My Head Just Sat There
|War of the Foxes, by Richard Siken. Copper Canyon Press. 96 pp., $17|
|Heliopause, by Heather Christle. Wesleyan University Press. 112 pp., $15.95|
|The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, by Larry Levis. Graywolf Press. 96 pp., $16|
“How much can you change and get away with it, before you turn into someone else, before it’s some kind of murder?”
That’s one of several vexing rhetorical questions Richard Siken floats in War of the Foxes, his moody, eristic book dominated by the interrogative mood. War of the Foxes is the highly anticipated follow up to Siken’s 2004 debut Crush. The latter was a literary phenomenon, earning him several prestigious awards, a spot on the poetry bestseller list, and a cult following. As one friend put it, “Crush crushed it.”
Now a decade on, the sustained high pitch of Crush prevails even if the canvas has narrowed. Many of the poems in War of the Foxes take the form of an extended monologue delivered by a painter wrestling with the purposes of art, its aberrations from objectivity, its protean nature, its severe limitations when it comes to capturing the self:
What can you know about a person? They shift
in the light. You can’t light up all sides at once. Add
a second light and you get a second darkness…
Roughly a third of the titles in War of the Foxes riffs on the language of painting (still lifes, details, landscapes, portraits), but don’t expect to be gazing at the surf or the human face for long. At best you might get an “interrogation of dots. A pip, a point, a seed, a stone.” War of the Foxes is instead a suffocatingly interior book, ruled by the mind, that uncrackable strongbox of cause and effect. It stands to reason; after all, these are poems, what Yeats famously refers to as quarrels with the self, rather than rhetoric, which takes up arms against the world. The lyric drama has been staged behind closed doors at least since the birth of the sonnet, and no one needs to remind Siken of that fact:
Blackbird, he says. So be it, indexed and normative. But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.
Anyone who sees in nature only his own reflection is cartoonish, absurd, like a man in a bird suit or a poet desperate to net a metaphor. Yet it’s hard to tell whether Siken’s reckoning with artistic creation is more satirical than ruminative, more deadpan than dead serious. In passages like the above he appears to ironize the artist’s profession. In others he finds some satisfying meaning in art, even if that meaning deviates from the artist’s original intention: “Something has happened in the paint tonight and / it is worth keeping. It’s nothing like I thought it / would be and closer to what I meant.”
Again and again Siken and painter feel compelled to sever word from world, head from body. “I cut off my head and threw it in the sky,” he writes in “Landscape with Fruit Rot and Millipede.” “It turned into birds. I called it thinking.”
A few poems on, in “Still Life with Skull and Bacon”:
I cut off my head and threw it on the ground.
I walked away. This is how we measure, walking
away… My head just sat there…
More limbs are amputated in War of the Foxes than in the Saw franchise. Even moonlight is “diminished in fractions.” Yet Siken isn’t gunning for gasps. Ultimately his questions betray an anxiety not only about the usefulness of art but about art’s complicity in the cruelties of the twenty-first century, in the destruction of ecosystems and occupation of countries. Musing on the final effect of portraying violence, he wonders: “When you paint an evil thing, do you invoke it or take away its power?”
Reading along, I couldn’t help but think of Frank Baum’s Tin Woodman of Oz, in which the titular “flesh-and-blood” character undergoes an outrageously brutal transformation on par with many of Siken’s figures. The jealous witch casts a spell on the Tin Woodman’s ax that causes him to cut off parts of his body. First an arm, then another arm, eventually his head. Because nothing can die in Oz, each limb is replaced with a tin version. Later, the Tin Woodman re-encounters his head, now kept in a box. The head argues with him. Take me back, it begs. But the Tin Woodman refuses; he’s perfectly content without his body.
That Siken is content to replace natural bodies—be it a landscape or a pile of fruit—with artificial replicas may be an overstatement. But he does seem to be having a bit of fun when it comes to composing campy dialogue:
…Grant me freedom from objects,
says the painting. I will help you, says the paint.
More territories. We sat in our tanks and rolled
over our enemies. We trampled everything into
noise and mud. Willpower, gunpowder, concussive
thunder. Pink, orange, red… I paint in
the wounds. Socket, says the shoulder. Shoulder, says
the socket. Let’s kill everything else, says everything else.
Like Caravaggio, whose depiction of Goliath’s severed head also makes an appearance here, Siken is an artist of “exaggerated light, pure theater.” His hyperbolic truisms (“anyone can paint a mask”; ”everyone wants a battlefield”; “history is painted by the winners”) and repetitive staccato sentences form the poetic equivalent of the Italian painter’s chiaroscuro technique: the poems are all blinding light and thick shadow, highly stylized depictions of radical behavior.
Suffice it to say War of the Foxes is a bracing read. And, at 47 pages, refreshingly short. (Why so many contemporary poets feel the need to break a hundred pages, as if each were writing the Great American Novel disguised in verse, is beyond me.) Siken appears uniquely aware that—to rehash my own truism—an essential component of making art is knowing what to leave out, allowing readers to imagine the “complete document” for themselves:
The central panel now missing—
We all dream of the complete document, the atlas of the idea,
the fish on the table finally gutted—
What does all this love amount to?
Putting down the brush for the last time—
We now live in a sort of cultural Oz, long on splicing and short on fatality, where every last bit of content appears to be sticking around for good and is often shorn of its original context. A repository of the least significant detail, the Internet has made things of the past a thing of the past. On the one hand, this permeability of time can feel riveting—wait, nothing dies! On the other, it’s deeply unsettling—wait, nothing dies?
Enter Heather Christle’s fourth collection, Heliopause, a book largely made up of elegies that reluctantly embraces this kind of on-goingness, repeatedly nudging its reader to “go on.” Like everything that gets repeated, the meaning of the phrase “go on”—which appears in slightly altered form (“There you go,” etc.)—keeps changing. It can be read as a rallying cry for the intrepid, an expression of encouragement for the traumatized, an inducement to the storyteller to keep telling her story. Only in Christle the story never really begins; we seem, as the title suggests, to be on permanent pause, inhabiting what she describes elsewhere as a “strange interim / of an event perhaps having occurred / in the uncertainty of something / having happened.”
Small wonder, then, Christle should reference the movie Frances Ha. Like Greta Gerwig’s study in arrested development, Heliopause troubles the adorable quirks of Millennials, quirks that Christle’s poems often exhibit and just as often upend. One of the many pleasures to be had in Heliopause is uncovering the creepy subtext beneath every emoji. A “ha” from Christle can be a provocation:
with acquaintances my joke
about terminal illness did not go over well
or a burst of uninhibited joy:
Addressing the morning I say
It was good of you to come
or some combination thereof:
for actually a very long time
about ants and the impossibility
of ant masturbation
They do not love themselves enough
They only love each other
Yet darker forces dominate the collection as the young-at-heart poet navigates the pressures of the “real” world, the same ruts and slopes that Frances Ha’s slow-journeying dancer trips through: the loss of friends, the precariousness of partnership, the uncertainty of vocation. Encountering a long sequence of letters detailing domestic events, or an unsentimental and funny-in-places elegy for a friend, you could almost be forgiven for thinking of Heliopause as a book about crossing the threshold into adulthood.
That is, if Heliopause weren’t so much more expansive than that (the title actually refers to the theoretical threshold between our solar system and the interstellar medium). On the contrary, its author is intent on deleting the predictable lines that organize a life:
The box of cereal says We’re so happy
our paths have crossed
but I do not think
I am on one
I think I am in
a pathless field
Pathlessness is largely a positive thing, I imagine, especially for a poet as anarchic as Christle. Pathlessness suggests openness: to experience, to meaning, to the possibilities of language itself, whose rules Christle mock-laments: “the lack of a single-word infinitive / in our language is what is killing me…” FYI, infinitives play a pivotal role in Heliopause, assisting in the dismantlement of other boundaries, in this case of the temporal variety.
Yet the initial thrill of witnessing the collapse of temporal, social, ecological, theoretical, etc. structures can quickly give way to terror. It’s not long before the suspension of pattern triggers vertigo. It’s like, well, drifting out of orbit. Or being stuck in an automated car gone haywire, the GPS on repeat: “changing lanes, changing lanes, changing lanes.”
Christle is perfectly alive to the terror of our everywhere-and-at-all-times technological era, maybe nowhere so much as in “Disintegration Loop 1.1,” the best of several long sequences in the collection. The poem is written in response to William Basinski’s video of the sun going down over lower Manhattan on 9/11 and set to music—“a decaying pastoral loop”—that Basinski recorded a month prior to the attacks. As Christle explains in a note in the back of the book: “I wrote this poem over several weeks, waking each morning and playing William Basinski’s video… While the music and video played across the room, I sat in a chair with my paper and wrote for the full hour. Or rather, I sat for an hour and wrote when it occurred to me.”
This “permanently imminent night” of the soul is not for the faint of heart, what with its disjunctive section breaks and halting, stop-and-start lines:
to enter into agreement with yourself
to lie but only out of love
for the verblessness of buildings
They do not rise except once
and then nothing
how being is nothing
and if there were a word after
it would be a slow decay
I will love across any distance
you think this has made to occur
Nothing so ruthless as a life
The day hangs low overhead
and soon enough the new grass will emerge…
The lines mimic, I think, the act of dragging a cursor forward and back as the speaker sits in the room replaying the video again and again. Or else, perhaps, the different sections should be read as different voices, à la “The Wasteland.” Her abundant use of quotation in the poem suggests an Eliot-like method, although Christle employs quotation in earnest, as if tradition promised safety, the one solid purchase on the past. After quoting from several Modernist poets, including Moore, Stevens and Williams, she turns to address the reader:
You will forgive me won’t you
for the lines
I’m copying in
I do not want to be alone here
It is a testament to her prodigious gifts that Christle can take up an event like 9/11—alas, already flogged to cliché—and press it into something freshly considered. That she doesn’t shy away from durable things, the grand subjects of love and birth, trauma and death—time the destroyer and time the preserver—is also a testament to her nerve.
Heliopause has all of the fixings of contemporary verse—“uncreative” constraints, such as an erasure of a transcript between Neil Armstrong and mission control; an affection for the unreal; a regard for literature as a technology rather than a gooey gift from the muse. Yet it has none of the shortcomings of those modes. Not the disaffected pose. Not the ahistorical attitude. Not the self-conscious signposts. Heliopause demonstrates that experimental poetry and poetry of witness—or whatever today’s term for poetry of witness is—can co-exist, that playful formal structures can effectively engage with the horrors of history and the uncertainty of our times, that theoretical abstractions can help us navigate our “real” domestic experiences. Far more than twitchy or surreal or quirky—adjectives that have dogged her career thus far—Christle turns out to be a poet equally ironizing and engaged. Ha.
Increasingly it is the book, and not the line or individual poem, that is the basic unit of poetic practice. No doubt several factors have coincided to encourage this trend. Cynics will chalk it up to marketing strategies and MFA thesis advisors, yet it might also be a reaction against the premium placed on the line by older bards like Ashbery and Merwin or the sanctimony with which many poets speak of organic structures. Something about an artfully arranged book suggests a belief in poetry as one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent artifice.
Both Siken and Christle have, I think, authored books first, poems second. With few exceptions, the poems in War of the Foxes amount to an extended meditation on artistic creation more or less narrated by a single speaker. And, despite the formal variety in Heliopause, Christle’s book follows a clear pattern, journeying inward, from the public to the private, while carefully meting out longer sequences along the way. (The gorgeous design of Heliopause also contributes to the feeling that we hold in our hands a book as opposed to a bundle of discrete poems.)
But where does that leave a posthumous collection, one we can’t be sure was ever intended for publication, or at least not in its present form? How does that affect our reading experience?
Such questions hover over The Darkening Trapeze, the profoundly uneven posthumous collection of poems by iconic Fresno poet Larry Levis, who died of a heart attack in 1996 at the age of 49. The poet isn’t to blame for the book’s inconsistency; many of the poems are false starts and unfinished drafts, and fragments from accomplished poems in Levis’ previous posthumous collection, the remarkable Elegy, resurface in paler threads.
Take, for instance, these promising if slow-to-get-off-the-ground lines from the poem that gives the book its title, “Elegy with Darkening Trapeze in It”:
The only surviving son of Jesus Christ was Karl Marx.
You can tell by the last letter of his name,
Which has the shape & frail balance of an overturned cross…
The only surviving son of Jesus Christ survives now
Mostly in English departments & untended graves.
One thing he said I still remember, a thing that’s never there
When I try to look it up, was: “Sex should be no more important…
Than a glass of water.”
And compare them with the speed and layered complexity of Levis lyricizing at full tilt in “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope”:
…[A] crowd strolled out of the matinee into a village
That was waiting for them, strolled casually
Out of history
And into something else: forgetful, inexact,
A thirst, an arousal, a pairing off with whomever they desired,
Strangers even, trysting against walls,
Or in a field of dandelions, on wagonbeds, the moment
Scripted in the involuntary,
Lovely convulsion of thighs lathered as a horse’s back,
Because, as Marx said,
Sex should be no more important than a glass of water
The Darkening Trapeze has been assembled by David St. John, Levis’ longtime friend, who also edited the Selected Poems and, with Philip Levine, Elegy. Of course, St. John should be applauded for preserving this essential twentieth century poet for twenty-first century readers, even if he does little to clarify how he went about choosing the poems and why he has organized them into (occasionally baffling) sections. In his afterword St. John instead outlines the unusual and sometimes emotionally fraught circumstances of sorting through Levis’ 200+ unpublished poems, and zeroes in on the two best here, “God Is Always Seventeen” and “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire.” About the latter, St. John describes how, much to his dismay, he had to exclude the poem from Elegy because the final copy of it contained handwritten revisions that no one could decipher. It was not until after the release of Elegy that a videotape turned up of Levis reading the final draft of the poem.
St. John contends that “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire” was meant to complete Levis’ late, long cycle of elegies, and indeed the poem has all of the trademarks of those poems: the magnitude of spirit, the elegiac tone, the ramifying narrative subplots with their abundance of acutely observed details, as in this unforgettable encounter with a woman in a Cincinnati hotel, “decorated, like a kind of human Christmas tree, in money”:
… All down
The buttons of her blouse & in fact all over her blouse & skirt,
The men, for whom, I heard later, she had been hired as
A private dancer, had pinned twenties, hundreds, fifties,
Rolls of smaller bills—& as the alarm blared its one note &
The beige smoke—billowy, calm signature of whoever had set
The upper floors on fire—began filling
The corridor, we arrived at the elevator in the same
Moment, & waited—I in shorts & a faded T-shirt with three
Naked Jamaicans on it who were, once, the Itals,
And she in the most expensive dress I had ever seen…
Reading late Levis is a deeply physical experience. Not only because his poems find a footing in actual spaces—hotels, orchards, graveyards, movie theaters—or sniff out the perfect concrete particulars like that reggae T-shirt (deity is in the details, he writes elsewhere); but also because of the whole motion of his rhetoric, his repetitiousness, his swiveling forward and back, the animal grace of his sentences, here spilling over dozens of lines, there stopping in their tracks to take in the landscape.
Once in a blizzard in a foreign city, having lost my way,
I wondered what it would be like to be one of those—blind
Drunk, high, or homeless—who would have no alternative except
To freeze to death, & thought how, after the initiation of pain,
They say it is like being lulled to sleep, the way the snow
Appears to faint as it swirls in the locked doorways of shops,
The way this would be the last thing that appeared to you
There, before whatever was left of you became gradually
Confused with a small part of the upsway
Of snow & wind.
It is all a matter of confusing yourself with something else
“At times, for me, the world is a landscape,” he writes in the essay “Some Notes on the Gazer Within,” “and I think of my own poems as if they were landscapes, or as if I could refer to them by virtue of their places.”
…[T]he authentic experience of any worthwhile landscape must be an experience of my own humanity. When I pass fields, or pass the deserted streets of a small town in the Midwest at suppertime, or pass avenues of closed warehouses, I am not alone, I think. Someone or something has lived here; some delicate linkage is preserved between past and present. I am filled by, looked at by, the landscape itself; the experience is not that of a mirror’s, but a true exchange, until even something as negligible as some newspapers lifting in the wind on a street, at night and before a rain, are somehow soiled by an ineradicable humanity, and by the presence of the dead, of the about-to-be-born.
How telling that Levis should discover some “linkage” in a landscape, a chain of historical contexts, and gather ghosts around him as he journeys forth alone. There is in Levis a resistance to the emblematic, a belief in the irreducibly human. Later in “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire,” for example, the private dancer dressed in bills reveals that her true passion is showing Abyssinian purebreds and that she may be on the run for murder. “Do I look capable of Murder One,” she asks the speaker in the poem, “the glint of her eye revealing nothing.”
Levis addresses the issue more directly in a poem called “The Worm in the Ear.” Describing van Gogh’s attempts to paint peasants, he writes that the peasant “refuse[s] to become a representation of a peasant. He [is] a peasant. He inhabits himself completely. The world would end, with or without him in it, & he would still be a peasant.”
Yet that refusal to represent is, in Levis, balanced by his consummately social imagination, which finds in landscape—and language—not comfort exactly, but a sense of wholeness, of being one with others:
When I say you to what isn’t there I mean me.
It is as if our language did this to us,
As if, at some point, we became others in it,
Others in a crowd of others who were just like us.
The poems in The Darkening Trapeze were written twenty years back, a long time ago that feels even longer given the leap-and-bound progress of the digital age. What delicate linkage between the past and present remains? Our experience of the social has since changed dramatically. Most people interact on a screen (and in their heads) rather than face-to-face. It stands to reason, then, if you’ll permit me to generalize, that observations of the body and narrative accounts of physical events would diminish in poetry. Certainly the effect of Siken’s and Christle’s work is more cerebral, the worlds they conjure pixelated, disincarnate, largely shorn of the sensual details that so animate Levis’ work. The narrow space they inhabit is reflected in their syntax and lineation, too. Reading them, I feel, at times, as if my head were just sitting there. Perhaps that linkage is more delicate than Levis predicted.
Will Schutt is the author of Westerly, winner of the 2012 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. His poems and translations have appeared in Agni, A Public Space, The New Republic and elsewhere. He lives in Baltimore.