Mei-mei Berssenbrugge

Kelsey St. Press


Sunday, July 13th, 2003

Competent communal living entails inattention to things no doubt worthy of scrutiny: physically and psychically felt vacancies, emotionally textured spaces we wheel through daily. The registers and relations within those intricate shadings can daunt, as Henri Michaux says: "You cannot even conceive the horrible inside-outside that real space is." In Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s new book Nest, the infinite layers of real space compress subjectivity and objectivity. Here, domestic space loses its clarity and exterior space loses its void. Intimate geometry, the matrix of relationships, refuses to withdraw into "self" and aggravates the line of demarcation between inside and outside: "First house and space negate one another / Then they are a series . . . / House and space are composite." By exposing the myth of inside/outside, Berssenbrugge’s latest work undermines the basis for alienation. In this way, with a deep attention to inter-relationality, Nest constructs a world where home is at once vulnerable, suspect, and sheltering. A post-9/11 awareness saturates its investigations, and in light of the extraordinarily sentimental and nakedly sanctimonious efforts of poems seeking to grapple with 9/11 thus far, Berssenbrugge’s book offers us one hopeful example of effective and affecting response without recourse to direct address.

The nest, the book’s central motif, becomes a place to superimpose all kinds of structures—architectural, metaphysical, psychological, and social. It is the uterine nest as well as the French n’est (isn’t); it’s made of earth and sky. Both practically and structurally, it’s the image of return, an object built by and for the body, taking form from the body’s shape inside (as the bird nestles, turns, presses against), in an intimacy that works physically. Home, like language itself, is an emotional setting as well as an object, and anyone familiar with Berssenbrugge’s work knows how its screens, frames, and corridors organize and reference relationships. Here, the author concerns herself with how fragments and individuals interact with the whole, the grouping. Subject and object hold equal ground: they interchange and fluctuate, creating a continuous process by which the self recognizes others by changing itself and vice-versa. The constellation of the nest image (it finds analogues in the ear, clothes, and the internet, for instance), in defiance to its seeming simplicity, allows a network of synaptic movement. Berssenbrugge’s famously capacious lines slow down our experience and draw us into its continuities and expansions. Prepositional phrases, conditional clauses and passive voice extend our perceptual limits as they front the limits of our comprehension. In each poem, sentences play the part of lines. A portrait orientation replaces her usual landscaping of the page, providing an appropriate space for proliferate phrasings and arrangements of family, restless portraits imbued with the power to suspend conclusive being and singular sight. Conceptual multiplicity ("House and space are composite"; "dwelling and travel are not distinct"), however, is not an escape from meaning, but a dilation of it. She ties meditation and mediation into a happy knot, one as dependent on its materiality as its empty spaces. As one poem proclaims, "When I find a gap, I don’t fix it, don’t intrude like a violent, stray dog, separating flow and context, to conform what I say to what you see."

The book’s space-hauntedness serves as a metaphor for a linguistic hauntedness; both are inherited structures we inhabit and carry within. "Pre-determined space claimed by feeling" reveals the tyranny of language and its concomitant emotional constructs, shows us how rhetorical trappings domesticate us. Rituals and institutions of language, like all architecture, allow for personal connection and real feeling, but also lock us into their inflexible structures: "Negative space enters my house like spirits, low pressure under a table, in the petals of a rose, like a person you love."

At the heart of Nest is the titular poem, which plays out a radical drama of maternal language transmission, where the mouth-nest contains two "mother-tongues"—Chinese from the speaker’s mother and English to the speaker’s daughter. The "cross-hatched" language "translates as heart" through modulations of self-consciousness. Having left her language-nest for another, the speaker is freed and foreign, parasite and pastless. Here is the entire third section:

My origin is a linguistic surface like a decorated wall, no little houses at dusk, yellow lights coming on, physical, mute.

Its significance is received outside hearing, decorating simply by opening the

Wherever I look is prior absence, no figure, ruin escaping an aesthetic: hammock, electric fan, ghost don’t qualify as guards.

The comfortable interior my guest inhabits is a moving base, states of dwelling undetermined, walls cross-hatched like mother tongue.

The foreign woman occupies a home that’s impersonal, like the nest of a parasite.

Its value is contentless but photographable, in the context of an indigenous population, tipping between physical ease and the freedom of animals accumulating risk.

When the scene is complex, I turn to the audience and comment aloud, then return to room and language at hand, weakened by whoever didn’t hear me, as if I don’t recognize the room, because my family moved in, while I was away.

Text imbricated with outside, a wall is waves.

So, I decorate in new mother tongue, plasticity of fragment, cool music.

There’s a lock in it, of the surface.

It still lights apricots in bloom, leaves, skins of organisms, horizon, borders that represent places.

The reproduction of surfaces compacts a compassionate sense of betweenness. Alienation is "photographable" because it is an absurd reduction of complex interiority. Throughout the book, Berssenbrugge’s use of the lens and frame highlights the ways we are always looking through structures; because we see through an eye, we see through inherited paradigms of expression and communication. Nest gives us direct process—whereby what’s mobile and motive, sensible and sensual blur—without tidy interpretation, a discursive music that circles around and expands by weaving. Its inter-nesting private and public domains dismantle hackneyed poetic gestures such as simple analogy and objective correlative, which tend to reduce and stabilize more than render and speculate.

At the same time, Berssenbrugge’s arrangements of human presence in the phenomenal world focus on the dynamics of family life and the contemporary art world in such an intimate way as to amplify "voice" and "narrative" more than her previous work. The full prism of personality—a voice ranging through indignance, wryness, sincerity, confidentiality, and humor—animates the work, without lapsing into a rigid metaphysics of authenticity. For Berssenbrugge this might be the most revolutionary of all acts; since Empathy (1989) she’s honed an unmistakably flat voice whose hypnogogic effects apprehend internal cadences more accurately than any other contemporary writer. Objectivity in previous work—her scientific edge—seems to rely on an acute sense of alienation; now however, Berssenbrugge’s sentences carefully dodge the danger of embracing outsiderhood at the risk of avoiding the rigors of social responsibility. The work retains its power to hit the subconscious directly, yet the power’s conduit is a persuasively immediate persona, one who engages and activates the reader: "Space between her image and my perception allows her to store other images, by subtracting what relates to me." Like Stein’s work, but with an absolutely novel approach, Nest acknowledges a reader and positions her within the work. Stein’s repetitions, interruptions, self-styled grammar reproduce the recursive act of reading, as part of the process of writing. Berssenbrugge’s negotiation of objective and subjective strategies also produces, neuraesthetically, the latent processes of reading. The book builds the reader into it, a nest, thus acknowledging the social mechanisms of language and opening up the domestic to a world outside.

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The Next American Essay

John D'Agata, ed.



Monday, May 12th, 2003

Anthologies insist on sandbagging poets with monikers and historic brands; their effort at fiat is often in cahoots with simplification and shtick. In the year 2000 we saw many attempts at defining the “new” in poetry, mostly dictated by a willy-nilly aesthetic and/or cultural Identity, constructs that help create communities but also overly commit their authors. The best anthologies are in the spirit of turning the tourist into a traveler; the worst pander to our tastes for the sentimental (grandmother and New Formalist poems) or sensational (victims and New (American) poems); they satisfy by way of consumerism. If you too can’t stomach being sold another errant sampling of the “new”—if you abhor anthologies for the same reasons I do—turn your attention to John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay.

John D’Agata has imagined a way out of this state of affairs by creating an industry around the lyric essay, not a school of poetry this time but a subgenre in and of itself. He smuggles genre-squatters as well certifiable poets and fiction writers into the house of Essay, making claims for the essay as a kind of literary catch-all that serves to defamiliarize the form. More particularly here, D’Agata sticks to home turf, delivering an American hodge-podge of forms, with a taste for fresh blood and deliciously wayward formal acts. In its bringing together of parts to make a unified other—without any totalizing impulse—this anthology outdoes most others.

D’Agata adopts the same task Baudelaire took on for the prose poem; while D’Agata insists he has not invented the form, he is in large measure its contemporary excavator and popularizer. Also, like Baudelaire’s prose poem, this genre has a heavy axe to grind—this time not against the Alexandrine, but against the Personal Essay and Memoir. The oxymoronic lyric essay is also nom de guerre against the Industry’s refusal to consider Essay as Art and its habitual (mindless) need to pigeonhole every literary thing into the same stodgy standby genres, poetry and fiction, ignoring what doesn’t quite fit. Thus D’Agata makes his case: The alternative essay hasn’t gotten its own. Wedged awkwardly between hard journalism and the mushy personal essay, it’s been forgotten or neglected—by publishers, funding agencies, and readers—and therefore wears the Romantic patina of the alienated form, a solitary displaced thing.

Then there are the questions of authenticity and definition: Can a genre be created in hindsight? Who decides what’s an essay? What’s at stake in creating an American tradition? How does this retrospective look play into America’s tradition anxiety? (Do we have them? Do we want them?) Isn’t this alternative essay just another name for hybridity? Doesn’t the anthology’s impulse toward product creation smack of the bottled water phenomena? How does naming the thing?after centuries of dodging names—change it?

For all questions of essence, I refer you to the Seneca Review‘s website; otherwise, in the spirit of the lyric essay, I’m leaving these questions “on” like the red-hot coils of an electric burner after the pot’s been removed.

First things first: what’s in the pot?

Beginning with Monopoly and ending with a To Do list, these essays dish an American sensibility; they make a case for America—like the lyric essay—as an anything goes category. A French recipe? Well, that’s American! A European pilgrimage written by a Canadian? What could be more American! What makes these essays “American” is of course that they are all written by Americans—by which we must rely on Whitman’s claim for “Kanada” as one of the States—and they embrace contradictions and paradox as they give cultural imperialism an innocent “next” glow.

Emerging from the ground Emerson prepared, these essays, taken together, build an echo chamber of ideas about Paradise and the Fallen world. Emerson’s urge to represent experience and not tradition, to discover a world rather than inherit one, is at the heart of D’Agata’s choices. Like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, The Next American Essay creates a frontier between the American self and its imaginative New World. These essays refract and reflect on the ways in which our earthly paradises (of culture, of thought, of place, of the past) construct various dystopics of experience. Readers may begin to suspect paradox lies at the heart of all discovery itself, for these essays enact the discovery of paradox over and over again. Because many of the essays here are well known, the collectivity’s coadunates streams of thought give us a new context in which to read familiar works such as Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” and Joan Didion’s “The White Album.” Like D’Agata’s book Halls of Fame, these essays dwell in the wide sky between the ideal and the actual; they enact the Puritan cycle of hope, attempt, failure, and redemption. Grafting fantasy onto reality, an act intrinsically bound to the creation of America or any national identity, these essays are built to accommodate paradox, to incite and tease our assumptions until those assumptions rupture and their emancipated lava of complexity glides forth. The essays front confusion and struggle; read together, they become a polemic about American iconography refigured through cultural disappointment. The fragments of discrete texts synthesize as part of a new whole, a revised America, a rehabilitation of the promised land and the promised language. And yet the titular “next” implies something not quite finished; the book ends on “Things To Do Today” by Joe Wenderoth: We look ahead; we anticipate a future of hopeful attempts and wondrous discoveries. The essays’ collective ardor for wonder is thankfully not naive and never affects the gosh-golly innocence of idiot amnesia (read: morally defective surprise at the corruption and hypocrisy of governments). The American ethic of discovery gives rise to two opposing stances—a willful independence as well as a pillaging urge to appropriate. For instance, on one hand the anthology does Theresa Hak Cha’s Dictee a great service by restoring the chapter included here to its original format (something altered in the now-in-print version), but I’m not sure the excerpt is contextualized enough for someone not already familiar with Cha’s work to appreciate it. This loss of footing is in part due to D’Agata’s thin introduction and in part due to the nature of her book, which seems to resist quotation.

Otherwise, however, the selections themselves give enough context to build a fascinating way of reading the material. If the essays dilate a common understanding of a fallen, paradoxical, unfinished America (like the lyric essay itself), then D’Agata’s intersticed essay (or mini-introductions that string together a sense) also seems seduced by the wonder of imperfection. A stingy reading could call the introductions complacent yet defensive, a generous one would call them luxuriating in Whitmanic nonchalance. There’s something of a smart slacker aesthetic lurking here: A ho-hum ennui flickers in and out of these essays. I’m all for shucking an authoritative editorial voice, but why replace it with an attitude of comfortable dawdling, and not active searching? D’Agata does our homework for us, and many of the pieces are driven by a genuine wish to inform and prepare, but even his insistence on the form’s history is sometimes reduced to a series of exasperated pleas and lists. If D’Agata wants us to really metabolize the “next American” essay’s history, why doesn’t he broaden the anthology’s scope? If the roots of the next American essay are in fact in Cicero and Montaigne, shouldn’t they be part of our sampler?

Of course, in the end, anthologists are like goalies: known for what they let pass. The point of an anthology is exclusion. Still, when making a case for a subgenre, a list of titles and assurances doesn’t make up for the real deal. We need to flay the contemporary animal alive to expose what she’s ingested, what air he’s been breathing.

Though D’Agata does not claim to have coined the term “lyric essay,” nor invented the form, his organizing structure makes it seem as if it sprung into existence as a result of his conception. Organized chronologically beginning with the year of D’Agata’s birth, the anthology represents the past 29 years. This is the single oddest and most flagrantly arbitrary aspect of a book that defensively works against any dismissal of the alternative essay as a mere flavor-of-the-day or marketing ploy. The first introduction, 1975, begins

This is not a special year. We are not fighting in this year a war in Vietnam. We are not worried in this year about the price of gas. We are not celebrating in this year the American bicentennial. Instead, in this year, we are “doing the hustle.” We are on the moon, again. . . .

And so forth with the kind of events lifted from an historic calendar. His panoramic view then for a moment zooms in on literature, and then abruptly, coyly finishes: “Some of us, in this year, are born.” This introduction to John McPhee’s “The Search for Marvin Gardens” seems to parody the lyric essay’s chromosomal coding for fact and subjectivity.

What the order makes clear, however, is D’Agata’s care for our appreciation of his singular ware—we begin with familiar, less taxing essays by the Masters, then ease into more and more turbulent, fragmentary, “challenging” pieces by contemporary authors as Susan Griffin, Lydia Davis, and Thalia Field, as if to imply a kind of evolution of the essay. We know this “progression” is artificial, but it generously, gently glides new readers into the fray. Because of their unostentatious fascination with language (repetition, elision, materiality), one that interferes with linearity of story or idea while claiming the domain of truth for poetry and imagination for prose, the essays seem to (though this is clearly an illusion) learn from each other and teach us how best to read them. It will take another anthology to give us the backstory; meanwhile, what D’Agata has offered us is an anthology that reads like a poem, accreting complexity and resonance. Its ideas slip into and out of synch with one another, acting to sharpen themselves and us. As we read, the essays become a travelogue that pushes us further and further out beyond the artfully experimental and into tropes and traps of the Platonic underpinnings of Western thought.

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Corpus Socius

Lance Phillips

Ahsahta Press


Friday, March 21st, 2003

Emily Dickinson’s lines

A bomb Upon the Ceiling

Is an Improving thing

It keeps the Nerves progressive

Conjecture flourishing

articulate my experience of reading Lance Phillips’ Corpus Socius. Phillips’ intense rhetoric of fragmentation and condensation elides narrative and image in the service of spiritual questing. His poetry is so pared down and so fiercely material, it’s quite off the map. If you exploded Hopkins’ God-charged world, his “sweet especial rural scene,” and reassembled the remains around a new understanding of the physical self, you might come close to imagining Phillips’ work.

Epigrammatic yet interlocking, Phillips’ lines embody the title’s paradox; the lines nose in on, and create a context for, each other while remaining adamantly independent. At the risk of providing a great disservice to the book’s unity and expansive method of speculation, here are some excerpts:

The cell’s moral am: yes

Different from private is and the bee is cross-sectioned


Milkeye along the weir’s a tract freer.


The red procedural branch

Act supersedes her hair as her mantle


Sometimes word, sometimes mind, sometimes Jesus, sometimes door



—A excending her lip as the volume three strands treads back

ownership-iris to possession-iris

—The lowest yellow surface

His game is tight: cryptowords, homophones, sonic echoes, etymological explorations percolate a subliminal sense. Equations (“treed is lyric”; “spine’s a stem”) point to a defining impulse and a desire to actualize concordances; the double motion of Phillips’ use of etymology and Latin words is a typical strategy in the book. The lexical archeology here seeks origins and authoritative meanings at the same time it violates those historicizing tendencies by insisting on temporality and contextuality. Phillips’ composting of word-parts and letters, archaic and foreign words, obsolete utterances and neologisms also defamiliarizes language enough to instantiate a forceful materiality. These poems call on our intellect and disarm our habitualized intellectualizing reflexes. Their sensual pleasures accumulate, their physical delights “shake dove[s] from endurance.” In other words, they materialize abstractions in much the same way Hopkins’ work does. Midway through the book, Phillips floats us the emblematic line: “so means the surface.” Here “means” means in at least two ways—it roughens the surface so allowing texture and depth, but the line also allows us to skim it, to let the surface of language offer meaning. The line’s sibilance hisses, it sings; its prosodic twoness mirrors a linguistic one. Iris or irides that peer out from many of the poems make the doubling of words—”Isle/I’ll”—and sentences—”Doe hears a possum / Do I over a bee’s posture” proliferate. (Irides is the plural of iris, but also the first part of the word iridescence, a word that certainly describes Phillips’ work: play of glittering changing colors, resonantly multidimensional. Irides perhaps also inverts or converts Hopkins’ famous “outrides”—the extrametrical syllables that go uncounted in his sprung rhythm.) Another example of contracting the abstract into the concrete: the word “veery” could signal a trope as in a turning or veering (an adjective) and a thrush (a noun). So the thrush is veery today; so Phillips re-examines the relationships between body and mind with his eye ultimately trained on the spirit. Phillips takes up Hopkins’ task of casting the poet as philological archeologist and spiritual attendant. To this end, like Hopkins’, Phillips’ work invents its own language as it goes—lexicons and grammars that seek to articulate and to create that which remains outside of conventional or conventionally poetic uses of language. Indeed, “The tongue’s little more a sun” here; you don’t just read this work, you feel it as a foreign tongue in your mouth.

And who doesn’t like to feel a foreign tongue in her mouth?

Phillips’ investigation of natural and synthetic structures relates the title’s “corpus” to its social nature, its subjection to ethical, spiritual, and biological principles. While this may sound like a form of belletristic connoisseurship, Phillips’ practice is rather rooted in a desire to shore cultural fragments against spiritual ruin. The language is dense and material but broken and, as in Celan’s late work, every word is edged up against an oceanic silence. The dogged naming in these poems ballasts an incomprehensible, necessary silence. In it, language becomes an object of speculation itself, a living organism with its own internal laws and powers of generation. This trust in economy and white space etches a vibrant line, one alive and vibrating, whose intense music hits a spondee then goes underground. These poems let us know that all that’s buried is not dead, and their rabbit holes of cross reference replicate the world “outside from the word.” This isn’t the lush place of Cesaire, Roethke, or Hopkins—it’s sparse and dense, the words appear as if “sucked up from the ground.” Formally, his quiet but aggressive skepticism comes crashing into his affirmative spiritual investment. “Yes” and “yea” appear a lucky and loaded seven times. Because of this twin tension and approach (and his two-fold vision of nature), Phillips extends Hopkins’ double-jointed embrace of tradition and invention. Gradually I got the hang of Phillips’ self-abnegating discipline and his seeming incarnational theory of language that shapes presence in grammatical, syntagmatic, and metrical form. So doing, they enact the swift movement of a mind caught in the act of perceiving.

His minimalism is rare and refreshing in a contemporary setting that insists on beating the Baroque horse unto prolix death. In the midst of the dubiously avid wars between avant-gardism and “mainstream,” Phillips finally gives us something to shut up and pay attention to. His ecosystem doesn’t register the morality that governs the predominant schools of decadent zany reveries or self-serious political agendas. His tactics are tough but humble, elliptical but not coy. Readers, live with this book a little, let its enchanted complexities have their ways with you. Here you will find a revivified lyric; as Hopkins did, Phillips leads poetry forward by taking it through the back door.

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The Captain Lands in Paradise

Sara Manguso

Alice James


Saturday, February 15th, 2003

The Davis Test, as performed by the Department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California, Davis, has apparently proved that people can’t tell the difference between red and white wine without color and temperature clues. These clues form our expectations, which in turn form a large part of what people assume is taste. Many recent books, including Sara Manguso’s first, perform a similar experiment in generic misdirection or appropriation. By insisting that a poem—a condensed work (sometimes lineated, sometimes prose) contained within a poetry book or the poetry section of a journal—is an “essay,” do poets subvert the authority of the essay label? Or do they undermine the poetry context—thereby dismantling one of the most efficient engines of contemporary disenchantment yet invented? How does expectation change the “taste” of what we read? How does it shift the criteria by which we judge its “taste”? Is context just as important to “taste” as content? Or: who cares what you call it so long as it gets you fucked up? Given one of the original meanings of “essay”—a taste of food or drink, sometimes taken before presenting the morsel to a great personage—it’s no wonder it’s become the darling genre of Duchampian renamers. Of course, another meaning of the word, “to try” or “an endeavor,” might help us to pinpoint the beauty the essay holds for contemporary poets : its willingness to take a stab, its foregrounding of the process of attempt. The essay has taken on the duties of the prose poem: it has become a kind of anything-goes sub-genre, freeing writers and readers to duck essentialist preconceptions and to “ride far beyond / the low prairie of beginnings and endings,” as Manguso puts it in the first poem of The Captain Lands in Paradise.

Manguso’s book includes two essay-poems about the necessary though specious hindsight with which one regards a transformative process like love or writing. “Short Essay on Love,” for example, moves from a thesis or declaration of fact (“All I know was I was changed”) to making snapshot attempts at explaining—the essay’s traditional examples—synecdochic evidences, tastes of love; at the same time it remains in skeptical scrutiny of its own arguments. As with all of these poems, Manguso’s attraction to the state of ecstatic wonder is met halfway by an intellectual queasiness about its own Romanticism, an anxiety which then feeds the poem’s zealousness, inflating it to unsettling effect. This excited rhetoric persuades by sheer force of enthusiasm, and, much as in Emerson’s essays, a commanding voice syncopates with a doubting one. Many of these poems have the circular, Emersonian feel of a quest for the unknown whose end has assumed an epistemological status. Keeping in mind the book’s central obsession—the ways in which discovery and fantasy (pace the title) inform each other—the grammar couldn’t be more idoneous. Witness:

What is this all about? Sometimes the real meaning moves
from specific to the general, as in the famous essay
about symbols and allegories where, in the end,
everything’s about God—earth, air, water
fire, dancing on the upper deck in a green dress.

Manguso’s use of the essay—both its argument-driven/fact-rich, and its meditative/associative, heritages—serves her trials of truth vs. falsehood and real vs. symbolic meanings. In this way she exploits the original functions of prose as a truth-telling, history-making endeavor and poetry as imagination-engaging, fiction-spinning device, thus navigating an ongoing search for the status of knowledge. “Short Essay on the Muse,” a poem which counterpoints mechanical order with accident and wonder, states that “Hearing one note sung can inspire the carefullest lie.” The lie is the “scurry to invent,” to name, something “bright and unthought” that has suddenly appeared before us. Here, as elsewhere, Manguso casts the writer as a liar with a firm belief in truth. A quick trip down some lines that explicitly address the lie/truth problem of language speaks for itself: “The truth was an infinite list”; “lying that you are too careful”; “I fell into the truth, trying to explain it”; “Because everything said in assembly is true . . .”; I wrote down the date and time as proof so it would stay true”; “Lies! Are you coming to get me?”; “. . . I don’t believe any of it”; “I may sob true love now,/ but just around the corner a truer love awaits.” Indeed, in Manguso’s paradise, truth is fluid and plural, in constant need of replacement and revival.

. . . I was only trying
to communicate without lying—
all the while the people sang
to the dust on the piano and I was writing
the last sentences in the world that were true

As in “Short Essay on the Muse” the attempt at truthful sentences here sets the prosaic (sentences penned by a lone artist) against the lyric (communal songs for piano dust). “Nevertheless this is not a logical argument against” either mode, rather an argument for inclusiveness and hybridity—properties most paradises abhor.

Manguso’s forays into the securing of truth often take the form of absurdist-inflected aphoristic assertions—statements that ultimately display vulnerability in their manic attempt at self-assured conclusiveness—and appeals to male authority (Jean Cocteau, William Gass, William Harvey, Andy Warhol, Arvol Looking Horse, Wallace Stevens—even her blurbs are all by men). “Address to Winnie in Paris,” a plea to persuade Winnie to love Harris, proceeds by cracked examples and a perpetual reliance on and displacement of authority:

Diderot writes that the word is not the thing, but a flash in whose light we
perceive the thing. Plato wrote of the need to be reconjoined with the rest
of oneself. My analyst speaks of codependent impulses in modern society.
These various explanations are metaphors for an inaccessible truth.”

Abundance overfloweth its cup; these poems are energized by hyperbole and arguments that have outgrown their rhetorical structures. Manguso fillets the signature styles of James Tate and Dean Young and disposes of their punch-line tendencies. That is, she begins with a flatly perverse or deceptively simple premise and whisks it off to exquisite extremes, often by way of berserk example and oddball qualification. Replete with meandering logics and moving misdirections, these poems plot out multiple routes and sidetrips that produce and reproduce a form of scientific subjectivity. A series of Ponge-like prose poems aims to undo their titles’ defining impulses (“The Chair,” “The Inkstain,” “The Barn”) by semantic clowning and high-speed associations. The author ducks allegory by providing a multitude of legends for her mental topographies. By mapping signs on signs and world on world, the very idea of true and real, as opposed to false and fantasy, turns Moebius strip, where insides are outsides, backwards is forwards, and we are always coming and going on a dark, undifferentiated (deer-riddled!) horizon.

Thus Manguso makes good on half her promise “to invent a distracting brand-new dance / to deliver you from all the thundering disparity of the world.” She delivers us not from “thundering disparity” but into a place where the only truth is composite and proliferating—and I am glad for it. But she does distract us with her linguistic dance. Once you’ve accepted its paradise of imagination and adjusted to the sea changes of self and science, the book stays on course. These poems are snazzy; they delight with their slaphappiness and in their yoking of the skeptical and the surefooted; they “extend what the eye sees” in ways heretofore unconsidered. All the same, they sometimes profess a kindly skepticism only to avoid the rigors of faith. Had they more faith in the spirit of the essay—to experiment at the risk of failing or not being able to finish—they might have embarked on more myriad adventures in tone and structure, instead of cycling through the strategies of their own conventions. They might have embraced a fuller emotional range in lieu of a catalogue of human antics. This is the book’s ultimate marvel: the poems’ confident joys convince us to not much mind their mild redundancies.

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Sleeping with the Dictionary

Harryette Mullen

University of California Press


Sunday, January 26th, 2003

Fun, in poetry, when it isn’t simply an attention-getting device, has been demoted to the position of Prelude to Sincerity: something to be brushed aside—under the rug, into the closet, quick before the company gets here—to allow warm feelings in. Often poetry’s playfulness serves to distract us from the fact that we’re being delivered yet another sadness routine, yet another ironic romp in the fertile fields of alienation. Or, in the case of some comedy vets, a nearly patented formula, the practiced patter of self-parody. Harryette Mullen’s latest, Sleeping with the Dictionary, however, revisits the traditional role of comedy: to flay our nature to the bone.

All the recent talk about play in language seems academic or anemic when set beside Harryette Mullen’s latest work: scrappy imploring incantations that put the crack back in the quip. The book opens with “All She Wrote,” a dazzling feint at writer’s block: “Forgive me, I’m no good at this. I can’t write back.” Yet write back she does; the poems in this book take clear positions—they speak to readers with rare intimacy and a tactical variety of agendas. The title poem, an ars poetica, takes “the big dictionary to bed,” and its language dreams an erotics of wordplay, where words conjugate conjugally. It professes that “To go through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the poet’s nocturnal mission.” Mullen both notes and embodies process just as language is both her subject and medium. This claim has been made for so many books , so many times, that it reads like lip service. Let me assure you, Mullen manages this self-reflexivity with such persuasive force, it feels like she’s invented the idea herself. Her task is “to record the meandering of migratory words,” and so to allow the Mother tongue to remain in process, viscerally working its frisky slips and absurd mondegreens. Mullen shows us what’s coiled inside our language—she makes our assumptions spring and strike at us; what’s more, she shows us language’s flexibilities and generous capacities. Voice in this work is a figure of hybridity, born from a mongrel American culture to perform transmission between social/cultural/political divides.

Take this spectacle as you will—sassy back-talk or angry belting out or perverse music or droll intertextual litany or ludic unfixings of language—and you won’t be wrong. While Mullen cannot be contained, she is always in control. Short sentences and clipped phrasing accrete into a “hypnogogic trance of language.” Generated by sonic transpositions, acrostic reorderings, and intricate phoneme play that break open new possibilities and permutations within our usual ways with language, Sleeping with the Dictionary grafts purpose to its compelling sounds. This is a lyric that refuses to be timeless—instead it actively subverts contemporary cliché and corporate language. By bringing lyricism into the age of late capital, this work attends to language’s cultural repercussions and reproductions. Mullen dresses down set notions of gender, class, and race in America with a razor-edged wit. “Will I turn any darker if I reneg on this deal?” asks the speaker of a poem that riffs on the controversy a few years back over the possible racist implications of the word “denigration.” The book is not merely a critique—it doesn’t set its goal as avoidance of the conservative and unconsidered; it doesn’t make the mistakes of the Democratic Party by gingerly ducking the responsibilities of active policy; it isn’t afraid to assert remedies. The project of reordering—letters, words, sentences—writes large the need for social rearrangement. Structural upheavals put aesthetic and social movements in stride together—moving us out of passive regard into our capacity to respond. One method Mullen often employs, turning authoritarian rhetoric against itself, liberates the absurdities of complaisant recognition:

If you cannot understand English, you will be moved out of the way. . . . It’s not our fault you were born wearing a gang color. It is not our obligation to inform you of your rights. Step aside, please while our officer inspects your bad attitude. You have no rights that we are bound to respect. Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible for what happens to you.

Paratactic arrangements of fragments reassemble our realities—histories and futures alike—as familiar styles, forms, and techniques get recycled: parodic blazon (“My honeyhunch’s peepers are nothing like neon . . . ) and scatting abecedarius sit side by side with Oulipian procedures. “Way Opposite” emulates Richard Wilbur’s children’s book Runaway Opposites, using semantic opposition and visual rhyme (the red hand of “Don’t Walk” traffic signals echoes the red hand on the signs of fortune tellers):

The opposite of walk?

A psychic with a crystal ball

and tarot deck

who sees green

when your palm is read.

At the sign of a red palm

I don’t walk,

I run.

Opposition here includes a resistance to traditional dialectics. Mullen disorganizes this pattern by imagining other ways of being opposite (walk/don’t walk, walk/run walk, walk/palm). Opposites cannot be read in terms of dualities, the world according to binary oppositions which privilege one side of the equation (rational or emotional, public or private, white or black, male or female) over the other. Mullen often turns English against its habits as she invents new patterns, euphemisms, anthems—new kinds of doublespeak and vernacularized idiom. Sleeping with the Dictionary creates an English unmade, an unEnglish made, one that participates in a racially inflected composite culture. The poems similarly unravel and recast narrative: “The way the story goes, a trespassing towheaded pre-teen barged into the rustic country cottage of a nuclear family of anthropomorphic bruins” or “. . . our story unwinds with the curious dynamics of an action flick without a white protagonist.”

Mullen uses lyric to rev up the mind; she uses a wise wit and a ‘fools-not-suffered-gladly’ persona to enliven our response to the world. Her exuberant, excessive, exhaustive turns of language allow the culture its complexities; they turn on—that is, betray—the contemporary passion for the homespun that tends to flatten the planet with its humdrum cry from the heart, which is really an excuse for dishonest oversimplification larded over with speciously democratic myth. Why merely use the heart to cry, asks Mullen. Her new book elaborates our relations (inside and outside) without being ornate or oracular. Behold a poetry that discovers 361 degrees of serious play.

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The Body

Jenny Boully

Slope Editions

Thursday, November 14th, 2002

The new poem is an essay or a novel; at least it calls itself so. Invested in the kind of plasticity Bakhtin claimed for the novel, some of the most inventive poetry today plays in the nowheresville of multi-generic experimentalism. If poetry is in the throes of a crisis of genre, that anxiety has helped revitalize the form; renaming subverts readerly expectations but also often repackages sugar as cereal in order to fit into an established categorical need. It’s no accident that two new poetry presses have kicked off their series with prose: Verse Press with Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, a novel, and now Slope Editions with The Body, subtitled “an essay.” Indeed it’s an essay in the John D’Agata “lyric essay” vein, (she thanks him in her acknowledgements), though more reminiscent of Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse and Anne Carson’s alchemical brews of personal and scholarly explorations of desire. Yet The Body also shares what Wittgenstein calls a “striking family resemblance” to a recent chapbook by Jen Martenson (Burning Deck Press) Xp28_. Both books are a series of inter-nesting footnotes to an absent text.

The primary text is dead and gone and the subterranean text is full of dead authors: Jenny Boully’s notes collect fragments from literary and philosophic texts, as well as postcards, advice, indexes, instructions, and revisions. There’s an old surrealist game where half the players are asked to write “if” statements and the other half are asked to write conditional statements, then the moderator randomly puts them together to oddly apposite effect, thus demonstrating forever that the mind is a pattern-making machine. In her book, Boully similarly makes a case for the mind-magnet, the mind magically drawing her far-flung reading into dialogue—Pre-Socratic philosophers intermingle with the likes of Lacan, Joseph Campbell and Robert Kelly. Fragments fly together in startling, often witty chimes. The wonderfully porous and corrupt design engenders correspondences of all sorts. The relationship of parts to the whole becomes problematized in face of “the theme of loss.” The Body‘s complex system recycles and revises its components; a reference to The Bicycle Thief morphs into Heraclitus and Gilgamesh confronting lost bikes. The annotating mind claims that the reconstructed bike is more desirable than the original. Collage finally wins out in our post-whole world.

Content and form play mirror games, and when the book isn’t drippy with theory, it’s thrilling in its own ability to generate ways of reading it. Metaphors for the book’s construct infect the text: the notes fall “where land meets sea,” a horizon where “a dead great author is set adrift.” They become a parade of shape-shifting figures. They are what happens backstage and off-camera: a circus net, the underworld, the subconscious, a dream of the text, the oft-repressed din of traffic around us, a kind of minus tide that runs just under everything and adds by subtracting.

The author often templates herself into many of the quotes for comic effect. Jenny Boully is the star of the film that the invisible text is addressing; she’s the protagonist of the missing biography, imbuing her own miniature text with the haunted feeling of a dream within a dream. An innovative way to write a memoir, to be sure, but the form of the matter is clearly what matters most here. The Body‘s title names what’s missing—the textual body as well as the lover’s body. Its echo chamber of fragments tells the afterthoughts of a love affair. If the body is a surface for decipherment and pleasure, here it defies the lover/reader’s most basic assumption, its availability. Boully has captured the traditional silent right margin and heaved it (like a now-absent lover) on top of her apparatus. The invisible textual body serves as a blank to argue with, to laugh at, and to refer elsewhere. In this way, the notes are also what’s “underneath the covers” where “the message would always be different.” What the author/editor wants is “someone who would pay close attention to details—the type of person who would…point out and love all those things she deemed lovable about herself such as the manner in which she wrote ampersands, the two freckles on her left hand, the golden highlights in her hair. . . .” As she focuses our attention on the margin and marginalia, she sensitizes us to what’s often neglected.

Fair enough—but she in fact assumes that we will not be attentive. The clever troping in this book is caught in a solipsistic loop, an over-reiteration of its tryst with theory. As if in the absence of a textual host, the parasitic footnote turns on itself and can ultimately only comment on itself. While I admire its experimental exuberance, I wonder if the dizzying self-reflexive vortex of “I, Jenny Boully, should be the sign of a signifier or the signifier of a sign, moreover, the sign of a signifier searching for the signified” isn’t puerile and self-adoring to all readers. Layering translation, interpretation, and genre with pitiless efficiency, Boully produces a perfect fog of technical charm. Ultimately the desultory whoop-de-do of many of the notes comes off as joyful gimmickry. Perhaps The Body answers Charles Bernstein’s call, in the opening of With Strings, to extend the ‘death of the author to the death of the text—where the text is replaced by “stations, staging sites, or blank points of radical metamorphosis.” Perhaps the instability of the text and self is by now a postmodern cliché, fine to use as a departure point, but not a destination in and of itself.

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