Reviews of Tichy, Tadić and Barskova
What does it mean to witness? What becomes of the object of an unsustained inquiry? Gallowglass, Susan Tichy’s fourth book of poems, tries for answers. It’s an afterwards-document of calamity and of a loss of understanding, charged with elegiac grief for one lost and with an enervated sadness at our country’s role in terrible violence in the Middle East.
Gallowglass attempts an ecological, rather than phenomenological, understanding of its subjects. When their material is emotionally severe or politically charged, many poets who use disjunctive forms are tempted to arrange the material into post-Romantic fragmentary flashes, self-dissolution, and apotheosis. (Examples of this kind of work include Martha Collins’s Blue Front and C. S. Giscombe’s Giscome Road.) The subjects of Gallowglass are about as severe and charged a project as a contemporary lyric collection could attempt — but, to Tichy’s credit, Gallowglass represents a rigorous effort to deal with systems (of society and nature) over sensations. The book wants to show us something.
Tichy grids British Isles ballads over the confused cruel grace of birds, our wars in Iraq over Afghanistan with our individual memory’s attempts at the “rescue of dead men” (78). This systematic quality to the language can be startlingly beautiful:
Camera a little too close to a cheekbone, face hidden by a microphone.
Graffiti here says Rich Stench. The singer rubs her thighs and can’t sit still.
There’s a kind of stunned afterglow, for minutes and then for years.
'Be taught by walking’ was the best advice, but my muddy boot left tracks across the carpet. (12)
But at other times, Tichy’s contrasts feel self-conscious and facile:
This is how I must learn to describe peace
A white stork down by the fish ponds
And a blond man in a bathing suit
With an Uzi propped on his hipbone (71)
The book is also riddled with attention-grabbing self-revisions (“Tapestry makes a landscape without depth. I copied that, but it came out death” ), spliced-in quotations (“‘In Encounter everything depends on Perseverance’ / So was that a sheep or a beaver with its mouth full of twigs?” ), and attempts at defining (“Reflective means you can’t see in” ). These feel like old tricks, uninteresting in the scale of the project. And few of Tichy’s interpolations from highland balladry add up to much, just a sense that deeds of battle and violence once called honorable now chill us.
Though the long, collage-heavy, formally regular poems that open the book include a few beautiful and alert moments, the most moving and thought-provoking portions of Gallowglass — the times when its ethical claims seem clearest — come towards the end. “Book, Land, Night,” written in shifting couplets, has a strong, terrible thread of feeling through it as Tichy follows the bearing home of a body:
Splinter of bark is a splinter of lightning
I listen to the birds in the walls, their dry
Fluttering I think must be
The washing of your corpse (67)
By the poem’s end, the portent of “strange headlights in the driveway” makes the reader’s stomach knot. And Tichy concludes Gallowglass with the best thing in it, “To or From,” an intensely physical account of accident and grief.
Not one question, not one nightmare
Skidding a body down five hundred feet of rock and scree
Or sipping tea in the quiet morning
Looking down that god-awful
Slope where the plane went down
Bagging pieces that had been men
You’d held a heart in your hand (77)
The reader is never shown the entire terrible story hinted at here. But throughout the poem, Tichy repeats the phrase “every object discipline,” and the poem does reach an animated focus much more intense and charged with questions than anything in the book’s more essayistic first half. “To or From” ends in space —
Sand on the road and a wind to lift it
This is the image of pause
This is the image of step (79)
— and the reader too is left hanging, out of breath.
So what’s next for Tichy’s poetry? As a systematic inquiry, Gallowglass is mixed, though the effort is enticing. A lyric collection situating America’s Middle Eastern wars in a natural and Western-historical order hasn’t been written yet; in the meantime, Tichy’s next subject of examination might yield more even and energized results.
Stanley Kunitz once said that poetry’s art is not anecdotal, but legendary: that the stories in poetry are magnified, mythic in contours even if not in scope; that they answer a longing not for simple recognition but for allegory or origin story.
Kunitz probably had narrative poetry like his own in mind when he made the claim. But such needs are also met in weirder, woollier poetries: there’s a legendish outsizedness in Lyn Hejinian’s long poems, in Kenneth Koch’s antics in “Nights and Days” and “Fresh Air,” or in the he-she dialogues of Rosmarie Waldrop’s Reluctant Gravities. I originate in grand conversations just like I originate in grand experience, and poetry still shows me how so.
Polina Barskova’s first English collection, This Lamentable City, introduces readers to a poet of legend. Readers meet the giants of twentieth-century Continental literature in her poems, meet angels (“those tall, sexless bitches” ), meet the Lord in a “dialogue / That won’t cease” (27). But Barskova’s voice, in poet Ilya Kaminsky’s English (cotranslators include Kathryn Farris, Rachel Galvin, and Matthew Zapruder), is bitter, ironic, body-eager in turns. Her legend isn’t stately, and it’s never dull.
We met on a Sunday, no not exactly,
we met before, but it wasn’t that either:
you drank coffee through a straw but it was more like
a poor bird stopping in to see a horse in a coat
and you took me by the took me by the took me by the hand … (29)
Polina Barskova and Ilya Kaminsky
This degree of verbal instability characterizes most of the poems here. Barskova magnifies and animates her material, but she doesn’t elevate it. Rather, humans’ “low” and “high” functions of the spirit — rage and anticipation, lust and intellectual argument — occur at the same level of sensation on every page.
I will become any object,
I don’t care what —
I will be this speeding train.
Or a beautiful gay man laughing in the front seat.
The human body is without defense.
It’s a piece of firewood.
Ocean water hits it.
Lenin puts it on his official shoulder. (9)
Notice that “I don’t care what”: separation in Barskova’s poems (death, loneliness, heartbreak) is faced with this same curious mixture of hunger, enthusiasm, and anger, as if the hugeness of our human feeling — its ability to reach forward and back in time — were more important than our objective bodied smallness. Russia’s history is a colossal presence in this work, but humans don’t feel tiny in it. There’s an animating voice that suggests life even in ruin, as in the middle of the short lyric “Moscow”:
To lose your belongings,
Wearing each shirt to a small hole.
To stand under the sky as if in a valley.
In dazzling light: a lonely toilet
Abandoned by human asses.
How plainly now speech pours! (27)
This Lamentable City is a weirdly conceived little volume. It comprises just ten bilingual poems, all in free translation — without the tight formal music of her Russian originals, which Kaminsky’s introduction praises. We’re told she’s written six books. Is This Lamentable City a poetic calling card, the first step in a process of bringing full volumes into English? I hope so; the translations here are fantastic. Kaminsky (disclosure: a former teacher of mine) once lectured a class: “When you translate a poem, don’t use English that an English speaker would use. Use English that an English speaker would love.” I speak no Russian, but the voice caught in these translations is appealingly fierce, funny, and unfamiliar, a credit to the translators’ obvious sweat and exactitude. I hope after City there’ll be more to hear.
Barskova makes unsteady affirmations; Novica Tadić (pictured below at right with translator Charles Simic) a poet of negatives. He doubts reason and faith, human brotherhood and the self. His poems — celebrated in his native Serbia, known in the States mostly through Charles Simic’s translations — are never explicit in their politics, but the oppressive realities of Balkan Communism and the Milosevic regime are present in every surreal image of decay, every spasm of violence. Ending one poem, a soldier sings “I’m a cross of human flesh / on which nothingness is crucified” (31). In another, a dead man is mourned: “May the earth be easy on him; / since it was only today that we noticed / he had been alive” (34). The title poem of his second English collection, Dark Things, portrays human impulse and urge itself in these constrained terms:
Dark things open my eyes,
raise my hand, knot my fingers ….
No force can revoke them,
untangle them, explain them. (15)
The speaker, in the grip of these nasty energies, can only observe wearily and bring the poem to a close.
Essential to the speakers of Dark Things is this knowledge and the distance that poetry permits. Tadić’s poems are never oracular or immersive, despite the visit from an occasional outside muse (such as his “Midnight Lady,” “covered with nets and shining scales” who sits on the speaker’s bed “as if it were her work table” ). As if seeking a difficult precision, the poems fasten to a tone or scene immediately, and rarely last more than twenty lines.
The book is skeptical, but never (as in procedural or post-Dada poetics) anarchic or destructive in spirit. Rather, any unity or force is to be doubted as an unhelpful metaphor. In this collection, we are only as substantial as we tell ourselves we are. So, what are the comforts of Tadić’s work? The poet finds peace in his own grubby, nattering mind, the possibility of fixity in memory (“This dream, I am not / bound to forget” ), and the offer of a stepbrotherly decency toward fellow humans, “the unbaptized of every faith” (31).
To a reader of contemporary American avant-garde poetry, the claims on the imagination in Dark Things seem small. But the poems are unfailingly affecting. Listen to the quiet, perhaps ironic, ending of “On a Train Station, Dream,” quoted here in its entirety:
Small, bent over, gray,
I’m sitting with arms crossed
on my luggage.
I ask nothing of no one.
Wait for no one.
I don’t know where I’ve come from
nor where I’m going.
In the trunk are my books,
in the suitcase my shirts.
I packed everything I had.
On my head I wear
a cap of many colors,
my great pride and joy. (52)
Poof! On — and maybe in — the speaker’s head, the poem’s only flash of color and feeling; a figure (like Wallace Stevens’s “tigers in red weather”?) for the enduring, flimsy, vivid life of the imagination.
That Tadić is the poet most celebrated (after the late great Vasko Popa) in Serbia says something about the role of the artistic spokesperson in the Balkan nations. Tadić’s readers won’t find gentleness or lyric beauty in his work, only the comfort of an acute, undeceived consciousness. The faces of our leaders change, but in these poems’ decayed world, only the products of the animated mind are ever truly new.
A review of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's 'Concordance'
In a 2003 interview printed in Jacket, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge noted, “For me, collaboration has been a wonderful way to open someone else’s sensibility, to use that openness like oxygen or ocean.” Concordance is such a collaboration and such an openness. It is comprised of two poems: the first, “Concordance,” a work by the poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and the artist Kiki Smith, and the second, “Red Quiet,” a poem by Berssenbrugge. Berssenbrugge and Smith worked with the book artist Anne McKeown to create the work in its original form, a limited edition accordion book published by the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper. Kelsey Street Press published a trade edition of Concordance in 2006.
Concordance opens with the dedication “for the frogs and toads” and thus begins as an offering to creatures who live in both air and water and who appear as both word and image in the work. These double existences are not dualities as division but rather elements on a continuum of existence that Berssenbrugge and Smith amplify into a sensuous field of attention: “Attention gives light: shine on a baby’s calf; as he hears what I say, I become that,” Berssenbrugge writes in “Concordance.” The poem, written in three parts, inhabits the atmosphere of language and light shared between a speaker and listener, a writer and reader, between body and thought; it attends to the spatial and temporal phenomena that comprise relation. Berssenbrugge’s words and Smith’s images coexist to create a stunning ecology of plants, animals, people, water, air, light, idea, feeling, abstraction, concretion, and question.
Writing encounters one who
does not write and I don’t try
for him, but face-to-face draw
you onto a line or flight like a
break that may be extended,
the way milkweed filling space
above the field is “like” reading.
Because the text is so large, inhabiting the white space that surrounds verse, it is uncertain if the line breaks at the end of the page or has simply run out of room and runs over into the next line. The stanza may comprise a single line or it may be lineated verse. This formal uncertainty holds open both formal possibilities, and the stanza’s claim of “draw[ing] you onto a line or flight like a break that may be extended” resonates as the reader’s experience of the poem’s line. This possibility occurs as a question of relation, a “may be” that extends into existence. “Concordance” itself extends and co-extends; its images and text touch each other. The first “f” and tip of the “a” in “face-to-face” vibrate in a spot of blue ink, which suggests “milkweed filling space above the field,” which is “‘like’ reading.” The openness of the image allows the blue milkweed to resonate as flower or as sun or star. Ink, linguistic image, visual image, idea, and simile emerge in Berssenbrugge and Smith’s ecology as a web generating relations that the poem opens out. “Relation is in the middle, relay, flower description to flower”; these words appear on a page with a blue-feathered owl staring into the reader’s reading eyes. As you turn the page, the owl’s body and feathers extend onto the left margin of the new page. Here, transformation inheres in their presence; they recall the owl while also suggesting plant leaves bordering the text. Animal to plant. Smith’s image becomes both at once, and a single body opens out, transformed, across distinct planes into “asymptotic lines of the flights of concordances”: concordance as harmony, index, context, cross-reference, and genetic trace.
page details from Concordance (Kelsey Street Press 2006)
The poem is a concordance of surprising, feel-able relations and their bafflements: “I write to you and you feel me” and “For the first time, I write and you don’t know me.” The interesting possibility emerges in the work that feeling is a form of engagement that brushes up against and then runs askew of knowing. “Concordance” can be perceived as a textual and visual narrative of feeling thought. Thought becomes a share-able, sense-able experience in the work; it joins bodies and distinguishes them. Berssenbrugge writes, “Desire individuates through affects and powers I place on a page or plane of light vibrations, like a flowering field.” The “milkweed filling space above the field” that “is ‘like’ reading” is here inverted so that what is “placed on the page or plane of light vibrations” is “like a flowering field.” This chiasmic relation between field and text, text and field suggests “Concordance” as a space where the collaborative projects of printing — image and text — and perceiving produce a phenomenal field comprised of text, image, and one who engages them. In “Concordance’s” second section, Smith draws a hand as if reaching for a milkweed pod and milkweed filling the air, and in the third section, opened milkweeds appear, their shape turned substantial, grown the height of the page. This reach is the book’s beautiful work of opening. It is oxygen and ocean offered to the reader.
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Photo: Kiki Smith. Courtesy of Kiki Smith and U.L.A.E.
“Red Quiet,” Concordance’s second poem, is also comprised of three parts. It is printed on semi-opaque, red crêpe paper with fibers that gather and loosen, creating a rippling effect across the page. The slight transparency of the page reveals layers of text emerging from the pages beneath it. This depth appears from the play of light on the surface of the open page, and it appears differently according to the lighting situation and position of the reader. The page seems alive to the poem printed on it, and this vibrancy creates a vibrating field: “If existence is vibration, everything creates sound — trees, heart cells,” Berssenbrugge writes. Vibrating “trees” and “heart cells” sound in and as “Red Quiet.” From the work’s responsiveness to light and its evocation of continuous sound, a singing, palimpsest-like poem emerges. In the poem’s field of resonating light and text, words are both ghostly and embodied. Berssenbrugge notes, “Words spoken with force create particles.” This force, particularized, becomes a form of warmth: “I send out an emotion of warmth, welcome, the way scientists erase sound with sound.” Berssenbrugge’s welcome sings in “Red Quiet.” And Concordance is a great warmth, a great welcome.
detail from Concordance (Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper 2006)
Josie Sigler's living
In her debut book of poems, Josie Sigler links life with violence, love with loss, and mourning with the natural progression of time. Published by Fence Books as the 2010 winner of the Motherwell Prize, Living Must Bury is a mixture of repeated phrases, historical flashes, and tragic endings linked by the universal experience of living. In these poems, it is the living who must exist in both the present and the past simultaneously, and Sigler’s poems provide ample space for both while challenging us to find beauty in the process of grieving.
Sigler reminds us that we, the living, must bury a host of people, objects, and memories, even (if not especially) the ones that cause us the most pain. The world she creates carries a heavy message for the living. We are repeatedly informed that we must bear the burden of interring all that the dead leave behind. This reality comes through a safe system of poems linked by traditional poetic devices and references to everyday encounters. Designed to guide the reader as we come to terms with the weight we share as members of those still here, Sigler’s book provides a number of lists of what it is the living must bury:
those who are infidels, who in summer once / turned wide circles in grass.
those who would be skewered like hogs if they failed.
those who covet coral
those who will discover trace amounts of urine in their Mountain Dew.
those fighting causes they disbelieve,
those lost, those anonymous, those dream-singers
Through the repeated phrase “those who,” an extensive inventory creates a sort of respite for the reader. Rachel Zucker calls this book a “strange, archaic, 3-D prayer; a lucid palimpsest,” and I agree: Sigler has crafted a work rich with layers. She has moments in which she places religion on top of nature on top of domestic violence:
those who sit through the piercing test for life in Christ’s side.
As in stigmata, the part of the pistil that receives the pollen,
9) the portion of a body that can withstand the hard pew
& after church, my grandfather prying the knife
from our drunken neighbor’s hands & the man weeping
on his knees to the howl of sirens. […]
Sigler frequently employs the couplet to create a meditative space for mourning and remembrance, a place where chanting these memories makes them more powerful. Throughout the book she catalogs violent acts and carnal pleasures, sits them squarely in the memory of the speaker, and recalls relationships and painful places — both her own and those of a distinguished sampling of figures. Dickinson, Plath, Sappho, and Woolf (to name a few) share spaces with Holocaust victims and those affected by war:
those with yellow fever. those whose bones surface like fans,
including those fornicating in places where there is such mud, […]
those shivering on the deck, those who were once stars.
those for whom crumbling is not an instant’s act,
a fundamental pause in which enlightenment:
a mother might sell herself.
It is the union of beauty and brute that brings Sigler’s work to life. She contrasts that which we cannot clearly define with that which we can only define with negative meaning, like the “rusted plow left in winter’s field” or the idea that “hoping love will save you” is a problem. It’s clear that one focus of Sigler’s work is death and its aftermath, but the book also pulls us into a space in which responsibility and desire are at odds.
those wives in church clutching their hankies, their purses, their children.
You know the women who hold onto the world like this.
They’ve married the wrong man, taken the wrong job,
walked down the street during the hour of wolves.
No white-knuckled embrace can save them, no good deeds,
no casseroles left steaming on porch steps.
This contrast provides a familiar dichotomy placing Sigler’s work in a position to redefine the conventions of palimpest-inspired poetry. Moving between figurative language and literal descriptions, the poems seem to have no true beginning or end. This recursive discourse forces the reader to move between the common and the uncomfortable for sixty-three pages. But Sigler does not attempt to trick or deceive her readers; she begins the collection with an epigraph from two poets, Jorge Luis Borges and Sylvia Plath. Together, the two provide an entry point into the idea that Sigler is creating a universe for her readers, one that is quick-moving like Plath’s poem “Getting There,” and one made up of a language Sigler intends to teach us by the end of the book. From Jorge Luis Borges: “If there is [a universe], we must conjecture its purpose; we must conjecture the words, the definitions, the etymologies, the synonyms, from the secret dictionary of God.” And from Sylvia Plath: “I shall bury the wounded like pupas, / I shall count and bury the dead.”
These kinds of moments ground the reader in sometimes earthy and other times transcendent moments blended so seamlessly that one is not sure if the encounter is with triumph or tragedy. And so the living are celebratory in that we continue to enumerate what must be buried while attempting to exist in the moments that Sigler so aptly defines as “the dank smell at the bottom.”
A review of 'The Morning News Is Exciting'
Okay, okay. I’ll admit it. I definitely judge a book by its cover. And Don Mee Choi’s debut, The Morning News Is Exciting, is no exception. The front cover sports a large, white exclamation point, penetrated by hundreds of colored bands that seem to explode from the spine. Yes, exciting, to say the least! Robert McKenna’s cover design is conceptually derived (the process is described in the end matter) and quite arresting, but I actually spent more time considering the back cover. Like any curious reader, I wanted to know what I was getting myself into, and who had recommended it.
Three customary blurbs stand in neat contrast to the dark background and declare a great many impressive things about the book. A quick scan of the names and some adept Googling reveals that three venerable scholars blurbed the book, including my friend and fellow poet Craig Santos Perez. Craig uses heady phrases to entice readers, such as “exiles against empire” and “demilitarizes, deconstructs, and decolonizes” to describe the work the book is doing. As generous and intelligent as he is, all these doctors and doctors-to-be raised my hackles a bit. Would this be another book that aims to do some conceptual task that, according to our academic sages, needs to be done? The poems, as described by others, seemed to be for something other than poetry itself. Well, of course, you might say. Perhaps, dear reader, I wasn’t in the mood for any upheaval, whether in the world of events or in the world of language. And so I began The Morning News Is Exciting, confident in my ability to simplify it into an overly vitriolic, self-pitying, poetic package of political hatefulness.
Ah, but Choi begins by making the reader bow and submit to her syntax. The collective imperatives jump off the page with what seems like a frightening and inappropriate whimsy, capped by the oft-appearing exclamation point. A string of absurd commands are delivered to us in nonsensical sentences to open the first piece, “Manegg” (which we later discover is a homophonic translation of Monchoachi):
At least sit well, we command:
Men say he but tally saying no, lame!
Who can respond. None say none. My wind, way low.
Lie, Egg, more lonely and bare, a callous lock.
Truly true Lass pause and care.
When I first read these lines … well, I was frustrated. Probably an immature and hasty response, but it’s true. Looking back on these lines after having spent time with the entirety of the book, I see so much more emotional heft at work, even in the lines’ weirdness. Who can respond, the poem declares, simply stating a poetic dilemma that many of us have grown accustomed to, but still experience as terrifying. The internal rhyming gives off the sense that someone is behind (or underneath, really) all this nonsense. And it’s not long until we encounter what appears as a reliable lyric speaker. The second section, “Diary of Return,” immediately anchors the reader in the familiar first-person narrative context that we crave:
arrived below the 38th parallel. Everyone and every place I know are below the waist of a nation. Before I arrived, empire arrived, that is to say empire is great. I follow its geography. From a distance the waist below looks like any other small rural village of winding alleys and traditional tile-roofed houses surrounded by rice paddies, vegetable fields, and mountains. It reminded me of home, that is to say this is my home.
Choi hands the reader over to a speaker, presumably from South Korea, who links the border between the Koreas with a metaphorical waistline, perfectly setting up the “feminist politics” which Craig praises her for on the back cover of the book. And she mentions empire. By name!
The themes are evident enough: postcolonialism, violence (upon countries, upon women), domination achieved through language and syntax, and the book would not be without value if this were the extent of its merits. But there is a person there. There is a person there who breathes, who looks for home, who is sometimes many persons, but she is there. In “Diary of Return,” Choi embodies this female speaker in a series of vignettes about women who are presumably taken advantage of by American servicemen during and after the Korean War. In the following section, “The Morning News Is Exciting,” Choi takes a more abstract approach by comparing nations to girls:
Everyone is born wanted or unwanted, but some may be born exceptionally unwanted or wanted. A nation may be wanted or unwanted depending on what the other nation is thinking about.
And then later:
Something happens to the wanted girl. Nothing happens to the unwanted girl. The morning news is exciting.
If we read this with the earlier trope of a country’s waistline in mind, Choi not only illustrates the role of desire in invasion, but also how baser (literally, lower) desires can also be pretense for invasion. That is to say that the girl or country who is not desired for possession is still invaded and left for dead, “legs spread with the Cola bottle in her vagina and an umbrella up her anus.” And the speaker eventually admits this:
She has written that nothing happens to the unwanted girl. What an error. She’s an errorist.
Choi is often striving to resolve the difference between colony and home, wanted and unwanted, woman and nation, by interacting with “invader” texts, which are noted at the end of every poem: Foucault, Spivak, folktales, Dickinson, etc. The Morning News Is Exciting refuses to be either assimilated or impermeable and integrates these speakers into its collage of loss.
I find the use of Emily Dickinson particularly interesting. I mean, it’s a bit funny that Choi, who has heretofore been involved in translation of contemporary Korean poetry, would cling so tightly to a hermetic, dead, white woman. But she does. And Emily’s notion of the dialogical self is a fitting companion since it makes the self’s split explicit:
She went to Hong Kong in 1972. She was ten and knew only Korean then. She imagined there were two of her. She imagined me. I grew up in South Korea while she grew up in Hong Kong. I stay where I am.
The irresolvable distance surfaces again and Choi copes with it by speaking as two (sometimes many) girls, by writing letters between her selves, by transcribing diaries, poem-songs, and through a correspondence between three figures called Twin Flower, Master, and Emily.
It’s a bit disorienting, but once the reader has accepted disorientation as a possible aim of the book, The Morning News Is Exciting unleashes its power. The thirteen poems, which hover around eight pages each, flit from one form to another. If there are sustained queries, they are not borne through the means of a consistent tone, technique, or even the way the words look on the page. In fact, I would argue that the central question is: What is truly home? I am here but I remember there. The shifting form seems suited to Choi’s subject, though the book is dominated by prose blocks. And the self-contained poem-worlds offer the comfort of ordering devices (dates, numbers, headings) and footnotes, but these transitory anchors do little to prevent the poems from continually spinning their own “errors” and mistranslations into new injunctions for the reader:
Life begins now
Have no doubt
Have no door
This is not your fault
Run the rinse cycle twice
Don’t let the bubbles flow over
Life begins now
Have no doubt
Tea and Language
They say it’s a sensation
In her charmingly detached way, Choi moves from thing to thing with all the winsomeness and poignancy of a distracted child. The erratic mode seems second nature to a contemporary reader, possibly even calming. Despite her quick turns and changes, she frequently returns to basic symbols with a relentless obsessiveness that I admire in so many great poets. Sometimes these strange and simple things she carries through the book — moon, egg, star — lead her to stunning sentences that are not destinations in themselves, but are striking landmarks nonetheless:
Finally the child spoke. What is truly home? I am here but I remember there.
A review of 'Bluets'
In an interview with Bomblog, Maggie Nelson says she began writing Bluets because she wanted to spend time thinking and writing about something she loved — in this case, the color blue — rather than something she found despicable and frightening. “But because I am who I am,” Nelson says, “or because pleasure is what it is, the book quickly slid into dealing with pain too.” Consequently, Bluets reaches far beyond the constraints of its subject, resulting in a series of delicately associative numbered paragraphs investigating a broken romantic relationship, a friend’s chronic nerve pain, the writing process itself, and the deceptive elements of perception and color. The result not only defies easy categorization, but also leans toward Walter Benjamin’s famous declaration that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. Thus, the only way Bluets can accurately be labeled “essay” (as the back cover suggests), it is only in the context of that word’s formal definition, which is to make an attempt. Just as one of Benjamin’s general attempts was to suggest the profound connections between mysticism, materialism, and idealism, Nelson is attempting to connect diverse subject matter, while also creating a form which is not only conducive to her exploration, but generatively compatible as well. Additionally, Nelson’s awareness of form and elements of closure helped synthesize her various subjects.
Nelson’s intense thematic engagement altered the very embryo of her project, which, in its final state, leans heavily on the structure of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Remarks. For Nelson, as for Wittgenstein, the proposition is a discrete vehicle for thought experiments whose outcomes are proposed by the author, and then challenged in a way that suggests why the author’s or reader’s proposed outcomes may have been originally misguided. Bluets also supports Wittgenstein’s idea that it is impossible for a writer to say anything about the world as a whole, and that whatever can be said, can be said only in reference to its bounded portions. According to Wittgenstein, “Logic fills the world: the limits of the world are also its limits.” Therefore, according to Bertrand Russell in his introduction to the Tractacus, it is inaccurate to say, “There is this and this in the world, but not that.” Such a statement presupposes that one excludes certain possibilities to go beyond the boundaries of the world and to possibly contemplate these boundaries from the other.
It is tempting, but ultimately problematic, to suggest that Bluets’ propositions are an attempt to create 240 “bounded portions” of the world, because the book also contains the negative space between propositions, which tends to further the idea that our experiences are never fully formed, but are instead open-ended experiments or investigations. This white space physically houses the unbounded portions of the world, each portion providing a silence during which one can begin to formulate relation.
No matter what happens to our bodies in our lifetimes, no matter if they become like “pebble’s in water”, they remain ours; us, theirs.
In Tender Buttons, Stein seems particularly worried about color and pain that seem to come from nowhere, for no reason. “Why is there a single piece of any color…Why is there so much useless suffering…”
Goethe also worries about colors and pain, though his reports sound more like installments from the battlefield: “Every decided colour does a certain violence to the eye, and forces the organ to opposition.”
Conversely, one of the fundamental and necessary risks of Bluets is that such silences might actually come close to failing to make relation, as evidenced in the following sequence of propositions:
In one application, written and sent late at night to a conservative Ivy League university, I described myself and my project as heathen, hedonistic, and horny. I never got any funding. My blues stayed local.
The instructions printed on the blue junk’s wrapper: Wrap Blue in cloth. Stir while squeezing the Blue in the last rinsing water. Dip articles separately for a short time; keep them moving. I liked these instructions. I like blues that keep moving.
Yesterday I picked up a speck of blue I’d been eyeing for weeks on the ground outside my house, and found it to be a poison strip for termites. Noli me tangere, it said, as some blues do. I left it on the ground.
Between the above sections, the importance of such failure is evident. If we read the transitions paratactically, that is to say, without connective clauses, phrases, or statements logically leading from one proposition to the next, then we realize the book’s lack of a narrative arc, which is a way of establishing an expected mode of closure; one wonders, therefore, whether the book could go on forever. Will Nelson conclude only once she has exhausted all the different ways in which the color blue can be investigated through the machine of the proposition? Will she finally reach some kind of emotional resolve around the broken relationship? Will she simply run out of blue factoids?
While a paratactic reading presupposes that the book simply lacks a thesis, it also fails to consider the fact that the propositions are numbered, which, at face value, suggests that the book should be read chronologically — as if to suggest reading propositions randomly is for naught. It also fails to consider the following proposition which may provide a clue to the book’s organizing principles:
Writing is, in fact, an astonishing equalizer. I could have written half of these propositions drunk or high, for instance, and half sober; I could have written half in agonized tears, and half in a state of clinical detachment. But now that they have been shuffled around countless times—now that they have been made to appear, at long last, running forward as one river—how could either of us tell the difference?
Because Nelson’s propositions seem to represent a finite period of her life — the dimensions of which may have only arrived through the accumulation of day-to-day experiences filtered through a variety of linguistic, social, personal, and physical sensations — the governing principle for closure that seems most plausible is that this particular phase of Nelson’s life has reached its end. The ordering of Nelson’s propositions then, are paramount, and, when ordered most effectively, allow the reader to move inside the color blue, wandering through its terrors and sympathies while exploring its depths and hues with an awareness that is singular.
One of the more remarkable intervals (within the larger interval of “blue” that is the entire book) occurs between propositions 76–104. Here, Nelson addresses various states of depression, her broken relationship, and her friend’s chronic nerve pain. In these sections she allows the reader to exist within the color, embodying it with Nelson, rather than merely observing her commentary. Because of this, the reader experiences a more nuanced overlapping of subjects and at the end of the interval the reader finally steps back outside the color to observe, once again, how it is returned to its shelf as a vehicle for curiosity:
There are no instruments for measuring color; there are no “color thermometers.” How could there be, as “color knowledge” always remains contingent upon an individual perceiver? This didn’t stop a certain Horace Benedict de Saussure, however, from inventing, in 1789, a device he called the “cyanometer,” with which he hoped to measure the blue of the sky.
Though rare, there are moments when Nelson’s self-awareness gets the best of her. As if anticipating a critic inclined to dismiss the book as just another literary meditation on the color blue, in proposition 155 she writes: “It does not really bother me that half the adults in the Western world also love blue, or that that every dozen years or so someone feels compelled to write a book about it. I feel confident enough of the specificity and strength of my relation to it to share.” This and other overt and hyperaware affirmations temporarily draw the reader away from the core experience of the text which, in its finest moments, is like being led through a natural hot spring whose temperatures vary in accordance with the warm and cool water seeping out from tiny holes in the earth. Similar to the way a bather might experience these varying sensations, the reader fully immersed in this book (without those occasional moments of self-awareness) participates in the complementary pleasures of emotional and intellectual discovery while being led by an enlightened guide capable of weaving intensely private and painful experience. Not only that, but Nelson’s exhaustive research and earnest attempt at understanding crisis, longing, and redemption creates enough white space to allow readers to enter into her world, which, in the end, represents both the intimacy and distance that exists between all of us.