Staying Alive in the Palace of Property
"It's in hell where solidarity is important, not in heaven"
Laura Sims, Darcie Dennigan, and Robyn Schiff have each penned a collection that creates an experience of profound finality, one that dispossesses us of much yet shifts us from a life of want to one of need. The subject of Laura Sims’s Staying Alive is apocalypse. Referencing such books as The World Without Us, Voices from Chernobyl, The Road, How to Stay Alive in the Woods, and others, the collection is as spare as the terrains it invokes, mirrored by extensive white space and the quiet that accompanies it.
Staying Alive eschews romanticized observations about daily life in favor of concentrating on people trapped in a world once familiar, once sustaining and comfortable, and now turned alien, life-threatening, and deeply unpleasant. It’s worth keeping in mind that what looks like cataclysm for the un-impoverished might look much like everyday life for the world’s millions of poor, whether in Beattyville, Kentucky, Central City New Orleans, Haiti, Malawi, or Afghanistan.
In Sims’s deconstructed world, the unexpected and irrational proliferate. While our weapons, manufacturing, and communication devices become less and less comprehensible with the advance of technology, in Staying Alive the lived environment itself—the streets, buildings, rivers, skies, ground, and humans—have become largely indecipherable. And as family, society, work, property, and more situate us, generating identity, so the cataclysmic Earth leaves us without a distinct identity, or a deeply pared-down one—not unlike the depopulated world of entrapment found in Beckett’s Endgame, where “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that … we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it’s always the same thing. Yes, it’s like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh any more.”
What life before and after cataclysm have in common, perhaps, are rote duties, and an acute sense of the mediocrity of one’s self in an indifferent and limited world. Yet, in this new context, the stakes around those duties are vastly greater, and such a context does not allow for a buffer that might let us deny, or prevent others from perceiving, our intense vulnerability. Thus, substantive human relations are steeply challenged by a dearth of goods and life-necessities: “I became / One of them, leaning over the railing // And no one would help / The humans left //Not even the humans.”
This moment in the text calls to mind a particularly chilling moment from the documentary The Long Way Home, about life for Jews immediately after the Shoah experience, in which a Belarussian Jewish woman says of the reception returning Jews received from their hometown:
We were hated because we returned from the dead. They thought of us as buried. Our return was a painful surprise for them. They looked upon us as ghosts, and no one loves ghosts. In my country they killed you for coming back. In my village, they killed the 5 surviving Jews who returned.
Staying Alive creates a sense of unreality and futility alongside a decline in the worth of principles, integrity, and virtue that is not unreal or maudlin, and is, almost by definition, absurdist.
In turn, the temporal and spatial experience of collapse are highlighted, insofar as it becomes clear that the time and place of collapse could be nearer to us, both geographically and temporally, rather than in some far off future, or in a very distant land. In other words, there are times—the past and the distant future—and places, and therefore peoples to whom we assign the existence, or possibility, of cataclysm. Yet, in Staying Alive, “The present” is “sheared / Asunder from its parent cliffs and all the past was just / The sound of metal / Warming / At the edge of space / At dawn. Every blasted city / Stilled—.”
The Akkadian civilization collapsed in the 2100s bc due to war and climate change, but not before it brought about the end of Sumer by absorbing it; Aboriginal Tasmanians, and the Arawak encountered by Columbus, were wiped out primarily by non-indigenous disease and genocide; the current Syrian war has created the largest refugee crisis since the 1940s. Civilizations, cultures, peoples grow with greater incrementalism than they decline; and one can only imagine that most did or do not perceive themselves as capable of collapse. One can also imagine that the following lines of Sims’s could have been penned with the current-day Central African Republic in mind, or a future Italy or America, as much as Sumer or the Arawak: “... Useless and cumbersome / Empire / or / Bouquets of fire.”
There is a trying on of possible outcomes here, exploring the way others live in current areas of destruction and deprivation, exploring the ways we tense up in the midst of what we deny, or would deny if it weren’t finally unavoidable, while acknowledging the idea that some kind of humiliation awaits all of us: impoverishment, loss of love, loss of loved ones, unemployment, disease, death.
Yet Staying Alive, while genuinely unnerving—like seeing images of genocide, or hearing forecasts of the effects of global warming—does not feel morbid. It functions much like the Theatre of the Absurd in Martin Esslin’s famous description:
It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation…But the challenge behind this message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence.
Indeed, in the book’s afterword Sims speaks to this complicated relationship between the grim and the productive: “I remember as one of the most bleak texts I’ve ever encountered, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: Picking it up again now, several years later, I find The Road transformed—from a book filled with darkness, fear death, and sorrow, to one focused on the survival, however fraught and tenuous, of humankind.” I wouldn’t argue that Staying Alive verges into the territory of soul or sublimity, but rather toward a meaningful confronting of real historical and potential material devastation foregrounded against their effects on the individual. For that matter, a reader’s desire for an inspiring or revelatory conclusion need not be satisfied by a text wrestling with issues as imposing and complex as these.
However, the text’s acknowledgement that life, civilization, advancement are born out of endings offers a kind of practical hope. Sims does not suggest that such cataclysms are necessarily avoidable, but rather that from them springs new community, new culture, new life, new history; a new whole is engendered and the self fleetingly fades, perhaps allowing for a new self as well as for invention born out of compulsory adaptation. And perhaps for a new kind of beauty: “The young ones came in the gloaming / Dolled up / In three puffs of green smoke. They produced / A deep sound / Amidst supping and lovemaking. Invisible // Hands lit the bushes.”
And yet, what the coming of these “young ones,” the three puffs of green smoke, the deep sound, the hands lighting the bushes, importune in this new context, this disrupted normal, is left open to the interpretation of the reader. So the alien-nature of a world once recognizable also robs us of the ability to anticipate—a key factor in communicating, socializing, and surviving—because anticipation depends on working within a context that is recognizable, bordered, contained, perhaps offering some surprise, but primarily predictable.
Apocalypse dispossesses us not only of community, identity, and the ability to anticipate, but of much else, obviously, while creating great need. “Our men and / The source of our decadence—all of deep space—extracted / At last to a // Wilderness.” Thus Sims’s minimal language, though it clearly conveys a surprisingly great deal of action and meaning, mirrors this shift from extravagance to thrift, from want to need. “Not simply torn between longing and safety / But torn.” Thus prompting a shift to our most foundational inclinations and skills, while calling into question, in the most naked way, what it means to be.
Children are at the heart of Darcie Dennigan’s fantastic Palace of Subatomic Bliss. Toward the end of the book, Dennigan puts forward an “attempt to kill a particular rhetoric,” and what follows is lyrical prose that references a Rembrandt painting in terms of a custody agreement. Here, play is a kind of substantive subterfuge. The play of fantasy allows the speaker to imagine an alternative to the current difficult reality. And even if that alternate situation never becomes reality, the simple imagining has the power to distract the speaker from, or prepare her for, a troubling experience, or the power to soften or clarify that experience.
One might conceive of Sims’s cataclysms as a collective metaphor for past personal loss, just as Dennigan makes it explicit that the Rembrandt painting in the section “The Parvitudes Shall Have Joint Cut of the Chiliad, with Shared Plague Between Them” is a stand-in for a loss in-progress. And though, I suppose most loss is a loss in-progress, this loss of a marriage and loss of time with one’s child, is one that will perhaps be unraveling for quite some time to come. Regardless, both poets look to how we perform when our humanness is stripped down to instinct.
Dennigan explores numerous voices, characters (the speaker, Dennigan, Hannahbella, The Bra, Sartre, the homunculus, Blessed Marguerite Marie, among others), modes of thought (analysis, imagination, hypothesis, fantasy), genre (play, poetry, essay), temporal dimensions (past, present, future), sense perception (phenomenal and noumenal). The poet often asks herself, the reader, the characters, such questions as what is real, who is speaking, where are we, or where is here: “I don’t remember whether or not this was a scene in the play.” Sims does the same, but her sites or settings are defined by recognizable, if altered, earthly characters, external and visceral, a disordering of the world we physically inhabit, whereas Dennigan’s are planes, spheres of existence, nebulous and elsewhere. These aspects of Palace of Subatomic Bliss are backed by a seeming determination to disrupt the simulacra of reality through use of idiosyncratic language, both intellectual and gestural. All of this by way of a linguistic and quasi-neurotic id to Sims’ more reportorial ego. A kind of discursive confabulatory maximalism against Sims’ minimalism.
Dennigan engages, and is suspicious of, absurdist, existentialist, and surrealist artists and modes of thought, particularly Sartre, Camus, Daniil Kharms (a Soviet-era Russian, who died imprisoned in a psychiatric institution). In a later section entitled “The Oulipians Vs the Surrealists,” a reference to an earlier section in Palace, the speaker poses the question: “Why aren’t there / can there be female surrealists?” Her question compares the ludicrous, if at times fittingly ironic, humorous constraints of Oulipian art (itself born out of surrealism) to the constraints of a custody agreement, a text experienced as “a formal prison of one’s own making” by the speaker, among millions of others. (As of 2015 there existed in the U.S. about 12 million single-parent families, 80% of which are headed by mothers, with one in four children being raised without fathers.) In this way, Dennigan’s writing, while never maudlin, manages to be just as emotionally and socially compelling as it is intellectually, linguistically, concepturally and narrativistically compelling.
“The Parvitudes Shall Have Joint Cut of the Chiliad, with Shared Plague Between Them” also points to the parental sense of failure and guilt at becoming co-author of an extinct marriage and a fractured family. Indeed, the speaker admits, “if the goal [of the n+7 treatment] was to free the language from its significatory obligation,” then the result is “the biggest failure.” While the phrase “child custody agreement” does not directly reference the cause for such a necessity (divorce: a thing of both consensus and ending), it does gesture toward a key phrase from a theatrical preceding section of Palace of Subatomic Bliss, “Dandelion Farm,” in which the phrase “Sorry you have to go soon” is repeated over and over again.
Divorce, the turmoil of which is born of our inability to understand what it means to end, what might lie on the other side of the end-line. A divorcing parent might impart the exact phrase “Sorry you have to go soon,” the freighted connotations of which might include: I’m sorry (you have been put in this situation). I’m sorry you have to go (through this year’s long process). I’m sorry that you have to go (at all). You have to go soon (i.e. this is forewarning, so as to mentally prepare you, and myself, for departure).
Meanwhile, the speaker looks to the very poem, born out of formal restraint, for freedom, as in “the end of any poem is ... a freedom, but the end of a poem” such as this one, and “if the source text,” the custody agreement, “is also a prison of one’s own making ... I wonder if that becomes a triple or quadruple liberation?” The shifting of focus from freedom to security, as represented in a custody agreement, calls to mind a book about Luis Buñuel’s films Figures of Desire, by Linda Williams, who offers a terribly apt consideration of Surrealism:
Because tyranny and slavery exist, there is a dream of freedom; because objects are beyond our reach, we desire them; and because stories have continuous linear movements, storytellers want to escape them. In each case the tyranny of law creates the desire for a phantom freedom.
Alternatively, one might recognize a mirage for what it is, yet find solace, however temporary, in the illusion. After all, when we think of something we create a thing, when we think of nothing we create another; it is the interpretive ability of the brain that shapes what the vision appears to be or signify, as when Dennigan’s speaker says: “But I— / I became, in real life, very confused by my substitutions and analogies. So confused that for a time I was again selfishly very happy.”
The speaker of “The Oulipians vs the Surrealists” says, “Dear Mother, / Pains is an external ingredient in the world’s order. / To live a single day without suffering would be intolerable! / Nothing but pain will make my life supportable,” which resonates with the words of the Buddhist thinker Mark Epstein, “When we see that staying with a pain from which we habitually recoil can lead to: a transformation, it makes us question one of our basic assumptions: that we must reject that which does not feel good. Instead, we discover, even pain can be interesting.”
“The Parvitudes Shall Have Joint Cut of the Chiliad, with Shared Plague Between Them” might be roughly interpreted as the smallnesses, shrunken in the face of legal action and language, shall each be granted a portion of the child, with a 50/50 split of the pain such a process creates. Chiliad is a clear play on “child,” but given its actual definition, also a gesture at the way a child is composed of exponentially proliferating moments and occasions. And the speaker tells us explicitly that this is “a real child,” “in real life,” a complexity which is compelling and therefore more fragile or porous.
The child is likened to the quetzal, a strikingly colored bird found in the American tropics, and the parents to husks and wights, people who feel evacuated of purpose and meaning, but who are still available to be consulted throughout the child’s growth, particularly at points of potential decline or risk. “That was 999 years ago now we signed the agreement. And how poor we have been. And how old we are now.”
André Breton aimed to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality,” and parenthood, of all things, would seem to do just this, for as Dennigan puts it: “The absurd is reality” where a mother “folds towels so that they are ready to be unfolded.” Parenthood is the original Sisyphean exercise, amplifying the conflict between what we want and what we find. We yearn for escape and relief from duty, yearn to have enough, to achieve enough to avoid guilt. In this lies our inability to reduce the world to a reasonable principle, or as the speaker puts it: “... all day / I listened to that deep water and wanted to / swallow all of it or be swallowed by it / (I did, was) (do! am am am) When do I get / to say to myself, That’s enough, you can stop now / Instead of the stupid dogged paddle I’m peddling.” Embodied here is the keen sense, shared also by Sims in Staying Alive, that one oscillates between consuming and being consumed, that our otherwise symbiotic relationships are out of balance.
The concrete object at the center of A Woman of Property, Robyn Schiff’s third book, is a dispute over a length of land next to the speaker’s driveway. The title also beckons to the idea of a woman freed from dependence on a spouse, and to a time when women were traded away in marriage for the property and wealth their families would gain from the deal. Thus the title points both to a visceral reality and a legalistic, transactional one. Indeed, the title references John Galsworthy’s novel The Man of Property, the protagonist of which moves his resistant wife to a country estate, shifting her away from city social life to his new, sequestered property. But the wife falls in love with her husband’s architect, and the husband rapes her (a legal act for a husband until 1991).
Property or possession—ranging from human interests and aspirations to material goods—necessarily require an accompanying concept of boundaries and borders of the physical body and of the self. The title A Woman of Property can’t help but evoke ideas of how our sense of self, as individuals and as a nation, is deeply connected to our ownership of objects, of ourselves and of others—our spouses, children, employees, students. In fact, ownership, if it exists in that sense at all, is fleeting, and is usually a trick we have played or play on ourselves as well as others, all the way back to colonial interactions with Native American peoples. The eventuality of such ownership, for all involved, is dissolution, decay, passing.
Thus, the title evokes the illusion of stability, possession-hood, and the physical as equivalent to self, but as private property and the creation of objects occurs, labor potentially loses its character as human skill and craft, instead assuming an existence separate from us, our will and our planning. In “Gate” the speaker tells us: “I was caught / up in theatrics / and forgot whose / theater this is,” suggesting that with possession comes the threat of servitude to the object; just as occupation of a (gendered) body—perhaps perceived to be our most central possession—is subject to contestation, violation and breakdown, not to mention the changing perception of the value of that body to others (and ourselves) once it has been transgressed upon or begins to fail.
The length of the poems in A Woman of Property and the atmosphere they manifest creates the sense of a process-based approach to their making, not dissimilar to that of motherhood, from conception through tending to the small human. Fittingly, the poems are marked by a kind of silence and obsession accompanied by a keen tension. In “The Return Policy at Land of Nod” when a glider rocker in the nursery drops a screw, the stressed speaker reflects “like an insidious, / mum extension of the dead- / line for completion of a / project I wish I had not undertaken.” The pressures of parenthood, including concern about one’s inability to protect children from transgressions, manifest in the tension of the parent/artist creating with peak concentration because of, and deeply enmeshed in, the context of expectant disruption. Domestic chores and tasks press in on the speaker, as does a feeling of sacrifice associated with choosing artistic creation over tending to the child. And in this way, Schiff is part of a tradition encompassing, more recently, poets like Dennigan, Catherine Wagner, Alice Notley, Sabrina Orah Mark, and Arielle Greenberg, who also address the complexities of motherhood.
Concern and anxiety are a key feature of A Woman of Property, where mental visions are projected onto the objective world, and the objective world is consumed by the mind and reworked into visions that can be witty, self-critical, ominous, portentous. In this way Schiff mimics our attempts to make sense of the world, to speak to how things might be contained, addressed, assessed. Schiff’s engagement is not simply with the interior self, but more centrally, with the Bachelardian, literal or figurative, interior of objects. Bachelard tells us that, “Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed, without these ‘objects’ … our intimate life would lack a model …”
In turn, the reader oscillates from interloper to resident within these poems, which models the parts we play in the lives of others and of objects, and vice versa, while at the same time simply doing what engaging writing often does: eroding the boundary between imagined, imaginer, and observer. So, like Dennigan and Sims, Schiff reminds us that concepts of dominion and possession are more unpredictable than might make us comfortable, as in “The Houselights” when the speaker says “I love you./ Do you love me? It will be hard for you / Everything Goes.” It is as though we recognize the nation—a theory or concept—but not the literal, physical shifting tectonic plates and ever-morphing shorelines that are key to its composition. The walls of the dresser drawer turn out to be made of fabric, or gel. And personhood therefore, if defined by ownership, as it has historically been understood in the Western world at least since Locke, becomes unstable, and so our world, interior and exterior, becomes so as well. Really, it always already was.
Adam Day is the author of Model of a City in Civil War (Sarabande Books), and is the recipient of a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for Badger, Apocrypha, among other awards. He coordinates The Baltic Writing Residency.