'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.

Short statement in five parts on 'Statement of Facts'

A review of Vanessa Place's 'Statement of Facts'

Statement of Facts

Statement of Facts

Vanessa Place

Blanc Press 2010, 430 pages, $45 (in hardbound, $25 in paperback), ISBN 9781934254189

1. Context

Vanessa Place composed Statement of Facts through the deceptively simple act of “reproducing some of her appellate briefs and representing them as poetry.” Because she’s a lawyer who represents sex offenders, the book is basically a reframing of victims' narratives used as evidence in sex crimes cases, and is, as you might expect, a “disturbing” read. Already the book has generated strong reactions, and these reactions have dictated the content of most interpretations.

Most publicly, at 2010’s Rethinking Poetics conference, Marjorie Perloff caused the audience to collectively gasp when she claimed that what Statement of Facts reveals to us is that the victims of rape are “at least as bad as or worse than the rapists.” An Internet controversy erupted over the sensitivity and accuracy of her reading, and Perloff responded by claiming that she of course did not mean that rape victims are bad, but that the socioeconomic conditions that allow for rape are bad. Such a response only further infuriated everyone who was already furious because it wrongly implies that rape is a “lower-class” problem.

So from this comment sprung a short-lived Internet controversy (which took place mostly in the comments boxes of Steven Fama and Stephanie Young’s blogs, respectively, and on Facebook) regarding the politics and ethics of Statement of Facts. You can Google this yourself, but it concluded with some people asking Place to publicly explain the intent of her work, so as to clear up any ethical dilemmas that might have arisen for the readers. Place, of course, refused to do so, which has partially allowed for the book’s retention of its initial provocative appeal. Now in 2012, opinions are still sharply divided, and the focal point of the conversation, when it comes up, remains Perloff’s comment. Because of this, I’d like to read Statement of Facts in terms of its reception, and attempt a conclusion that doesn’t conform to what I consider’s Perloff’s relativism, the naysayers’ moralism, or Place’s realism.

2. The relativist’s position

Now let’s just say what we all know: Perloff is a conservative critic, and her statement bears witness to that conservatism insofar as it suggests a world in which the positions of oppressor and oppressed are interchangeable. By saying the victims are just as bad as the rapists, she recreates a certain argumentative form that is meant to make oppressive violence seem natural: for example, “Israel might have used have disproportionate force, but they were responding to terrorism!”; or “The police’s reaction may have been excessive, but black bloc pushed them to violence.” These sorts of things are always justified in terms of rather abstract contextual circumstances: “socioeconomic conditions,” “a long and complicated war,” etc. What’s common to this form of argument is that the position of oppressor and oppressed is exchangeable due to a supposed mutuality of guilt. Of course I’m not suggesting that Perloff literally thinks that victims brought rape upon themselves, but she does seem to think that because the victims are not totally innocent, their position as victim is in itself relative. And this relativity is, for Perloff, a sad consequence of the way things are, i.e. of a “social problem,” which must remain abstract in order for this relativism to function. And to repeat in the name of clarity: when I refer to relativism I mean it in the particular sense of imagining the primary work of the work of art to be the questioning of facts and facticity, not simply to complicate the world of meaning, but to relativize the social order.

But that said, I don’t want to spend this whole essay tearing apart Perloff’s statement once again; many people have already done that, and her claim is so obviously off the mark that it hardly seems worth it. What I find more interesting is an attempt to think through how her remarks were possible in the first place, in terms of the text. One response would be to read through the book and simply conclude that Perloff’s reading is nonsensical — that it has very little to do with the actual poem, and that Place’s work is certainly not racist or classist or conservative. Another response would be to take Perloff seriously, and to condemn Place, regardless of her intentions, for the creation of a text that spawns such readings.

A third way is even worse than those two — to accept that “any reading is a good reading,” and that readers take away from a poem anything they bring to it. This has been Place’s position on the matter, and in many ways it’s a completely understandable position to take as an author; but from the position of a reader or a critic it must be rejected. Rather than acquit the work of any “bad” political value, we must assume that the seed of the “bad” reading lay somewhere in the work — Marjorie Perloff is not a crazy person, after all, and she’s not hallucinating a conservative reading onto an otherwise obviously radical text. Perloff’s reading, in the end, is not so wild or even imaginative — it’s a completely legible relativist response to a difficult work. 

3. The moralist’s position

I define as the moralist position the demand to see Statement of Facts re-signified by its author in terms of an ethical Good. For example, Juliana Spahr’s suggestion that Place reveal to us the intention of her work, so that we may more properly judge it; similarly, all the dismissals of the work which rely on guilt by association, in which those people who are critical of Perloff use their criticisms of her to function as criticisms of Place’s book. What these positions have in common is the fantasy of a well-intentioned work of literature, which will somehow announce its good intentions via the author’s statements. Those who are unwilling to differentiate between the author and the work are unwilling to read.

After all, contemporary readers are comfortable with the notion of fictionality being the ground of speech, and familiar with artworks that question the idea of facticity and reality. The issue here, then, is a discomfort sparked by the idea that the facticity and reality of the speech of victims might be questioned. This, remember, is precisely what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak addressed in ye olde “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in which she critiques both Foucault and Deleuze for assuming the speech of the oppressed to be automatically truthful by virtue of its author’s social position. In other words, the subaltern cannot speak in the context of Western thought because we, as Westerners, grant the words of the other a truth-value that, strictly speaking, cannot belong to language. If we hold Spivak’s critique in mind, the relativist reading of the book is hardly shocking, insofar as it attempts to deal with the deadlock between the supposed truth of the victim’s narrative and the inherent fictionality of language by generalizing that fictionality to the point of meaninglessness: everything means something different to anyone else anyway, etc. Furthermore, by “reproducing” the cases without commentary, and displaying them as poetry (which in the eyes of the law is never fact, but fiction), Place’s project, from the very first, questions the relationship between trauma, law, and truth — and such an act of questioning will always court the easy relativist answer, which will in turn court moralistic ire.

But isn’t that the laziest (and most academic) critical move? To say that a work “questions” something without articulating the specific questions asked or the possible answers?  So let’s be clear: Place’s project, by reframing the “real” speech of victims as poetry, presents this real speech as fictional — necessarily and generically. Furthermore, the book points to a division between the traumatic event and the narrative of a traumatic event. This is not to say that traumatic events are not real, but it is to say that they are not necessarily reported in terms of what we would call factual accuracy (see: Freud, or anything else written in the twentieth century). Thus, what is “real” is not the brute fact of the violence itself, but the relationship of that brute fact to its symbolization:

Suze is Nikki’s mother: when Nikki was a teenager, Suze told Nikki’s principal that Nikki was a habitual liar and a drama queen. Nikki lied about abuse, and thought she saw humans with bird heads. According to Nikki’s mother, at the time of her testimony at the preliminary hearing and trial, Nikki no longer lies:  from her participation in the Dorothy Brown School, counseling, and getting off medication, Nikki is “a new person.”

Place’s book is about this process of symbolization in two senses. Firstly, the victims’ speech is more or less true, and more or less factually descriptive. That is, it’s not always clear that the victim is “right” (for example, there are cases in which a victim claims not to remember what he or she had previously told the police, or in which children try to make sense of what’s happened to them). Secondly, these are not the direct reports of the victims, but the reports that have been transcribed by the police and by lawyers, and so the reader must make a leap of faith, and believe everything that the police say, if he or she wants to understand the victims as bearers of truth.

Thus, the book questions the notion of legal truth and factuality through its very form, by reproducing a discourse (that of the interrogation and the courtroom) which most of its academic-lefty readers would be otherwise inclined to approach with skepticism. But the trick is: instead of its “questioning” taking a destructive form, in which the reader might be confronted with the gaping aporia in legal language, the book presents material that almost dares the reader to disbelieve, and forces him or her into a far more uncomfortable position, as in: yes, I believe what is reported here, even though I disbelieve the state apparatus which reports it.

What the ideology of the Law asks of us, after all, is to believe in its truth (which is often presented as the truth of its victims), even if and when we disbelieve. It performs this asking by presenting us with bare facts, the sort of facts that cannot be contested without insensitively calling a victim’s very victimhood into question. In this way we learn to accept (and even enjoy) the force of the Law’s truth, even as we perform our skepticism. Think of the TV show COPS, which can be read as a distilled version of this function: even though one watches the police make impulsive and improvisational choices, one is put in the position of nonetheless cheering them on as they arrest the abusive husband, the drug dealer, the man with the concealed weapon, etc. To fail to cheer them on is to feel complicit or sympathetic to the perpetrator of unquestionably real assaults.

4. The realist’s position

Part of the problem with reading Statement of Facts is Place’s recent insistence that “ontology is facticity” and that conceptual writing is the practice of radical mimesis, in which the mute materiality of the world (its stuff-ness) is displayed in all its stupidity. As she says in her essay “The Death of the Text,” “it is nothing more than dumb materiality, a mute object that can serve, like other hunks of stuff, our man-made need for talismans.” Or, in a recent interview: “The stuff of conceptualism, the textual thing, is the most static of objects, inert, inutile. Dead as a doorknob. Its representations are radical mimesis because they do not represent, just present.”

The supposed static nature of conceptual texts is what lends them to contemplation, as opposed to reading, in the strong sense. Because, according to Place, conceptual writing presents the inertness of the text, it can be re-framed in any way one wishes, insofar as an inert, inutile text is not self-reflexive, and does not make its own meaning. Because of her repeated statements of this sort, Place’s “any reading is a good reading” stance loses its provocative appeal (in which the author simply refuses to give the readers what they want), and instead becomes a rationalization of a realist relativism (in which a flimsy ontology serves as a crutch for cynical postmodernism).

Let’s be clear: the idea that “ontology is facticity” is totally insane. I can’t pretend to know where Place is getting this idea, but even if one were to, say, refer to Badiou’s argument that “mathematics is ontology” (which is very different from saying that “ontology is mathematics,” btw), one would find the emphasis not on the mere counting (and accounting) of the world of stuff, but on the formalization of that which is not-counted, the inscription of the not-all, or the void, or whatever. Similarly, a phenomenological concern for facticity (as in Heidegger) is not a concern for inert stuff, but for the unfolding of stuff, and the hermeneutics of said unfolding. This might seem like mere grad student blather, but it leads to an important point: any good materialist theory has involved the negation of vulgar materialism that understands the world as dead matter. Marx’s pejorative name for this stance was “contemplative materialism,” which he define as a philosophy that understands the world as matter, as opposed to movement: In other words, it sees things as they are, as opposed to in flux: “The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.”

Much materialist thought is aimed precisely at negating this mistake, as the theoretical consequence is a definition of the world as a series of objects, the collapse of the subject-object dialectic, and the reduction of thinking (as part of the movement that brings being into being) to the contemplation of “what is.” From Lukács to Derrida to Badiou, the emphasis of materialist thinking has been directly counter to its vulgar counterpart, which always presents itself as realistic (what could be more “realistic” than matter?) and therefore natural.

This is why Place’s position is not simply relativist, but “realist” (not of course, in the sense that, say, Lukács or Silliman understood realism, as the movement of history, but in the simple sense of the presentation and belief in reality). While it masquerades as a theory of radical inauthenticity and performativity, Place’s statements belie a faith in reality as that which “is” and presents the deadness of the world — the inherent meaninglessness of the stuff all around us, its “dumb materiality.” This position encourages and engenders the relativist position, insofar as it frames the text as an object of contemplation to which any reading might apply, insofar as any and all readings are as inauthentic and inert as the text itself, just another object in a world of objects.

5. Anti-context

Full disclosure: I count Vanessa Place as a friend, and I admire Statement of Facts. Though I disagree with her theorization of her own work, I understand the work itself to be extremely valuable, probably precisely because it exceeds attempts to render it relative, moral, or realistic. It is this excessiveness that is disturbing, which maintains the book’s provocation and ambiguity. As opposed to other framings of conceptual writing, I’d argue that it’s not the concept that defines the work, but the specific way in which the work veers from the concept, or fails to be identical to it. This failure is conceptual writing’s way of rejecting closure, by founding itself on its non-identity with itself. If the work were defined by a graspable concept, we’d be back in the inert world, in which a concept were an object, as opposed to a movement of thought. So instead of creating a legible context for the work, which much writing on conceptualism attempts to do, we should go about highlighting the failure of the context to become the concept: this will lead us back toward a dilemma, as opposed to freeing us of it.

As such, we must be brave enough to read Statement of Facts without succumbing to the temptation to wash it clean of all ethical dilemmas. Instead of writing a book which presents itself as already ethical (which most poetry does, insofar as it “reveals” the ethical Good of the reader in the attention he or she gives to the sensuality of the text), Place has written a book that presents itself as a conundrum. It confronts us with a deadlock: to approach as fiction that which we most desperately, with all of our moral fiber, want to regard as irreducible reality. 

We cannot simply justify Place’s provocation, or our justification will remove that provocation as an obstacle. That is, we cannot assume that Place is writing from a radical position, or that she does not bear the conservative and relativistic intentions of interpreters such as Perloff. Nor should we be so quick to forgive Place for the book because she “actually wrote it” in the day-to-day of her work. Statement of Facts is not, after all, a book about having a day job.

Nor is it a matter of resisting interpretation: it’s a matter of resisting prefabricated interpretations that would be quick to get the book off the ethical hook. If this book is good for anything (and it is) it’s good for putting us back on that ethical hook, as readers, and letting us dangle there, daring us to take a stance we find abhorrent in the interest of truth which we might find equally abhorrent. And isn’t this, in the end, simply the classic Brechtian ethic? Not to present to the viewer a fully formed position with which to identify, but to present to the viewer a real ethical dilemma and thereby activate criticality?

What the skirmish around Statement of Facts ultimately “shows us” is that the book doesn’t “show us” anything. If the book, as a cause, does not effect a particular reading, this is not because it simply “means anything the reader wants it to mean” or some such nonsense, but because it presents a genuine paradox: if we believe the truth of victim’s speech, but distrust the law that records it, we must take the facts of the victim’s speech, as reported by law, to be false, in order to stumble on its truth: regardless of the factuality contained herein, the book is still not true.

This is the case (as in Spivak’s example) not just because of the inherent fictionality of language, but because of the social structure which grants an erroneous truth value to certain acts of language as a means of control: if certain acts of speech are always already authenticated by the social position of the speaker, then that social position is maintained as a natural fact, which, like all natural facts, are merely materials to be managed by the state.

So: Statement of Facts will be praised by realists who like its semblance of reportage, and by relativists who like its calling into question of facts, and will be dismissed by moralists who fear that the book may not share their politics. But there is another position, one which does not relativize facticity, and yet argues that the form of facticity is related to its symbolization, and thus that some facts (facts which are facts for the police) foreclose the possibility of their relationship to truth. The uncomfortable thought, then, is the necessary untruth of anything that comes out of the Law(yer)’s mouth; and it is in confronting this impasse (and not simply in its disturbing content) that Statement of Facts is truly difficult.

"To throw doubt in the poet’s mind"

A review of Andrew Shelling's "From The Arapho Songbook"

From The Arapaho Songbook

From The Arapaho Songbook

Andrew Schelling

La Alameda Press 2011, 144 pages, $14, ISBN 1888809612

Some years ago when I was a graduate studying poetry I enrolled in a Sanskrit class. I was fascinated by a language that used mythology and poetry as its primary texts: the sky, landscape, gods greater and lesser abounded. It wasn’t long before I realized that I had to make a decision: would I quit the class or would I spend the rest of my life entranced, perhaps enthralled, to this ancient and extraordinary language?

Sanskrit continues to be one of the principal religious languages of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The word itself means something like “put together” and/or “elaborated.” Although in its Vedic and classical forms, Sanskrit, like ancient Greek and Latin, is no longer practiced, it is listed as the official language of Uttarakhand in northern India. As a written language it is distinguishable, perhaps, by the line that rides over and from which the curling, tendril-like shapes of the letters are suspended. My Sanskrit professor asserted that that horizontal connecting line represented the speaker’s stream of breath, vocalized as the long sound of “ah.” When I told Andrew Schelling her theory of the vowel sound and breath, he said, “I’ve never heard that before!” Then he thought for a moment and added, “Well, you could say that …”

I did drop the class: years of diligent study seemed too great a burden to carry at the time. Schelling, however, has been a disciple of the language since the 1980s, producing translations not only of the Isha Upanishad but also of a panoply of writers, many of which can be found in Dropping the Bow: Poems of Ancient India (1991), which received the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.

Schelling’s most recent book, however, strays far in time and space from the world of ancient Sanskrit. In From the Arapaho Songbook, he reveals his latest linguistic journey by lacing this collection's short and decidedly postmondernist poems with the North American language, Arapaho.

Arapaho belongs to a people native to “the Front Range” of the Rockies, which runs from Wyoming south to Colorado. Schelling has lived in Colorado since 1990, and his interest in the language is part of his

belief that North America produced terrific epic singers, fine poets, great storytellers, and that rather than returning to Europe or Asia or wherever to find the bedrock literature for our continent, we should look to the indigenous languages. (Email to the author.)

This search for “bedrock” aligns with his attraction to Sanskrit, which as one of the earliest Indo-European languages comes as close as possible to being a bedrock of English. Further, and perhaps more importantly, Arapaho, coming from a Native American culture that was deeply connected to its environment, was a path along which Schelling could explore a linguistic understanding of the Colorado landscape. As the language of the first inhabitants it would contain a primal natural poetic: “I also knew from many years with Sanskrit, that the language alone would provide images, themes, metabolic pathways, nutrients, for my own writings.”

From the Arapaho Songbook does not consist of translations. Arapaho, which at this moment is a language that belongs to some 350 speakers, has few texts available to native speakers and translators. The hundred or so that exist are mostly Ghost Dance Songs that were collected in the 1930s, and it’s with some irony that Schelling names this collection to echo a Tin Pan Alley collection of songs. But the paucity of Arapaho has little relevance given the intentions of Schelling’s explorations. When he uses the language it’s as nouns scattered throughout the poems, almost like artifacts:

what animals the tools scraped,
broken horn
wox niiinón
bear tepee
but those peaks there, no, never,
‘it is never summer there’ (15)

Part of this objectifying effect is created by the language itself, which like Sanskrit defies pronunciation, even though it is written in our familiar Roman alphabet. Our sense of written Arapaho as “language” never quite jells. What, for example, are we to do with those three successive iiis in niiinón? Even worse:

To have hold of some power
a gift of the animal world

that’s not how to say it (43)

Is that a 3? you might ask.

And so, the internal sound provided by words on the page escapes us — leaving an absence in its stead. This not simply a feature of “foreignness.” Schelling uses other words within the text from Sanskrit and Chinese: soma, raga, Huai Shi, all of which strike most readers of poetry as familiar even though their exact meaning may be unknown. Their combination, however, seems to throw doubt in the poet’s mind:

A mounting unease
can you safely use terms from
so many languages
I Ching
says stay modest, act with respect

Where is he? In which country? In which era? The poem continues:

the right foot gave out as I stepped
from the cabin
the carton of books strewn in the mud
have I broken my foot
broken trust with the unseen
sources of life (46)

Here is the doubt that plagues most of us who write across cultures and eras, attempting to translate not simply a language but the subtle mentality that forms and is formed by language and the environment: are we misrepresenting something we don’t understand? And in doing so, are we causing harm to the members of that other culture or to the descendants who are the rightful heirs of that culture of another time or place?

These seem unlikely questions about a collection of poems that is formed with the disjunctions and associative logic of post-modern writing. Within these poems are owls, buffalo berries, references to archeological finds, ragas that evoke the monsoon’s rainfall, a dark eyed junco, poets Huai Shi, Ezra Pound and Alec Finlay, Ruth Benedict and California Indian historian and linguist Jaime de Angulo, Orion’s belt and Ursa Major, a lodgepole pine forest, basketmakers, birds, lizards, deer, and North American mythologies about girls marrying bears, to mention a few among a shifting host of people and things — all of which are elements of the surrounding world and its history that evoke wonder and admiration within Schelling.

At times the disjunction seems extreme. A poem that lists the tools that helped settle the west:

Connolly’s Knife edge T-Bar
Devore’s Wire Lock
Edenborn’s Offset Barb (112)

is followed by a poem opening with praise to Indian poet/artist Dilip Chitre (1938–2009), who translated the devotional poetry of the twelfth-century saint Muktabi:

Dilip, your name means —
possibly, protector
question mark, of Delhi
down the page diganta is sky’s end
rim of the horizon
The powder of pearls was thrown in the skies

Nonetheless, I believe it is the question of cultural appropriation that lies behind the delicacy of these poems: a delicacy that is stylistically manifest in the careful precision of the lines, the spare use of Arapaho and other languages radically different from English, and the pared-down English. Complexity of approach further transmutes any facile understanding or use of the Arapaho language: it becomes another momentary — and therefore, dear — form of addressing life in the world of the poet’s imagination. The unspeakability of Arapaho rattles around within our mind and resonates as a physical understanding of intense loss, of extinction.

This sense of loss, which is intrinsic to the written form of the language, murmurs like a quiet but insistent contention with the writer’s understanding of Arapaho as an active and vitally expressive language comprised of chains of verbs strung together to create compounds of nouns, adjectives, verbs. A language:

… that allows them to recognize
the place
and subsist in it
along with its other
animals, plants, spirits,
and geologic
forms. (53)

The fact of Arapaho’s loss, its impending and probable extinction, reinforces the collection’s searching melancholy.

Alongside this mysterious mutability of language, three other primary events and themes run through the collection: the suicide of a friend, which returns frequently as a conundrum between the power of rationality and that of deep emotional despair; the unpredictability of life, which Schelling refers to as “luck” and which is manifest in odd ways — in a fall that causes the poet’s foot to break and as an inexplicable motive behind his friend’s death; and finally, the musicality of life, which finds its release and complement in language and which is particular not only in its subject, like the Malhar ragas sung for the monsoons, but its choice of singer/poet:

The Malhars are played
to draw rain
this watershed moves like a raga
flint spear tips came off its glacier
intricate rhythms                                    Mian ki Malhar
I forget how to sing them
Mian Tansen sang and brought fire
but couldn’t remember the rain notes
only his wife
could sing Malhar (57)

A sympathetic collection, From the Arapaho Songbook asks for and merits multiple readings.

The freedom of restraint

A review of Devin Johnston's 'Traveler'



Devin Johnston

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2011, 80 pages, $23, ISBN 0374279330

The title of Devin Johnston’s newest book of poems, Traveler, operates in several ways: The title poem, for example, is about a bird, specifically a “Blackburnian warbler,” that travels from “the foot of Cotopaxi / and across the Gulf” to the speaker’s yard, where he (the bird) “glances toward / [the speaker’s] lamplit stationary world / of smooth planes.” Such global mobility, of course, doesn’t belong strictly to migrating birds. It’s a restless race Johnston belongs to.

That restlessness is most clearly expressed in a second, more salient meaning of the title word. These poems travel: the “lamplit stationary world / of smooth planes” contains a pun. It’s from his desk that the speaker takes off and jets through the world: “The hours spent on transpacific flights / pass like a sandstorm through the Mongol steppes,” Johnston writes in “Foreign Object.” The poem “Marco Polo” describes the speaker’s daughter who, “in her high chair” at dusk, “echoes the names of things / in early Mandarin or Cantonese,” while “the neighbors’ children shout Marco! Polo! / in antiphony across the swimming pool.” So much distance covered in so few words. That’s one way the poems travel, through geography. But they also travel through time, as in the first two strophes of “Set Apart”:

Set apart
from the compound
friction of forest
a rough-barked
bur oak,
mostly trunk,
its understory.

A sapling in 1700,
it rose like smoke
from leaf litter,
a totem for those
who told tales
every episode
the offspring
of earth and sky.

Or take the entirety of “Static”:

Zipping your skirt, you rustle past,
sand hissing through a glass,
with the Bedouin snap and flash
of static-electric
sparks disturbing fabric.
This morning’s charge could rouse
The Desert Fathers of Sinai

over which I drowse.

Here, Johnston connects the now (the skirt being zipped up in present tense) with the then (the metaphor of the outmoded timekeeper, the hourglass), even as his attention travels from the book in his hands to the woman getting dressed (though in the poem, the woman’s action happens first — as in aging, we often see we’ve traveled after the fact). He also travels among thoughts and modes of consciousness: from the austere contemplations of the ancients to the hint of sexual arousal implicit in “[T]his morning’s charge.” Johnston repeatedly reminds us how language, from its figures of speech to the etymologies of its words, ramifies surprisingly, resonantly. He does this without using a heavy hand.

The lightness of touch is in league with the form of these poems. Something else the book’s title evokes is the traveler in a sailboat, a device allowing the boom to swing without swinging too far to port or starboard. The traveler gives the sail liberty to catch the changing currents of air while also reining it in, so that it doesn’t, in a lovely turn of phrase I once heard from a sailing instructor, “spill the wind” and thus stall forward progress. The traveler provides both freedom and restraint, a combination of qualities that abounds in Johnston’s well-trimmed sentences:

Beneath an icy
     column thick as phlegm,
this cold coyote
     of our river system
peers through a scrim
     of silt and leaf debris
as lightning skims
     the shoals of Harmonie. (“Storm and Sturgeon”)

Another example:

My daughter, three, lies awake
talking in confidential tones
with one she calls
my friend who eats me.

Its very name raises the question
of where to draw a line
in affinities and affections. (“Appetites”)

One more:

Like cordage from a lost rig,
a loose braid of bullwhips
breaches a wave, holdfast
anchors adrift, canopy ripped.
Bladder wrack or black tang
wraps a hollow bulb,
and from each terminal, a stipe
curls in Arabic script. (“At Sea Ranch”)

That last passage shows another of Johnston’s proclivities: traveling through the lexicon to find the obscure word apt both in meaning and ripeness of sound. (One poem is called “Thesaurus.”) His sentences and lines are limber and concise. The end-rhymes in “Storm and Sturgeon” unfold naturally; the pivot from story to its contemplation in “Appetites” occurs cleanly and without friction. The poems go down deceptively easy, and that might be the only criticism one can level at this book. Traveler brings to mind a number of other poets: H.D., Wallace Stevens, George Oppen, Kay Ryan. But the comparison that most readily springs to my mind is to the indie band Spoon. Like Johnston, Spoon’s songs are stringently disciplined yet tuneful. If you’re like me, you sometimes wish the music would break open and risk the embarrassment of the grand gesture or the indefensible sentiment. At the same time, you’re glad it doesn’t. Part of me suspects that Devin Johnston is a great poet. All of me can’t be sure.

That uncertainty is a theme of the book. Traveling through experiences real and imagined and then recounting them is a way to bring order, to quote Wallace Stevens, to “the nothing that is.” The book’s epigraph, taken from Louis Zukofsky, seems to make this explicit: “The lines of this new song are nothing / But a tune making the nothing full.” Yet Johnston appears to admit that this is not enough. The young lovers in the carport in the last section of “Appetites,” “[r]avenous for each other,” get to have each other yet remain “unslaked.” At some point they’ll have to leave the car and return to their homes. Traveler serves as metaphor for the fleetingness of such experiences. Its poems are so well made you forget, even as your ear is enjoying the beauty of their surfaces and the ideas they contain, that they soon will end.

Songs and sonnets

A review of Peter Gizzi's 'Threshold Songs' and K. Silem Mohammad's 'Sonnagrams 1–20'

Threshold Songs

Threshold Songs

Peter Gizzi

Wesleyan University Press 2010, 108 pages, $22.95, ISBN 0819571741

Sonnagrams 1–20

Sonnagrams 1–20

K. Silem Mohammad

Slack Buddha Press 2010, 28 pages, $6,

In their latest projects, poets Peter Gizzi and K. Silem Mohammad recycle and rework old forms, experimenting with what poetry can do in the present through engagements with the past. As they reinvent the traditional forms of sonnet and elegy, Gizzi and Mohammad put pressure on how contemporary poetry straddles poetic tradition and contemporary life. In his Sonnagrams 1–20, Mohammad uses Shakespeare’s sonnets to generate new anagram sonnets that pair Shakespeare and Flarf in a hilarious and fruitful duo. Gizzi’s new book, Threshold Songs, orbits around the form of the elegy. He investigates classical Greek and Latin ideas of mourning to speak of death as at once cosmic and personal. Ultimately, both collections speak to the confusing way that tradition shapes how we encounter the world — whether we organize our thoughts, desires, and distractions through a constraint of the past, or mourn using misheard, ancient language. These formally diverse collections reveal contemporary poets who turn backwards in order to write poetry very much of the present.

Mohammad’s Sonnagrams follow specific constraints. He rearranges the letters of Shakespeare’s sonnets to make new anagram sonnets. Any leftover letters go into the title. The first twenty Sonnagrams have been collected in a chapbook by Slack Buddha Press, and others have been published in journals including Wag’s Review and The Nation, and anthologies including Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing. The project is ongoing, although doubtless when all 154 Sonnagrams are collected into a book, they’ll form one of the most fascinating sonnet sequences dreamed up in recent years.

While Mohammad’s turn to the sonnet isn’t that unusual (he did his doctoral work on Renaissance lyric and has cited many other contemporary poets working with the sonnet form), his sonnets certainly are. Flarf is a clear influence on the Sonnagrams, which can be described as adolescent, tacky, hilarious, confrontational, smutty, devastating, silly. Mohammad maintains Shakespeare’s meter and rhyme scheme, but like any good sonneteer, he plays with his constraints (including the added constraint of the anagram). After reading the first few Sonnagrams, it’s difficult to believe that they do what they say they do — that Mohammad has actually made formally correct sonnets using only Shakespeare’s letters. Rearrange a Sonnagram (a tempting and surprisingly time consuming task), and Shakespeare’s original appears. Mohammad describes how he composes the Sonnagrams — “I thought it was a way to use the technology of the Internet, an anagram generator, as a device to break down my text, to tenderize it, to make it ready for me to sculpt. But it left the composing up to me. It left it to me to make the decisions about measure and meter and rhyme and word choice. I would use some words that the Internet machine would throw up just because they wouldn’t occur to me otherwise, but all the syntax, all the shaping of it into a verse, was left for me.”

Although it’s difficult, at least at first, to read Sonnagrams 1–20 without hearing echoing refrains of Shakespeare, their distinctive voice and interests quickly take over. The first quatrain of the first Sonnagram, “Hot Butt Hot Butt Hot Butt Diddy,” provides a good example of what they sound like:

Erotic reptiles sing sweet airs to me
Amid synthetic England’s deathly stench;
Lo, unto every teenaged thigh they flee,
While friendly hamsters masturbate in French.

(Sonnet 1, “From fairest creatures we desire increase”)

Mohammad often namedrops his friends and creates a coterie of the contemporary poetry scene (as in Sonnet 43, which begins, “Now Kenny G. and Christian B. were sweethearts, / Till Kenny had an uncreative thought”). Or the couplet of Sonnet 21, “What sort of poem makes her have to barf? / Mm-hmm, aw yeah, that’s relevant — it’s Flarf!”

Some Sonnagrams are clearly structured around a planned conceit — as in Sonnet 10, where every line is about a different European country (along the lines of “Norwegian steamboats violate my dad”). Sonnet 40 is a catalogue of Bill Murray films, Sonnet 55 is composed entirely of band names, and Sonnet 72 is all movie titles. Others seem to emerge from the chaos of the anagram generator, popular culture, or Mohammad’s teeming brain.

The Sonnagrams are particularity effective, funny, and devastating, as they combine (and annihilate) high and low registers of language and culture. This happens in the final lines of “O Feces, My Feces”:

Old Sappho says the sight of one we love
Is fairer than a row of marching troops;
Our sponsor for the sentiment above:
The folks who brought us Everybody Poops

The meme of mage and poet we renege
When ego cannot reconnect the egg.

(Sonnet 23, “As an unperfect actor on the stage”)

Hilarious yes, but, in the rarefied space of a sonnet, placing Whitman’s Song of Myself and Sappho’s archaic lyrics alongside a children’s book about poop is, not leveling, but widening. Many of the Sonnagrams illustrate this always hilarious, often insightful, juxtaposition, as at the end of “Gee Whiz, They’ve hit the Eth Hut with the Eth Teeth (Hit That!)”:

This sonnet won’t be winning any laurels
In prosody or argument, alas:
I’m short on insight, euphony, and morals
(Free enema? No Thanks, I guess I’ll pass). 

Hey you, Godot! We waited twenty days!
Oh yeah, we dug up Rutherford B. Hayes.

(Sonnet 24, “Mine eye hath played the painter and hath seeled”)

Mohammad often takes aim at his own poetic project. “The the the the the the the the the the Death (Hey Hey)” falls into the genre of sonnets about writing sonnets:

Hell yeah, this is an English sonnet, Bitch:
Three quatrains and a couplet, motherfucker.
I write that yummy shit to get me rich:
My iambs got more drive than Preston Tucker.

(Sonnet 47, “Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took”)

Mohammad deftly spoofs on the constraints of his anagram project. He has all the letters he needs to begin a sonnet about sonnets, “Hell yeah, this is an English sonnet, Bitch.” The final line of the couplet, the line a traditional sonnet builds towards, arises out of the constraint — “My mad Shakespearean moves are ‘phat,’ or ‘def’: / They weave my pet eel Lenny — what the eff?” “What the eff” could be any reader’s response to many of the Sonnagrams. These sonnets don’t resolve themselves in their final lines. They can’t find closure, revelation, or even despair in the turn because that isn’t the point. Instead of writing sonnets in the twenty-first century, Mohammad writes the twenty-first century into the sonnet.

When Mohammad reads the Sonnagrams, he always gives them two titles. First there’s the Shakespearean title, a foregrounding that never allows the reader to stray far from Shakespeare’s English (which he echoes throughout Sonnagrams 1–20, from spoofs on Shakespeare’s rhyme words to campy uses of words like lo, hither, and thither). Then there’s the title generated from any leftover letters, which often includes, by necessity, acronyms, unusual spellings, and, when lots of one letter remain, not even words at all (as in Sonnet 14, “TTT TTTT (Or: TTTT TTT)”).

Words, and what words get used in poetry, are a constant subject of Sonnagrams 1–20, which, unlike their titles, almost never feature acronyms or nonsense words. This is why, at readings, Mohammad can make the distinction that the titles are often bullshit. Besides meter and rhyme, the Sonnagrams follow English syntax (even if the lines and sentences they construct are completely inscrutable, they’re correct). The words not included are the threatening ones:

I know a word the OED omits
Its syllables are fatal to be heard.
Whoever says it retches, dies, and shits;
I urge you not to utter such a word.

Although you feel the author’s days are through,
The author in the end erases you.

(Sonnet 13, “O! that you were your self; but love, you are”)

The sonnet “After Shakespeare” reverses the typical Sonnagram structure and puts the extra letters, not in the title, but in the couplet. The title provokes the question — if this sonnet is “After Shakespeare,” how much are (or aren’t) the other sonnets after Shakespeare? Mohammad uses recognizably Elizabethan language to make a point about what the Sonnagrams do:

Disloyal moon! thou hast betrayed the night,
In league with day, in fealty to lovers;
And so the clouds that chide thy stolen light
Made shades to hide the bliss that it discovers.

(Sonnet 37, “As a decrepit father takes delight”)

Mohammad makes a Shakespearean-sounding sonnet from the letters of Sonnet 37, “As a decrepit father takes delight / To see his active child do deeds of youth” (a clever take on Shakespeare as the poet-father, a rare instance of the Sonnagrams engaging on any level, jokey or serious, with the exact sonnets they anagrammatize). The attempt to sound Shakespearean emphasizes that the most Shakespearean-sounding Sonnagram actually has the least to do with Shakespeare. This sonnet only mimics Shakespeare’s language, and ends up sounding, by comparison, flat. But Mohammad knows this. “After Shakespeare” reveals what the Sonnagrams aren’t interested in (imitation) and how playing with Shakespeare doesn’t have to lead to it. The couplet recalls the dedication page of the original 1609 publication of the Sonnets and its still mysterious dedication to a “Mr. W.H.” Mohammad sets off his WS, WH and other enigmatic letters with suggestive punctuation. Do the brackets suggest another possible identity? Or a textual corruption? Of course not, they’re just leftovers, but Mohammad spoofs on how scholars read Shakespeare today by ending “After Shakespeare” with this sham puzzle.

There’s also the element of boredom to consider. After awhile, do the Sonnagrams get old? Will Mohammad’s clever, risqué, deflationary project be able to maintain itself for 154 sonnets? Although the Sonnagrams are certainly more novel in smaller portions (four or five at a reading, or the first twenty in the chapbook), the entire sequence accumulates significance as it develops. While the meter risks becoming repetitive when the nonsense begins to sound like just so much nonsense, this makes the moments that cut through it all the more devastating. This happens in Sonnet 55, when after a series of flippant comments and silly juxtapositions (“Do Thin Mints ruin death for Fred Astaire?”), Mohammad ends with the couplet, “Will no one but Neil Diamond wait my part? / When Snoopy goes Hawaiian … is it art?” The final question jolts the reader out of the amusing, the adolescent, and the absurd. Of course, any reader who has gotten this far isn’t likely to argue that the Sonnagrams aren’t art, but that isn’t really the point.


Threshold Songs, Peter Gizzi’s fifth book-length collection, is a series of mainly short lyrics that address, not the dead, but death itself. The volume begins with a dedication “for Robert, for Mother, for Mike called back.” “Called back” is inscribed on Emily Dickinson’s grave in Amherst (where Peter Gizzi teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst). Her gravestone reads, “Emily Dickinson Born Dec. 10, 1830 Called Back May 15, 1886.” Although Dickinson’s epitaph calls her back from life to afterlife, Gizzi’s dedication to his best friend, mother, and brother calls them back from afterlife into poetry.

Gizzi is interested in the vocal, the musical, the blur between poetry and song, and the human voice as an instrument that plays upon written words. Because of the absence of personal detail, these intensely private poems read, not as elegies for specific loved ones, but as elegies about how to elegize and what it means to mourn. They are poems of the threshold, the edge, the veil, the divide between life and death that isn’t so much a divide for Gizzi as a question.

Divided into five unnamed sections, the poems in this collection continue the work of Gizzi’s previous books (perhaps Some Values of Landscape and Weather especially). They find their register in the cosmic and the ordinary, the celestial seen in terms of the everyday. Sweeping, planetary movements are pushed right up next to everyday life, as in “Fragment” — “when you feel the planet spin, accelerate, make dust / of everything beneath your bed.” At their core, they are about “The must / at the root of it all, desire / and wanting, must know.” Gizzi uses line breaks to extend meaning and often makes multiple readings possible by omitting punctuation. “This Trip Around the Sun is Expensive” uses a musical repetition and refrain to describe a wintery ocean landscape:

what isinglass
moonlit wave
winter is

Winter surf
all time booming

all time viscous air
not black, night
winter dark blooming

surfs of winter ice

(“This Trip Around the Sun Is Expensive”)

Celestial movements often replace physical bodies, except strikingly in “A Penny for the Old Guy,” when the speaker asks, “Are we not bread-like, soft tissue, heat-seeking, and fragile?” Death, the decay of the body, omits bodies from these poems, which are more interested in the metaphysical than the physical.

In Gizzi’s own words, an analemma is the “path the sun makes over our heads in a given year,” a term he discovered while reading National Geographic as his mother was receiving chemotherapy. This rare moment of private detail doesn’t figure into the poem, where the parents are never so personalized. “Analemma” is a poem of tense, cropped lines about coming to terms, not with death, but its inevitability. Gizzi rewrites his elegies as they happen, “now that you’re gone / and I’m here or now / that you’re here and / I’m gone or now / that you’re gone and / I’m gone.” Language allows for the impossible:

now that you’re here
and also gone
I am just learning
that threshold
and changing light
a leafy-shaped blue
drifting above
an upstate New York
Mohican light
a tungsten light
boxcar lights
an oaken table-rapping
archival light
burnt over, shaking


These song poems are interested in the slippages and shimmers between words, in misreadings and mishearings. Gizzi often finishes colloquial expressions unexpectedly — “In my father’s house I killed a cricket with an old sole” or “I am trying to untie this sentence.” In “On Prayer Rugs and a Small History of Portraiture,” he plays with like/light, piles/pyre, portrait/point/ pirouette, aught/awe, contrast/contest, away/a way, scene/skein/sight. In “Gray Sail,” “broad dazed light.” Gizzi delights in defying expectations and tripping up his reader — what Wallace Stevens celebrated as the imperfect, as “Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.”

Threshold Songs provides its own language to understand the slippages between words with the poems “Oversong” and “Undersong.” “Undersong” appears elsewhere as “Basement Song” and “Evensong,” all of which can be read as words for underworld or threshold. “Oversong” is itself an undersong, a list of words that aren’t synonyms (the Greek prefix syn means nameless, anonymous) because they reveal, by being placed next to one another other, that there are no synonyms in language, only a desire for the synonym. “To be dark, to darken / to obscure, shade, dim” becomes “throw a shade, throw / a shadow, to doubt.” This darkness feeds into Gizzi’s threshold:

to exit, veil, shroud
to murk, cloud, to jet

in darkness, Vesta
midnight, Hypnos

Thanatos, dead of night,
sunless, dusky, pitch

starless, swart, tenebrous
inky, Erebus, Orpheus

vestral, twilit, sooty, blae …


The ellipsis both omits and extends. “Oversong” implies an unending catalogue. It is the poet’s toolbox of words to describe something that is never reached. “Blae,” a Middle English word for a color somewhere between blue and black, appears elsewhere in the collection as cerulean, agate blue, deep indigo, perspective blue, cobalt, raven’s wing, bluish, bluing. In Threshold Songs, Gizzi creates a lexicon for darkness.


Mohammad and Gizzi both borrow registers of language freely — Mohammad from Shakespeare’s English, Gizzi from the language and myths of the ancient Greeks. Many of Gizzi’s titles may require a quick Google search, “Hypostasis & New Year,” “Analemma,” “Pinocchio’s Gnosis” (another great undersong), “Apocrypha,” and “Eclogues.”

Orpheus, a figure of singing and mourning, crops up throughout Threshold Songs. In “Oversong, he appears with Erebus, a figure for darkness and also a region of the underworld. In “Pinocchio’s Gnosis” (in Greek, gnosis is both an investigation and the knowledge that results from it), Gizzi invokes a Latin description of Orpheus, “Hey you, Mr. Sacer interpresque deorum, how about a good bray, a laugh track in sync with your lyre? No?” (Although Gizzi has cited this in interviews as Ovid’s epitaph for Orpheus in the Metamorphoses, it’s really Horace’s in the Ars Poetica. Perhaps Gizzi, as interested in mishearing as hearing, is playing a game with the reader.) He translates the Latin as “the sacred interpreter of god and man.” Interpretation (another word for poetry) is what’s sacred.

The threshold between the world of the living and the underworld was more permeable to the ancients, a literal gateway that the living could pass and return through. Gizzi’s elegies lament and seek to resurrect the mystery that has gone out of death, to reopen the gate to the underworld and let loose its song. He folds direct cues into his discursive lines, “Grief is an undersong.” Underworld and overworld, undersong and oversong, these are poems of the night, of blue that’s almost black, of grief in the air and wind.

Gizzi is particularly interested in prefixes and how they can unmake language, not as a negative force, but a widening one. The middle English prefix un takes center stage in “Eclogues”:

… The unhappening of day. The sudden
storm over the house, the sudden

houses revealed in cloud cover. Snow upon the land.

This land untitled so much for soldiers, untitled so far from swans.


In a later line, “To do the time, undo the Times for whom?” Unhappening, untitled, undo — three takes on how un changes the meaning of a word. In the opening poem, “The Growing Edge,” it is the “un gathering.” Un becomes another edge, another threshold, another way to triangulate death, life, and poetry. In the final lines of “Eclogues,” un is met with re as the cosmic meets the atomic:

atoms stirring, nesting, dying out, reforged elsewhere,
the genealogist said.

A chromosome has 26 letters, a gene just 4. One is a nation.
The other a poem.


There are moments in Threshold Songs that observe too opaquely. They begin to lose focus and pile up language without being particularly interesting. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s frustrating, as in the second “Lullaby” poem — “All animals like to nuzzle with their soft parts / what of it when you see the leafy conflagration in spring / a reminiscing eventual in small wistful bursts.” Although it hits some of the same notes as the previous poems, it has none of the distilled incision of Gizzi’s short lines or the unfolding mystery of his long ones. When Threshold Songs works (and it almost always works) it approaches the transcendent. When it doesn’t work, when it turns too far from the reader, it risks creating an impassable distance.

Like an orchestral score, Gizzi’s poems develop and repeat certain themes and phrases, giving to the final sections a built-up richness that pays off in poems like “A Note on the Text,” “History is Made at Night,” and the final poem, “Modern Adventures at Sea.” Near the end of the volume, Gizzi turns to the reader with a challenge:

I have always been awake
beneath glances, past
doorways, corridors.
I never see through you
but through you the joy
of all that is there anyway,
singing. The world
is rising and crashing,
a crescendo all the time.
Why not start
with the whole note?
Bring all you got,
show me that stuff.

(“History Is Made at Night”)

The penultimate poem, “Bardo,” plays with any Hellenistic expectations. “Bardo” sounds like a wiggy version of the bard, but it is also a Tibetan word for the threshold, specifically the intermediary state between one life and the next in Buddhist reincarnation. With “Bardo,” “called back” takes on another meaning. The poem ends with questions:

I come with my asymmetries,
my untutored imagination.


my homespun vision
sponsored by the winter sky.

Then someone said nether,
someone whirr.

And if I say the words
will you know them?

Is there world?
Are they still calling it that?


The short lines and alternating two and one-line stanzas bring a lyric intensity to one of the barest question of poetry — “And if I say the words / will you know them?” The reader doesn’t know who said “nether” or “whirr,” only that “netherwhirr” sounds like netherworld. The question, “Is there world?” is less important than the final line, “Are they still calling it that?” Threshold Songs wants, sometimes desperately, to know what to call things, in order to call them back.