'The Liberty of Horrors'
On Marie Buck's 'Portrait of Doom'
In a year when the politics of contemporary experimental poetry have come under renewed scrutiny (to put it mildly), Marie Buck’s new book, Portrait of Doom (Krupskaya, 2015), is timely. It’s a meditation on our contemporary political economic situation that refuses the temptation of leftist sigils, Invisible-Committee-light jargon, and ironized hysterics. Instead Buck roots her poems in a more elusive and spectral discourse that better captures the alienation, strangeness, and complexity of actual life within the folds of a collapsing neoliberal world order.
Portrait of Doom is, for all intents and purposes, a book of political poems.
But at the same time, it’s not.
It’s a difficult book to get a handle on. The political signifiers and discourses within Buck’s poems are not static, unidimensional referents. Instead they are radically overdetermined, rendering an intimate lifeworld that, while not exactly realist, has the same texture and nuance of realism in that it indexes the fragments and relics and detritus of the real world only to overcode and mythologize them.
Take, for example, the poem “Pain Funnel,” the syntax and diction of which act as something of a skeleton key to Portrait of Doom’s intersection with discourses currently at play in the most deranged crevices of the information superhighway. On the one hand, it’s a fairly straightforward poem — a conceptually driven list poem of phrases appropriated from the website of some scam private college. The language is depressingly mundane and familiar as it moves across various pithily-worded categories of social position and action, from “Welfare mom with kids” to “pregnant ladies,” “low self esteem” and “low-income jobs,” to generic queries such as “Tell me more about that,” “Have you tried to fix it?,” “What has it cost you?,” and “Does the prospect have enough pain to qualify for the next step?” before ending with “Reality check! So why haven’t you taken these steps yet?” — a question at once aggressive and rhetorical (27–28). The “Pain Funnel” of the title leads invariably to the “reality check” in the final line, illuminating the various meanings of that latter word: check as in an examination, but also a restraint, a curb, a control on the addressee’s actions, and also a bill or promissory note, but one that can neither be cashed nor paid in full.
The language the poem appropriates is familiar, and alludes directly to a world that is immediately recognizable, one that we, in fact, inhabit — a world defined by a series of increasingly grim or desperate social categories that get rerouted through the logic of neoliberal economic formations, an assemblage that is itself in a prolonged state of crisis and collapse. If the theory of interpellation still holds any water at all, “Pain Funnel” shows us how the discourse of economic opportunity — of vitalism, of affective labor, that by-your-bootstraps-on-steroids ideology that defines our current conditions of social being — can narrativize and, hence, define a subject’s place in the world.
But Buck’s poetry doesn’t promote a politics of revelation, a political strategy held, perversely, in common by both conceptualism and the political lyric poetry of the radical left. There’s a world-building function to Buck’s poetry that gives it a serious affinity with the project of science fiction as Samuel Delany understands it, which is to create fictional worlds that refract and clarify our own through a fantastic defamiliarization. For Delany, all writing is inherently about the present, whether it wants to be or not, the minimal difference being that some works recognize this capacity of language and thus use it to maximum effect. Portrait of Doom is one of those works.
The basic strategy of the book: Buck takes the language on display in “Pain Funnel” and reworks it into a sheer hellish miasma of a world, which we are thrown into in the first poem of the first section of the book, “Collapse of Death,” a pastiche of the sort of autobiographical snapshot poem that old mummies might have written back in the stone age:
I crawled out of a spider hole into a fucked up kind of youth.
My parents were fucked up
and my school was kind of fucked up
and my left eye ticked and my ankle hurt.
I felt my soul withering into a tiny shrunken system
but I wore a pin that said fuck the system
and I drilled the bone out
till I deadlifted unimaginable weight. (19)
There is nothing strictly confessional about the work, and any sense of the “personal” is safely obscured by Buck’s preference for both the generic, sometimes-bubbly-sometimes-affectless discourse of web culture, and for jarringly paratactical line breaks, here shifting registers from the angst-fueled rhetoric of a teenager to, in the final couplet, something of a degenerate epiphany — if by epiphany one means “extreme bodily mutilation,” which I do.
The final lines, then, come as a parody of the breathless enchantment with the mundane and trivial that makes up so much mainstream and MFA lyric poetry. But one of the interesting things about Buck’s work is that she’s not interested in the total negation of the lyric form in the mode of various schools of language and postlanguage, conceptualisms and postconceptualisms, but instead works rigorously within this mode. So to say that this poem plays on the contemporary lyric is not to say that Buck rejects that form so much as to observe that she doubles-down on it, opens it up, and recharges it. Just as the speaker of this poem “drilled the bone out,” a feat that allows her to lift a shit ton (technical term) of weight, Buck’s juxtaposition of mundane diction and syntax with grotesque imagery creates genuinely strange associations that reanimate the burnt-out corpse of language. But like any reanimated being — corpse, head, language, dead pet — what is brought back is changed, changed utterly.
I know for a solid fact that Buck is from rural South Carolina, so it’s more than a little autobiographical that the world presented in Portrait of Doom is a backwoods high-school dystopia whose contours most closely resemble the rural existential horror of Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997). Except in Buck’s world, you are the dead cat getting whipped. And also the person whipping the dead cat. And the whip. Like Gummo, the world of Portrait of Doom is a world of contradiction, disgust, and naive fascination. The deeper into this world you go, the more sinister it becomes.
And also just like Gummo, Portrait nestles itself awkwardly inside the folds of that overdetermined category of the bildüngsroman. Though not traditionally narrative, the poems follow an arc as they slouch through the developmental wastelands of maturation, illuminating a coming-into-self-hood in a world sick and brutal to its very core, and entered into via a language both exhausted and hollowed out but, at the same time, crackling with the febrile energy of total rot. Buck’s world is entropic, but it’s only in the decrepit cesspools of daily life and language that one finds a faint glimmer of the utopic.
But that’s just life in the anthropocene, baby, a world filled with flattened yet distorted stock characters such as “the banker,” “the cop,” and the mysterious “Kevin” who has unclear motives but is certainly up to no good if you want my opinion. They operate not so much as characters but as types, whose actions are both familiar yet bizarrely rendered, as in “Feathery Shapes in the Rock Pile”:
On my face sits a stain:
All move me along
to the liberty of horrors.
I had to work very much
and very hard.
The sweat was running down my skin,
my hand was shaken
by the extremely decaying body. (54)
The syntax and grammar of the familiar and the mundane reality is present, even as it is slowly unraveled, made strange, not just through reproduction but through transformation, a potential unlocked by the “liberty of horrors” and building toward the anguish of the stanza where Buck writes,
No, fuck, I’m weeping
because I live in a cage
and cannot deliver myself. (55)
It all builds up to a final stanza, in which the speaker finds some sort of perverse freedom within confinement:
I was dogged like a dog and
handed myself over
to the only digger that helped me
in the shimmering shallows
I rubbed and rubbed. (55)
The speaker’s freedom here takes the form of onanistic liberation, a carnality that does not even appear pleasurable, merely desperate. The speaker of this poem actually does get out of that cage later in the book, in the poem “Dark Dungeons,” but it’s a short-lived victory at best:
It worked! I’m free, I’m like everyone else now!
Then, come, join us, join the rebellion!
Before I decide what to do with my life, I must first learn to
be alive. (87)
Sure, this is obviously a send-up of wishy-washy, self-centered, New-Age liberalism, but it’s also the author castigating herself. After all, what can be more complicit and consistent with the age of “care for the self” than writing poetry? The behaviors learned while imprisoned are not so easily unlearned, and the book’s narrative arc, its bildüng, hinges precisely on this attempt to escape from the prison of the body and its narrow pleasures, and an attempt to expand and explode them in utopic, even revolutionary, fashion.
Indeed, despite the grotesquerie and horror of much of the book, Buck doesn’t leave things in a state of nihilistic despair. Even when these poems are at their most sinister, there is still something strangely utopic embedded within them. The book ends on just such a tenor when, in “I’ve Got a Few Tricks Left,” Buck writes:
I ate through
your dried skin
until your poison
hit my guts
just as I
my odd tastes
opening my mouth
to the clouds. (113–114)
Bodily mutilation, mutation, affect and intimacy, magical realist imagery, a strange syncopated rhythm to the syntax — whatever you want, this poem has it. The myriad images, which are illogically connected to begin with, ultimately unfold, deconstruct, and transform as they progress deeper and deeper down into the mire of the fantastic. It’s at this lower level, in the truly terrible and profane — that moment when “your poison / hit my guts” — that Buck gestures toward some form of radical uplift, which is the very taste of the poison inside one’s own body “opening my mouth / to the clouds.” The deepest, gnarliest level of the self ends up “opening” skyward, a gesture indicative of the aesthetic and political strategy of the entire book.
Let me explain. There’s a relatively recent, relatively mainstream horror movie that maybe some people have actually seen, called As Above, So Below (2014). It’s about a graduate student carrying on the research of her deceased father by attempting to locate the philosopher’s stone, a magical amulet that medieval alchemists believed could turn any substance into gold. Or something like that. The point is, she thinks this philosopher’s stone is hidden deep in the Paris Catacombs, and to get there she enlists a motley crew of club-based urban explorers. There’s a cave-in, of course, and they end up in a part of the catacombs that is unexplored, rumored to be cursed, haunted, taboo to enter, etc. All this, as it turns out, is true, and they soon find themselves in a house-of-horrors mirror world, acting out their childhood traumas, past misdeeds, and other tragic events from the past in a spectral, nightmarish fashion. But — and this is crucial — they can’t just go back up and out of the abyss. They have to keep going further in to get out. It’s not until they reach the very deepest level of the catacombs that they finally find an improbable manhole cover and climb through it. The camera pivots, flips upside-down, and there they are, on a busy surface street directly in front of Notre Dame. The tagline for the movie is “The only way out is down.” The only way to escape the hole they are in is to sink further into it, to ride that trolley all the way to the end of the line.
Portrait of Doom functions in a similar way. The familiar surface of perfectly constructed lyric poems generated by or modeled on the equally familiar discourse of search engine results gives way to a churning abyss of horrific imagery that only becomes more unsettling and nightmarish the deeper down into it you go. It’s terrifying and alarming, yes; it’s profoundly unsettling, true; it’s sick and twisted and doesn’t provide any clear answers to any problems, of course; but it doesn’t turn away from these difficulties either. It enters fully into this perverse and unsettling world. And while looking the horror of austerity capitalism in all of its brutality and violence right in the face by crafting beautiful yet genuinely strange poems may seem like a form of minor politics, it is also probably the most that we can reasonably ask of any art at this point. Or, as Buck puts it, better than I can, in a line that it as poignant and small as it is #acab,
The new world is made of the old world,
the small stretch of the cat as it confronts the police. (43)