Garin Cycholl’s latest scrutiny of history, Nightbirds, is an urgent and astute rehearsal of the call to what is not-said in this thing we call ‘the way it was.’ In Blue Mound to 161, Pavement Saw’s 2003-2004 selection for the Transcontinental Poetry Award, Cycholl’s focus was also on the bullshit quotient contained in the intellectual infrastructure of causality and its reportage; as he wrote in that book, ‘its surficial and underground / structure indicates that the / forces that formed it came / from below rather than above.’
Here in this collection of prose poems, the disintegration of conventional historical modes begins with the destruction of ‘character,’ or ‘who done it,’ in all its forms. The notion of meaning itself is disrupted by non-characters like Napoleon, Zhukov, and MacArthur, generals whose meannesses do not, and perhaps cannot, add up. ‘We didn’t know what that meant, but it wasn’t good,’ says… some narrator/character or another. And I confess that I don’t know shit about the Greek mythology alluded to in ‘Achaean Fight Songs,’ the opening piece. But I know a thing or two about Kerouac and Ginsberg, so when I’m told that this piece is ‘after Charles Mingus,’ and that ‘[w]e were all waiting for the sequel, the trumpet vibrating us down to our heels,’ I know right where I am. I’m on the road again, howling about how histories should not mean, but be — and pissed that so many compositions try so hard to mean so much, all too often offering up wrongish meanings.
Yeah. Fuckin-a-right. I’m even in a place where Diaz (dias, days) draws our attention to ‘the point of his spear’ (hm… ); a place in which ‘this real estate is overvalued’ (because it’s worth killing only Apaches for); in a place where questions are (sure, man) futile. And to return to the point of Diaz’s spear: this tale of what we (men) have done to each other has more than occasionally to do with how women become the scapegoats of history, a story in which ‘every daughter… [is] some assassin sent to pursue me.’ Note: that’s pursue, not assassinate.
Here, the misogyny of conventional historical narrative receives constant examination: ‘[w]omen surrounded our encampment’ while, restless in the wait for an enemy, men ‘anxious about their babies’ engage in ‘knockdown dragouts.’ Thus the first external opposition (male/female) morphs into a second, in-camp enemy (male/male). Both oppositions are false. (The real enemy is… who?) Nonetheless, bands of brothers compete for the women and progeny, and since it’s the presence of women that presumably causes this situation, women are the primary enemy. Women are war. (Again, excuse me: was there a real enemy out there somewhere? Perhaps… not?)
Meanwhile, we’re told that H. G. Wells’s Little Wars contains photos of toy soldiers, some ‘resembling those of the Napoleonic era,’ and some ‘resembling Victorian pornography.’ Thus we arrive at a primary falsehood of history: violence = porn = a mercenary female sexuality in which women are the surrounders and pursuers —
— and we all know that’s just bullshit. That’s bullshit (that is to say, false) because the only meaning made in this theater of operations is made by medals, themselves representations of a valor impossibly vague. ‘The bronze star represents this… or that… . The silver oak leaf cluster represents this… or that… .’ In such a scenario, valor would seem to consist primarily of winning and impregnating that which pursued you. Victory is brought to you, clit atremble. And here now Cycholl says, Cut the crap, bro.
In this match-up, ‘disfigur[ed]… communiques’ are the name of the game. What this collection is not is The Longest Day, a ‘story arranged by the place and time superimposed at the beginning of each scene… .’ Frequently, we’re not even sure which of our damn wars we’re in. The only super-imposition on this ahistory is the insistence upon what is wrong and what is missing. For instance, among the toy soldiers available at K-Mart, there are ‘[n]o French, Chinese, or Italians.’ Cycholl wisely leaves it to us to shout, What does that mean? The ‘excommunications, mysteries, and promises’ are mere fodder for our narrator (who?), for whom meaning-making has more to do with ‘mine-detecting’ — for the narrator who (who?) can say, as if it weren’t already obvious, ‘I’m a tourist of violence.’
And if the narrator’s a tourist, what does that make us? ‘[V]isitors’ in our own ‘death culture,’ methinks, rocked by a bit more than the jazz this novel is enActing, as if we do not in fact enjoy government-sponsored Freedom of Information (under which entry the ‘index’ instructs us to see a nonexistent page 209). Our narrator(s) say(s) s/he ‘speak[s] through the world’s broken masses,’ landmasses pockmarked by conceptual IEDs, by ‘incidents’ examined by dummkopfs. S/he speaks to defy official versions of the-way-it-was, and what caused it to happen.
No sir. This work will not let us go gently into that causal good-night-and-good-luck. Here we abandon our collective corpse pose (savasana) and finally, after all this time, wake up and ‘get the fuck out of Saigon.’
(With regard to which, see nonexistent pages 154-6.)
A smart, smart read.
Kass Fleisher is the author of The Bear River Massacre and the Making of History (SUNY Press, 2004); Accidental Species: A Reproduction (Chax Press, 2005); The Adventurous (forthcoming from Factory School in 2006); and Talking Out of School: Memoir of an Educated Woman (forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press in 2007).