Graywolf Press 2016
A lot of changes in reading life, writing life, thinking life, real life. In fact enough changes to make me repudiate everything I’ve claimed here, if I didn’t feel that way already after posting. I’m reading more poetry, for one. I’m getting over my formalist/aesthete bias against flat, “ordinary” language, which opened up some interesting contemporary poetry, especially by Geoffrey G. O’brien, whose poem “D’Haussonville” describes a 1845 portrait by Ingres of a countess Louise de Broglie. She was an essayist, and the poem is like in essay in its expository function, but the language still de-familiarizes its subject.
It’s been done before; even admitting
It’s been done before’s been done, but not
In Haussonville, where it rains supports
Of all kinds, and variations on blue,
Enough to populate a sitting room,
The single figure richly pauses,
Trapped in what has been called
A rainbow of blues, deep but narrow
Luxury reflected in a mirror
Into which you can and can’t possibly be seeing
Long sentences like these, in pleasantly standard lineation, turning on a variety of end words. There’s a mixture of imagination (the speaker can’t know for sure it was raining when the countess stood for the painting; it’s a “nonfact”) and a voice of realistic pedantry (the reflection in the mirror of the painting can’t physically reflect what it does).
So the speaker moves amongst seeing the painting as the “fictional” scene, a portrait, where it might be raining, where details betray an entire way of living, done in the neoclassical style; and as the product of Ingre’s meaningful work in getting the perfect blend of paints for the countess’s striking blue dress, and the many studies he must have drawn for the job. And while the reader is trying to get their bearings in the poem, perhaps they move the same way between these senses of the work in O’brien’s text.
I read some other stuff too. AVERNO by Louise Glück, Anne Carson’s MEN IN THE OFF HOURS, which had a really exciting sequence of poems called “TV Men”.
But nothing nearly as exciting as Monica Youn’s third collection. BLACKACRE is the best 2016 book I read last year (and probably the only one). The first poem, “Palinode,” before part one, is the lens through which I read the rest of it.
The first part is a single, disarmingly flat line: “a bird / falls off / a balcony / panicked grasping / fistfuls of / air”. These slashes are part of the text; it’s a line with five line breaks written in. “Fistfuls of air” is odd for a bird. Is the bird injured, which is why falling off a balcony induces panic?
Then the second part:
I was wrong
please I was
wrong please I
wanted nothing please
I don’t want
Here’s the palinode, which is an ode retracting the stance of a previous poem. What do you make of this pleading? Did the speaker really not want something? But then why does she speak, or at least place notations on a page that could’ve been left blank?
Youn captures so effectively a sense of white space as an active counter-pressure. Every line fights to embed itself in place. Each space break feels like the white space snaps off the text, like sausage links, but only creates a seam through which more meaning could emerge. Like Philip’s ZONG! there’s an interest in the visual arrangement of words, using line breaks and space breaks to highlight the words embedded inside words (Youn brings “amen” out of “amenable”). They’re both ex-lawyers, and while Philip worked with the language of law as material, something in Youn’s work invokes that sinister authority and power created by ritual syntax. The Law, the Word.
Going back to “Palinode,” we can take the first part, the first line, as the timid hazarding of a poem. It’s kitschy, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s as if it tries to spit itself out as one line even though it’s five. The frantic retraction recognizes that these words are unworthy of the white space. It’s almost like those first three lines are re-arranging the same four words. The five-line block, resting under the long first line, almost makes the page look like one of Malevich’s suprematist compositions. The two blocks of words almost seem like swatches cut from different material.
Youn’s great at working with conceptual inputs and templates without using them as a crutch. It’s not a suffocatingly rigorous book. The first section’s a cycle of poems inspired from Villon’s “Ballad of the Hanged Men,” but also sustains the Hanged Man tarot card, and paintings encountered at art history talks.
She’s also great at rhythm. For example, in the title poem: ” ‘Therewith’ — a safe word, a strongbox to be buried.” The last half rolls nicely. And “safe” starts as an adjective and then functions as itself, a word as a safe (what does the safe hold?). The insight arrives like a shock, the speaker interrupting herself with a dash. Or: “Rest — the rind of the best, a contoured pod that cradles the shape of what it doesn’t hold.” A little rhyme, which she likes to do, sometimes to an unsettling effect when the language resembles children’s doggerel. Every word’s doing a lot of work here, especially “cradles.”
I have to mention “Blueacre” which is an inventory of 60 items: things seen and heard in a long take of Antonioni’s THE PASSENGER (1975). This was an answer to questions I’ve had of achieving the same effects and experiences in prose that are done in those minimalist art movies I like, an answer I never dreamed of getting from a contemporary writer. And it’s elegantly simple. The camera is the poem, if not necessarily the speaker. This isn’t made explicit until the last line. The form pushes against the linear march of the text until it’s just short of grinding to a halt. It really was analogous to watching this kind of cinema, which indeed, can be “difficult” and “boring,” but that’s the interesting situation of lacking reprieve. To use another great line from the title poem, the task of this aesthetic is “to pit the body in emnity against its own heaviness.” The sheer material and philosophical weight of being an embodied human reveals itself, having been there all this time, the moment the beguiling fictional world of the film, poem, or novel dares to make us wait.
The inputs of the amazing Blackacre poems: coming to terms with infertility (revealed by a miscarriage?), and an exegesis on Milton’s Sonnet 19, “On His Blindness.” Milton is deprived of the thing he needs most to answer his calling to create. The poet can’t procreate. Is she “a bounded resource” and hence exhaustible? Is poetry one too? Fourteen prose sections titled after each end word, which launches fascinating thinking.
The first Blackacre poem, arranged like one of Susan Howe’s text blocks, reads: “one day they showed me a dark moon ringed / with a bright nimbus on a swirling gray screen”. The “they.” There’s always some authority attached to that word. Here “they” are doctors showing an ultrasound. But recalling Foucault on hospitals, schools, airports, malls, and prisons, as well as what Our Bodies Ourselves and the Jane Collective revealed about women’s health care practice, it’s not hard to extend those impersonal forces to the medical people.
These forces are embodied in the “they” and the white space of every page. The formalities of Law demand that one doesn’t speak without permission. Youn may not be practicing but she writes as if one needs permission to stain the silence, if only through the force of craft. Which is great, because her work abjures confession and the exposure of pain in favor of reticence without occlusion. Yet she is such a strong writer, maybe one of the best working, that I wish she didn’t.