Tuesday, January 5th, 2016
My favorite thought experiment, run by analytic philosophers, is called “The Brain in a Vat Argument.” Imagine that instead of being the living, breathing body that you think you are, you are actually just a brain in a vat in a lab hooked up to a computer simulating the experience of a body and of an outside world. Think about it: how can you know for certain that this is not the case? Furthermore: given this uncertainty, how can you assume that any of your beliefs about the world and about your self outside the mind’s environment are true? If this sounds familiar, it is because the Wachowskis made a movie version of this. Swap in an evil demon for the human-controlling computers and you’ll see that Descartes has a version of this too. These scenarios are entertaining, yes, but also productively unsettle conventional assumptions about consciousness while illustrating the fundamental role mental activity plays in the construction of reality. Once unsettled we become hard-pressed to come to any sort of agreement as to what the mind actually is—let alone how best to use it.
Such vexing problems might cause philosophers, psychologists, and gurus to tear their hair out, but Margaret Ross’s A Timeshare proves that the terra incognita of the mind is a rich territory for poets. While to some extent all poets map the mind, this book, Ross’s first, joins the body of work set out by writers such as Wallace Stevens, James Merrill, Jorie Graham, and Timothy Donnelly—the last of whom likens Ross to a “jumpy mystic” in his introduction to the book, which he selected for Omnidawn’s 1st/2nd Book Prize. Like these writers before her, Ross engages the contours of consciousness via both abstract philosophical statement and the metaphorical imagination.
This focus on abstraction and imagination may challenge contemporary readers who’ve become accustomed to a poetry that favors the mental actions of description and documentation over abstract thinking and imagination, which tend to operate differently and to evoke a different set of responses. Through description and documentation the mind translates present-tense sense data and history—the external world—so that we might see it with greater clarity. Books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women are examples of the power of description and documentation to bring issues of our problematic culture more immediately into thought, conversation, and ideally, political action.
Abstraction and imagination are more private; they are interior actions of mind that contend with inner vision and exercise the uniquely human capacity to engage that which is not physically present to us such as the past, the future, the lives of others as well as objects that do not, outside the mind, exist. And through abstraction and imagination we form an interior sense of self, a construction in flux that exceeds and eludes. Ross’s A Timeshare employs these qualities to illuminate the mind as it experiences and thinks about itself in time—which is to say in flux. Hyper-aware of internal and external shifts and changes, she threads her book with various aspects of time: memories of childhood, the shifting present moment backed by the ticking of the clock, the ageing of the body, the elderly.
Imaginative, philosophical, the book opens with a scene reminiscent of “The Brain in a Vat’s” lab. The poem “Of Late” begins:
Countdown. Steady ruby pulse of the security
bulb as usual at permanent zenith to receding
chrome knobs of the multiple doors. All locks
secure. Halls clear. Walls bare between the hooks
from which starched whitecoats plunge like so
many ruined candles in a row that once could
light one’s passage in towards
innermost enclosures. Labmice there glow
green and beautiful, infected shades expressing
jellyfish genes like telegraphic fires flared
from hill to hill once meant “land
conquered, staked,” and such
slight flames prove helixes mastered.
Their slopes these days swept bright
and dull, equipped with footlights, lightning
While these stanzas are longer and less shapely than most of the work in A Timeshare, they exhibit many of the traits that make the book so stunning, full as it is with vivid, ecstatic motion, here in evidence as the images twist from labmice “green and beautiful,” to jellyfish, to telegraphic flares over an exterior landscape. Throughout, sonic resonance laces particulars: the steady pulse of the long “e” sound ending the first line’s “steady” “ruby” “security”; the snapping-to of the short sentences and sounds of “All locks / secure. Halls clear. Walls bare between the hooks”; the long “o” of “so” and “row” and “enclosure” and “glow,” etc.
Also characteristic of A Timeshare is the use of unique similes to drive its poems: “starched whitecoats plunge like so / many ruined candles.” Although initially striking in its oddity, the comparison intelligently addresses time by hinging together images from different eras and registers. Set against the red glow of the “security / bulb,” these “starched whitecoats” have the feel of a sci-fi lab while the “ruined candles in a row” illuminate a passageway down which I can imagine Jane Eyre scurrying. This collision of worlds gains depth as Ross parallels the temporal texture of these images with diction and syntax. The clipped, one-word sentence “Countdown” and the crisp “Halls secure” linguistically reflect the scientists’ apparel, while the more languid syntax of the stanza’s longer sentences, along with word choices such as “permanent zenith,” “plunge,” and “shades,” extend the context of the “ruined candles.”
Ross continues the pace and layering established by these first stanzas through the book’s 28 poems. Most of these span two or three pages, and for the majority of them Ross wisely trellises her dense and spooling sentences over stanzas of fixed line numbers. This enjambment over fixity creates a meter or measure, an external rhythm that works, if you will, like a clock, ordering what ultimately cannot be measured: the mind’s whirl. At times the image-collisions, a bit too close together for comfort, muddy, and I become unsure where Ross is taking me. Yet even in these moments I remain fascinated by the work’s brilliant motion and ultimately find my own uneasiness fitting. When you watch it closely, the mind is both gorgeous and unsettling. This is true, at least, of watching Ross’s mind.
I’m most keen on the poems where, like an enchantress of logical proofs, Ross shows her work. For example, “In Parts Unknown” I am captivated observing her build a word, shift it, dive into it, and then dismantle it. The first third of the poem unfolds as follows:
Then any sense of where we were
gone. Then gulls like paper
angles sat on their masts
for a while. Foam on the water
laced maps whose every route
unraveled. “Then” unraveled. Routes
retraced as frothing monsters
sketched in the margin by faith
that fear took forms men had
devised for it. Where
does the time go? Steered by
balancing his thoughts
against imagined ground, in this
way holding it steady
open-winged as beech
moths pinned to carry home
for evidence. Faith sailed
on white silk panels of a dress
she wore the day he left
whispering Imagine that
While this passage certainly moves, Ross moves me with it, allowing interaction with her mental process. She begins by creating a blank slate: any sense of where we were, we are told, is gone. Okay, I think: Terra incognita here we go. Next, she begins to build a place, a world, adding gulls that sit like angels on masts, foam on water. Nice, I think. I also think: I like the ocean. This rather realistic setting-based scene then shifts: the foam on the water is not actual water but map water, “whose every route // unraveled.” Cool, I respond, watching the sea become paper. Next, the poem’s language—its “then”—unravels and the seascape, including frothing imagined monsters, becomes part of a book. Part of this book, perhaps, the book we are reading. Engrossed I read on, agreeing: Where does the time go?
Because I’m included in the process of this world-creation I’m anchored enough to notice that I’m not at all thrown when a character—a “he”—arrives unannounced in the third stanza and then is accompanied by a she—“Faith”—sailing on the white silk panels of a dress. This introduction of characters both without preface and without disturbing the reader happens throughout A Timeshare and evokes a dreamlike unexpectedness as characters enter and exit without comment. Some poems even dip into what feels like other characters’ narrations. This happens in “‘Our Eyes are Not our Own,’” which operates via abstract association until roughly three-quarters of the way through when the poem gives way to a long narrative about childhood presented in quotation. This narrative has the feel of the life of another—be this other another person or the remembered self.
These shifts are dreamlike, yet the sensation also reminds me of the familiar act of noticing a stranger, perhaps projecting onto her or him for a moment before turning the mind to other things. It is also evocative of the habit characters of our lives have of popping up on our smartphones for a moment of interaction and then, without comment, blinking out. In these poems the characters often come in waves. In the poem quoted above “he” and “she” appear in the third and fourth stanzas and then come back in the ninth stanza when the narrator tells us that “The shore they reached / finally was sifted grain / from their dreaming // eyes.” Between these appearances the narrator spins through a meditation on distance (“Not only hours // but miles can be rigged / like this to vanish under cell phone / towers extinguishing the ground / you would be forced to cross / to speak with me // face to face”) and arcs into a wonderful, theatrical—and again temporally disjunctive—moment where “five girls / in white leotards climb into / a tall-case clock.”
Ross’s metaphor for our mental and physical habitation of the world is the timeshare—the vacation home you afford by owning it with others. This is an odd kind of sharing: contractually you never spend time together in the same location, and it taps into something significant about a first world, 21st-century way of being. The metaphor speaks to sharing mental space as various characters move instantaneously, virtually and physically, in and out of our lives. It also works as a model for the self. Ross proposes in repeated but various ways that this self in time is a “many-personed sequence.” In one instance she writes: “every / day I woke inside another stranger’s / shape and dressed it in the same // red sweater, ditch I’d fallen into, pooled, and would soon / under heat evaporate.”
The book’s many transitory settings include a lab, ships, rented living rooms, planes, subways, a fitness room, a public restroom, a hostel, a chapel (in which the narrator fittingly encounters Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”), a bus, and an assisted living home. These settings, often interiors, serve not only to create a background simulating the quick shifts embedded in our rather transitory lives, but also act as figurative states of being that push perhaps uncomfortably on the popular 21st-century mantra that you are not your thoughts. This mantra may be true but, as Ross writes squarely, boldly: “I live in the mind. I wanted to live there.” Engrossed in this book I find myself coming to a more heightened awareness that I, too, live in the mind—a mind connected to and shaped by an ever-changing world. In fact, whether or not we want to—we all do.
Though an old problem, the problem of mind—what it is, how it is best trained and employed—carries on in increasingly complicated fashion, unresolved. And no wonder: artificial intelligence continues to advance, we become increasingly mentally, physically, spiritually and socially wedded to our smart phones, and psychopharmaceuticals refine and evolve—all of which challenge conventional mind-body, self-other concepts of what it means to be. Ross manages to illuminate this experience, proposing that we take seriously the importance of our capacity for thought and its direct relationship to the kind of humans we are and imagine we might become.
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