Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Across the Oonaverse: Vancouver

Dear (r),

The Brownings are alive & well & living in British Columbia!

(Or, rather: a few weeks ago I traveled to Vancouver & came across the most exciting dramatic monologues I've read in at least 100 years.)

The trip was otherwise uneventful.  I gave a talk about Lyrical Ballads & object-oriented ontology that was really about neither of these things, and wandered around Granville Island in the rain pretending to be an art student, and ate too much maakroun.  I bought the first of what I’m sure will be many of these journals, and saw a friend’s new Elizabeth Bishop tattoo, and competed in a game of Regency-style charades.

I also enjoyed learning about two exciting Canadian presses, Coach House Books and Anvil Press.  I found their catalogues irresistible, and basically left Vancouver looking like I had robbed a very hip bookshop.  Stephen Collis & Jordan Scott’s decomp, a materialist, ecopoetic experiment in which Darwin’s texts are, quite literally, decomposed, is my new coffee table book (note to self: buy coffee table), and I can’t wait to assign AndrĂ© Alexis’s Pastoral (which eighteenth-century novel should I pair it with?).  But my most exciting find—and the one I can’t wait to share with you—was a trio of poetry collections that forge experiments in response to that quintessentially neo-Victorian creature commonly called the “persona poem”—monologia dramaticus.

Now (r), you know I see the neo-Victorian everywhere.  (After all, what are serialized television shows focused on issues of class, wealth, justice, and social order—The Wire, Downton Abbey—if not the second coming of the Victorian novel?)  So you can imagine how pleased I was to curl up with some bright new titles that engage Victorian poetic innovation with such wit and vim.

Marita Dachsel’s Glossolalia (Anvil Press, 2013) takes as its speakers the thirty-four wives of Joseph Smith.  In so doing, Dachsel cuts a multifaceted crystal through which the question of how to be a woman (in relation to a man and, perhaps more profoundly, among other women) shines through.  The answers that reflect and refract—“I regret nothing” (13); “Don’t look at me that way./I am proud of what I did,/a woman of my age, my status” (16); “I wish I hadn’t agreed” (17); “repulsion swelled/to salty gratitude” (37); “Pretend I don’t hear” (49)—ring like something released from a lamp, from the soil, from stone.  As its multiple voices rise and converge, Glossolalia also echoes H.D.’s Trilogy:

I became a Mother in Israel,
coaxing young women
into the new covenant.

We were Sarah & Hagar.  Rachel & Leah.



I am a practical woman:
I can heal with herbs & my hands,
I brew my own beer, sew, knit,
& speak in tongues.

After birth, I would show
the mother the slick placenta,
raised up, a stretched orb.
An offering.

It carries the tree of life.
Rough, ropey.  Red,
the colour of strawberry jam
boiling low on the stove.



I sleep with strangers
four Egyptians

mummies: a patriarch
& his wives

stashed beneath
the belly of my bed


The engagement with literary history is delicate, and achy, and gorgeous.  Somehow, as the dramatic monologues merge and mingle, Joseph Smith practically disappears altogether.

Sina Queyras’s striking meditation on the elegiac, MxT (Coach House Books, 2014), engages its theoretical apparatus more directly; the book is structured via mathematical formulas for grief, and intellectual history and allusion people its pages.  Julie Enszer has written a beautiful and comprehensive review, noting that "one of the most exciting aspects of encountering Queyras's work is her wide-ranging allusions and homages to other poets."  But within the web of intertext, a resistance to textual exchange emerges, as well—“I go to theory when I want to sit with someone else's thinking, I go to myself when I want to see you” (11); “How good we have become at hashtags, and how distanced from our bodies” (27).  Queyras invokes the dramatic monologue toward the very end of the volume (cf. “Sylvia Plath's Elegy for Sylvia Plath,” “Two Elegies for Grief as Jackson Pollock”).  Today, (r), I'd like to share the following poem with you:

He Was and Is Not,
An Elegy after Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Gone, gone, and in his place
Death’s knotted trunk
To measure every tick
And ring upon the earth.

He is not, and you are:
The steps you take, the
Words you speak, all
Stolen, stolen land.


Echoes, here, of E.B.B.’s “hopeless grief is passionless,” of elegy as artless, meaning incapable.  “I am not interested in other words for honey.  I am interested in honey” (11).

If Sina Queyras pens a poem after Elizabeth Barrett Browning (and, perhaps, a book-length elegy after Tennyson), then Jennica Harper inverts and reverts and supercharges the dramatic monologue in Wood.  Poems written from Pinocchio (“Father hopes I will become a realboy because/realboys become men” (11)), from Sally Draper (“I got distracted by the TV” (83); “You may start pretty, but you get old fast” (86)), and from Houdini’s wife dig in to the question of what is real, what illusion, what allusion.  So the neo-Victorian genre emerges in and as artifice, and artifice performs the work of art, which is, at least sometimes, to try and find the real.  A series of alternate descriptions of a father figure (“My Father, As Jack Nicholson”; “As Roman Polanski”; “As Steve McQueen”) invokes another Victorian genre, the picture poem, to similar effect—an artificial orbiting that nonetheless locates a center of gravity.  A bit like a letter, a postcard home.

Happy reading, dear (r), & happy speaking,