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Desire’s Nemesis

Calvin Bedient

Music and Suicide
Jeff Clark
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20 (cloth)

Sad Little Breathing Machine
Matthea Harvey
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)

Graft
Brian Henry
New Issues, $14 (paper)

Fathom
Andrew Joron
Black Square Editions, $12.95 (paper)

Dwelling Song
Sally Keith
University of Georgia Press, $16.95 (paper)

Cocktails
D.A. Powell
Graywolf Press, $14 (paper)

The Wind, Master Cherry, the Wind
Larissa Szporluk
Alice James Press, $13.95 (paper)

8 Emotional negation—the No. 1 hit in American poetry since the last romantic gasps of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams—may be little more than a four-letter reflex, but it can be cast into some such formulation as “it destroys me, this thing cracked up to be a world.” (Hegel called it vexation, naming it as a modern disease and explaining it as a reaction to disappointed idealism.) As for speculative or philosophical negation, it may add a Grand Guignol dimension. Hegel, again: “The human being is this night [of the world], this empty nothing . . . an unending wealth of many representations, . . . of which none belongs to him . . . here shoots a bloody head—there another white ghastly apparition. . . . One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye.”

What has become an endangered species is a still further type of negation, metaphysical negation, in which the no turns out to be a yes: no to appearances, yes to something so exalted it’s indescribable. T.S. Eliot found it in his magnificent “grumble,” The Waste Land. Negation of this reversing kind arrives at the threshold of a no-thing, a no-place that alone is real, where everything is and nothing can be nothing. It’s comparable to the physical universe before a ripple came along and made it a spectacular killing machine.

Endangered, yes; but in the last few years, Andrew Joron, a poet who lives in Berkeley, has quietly begun to surface as the metaphysician-elect of contemporary American poetry. In his nearly flawless second book, The Removes (1998), he rocketed past that other Berkeley metaphysical, the gnostic Brenda Hillman, into untroubled Pure Negation. “Zero opens (a zero-rose) sideways in time”; so he puts it in his new book of poems, Fathom. But if you think this sentiment harmless enough, consider how Joron in one poem zips from “NOON” to “NOUN” to “NO / KNOWN” to “NO ONE” with the avid speed of a bullet; or his cheerful prayer that because “Earth was forged—a serpentine line,”

Let this flesh, in a flash, become
Mathematical sand.
Amen.

Though increasingly given to infra-dig puns, Joron is usually much more august than this last little ditty conveys. In the brilliant essay “The Emergency,” which opens Fathom, he argues that poetry—and not least “at a time like this,” when “acts of resistance to U.S. domination” can wear the aspect of necessity—is crucial precisely to the degree that it “forces language to fail, to fall out of itself, to become something other than itself.” Language anyway bears “the structure of a lament,” because in it “meaning is always displaced from its object.” If indeed we are here in a serpentine displacement of what alone is, then let poetic language be sent, and received, by “no one”: a reminder of our merely forged identity in the night of the world. In fact, logically “the creative Word comes into its exile here, in the world’s most destructive nation.” It joins “the blues, all blues, . . . the matrix of the world’s subaltern cultures, an expression of triumph in defeat.” In the “Word beyond meaning,” what “triumphs in defeat is the Inexpressible, the joyous object of lament.” “Poetry”—but here Joron is seduced into an important-sounding aphorism—“is the self-organized criticality of the cry.”

Not that Fathom has the sharp edge of an unpreventable cry: Joron is as serene a poet as one can image. “Hued, as in air; hewed, as in stone,” his lines are all intellectual concentration, with just enough sensory detail to verify that, like less angelic members of our species, Joron has known the senses’ delirium. Like The Removes, Fathom is made up of imperturbable aphorisms and near-aphorisms, which are bundled together in varying numbers under such titles as “The Book is an Abstract Candle” and “Konvolut N”: consider, for instance, “The last line / listens to its endlessness,” which practically hisses away like leaking auditory air. Some of the statements are simply too neat, too satisfied with themselves: “Time to try the knot, the Not / Or to be caught / Forever in nerve-traceries of Beauty.” But quite a few (if not nearly so many as in The Removes) are arresting. For example, “repetition, resisted / is the register of thought.” Or try “pages the moments: ages the mirages.” Or “The sound of a trumpet decays / Like an animal.” If Joron doesn’t really convey “the groan of against, the shudder of great negation,” his work is the mind’s moaning mourning dove of for, for what lies beyond “this curving wall” (though, when it comes down to it, the wall—everything’s a mirage—“has one side only”).

*  *  *

The other poets under review write poetry of real emotional negation (“the groan of against”), with varying degrees of philosophical negation mixed in, well this side of metaphysical negation. In Music and Suicide, Jeff Clark follows up the edgy, sometimes flip negativity of his equally potent first book, The Little Door Slides Back (“Around the neck a noose? Collapsed halo?”) with poems that steam with vexation. Intelligent, sly, relentless, Clark has genuine menace; he paints with a flammable brush. History?

I have a lighter, you have fuel
Hatefully designed, well defended, it
  kills, sells
We won’t try to climb, we douse
the perimeter, flood the subfloors with
  fuel
We drench the lobby
White tower that sodomizes horizons

This is of course less the blues than the angry reds: no to no, not yes to zero’s rose.

The philosophical negation that pervades the book puts existence down as a mix of sphincter and specter—extreme, hostile terms for what used to be called body and soul. Perversely caricaturing Joron’s metaphysical cast of thinking, Clark’s Shiva, in the long, desultory prose poem “Shiva Hive,” argues that our very existence is proof that “nothing” rules: “The fact that we are experiencing something is proof that the power of nothing is complete,” for it shows that nothing has “the power to negate even itself.” This is not meant to be encouraging.

Clark’s imaginings are like a cloud-puff of rust-colored spores; nothing is safe from their “cureless premonitions,” their “sevens rich with raped sixes,” their “Lanes louder / fouler” than thou’s. The poems range from the jesterish mock-gibberish of the first poem (“The phosphorous cheeks of an ailing jester fallen that day / from an alien haze over jade lanes / to blades arrayed in ribboned mazes,” etc.), to long, argumentative prose poems, to equally long brazen catalogues of strange moments retrieved from dreams, to the abjection of “Sun on 6” (“Mustard-colored / stinking stocking”), all the way to the elegant, sad, spare allegory of “Limbs of Life.” What they share is a tendency toward the caustic (like his first book, this one contains a powerful “pissulence”), or at least, at their very softest, the eerily discomfiting, like “Cheek sweat / on picture glass.”

Clark comes out of that French crew who wire the chair of the work for nasty surprises (Cocteau, Dalí, Bataille, Michaux, Buñuel). His touch is unerringly monstrous. Let him try the dear old genre of the elegant compliment and something queer happens: “a circuit, bled memory / a seance of the veins, a liquid hinge . . . / How are you still so fragrant? / (An object at a morgue or an organ.” Mercy.

Everywhere in his work “A young boy smirks from within a sliding-glass door” (so he has it in one of his dream catalogues) and “refuses to unlock it.” His persona’s conscious contrariness in standing in his own way is a dipstick for measuring the depth of humanity’s own perversity. Clark settles down into the sludge as if turgidity were home and has enough brilliance to make this performance of darkness shine. His work is Joron’s “seasons of seizures & caesuras” without the escape hatch wiped clean of all traces of blood. Often actionable with regard to what has traditionally been held sacred, Music and Suicide is startling and radioactive in making the “wrong” moves in order to get a certain disappointed knowledge right.

*  *  *

For Matthea Harvey, in her second book of poems, Sad Little Breathing Machine, the puzzle in this world of ours (such a world!) is how to “feel something catch.” How to ignite, strike up as a unit like a real engine? “Define hope. Machine.” Harvey’s poems, materialist transpositions of Joron’s conviction that we exist only after the loss of something that would have made existence good, are flashlit by a “lightning-struck ago”; they are fables of belatedness, of anticlimax: “One puff of smoke rose in the minefield. / People dragged their shadows along.” Perhaps we even like our existence-as-trauma: “Machine for Jean Rhys” begins, “It’s all lit up with handfuls / & eyefuls & it doesn’t want you / because that’s what you want”—here a touch of Clarkian perversity. At any rate, like Joron and Clark, Harvey is “here to tell you that you’re not.”

Harvey’s variant of the poetry of negation, of our lives as a basic displacement from whatever might have excused or even redeemed them, is lean in form, swift yet piquant, mischievous yet canny. She has a flair for introducing contravening elements that tug to be their own story; her poems are never complacently linear and unitary—though, on the other hand, a few seem discouragingly disconnected. Her bright creative energy, her gusto, glows like a heater in the wintry rooms of the poems. (This animation was deliberately dialed down in her first book, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form [2000], which has its own, quite different attractions.) Ever so bothersomely aware of being not-yet-invented in one’s supposed character as a “human being,” Harvey (who is never one to be put down) is all the time inventive to beat the band. Once or twice, she’s even so positive as to point to the reliable agency of creativity: should you “unfasten the crows & the clouds / come crashing down,” it’s not a catastrophe: the imagination can yet center its “swan on the pond.” Again, “we sugar the obstacle dark.”

But whatever sugar there may be in her poems is soaked in lemon juice; she has that unforgiving modern sense that to be a mere machine of desire, continually grinding the false stuff out—a subjectivity always agape and agawk—is an outrage against the decency of reason, a joke. (To be modern is to feel fundamentally violated.) Invasion of the joy-snatchers: “Our attackers were silky and small. // Above us, an expository sky. / Gray, then rain, then closing” (“Reverse Space Invaders”).

Harvey’s quick and delightful faux narratives are like surrealism on a treadmill; they spurn under their feverish feet both dull fact and the gossamer weave of dreams. They have lost a steadying sense of ground. They flicker and flit:

Someone in a red shirt began to run
Behind the trees each night in a poor
  imitation

Of sunset. She was thrilled & unwell.
I supposed I can say it—she was me.

I missed the mother bird who dropped
Her babies on my glass ceiling, missed

Their tiny pterodactyl shadows on my
  floor.
They were so beautiful projected there.

The world is lurkingly primordial, still. There’s no comfort anywhere. If only one could be nature, a source—a source departing.

Occasionally, cuteness overrides acuteness in the poems (you can just begin to feel it in “I suppose I can say it—she was me”): this is an endemic problem in contemporary work that is hell-bent on hilarious fabrication. But a fair number are likely to last, as classics of their own (new) kind: among others, “Bird Transfer, “ “Sad Little Breathing Machine,” “Equation with Flowers,” “Our Square of Lawn,” “Poem Including the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,” “Diagram of Pretty Please,” and “The Unconsciousness of Feelings.”

If Andrew Joron recalls Malraux’s impression that modern art “seems to belong to some religion of which it is unaware,” the same possibility is buried well beneath the surface of work like Clark’s and Harvey’s—so far that it would involve guess as well as grunt work to dig it out. Brian Henry’s third book of poems, Graft, may be added to the list of books on the side of “fallen” negation, where, pace Joron, to be exiled is not the “true homecoming.” (Never mind that one of the poems parades in Christian terminology.) When Henry beholds life, he sees winter. Consider “Winter, with Demons,” which reads, in part:

One screams river when so swollen, it
  screams river
Though no water crosses; and lake, lake
  assumes some feeder.
This quagmire a scattering loose and
  stark: one screams swamp,
Swamp in which skin’s tripwire churns
  to pieces
Its pilots who have no who about them
  and persist
In blankness, that blackness tinged with
  blue, blue-colored blue.

In these densely dynamic lines, creation, demonic, screams itself out in rage. Its pilots have “no who.” So who, where, and what are you? In somewhat the same register as Harvey’s Sad Little Breathing Machine, Graft is about trying to graft oneself onto something. In Graft, it is usually a woman, but also, in an indifferent list, a boy or man and a landscape—almost anything will do. One of the chief metaphors and actions is an attempt at penetration, an image that, here and there, gains a ferocity equal to Clark’s: “I left a propeller behind at the fair; some runt / of a boy is fingering it now, its plastic edge. / I’d love to shove that edge right up his” (“Reclining Nude”). As with Clark and Harvey, an incurable lack of ontological placement (“I resist this beginning and hope it does not last. / I resist it because I have no place at the start”) provokes desperate measures.

For this book, Henry has devised a style—imperturbably sustained—that is numb with cold and hardly admitted hurt. Deadpan, deliberately pulseless (if full of the ghosts of meter—it tells of “the vigor I’m missing”), frequently plodding, Latinate, and abstract (a style barely foreshadowed even in the late-Audenesque moments of his first book, Astronaut [2002]), it holds one’s attention by its piercingly chill air; it may lack charm, but it’s decidedly created. Here, the “palette” of poetry, as Henry implies, is “scoured anew and cast / onto glaciered shores.” Instead of reanimating American English, the book forsakes it both from inside and at the outer edges, quite as if the icy hand of cosmic space had finally grabbed the confident, swaggering thing by the genitals, declaring that the egoistic jig is up.

Graft runs exactly counter to the hot surfaces now so popular in the work of our younger poets; yet in its own way it irks, surprises, and provokes at almost every turn, as in the jolting mix of slang and fresh wording (including the weary redundancy) of “What sucks is the time spent en route to what, at last, is no at last.” One could say that Henry writes so clumsily that he writes formidably well (as Clark does; it’s one of the new ways to make it new). He knows what he’s doing as he sets one frostbitten foot down after the other: “a dampness between the eyes a darkness a dampness”; “For carcasses are all that we all that we.” Everywhere, reluctance and foreclosure rule: “Who said thirst who said wait.” A stab of ire comes as a relief:

Fucking hillside, floating through the
  ether
as if the sky mattered, as if the trees
  leaning
against each other did so out of anything
  but spite.

Henry has power of figure (“night its own coat hanger”); lowercase lyricism (“he chooses to wade and swim // as quick across as his body allows, / will dive if she comes upon him shooting. / She comes upon him singing”); a violated body-sense (“The blood on his neck smeared where you licked it”); a gift for a formal kind of obscenity, à la John Hawkes; an occasional startling wildness (“and planes descend like too many shawls in a nest of when”); a stare-you-down, impudent abuse of logic (“Real snow falls only once: all other winters are an imitation”), and still more—he keeps alive a sense of “the cost of being,” its grim untowardness. But what with his withdrawn air and tone, his poems are the most considerately muffled avalanche ever to reach your ears.

*  *  *

Larissa Szporluk’s new book, The Wind, Master Cherry, the Wind, is, like her second book, Isolato (2000), disappointing compared to her first, Dark Sky Question (1998), which was one of the truly arresting American debuts of the 1990s. A good second book can be harder to bring off than a successful first one: the assumption that henceforth one will of course write more than passably can beguile judgment; and, the first release of voice and meaning (the discovered code of a life) having been well begun, one’s poetic drive may slacken, or one’s nerve may fail. Already in Isolato, Szporluk’s imagination, consistently odd, loosened at times toward the fanciful, or toward rhetoric (“Their throats are bursting / with the depth and power of the night”). And the poems in the new book, if often taut, sometimes go suddenly slack and flat. The wonderful beginning of “Purga,” for instance, “Depth is ahead, / not below. // Not deep like the sea, / but deep like the tips // of birches, / deep in their restlessness,” typically loses truth and concentration as it continues: “pinned by the dirt / and ice [so much for their restlessness], silent as people, // deep in their silver, shaking a little, not // touching. Deep as a figure / forced to wander,” etc.

In contrast to the alarming, moving impression of (precisely) a “deep” personal necessity in Dark Sky Question, the poems do nothing so much as keep the act of writing going. In her first collection, Szporluk proved to be one of the great, injured, unreconcilable daughters of our poetry. Here, and not least in the book’s suite of outlaw-hungry Pinocchio poems, she’s inclined to be far more reasonable and prudent (“What does she gain by spilling her guts, / a long gluey streak”). But somehow, her being sensible ushers in less truth, not more. You feel that if Pinocchio’s maker, Geppetto, came by he would move not “like truth into story,” but simply like story into story. I enjoyed Szporluk more when, a female Pinocchio, she was bad, her brilliant “mouth in a snarl.” She had intensity; she was dangerous.

Antithetical to the matte writing in the book, but essentially just as unanimated, is Szporluk’s tendency to a baroque piling-on of dubiously inserted similes and a skewed, as if inattentive, movement of the poem. The more interesting of these problems is the first, the rash of comparisons, because one is challenged to determine whether the excess is justifiable or not. Mostly, I think, it isn’t. One could argue that in “Falter” the comparison of snow falling on a butterfly (but how likely is that?) first to “confectioner’s sugar” (which moreover is sailing down), then to “promises a siren makes” and to “her salary of bones,” then to “bread-knives in slow motion / divvying a loaf” (where the true likeness would be, I think, with the bread crumbs, not the knives), and then “maybe shards of Easter light” or “the garbled circulation / of a private thought, // the point already manifold, / a tortured note” conveys the idea that experience is beset with attractions and attacks of an indeterminable nature. But, if so, the procedure is expensive—so overdone that its nose grows longer and longer.

For Szporluk, as for the other poets herein reviewed, the world is a machinery of negation: desire’s nemesis. Of swans “thin with longing” she writes, “Hear them being eaten from within, / same fever, larvae, gnawing,” and then, in a characteristically wild swerve, this one toward Ted Hughes, “same honeymooning couple / supping the muck, until what’s left / of her is left of him, unconscious / fish.” Her method one of continual distraction, Szporluk likes no subject well enough to dwell on and with it, press on it until it yields all it can, so her poetic eyes dart about and, if they weep at all, only “weep / enamel.” Skitter, scatter: she drops her Pinocchio into “a soft-blue carriage / attached to hundreds of mice,” likening him to “Cinderella / in a feverish parade, / her sequin gown / trailing off, like God from all / but one small leaf.” You may feel right off a tug of emotion at the apparent depth and virtuosity of this closing figure, but, sobering up, may reflect that the lying puppet-boy, Szporluk’s ostensible subject, has disappeared under that scarcely relevant sequin gown. In these lines, the deus abscondus of Dark Sky Question makes only a casual off-the-shoulder reappearance. Meanwhile, the indirect intimation that Pinocchio is truly alive (like “one small leaf”) stirs but hesitates to take even a single step forward. Szporluk’s Pinocchio will never be a real boy.

*  *  *

With its poetics of tortured twists, Sally Keith’s second book of poems, Dwelling Song, pushes even further into the baroque. Here is her manner at its most extreme: “And what is it in my // throat? The thing. Peremptory. It / builds my own with—proof: am not, am is, / proof: spring comes, look: // rabbits shoot from the beams of / truck-lamp light: It says: In- / side me nothing but / clouds. I’m rolled. Lie to me. / Lie. Lie. Because if it / covers me, I’ll”: so ends, abruptly, the poem “Self-Portrait After the Snow.” The writing stage-lights itself as agon; the struggling syntax steals the show.

For me, Dwelling Song displays neither “the content with discontent” nor the “vibrant immanence” underscored in the blurbs; it parades, rather, a theatrical sense of emergency that is carried over unchanged from Keith’s first book, Design. “My voice is driven hard against me” gives the tone. (Here, then, is another contemporary sensibility hurting from feeling “miscreant,” miscued: “What chose // to unrest me—I don’t know.”) Though the heat of Keith’s rhetorical invention may at first be exciting, one comes to miss the narrative substance that would explain the cruel air of denial; here, what Joron calls “the cry”—the blue note of human existence—is all on its own, automatic. Though Keith speaks of “that crashing sound the fact makes,” there is too little fact in Dwelling Song to make a sound.

Despite and because of the determined atmosphere of painful crisis in the book, Keith doesn’t always avoid a thinly disguised, mournful banality. Sadness will out, even when there is little call for it: “I’ve decided nothing, found no pattern // for light on snow in morning, no rule / for the stutter-time a wing requires.” (Why would anyone want a pattern for light on snow, require a rule for wing beats? These are hardly serious deprivations.) In the same poem, “Elegy,” Keith not only raises idle and empty questions—“will the weapon ever flower, will the lapsed / thing rise, will I know the piece to return?”; she has them asked by, of all things, “Each print word, / wet stone, square month.”

Yet on the rare occasions when the “I” steps back and lets something else emerge, the result can be captivating, as at the end of “Song from the Rain”:

                                     I run
behind the house, where her garden of
    phlox
  is trampled after so much rain.
Indistinguishable. The purple petals
  are lost in weeds of green. The rain
is a quarry and sinking. The rain
  is a bathtub alone in a room.
It sounds like consequence.
  It ends like steam.

Keith has yet to step out from the huge shadow of Jorie Graham and write the poems she is capable of: poems that steam, poems of consequence.

*  *  *

You don’t have to ask what the turmoil is all about in D.A. Powell’s third book of poems, Cocktails: to my knowledge, only Paul Monette and Tory Dent have written poetry with like fury and heartbreak about the physical and emotional devastations of AIDS. If they, too, often make one uneasy with their nonetheless fascinating recklessness of phrase, their excessive, abstract, and stabbing rhetoric, they lack the serious wild grace that in Powell’s work matches poise to fluidity, pathos to wit, allusion to autobiography, the poetically evocative to the novelistically concrete. Powell wears his self-pity on his sleeve, where it is both retained and distanced: in any case, it’s the harshest self-pity this side of self-hatred, which saves it from being maudlin. “I left you tollhouse cookies,” he says to Santa: “you left me bloody briefs // lipodystrophy neurostheisa neutropenia mild psychosis / increased liver enzymes increased bilirubin and a sweater / don’t get me wrong: I like the sweater. Though it itches.” The energy in this slam, the angry downrightness, the whiplash cut of the humor and its qualification of the bitterness, are pure Powell. “Where is that boy of yesteryear?,” he elsewhere asks with mock nostalgia and mock narcissism, then adds: “let him die young and leave a pretty corpse: die with his legs in the air.”

In the third and final section of the volume, misnamed “Bibliography,” Powell exceeds the license even of the second section, “Filmography,” where he cloudily lights autobiography with supposed filmic parallels—a typical subtitle is “Far From Heaven (2003, Tod Haynes, dir.).” Here he takes on and takes over the identities of Biblical characters: Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, the prodigal son, Simon the Cyrene, John the Baptist, and still more. In thus freeing himself from autobiography (for the first time in his published work), he moves forward and downward, groaningly, into tragedy: the bird accepts the point of the knife that makes its breast both palpitate and sing. Powell develops, one could say, from the spotty narration of incident, which prevails in his first two books, Tea (1998) and Lunch (2000), as also in the first two sections of Cocktails, into plangently sustained monologues burning with spiritual paradox, a shocking fusion of transcendence and abjection, jubilation and disease, devoutness and sexual ardor.

Here the overwhelming need, driven to the point of rapture, is to triumph in and despite abasement. (It’s a version of what Joron calls “triumph in defeat.”) Torn open, desire is found to harbor an inherent masochism, a profound bond with pain and death. Powell’s Mary Magdalene, once ardently whorish and still unabatedly erotic, ends her monologue as follows: “in the sky the evening star nudes itself and offers its pallid pelvis / thunderhead: tight scrotum. My wheat sunders in his fine white teeth.” Eroticism, as Bataille argued, wants the discontinuous personality’s destruction as it melts into a seamless experience of continuity; in this sense, the erotic is the very essence of the divine. Powell so exults in the outrageous pain of being discontinuous, and not, that the spirit begins to hurtle toward bliss: “coming” is both primordial, fleshly, and the advent of the “Second” one. “The disease // and all he has given me he takes back,” John the Divine says in the final poem before the “coda”: “laying his sturdy bones / on top of me: a cloak an ache a thief in the night. he comes.”

At moments in this final section Powell’s taste and imagination lapse—as when, for instance, he has John speak of Christ as “a china doll / a perfect orb,” a description that pivots from an oddly whimsical, severe diminishment to a big and colorless abstraction. Powell’s language can tire into literature, most unluckily in “the atrium of the heart beckons with pendulous lips.” But throughout the book the occasional faults matter little against the poetry’s terrible aliveness. Powell addresses both the negation of his wishes and their late, unexpected flowering in defeat with unrelenting energy, as if he would stun nullification into pausing, listening, and regretting—and finally, by miracle, into loving. <

Calvin Bedient’s latest book of poems is The Violence of the Morning. He is a professor of English at UCLA.

Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.



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