Living fire and flattered lyre
On Erica Mena and Robert Fernandez
In Featherbone and Pink Reef, poets Erica Mena and Robert Fernandez make an argument for poetry’s somatic effects. These two books are very different, but they share a spell-casting potency and embrace the power of language not just to denote the world, but to act, vividly and terribly, within it.
Erica Mena’s book-length poem, Featherbone, makes bodies of its words and then dismembers those bodies. She crossbreeds them into neologisms (boneslide, shaleskin, huskweight) and stretches them until denotative meanings thin out and the resultant language feels physical — somatic rather than explanatory.
Out of fleshfallow slip,
out of sicklight swell,
out of silvering fear,
(the featherbone reach)
out of undreamed grey,
out of waterskin scale,
out of bone soft loam,
(the featherbone twist)
Featherbone is a book-length spell — a performative utterance. Like any spell, it strives to make concrete the material realities it names. Mena is not the only poet to engage with notions of ritual in her work: CAConrad’s (soma)tic poetics also hearkens back to magic, with Conrad explicating processes of self-hypnosis, the use of charged objects, and conversations with dead poets to produce his poems. But Featherbone claims an authority different from Conrad’s work. Whereas the poems Conrad creates by his ritual process feel like the residue of that process — inviting a reader to attempt the same ritual herself and produce her own work — Mena’s work has an authoritative finality. Her book is the ritual. In Featherbone, physical things (flesh and wing and feather and skin and bone) proliferate willfully — distinct from any shaping consciousness — before being consumed, desiccated, burned, eaten. The book conjures an environment of frightening vitality, where bodily forces contend, words carve and rasp and hum, and death is never an ending.
Against the formless in the heave, the featherbone cannot
be rejected / cannot take shape. The fatty stratum sifts the sublayer
and probes the subduction and swarms behind your eyes. I want
to know the color of your bones.
The shaleskin flakes thin above laceveined wing,
an oil to grease the featherbone plunge.
Your skullhollow for echo your bonehollow for wind
your eyepit for hollow, scraped off. (26)
There’s a you and I in Featherbone, but no firm addressee, and certainly no “speaker” as, say, Conrad is in his (soma)tic poetics. Instead, Mena creates an environment where such distinctions blur, where categories of being overlap eerily. In Featherbone the body itself “leaks bones” (21), mindlessly generative.
This distressing and complicating of categories extends all the way to the nature of composition itself. Rather than suggesting a numinous authorial “soul” hovering behind its bodily substantiation in language, Featherbone evokes a world in which brief flesh and tangible words ground, and give rise to, a cold and sublimely scary spirit:
The featherbone develops language.
It teaches relations:
axial, caudal, vesicle.
It teaches shape:
spindle, flexuous, borne.
It vertexes, you intersect yourself. (44)
The featherbone, that is, came first. The poet did not create the featherbone to employ as a speaker; it is, instead, the featherbone who is the creator of the words.
The featherbone speaks. The tissue webs, it spreads across the voids. To scrape away. (44–45)
This featherbone, hybrid being, is the strange heart of the book that takes its name. Featherbone’s spell subverts conventional ideas of poetic inspiration much more deeply than many poems that present more obvious difficulty of reference or speaker. Plenty of poets enjoy the play of sound, but few can make it signify with the strange somatic unity found here.
Altricial or sereswallow tear in the afterthought glint and gleam,
whirlbone twist and glean that you may glaze the soundless throat.
Alveoli burst the pulse-turn gear and corrode. (17)
Mena’s gift for verbal music — how this passage, for instance, gargles on its repeated gl’s, r’s, and t’s — is always used in evocation of the physical.
Most lyric poetry presumes the Cartesian subject of modernity, holding inner and outer objects up for contemplation. Featherbone instead creates a psychic environment that makes me think of the ancient Greeks, who believed in an active soul, or anima, overflowing the body and entangling itself in the world. The anima doesn’t precede or stand apart from material existence; it is inextricably caught up in it: “the soul is in a way all existing things,” Aristotle said. This grants a frightening power to the free imagination, and in Featherbone there’s a similar sense of risky, contagious magic in the use of words:
You filter and separate,
you striate and rise.
This is how it begins.
To become. It slakes
its lift in your weight.
The monstrous sky.
Your bonefuse around it,
your salt-tide through it:
you were made to expand. (37)
Just as ancient myth jammed together distinct parts into new creatures (the manticore, a lion with a scorpion’s stinger; the naga, half-human, half-snake), so Featherbone jams death into life. For all the destructive power in the book, it ends not in annihilation, but in a suggestion of the dependency of the lofty and spiritual on the decayed and fleshly. “Made of things that flutter. Licham. Bonesalt. Pulse. The night within the distant skin. We thrall the weighted sky” (47).
It’s tempting to attribute to Mena’s distinguished work as a literary translator (from Spanish and Arabic) her poetry’s command of language’s tangible, changeable qualities. But Featherbone’s intensity is such that the “command” seems to have run the other way. Featherbone is a body acting on a body; it’s been a long time since I read a book which granted its materials such power over the composing poet — and over the reader.
Lying on his back in a darkened cell, a cloth across his eyes and a stone resting on his belly, a young bard of the western islands of Scotland would complete his study in perfect silence, “pumping his brain” until he emerged into daylight a master of rhapsody, curse, and magic, to be honored and feared by the island’s lords.
This was five centuries ago, when bards wielded deadly and binding instruments of language; not many poets remember this time, but Robert Fernandez seems to. His book Pink Reef is a sequence not of descriptions but of performative utterances, emerging from a speaker alone in the dark with visions of eggs and bone, meat and moths:
the mounds of roe are
so bright today it’s like
I see the sun for the first
time it’s like I see the sun clearly
in the idea of it it’s like I see the sun
clearly in the black mounds of
shine in the swollen
clear of it
This quote suggests the vividness and horrified fixation which dominate Pink Reef. Fernandez shares Mena’s knack for arresting, tangible imagery. But his book relates differently to its subjects. “There is an ink // into which seeing passes” (13), one poem warns us; whereas Featherbone grants a durable, gruesome immediacy to its material, the environment of Pink Reef is more mutable. Featherbone conjures a bodily reality; Pink Reef’s untitled poem-sections instead conjure visions in the poet’s mind. Even Fernandez’s oddest conjunctions of subjects have a hallucinatory intensity. When the speaker seizes on a noun and repeats it, as in the nautiluses and the corn below, the reader feels not the particularity of the subject (a certain specific sea creature, a certain cornfield), but rather the overpowering force of Fernandez’s obsession:
there are nautiluses
in the corn,
but the nautiluses
bull draped in a mirror
I am listening
to the whale song
in the alien corn (14)
Those last two words come from Keats, but so what? History is no comfort in Pink Reef: Cartier and Chanel, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Blake and Ida Applebroog all come up among the book’s gristle, blisters, and brain corals, but they hang inconclusively; they are not presiding spirits or ancestors for the speaker but unstable material among other unstable material. Likewise the incursions of familiar technological flotsam: “the table set, blood / ruptures cloth speakers,” or “the scream boils like / refrigerator bubbles / under ice-pack” (58). Featherbone’s vocabulary feels intentionally ancient and mythic: it would puncture the book’s effect if Mena had included cloth speakers or refrigerators. But Pink Reef is more capacious: the book’s vision seems able to absorb any material, ancient or modern, technological or bodily. Nothing survives whole — as in the “melting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon cubes // Les Demoiselles d’Avignon / blocks of melting shine” (52) — but neither is anything refused.
At its least effective, Pink Reef feels merely gross: “understand / the damned / with sails unfurling / from their / assholes” (9); “Jeff Koons / wants to fuck me / I offer him / a strip of / my back / a strip / of my bloodied / bleeding” (36–37). What, then, saves the book from being overkill, an eighty-four-page spurt of exploitative violence? For one thing, Fernandez’s ear for poetic music: there’s not one poem in here that doesn’t sound, at the level of vowel and consonant, beautiful. “One who flatters a lyre / clips the spine’s fused discs” (81); “it is the refulgent blush of your / diadems that makes me itch through the scrim- / shawed ant-hill of my bones” (42). For another, Fernandez’s sense of formal control: Pink Reef is broken into short sections (the longest is thirty-six lines) of short lines, a series of rigid containers within which the material can hurl itself.
This formal control points to another oddity of the book, and a way in which it differs profoundly from Featherbone. For all of the energy of Fernandez’s language, Pink Reef refuses any kind of ritual climax. Another poet might have worked such material into a cumulative long poem — some ecstatic Dionysian thing that would leave the reader feeling disturbed, but also transported, by the book’s end. Not Fernandez. “I / cannot / I refuse / I refrain” (84), ends the last poem.
But refrain from what? Refuse what? Fernandez asserts no argument, delineates no alternate way of knowing, spares no energy to attack contemporary notions of body and spirit. Rather the poems seem, as Barbara Guest once put it, to have “taken and shaken” the poet, leaving him, with “blood & // bubbles of blood / in the stomach” (43), to stumble forward, his soul and body in tatters.
Featherbone and Pink Reef are dark, often horrifying, books, but they are spiritually — that is, somatically — alive. In a poetic era whose idea of “resistance” is often limited to an ironic repurposing of dominant language, these books resist alienation by their very spell-weaving vitality, their commitment to an active, performative use of language. The poets’ force of belief — Mena’s in the proliferant bodily power of her featherbone, Fernandez’s in the intensity of his visions — sweeps the reader up. They demonstrate the continued vitality of a very ancient understanding of poetry’s power.