Reflections On Recent Poetry Part I

The Kafka Sutra by Robert Archambeau, MadHat Press, $18.95

Tall As You Are Tall Between Them, by Annie Christain, C&R Press, $15.95

Originally our conception of the poetic “book” was determined by the amount of writing that could comfortably fit onto an ancient scroll. The familiar divisions in Homer were put in place long after the poet himself had died (if “he” ever even lived, but that’s another matter), long after the words of the text had moved from the oral realm into the semi-fixity of the written word; in fact it was Peisistratus, the famous Athenian tyrant whose sons’ overthrow led to the rise of that city’s even more famous democracy, who is said to have edited and collated the texts of The Iliad and The Odyssey (to have ordered them edited and collated, at any rate), breaking the two epics up into roughly the arrangement we know today. All of this is to say that, at least in its earliest form, the notion of a “book” was something bound explicitly to the physical means of its presentation, something determined by later editors (or tyrants), something, as far as the author of the text was concerned, rather arbitrary.

I mention this because, ever since the ancients and their scrolls, through the Medieval illuminated and unilluminated codices, and on into this, our era of printing, western culture has been peculiarly invested in the book, despite its somewhat arbitrary origins as a unit. A book is still just what can comfortably fit, whether on a scroll or in a modern mass paperback, but in the digital age, even as we regress to the model of the scroll, we are confronted with a pragmatically unlimited space—a digital book tens of thousands of pages long might slot in besides a two page pamphlet and have its icon take up exactly as much space on a screen, despite the enormous difference in the sizes of their content. Yet, despite their much prognosticated demise, their feted obsolescence, books persist, new books are appearing all the time, new poetry books, relentlessly.

To stay with this focus on the book’s inherent materiality, poetry collections are, generally, about the same size as the human face. Slightly taller than most novels but also leaner, more flexible, poetry volumes will serve in the swatting of flies, in the shading of one’s eyes from a sudden glare or from the line of sight of a hated former colleague; they work quite well as temporary masks, and I think they function in a similar way in relationship to their authors, these poetry books.

But no; that’s not quite it. The author does not create the book merely as some literal persona, some apparitional other version of themselves reduced to an essentialized language for presentation to the world, that is not all the author does, at least. In publishing a book, the author also enters into an universe of dialogue, a world of cultural reflections and mirrors, where imitation is the rule, but the kind of imitation is what we might call the real rule, the extra-historical element, the aesthetic. Each book is, after all, in dialogue with every other book, in competition, in some kind of relationship of emulation, recapitulation, or reaction. Thus an individual book as book serves as a kind of metaphor for its author’s relationship to the social.

All three collections here under consideration are concerned with the question of identity, of national and personal identity, and all three also explore questions of imitation—how does one adapt and fit into a world that is, for reasons of immigration, or personal difference, if not overtly hostile, at the least alien, strange, indifferently welcoming if welcoming at all? The book is a totem, an emblem of an author’s attempt to fit, in some way, into the society to which they belong, or to which they are trying to belong, or trying to critique; the book’s two covers might be conceived of as absorptive mirrors: the one face reflects back the author while the other reflects the reader, the content of the volume being in a sense formed in the amalgamation of these two reflections. Thus the book becomes the locus of the author’s attempt to relate to the world; it is a kind of offering made to reality, though what one “gets” having made this tribute is, in the nature of things, unknowable, as all readers are finally unknowable to all authors.

* * *

Robert Archambeau’s second collection of poems, The Kafka Sutra, named after the first sequence in the volume, takes the unusual step of concluding with an essay, an “Afterword”; while books of poems with prefaces or introductory notes abound, in thinking across the history of English letters, no other example of this phenomenon of the prose postscript to a poetry collection springs to mind, at least not one where the Afterword is also composed by the author. But this is fitting, because The Kafka Sutra is unlike any other collection of poetry I can think of, employing a variety of “source materials” and an array of poetical modes to create a work of art that, while not perhaps conventional, manages to achieve a kind of genuine strangeness in its reimaginings of a variegated materia poetica, at times in the manner of a surrealist like Benjamin Péret and at other times in a manner wholly his own. Obsessed with remixes, with creating meaning out of unlikely juxtapositions, the book feels almost like a sequence of linguistic experiments, with the results “qualified” if not “explained” in the concluding “Afterword”.

As that essay makes clear, Archambeau is a poet-critic at conflict with conflict; having undertaken the dual careers of academic and poet, he is naturally no stranger to the internecine struggles and petty “wars” that define the day to day goings on in both worlds, but he finds himself largely unmoved, untroubled, by the notion that embodying the dual role of poet-critic is to be of necessity at conflict with oneself. In fact, his critical description of his own artistic process makes it clear that for Archambeau the acts of criticism and poetical composition are of necessity bound up with one another, a relationship he locates in the nature of perception itself, and which he describes thusly: “…when confronted with that which is alien to our sensibilities we may make the attempt to stand outside ourselves, and in doing so see something other than an object of disdain.” This act of attempting to “stand outside ourselves” in the name of achieving an open perspective on what is alien is also the occasion for the generation of poetry: poems come out of of such moments of perspectival awareness, of visionary dilation. To be a poet, then, is to take just one step further, to make one recombinatory gesture, in the aftermath of an experience of perceptual openness.

With this self-description in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Archambeau is something of a mimic, an impersonator adept at adopting the voices of other writers. Having sufficiently opened up his ears to the language and style of the other poet, he proceeds to put his mimetic skill to a variety of uses, such as in his gentle mockery of Milton’s adjectival predilections in his poem “Cooking with Milton”:

…there’d be none of it. Nor would the army’s airborne leap.
Nor could the sensuous love-lorn, half starved for what they lacked,
hot-headed or cherubic, lapse into complacency—
it’s true.

As in Milton’s epic flight we enter the action in medias res, though the Miltonic grammatical inversions are here tweaked for humorous effect, such that “army’s airborne leap” almost seems to be the subject of a new clause until one recognizes that, no, “airborne” is not an adjective but a noun here, and thus the sentence is complete in describing the “army’s airbornes” non- “leap”. Similarly “half-starved for what they lacked” has Milton’s aphoristic style down perfectly, even as it points us towards the absurdity of imagining the great poet in the kitchen. While not adopting Milton’s exact meter, Archambeau locks into the musical logic of his phrasing, and this reveals another crucial aspect of his writing: it is what we might call hyper-literary, abounding, overflowing with references and allusions overt and subtle to other writers, to other poets, novelists, but also to artists, musicians, scientists. “Cooking with Milton” in fact might have been an apt alternate title for the collection, as one at moments can almost imagine Archambeau as the host of a deranged literary cooking program, tossing in a dash of Auden here, a touch of Iggy Pop there, a translation of Martiniquan surrealist Lucie Thésée—well, you get the idea.

Those translations of Thésée, a neglected Caribbean surrealist poet associated with the Négritude movement, offer us some of the book’s finest moments, and show Archambeau practicing what he preaches, approaching a writer from a different cultural background with openness and sensitivity. Here is a section from his version of “Sarabande”:

Shipwreck of my race, twisted in the wind-rush,
fall from your broken gallows, wrack, wreck and driftwood, my bloodied race.
My bloodied race fearful, scab-dried, sterile, paralyzed,
the low-caste wallflowers trembling at a ball for mice—
no. Leave your gallows, there, those: the gallows of time-gone-by.

Archambeau handles wordplay with a musical precision, the subtle echoing of “wrack, wreck” and “scab-dried, sterile, paralyzed” lending the piece a natural development as metaphor builds atop metaphor, as the poet generates a representation of the plight of her people. The repetition of the phrase “my bloodied race” gives the passage an incantatory power that intensifies as it progresses, culminating in the final, enjambed “no”, a moment that breaks the rhythm and stands as the poet’s objection to the reality she has been cataloguing. The way Archambeau has rendered this passage into English suggests to me the influence of Hart Crane’s “Voyages”, a sequence of poems charting that troubled Modernist writer’s relationship with the Caribbean. The use of “no” here functions as a kind of fulcrum, and this skillful translation nicely captures the way in which the poet alters her mask, shifts her perspective, makes us, as readers, aware of the ways in which we are always in part implicated in the horrors that we witness if we do not take a stand, if we do not look at injustices and violence head on and say “no.”

In the book’s other sections Archambeau “responds” to various other influences and sources: the aforementioned Iggy Pop and his glam rock associates David Bowie and Lou Reed, the confessional poet John Berryman, the surrealist twins Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray, the experimental writer and performer Felix Bernstein, and many others—the collection testifies to Archambeau’s investment not just in the classic, but in the contemporary, in the “cutting edge”, and if some of these experiments are less successful than others (I find his inversion of Bernstein’s “search results” poem “If Loving You Is Wrong” to be somewhat slight, the purpose of its conceptual project “unclear”, unless its purpose is to call attention to the slightness of many conceptual projects, in which case it succeeds in its failure, but I’m spinning in circles), I give the author a degree of credit: rather than ossifying into a tired paragon of received truths as he continues into middle-age, Archambeau has sustained an interest in the cultural milieu of the younger generation and is willing to take risks, to approach these new forms with the same openness and delight that he brings to bear on Auden or Milton. The places where I feel like the volume does not quite live up to its promise are actually, at least in one sense, external to the volume itself.

I am speaking of the book’s title and its cover. Let us start with the title, The Kafka Sutra: the pun does not quite pass muster for me, and its relationship to the cover, which features a young burlesque dancer wearing a revealing top and top hat, is clear—the image “blends” the “titillation” of the Kama Sutra with Kafka by evoking the burlesque dancers of the 1920s in a manner that parallels Archambeau’s “mashup” of two texts from these sources. But there is something unsettling about the way the woman is posed, the way the typewriter font title hovers above her head, as her fingerlessly gloved hand extends, a single finger beckoning invitingly—it feels out of sync with the rest of the book, almost as though the image were selected to be provocative, though perhaps I’m being cynical—but even if it is possible to criticize the cover from a feminist angle, for me nearly as large an issue is the aesthetic questions it raises; yes, there is something showy, performative, about these poems, but something about this burlesque dancer on the cover, her sultry beckoning, feels tonally at odds with my experience of reading the book, which is not so much one of being seduced as it is one of being guided through an atrocity exhibition—not that atrocity exhibitions and sexuality need be mutually exclusive, far from it!—but something about the juxtaposition in this case strikes my sensibility as being a bit wide of the mark.

There is something of the carnival barker in Archambeau, an almost Barnum-like quality that I associate with his origins, his status as a person who has had to “learn to be at home” in several different environments throughout his life—as he explains, he comes from an artistic lineage, his father, a well-regarded ceramicist, having relocated the family to the “deeply rusticated University of Manitoba” when the poet was still young. Though he was born in America and now teaches here, having grown up in Canada (and having deep Canadian roots), Archambeau has always felt himself to be caught between two worlds, a person possessed of what he describes as “the world’s least interesting trans-national identity.” This self-effacing, light-hearted articulation of the nature of what we might term his “minor otherness” is in the spirit of the rest of the volume, that is, he is a writer invested in the question of his own personal identity but also one who recognizes that there are other, more pressing concerns in our culture about the relationships between other identities, people of “more interesting” but also more problematic trans-national identities, those faced with bigotry and religious persecution because of the way they look or the manner in which they worship. It is in this spirit that he offers us his translations of Lucie Thésée, for instance, or his adaptations of material form Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain, and this spirit of openness permeates the volume. As Archambeau says at the conclusion of his Afterword, these poems are “what I see when I look (impossibly) at the back of my own head.” This feels right, and the nod to Magritte is welcome, given that it is in surrealist landscapes, in unexpected combinations, that Archambeau’s poems most succeed. I just wish the book were presented with a cover more in keeping with that spirit, but one can’t have everything, after all.

* * *

To stay with the question of covers for a moment (before abandoning it forever), that of Annie Christain’s Tall As You Are Tall Between Them serves as a kind of signpost, an indicator of the territory, of the terrain we are about to enter as we open it. A woman hovers, her legs crossed and knees pulled up to her chest, dressed only in a robe, above a field of seagulls. Where her head should be we instead find a lightbulb, the words of the title spreading out around and over her in an almost magenta type. This woman, waiting, floating, electrically imbued, is perhaps a symbol for the poet, the lightbulb implying a kind of networked nature, a nature connected through wires to a grid of power churning, connecting all of life silently, thoughtlessly, imperceptibly. This is a debut collection infused with paranoid, haunted voices, voices rising out of the cracks and fissures of our so-called monoculture, voices seemingly crying out for embodiment, which is what Christain has here attempted to do. Employing a variety of different vernaculars and drawing material from the worlds of cults, psychedelia, and conspiracy theories, this book can be initially overwhelming, but as one gets acclimated to its linguistic and referential environment, the substructure begins to become apparent, the poetical ordering of this dizzying array of facts begins to emerge.

Take, for example, this passage from “Magnetic Fields on the Road to Damascus, a May to December Marriage”, a poem near the end of the volume, which I have selected for its potential resonances with the image on the book’s cover:

I wake up naked next to my love
who’s wearing a business suit.

I scrambled your DNA
but it was for the best,
she says with a mouth
full of Christmas tree bulbs.

She asks me to plug in the tree, and I do
as I watch her mouth for my lighted
signal to fall, convulse,

and go blind with my love
(that she and the help attest)
is for her and only her.

Christain’s lover is a woman “wearing a business suit” in bed with a “mouth / full of Christmas tree bulbs”—it is as if the poet has awoken into a dream, but coming to this image if one has read through to this point in the book, it comes as no surprise (electricity used as a metaphor in this way is no longer, forgive me, a shock). Like Jack Spicer, a poet who she cites in her epigraph, Christain’s perceptual universe is one populated by games with constantly shifting rules, one where religion and conspiracy intertwine, where “Christmas” is important not only for its sacred connotations but for the network of secular associations it also animates, the electricity of “lights” and festivity here figured as aspects of her lover’s physical body but also parts of a larger, culturally sanctioned celebration. This is an odd kind of transubstantiation wherein the body is made machine, as in the cover image, made an element that can be connected to an external grid of power and association like a string of electric lights slung on a tree. It is further a world where Christmas can be the occasion for a celebration of lesbian love, where persecutory religious biases have been stripped off or transformed, redirected away from the author and her imaginative directionality, though the shadow of that violence is still visible, still present; this is poetry that transcends not so much through omission but through a kind of linguistic engorgement—poetry that consumes and regurgitates language in its working itself out onto the page.

One has the feeling that Christain is constructing a new kind of scripture; many of the pieces begin with quotations from the Bible (or in some cases the Quran), and the repetition of elements from conspiracy literature and mass culture (MK Ultra, government sponsored LSD experiments, DNA, The Beatles) come to feel like patron saints, or totems, in this new religion, grafted as they are onto verses and stories derived from holy texts. This new religion is somehow more open; it has looser grammar, one notices, as one charts the various passages, as in the final three lines of the above quoted section “and go blind with my love / (that she and the help attest) / is for her and only her.” The parenthetical here, though set off, is actually central to any grammatical reading of the passage— “go blind with my love…is only for her and only her” gives us the essential “claim” of the passage, a statement of the poet’s devotion to her mysterious, electrical partner, but as the ellipsis indicates, there’s something slippery at play, as the information that “completes” the grammatical relationship between these two lines also complicates the content behind that grammar. What I mean is, “my love” is presumably the antecedent of “(that she and the help attest)”, but this complicates things—who are “the help” the poet invokes? Why is their testimony needed in addition to that of her lover? There are lacunae and indirections in Christain’s poems that generate a kind of speculative opportunity for a reader—sometimes one finds one must work imaginatively to fill in the gaps opened by Christain’s suggestively porous poems, but this work rewards even as it reveals deeper layers of perplexity.

A writer this aspect of Christain’s poems conjures for me is Djuna Barnes. The Antiphon, her late period verse drama in which she confronts the traumas of her past, particularly those relating to her extremely troubled family life, employs a logic not entirely alien from what we find in Tall As You Are Tall Between Them. Like Christain, in that work Barnes employs a disjunctive grammar that feels both intensely idiosyncratic and yet also highly crafted, honed so as to be legible as art. Thus at one point the play’s antagonist, Augusta, says:

It’s terrible to come on high ghostly things
When one is old and ravelled to the ground.
I pushed four children from my list and yet
One stayed in the web to pull it down
But enough of that. I see no horse nor hen,
Nor happy squire standing on his turf.
What wild suppers must the squirrels eat
Who find their harvest such a scattered game.
(Barnes, The Antiphon II.1)

The “ghostly things”, being “ravelled to the ground”, the “web”, the “horse” and “hen” the “squirrels” all swirl in a passage whose referents are ambiguous, even in the context of the larger play (it’s clear from the stage instructions that none of these objects are present in the scene, that they are symbols of a lost prosperity). Augusta is a woman who feels, in a sense, destroyed by her own child, by her position as matriarch, by her womanhood. Barnes’s meditation on gender is so ingrained within her person that it expresses itself through abstract flights in her character’s language, through a symbolic vocabulary that disorients initially but over time builds into a logic of its own.

There is something like this happening in Christain’s poems, where figures and images circulate and achieve a familiarity that serves to create in them a secondary, referential level of meaning. A characteristic passage from her poem “Watching Our Other Selves from Afar and Influencing Their Course of Action by Touching Each Other for the First Time Here” might help to illustrate this point:

The way your shirt wraps around you
without any buttons
reminds me:

Are the crows taking away and returning
your Aztec thought-form
for my benefit?

A near-synesthesia is at play here, where the folds, the wrappings of the “shirt” somehow remind the speaker of “crows” that are “taking away and returning / your Aztec thought-form” and this may or may not be occurring “for [the speaker’s] benefit”. Up until this point in the poem, the poet has been describing a process in which she is partially dissolved into a “bucket” in front of her partner; the sudden shift to regarding her partner after enduring and describing the Ovidian transformations she has undergone (the poet’s hands have dissolved so that they “look[] like pinchers”) puts us back into a domestic mood, shifting our awareness away from the truly strange physical transformations at play in the piece. But then what the poet is “reminded” of throws us back into oddity, into a world of metamorphosis. It is difficult to understand exactly how crows might take away and return an “Aztec thought-form”—what is an Aztec thought form? Most of the Aztec’s written codices were destroyed by the Spanish in the wake of Cortez, so in a sense what such a “thought-form” is is entirely opaque—though examples of Aztec visual art survive. The crows suggest to me an image of their flying perhaps in a formation not dissimilar to what one might find on an Aztec blanket? Crows are also an important symbol in Mexican folklore, which has pre-Columbian Aztec roots, but the “final logic” of the piece perhaps escapes me—and that’s okay, I don’t always come to poems like Sherlock Holmes, in search of a mystery to be solved (in point of fact I am condemned to come always, in the nature of things, as Watson); irresolution can be productive for a reader, and while these moments of disorientation often lead to wonders, at other points one is left feeling slightly confused, perhaps overwhelmed by the number of conceptual leaps simultaneously at play in any given passage.

Thus if there is one criticism that can be leveled against Tall As You Are Tall Between Them then, it’s that it’s all a bit much—at 118 pages it is a somewhat long volume, and the relentlessness of the expanding and dilating frames of reference, the movement from conspiracy to religion to the domestic, can come to be somewhat mentally exhausting; the middle section of the volume, “The White House Tapes”, a sequence prose poems that read like brief transcriptions of segments of monologues, I found to be a bit harder to fully engage with, at least as compared with the abundance of the lineated poems that make up the first and third sections, so perhaps some degree of tempering, some slight rein applied to the Dionysian chariot as it climbs into the heights of paranoia and fantastical association (pulled by winged leopards, Terence McKenna riding beside the Greek god), could be a positive development in Christain’s poetic process. But, that consideration aside, this volume still marks the emergence of a strange and powerful new queer voice in American poetry in the tradition of Barnes and Spicer but also with her own peculiar and dense imaginative territory to map.

Stu Watson is a writer, musician, and teacher living in Brooklyn. He is a founder and editor of Prelude.

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