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Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

By (April 1, 2014) No Comment


Melissa Broder
Publishing Genius 2014

The Living Method

Sara Nicholson
The Song Cave 2014

The New Testament’s Book of John begins by glossing Genesis. But whereas the first book of the Bible indicates that things began with God, John 1:1 muddies the waters a bit by telling us that “in the beginning was the Word.” And well – spoiler alert – the Word is God, and Jesus in particular, the Word made flesh.

But what is flesh? Flesh is stink and struggle and need. It’s the clash of tooth and claw, necessarily ending in death, that most untoward punctuation. It’s certainly nothing holy (although, from Christianity’s perspective, that was the point).

Melissa Broder’s new poetry collection troubles the Christian narrative (and particularly the Catholic Christian narrative) of the redemption of the flesh through language, through the unification of tongue and spirit. Scarecrone offers a separate, particularly female mythos of the body and the making of meaning. An early poem, “Astral Locket,” posits a pre-word, pre-flesh idyll:

She went into the silent room
and in the silent room there had never been a word
only the breath before the word

and she was deep within herself
her own breathing and the breathing of the word
the Earth swelling and pumping

. . .

and it felt good to be bodiless
in this pre-word vanishing

The advent of the word into this silent space calls a different world into being, one where death cannot be transcended. In the final verse of the mythic “Power Animals,” Broder writes of the limits of words’ power:

Horses are made of words
You can assemble a mare or stallion
You can make an ocean in the bedroom
I ride an Arabian down the bedpost
I nod at my dead husband
He rots on the carpet
I say make it grow make it grow
He says no

In describing this limited, irredeemable world, Scarecrone engages a breviary’s vocabulary. The book is rife with words like liturgy, ritual, judgment, church, resurrection, commandments, saints, consecration, ceremony, salvation, soul. There are multiple rounds of angels. Jesus shows up, as do St. Francis, Satan, Azazel, and Mary Magdalene. There are a couple of references to Eastern spirituality – Buddha, sutras – but these come off as throwaways. Broder’s book is not a gloss-cum-rewrite of just any creation myth, but The Greatest Story Ever Told, with capitals.

Yet the religious vocabulary stands in contrast with the poems’ many “mouths,” “holes,” “tongues,” “fucks,” and verging-on-the-relentless “cocks” and “dicks.” Reproduction is the flesh’s poor substitute for immortality, for the eternal salvation that words cannot offer. In “Satisfy the Desolate,” Broder writes “I call it sex/ because I don’t know/ how else to say/ terrified of dying.” Broder is not the first, and she’ll hardly be the last, poet to express thoughts of this nature, but in these poems, there is no beauty in physical intimacy. The flesh united with the word is an insatiable monster of gross need, attempting to distract itself from death:

What does it mean to be so sick
with want that you create rituals
which lead nowhere? Only to be
human, I think, and less ok
than animals.

Animals, at least, don’t indulge in existential despair. They don’t reflect on their desires, on the whys and wherefores of their needs. They don’t weigh their own worth in the balance and find it wanting, as Broder does:

I have wanted
many unfair things.
What is most unfair
is that the Earth is still okay
with me being here
I think, and even
encourages it.

In the courts of human law, at least, it is said that justice delayed is justice denied – denied to the victim. But Broder’s poems read as those of a criminal asking for the sentence to be handed down post-haste, if only because waiting around is worse than anything that judgment might bring. To stave off death is only to be stuck in the body’s cataclysm of need, preventing a return to the wordless, bodiless void. Cornel West, glossing Heidigger, has called us “beings toward death,” and for Broder, despite the terror, death is a worthy goal. In “Light Control,” she writes:

Teach me to die teach me to die
I want to create a beautiful dying
The end will need to be dark and soft
Like walking home to your real mother

Life is a way-station wherein we can only err; death is the lesson by which we learn all that’s worth knowing: “I think you learn by unbeing/ Like first you die and then go oh.”

meatheartScarecrone largely avoids poetic language — metaphors and similes are few and far between; sentences are largely in the present tense, declarative to the point of aggression. There is no circumlocution or retreat into artfulness here. A book that, at times, comes powerfully close to advocating for death, Scarecrone refuses to look its subject anywhere but squarely in the eye. The book’s conversational, un-prettified language reflects the urgency of its subject.

One of the most immediate responses to Scarecrone is the desire to give Broder a hug, though that might be an unwelcome gesture for someone who views the body as a death, and the body’s death as freedom. Perhaps a get well soon card? Something with an appropriately sympathetic inscription? The problem there is:

I am actually still deciding
if I am going to stick with language, its tongue
and teeth are so peopled and I feel
the universe is trying to ask me
something else . . . .

Well, it’s the thought that counts and, anyway, Broder is “only in the hotel of bodies/ temporarily.”

About two-thirds of the way through the collection, a “mustardseed of okayness” develops; Broder’s narrator flirts with the last stage of grieving: acceptance. A particularly feminine fear of aging (of becoming less beautiful, less desirable, and thus less everything), as described in the angry “Haul,”

Hello porn video.
Hello scarecrone
on the train.
You know we got old.
The young are devils
in our dream.
They are made of rotten sugar.
We are holding onto one car
and the car is named tight
like a baby. Call me tight
like a baby.

morphs into “Letter from a Crone,” with its sense of serene dignity:

When you get old the autumns come
bearing black pistachios

Which are not more delicious than green ones
but they are very good.

You were despondent
when you were no longer young

but now you are hooked up to a river.

But don’t get too comfortable. Broder’s soon enough back to insisting that life is a cheap trick. Everything that’s born is doomed to die: “Vitality comes/ with too much skull/ and an evil rose on its lips.”

It would be easy, I think, to put Scarecrone down after a few poems, to find some excuse to avoid the rest. The book is about something very uncomfortable (the reality of unavoidable death), takes a disquieting view of its subject, and mostly does so in the most direct way possible. As such, it’s hard for me to tell whether the poems I liked most are more successful than others, or just come as a relief. Poems like “Power Animals” and “I Preach a Convincing Sermon” read as allegories, not addresses. The sharpness of their rhetoric paradoxically makes them easier to take than some of the other poems – they are clearly made things, things of art. From “I Preach a Convincing Sermon”:

I say The body
is a coat. It is a very dark and heavy coat
but worthless. Mother Mary nods from the pews.
If I give Mary all my atoms she will plant them
in a garden . . .

Neither can you make a garden stay. Don’t even try.
Every plot becomes a dark city over time.
I have collected so many dark ideas over time.
I have so many ideas they are a second coat.

For all of us, the word is flesh in a very practical way. We speak with our mouths. We hear with our ears. We read with our eyes and write with our hands. Our minds (or souls) might be able to think words at themselves, but if anyone else is to know what we mean, the medium is the body, the flesh. As Broder posits it, this flesh is caught up in a spiritually painful and ultimately pointless ritual – frantically dashing off messages on its one-way trip toward oblivion, regardless of “the dust/coming and coming.”

Whereas Scarecrone put me in mind of an old Spanish cathedral, framing gilded and graphic depictions of St. Lucy with her eyes in a dish of blood, Sara Nicholson’s The Living Method recalled a petri dish handled by the gloved, sterilized hands of a bride of science. Its retelling of language’s origins is a sort of Darwinian corrective to Scarecrone’s religious account. It could be narrated by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, with a similar sort of quiet, rationalist triumphalism:

Language, that reconstructed bird,
impresses us with its materials—it sleeps
without skin or description.
Made, it is manufactured by no one.

ThelivingmethodIn fact, one of The Living Method’s charms is an almost Victorian diction – a kind of civilized remove. Nicholson’s voice is a disembodied one, free from headaches, unscratched itches, and other spleenish woes. Its emotions are intellectualized, with the mild fussiness of an absent-minded professor, as when her speaker says that she “fear[s] for the estuaries./They are so small this time of year.” They also display the dry humor of under-emphasis – it’s difficult to suppress a decorous snort when confronted with the following, from “A Short History of Autoeroticism”:

Richard II invented the handkerchief
and he felt very small on that day
when he waved a red square
at a bigger, more ineradicable blue one.

The book is organized in four sections, each corresponding to a sort of evolutionary epoch in the history of speech. Where Broder eschews poetic diction, Nicholson revels in it. Metaphors pile up against one another, alliteration and assonance are on display, and phrases are sometimes constructed not so much for sense but sound. There were times, particularly in the first section, where this delighting in language grew tiring, tending toward word-salad. “The pluperfect forms of summer” has a nice ring to it, and an air of nerdy mysteriousness. But follow that up with “a swerve of apples,” “a wealth of hieroglyphics,” and the frankly baffling “Io in shrubbery/ an oar mistaken // for a winnowing fan,” and I will be forced to conclude, as Nicholson herself does in the poem from which those latter three examples are taken, that “Whatever’s left of sound exhausts me.”

But just as that implies, semantic clarity is not, ultimately, the aim of some of these first poems. Rather, I came to think of them as a kind of primordial soup (to go with your word-salad) in which phrases, like combinations and recombinations of DNA, vied for success. Consider the short poem “Of Matches”:

Unheard within mutton
he makes ballads over the sink
and we hear them, I hear, I felt those in them
and all the trees petrified like lace
It is warm

I won’t pretend to know what “unheard within mutton” means but there’s something primeval in the repetition of “we hear . . . I hear,” and viscerally visual in “the trees petrified like lace.” That last “It is warm” is both partial and full of yearning, like a fragment out of Sappho. As Nicholson writes in the later poem “Imaginary Prefaces,” “[t]o call a line a fragment/ is to have faith in the invisible whole[.]”

Meaning is in process here, in the act of being made. Language, in The Living Method, is evolving, testing itself against its conditions – and we evolve with it. This may be no more plausible a mythos than one in which language itself is God, and God manifests language as flesh, but it is certainly a positivist (and positive) one. In “The Song of Songs,” Nicholson states:

We will spell
the words we wouldn’t spell,
define what appears to us as a song.
We is skeletal flowers. The close of night
is dawn dawn dawn.
Artifice: the note that wanders.
Art: the outer limits of the dark.

It would be difficult to be more forthright in staking a claim for language’s redemptive power (in an Einsteinian cosmic-religious-feeling kind of way) than this section from “I Don’t Know You”:

You had the dream of terrestrial air
out of summer, chordata,
pink ether treading in a sphere,
The sounds that the planets reserve
for themselves,
the wind discharging itself of the water
it brings, a sentence, a single word
carved out of the alphabet
is enough. One letter is enough.

Scarecrone trucks in a liturgical vocabulary; much of The Living Method’s comes straight out of a grad-level linguistics seminar, with a few SAT words thrown in for good measure. (I, for one, will never actually be able to remember what “prolegomena” means, and thus its use in any text is for me a by-word in erudition, or at least pretention to it). Still, as they present their linguistic allegory, Nicholson’s poems consistently return to words that the first users of human speech might have favored: mountain, sky, trees, sun, birds, stars. There is also an emphasis on song and on music, from which human speech may have evolved. As Nicholson writes in “Contra Nostalgia”:

If there were no trees, there would be no memories.
Minus flowers, the referents would plummet.

And in “Paradise,”

The mother of the sentence
Doesn’t modify the sun.
She walks through a forest
Without meaning to.

Language is only a form
Like the symphonic earth.
As for the mother, she breathes
With us upon the garden.

In the third and fourth sections, the book moves on from simple words for simple concepts, and into a more contemporary scene. Nicholson begins to reference JPEGs, computer languages, and Google searches: “No results found/for ‘the commons.’ Did you mean commoners?” As that quotation suggests, The Living Method’s happy rationalist narrative grows fraught. It’s easier to feel wonder at how our ancestors managed to create and be created by speech than to navigate the troubled waters of current discourse, as “The Art of Symmetry” indicates:

My laptop shushes the awe
that others feel when
they look at the sky.
I know no songs
or dances, just this opera
of the plague years
Other people
cultivate their gardens
I try to think of another
Spelling of auto-da-fe.

One sign of this troubling of the waters is how wordplay is used in the book. There’s a comparative absence of it in the first two sections of The Living Method. You’ll find there one instance of “grammar” doing a pas-a-dos with “grimoire,” and a cute couplet relying on “phlox” and “phalanx.” But that’s about it, and I was mildly surprised at this on a first reading, given that the book is otherwise so concerned with language as such, stating that “{c}omposition in the abstract/ is what we’re after.” But if puns, homophones, and similar devices are rare birds in the book’s first sections, they become common as robins as the book moves into contemporary time. Here, too, I think Nicholson is on to something.

Although the The Living Method’s diction maintains a rationalist distance throughout, irony creates a second type of distance – one that disclaims responsibility, shielding speakers from embarrassment or identification with their subject. Wordplay in The Living Method appears to enact this ironized distance, showing up most frequently in poems where Nicholson confronts language that is meant to obfuscate, to distract, and to manipulate. The language of politics and advertising, in particular, turns the “lyre” into a “liar,” and fractures the reliability of analogy and metaphor:

Birds who disappear
behind the Wal-Mart
no more embody our
material desires
than that hyacinth
and/or burrito
I see them eying
over there in the trash
Ere I crawled along
this parapet, in search
of a language
that could give voice
to the marvelous, I
understood the gist
of imported fabrics
for the first time
I knew fear

Uh-oh. Much more of this and Nicholson and Broder could sponsor a panel discussion entitled “Language: EPIC FAIL?” And in fact, The Living Method ends on a dark note, with references to the very Satan that its scientific underpinnings should deny, and language itself succumbing to spiritual disease:

The devil writes Latin with one hand
and Greek with the other – A sickness
for me, a sickness for you.

Scarecrone and The Living Method ultimately both express a profound ambivalence regarding the purpose and value of words. Maybe we can become immortal through them. Maybe we can express the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Or maybe those things are more than words can bear.

Maureen Thorson is the poetry editor of Open Letters Monthly. Her first book of poems, Applies to Oranges, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2011.