Strange Bedfellows

The Cow, Ariana Reines, Fence Books, 2006
A Metaphorical God, Kimberly Johnson, Persea 2009

As the books pile up I realize that the long reviews are not going to happen; there are simply too many books vying for too little time. With that in mind I offer some thoughts, in foment, on two books that in very different ways, startled and compelled me to think if not come to conclusions.

Reines probably needs little introduction. Winner of the 2006 Alberta Prize, The Cow was published with some buzz, and many reviews, as was the recent Coeur de Lion, which I have yet to read. There is much to engage with Reines, from the voice, to word choice, to the composition and daring content. It’s uncomfortable. Not about letting you off the hook in any way:

If you can’t find out where meaning begins can try to follow it down to where it might end. Siemens was a major consumer of concentration camp labor during that war but in 1998 they lost a lawsuit and subsequently established a reparations fund to pay their ex-slaves. Environmental safety! they ejaculate. A machine that digests the planet’s great digestors. Whose illness eats their brains because they were forced to eat one another…

Like the narrator in Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, there is no quieting the voices of the slaughtered who appear at every turn. The facts and realities of our contemporary lifestyles mix in, each instance with the other, specific and horrific. The context for the above excerpt is a poem that deals with the notion of “waste” disposal. As with other language “generated” texts, Reines uses source material–the language of livestock handling–and grinds it down a la Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources and M. Nourbese Philips’ Zong!.

She, like Zolf and Philip, walks a tightrope of resisting meaning, and reinsisting meaning. But there is also delight, at least in the language itself “Finches grommeted the wall” or “I am wearing your lacerated face,” and particularly in a text that is so excruciatingly graphic, a text that implicates its reader on every page, these moments are absolutely necessary. Those shard-like images glint with startling freshness reminiscent of early Lisa Robertson: “I love my emergency,” the book announces on the back cover, “An alabaster fidget is impossible to imagine…” This is a book of kinky word pairings, a book of shameless SELF EXCLAIMING, a list of assertions, a book of titles that trumpet themselves. Don’t believe me? Here’s a sampling:

The Seed Is Rotten Under Their Clods

After I Died I Tried To Become The Night

I Want You To Inject My Face With Botulism

And He Shall Put His Hand Upon The Head Of The Burnt Offering

I Am No Prophet, I Am An Husbandman

In Which She Pays For Her Tardiness

This is the kind of poetry that makes a lot of other poetry scuttle under the bed and hope not to be drawn in comparison. It doesn’t announce its prettiness, its banal security. I doubt it’s gurlesque, but if gurlesque is embracing the abject–as I’ve read–then certainly this part fits…no cuteness though, there is no cuteness here. Not a whiff.

This poetry is hard to take in. On the other hand, there is playfulness. Here Reines toys with the over-proliferated sobriety psalm:





Um, yup, we who do not stick our heads inside the vortex of human intention and let it rip are all lame. This is at once a meditative book and a text that seems to showboat its own excellentness. It’s hard to swallow, everything from the pile of slaughtered cows on the cover, to the juices secreted within its pages, to the way she makes words see like “eyes” and “tongues that flop out pinking as they dessicate…” The book will call to mind early Morissey too. You are what you eat, what you think, what you walk on, what you sit on, there are implications at every turn and under Reine’s glare, nowhere to slither and hide. I could go on, but really, you should just get the book.

Johnson’s book is quite, quite different in almost every way. I’ll bet it would rarely end up on a shelf next to Reines, or in a review next to it, and yet I want to praise equally for it is not banal, it is not the avant lyric that has been dampening my heart. Johnson is a Renaissance scholar who has translated Virgil’s Georgics; her poems are very tidy, very formal, and very polished. They take as their subject matter John Donne and Saint Augustine. This is a book that comes out of–or near, perhaps as an offshoot of, in the shadow of–a school of poetry that seems to consider “risk” the fudging of a line break or the inclusion of a pop culture reference. But unlike a lot of “formal” (which often means simply conservative) poetry, it seems to me that these poems also trumpet their excellentness, and they do that, from the Epilogue on, by exacting rhythms and language:

Before the sackbut, before the virginal
struck perpendicular chords, our madrigals
were sublime, loosing harmonies

to unhinge the spheres. In chantries unrehearsed
we’d wow the votarists and serenade
the friary to panting ecstasies

while summoned to kingly chambers we branked
the troubadours, turning the sovereign mind
to heaven, the courtiers left speechless
with neglect… (3)

Conventional, conventional: the poem begins in the garden, begins with spring “a fatness of front lawns,” though from the outset, I’m telling you,this is not the usual fair. The fatness here is not the poet’s she “whose blowtorch urge approaches/the ascetic.” The language play itself is not the point, but it is a wonderful point.

I am thinking of Georgio Agamben’s observation that “art does not satisfy the soul’s spiritual needs as it did in earlier times, because our tendency toward reflection and toward a critical stance have become so strong that when we are before a work of art we no longer attempt to penetrate its innermost vitality, identifying ourselves with it, but rather attempt to represent it to ourselves according to the critical framework furnished by the aesthetic judgment…” (40). So minds select poetry that mirrors their own minds and positions without necessarily taking the risk of actual engagement. What would happen if a poet engaged with a work that was a challenge to their own work, for example? What would loving a poem that one didn’t necessarily understand mean? Or, is it possible to simply arrive at or experience a text these days without trying to fit it in to our argument of art? Or poetry? And why is poetry so much work?

Every time I refer to my desire for poetry to compel, or my belief in its ability to move, to call to action, I get an email. You are naive, I am told. Poetry does nothing, I am told, Poetry has no “use.” On his blog Eyewear Todd Swift recently claimed that he felt (or sometimes feels) that he has wasted his life in poetry. But then I find these poets coming from very different places who are both speaking directly, in very different ways, getting it on with language, and I am moved to write of them, and share. Is that not a call to action if nothing else? And actions are many, some of them more meditative than others, as with Johnson: “our text today is the heliotrope/swiveling its holy troupe.” We are down in the violet bed oh, natural poets, we are down in “hoar” and our tongues a “fovent choir” (10). How unhip the language: “vulgate,” “spinal block” and “womb,” not the province of language poetry, far too sincere and bodily, far too rhythmic, but more unwieldly than the formalists. What would Heaney think? What would Silliman say? Can one have an opinion?

Back to Reines: “Shit. LYRIC. An integrity must come back to a body, and from thence, into a world, a world where a body can adore another one, or the sun, or a part of a thought under it, or the night” (56).

I am not making an argument here, I am presenting an account of reading, of strange intertextualities that offer no easy connections. And it seem to me the poetry that kicks ass knows no allegiance. Make of that what you will. Yes, Johnson is interested in the poetry of praise, but also the sheer gymnastics of language as we see from this excerpt from “Aubade”

Got shut out of that shitbox, gunshot
splintering to matchsticks. Boom-
Age plywood, feeble joists.
Thirty-three west basin days, and I
am sick to death of this campshack,
its ceilinged sleep coins me
claustrophobe. (49)

Is that simply delighting? Perhaps it is not doing the work of Reine’s, but it is conscious, and it is beyond the sketch-like feeling so much formal poetry seems to exude: ekphrasis, check, sonnet, check, villanelle, check, Jordan Davis talks about this in a book that might have made it into this review, and I think we have similar reservations.

Let me sing, then, the beauty of creature

microscopic, who make the vastness gleam
in smithereens. (61)

A more logical question might be the way in which language play is or is not used to generate meaning, and/or action. The latter being decidedly Not the point! or at least not in an easy, straight forward way, not the point of many contemporary poets. And yet, it must be. And this is touching on the problem of quiet for me as much as the problem with new formalism. Not all quiet, but a kind of quiet, as much as it is a problem for other kinds of poetry too: say something, damn it! Take a risk.

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