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Book Reviews: Zirconia and Miss America

Cole Swensen

Zirconia
Chelsey Minnis
Fence Books, $12 (paper)

Miss America
Catherine Wagner
Fence Books, $12 (paper)

8 Fence has launched a book series, and done it with a bang—two forceful choices that come out of different worlds in different tones and at different speeds. Indeed at first look they have almost nothing in common. A second glance, however, reveals similarities, most noticeably a common engagement with violence, from a woman's perspective. In both cases, the violence operates on the level of content as well as tactics, and raises social questions that, while ultimately unanswered, are responsibly addressed. Moreover, both books are strikingly inventive, particularly in their forms.

In Zirconia, Chelsey Minnis has developed a form of "hyper" ellipsis—long series of periods that extend across the page:

   ...........when my mother....................................................................

   ................................was raped.........................................................

   .........................................................................................................

   .....a harpsichord began to play..........................................................

   ...........................................................red candles melted.....and.......

This device could begin to feel like one, but doesn't; instead, it gives the pages a floating, almost hypnotic quality—an air that is often, as above, in harsh contrast with the content. These ellipses also constitute an ambient hum, as murmuring voices in the background that both cause and complete those long blanks. They create a suspension, which in turn becomes suspense, paralleling the gentle menace that lurks throughout this book.

Although Zirconia is the quieter of the two books, it is also, in its own way, the more violent. Its veiled ferocity is mixed with tenderness and trust, which makes it unnerving. Minnis's responsibility is rooted in her ability (or at least valiant attempt) to respond—to respond to the prevailing violence, particularly against women, in contemporary culture. This could easily become cliché, but it doesn't, perhaps because she demands a true response of herself, not a conventionally acceptable one. And many won't find her response acceptable at all; it includes, for instance, a complex confrontation with rape fantasies, such as the one cited above and the more personal scenario in the poem "Uncut," which begins:

   ...I desire to be pushed or shoved down....in a grassy area.................

   ................................................................and this is a real hope........

   .....................................................................but it is not possible......


The poem continues to interlace violence with hope, as well as with an oddly detached analysis:

   .........................................................................................................

   ...........................................................until you retain........................

   ....an incredibly accurate neural concept of the occurrence..................

   ...........which you thoroughly misunderstand..in that moment...............

   as......the scent adheres..........to your receptors...upon.......................

   ..............................the intake of breath..............................................

The "I" here has backed off, veiling itself in the impersonal language of a research scientist, a dissociation whose completeness suggests another kind of violence. Yet we, too, get swept up in the minute consideration of sensual detail, focusing so closely that we lose track of the larger scene. But is it a "losing track"? Or is Minnis insisting on the reality of cells, of the specificity of real moments, refusing to let them get swallowed up by even the most sensational stories?

Both, I think. And it's also a mask for vulnerability. Minnis seems to recognize that her only defense against enormous fragility is to announce it everywhere, detail it, expose her weak spots, and defy the likelihood of attack. This vulnerability comes out in the candid voice that she uses throughout; it's an almost impossibly innocent voice, but so flat that it never becomes coy. Instead, it gradually builds into a quietly nerve-wracking tension. When is this innocent going to realize the danger?

But in the manner of the truly innocent, she lightly, almost accidentally, sidesteps disaster. Then innocence twists, and she turns back to become the aggressor. She exhibits the same detachment in this switched position, as if it makes little difference which role she plays in the confrontation. For instance, the poem of her mother's rape cited above ends:

   .....as I beat gentleman rapists............................................................

   .........................................................................................................

   ....................with bronze statuettes....................................................

   .......so that the blood..........oozes down their handsome sideburns.....

   ....................................................................or give them..................

   .....a poisoned mushroom..................................................................

   .........................................................................................................

   .................................or corsages and corsages of gunshot

There's such calm intimacy in this tone and very little anger, moving in a dream of emotionless fact. The contrast between tone and image is reenacted in the paradoxical image itself—corsages of gunshot evoking a film-noir flavor that offers another kind of distancing.

Minnis's distancing is based on the senses; in fact, one of the book's principal modes is to sensualize experience, often by evoking the tactile: "the drop of moisture on the middle of your lower lip," "bee wings stuck to your cheek," or her description of eating a caramel while sinking into a leather sofa. The soft leather on the outside and the soft caramel inside seem to meet and erase the dreamy girl who tries to convince herself "of happiness that must have occurred."

By the end of the book, Minnis has translated her world into sheer sense-data, which puts judgment aside to concentrate on feel, smell, and color. Red rules the book in myriad shades. The titles include "Cherry," "Maroon," "Supervermillion," and "Sunburns." The hue is carried throughout the text in the ruby eyes of a skull ring, a red fox, wine, a burgundy car, blood, bloodlines, fireballs, and redwoods. Again, without judgment—this red does not stand for blood that stands for death; instead it is intensity itself, whatever direction it might take. She's particularly good at leaving that direction open, at not tying objects into symbols or metaphors, but leaving them alone to emanate aesthetic and ethical ambiguity.

The truly unnerving aspect of the book is the way that this ambiguity gradually emerges as a view about moral judgment itself. Such judgment is a kind of abstract dissociation from experience that directs our emotions into proper channels like a letter of complaint that defuses itself by its own propriety. Throughout the book she has been refusing dissociating judgments of this kind, and she's been doing it in order to get closer to experience with the courage to accept it raw.

* * *

In Catherine Wagner's Miss America, the formal invention is subtler while the violence is more adamant. The book is centered around two series of poems, each of which operates as a kind of template, unifying the book in tone and stance. The series "Magazine Poems" parodies the content and attitudes of various mainstream publications from Time to Poets & Writers to Cosmopolitan, while the series "Fraction Anthems" revels in postmodern fragmentation. These two distinct series are linked through the language itself, and it's at the level of language that Wagner's violence is most apparent, both in its diction and its energy. She delights in clashes of different linguistic registers, and in their cacophonous unions: "Webby tree / Please do to me / Inside of cage thing." Many of these registers do violence to standard English: "Angie who I begoned from me," and many of them carry frankly violent statements: "I am punch punch punch punch"; "I'll kill you bunch of."

From the first page on, there's a blunt, blatant, even brazen certainty in this work. As the speaker says in the book's ninth line, "who fuckin cares" which of course always means "I don't care"—and yet, the poem is about conformity and its relation to the need to be loved. Throughout the book, Wagner looks straight at the uncomfortable fact that we often participate in just the attitudes and situations we scorn. The "Magazine Poems" series capitalizes on these divergent impulses toward conformity and defiance; every magazine has its signature ("How to write a Blackwood's Article"), which in turn invites its transgression. In this series, Wagner is not so much imitating as she is parrying. The language is distinctly her own even as it pokes precise holes in the frames and assumptions of the magazine in question and examines the way we adopt such frames without conscious consent or recognition.

Such complicity is hard to admit, but Wagner charges right in: "march march march march march march" as she says in "A Poem for Poets & Writers"—"Plunge in solid." It's an attitude right there in the cover painting by Gerhard Richter, which shows a woman striding forward down a staircase, ready to take on anything—and the poems keep on marching into difficult situations. The section "White Man Poems" grapples with the ambiguities of a touchy topic made more so by Wagner's white, well-educated background. Yet the "I" in these poems speaks from the outside. Given the context, how sincere is that? Or, perhaps, how accurate? The speaker anticipates such questions both directly and ambiguously. She states "But I am, I am one" even as her language compromises this by echoing the syntactical patterns of other dialects: "White man half an hour late"; "White man wrote almost every book in that shelf." The political ramifications of displacing a gender difference onto racial and ethnic ones are complex and run the risk of irresponsibility. But here Wagner bypasses familiar, clumsy analogies to capture deeper intricacies. I want to say something like "she underscores the linked nature of social margins, and implies a possible outside that has nothing to do with namable categories," which is true, but it falls short of what she's really doing, which can't be paraphrased. She ties things together in ways that haven't yet become conversational fodder. Her angle is slightly but importantly new, and therefore unsayable in any words other than hers.

In Wagner's work, it's not voice that's important, but voices. She interleaves patterns from Native-American, African-American, multi-racial urban, and WASP suburban dialects: "Since I been here SCARED / and my natural EBULLISHNESS"; "Mo lady! Poop it out!"; "let me king around / you king all over, mighty"; "You fat and gassy and tepid / You been silver and gold, you match / You plaid metal up to the neckbridge //." It's a vigorous melange drawn from all registers until the phrases can't be accurately labeled with their dialect of origin, but instead convey the flavor and the flexibility of a composite American tongue.

The tongue: la langue, la lengüeta, la linguetta—in gendered languages, it's so often feminine. Here it is Miss America: an intricate, composite linguistic intensity striding down the staircase, staring straight ahead, and not slowing down.

Both these writers show a marvelous courage—it's an odd courage, unprecedented, and no doubt to some, unrecognizable. Often dressed in anger, it is extremely refreshing because its anger is both well-considered and well-directed—toward inequality, conformity, commodification. These targets are nothing new for poetry; these two writers just make it all seem entirely fresh.<


Cole Swenson is the author of seven books of poems, including Such Rich Hour (reviewed in this issue). She is visiting professor at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review



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