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Book Review: As We Are Sung

By (May 1, 2011) No Comment

As We Are Sung
Christina Mengert
Burning Deck, 2011


As We Are Sung, the title of Christina Mengert’s astonishing first full-length book of poetry implies that we as a collective body composed of multiple single bodies are sung into form. The form of song is a verb, but song is a verbal movement that is neither active nor passive. Rather, song’s verbal form is between reception and projection. A trained vocalist, Christina Mengert understands that the singer in the midst of song is both the experience and expression of sound. To be sung as a body is to hear the singular voice articulate sounds distinctly, differently and yet articulate this difference through words that are sung by every body.

The lack of division between experience and expression in singing is similar to J.L. Austin’s notion of performative utterances in that the expression of a thing enacts the experience of the thing. Mengert opens her poem “Performative” with an epigraph from J.L. Austin: “There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, the procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances.” In other words, in order for a performative act to enact what it states, its context or circumstance must be fixed into place. Mengert retorts: “I sing. No. I sing. / Le mot just or the just note.” The italicization of the repeated “I sing” in tandem with the “just note” implies that the speaker, “I” can sing regardless of circumstance if the note is just. A just note is a note that is only/merely (just) a note and a note that is just—in accordance with a presence that is not tangible, or visible, but nonetheless felt. There is a penchant to think of written words as purely visible things caught by the ink of script, but Mengert reminds us that things are kinetic bundles of vibratory potential. She ends “Performative”:

It is operatic because it is baffling. Anything can wear a hat.

Like a bell—the book is vibrational; it learns the air.

How agreeable the invisible.

In these lines “It” is a thing and here any thing is operatic. Any thing is “baffling” or perplexing in that the more we try to ascertain its embodiment as fixed the more it deflects our ability to do so, yet “Anything can wear a hat.” And so anything, despite our difficulty in ascertaining it, exists. There are things within things that we can never grasp onto—such as the sound within a bell. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience a thing or a bell’s sound or that things/sounds do not exist. Although the word in a book is printed and seemingly static, words are never absent of their resonance or vibrations because “the book is vibrational” Opera undoes our understanding of words in that we hear them embodied with different lengths and pitches of sound. Opera enables us to feel and be baffled by words again because it is impossible to take the words for granted as we might normally do in overheard conversation. In opera we feel and hear the body behind the word’s resonance. It is impossible to sever the words of an opera from the singer who sings them—a singer who is in between active and passive states. When we read the words of a book we are singers, and Mengert asks us to linger in the in between of reception and projection along with her and notice “How agreeable the invisible.”

A gorgeously crafted and rendered book, As We Are Sung invites one to read and reread its leaves of printed words that although concretized as things in ink still invite our awareness of invisible realms that can be vibratory and kinetically felt. A song is never sung the same way twice, and although these poems are written they invite the singular voice to sing them with a difference because as Mengert writes in “Echo” there is, “a speaking answer time’s unspoken architecture / / unrepeatable, unrepeatable” No thing can be repeated exactly the same way twice, even if we think that the hiss of a clock’s second hand is the same hiss as the previous. Rather, the second’s hiss is an echo of a voice, an echo that is always slightly altered by the distance and deflection of its initial unrepeatable continuous movement.