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Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Travis Nichols reviews

The Red Bird by Joyelle McSweeney

Fence Books, $12.

This piece is 1,000 words or about three printed pages long.

The guiding aesthetic of Joyelle McSweeney’s The Red Bird follows in the tradition of movies like ‘The Blair Witch Project’ and ‘Alien’ in which the impetus for everything is made more terrifying by implication and innuendo rather than by forthright exposure. The Red Bird relies on a principle of perception rather than terror that leaves thought and its representations, instead of the monster and its markings, just around the corner, fragmented, lurking in the shadows, never seen but always there. ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ of course, would not have been nearly as scary if it had only been a static shot of the woods, just as The Red Bird is not nearly as satisfying as, say, Gillian Connolly’s Lovers in the Used World or anything in the Ashbery catalogue, because the fragmented perceptions don’t imply anything whole behind them, out of reach or otherwise. Floating lines like ‘What is this color vision for?’ seem more like stunted thoughts than full thoughts clipped for aesthetic purposes, and the moments of lyrical beauty stumble from what seem to be needlessly bound feet. The book has no monsters, not because McSweeney seems incapable of providing them, but because she seems to have followed all general workshop dictums, most notably ‘show don’t tell,’ to their logical conclusion, which is a book of showy poetry that doesn’t tell us anything.

This is not to say McSweeney’s poetry isn’t enjoyable to read. She has a wonderful ear for the rhythm of a line and is able to provide some startlingly precise imagery, such as at the end of ‘Interview with a Dog’:

the hymn-dog whispering
accounting for, abluting
this mark food left on my body
this mark a dark thought left around my eyes

and the loss of my white sheepbodies
and what was tied so tightly to my wrist

But for every moment of beauty there are at least two gratuitous variations on an imagistic theme (‘the black wool beret is sodden and itches / and pushes my wet bangs down into my eyes / in little points’) or a glib, self-conscious outburst (‘Space Ghost, recitative! / Now, Space Ghost, pas de deux!’), all of which adds to a sensibility that accrues as the book progresses and that, according to Allen Grossman’s introduction, is dedicated to recording contemporary reality as it appears. It follows then that the lapses into flat language and stylistic obfuscation merely reflect our often flat and alienating world. Somehow, this defense never makes up for a book’s lack of lyricism or personality, but it is a noble effort. And because we live in a world of undercutting and contradictory presentation where bright surfaces butt each other over decayed substance, the mayor of New York says he wants Sharon Stone to sit on his face, and Bono dictates foreign policy, the type of high/low culture oscillation thrust forth in ‘Revelations/Celebrity Cribs’ midway through The Red Bird would seem an appropriate engagement with our fucked phenomenal world. And yes, ‘Cribs’ is in the context and tradition of engaged ‘realist’ poetry such as Lisa Jarnot’s Some Other Kind of Mission or even Ashbery’s ‘Europe,’ but McSweeney’s blending of the good book and MTV’s tour of pop music star houses seems weirdly joyless in comparison. It’s unfortunate then that The Red Bird relies so much on the supposed fertility of such turns of voice, because even when they do what they can — as in ‘Roman’ when the speaker says, ‘on the prayers of the commerce secretary, / on the freight train hit the freight train / que feraie-je sans Eurydice no idea’ — they’re not quite sturdy enough to prop up a poetic voice.

‘Cribs’ and such aside, The Red Bird offers a host of political issues and lyrical ideas in gesture, but most of them get cut off before anything like depth and all its baggy boredom could emerge. The book begins with four poems with a wavering if occasionally beautiful voice, clipped by the above-mentioned faith in elision. This is too bad, because when she asks, ‘can you / see those mudcaked hooves’ at the end of ‘Toy House,’ I can. Vividly. And I want to see more of them, but instead I’m given stanzas like this from the following poem, ‘Developed Nation’: ‘This is America. The boy soprano / into the doughnut-world. / Fresh from the fish-mold. / Clattering out across the snow / to buy a paperknife, / clutching a flier. . .’ The ellipses are, of course, the poet’s. The frustration of such poems where genuine lyricism seems ready to burst forth from the fun if rather empty sonic play could be relieved in the serial poems which make up nearly half the book. These serial poems, most notably ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ and the ‘Toy’ series, don’t live together or converse as per the Spicerian ideal. Instead, they present a series of semi-related monologues earnestly held together by nothing more than the hope in the interconnectedness of any group of things placed side by side.

Occasionally, the poet’s perceptions and the world they record collapse in a few lines — ‘A pattern in language, a grammar of ornament, decoration / expressing concealment, response to facts’ — and here something human and thoughtful does seem to lurk, which is either heartening or very sad. In the collapse, the poet seems to question whether or not the frustration she herself feels with her poetry is impossible to surmount in such a frustrating world. She asks what anyone earnestly attempting to express sooner or later must ask herself: ‘who am / I if I mean what I sometimes mean.’ It is disappointing the book doesn’t spend more energy trying to find an answer.

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