Dreams of relation in Amish Trivedi's 'Sound/Chest'
Sound/Chest begins with a find and a flood. In the basement of the University of Iowa library in 2008, Amish Trivedi discovered an old card catalog and was arrested by its remnant labels. Severed from the content they once organized, the paired words and numbers of the catalog have become the titles of poems that attempt to reanimate lost relationships of sense. The speaker of Sound/Chest feels their way around a disaster whose personal blur sometimes sharpens in a collective phrase, and then simple terms rise, like the storm water that filled the library basement later that summer, with displacing force.
Poem to poem, links between title and text emerge with ordinary logic. “Divorce/Manage 1712,” for instance, opens with a “sinking [that] needs / an exit sign” and closes on the kitchen floor with “the / imprint of your textured / vinyl on my skull.” But the world the book denotes is surreal. In declarative grammar that highlights disjunctive sense, Trivedi cuts across the informative logic of the “custom filmstrip collection” to which a librarian guesses the labels may once have belonged. The filmstrip, Trivedi reminds us, “is that archaic bit of grade school technology that required the teacher to assign a student to turn a knob when the supplemental audio urged her to do so” (76). In the book version of this made-for-school-movie, however,
The scattered frames
remind you that I put
in my head
so you could
turn forward at
the beeps. (32)
Thus stylized, the speaker takes obvious steps forward only to parry back: “I never / would have left and / become eggs” (52) they promise, or, “I was / going to be dead when I grew up” (58).
In this alternate reality, veins become antifreeze, and tongues and furniture form part of a graveyard landscape whose bone-solidity both floats in and weighs down the book’s buoyancy. “I am / the denial I wish to be in / the world,” the speaker tells us (74). The best indicator of the denial Sound/Chest wishes for is in the punctuation that extends its funhouse mirror logic. The colon peppers these pages, appearing in three-quarters of the poems. In a book written, as Trivedi says in his afterword, to “manufacture” the relationships that once held together “such a diverse set of ideas” (76), the colon makes a fascinating mark. Originally functioning as the middleweight member of what grammarians explained as a hierarchy of pause — semicolon one beat, colon two, and period three — the colon’s usage has narrowed over the centuries. By 1926, Henry Fowler explained that it “ha[d] acquired a special function, that of delivering the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words; it is a substitute for such verbal harbingers as viz., scil., that is to say, i.e.,etc.” The colon introduces lists or phrases that explain the preceding portion of a sentence, the independent clause on which those lists and phrases always remain dependent. Trivedi’s almost obsessive use of the colon enacts a fantasy of opening the catalog drawers and seeing exactly what was in the missing collection, what “goods” the relic labels “invoice.” He plays an inventive game with the floating terms, but the folding grammar betrays a desire to end the game, to determine the definitive relationship between each card and its lost item.
Sound/Chest dreams of connecting its bookended terms back to the structure of the wooden catalogue, now surplused. After the library flood, this fantasy is especially potent. But as the actual storm of 2008 seeps into poetic language — “The / headwaters are around me and / I kind of like it” (74) — the specific event is also diluted in a discourse of greater loss. The tension between the labeling colon and the book’s other omnipresent glyph — the slash — situates its anxiety in that other floating form of our information age, the cloud. In the context of the catalog, the slash takes the space of a range the collection will fill in — “Delivery [to] Commodity 1710” contained herein. Trivedi narrates almost-clear plotlines that link, in the case of this title, the “slow nitrates of Easter” (18) to the scene where a fatted consumer society splits into riot. But the slash that relates his titular terms also links each poem and the whole project of relation to the URL addresses of the Internet, to the promise that its pathways are immune to flood and fade and won’t let our collections be lost.
In the poem “Attention/Paranoia 1746,” the half-assertion, half-hope that “our regret / cannot find us when we hide in / the frame” (68) invites us into the archaic filmstrip technology and, deeper, into the contemporary data technology that media theorist Tung-Hui Hu says is governed by a “bunker mentality.” The cloud, Hu argues, “has made disaster recovery readily available, in part by making disaster constantly imaginable.” The reeling images whose water Trivedi promises “will / not drown me as I am of / this flood” (74) rehearse a dynamic that Hu shows is structured by paranoia and melancholy, as everything must be protected against a loss that already orders the reality it has not yet entered.
The lyric “I” of Sound/Chest is by turns paranoid and oppressive, cataloging their own condition while sniping at an interlocking “you”:
… I don’t imagine
my disease. Even
in profile your stare
is nothing new. (64)
But in moments when the language turns third-person plural, the poems can feel bright and large, discovering with something like delight either the absurdity of the bunker (“We / pretended not to see each other but / it turned out she was thousands of miles / away anyways” ) or that a threat can be met with defiance instead of melancholy (“Whatever they’re / wanting, we’re not / smelting” ). Even when they animate the violence of wreckage and riot, these plural projections deflect the introspective angles that elsewhere pawn individual scenes off as dreamy but dissatisfying publics, as when the poem “Cord/Fuel 1699” draws on its energy sources to transform a “dandy need girl / [into] — garden end idyl” (72).
Trivedi draws attention to the book’s surreal rise, spelling out his commitment to treat language with “levity, as it is always light with us” (76). But Sound/Chest is at its best when it shines through private globes of meaning with a different kind of lightness, illuminating the public grid that a disaster like a flood can reveal by submerging. Hu’s and Trivedi’s very different texts on the relationships that we build around data share a common concern with this grid. As the metaphors of the cloud privatize us into users with individual caches of information, Hu argues, “the lived knowledge essential for imagining and discussing public space has begun to atrophy” (147). A term Trivedi uses more than once in his poems, “atrophy” links the disuse of the catalog to a similar insight, inevitably punctuated:
… I am unable
to see these ascensions
in another way: our muscles
because we ignore them
but because we get used to them —
we’re alright with their
Starvation that seems like consumption, wasting that seems like using — these contradictions activate the slash’s other function, as the “or” that makes us choose one label instead of another. Rupturing denotative relations, Sound/Chest theorizes the almost unthinkable alternative to what Hu calls “a neoliberal fantasy about user participation that is so widespread and so ambient as to be universal” (145). As Trivedi puts it in “Ritual/Abstinence 1736” (a poem whose infrastructure of universe, highway, and drains uncannily sketches the cloud that Hu shows is grafted on the interstate and analogous to the sewers):
… The grates were
holding the streets together, I’m
pretty sure. I don’t follow (14)