Croak by Jenny Sampirisi

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Croak by Jenny Sampirisi
Coach House Books
2011

Review by Sarah Bernstein

As I read and reread Croak by Jenny Sampirisi, endeavoring to find a point of entry, I thought at last: yes, that’s it. Thresholds.

The bodies in Croak spill over their own bounds; they have extra digits or limbs or else they have too few or else those they do have are only partly formed or deformed or fused somehow to limbs belonging to someone else. So here we are. Croak celebrates the grotesque – the leaky boundaries of skin and identity and language.

There are three sets of players in Croak: the Narrators, the Frogs, and the Girls, and they put on a sort of demented vaudeville in three parts. Each of these characters applies to themselves and to the others various systems of interpretation in repeatedly thwarted attempts to understand what’s going on around them. The characters use natural science, technology, mathematics, chemistry, narrative, language, and various forms of art (dance, poetry, song, drawing) all of a piece – all together, that is, and at the same time. So it is that a “performance,” in which Frog One stands in the spotlight with top hat and cane while the narrators sing the lines “a capella,” becomes also an invasive and more or less meaningless catalogue of the frog’s mismatched parts:

Multiple Hind Limbs: Split

Incomplete Upper Fore Limb: No elbow

Partial Duplication of Digit(s): Hind limb

Incomplete Fore Limb: Partial fore foot (hand)

(Walk off.)

The Narrators inventory the limbs, but the same ones are repeated with varied detail so that the reader doesn’t actually know how many Frog One has, or what multiple hind limbs that are at once split and complete might look like. His appearance – well, his configuration of limbs, at least – is more protean than it is definitely froglike. In the book’s blurb, Anselm Berrigan writes that Croak similarly “never levels off into a settled shape,” and so we arrive again at that unsettled space of the threshold.

What can a reader take away from this book of in-between? A book that opens with the idea of frogs and girls, images already so loaded with symbolism and possible allusion that it seems not a beginning at all, or else a beginning in medias res. Sampirisi is an intelligent and self-aware writer, and Croak is mostly (though also outrageously funny at times) a cerebral book, in which possible meaning extends endlessly.

For instance: the frogs are Aristophanes’ croaking frogs, but they’re also the Frog Prince, Michigan J. Frog, and the frogs in Basho’s haikus. The deformed frogs are signals too of deteriorating natural environments and symbolize our ever more tenuous connection with the natural world. In creating so much room for interpretation, the individual characters of the Girls and the Frogs become irrelevant, even though they are presented as major players in the text. The effusion of meaning verges on meaninglessness, but is that the point? If so, what does that mean and how does that hold the book together?

In Part III, “Limbus,” the book fuses together Frogs and Girls so that they become the Frogirls. This is, I think, a deliberately contrived narrative device that seems to point to, yes, the failure of the “love story” and “limb story” to effectively bring the book together, and also to the reader’s expectation that a text, as the Narrators say in Part One, “Be about something. A something worth a word.” But I’m not totally convinced by this. I am that kind of reader, and I do want more. Croak lives ever in the middle space, proposing possible meaning while deconstructing and refusing it all the time. From “Lo Figrrs”:

We understood the café as an expectation. We asked what’s happen-

ing and in what order where nothing was new. We made occasions and

histories and tied objects to words.

These lines acknowledge the reader’s “expectation” that the café, for example, mean something, yet the speakers point to just “a series of happenings,” from which it’s impossible to draw meaning. On the following and final page, the Girls, now again separate from the Frogs, say, “So it is that we’ve failed then.” While I find failure as a literary trope quite interesting, I struggled with this ending. There isn’t enough at stake for this sentimental reader, and the moment becomes one of bathos rather than pathos.

Croak is an intelligent, challenging book, wryly funny and coldly obscure at turns. In its depictions of character and corporeality, the book has a clinical strain that is only sometimes balanced with moments of poignancy and humour. It’s a different kind of threshold, and when Croak goes there, it is damn good:  “A vigilant croaking in the night to inform the others you exist. You are here and it’s a sound.”

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Sarah Bernstein is a writer from Montreal. She recently completed her MA in English at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, where she now lives, writes, edits poetry for The Fiddlehead magazine, and shelves books at a French-language library. Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in CV2Room, and Numero Cinq magazines.

 

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