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Book Review: alphabet and Ring of Fire

Andrew Zawacki

alphabet
Inger Christensen
Translated by Susanna Nied
New Directions, $10.95 (paper)

Ring of Fire
Lisa Jarnot
Zoland, $13 (paper)

8 "You're stuck in a moment and you can't get out of it": these lyrics, from U2's most recent album, might serve as a header for Lisa Jarnot's second full-length poetry collection, Ring of Fire. The book, which follows her acclaimed Some Other Kind of Mission, takes its title from a Johnny Cash tune that the country singer re-recorded with the Irish rock band several years ago. The volume tips its hat to a number of pop icons, from Carol Burnett and Tony Bennett to Lou Reed and Elvis Costello, and cites a host of other contemporary and classical celebrities, including Huey Newton and Huey Lewis, Roland Barthes, Tom Brokaw, Thelonius Monk and The Grateful Dead, along with Lucretius, Abraham Lincoln, and the Thucydides of the poignant, pyrotechnic opening poem, "The Bridge." The parade of these personalities and personae across the pages of what is at times an oblique self-study, qualifies the book's quiet, ironic exclamation, "how close I am to myself."

Moreover, Ring of Fire is replete with poems that move within closed circuits, indulging in the so-called pleasures of merely circulating, of scouting ahead and then doubling back. The result is not so much a staggering of steps forward, however, as a stammer or stutter, a getting stuck in a moment and its peculiar momentum, according to a pathology not unlike Freud's "compulsion to repeat." The relative veracity and apparent transparency of claims such as, "When I was twelve I made out with my cousin on the 4th of July," found in a poem aptly titled "Autobiography," are poised against the tautologies—both thematic and formal—of counterstatements like, "I am the foam of obstruction in the foam of obstruction I am."

This issue of the self's permeable, continually gerrymandered boundaries is revolved and left unresolved in the book's middle section, "Sea Lyrics." The epigraph, taken from an eighteenth-century Encyclopedia Brittanica, notes that it is "uncertain" whether California "be a peninsula or an island," as Jarnot begins inquiring tangentially into the dynamism of the self, which dreams of independence and apartness, but is realized only in locked relation to the landfall of others. Conjuring Donne's admonition that no man is an island, "Sea Lyrics" equally recalls his "Metempsychosis," about the transmigration of the soul. The objects, ideas, and atmospheres that this speaker inhabits are seemingly endless, rendering the "self" not lone but legion. Sometimes these temporary incarnations disturb the distinctions between surface and depth: "I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront." Sometimes they offer a plea, by admitting incapacity: "I am not quite yet the harmony of spheres." Sometimes these ulterior, alter egos deploy paradox or solicit contradiction, in the service of estrangement or difficulty: "I am dangerous and undangerous also." Often they figure the self as the sum of its complex itineraries, as in the remark, "I am almost to Japan"; the convoluted admission, "I am not sure where I am and I am travelling to edges made of night, I am not sure where I am and I am travelling to edges made of rock in avocado night"; and the observation, structured like an ouroboros, "this is from where I came and to which I came."

Jarnot's uninhibited serial inhabitings exhibit the thrills of restlessness and disguise. But she also expresses fears about instability: "I am a drag queen named Heather not quite ready for New York." The fantasy and limiting case of negative capability is, of course, an intimacy whereby "I am you." But there is a vulnerability lurking within Jarnot's protean transformations, too, a susceptibility to total self-erosion: "I am in the breakroom holding coffee with my gun, I am asking you to help me." She pushes negative capability to its exasperating edge, where it's rendered untenable, as her variable stopping points become symptoms not of existential versatility but of imminent breakdown, madness, identity crisis. So although her aleatory drive toward dissimulation, her acts of being numerous, her rage to compass the world without remainder, initially seem democratic, celebratory, even reciprocal—"that I love things, that they love me back"—the speaker finally seems exhausted at her inability to incarnate herself once and for all. In her promiscuity, the vagabond speaker gives away too much of her "self," so that little if any is left to police or even constitute its own borders. "[I]n my plan to be myself," Jarnot writes, "I became someone else with / soft lips and a secret life."

The self's figuration as a trajectory that collapses or can't move ahead finds its formal parallel in Jarnot's insistent, incessant use of repetition, anaphora, litany, and incantation. Her now arbitrary, now obsessively patterned prose poems and lyrics enact a compulsion to repeat, a pathological fallout generally associated with traumatic neurosis, here indulged as a formal paradigm. At their best, her unremitting repetitions are mesmerizing. In "The New Life," for instance, Jarnot apes the villanelle, pantoum, or ghazal, by mobilizing the rhyming words "lover," "fear," "neighbors," "lavender," and "drugstore," as well as "avenue," "neon," "steak," "bus," and "glass," in a sequence of permutations and combinations that constantly renews rather than enervates itself. Ostensibly in free verse, "The New Life" nonetheless skillfully deploys varying refrains and tags, repeating phrases and images in different orders, to novel ends. This poised aesthetics of accretion creates a deft, slant, erotic narrative of two lovers in a city, one of whom, like the biblical speaker in the Song of Solomon, "crawled in through the window and loving my neighbor / I loved my lover and counted the hairs on his head."

It is unclear throughout the volume whether love is itself the trauma or its cure. At times the speaker is "heartbreaked," haunted by the thought of "you the atm of / longing" while cataloguing "who I slept with and didn't," whereas elsewhere she praises "him the one I love," eulogizing the wry and wonderfully trivial as well as the grandiose: "for that he can always find the scotch tape." The book is filled with paeans in the manner of Christopher Smart, and the objects of Jarnot's affection include a veritable zoo of raccoons, lemurs and yaks, a chinchilla and an armadillo, polar bear, hippo, chicken, ocelot, monkey, "an albatross in the hottubs of dawn," and "ferocious the giant / squirrels." Jarnot's ebullient repetitions, though, become a tic, and Ring of Fire comprises eighty pages of unmitigated tidal rhetoric. It may be that such in-and-out most accurately and sonorously mimics a meditative procedure, or the obsessions of a mind at the end of its tether. But as an aesthetic strategy, the compulsion to repeat risks abrading the reader, who feels he's becoming a patient, impatient.

* * *

Inger Christensen, too, is wedded to repetition, but in a more fiercely neo-classical fashion. Her psalm-like alphabet, originally published in 1981 and translated beautifully from the Danish by Susanna Nied, is formally premised on the Fibonacci series: the length of each section of the poem equals the sum of the lengths of the previous two. The book is comprised of fourteen numbered segments—"fourteen crystal forms exist"—with each corresponding to a letter of the alphabet, beginning with a and concluding with n. The volume opens in simple wonderment, with an Orphic singing of the world into presence: "apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist." The following section moves from a to b, from 1 to 2: "bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries; / bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen." Hydrogen is, of course, the first element of the periodic table; Christensen constructs her verse according to the universe, and like myriad other objects named in her poem, hydrogen and its variations recur throughout. By section 11—after being told "the products of fission exist," and having encountered "Icarus helpless"—hydrogen is reconstituted: "hydrogen bombs exist / a plea to die."

In exploring how miniscule elements crystallize into larger entities, either for destruction or—as seeds become plants, ingredients food, and letters words—for creation, Christensen asks whether "given limits exist." Her fear is that, because of "cruel experiments" like those that facilitated the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, "never will death itself be the same any more." Christensen's Edenic, naturalist impulse turns her toward the innocence involved in the genesis of things, while her equally pragmatic, foreboding temperament worries over "the future, the future," which may find humankind "banished to a re-lost paradise." Hence she moves almost seamlessly between ice ages and cobalt-60 isotopes, between Judas's kiss and "oxygen on its crucifix," between "June, June, your Jacob's ladders" and "July / heavy as a bomb." While clearly invested with an abiding faith in poetry's capacity to hone and honor the world, Christensen believes the world is sufficient unto itself:

    let
things be; add
words, but let
things be; see
how easily they find
shelter by themselves
behind a stone; see
how easily they steal
into your ear
and whisper
to death to go away

Of her poetics, Christensen claims, "I write like wind / that writes in water / with stylised monotony." alphabet evinces something of medieval plainchant, in its verbal susurrations, its alternations of the austere and the baroque. The book's mathematical schema, coupled with an insistent alliteration (which makes Nied's translation mirabile visu) and adherence to elemental detail á la Guillevic, serve to propel the sequence forward, lending a cumulative, urgent quality to the work. The sections linger within the resonances of a single letter's sounds and suggestions, however, and this, combined with a penchant for abstraction and overt stylistic change-ups, allows the language and the linearity of the argument to dance in place or reset itself. Much of Christensen's linguistic virtuosity puts one in mind of the phenomenon known as reduplication, a morphological process in certain languages (such as Turkish, Indonesian, Somali, Greek, Nez Percé—but excluding English and Danish) which copies all or part of the base to which it applies, in order to mark a grammatical or semantic contrast. Whether full or partial, reduplication can serve to intensify an adjective, place a verb into the future or the past, pluralize a noun or scatter its distribution, render an action continuous, or simply imply repetition. Moreover, Christensen makes skillful use of compound noun constructions in a way that is not only pleasurable, perhaps onomatopoeic, but also hints at the strange marriages of earth and air, water and fire, that define the world by seeming to defy it: "knotgrass" and "sweetgrass," "icelocked" and "iceplant," "fireweed and mugwort," "brickworks," "stoneskies," "groundwater," "greylight," "morningpale" and "summerwarm." Occasionally Christensen veers from verbal and visual acuity and lapses into preciosity or précis: "I write like winter," she states at the end of 13, "write like snow / and ice and cold / darkness death / write." But overall, her play with letters and numbers—units that assume signification only within a structured economy, by existing within a system—is seductive, how she uses them to reveal how "a drop of water falls // on a leaf on a branch on a tree / on an earth." In her authentic relationship to "earth as it is in heaven," Christensen can even imagine "a / door with no house standing wide open still"—and somehow she ushers us inside. <


Andrew Zawacki
is coeditor of Verse and author of By Reason of Breakings.


Originally published in the February/March 2002 issue of Boston Review



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