By Joyelle McSweeney
Fence Books 2012
Talking to other poets about Joyelle McSweeney’s work yields a study in opposites. Some criticize her freewheeling, directionless style as reckless, indulgent. Others, myself included, bask in her disjointed poetics as in a new kind of sunlight. Travis Nichols, in Jacket #19, suggests that her style is reminiscent of John Ashbery, except “the fragmented perceptions don’t imply anything whole behind them.” This, to me, is a misconception of McSweeney’s project. I think she has more in common with Whitman and Swift than with the less accessible Ashbery, with her free-flowing exploration pointed at language and culture rather than self, and her satire sharp as a pike. This is not to say that she is entirely successful in her latest book, Percussion Grenade.
Percussion Grenade is made up of six sections and a brief introduction. The individual sections vary wildly in structure, from a 40-page-long pseudo-play to prose poems about Annie Oakley. What holds them all together is their consistent asyntactical style. McSweeney’s writing is rhythmic, with dramatic shifts in syntax and subject underscored by a persistent musicality. Take the following passage, from “KILLZONE2”:
in my femur trailer.
If you think there’s a moral here,
or a femoral artery, a Pasteural,
Good news, you missed it, you’re missing it.
You’re missing the morale boat
The overall thrust
At the throat
Of the heart.
McSweeney’s style is hummingbird-like, swiftly flitting from flower to flower, fast and loose and playful, but a closer look at that hummingbird in the pages of Percussion Grenade reveals a gleeful demon, wearing a gas mask with post-industrial fangs, with a snout like a serrated hunting knife, stabbing at flowers turned into beating hearts, one of them your own.
McSweeney aims to do violence to words in this collection, to deconstruct definitions and destroy the expected outcomes of narratives. In the title poem, she writes:
In my gondola of clouds
I loaf and invite myself to lock and load
morphing pastoral clouds into militant munitions. In “Poem For Comrade Duch”:
The body of judgment has been assembled
And has been disabled by the war on terror
And is a disabled box
In the box the choices are limitless
In the box the choices are meaningless
McSweeney maneuvers from subject to subject, with rhythm, full and slant rhyme, and lack of punctuation providing the connective, and subsequent lines disabling previous meanings with new information. The continual morphing isn’t the only constant in the book. The poems always spiral back to the negative in humanity, the violence and bloodshed and horror.
McSweeney writes as if each line holds a surprise, a brash change, some trickery. But after a while some of the tricks become tiresome. The lines are so unexpected that the unexpected becomes commonplace, even mundane, indulgent. From “Arcadia (Post-Caucasia) for the Caucasian Dead” (a self-indulgent title in its own right):
Fetal cells like wrinkled sock are
Ectopic, out of place
In the abdominal
Organs of state
Where the palm cells close
(Far cry) at dawn like a bordello
Put up their dukes in a palisade layer
And later in the same stanza
Swiping away the smut of self-doubt
above the ethereal gaming table
Where chromosomes kiss and divide
The pace of change is too frenetic to capture anything, and the negativity wears on a reader already wearied trying to keep up with the change. Why so many images in each list? Many passages read more like freewriting exercises in a poet’s image journal. Some editing could be done here to increase the effectiveness her style has on the reader.
But the collection is held together in this way, with consistent inconsistency, the near-constant play. One of McSweeney’s favorite tricks is to switch subjects mid-word, morphing nouns and adjectives into unnatural combinations. In just the first half page of poetry (in the first section of the opening poem) we see a “eutrophied current”, a “worrywarm”, and something called a “pastesayer”. The frequency with which words are dismantled and reconfigured is too high, but it’s fun to look for the ways in which expectations can be built up and broken down within a single word, especially words that self-destruct their namesakes, such as “epiphaneedle” and “a-tro-phy”.
The constant wordplay is ironic considering Percussion Grenade‘s obsession with the cesspools of human culture. McSweeney continuously brings us back to filth, grime, blood. The poems here display “placental death,” “the horrorshow from the orphanage,” “spotbleeds,” and “cartons of porno.” The list is endless. And the glee with which she eviscerates humanity is explained, at least partially, in the introduction, titled “Indications,” where she suggests we “read aloud—a-LOUD!… Roll your eyes, indicate the exit lighting, pull your hair, force steam from your ears, run on air above a canyon, hunt wabbits,” after which she proclaims, “Now songbirds are circling your head.” The summoning of cartoon characters in place of the reader, even the oft-failing and mean-spirited Wile E Coyote and Yosemite Sam, are not meant seriously. The musicality, in other words, leads the poems to their own destructive elements on a scale that threatens to overwhelm the reader. The wordplay and fun in the poems can be insulting to the subject matter. Her attack on seemingly sacrosanct things may be fair game in a time of global terror, strife, and economic uncertainty, but the joy in the attack is a bit wolfish for my taste
The wordplay is more effective in balanced poems, however few of them there are in this collection. Poems like “Septina” and “A Peacock in Spring” offer an imagistic blend of the hopeful and the damned, although I suspect the latter is doing so only to make fun of pastoral poetry. And the final section, “Poems for the Catastrophe,” is a beautifully rendered four-poem series. Although these successes exhibit a depressive, dystopian bent, there is wiggle room left for innocence, wonder, even joy, and therefore the stylized randomness and underlying mischief are more justified. For most of the poems in this collection, the glee in McSweeney’s deconstruction is a turnoff, but it’s pervasive nonetheless. Here is the ghoulish Swiftean gnome of poetry, in the true spirit of the leprechaun, hurling sewage like snowballs without discrimination, covering (and uncovering, perhaps?) the nature of everything.
No subject is off limits for McSweeney, although the war imagery deserves special attention here. Among the post-apocalyptic imagery to which the poems nearly always return, I expected the battleground imagery to offend my tastes the most. I envisioned were the standard objections to witness poetry from non-witnesses, the co-opting of experience for the larger purpose of trashing the experience, and the previously stated objections to the glee used in the imagery at a time of war. But as the other poems slip into Radiohead-esque paranoia (the “King Prion” series starts with the lines “Lay in an array of pixels/ Fat, simulated proteins/ Looks just like nutrition!”) and near-cliché apocalyptic landscapes (however self-generated the cliché may be), the poems that focus on the battleground succeed to a greater degree than their counterparts. “KILLZONE2,” for example, is just as depressing and off-putting as the rest of the collection, but because the subject matter meets the expectations of the destructive language, it seems more appropriate and powerful. Consider the following passage:
The crowd, the crowd
Makes a spasmody
Scrums for candy
In a series of balletic gestures
Seized from the sixteenth c.
From the sixteenth arrondissement
Of my love for you from the sixteenth chamber
Of my heart
In that chamber
I take a bullet
For every member of my team
A learned violence from the game of the year.
McSweeney ends the poem displaying the “young body…/ On the Jumbotron…” melding the love and violence tied together in the heart/gun chamber in the previous passage with the propagandistic nature of mass media. Compare that passage to the more repetitive, less savvy third part of the title poem, “Percussion Grenade”:
OpeeOrkneyIslands! Bush Twins! OpeeeeeeeeCree!
How your guts spill out tells me how you die! How you died!
Although the subject matter is just as serious, the lack of nuance and sophistication flattens the impact. The result is preachy, indulgent, and unintelligent.
At her best, McSweeney amazes the reader with linguistic and imagistic agility, providing us with a rare inroad into an innovative field of connection between ideas, language, history and action, and the strongest passages provide glimmers of hope, rather than overrunning us with despair or directionless wordplay. Unfortunately, the latter wins out too often in this book, even though, if the world has indeed gone to shit, the latter just might be more true.
McSweeney’s exposition and near-celebration of violence in our lexicon indicts us all. It’s uncomfortable, off-putting, and accurate in its portrayal of the destructive power of words and deeds in the relativistic, postmodern, war-torn field of our experiences. But it’s an indictment much like a Hegelian tome, long-winded, grandiose, difficult and monotonous. Strictly itself and unwavering in its insistence. It’s not for the faint of heart, nor for the currently glad of heart nor for the sad of heart in need of good cheer, which is not to say it’s not worth reading. But reader beware: Percussion Grenade puts up walls around itself and then implodes, swallowing itself behind those walls. If you are in there with it, it will try to swallow you.
Matt Sadler is the author of The Much Love Sad Dawg Trio (March Street) and Tiny Tsunami (Flying Guillotine). He serves as Assistant Poetry Editor for Versal, and lives and teaches in the suburbs of Detroit.