Picture World by Niels Frank, trans. Roger Greenwald.
Reviewed by Nate Pritts
For me, the process of reading is highly reflective, is apperceptive, & in fact (I’m sorry) I don’t always remember WHAT I’m reading though I am deeply enmeshed in an experiential moment that matters to me more than anything & which could only be brought about by the particular words in front of me. Below, I’ve blended some of my own stanzas (from a poem called “Genesis Cascade”) with a review I’ve been working on. Neither are finished.
The internet helps me meditate
because it is a field
upon which nothing happens
“Everything behind you is memory loss/everything in front of you a brand new theory of the self” blurts out the impulsive speaker in “2,” one of the 24 numbered poems in Niels Frank’s recently translated sequence. Reading more like an extended and inspired monologue, the poems here are gripped by fits of zany attention in an overwhelming desire to make something permanent.
My head is emptied of intentionality
which is to say
I am happy
to forget it is trash night.
Outside it is so cold
I would gladly leave this body.
At issue is the delicate tension between subjective and objective space, as Frank explores early on: “[…] I’d very much like to show you a world/or at least my world./There is a lot to say about it but no way/to say it” (“1”). But to assume this is another poetry collection that deals with the subjective struggles of a speaker trapped in a plastic and unforgiving world would be wrong.
The air is purple & the motion sensor
above the garage recognizes
my human movement
& activates which means
The real strength here is the muscular and discursive syntax which allows the talky lines to chart an emotional range that veers from brash and self-assured to dejected and fragile, from bold and humorous to frenetic and unhinged. One poem begins with a litany of contemporary political subjects – “I’m forgetting Gaza/Chechnya/Guantánamo” – which could easily be dismissed as buzzword namedropping.
I have not been successful
at non-being. I drag one bulky can
to the curb. I kick the blue bin
that holds the recyclables
& it skids down the iced driveway.
I want to sit down
& watch the passing cars
for hours the whole rest of the night
But Frank’s project isn’t about social justice, though it tries hard to encompass it and everything else. “At least it seems to me that I’m not unhappy/and that I’m not unhappy fills me with joy” is the broadest statement the speaker leaves us with as we learn how to meet the Picture World, or our own head on (“1”).
every star blinking out on purpose
I grab two handfuls of snow
mash them together
my breath more alive
as I try to track the coming cars & aim
& I miss.
Niels Frank published his first book in 1985. He has published six books of poems, two of essays, two that mix genres, a collection of narratives about well-known artists (and one anonymous forger), and a volume of photos. He has also translated poetry into Danish (notably that of John Ashbery and Anne Carson).
Roger Greenwald has won the CBC Literary Award twice (for poetry and travel literature). His books include Connecting Flight(poems); Through Naked Branches: Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas; and North in the World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen, winner of the Lewis Galantière Award.
Nate Pritts is the author of six books of poems, most recently Right Now More Than Ever. He founded H_NGM_N, an online journal & small press, in 2001 & serves as Director & Prime Architect for its various endeavors
New Michigan Press, 2010 (61 pages)
Reviewed by Will Cordeiro
If feelings arise from our embodiment in time among the orbits of others, the body itself is nonetheless dislocated, liminal, less a fixed point than a moving target. Jerrybuilt and duct-taped, our corporeal identities are an assemblage held together by a glutinous paste of memories and the porous molding of myths. Emotions are most often a mixed media, resembling a comet tail’s vapor, ice chunks, and cosmic dust slime-trailing on some vast sidereal circuit, or perhaps, better yet, wave nodes and flashpoints of fuzzy probabilities. The body is a disparate machinery of chemicals, which runs on language and desperate longings, oiled by blood and tears, iron and salt. Collectively, we’re a horde of self-dismantling cyborgs, tottering wayward and sideways, who borrow each other’s spare parts, eyeballs or bonemeal, in order to keep our jumbled galumphing up, if not always upright. At least, such is the impression one garners reading Eric Weinstein’s Vivisection.
Emotional honesty, under these conditions, requires an acknowledgement of the artifice of emotions. Poems, of course, are broken into lines, fabricated by fragments, stitched from little shards into an organic whole that pulses with a vivifying beat: their breaks and lacunae are peepholes or critical grafts into which we might allow our own feelings to leak. Poetry is the blood-work and dialysis of our affections, despite the fact that most of it has been Frankensteined in a sausage-factory. The best poetry helps shock our meaty head-case of nubbins to twitch and twitterpate back into life. Weinstein’s first book, as underscored by his title, presents a surgical theatre wherein the reader volunteers to be an organ donor, opened up to have the living tissue excavated. But, since “vivisection” also means an incisive analysis, these poems likewise peel back the layers which compose our cultural reflex-pathways, to anatomize the assumptions that structure our affective responses. Hence, the two-fold work of this collection: the poems convey the qualitative experience of interiority even as they find a correlative for it in the uptakes and electrums running down our vertebrae; they represent how we feel now, but also interrogate those very feelings as symptomatic of the capitalist, scientific, and literary paradigms we labor under.
In the poem “Diagnosis,” the speaker admits, “I have an unhealthy attraction / to hospitals.” The speaker demands urgent care, but must wait around for hours in a sterile chamber, as blood samples and paperwork get shuffled in and out. At last, the nurse mentions some parts are missing, which have been “removed like batteries,” but not to worry. Days later, the speaker receives a phone call:
Good news. . . You can live without your heart
(We have machines for that.)
the speaker is informed by a bureaucratic automaton. The institution has reduced the speaker to a robot in its own image while the speaker’s experience of pain seems to have issued from phantom limbs. However, the poem implies that this is not the speaker’s first visit—the speaker keeps returning to have more organs extracted because their absence quickens a sense of loss. The fewer parts the speaker possesses, the more the speaker feels until the body dissipates to little more than a brain-in-a-vat. Perhaps the speaker craves the visceral intimacy one undergoes during an operation, even though such trauma represses the memories it produces. Given such circular logic, the hospital manufactures the needs the speaker has, as the speaker’s addictive desire is also the speaker’s most potent disease. Ironically, then, the heart one can live without may be the thumping circulatory system of the triage unit the speaker is trapped within.
“Golem” takes up a similar theme of displaced embodiment, employing the figure from Jewish folklore: a bumbling humanoid lumped together from clay and language. In Weinstein’s version, the speaker burns down bullet casings and a baby grand, rigs up fake teeth and taxidermic specimens—an accretion of detritus left over in an apartment from a recent break-up—to create his doppelgänger as if it were a Rauschenberg combine. He digs in his wounds until he reaches some prelapsarian residue, homeless in his own skin, attempting to amalgamate a new man from the cast-off junk of the old one. The speaker is an unreliable narrator, however, who takes back the claim that “I could have built /thirty birdhouses from the body.” Instead of such flights of fancy, the speaker confesses:
No, not really. The truth is,
I’d designed a device to recite
my vices. It needed a voice.
I gave it yours.
The golem ventriloquizes the missing lover, symbolizes the baby they never made with its patty-cake of mud, and stands-in for the speaker himself who feels too numb to articulate his grief. One imagines the golem animated by a feedback loop of voice messages, guilt and recrimination echoing down the faults within this half-baked creature while the speaker takes his lumps. The relationship wasn’t working, the poem suggests, because the speaker was working too much on fashioning his body double. He was busy making up a simulacrum he could bring to life rather than making up with his living loved one.
Through such vivid metaphors, Weinstein depicts the way society downgrades us to stats and crunches us to bits even as our condition remains critical. His frequently clinical diction serves quasi-surrealistic narratives, reminiscent of the late Czech poet Miroslav Holub. One of Weinstein’s most spectacular poems, for instance, observes, “I believe the green light inside / the photocopier & the escalator are the same,” as if a common bioluminescent aura emanates from inside these commonplace mechanisms. The poem somehow pulls off connecting this image to the myth of Noah’s ark: “how long before the green dawn broke?” Then, the poem swerves effortlessly to mention “the rain walking around upstairs like bombs,” alluding to Vonnegut’s depiction of the bombing of Dresden.
We hear the rumblings of an ominous godhead as if it were bickering neighbors in the apartment above us, a deity who is as sadistic as “the boy with his magnifying glass” burning up a hive of “paper-wasps.”
The ascending buzz of paper-wasps brings us back to carbon copies as well as the swarm of reproduction that takes place over the green earth after the flood. For all the abundant life-force glowing within things, the poem intimates the fiery destruction that such fractured light portends.
Most poems in the collection succeed in striking a precarious balance between being poignant while remaining playful. Weinstein can smuggle in a few outrageous puns—“ferrous wheel” or “mortal coal”—while constructing a system of associations that take off into lavish revelations and linguistic ravishment. Although line-by-line the sense of these poems is unusually taut and clear, the juxtaposition of references and images produce connections that require quantum or dendritic leaps of faith on the part of the reader, yet which feel poised with a balletic grace. It’s as if the meanings a reader reaches at a poem’s culmination have teleported across some chasm that could not have been spanned by a referential, earthbound lexicon alone. A technique Weinstein often uses to accomplish this feat is allowing his narratives to play off the latticework of myths, bending and bundling archetypal patterns to produce warped zones for his own twisted stories to effloresce. These moth-eaten, worm-holed shrouds of signification enrapture by their bodying forth a clairvoyant headspace out of the crude materials from which they’re composed. “The hallways bend like spoons,” Weinstein writes, and we levitate down the twitchy florescent aisle of an oncology ward with radiation pulsing through our bones.
That’s not to suggest that there aren’t occasional missteps in this first book by a poet who is, enviably, only in his mid-twenties and has already published work in many of the top journals. In one poem the shrimp, plankton, and “diatomaceous folk” in the ocean exclaim “Fuck, yes” and “awesome.” I suppose they’re meant to sound like swilling groupies at some intergalactic rock concert deep in the Mariana Trench. Bathos is, proverbially, the art of sinking, and so it’s appropriate that the speaker dives down in a bathysphere to greet them. Perhaps there’s humor in egregiously committing the pathetic fallacy only to put such flaky things into the mouths of these little buggers, but to me the tone seems jejune, trying a little too hard to be hip. Nonetheless, by the end of the poem, I felt moved by the speaker’s sense of momentary connection amid dark gulfs of isolation:
. . . is there anything I can trade for
your whale song before I have to return
to the overworld, before I run out of air,
before I go off the air, before I go home?
The speaker simultaneously represents the thorough-going mediation of public space, as a member of a film crew, and the private glimmers of inner space reachable only by the extreme pressures of lyric depth. The speaker recognizes each measured inhalation counts down to death, when everyone’s program goes “off the air.” On the other hand, the first poem in the collection, about narcissus riding a motorcycle straight into a flying wren, is quite good until its ending: “There is a heartbeat, / a heartbeat, he was saying. Listen.” This heavy-handed emphasis on “heartbeat” feels a bit mawkish, trite, and overly self-conscious; with repeated readings, the overuse of the word “heart” in the collection as a whole can come to feel affected. But these are merely quibbles—after all, “heart” is only one motif among many. Birds, trees, mirrors, stars, waves, bodies, and machines are other images that get mashed-up and remixed throughout the collection in a deft fugue state of theme-and-variation.
Ultimately, Weinstein’s work is metaphysical in the best sense. His poems trouble the captious distinctions programmed into our language when physical objects are merely used as vehicles to express the tenor of some mental state; his work professes no easy dualisms, whether of mind-and-body or of head-and-heart. Instead, reading Weinstein’s poems about organ transplant patients or tin men, I am reminded of Whitman’s invocation that “what I assume, you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Weinstein’s poems, like the narratives they present, create a new Adam who can assume into the empyrean, floating on wafts of inspiration, where overlooked particles are rendered into fecund sources of energy, redolent with sonic waves of pleasure.
He engenders a new mythology about the interchanges of body parts, telepathy, metamorphosis, and the cobbling together of feeling creatures from inorganic substances—parables which act as touchstones to convey the spiritual circulation of a material poetica, written as much in ink as it is in blood.
Weinstein’s poems portray the infinite that co-exists inside exiguous moments of mortality, when a pigeon dovetails into “a hole in the air” or a toy perpetuum mobile drinking bird “dips / & drinks from the glass, / dips: drinks: drips: repeats.” Catching the faint star-shot signals of moods both alien and intrinsic, Weinstein writes:
Sometimes I imagine my spine
is a tuning fork, bifurcating
beneath my shoulder blades,
broadcasting my thoughts at
the resonant frequencies of
water, my principle component.
Hopefully, we can be the recipients of repeated broadcasts channeled through this promising young poet; his poems, though they might seem written on water, are nevertheless grounded in the palpitations of the body, sharp as blades and shouldering an otherworldly gravitas. With this initial collection, his well-tuned tongue has already proven itself surprisingly sensitive and subtly forked.
Eric Weinstein earned his AB from Duke University and his MFA from New York University. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Best New Poets 2009 anthology, Crazyhorse, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, and others. He lives in New York City.
Will Cordeiro is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. His poems have appeared in Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Fourteen Hills, Harpur Palate, Memoir Journal, Verse online, and others. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
review by Rob Schlegel
Say the following words out loud:
Piano. Piano. Piano. Piano. Piano. Piano. Piano.
This is likely not the first time you have repeated a word with such frequency that the word sounds strange.
Box. Box. Box. Box. Box. Box.
The phenomenon is called semantic satiation, a term developed by Leon Jakobovits James to help describe the sensation one has when repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then processes the speech as meaningless repeated sounds. In this way the word grows so familiar it becomes uncanny, a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time.
The term “uncanny valley,” coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori, holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not exactly, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion in human observers. The “valley” refers to the dip in a graph of the comfort level of humans as a function of a robot’s human likeness. Almost more human than human, these robots behave not in accordance to their own unique biological desires, but rather by a series of predetermined algorithms.
When Jon Woodward writes in “Priscilla Lioness,” the stunning sequence concluding his latest collection, Uncanny Valley,
of one’s actions is monstrous. It
brings itself to construct a murderous woman
he seems to be commenting not only on the nature of robotics but our culture’s overwhelming proliferation of human narratives constantly reflected back to us through social media networks, television and advertisements until all possibility for inimitable experience is quashed. But instead of trying to escape these tensions, Woodward harnesses them for profound linguistic and semantic purposes. In “Killing Flies Skyscraper Figurine,” repetitions are implied through images or shadows of images “reflected”:
“In what blue are its mirrors, and what
Girders write in its shadow down, and
Reflected, whose mirror reflects them?
A tiny friend of me who looks like me…”
Noteworthy here is the pronoun “me” Woodward repeats in the same line, as if warning against the potential horrors of a culture populated by humans whose thoughts and actions become so imitated that relationships otherwise based on chance and variation entropy.
It is a gross understatement to say that repetition plays a key function in Uncanny Valley. “Huge Dragonflies,” the long opening poem, repeats variations of the phrase “Hope dwells eternally there,” no fewer than 134 times. The final version of the refrain “Hopes dwell eternally there.” repeats thirty five times. It is important to note that the concluding twenty-two repetitions contain no end stops, suggesting that after extreme saturation, the phrase has finally shed its one-to-one referential duties, and is no longer constrained by the punctuation that helps a reader learn how to read it. As a result, the phrase becomes so meaningless that its immediate connotation transforms into “hope is nowhere.”
In the book’s haunting title poem, a disjunctive narrative about a car crash caused by trees falling onto a road, the reader is instructed to
Push the remote button and
The mechanical brayer brays
Lines notated like the previous two
Are repeated (as a pair)
As many times as the reader desires,
From zero to 255, before continuing.
Because the quatrain tells us how to read the couplet (notated with a short vertical line on the left margin) the invitation for repetition functions like a Choose Your Own Adventure narrative. How far down the semantic satiation rabbit hole are you prepared to go? One wonders if the structure, sound, and syllables in the couplet help to determine how many times the lines will be repeated. Is a reader more likely to repeat lines with fewer syllables? Or perhaps the reader is game for more masochistic challenges, choosing instead to repeat, “These thoughts are best left/To Ouagadougou’s bougainvilleas,” the maximum 255 times.
Either way, in the throes of such repetition one begins to sound robotic, as Woodward does in this seemingly exhausting performance of the title poem at the University of Michigan in 2012.
All of the poems in Uncanny Valley are remarkable for their formal complexity. The longer poems are particularly successful as they employ extreme repetition (and subsequent variation) to collapse sign and signifier (and realism and fable) in ways that are disquietingly strange, and yet, strangely familiar.
Jon Woodward was born in Wichita, KS, and has lived in Denver and Fort Collins, CO, as well as Boston and Quincy, MA. His books are Uncanny Valley (Cleveland State University Poetry Center), Rain (Wave Books), and Mister Goodbye Easter Island (Alice James Books). Other recent projects include a 40-foot-long MÃ¶bius strip poem, called “Mockingbird,” which was typed on adding machine tape; a suite of time-dependent visual poems called “Poems to Stare At;” and an ongoing poem called “Copyleft,” to which quatrains are added at the rate of one per day. He lives in Quincy with his wife, poet and pianist Oni Buchanan, and he works at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he specializes in digital imaging and a variety of other curatorial activities.
Rob Schlegel is the author of The Lesser Fields, winner of the 2009 Colorado Prize for Poetry, and January Machine, forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2014. His poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Jacket2, New American Writing, VOLT, The Volta, and elsewhere. With the poet Daniel Poppick, he co-edits The Catenary Press, a micropress dedicated to publishing long poems.