Razor feminine

A review of 'Small Siren'

Photo of Alexandra Mattraw (left) by Adam Thorman.

Small Siren

Small Siren

Alexandra Mattraw

The Cultural Society 2018, 82 pages, $20.00 ISBN 978-0999491225

If Alexandra Mattraw’s first full-length collection Small Siren is a book of the feminine, we have been misunderstanding the feminine all along, misunderstanding its capacity and complexity. This is the feminine as slant of mind, position of articulation, embodied cerebral. In its linguistic inventions and its distinctive grammars, Small Siren rewrites the intimate registers in which mind encounters world.

Take, for example, the beginning of the book’s first sequence, “these threads : a sound.” 

Her raw mouth removed from not

knowing : A fjord, a black beach, rock spines

thinned or thickened by ocean : Songs

she rubs, cliff rims : Gray-green rounds pressed [1

In this arresting first movement, Mattraw posits “her raw mouth” as an apparatus of knowledge, casting the feminine mouth as a kind of brain. Its mouthing has the quality of grasping, of searching; in animating the act of seeking to know, Mattraw calls up the psychoanalytic oral and its registers of longing. Of course “mouth” here also codes poetic utterance, which, in Small Siren, is always caught up in epistemological inquiry. This particular epistemic position —“removed from not / knowing”— is a complex one, tricky to articulate. Is this remove from unknowing a double negative, suggesting a bodily access to knowledge? Or is “removed from not / knowing” an affective condition, an incarnate doubt?

The answer Small Siren offers — in startling, small, aching lyric — is that utterance is epistemology, that body is thought, and that the character of this equivalence is idiosyncratic, irreducible. When the “raw mouth” seeks to know, it finds its own version of knowledge; it accesses an otherwise inexpressible manner of being. This is language the way Mattraw wields it: precise, earthy, unearthly, inhabiting a boundary-edge between private and public meaning. Her embodied poetic is also ecological — from the “fjords, black beach, rock spines” of the second line, Mattraw imbues landscape with mind and mind with landscape. The nineteen-page sequence “these threads : a sound” is a pilgrimage through shifting configurations of place and mind. Its conjectures stand out for their concision: “Deer as only a place / for twigs snapping underfoot” (4), “Jagged pine tops to question / the placement of stars” (4), “a juniper bone claw upturned to demand naming” (14), “Pine sticky, how / can any symbol manage itself” (16). The sequence lives up to the transubstantiation in its title; words are both thread, a material to roll between the fingertips, and sound — felt in the ear and the throat, but fleeting.

Mattraw’s vocabulary is spare, elegant, always preferring the short and concrete Anglo-Saxon word over a Latinate counterpart — and yet its capacities are large, hallucinatory. This is particularly evident in the book’s second sequence, “Inside the Construction,” which is made of prose poems. As a masterful prose poet does — take Rimbaud or Harryette Mullen — Mattraw reveals that her language is not prose at all. It dismantles, rhapsodizes, reaches outward rather than forward. Inside this construction, each prose poem is a house for the wildness of the interior. Its upright walls (these poems are justified, centered, boxlike) suggest the way the strangeness of emotion and perception hides inside the ordinary. In the sentences’ pursuit of one another, they reveal themselves not to be sentences at all but lyrics whose song is accentuated by their prosaic guise. 

Here, the song is thick with rhythms of authority, the sentence short as Hemingway’s, which is to say, of course, short as Stein’s. The sentences have the musculature of logic, patterned on taut S-V-O structure, so that, as in the second sentence of “Summary Between,” a simple “but” is shattering:

Each pasture clots a day’s naming. We stop field center, but the green world sweats, thickens like hair. The way an orange unpeels itself in such heat. All bruised skin wants to give way in the manner of water. (27)

This “but” sets forth a logic at the same time it asserts its disruption: the actions of the “we” are undermined by the green world’s sweating and thickening. Ordinary logic does not provide answers for why. Syntax, however, makes it plain: Mattraw places us in a universe that is coming apart, one that cannot be buttressed by action. This is an animistic universe — the world sweating, the orange unpeeling itself, bruised skin wanting to give way — and its animation runs toward dissolution.

As does “Summary Between,” Mattraw’s poems repeatedly offer up a “we” as the subject of dismantling; she composes this “we” in part from an achingly inaccessible “you.” “I untends you,” Mattraw writes, employing the self-defamiliarization of Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” with an extra turn of the screw: here “I” alienates not only itself but the “you” it “untends”— wildens, takes apart, throws into disrepute — simply by existing. Mattraw’s “you” and “we” are rarely narrativized, and thus they hold space for the erotic force, for the addressee who is sometimes lover and sometimes world, sometimes friend or reader. It is in Mattraw’s quick-shifting use of other-oriented pronouns that I locate her signature feminine. In Western literature, the feminine is of the other (rib of the other) — and for the other, as in mother or lover, and Mattraw’s form of subversion does not, as might some feminisms, try to do away with other-longing. Small Siren’s world is too grief-steeped for that. Instead, Mattraw takes up the other-gaze, with all its yearning, and makes it immanent. It is the whole worldscape who longs in the way of the feminine. 

Inside a car, sun-clenched thought you take back. I untends you. Rain in the nearer. (36)

Here the thought offered then withheld, leaving the speaker in an aspect of longing, is “sun-clenched,” the celestial tangled into the intimate. And after the untending, rain appears “in the nearer” — a new phrasing that brings rain close to embodied thought, because “the nearer” reads less as a physical location and more as a sublimated closeness. In “Bending to,” the desirous and the physical world merge again:

To be astonished, we become mirrors resting inside freeway spines, our desire hidden inside the sound of wheels. Cement vertigo. The no inside alone. (43) 

In a complex image, freeways turn body: they have “spines”; the “we” transforms into mirrors inside them, causing a sensory spinning out, a vertigo that ends in loneliness. Mattraw’s relationship to longing is expansive. Small Siren offers the feminine mind as its only relevant landscape, a rich one with flickering grammars and an inventive lexicon.

Mattraw’s feminine, characterized by its utterances of removal, refusal, and taking-apart, is committed to fracture, unafraid of it, even desirous of it. It is her mode of feminist subversion. From the beginning, the book has been predicting fracture, preceding each of its sections with a phrase about the yield point — the amount of weight a solid material is able to bear, Mattraw explains, before it “begins to flow or change shape permanently” (25). Mattraw is sharing with us here a way of understanding her writing: this is the allegiance her work has, with the place past the yield point. This is evident most of all in the book’s third section, whose preoccupations — death, birth, ontology, erotic distance and breaking — are announced by the form. These poems are orchestrated with emptiness, composed with abyss. 

                                                                                    World opened, afraid points
finger shaking tips across ripped fjords :
                                                Differences are hillsides; yellow tills frost.
Seasons abandon land. (60) 

The landscape, imbued with the emotion of the book as a whole, now yields and opens; the landscapes of the book shoot through with a fear that this poetic embraces. The domestic space, more explicitly present here, presents itself as the site of abyss, as in “/ Dilation /.” In “/Dilation/,” preceded by a quote from Burke about the sublime, Mattraw evokes a birth:

lean out

the unsung / wilderness                                                                      in some

                                                            to / terrible

                                                            / untended

                                                                 / joy / (71)

“Astonishment is the state of the soul,” Burke writes about the passion created by the sublime, and the true achievement of this book is that it enacts that arrest, that strangeness. The last poem, “Waiting,” is a deconstruction and rewriting of Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” evoking, as its precursor does, the weird state of being conscious, of being present with the world around you. The world in Mattraw’s book is the emptiness of a page.

Siren: a small catastrophe. Siren: someone who lures you. Mattraw’s words are the lure, and the poet, along with the reader, is the lured. To be lure and lured: this is the feminine, too. This is the power of experimental poetry at its best: that it takes us down into the smallest gesture and makes it new — and here Pound’s imperative, distasteful to me these days in light of capitalism’s relentless newness, becomes palatable to me again. In Mattraw’s work — modernist in its lineage — to make it new is to bring it closer. The book is written in the registers in which we whisper to ourselves or to a lover. When we emerge from reading, we do so with a deeper attunement to the world and a greater ecstasy in all we see.

1. Alexandra Mattraw, Small Siren (Brooklyn, NY: The Cultural Society, 2018), 2.