Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Epistolary Review (Part II): Antigonick continued; Leigh Stein's Dispatch from the Future (Melville House, 2012) & Ben Kopel's Victory (H_NGM_N BKS, 2012)

Dear (r),

I am thinking, as you suggest, of Antigone & knick-knacks.  Thank you for the preview of Carson’s Antigone-translation, which I am saving for an upcoming voyage.  (It’s already packed!)  Of course I don’t want you to give too much away (a little Greek Tragedy humor for you there) but I do have some questions I want to ask you.

Namely, why Antigone?

I ask because I just read Leigh Stein’s Dispatch from the Future (Melville House, 2012), a classical trope- & pop culture-infused collection of poems that sometimes reads as a choose-your-own-adventure story.  The book’s loose assortment of modern myths culminates in a series of “dispatches from the future” completely keyed in to the current trend towards the normal paranormal: “In the future, I’m your mother./My name is Carol” (99).  Also sometimes in these poems people get eaten by dingoes.

I guess in some sense I have the same kind of affinity for Leigh Stein that she describes in “A Brief History Of My Life Part VII”: “Truly the only things Lindsay Lohan and I/have in common are our preoccupations//with fame and weight loss, and yet I recognize/a kinship there, as if those two things mattered//more than anything” (73).  For weight loss, substitute invented traditions; for fame, the literary figure with which you most identify.  Stein’s poems are riddled with the young female protagonists of the literary canon, so that her allusive opus reads like a chick-lit rewrite of an Intro to World Literature syllabus.  I mean that in a good way:

“[...] he does get to go to the underworld, and the rest
of the movie is all about her life as a priestess

because when she asked if she could go with
him he said no, but I know that if I put you

back together I would follow you
to the underworld even if you said

you didn’t want me to, even if you said
there were not enough seats in your chariot

or riverboat or rickshaw because when two
people spend as much time together in a small,

enclosed space such as we have in this one,
they will follow each other to future small,

enclosed spaces.  This is a pretty long book
inscription, but when you leave I want you

to keep this with you at all times, in case
you need a curse, a lament, a mirage

or incantation.  To speak the name of the dead
is to make them live again.  I will never forget

when I was just your sister in the acacia
tree of our childhood and at night the chariots

and thrones and arrows and birds and twins
in the stars foretold our future ruin.  I’ve heard

it said that he who loves you swallows stones
for you while your enemy waits for you

to birth a son to avenge his father’s death
by causing a tempest to flood the earth.
-from “How to Read the Secret Language of the Pharaohs,” 54-56


“[...] Sometimes we put ourselves
in danger just to live and tell about it.

And sometimes we put ourselves in danger
because our fathers betroth us to murderers.”
-from “Epistolaphobia,” 49


“[...] you’re alone and
they’ve already cut out your tongue
and in the morning they’ll take you
to the top of a high hill, so what can you
do [...]”

                                    -from “Choose Your Own Canadian Wilderness,” 45

& finally

“I used to think I was waiting for a steady shoulder,

for someone to come along and appreciate my
somnambulism, my prophetic knowledge

of the ultimate destiny of mankind, someone
to be with when all the lights in the world go out,

but look what happened to them.  Theseus killed
the beast, and they got married and then sailed

to an island, where he abandoned Ariadne in her sleep.
And when she woke she hanged herself.  Why

did she hang herself?  And if I find the reason am I
less susceptible?  Both unanswerable questions, and

yet I still go home with him, submit to a strange
bed in which I lay awake all night, without him,

listening to the restless pacing of something familiar
in the room beneath us, the haunt I cannot kill.”

                                    -from “Keeping the Minotaur at Bay,” 26

Of course, dear (r), I selected that last passage in part for its deployment of “somnambulism,” because I want to think again about the current categories and concepts at play in experimental poetry.  (I’m using the e-word, I know; accept it here & I promise I’ll address it later.)   We’ve talked at length about sleep/somnambulism/somniloquy, & we’ve begun to think through domestic science fiction & the normal paranormal.  But I think in Antigonick & in Dispatch from the Future we glimpse a trend in contemporary poetry at once more subtle & more old-school.  Let’s call it the new ancient.

The new ancient underscores another new book, Ben Kopel’s striking collection, Victory (H_NGM_N BKS, 2012).  It’s a sparse and compelling account of the mythic everyday:

Like A Song Unsung

without a sound I was born to make air bags bloom.
when I asked why
my mother told me I’ll tell you when you’re younger.
When I was younger
I found myself the only werewolf in a city made of
silver, spending Friday

afternoons keying my favorite name into car doors.
Do you have a name?
Do you have a head?  My head is full of plastic fangs
and sheet music and
squirrel skulls.  I hid the rest of their bones behind the
school because

I didn’t want you to see me for what I was because I want
a clawfoot bathtub
full of what I want.  You want to be incredible.  If we are
to ever be together
you must walk out of this matinee with my head held
high above you while

there’s still some daylight left outside of you.


My (r), I’m not looking for resonances with the Antigone story.  (“What I bury/stays buried.//What I see/I’ve seen” (73).)  I’m not even really trying to suss out the allusions—they might be there, but they’re nowhere near as explicit as Stein’s.  All I mean to say is this: I suspect that part of what makes these poems so good is their manipulation of those effects that make a story mythic—fate, burial, monsters.  Kopel addresses this aesthetic directly in the poem “A Map Is A Place Is A Thing,” which I quote here in its entirety:

We all recognize the need
to alter the ending.

We can and we will
even when we won’t

let it become.  We have no name.
Naming alone is understanding.

We have no idea.  No book of legends.
No land.  No map.  We bracket sections,

combining longer and shorter lines.
We are left with what accounts for leaving.

We live the way we live.
The world changes us.


Of course, we see Adrienne Rich here.  And this is where I want to come back to the word “experimental.”  Stein borrows a neologism from Edna St. Vincent Millay; Kopel includes a handful of poems with titles like “Do You Want New Sincerity Or Do You Want The Truth?”  But Stein & Kopel are sincere or sentimental or post-confessional or counter-experimental in an extremely experimental way, in a way that’s self-aware, that resists and manipulates and critiques the sins and expectations and guilty pleasures incumbent upon the poet:

“In the attic of everything
there is a bird
with one wing
& his heart is true
& nothing like mine.”

--Kopel, from “There Is A Question I Am Forever Waiting To Be Asked,” 69


“[...] Once I’d been unleashed

from thoughts of my own death I was free
to be loved in the way I always knew I’d deserved:

reciprocally, in Fiji, our bodies lithe and bronzed
like gods, but at the same time I felt like a vampire,

and none of my friends could relate.  They were jealous
of my book deal, my time spent at the ashram

while they were here, suffering another winter,
their unsexiness a fluorescent sign that blinks all night.”

                                    --Stein, from “Immortality,” 85

Beyond a reliance on the allusive & the literary, Dispatch from the Future & Victory offer a poetics in which everything & nothing is mythic, in which it’s okay to write about Facebook & Philomena with equal reverence.  It’s a sentimentality that collapses boundaries and divisions in much the same way prior rejections of sentimentality claimed to, and sometimes did.  I’m calling it the new ancient, because I have to call it something, even though to do so isn’t really in keeping with the projects these volumes activate.  (Do You Want The New Ancient Or Do You Want The Whole Story?)  Leave it to Anne Carson to translate Antigone while somehow remaining one step ahead of the contemporary poetic curve.

But really, (r), why Antigone?