alphabet renders its implausible fantasies with uncanny, viscerally evocative verve. Its vision is total and totally unnerving. It gets under the skin. Or, as Sam says towards the novel’s end, “I grew foreign to myself, my skin like a hair-soaked stone, my face too numb to feel” (271).



1. Ben Marcus, The Age of Wire and String (New York: Knopf, 1995), 1.

2. Marcus has recently written a review essay on Raymond Roussel in Harper’s: Ben Marcus, “La doublure: The singular fascinations of Raymond Roussel,” Harper’s 104, Nov. 2011, 90.

3. Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 11–12.