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Patrick Pritchett reviews

The Monster Lives of Boys and Girls, by Eleni Sikelianos

Green Integer 88, Copenhagen & Los Angeles, 2003
130 pages, $10.95, ISBN 1-931243-67-0
www.greeninteger.com/

This piece is 3,200 words or about seven printed pages long.

‘If there is to be art,’ remarks Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols, ‘one physiological  pre-condition is indispensable: rapture.’ But rapture should be understood as something more than a heightened state of bliss. Cognate with the root for rape, raptus is a violent carrying out of oneself, an acute spiritual distension. As she demonstrated with such elan in 2001’s Earliest Worlds, Eleni Sikelianos is one of our foremost exponents of poetic rapture. She has always understood how states of ecstasy are deeply imbricated by perturbing spiritual and erotic forces; and that poetry’s desire for transparency is best served by the resistance of language to that goal, by its myriad evasions and fissures. The poems of The Monster Lives of Boys and Girls (National Poetry Series 2002) display an magnanimous range of language, running by turns from slyly playful to disjunctively foreboding to richly lyrical. More than that, though, they succeed in enmeshing us in their own coolly concatenating streams of oneiric music. Sikelianos wants to plunge both herself and the reader into the ex-static, a condition which she locates everywhere: in her own body and in the greater body of the city she moves in.
      The trope of the city looms large in this book, as both the whirling cynosure of human activity and the site where shelter and catastrophe collude and collide. Indeed the shadow of 9/ 11’s trauma seems to stretch over many of these poems, either prophetically or in haunting recollection, exposing the breakability of the human from odd, harrowing angles. The ‘monster lives of boys and girls’ refers not only to these poem’s Whitmanic sense of expansiveness and intimacy that reaches out to a ‘you’ who may or may not be the reader, or even a hybrid of reader and author. Nor does it point exclusively to the incredible pressure commodity culture places on each of us, daily warping us through the endless spectacle of consumerism. Rather, it signifies how our lives are lived out under the uncanny spell of an apocalypse that is dreaming us. The rhapsodic pleasures of her earlier work are alloyed here by a distinctive moral register, a pang of loss and imminent threat. As she adumbrates in the opening poem, ‘Captions for my Instruction Booklet on Naturally Historical Things:’

I suspect our city
will soon be laid to ashes
Our island city
Rowing out over the river in the dark

*

                  When you are thinking
in the dark, think
of our city

This darkening, however, merely deepens the impossible project of all her work, which wants to gather everything into some grand coincidentia oppositorium, only to stop short of complete unification so that the play of conflicting and confluent elements may continue unabated.

Take Paris by river
Anaxagoras by thought
Take Zoraster by fire, Jesus
and the mutts by love,
Take fire by flashlight, take flight, between the allegory
       of each
is a narrow equatorial belt where everything is
       angular and real

Such a dialectical movement — the sinuous interweaving of urban culture, spiritual masters, and the humble, the marginalized, the poor ‘mutts by love’  — marks the arc of her song as a fructifying ontology of liminal states, each one lapping over into the other, and all of them running pell-mell to paradise or dystopia.
      In a Sikelianos poem, what happens happens as a deeply embodied experience. The wavering line we arbitrarily draw between somatic and psychic experience is all but blotted out, as in these lines from ‘Joy’s the Aim:’

                                          Let me
hold you You universe world you, all our possible
irresponsible histories hovering
together like lovers in super-pretzel-positions
of elbows, limbs, particles that penetrate all my stuff

The obsessive intensity in these poems, their compulsive desire to experience and articulate the brightness and oddness of things, brings to mind ‘the electric life’ Shelley spoke of, that burning inside the word that illuminates the world.

                        Words
were the brightest world, I wanted
to say, but perhaps the world
is brighter still

Even the appalling grows wreathed in a kind of trans-corporeal nimbus, as she writes in ‘What I know about the world that is evil:’

and ‘the tiny bottle of Mars Black that you hold in your
          hand’ begins to write
our history now, all the high
velocity, / low velocity movements
with a light touch upon dark things

*

Break the lake
where the unborn lights of many kinds begin to be
your tiny birds your tiny kind

This is a poetry that sanctifies not merely through its music — though that might be enough — but by its insistence on re-grounding trauma, refolding it into the immanent as the mode of redemption most likely to perform a genuine healing.
      Sikelianos knows how to pack the energy inside her lines and irregular stanzas with startling celerity and agility. She is a master of shifting register and tone inside a poem — sometimes inside a single line — so that the reader swerves from formal diction to  colloquial speech to the discourse of science in one parabolic, lightning-strike curve. This strategy supports her larger aim of mapping the spiritual topography of the urban. At the same time, her longing for the visionary is tempered by, even constitutive of, a recognition of the follies of ‘the dream world of mass culture,’ as Susan Buck-Morss, writing on Walter Benjamin, calls it.
      The distinctly urban flavor of many of her poems conjures up an image of the single, vast meta-city that is modernity itself, a place where a child can cry out, ‘Daddy, look, it’s a Spiderman butt, please please/ I want!’ so that the infantile pathos and absurdity of desire acts as a funhouse mirror, reflecting back on us the rampant logic of commodity fetishism in all its beguiling hues and distorted proportions. Like Benjamin — and the Surrealists who were his guides — Sikelianos sees the city as the place where a mythic sense of life has been reinvented amid the still glowing aura of its own ruins. It is also the site where the boundary between I and not-I is continually challenged.

    My voice is coming back to me, it’s
cities laid over
   the catalog of vanishing systems

The spectacle of the dreamworld of the modern inaugurates a posthuman moment, one in which the experience of the marvelous unfolds as both a utopian gesture and a catastrophe.
      The struggle to locate the utopian moment, or some lesser form of liberation, within the manifold pressures of history produces an urgency in these poems, a sense of motion barely held in check. One way to contest the ideological constraints that oppose such liberation is through an inquisition of wonder.  Like Cole Swensen, another poet whose singular lyrical gifts have gravitated toward an exploration of  the odd, often happenstance, ways by which we produce our various discourses of knowledge,  Sikelianos recognizes that one of the lures of the encyclopedic impulse is how it acts at once as a catalogue of reification and a map of excessiveness.

On the beach—Little wet figures shimmying in sunlight—They
            call these humans.
Hauling the body up
out of sleep, limbs resist air, an indefinite weight — Drag this
stuff up from water, we think

  of a small imaginary town somewhere along
the Hudson — & what
does all this thinking & doing do or open? A knowledge
            of streets,
a collection of rocks, ghost currents.

It’s in the ghostliness of these imagined currents, like Benjamin’s storm wind blowing through history, that the poems in Monster Lives engender a utopian surplus that is radical simply for the faith it places in the power of lyric to extend the psyche. However much this lyrical surge may be tempered or undercut by a melancholy foreboding about the frangibility of the world, those ‘ghost currents’ that comprise the true corpus of our knowledge about the world, the feeling one takes from her work is finally one of affirmation, as in these lines from ‘A Carnet for The Loved Love:’

All the

beauty of all the
light
blue finds itself in
Eu-

clid. Is it my love or light that gives
from black to white? The dark is rough, the light
is smooth, but the weight of light is like

with ants.

After reading this, I’m tempted to say that the portions of her work that most reflect the influence of the New York School appear increasingly pallid when placed alongside such gorgeous music. The vagueness of her use of ‘stuff,’ as in the example quoted above, for instance, strikes me as an over-reliance on the colloquial. Likewise, the easy conversational tone of lines like ‘our hair tied back into rubber bands, & helping us reach/ the Bronx, if that’s/ where you want to go’ carry a somewhat lazy sense of what’s become by now second-hand rhetoric —  a wistful feeling accompanied by some place name in the five boroughs.
      I’m further tempted to add that, after H.D., the modernist with whom Sikelianos most invites comparison is not Gertrude Stein, but Wallace Stevens. Stevens pounds much the same beat as Monster Lives does when he writes in ‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven’ that ‘in the metaphysical streets, the profoundest forms/ Go with the walker subtly walking there.’  J. Hillis Miller’s observation about Stevens could just as easily be applied to Sikelianos: ‘Imagination is driven to its extravagant peregrinations not by desire for novelty but by the fact that none of its strategies attain that fusion with life it wants.’ My sense here is that Sikelianos is still a little too enamored of novelty as a rhetorical device, that it represents not so much a contrapuntal strategy as a vestige of an earlier mode of writing that’s at odds with her more compelling lyrical concerns.
      Throughout Monster Lives, interiority is continually posited as discontinuous — a constant daedal weaving back and forth (Shelley, again, but in A-minor rather than C-major) between a unified representation of self and a scattered and scattering reticulation of identity, a set of multiple nodes all staking a claim to be ‘I.’  Consumer ideology, ocean sunsets, the carnival of the street, the onus of social expectations, and the small still voice in the middle uncertainly proffering the word ‘I’ — all these come sharply into focus for a moment, then remerge with the Protean swarm.  For it’s this swarm that predicates true awareness: multi-focal, shifting, above all, musical.

Now I see
flesh was supposed to be air
            or at most smoke
            If smoke, let it
light & move over a city turning on & off at dusk

*

            Tell them
there is only
a fever that dresses me
in each pure animal

            Tell them
my parents were the math of the
world in a dream taking place autochthonically

In lines like these, the impeccable logic of her shifts carries the M.O. of  the ‘I do this, I do that’ style of the New York School into something more than a run of signifiers in search of a phenomenological excursus. The do becomes an is, a form of being in the world, the subject in search of, not itself, but the endless play of dialectical becoming. Not something given as stable, unswerving, but an always emergent form of identity that articulates itself as it goes. In a word, Sikelianos is a Hegelian. Or maybe post-Hegelian is more apt. As Jean-Luc Nancy explains in The Restlessness of the Negative:

The Hegelian subject is not to be confused with subjectivity as a separate and one-sided agency for synthesizing representations, nor with subjectivity as the exclusive interiority of a personality. Each of these can be moments among others of the subject, but the subject itself is nothing of the sort ... the Hegelian subject is in no way the self all to itself. It is, on the contrary, and it is essentially, what (or the one who) dissolves all substance ... the subject is what it does... it is in this way, in the restlessness of immanence, that the spirit of the world becomes.

Looked at this way, her poems act to produce both meaning and its double, the endlessly modulating suasions of melos. If the poem acts as the cognitive interface par excellence for mediating the external noise of the world with and the body’s internal noise, then the tropes we have developed for distinguishing signal from noise, all organized around and rooted in the human sensorium, are prostheses for extending the limits of awareness.
      This articulation of a posthuman hybridity occurs throughout Monster Lives. As the title suggests, this ‘monstrosity,’ far from being the manifestation of some psychic aberration, is instead the normative state of affairs, the triumph of reification, business as usual for capitalist ideology.

Boy: born half lion half dirt
Girl: born half glittering steel half hayseed
Both: Nantucket Nectar half shit
            half genial dumb-wit

*
female/ male will melt away or be made
more ornery as concerns grow about
how my mind grows out
of the side of the City      how
my self takes the shape
of the Chrysler      and I am thus pointed &
gleaming in afternoon heat, spliced
with the sound of the crosstown bus (M15), the

wild dog variety of
people around.

Scorn in this passage from the title poem gives way to wonder and wonder to an amplified sense of what it might mean to be human in the 21stCentury.  Wonder should not be confused with a trip to the museum. Wonder is what threatens to invade and shatter the self, dissolving its boundaries so that the hitherto shapeless figure of the Other may pour in, molding some new and monstrous hybrid. Abjection, evacuation and ecstasy all commingle in this terrified exaltation. In his discussion of Columbus’ seizure of the New World in Marvelous Possessions, Stephen Greenblatt writes that ‘wonder ... is an unsteady, inherently unstable state.’  He aptly quotes Albertus Magnus on the subject:

Wonder is defined as a constriction and suspension of the heart caused by amazement at the sensible appearance of something so portentous, great, and unusual, that the heart suffers a systole. Hence wonder is something like fear in its effect on the heart.

To Sikelianos, New York and St.-Nazaire (the setting for the book’s third section) are often evoked in terms of a New World, populated by foreign flora and fauna, but above all, by strangeness itself. This process of defamiliarizing is a strategy for producing wonder: the sense of unbridled newness one feels before one can organize her perceptions.
      Wonder as poesis is nothing other than the condition of longing prompted by an illimitable gaze which, to its own terror, registers everything, desires to name it, and will never succeed completely in doing so. Wonder drives the Orphic poet to run continually to the farthest reaches of her always incipient genesis script. Is it possible, these poems suggest, that what most alarms us about our current condition, what we perceive as decay and dissolution, the figure of the human made daily more abject by the pressures of ideology, in some way contains the enantiodromial motion toward a vision of the human not as a unified stable subject, but rather as ambient? (I borrow this term for turning — literally, running — into one’s own opposite from Jung, who originally had it from Heraclitus). That is to say, can a breakdown of the rigid binaristic distinctions we have for so long relied on to shore up our concept of identity actually be a good thing? (For a discussion of the concept of ambient poetics, see Timothy Morton’s ‘Why Ambient Poetics?’ in The Wordsworth Circle 33.1, Winter 2002).
      The final section of the book, ‘The Bright, The Heavy,’ contains the most arresting poems in the collection. Taking their cue from the section’s title, they display a gravity and a grace, an acuteness and power, that seem to signal a new direction in her work. Remarkably compacted, as if produced under terrific constraints, the language in these poems, their broken rhythms and altogether more fragmentary character, emblemize the ruination of the city, i.e. the trauma of modernity, with a fervent explicitness carved right into the bodies of the poems themselves.

THE PANIC ALPHABET — in water-voice packets — a
longitudinal breaking—the provision of sang-froid that
I collect—half of ordinary breathing—I apostrophe the
hot place—feverish whistle—annihilate the laws of
physical—when my feet fool the sidewalk rock—into
nocturnal happiness why

do you shine so?

Catastrophe here is a force that makes the poem; it is linked directly to poesis. And ruin becomes not simply an inscription of loss, but the first halting steps on the way to tikkun or restoration.
      This destructive poetics, whereby the devastation of the old is necessary for the production of the new, places Sikelianos in a tradition of modernist poets — Pound, Williams, Olson, but most especially the H.D. of Trilogy and Robert Duncan’s entire output — all of whose deeply idealistic and equally problematic projects sought to build a new radiance of res publica out of the shattered bones of the century. The postmodern complacency that leads many contemporary poets merely to massage the ruins, pasting them into various hybrids as if that alone were project enough, might at first glance seem to be Sikelianos’s method as well. I would argue that there’s more going on in her work than that. To associate the bright with the heavy is to make a kind of dystopic hymn to matter, the weight of it, which itself acts as an engine of history every bit as much as ideology. Matter gives off its own refractory light and dissonance. The key to the so-called redemption of matter has not to do with the transcendent, but the earthly. It’s matter’s intransigence, its unyielding aspect, that which always exceeds us, that spells out both the defeat of utopia and its ultimate emergence and residence.
      At the risk of overstating the case, I see a more daring and more truly radically impulse at work in her poems — namely, the taking up of the metaphysical gauntlet in an avowedly anti-metaphysical environment — a case of ‘primary trouble,’ as Duncan puts it, if ever there was one. What’s often perplexing in her work is the clash of dictions, the sometimes uneven way she manages the disjunctive syntactical measures of a Stein with the metaphysical lyricism of a Stevens. This calculated disparity is often amazingly productive. But just as often it seems to reveal a confusion of means. It’s difficult to discern whether this indicates a less than fully successful strategy for balancing — and oscillating between — opposing poetic modes, or if it marks instead the scope of a very large ambition that is still in the process of articulating its vision. At any rate, this is incredibly exciting work. Few poets today seem willing to take on the task of negotiating the emerging chaos of the posthuman with the unquiet ghost of metaphysics.
      Put another way, her poems gain their galvanizing vitality from their complex, if at times rather awkward, staging of the fractious contest between an Orphic model of language, with its desire to name the world’s dream of form, and the hermetic model, as Gerald Bruns calls it, where language reticulates its own constellation of self-contained references. The place where Stein, filtered through Duncan, meets Stevens, also filtered through Duncan. Operating at this conjunction is a bold and exhilarating move. Whatever their occasional missteps — and it’s an open question if they even are missteps — these poems revel in the violent messy noise of rapture. To read Eleni Sikelianos is to recognize at once the truth of Mallarme’s remark that ‘philosophically, verse makes up for what languages lack.’



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