This review is 2,589 words
or about 4 printed pages long
Whatever we end up calling this decade (I prefer The Zeros), one of its subtitles is likely to include the now nearly meaningless term terror. Meaningless not because I’ve lost the capacity for anxiety, panic or plain-vanilla fear — these are, in fact, regular features of my inner life — but because of a tendency among my fellow citizens to engage with the grammatical form of terror — graphics and stats in the news, explosions in the movies, banging beats in music — without experiencing any of its content. Become as it has our terra firm, terror is also terra incognito. We take it for granted; we hardly realize it; there are pills we can take.
Like many readers, I rely on poetry to improve or at least nourish my capacity to feel and to think, to think feelingly, with all sensual and intellectual apparatus available. Thus, it devolves to poets, among others, to restore a meaning to terror, to allow us to think it or at least think how we fail to think it. If you read Lara Glenum’s The Hounds of No — her gutsy, unsettling and deeply brilliant collection, published by Action Books — such an operation does certainly seem possible:
Sneak into the “shame hole”
Remove the squirming pink sack from the gray pelt &
put a second body inside
Or hang the body from a telegraph wire that transmits instructions
To those who’ve drowned in an automatic wind
While choking on state-licensed vision cloths
(“How to Discard the Life You’ve Ruined”)
Indeed, I feel the temptation to interpret the above as a partially-encrypted handbook for military interrogators at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and ______. Bracketed by its two most explicitly political lyrics — “Prayer in the Time of Terror” and “Regime of Bliss” — Hounds does encourage such an approach. But if the grounds for Glenum’s no’s are initially political, these hounds begin to take on a life (or rather, a death) of their own — saying no to Bush and Co., yes, but also no to the body, death, sex, money and power. In a generous mood, I might say that the political needs to get exploded first, so the book can access more foundational structures. In a less generous mood, I might feel that political content here is a good marketing strategy. Given that nearly all the readers of this collection can loathe the usual suspects targeted here, it’s a way of packaging and easing us into the more troubling sexual and psychological content. The rioters trash the Federal Building, and it’s all good, yo, but then they come for you. No fun.
Glenum says as much herself in the deliciously good concluding poem-essay, “Manifesto of the Anti-Real,” at once a send-up of those authors who would do their work the injustice of hitching it to a single program and a serious statement of her poetics. Since we’ve already read the poems, we know that for Glenum “Art is neither a form of consolation nor a butler to hegemonies.” Ain’t no hugs or free lattés here; and, as we might expect, the poems avoid literalistic description because “When the door of fascism is opened, Realism will be seen lounging like a whore in its inner sanctum.” Many other poets would and do say as much, though few with such aphoristic grace or perfectly torqued camp. Glenum wants to liberate desire and the descriptive glance from officially proscribed channels. This is the ostensible motive; but anti-realism “displaces causal logic with a totalizing logic of violence.” Meaning that if you think you know why, the answer’s no. If you want to know where to join up, you’ve missed the point. If you do it anyway, yes! Total liberation means liberation from motive, rationale and consequence; any other program is “secretly a wet-nurse to sentimentality.”
In part, the unsentimentality of this poetry follows from its precision and clarity; she is not content to swaddle her images in overlays of abstraction and ambiguity. Rather, without squeamishness, she lays out the stark and uncompromising terms of her vision. Part of my shock, then, results from each poem’s steady and unswerving march through “mucoid ducts,” decapitation, sperm, blood and corpse after corpse, its relentless detonation of images of innocence, childhood and domesticity. There’s none of the delirium or hysteria one might expect to find here; no concession to my stomach, but neither is there an overt aggression toward me as a reader. Many of the poems in the collection are odes — ecstatic, exuberant, employing the devotional O! of apostrophe, performing in an immediate present tense their scarifying rites of sacrifice, birth and transformation. Commands, directions, instructions and exclamations place me front row center in this theater, but because of the infectious exhilaration of the speaker, I never feel as if I’m being forced. What this tells me is that the grammatical machinery of praise and affirmation — the performative effusions of, say, Whitman — can be just as easily directed toward destruction or negation, as is the case with Whitman’s great jeremiad “Respondez!” where he writes “Let the shadows be furnished with genitals!”
But I suspect, too, that for this poet, attraction and disgust, praise and rage might not always go their separate ways; the body is as much battlefield as it is wunderkammer (cabinet of wonders). As the poet declares in her poem of the same name, she is a”meat-based creature[s] . . . chunky with carbon” but also repository of “two wigs A city A goat skeleton.” For as much as the Renaissance wunderkammer was a tool for cataloguing the profusions of the natural world, its eclecticism also reflected the fundamental chaos of such a world, its overspilling of any taxonomy. If I am repulsed by the image of the body become a harvesting site for “spleens, nails, fat-lobes, etc.,” I am also thrilled at the sight of the body become so miraculously productive; though terrifying, this is a cornucopia which suggests the fundamental continuity of the human and the rest of nature. As an alternative, the bodiless angels, whose “spooky faces were all identical,” aren’t all that compelling. In her essay “Raw Matter: The Poetics of Disgust,” critic Sianne Ngai argues that poetry like Glenum’s, in its twinning of repulsion and attraction, “deliberately excludes ‘the general reader’ in order to make space for the devil, or a reader willing to occupy the externalized place of the radical other.” Thus, we can conclude that this poetry, which forces us to both a turning away and a fascination in spite of ourselves, might paradoxically provide a greater intimacy than the poetry of, say, seduction and desire.
For some readers familiar with psychoanalytic and feminist theory, Glenum’s performance, again and again, of a besieged and harrowed female body will seem a way of mastering the objectifying violence done to women — here marked by mannequin legs and dolls and other objects. A statement in the form of “You can’t do it to me, I’ve already done it to myself” or “You can’t fire me I quit.” But as with the political interpretation, what begins as means to an end perhaps becomes an end in and of itself. “Irony is not a device. It’s a state of being” writes Glenum in her manifesto; thus, it’s no longer strictly irony, since there’s nothing for us to get, no point. It is irony that has become, in a sense, deeply sincere. In the first sentence of his oft-quoted essay “The Solar Anus,” Georges Bataille writes “It is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.”
The implication, then, is utter groundlessness; if everything is parody, nowhere can we find an origin, that thing parodied. Consequently, the brilliant series that forms the centerpiece of this book — an S&M affair between Sock-Monkey and Kriemhilde — reads, alternately, as epistolary novel, instruction manual and children’s book:
Sock-Monkey is a piece of shit floating in the cosmic cream. He smoothes me out with a crowbar. He pleads, ‘Kriemhilde, my child, relieve me. Suck the sputum out of my threadbare crotch.’
I pull off his little button-eyes and sew them onto the asshole of a pig.
Sock-Monkey wears the dried-out skins of his enemies as an apron whenever he bakes his famous pink cupcakes.
(“Kriemhilde & Sock Monkey’s Busy Day”)
Even this diorama of utter abjection, where the human’s a rag animated by drives, a mass of excrement puppeted by the breath of life, is no more tragic than it is comic. Sock-Monkey and Kriemhilde may represent the limits of the self’s identification with its own separateness, its bereftness, cast off from God and family and society — the self as waste, meat and matter — but these thoughts too, even as they destroy us, must be destroyed by an annihilating laugh.
If Glenum has a contemporary, a rival in bravery and affront, it’s probably Gabe Gudding, whose book A Defense of Poetry features more literal and figurative assholes than one could find at a joint meeting of the Republican National Convention and the National Proctologist Association. Feces, mucous, vomit and other fluid representations of abjection are flung by assholes at assholes in a style as baroque, erudite, hyper-metaphorical and “high” as its content is low, tasteless and vulgar. What results is a book part Lenny Bruce and part Alexander Pope, beloved of fraternity brothers and the mavens of avant-garde poetry alike:
21 The fact that the sequins on
your dress caused you to look
like the instrument panel of an
airliner during a three-engine
flame-out did not escape
22 That your heart is a colostomy
bag and your brain is the
Peanut of Abomination. And
that the cake frosting you just
ate is actually earwax.
(“A Defense of Poetry”)
Anger, any good dictionary tell us, comes from the Old Norse root ang and the noun öngur, meaning a strait, a narrow passage, and in turn a feeling of confinement. The twenty-six narrow columns in this poem — one for every letter of the alphabet — materialize these confines and emphasize the inadequate release that the speaker’s insults provide, forced back onto himself at every turn. Given the insistent reference to the alimentary canal, it isn’t difficult to think of these strophes as colon or intestine-shaped, to think of these insults as flung excrement, and the speaker as, ultimately, full of shit. As much as this and other poems in the collection revolt, entertain, dazzle and scarify, they also demonstrate the futility of violent response, since the target in this poem has no form, continuously metamorphosing and disappearing around the corner. The anger is objectless or rather, constructs its object as it goes, never getting to its real target, if there is one. What we’re left with is laughter and nausea.
Like Glenum, Gudding often harnesses the emotional machinery of prayer and encomium for his negative purposes — confronting the reader with that which, most likely, she would rather not encounter. This is poetry as action, the theatrical philosophy for which Bataille called. Despite or perhaps because of the violence of these narratives, his poetry is exuberant and ode-like; it hearkens back to the magical roots of poetry in the curse, prayer, spell and charm. Indeed, although the scatological and violent poems have received the most attention, fully a quarter of the poems in here are reverential in tone. That praise-song and bomb-song resemble each other tells us something about the creative power of negation, the closeness of creation and destruction, and the way in which any act of praise, by strengthening or reverencing one object, necessarily excludes and vitiates another. Laws and orders, our institutions and conventions, sway atop a foundation of static, frozen violence, which now and then (now more often than then) turn active. Indeed, in certain poems, we can watch the very process by which reverence turns to violence and vice-versa:
Today I whacked you fly, who was making more fuss than
a ratty Volkswagen ascending a mountain:
I crushed you with the catechism of Augustine
If killing an insignificant animal with a ponderous text, bearing down on the tiniest of organisms with weighty and metrically precise erudition does not remind you of the bullying excess of firepower the U.S. brings to bear on its under-armed enemies, bully for you. But what’s more interesting is that the over-the-top metaphor-work empowers the fly as much as it measures the speaker’s power; the fly becomes an automobile, a scholar, and finally, the city of Carthage. Inflated, made more powerful than it really is, the fly proves nearly unkillable, and ultimately the poem turns into a song of praise, a paying of respects:
What a life you must have had,
swirled in the breath of running dogs,
your eyes domed and numerous
as the basilicas of Carthage.
In other poems, though, the elements of praise are more sinister, coordinate with the violence, and closer in this respect to the exuberant destructions of Glenum. No poem in this collection conveys and parodies the frenzied, frighteningly erotic excitement of killing better than Gabe’s rewrite of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” as horrible as it is hilarious. One cannot help but think of Lt. General James Mathis’s remark that “It’s fun to shoot some people”:
And into our verve and almost groupie love
the whole chalked world of mineral flew
toward our gadundering horses, bilious jaws, twirling
flecks of ligaments, spattered fetlocks: nothing dry now:
Big teeth sprayed in prisms. Here and there a billiard-like eyeball
had lost its horse, everywhere
the severed tails, pinging flick of knuckle-
balling shrapnel, again the flogging whirl
and piedbald smacks of shell, blood sponged deep
in pelisses of fur,& lots of bullion braid splattered filthy. Oh fuck me
what glory!. . .
(“The Charge of the L.B.”)
As with Glenum, we are fortunate that Gudding has set down his own aesthetic and poetic aims in print, and that he has the moxie to respond to negative reviews of his own book by writing an essay “Dung in an Age of Empire: An Defense of A Defense of Poetry,” a piece that is both self-parody and a sober reflection on his intents, calling the book a “lampoon against both the politics of empire and the empire of poetry.” By treating the basest and most vulgar of subjects in the most rarefied of poetic styles, Gudding aims to point out “that those adult pursuits recognized in every age for their frivolity (fashion, for one) are merely embellishments upon, and excrescences of, dung shame. Vanity itself is but a false sense of triumph over one’s dung.” Like Bataille, and like Glenum, Gudding wants to remind us of the organism — visceral and excremental — that we are: “Does any one of us deny a daily or a near daily intimacy with dung? And do we not carry it into the halls of parliament inside a bag God has slung between our thighs? The conjunction of high style and low matter maintains that “‘Beauty’ is camouflage for the anus. The denied anus is the fount of frivolity, vanity, violence and war.” We might conclude, then, from this, that the song of praise is only a grammatical hair’s breadth from the song of war. And so it is no surprise that in his poem “Fons Belli” the speaker pulls from his very ass, in a literalization of the figure for balderdash, item after item of obsolete medieval siege machinery.
Jasper Bernes was born in Southern California in 1974 and educated at Hampshire College and Cornell. His poems appear or are forthcoming in The Canary, Bayou, No Tell Motel, Xantippe and in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries. He lives in the Bay Area with his girlfriend Anna Shapiro and their son, Noah, and is currently working on his PhD in twentieth-century poetry at UC Berkeley.