Poems for an Unnamed Age
Schizophrene, by Bhanu Kapil. Nightboat Books. 84 pages. $15.95.
Imperial Nostalgias, by Joshua Edwards. Ugly Duckling Presse. 96 pages. $15.
As Long As Trees Last, by Hoa Nguyen. Wave Books. 88 pages. $16.
We are living in a yet-unnamed age, the era beyond postmodernism. When Helen Vendler came to visit my undergraduate campus, she said that without reading poetry she wouldn't know how to live. That was ten years ago, but I still think about it often. It isn't that poets know how to live any better, it's that poems can sound like what being alive feels like—a model. And so poems seem as good a place as any to gather info about what's going on now. I heard Hoa Nguyen read from As Long As Trees Last in Baton Rouge last spring. Between poems she spoke about postcolonialism and the fragmented sense of identity that comes from moving from state to state, nation to nation, of creating neologisms to describe one's origins. But on the page, I cannot find these references, and am unable to connect her project to postcolonial themes. Nguyen's poems look like erasures of their very selves. Front and back matter in Bhanu Kapil's Schizophrene explain that the book is an examination of the link between schizophrenia and female immigrants from post-Partition India and Pakistan. However, without being explicitly told this, I would not have been able to connect the fragmented paragraphs throughout, often spoken by an "I" who seems to be a poet similar to Kapil, with the schizophrenic, diasporic women she claims to be writing about. Of the three, Edwards's Imperial Nostalgias has the clearest theme, centering on the isolation of international travel. This is perhaps ironic, because it is the least isolating of the books in that its meanings are the most discernible; the speakers' thoughts and feelings are present within the poems.
Joshua Edwards's Imperial Nostalgias is an immaculate travelogue, ranging and exploratory in its forms, but in its content scrubbed clean of the details of place and sentiment that gave credence and depth to the master narratives of Imperialism. Through prose poems, images, short poems, long poems, and fragments, it tells the story of a single consciousness observing its changing locations passively—but, as the Imperial of the title and some of the sinister images from the final poem suggest, not benignly.
The book opens with two parables in the form of prose poems, followed by a series of photographs titled "Valley of Unrest." The photographs convey a sense of foreignness without locating the viewer in any specific place. One photograph portrays the closed door of a long, low, single-story structure with a tin roof. The elaborate patterns wrapping around the sides of the building contrast strangely with the dirt ground. The building looks improvised, impoverished, but also, with its elaborate design, rococo. The picture's composition seems to emphasize this contrast by showing the building at a dramatic angle that draws the eye to the unpaved ground. Here, the kind of structure that the eye might read as indicative of infrastructure, government, safety—"civilization"—is a hair's breadth away from the wildness of a dirt ground. Less than a hair, really; the two are touching.
The speaker of the poems in Imperial Nostalgias is a traveler, and the poems' various landscapes arrive through the lenses of his consciousness and self-consciousness. In one of the two long poems in the book, "Departures," the speaker admits, "I don't understand / nature." The poet constructs a landscape or background from the art he sees and the poetry he reads during his solitary journeys, rather than from the more expected cultural or natural physical landmarks associated with tourism. The poet visits art museums and recounts exhibits and works he has seen, including Rauschenberg's "Erased de Kooning Drawing," a blank canvas that has cultural meaning and exchange value purely because it was once a de Kooning drawing. The poet perhaps shares with Rauschenberg's piece that absolute dependence on referentiality for meaning. And yet, Edward's speaker seems to have a self that remains constant, able to absorb and synthesize new experiences and cultures while retaining me-ness for itself. Edwards's speaker seems aware of, but rarely embarrassed into silence by, the privilege and inequality inherent in his role as tourist: "If I knew all the facts, I would most likely / never open my mouth."
"Departures" is comprised of clear, sentence-driven, six-line stanzas. Each stanza is end-stopped and possesses its own subset of concerns, making them feel nearly like individual poems. But strung together, they acquire a cumulative force. Across the space of its distinct stanzas, "Departures" traces the speaker's internal and external travels in loose, wide-ranging strokes. In the following stanza, typically sound- and thought-based, we learn the impetus behind the poem's title:
I have learned a new type of
resistance, against my own ignorance:
I transplant my mind a few times a day,
replacing it with unreliable
algorithms aimed at solving problems,
known as poems. I called them departures.
Many of the words in this stanza suggest the sensibilities that the speaker finds within and around himself: "resistance," "transplant," "replacing," "unreliable," "departures." These words suggest a sense of temporariness, evoking the transience with which the speaker defines and understands himself.
Throughout, Edwards creates a whoosh of vacation-y vagueness that he channels in different directions to evoke specific feelings. This is especially true in the book's penultimate section, "Imperial Nostalgias," which includes several beautifully accomplished short poems. One example is the economical poem "Cathay." Here it is, in full:
Wrongheaded and obsequious
on vacation, unnerved
by new surroundings, I miss
the bright feeling of belonging
and the familiar patterns of my country,
its virginity and schizophrenia,
my several stolen bicycles.
Like water swirling down a drain, "Cathay" centers on lack. Edwards—like Rauschenberg in his erasure of de Kooning—creates and identifies meaning through layers of absence and presence. The poem's final clause, and its most specific detail, becomes a kind of riddle: what does it mean to miss something that has already been stolen? The complex syntax of the poem's single sentence alternately emphasizes and deemphasizes the self at its center. Edwards's withering self-defining adjectives—"wrongheaded," "obsequious," "unnerved"—are tempered by the neat line "the bright feeling of belonging,"in which the subject I finds a kind of home, and by the way "my country"takes the baton as the sentence's subject in the lines that follow. I am not sure whether the speaker's reference to his country's "schizophrenia" could be read to speak to Kapil's Schizophrene. In both Kapil's work and in this poem, the word "schizophrenia" seems to mean "general craziness." Kapil's work, as I'll discuss later on, blurs its metaphorical and literal meanings. Edwards makes schizophrenia a quality of "my country," as opposed to a condition of his mind, expressing relationship to self and country that is perhaps less complex than Kapil's. For Edwards' speaker, a "bright feeling of belonging" is possible, while for Kapil's speaker and even for her reader, return to a cohesive sense of self within country seems beyond reach.
Perhaps the variety of forms throughout Imperial Nostalgias can be read as an enactment of considering what another life might have been like—or whether another life would be viable. The second parable at the beginning of the book, titled "The Outsider," ends with a note left by the poem's titular "fraudulent showman": "The next disaster is just around the corner." The speaker or speakers of these poems seem to have that warning in mind as they travel through the fragmented world, but this poet's response is often a gorgeously considered, generous, piecing together. Edwards uses the fragments of the world to make meaning where he can find it: "Translation broadens language / as divorce and remarriage extend family," he writes in "Problems of Knowledge." In "Departures," a father and son walking "on opposite sides of a street" cross to meet each other, an emblem of "their life / together, their language and affliction. They enter a car together to search / for the source of mutual consciousness."
The book's final section, "Fugitive Pieces," contains its second long poem. This poem speaks broadly and brilliantly in lines like "The past will never testify" and "The world was made for observations." Such moments speak to the alternating hopelessness and perhaps even darker, stranger hope that Edwards finds in his travels through foreign countries and his own mind in this beautiful and unique book.
In the "Acknowledgements and Quick Notes" section in the back of the book, Bhanu Kapil calls Schizophrene "a book that barely said anything." In a section titled "Passive Notes" at the book's beginning, she writes, "For some years, I tried to write an epic on Partition and its trans-generation effects: the high incidence of schizophrenia in diasporic Indian and Pakistani communities; the parallel social history of domestic violence, relational disorders, and so on." Between these notes and the book's closing statements, Kapil presents not that "epic," but a record of that epic's failure: eight poems, all but one of which are several pages long, and all of which consist of small chunks of prose surrounded by—or, perhaps, exiled within—white space. In addition to their exploration of the possible link between schizophrenia and female immigrants from certain communities and situations, these poems repeat and refract various other themes like writing, partition, violence, and the body in physical space. A line of prose in the book's final poem, "India, Fragments," speaks to the circularity with which the book addresses its central issues: "Schizophrenia is rhythmic, touching something lightly many times." In moments like this, Kapil guides our reading of the book, offering impressions of schizophrenia that switch between scientific, political, and poetic.
It is surprising to read Kapil's statement that Schizophrene hardly says anything, especially because the presence of the introductory and concluding notes, as well as the book's three epigraphs, suggest an investment in saying something specific. The speaker of the "Passive Notes" section sounds like one of Frank Bidart's intensely emotional and italics-reliant mentally ill speakers—Ellen West, or Hebert White: someone who has a lot to say and wants very much to be heard. The section explains that Schizophrene was formed "from the fragments, the phrases and lines still legible on the warped, decayed but curiously rigid pages" of Kapil's failed effort "to write an epic on Partition." Schizophrene refers throughout to the action and consequence of throwing that putative "epic" into the garden. Like the Rauschenberg piece "Erased de Kooning Drawing" that Edwards's speaker sees in a museum, Kapil's book becomes a record of something that it is not, a lacuna—and, complexly, a reminder both that the previous document once existed and that it exists no longer. One of the epigraphs, from Dinesh Bhugra's and Peter Jones's Migration and Mental Illness, states plainly what the previous page's "Passive Notes" section suggests will be the book's central subject, questioning "whether migration itself acts as a stressor and produces elevated rates of schizophrenia," and proposing that "the stress and chronic difficulties of living in societies where racism is present both at individual and institutional levels may well contribute to ongoing distress." These explicit statements about the book's subject and the author's intentions and methods contrast with the work of the book's poems to "barely [say] anything."
Like Nguyen, whose tools include restraint, white space, and constriction, Kapil in her poems creates an aesthetic of lack that speaks to the perhaps permanent sense of liminality associated with the postcolonial condition. In the first poem, "Schizophrene," Kapil refers to "a flux where the body always is." Earlier in the same poem is a scene of cross-continental travel, conveyed in fragments: "Breathe immigrant. Fly immigrant." Here, within the space of four words, Kapil expresses how "immigrant" status can separate one from oneself. When one is displaced from one's familiar surroundings, one's physical experience becomes quite separate from his or her psychic experience. Under the pressure of immigration, perhaps breathing itself comes to seem as possible—that is, as impossible—as flying. This moment foregrounds the book's investigation of existance within liminal spaces in both the physical and psychic worlds.
The theme of writing, or of not writing, is one of the book's strongest and most fascinating. In the poem "Abiogenesis," Schizophrene is described as "a book without purpose/with a dead start." These metapoetical moments call attention to the "book" itself and also to what the book is unable to say or do. Thus Kapil's metapoetics becomes a kind of antipoetics, an expression of the impossibility of the poetic or literary utterance to truly express the human condition.
Perhaps the book's form, brief chunks of prose with gaps of space between them, could be read along these lines, as well. Though the speaker mentions it throughout, "the book"—the one thrown into the garden—exists outside of the space of this book, Schizophrene. Kapil's "Passive Notes" inform the reader that Schizophrene is the fragments of that failure. And in the first poem, she writes, "These notes are directed toward the region I wanted to perceive but could not." Kapil refers to the poem as "notes," which suggests something dashed-off, artless. The formulation "directed toward" rather, than, for example, "regarding," perhaps suggests Kapil's belief that writing cannot reach much of what one actually experiences. She aims toward a "region" that she "wanted to perceive but could not," as opposed to a specific image or event or position, and she does not so much as suggest a role the reader could play in such a project. In these poems metapoetical moments are frequently entwined with moments of deep existential doubt. This entwining almost necessarily suggests that writing is not up to the task of describing human life. For example, in the poem "Electrobion," a prose block set in the middle of the page reads,
These electrobion notes, which are not really notes but dreamed up, basic observations which belie the facts, the following fact, which in turn destroys a content as yet unwritten:
I don't exist.
Here, Kapil associates notions of existence, consciousness, and phenomenology with writing. That relationship is a negative one: the "notes" that the poem represents are merely a "dream" that stands in the way of the "unwritten" "fact" that the speaker/poet does not exist. A schizophrenic's internal world is, perhaps, too isolated to consider the type of connection or communication that an author/reader relationship takes for granted. Schizophrene—the altered, blurrier, incoherent version of a once-epic text—could be seen as a metaphor for a schizophrenic self.
In these poems schizophrenia works as both a real illness and as a metaphor for the immigrant experience. In neither of those two iterations does the speaker explicitly insist on the causal relationship between immigration and schizophrenia; without the clinical language in the book's front and back matter that spells out the poems' interest in that link, it would be difficult to discern that these poems are intended to speak to that subject. In the "Acknowledgements and Quick Notes" section, Kapil writes, "The link between racism and mental illness is one that I made by myself then encountered in the work of British psychiatrist Kamaldeep Bui and his mentor, Dinesh Bhugra." The strange mix of almost childlike language—"made by myself"—and professional language—"in the work of"—underscores the awkward role that the proposed link between immigration and schizophrenia plays in Schizophrene.
Additionally, Kapil and her source texts seem to take for granted that immigration, combined with the stressors associated with racism, is the cause of schizophrenia—rather than the other way around. That is, perhaps physicians overdiagnose schizophrenia in immigrants and patients of races other than their own. As Lauren Russell suggests in her excellent review of the book in Jacket2, Kapil and her source texts seem to ignore the possibility that "the combined stressors of migration, racism, and poverty … may lead to the increased likelihood of a diagnosis of mental illness rather than" actual increased mental illness itself. Russell quotes the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), which notes, "There is some evidence that clinicians may have a tendency to overdiagnose schizophrenia in some ethnic groups." There is not necessarily a direct overlap between those who are schizophrenic and those are who are diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia plays another confusing and complex role in the book, seemingly used in both metonymical and metaphorical senses to describe the speaker's own state of mind as she moves between nations and time periods. "Athens in January, Munich in February, London in March!" as the title poem puts it.
Kapil's choice to make a metaphor of schizophrenia is a moral high-wire act because it makes an abstraction of real and profound suffering. This is a surprising choice on Kapil's part because of much of the book seems invested in locating or seeking words or methods with which to describe suffering in a specific postcolonial context—the Partition of India in August 1947. Kapil writes at the beginning of "India: Notebooks," "I was lying on my back in the snow, my notebook balanced next to me on the crust of ice, like a wolf. Like a lion. Like a cobra. Like a tiger. Like a schizophrenic." Perhaps imagining oneself as one animal, then another, then another, becomes a kind of schizophrenic-like transfer of selfhood. Kapil's speaker-self imagines or considers herself potentially schizophrenic in the movement of her mind and body as it travels across continents and centuries; that metaphorical notion of mental illness is problematized, however, when we encounter real schizophrenic patients in the larger contexts of the poem and the book, for whom schizophrenia is not a metaphor—it is a real condition from which they suffer. For example, later in the same poem a woman appears who, when "a spoon touched her lips … had the terrible sensation that it was slipping down her throat. Her condition worsened. If anything touched her sari, if one of her children brushed against her thigh, she felt a peristaltic reflex. She felt she was swallowing them too." The medical term "peristaltic reflex" and dry clinical tone in this passage suggest the seriousness with which Kapil considers the connection between mental illness and immigration. That tone underscores the objective quality of this person's suffering, even in a book whose speaker claims, "I don't exist."
"Partition" is perhaps the poem most concerned with evoking and enacting schizophrenia through language and form. Time comes to a standstill in the poem—it is 12:20, we are told throughout, which conveys a sense of being stuck single moment, outside of time. An example of this is a prose chunk in the middle of the page, surrounded by white space: "12:20 on the third day and I'm eating in the node deep in the pock of the grid. Here is the food I was given and here are my teeth, moonlit, despite the hour." We are given the specific information that it is "12:20 on the third day" and the speaker is "deep in the pock of the grid." But this is no Frank O'Hara poem. The speaker and the reader are unsettled by a profound sense of timelessness and spacelessness. Later in "Partition," Kapil writes, "I cannot make the map of healing and so this is the map of what happened in a particular country on a particular day." Confusion, complexity, contradiction, and ambivalence are part and parcel of Kapil's story-in-fragments, a story whose failure, given its inception as a discarded document, is perhaps inscribed from the beginning.
Part of the work of reading Hoa Nguyen's As Long As Trees Last is locating meaning within the poems. This work sometimes even includes locating a speaker. As if addressing and even perhaps mocking the contemporary poetry reader's learned search for a personally motivated speaker, "Tree Poem" begins with the following stanza: "Train horn directly and green warm / Who me who me It's me and a rare / ear turned." Here the "me" arrives in the poem as an "ear," after shyly asking "Who me" not once but twice—as if the speaker is asking permission to enter into the poem. It is unclear if the speaker voices the first line of the poem—and whether knowing that would contribute to the reader's comprehension of the poem.
In the absence of an I with personal qualities that can be identified from poem to poem, Nguyen offers various totems that come to take on their own meanings. The foremost of these is trees—specifically, the chinaberry tree, which appears in several poems. During a reading of Nguyen's I attended, she explained that the chinaberry tree is an import, native to Asia, brought to America in the early nineteenth century and considered an "invasive species here." Knowing that, I read the chinaberries' appearances in the book both metaphorically and metonymically; they seem to speak to both the book's quotidian domestic themes and its engagement with postcoloniality.
Here are the first two stanzas of "Chinaberry," a good example of its variety of tone and information:
Also called Bead Tree
grooved seeds and
a "force unknown
to me" yellow hanging
clusters through winter
The reader, like the chinaberry tree in America, comes to the poem out of context. There is not enough information here to place the speaker's voice or tone. It is unclear whether the "me" that appears in the fourth line refers to the speaker. The quotation, "a 'force unknown to me,' " could be a personal disclosure to the reader on the part of the speaker (an identification with the chinaberry tree), or speech from the chinaberry tree itself, or it could be merely an overheard snatch of speech. Surrounding this moment of potential vulnerability and "force" is the type of information about the tree that one might find in a dictionary or encyclopedia. In the second stanza, however, the words "Feral," "Invader," and "Timber" seem to take up the postcolonial lines of thought that the previous stanza's quotation might imply. Taken together, maybe these moments suggest an association between the tree's "Invader" status and the undefined, unknown "force" that has acted on it. The significance of that unattributed quotation in the previous stanza, and its association to the chinaberry tree, are further emphasized by the rhymes "me" and "Feral tree" and "Desert tree." The next line, "Invader," the longest word in the poem thus far, enacts a kind of phonic invasion by marking an end to that rhyming. Thus Nguyen's prosody might highlight certain words and phrases—like "a force unknown to me," "Invader"—that seem to gesture toward a critique of imperialism, but then perhaps my reading is too close, and after all, I came to the poem already knowing the secret of the chinaberry tree.
The poem "Feather" concludes with a line that perhaps could serve as a key to reading the many references to trees throughout the book: ":::: trees be the church." But even this potential key is ambiguous and multivalent. Are trees the church in that they have a spiritual dimension, or, has their spiritual aspect, like that of the church, been corrupted? Is "church" meant as a literal structure, or as a synecdoche (as in, for example, the Catholic Church)? The many colons before "trees" could be read as an invitation to consider the clause that follows at other moments of the book; or perhaps the neologized punctuation mark could or should be considered unreadable, anticipating opacity in the clause that follows it.
Linguistically, the poem "Words You Should Know" is among the sparest in the book, but it gives the reader more information about the ideology behind it—and, perhaps, information about the ideology behind some of the other poems in the book. "Words You Should Know" is an alphabetized list of words that, an epigraph explains, is "From A New True Book: The Choctaw." These words invoke colonial and postcolonial issues and tragedies more directly than any of the other poems in As Long As Trees Last. The poem, which includes words like "Defeated," "Independent," "Native," "Poverty," "Renovated," and "Reservation," is difficult not to read as a commentary on the miseries of Choctaw life post-Contact. This poem differs from the others in the book not only because of its prosodic methods but also because of its starkly apparent ideology.
Of the three books, Nguyen's feels most ranging in its concerns. (Kapil's is perhaps the most single-minded of the three, with its explicit interrogation of a thesis.) As Long As Trees Last deals as much with life "indoors"—domestic, home life—as it does with political, exterior life. "Words You Should Know" appears more than halfway through the book; and many of the poems here could be read as speaking to the postcolonial condition—or not. After reading "Words You Should Know," one might be more likely to read a poem like "Hyena Face" as addressing a speaker's search for identity within a complexly globalized world: "Countrywide has collapsed / and carefully I can show you / Arroyos where there were none." Without its first line, this stanza could read as an imaginative ecopoetical lyric. As it is, one is left wondering about the "and" that relates the failure of the home loan giant Countrywide to this speaker.
On a formal level, Nguyen's fragments are a long way from Kapil's prose blocks or Edwards's poems, which please in a more old-fashioned way as they investigate a specific consciousness. Nguyen's poems, meanwhile, are brutal in their spare-ness, in what they refuse to offer the reader; not only do they refuse to give answers, they challenge the reader to invent and pose the questions.
Lucy Biederman is the author of four chapbooks of poetry. In 2013, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for the Best of the Net Prize. Her poetry, fiction, and criticism has appeared recently or is forthcoming in BOMBlog, The Collagist, The Laurel Review, Denver Quarterly, Third Coast, and The Pinch. Her website is http://lucybiederman.blogspot.com/.