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Silk String Arias
60 pp. BlazeVOX [books]. www.blazevox.org. US $16. 1-934289-85-X. paper.
don't get anxious
the headlines forget the politicians
forget the poets remember
As the speaker from Mary Kasimor’s Silk String Arias soothes her interlocutor, she repeats a familiar and difficult charge to poetry – to be responsible for memory. In the context of the book, these lines also juxtapose the public discourses of the media and politics with the linguistic space of poetry, which seems if not private, at least removed from the functional demands of quotidian language. As the title of the collection suggests, music is the operative metaphor for the poems in this collection; they read like lyrical interludes that punctuate ongoing and mostly submerged narratives. These back stories focus on the fraught nature of desire, as is evident in the simple repetition of the phrase, ‘I want’ throughout the book’s pages: ‘more than this life / can give me’; ‘the Last word’; ‘to get out of stars.’ The point is thus very hard to miss: to borrow a phrase from Zukofsky, these poems arise out of ‘deep need,’ though instead of four trombones and an organ playing Bach, arias as aids to memory ensue.
The desires at the heart of Silk String Arias include both the physical and the metaphysical. The physical desires often revolve around the hopes, desperations, and regrets of sexualiy, with the voice being wistful, ‘I am left with / regrets and lap cats,’ and not infrequently infused with a sense of having been betrayed, ‘I came to you you came / you left.’ The betrayal depicted in these poems is made poignant by the fact that they are so successfully framed by a sense of universal vulnerability, a sense that becomes self-incriminating when the book considers the problem of aesthetic representation, as in the poem, ‘orifices in non-matter.’ The concluding lines contemplate the subjectivity of desire, invoking the powerless subject of a painting as a figure for sexual longing: ‘we are nudes on / the canvas / desires / lone orifices / longing for surprises.’ The sound-play in here is worth noting as it works interestingly against the line-breaks: ‘an’ anticipates ‘canvas’; the ‘s’ of ‘canvas’ is picked up by ‘desires’; it recurs with ‘orifices,’ which also reverses the ‘-ir’ of the preceding line. The culmination is in the sonic relations between ‘lone orifices’ and ‘longing for surprises’: the alliterative first words, the ‘-or,’ ‘-ar,’ ‘-ur’ pattern, and the slant rhyme. Such intricate and evolving sound-patters recur throughout Kasimor’s collection. Thematically, the invocation of the power relations in visual representation brings to mind the ekphrastic work of Cole Swensen, and the synecdochal thinking in ‘orifices in non-matter’ is compelling. ‘We’ find our commonality not simply in our bodies, nor only in our body cavities waiting to be surprised, but in the fact that we know and understand our own bodies as aestheticized, painted objects. Nude on an artist’s canvas, we are the focal point of a much larger economy of gazes and desires, including those of the painter, the viewer, and ourselves.
If desire makes us into vulnerable objects, though, it also provides the possibility of mutual understanding and sustenance. Kasimor often presents this potential in the figure of food. Emphasizing food’s link to place and the physicality of its preparation, Kasimor’s depiction of it brings to mind farming: ‘if I could understand / the rhythm of your country – / and the labor / of your food.’ Later, food is not physical but the content of a dream: ‘dreams of the mother say / eat / eat / eat all the good meat and cream / eat the vision of eating / past the pithy desires that keep / our bodies distanced from the other.’ The images of cuisine and gluttony in these lines articulate the dynamics of the subject in the book. Just as a cuisine embodies the practices, materials, and seasonal variations of a place, there is a terroir of the body that can be shared at a feast.
The bodily desires of the book are contrasted by its affinity for the metaphysical. As Kasimor’s speaker tells us at the conclusion of the first poem in the book, ‘an epic about 10,’ this metaphysical inclination often leads to a collapsing of temporal distance:
did we die? I am not
learning our future language
I want to be metaphysical
I want to describe the days after
as time without sequence
I want to press all the buttons at
Metaphysics is equated with immediacy, and the stubbornly temporal nature of language itself establishes the tension in this passage. As much as the speaker wants a language of the here and now, to eschew sequential development for a language of simultaneity, her desires can only be articulated in the medium of language. This is a poet’s fantasy of the death of language. There are times when the resulting thematic interest in time results in turns of phrase that draw a wince, such as, ‘I admire the symmetry of / asymmetrical time,’ but the general effect is that of suggesting a realm beyond the text in which temporality might be collapsed, as in the chordal possibilities of music.
The well-spring of both the physical and metaphysical desires in the book is domesticity, particularly the experiences of single motherhood. Many of the motherhood poems present some of the collections most discursively straight-forward passages, though to call them confessional would miss Kasimor’s consistent attention to the materiality of the language. Thematically, these poems focus on the physical challenges and necessary convictions of being a single mother in a society in which ‘domesticity / is not admired for itself,’ even though it embodies the most elemental aspects of our existence, ‘carrying food/sex/sleep smells / back / to the beginning of death.’ The tone of the motherhood poems is that of justifiable anger: ‘I had two adorable babies / I was paid and told to shut up / then the paranoid imposters forced / us to take pills we became / color coded.’
As much as the book presents a mother’s side of the story, though, it complicates this perspective through its representations of birth as original sin. In the first instance of this image, Kasimor emphasizes the link between thought and violence at the heart of the biblical story:
First sin in [sic] being born an original sin/
thinking about fruit
cutting open the apple
Here, thought is a knife-edge that allows us to peer into the flesh of the apple. Kasimor alters the perspective when she returns to this image in a passage that collocates existentialist guilt, the physicality of birth, and the lonely solitude of a single mother:
it is an existential sin of emerging
from the birth canal
from your mother’s isolation
Although the lines are addressed to the child from the standpoint of the mother, the key word, the verb ‘emerging,’ emphasizes the action of the child as it is born. Interestingly, this sin, a kind of reverse violation, also marks the end of the ‘mother’s isolation.’ The mother finds her company in the newborn, thinking, that is to say, sinful, child.
Throughout the collection, Kasimor can often be heard articulating her relationship to her predecessors. In the brief note at the end of the book, she acknowledges many of the usual suspects from the post-avant canon, as well as some contemporaries: ‘Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest, Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, Louis Zufkowsky (sic), Olga Broumas, Diane di Prima, Leslie Scalapino, Lorine Niedecker, Homer, Shakespeare, the Beats’ and others. Of these, Guest’s influence is the strongest on the book, and many of its most compelling poems are those that display a similar gentle surrealism.
Unfortunately, these influences weigh rather heavily on the book, so that aesthetic descriptions in poems like ‘joshua plays in cornfields’ seem optimistic if they are read as self-referential. In this poem, the setting of a corn-maze is conflated with the text, where we are told ‘the unique styles cause confusion your eyes / settle onto something / familiar/ there is celebration / but familiarity / needs updating.’ If these poems partly represent Kasimor’s desire to work her way through, if not out of the maze of influence, though, their style is not nearly so unique as to cause confusion. In fact, these poems look, sound, and feel very familiar, written quite comfortably within the vein of her avowed influences. While the poems may not be startlingly original, they are nevertheless quietly compelling for the way they go about the task of ‘updating’ these familiar modes.
This is not to say that Silk String Arias is derivative, though. Rather, part of its appeal derives from its grappling with poets who have come before, including some most unexpected ones. For instance, the lines quoted at the beginning of this review clearly echo Pound, and I can’t help but hear Stevens behind Kasimor’s attachment to the metaphysical and her enumeration and depiction of birds. Perhaps even more surprising is the poem, ‘sun dress,’ whose tragic ‘forgotten houses’ bring to mind both Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ and her ‘Sestina.’ While Bishop’s use of form strikes the reader as compensatory for the emotional cost of the domestic turbulence described in the poems, Kasimor’s use of page space and lineation derives from the speaker’s emotional arc. She first acknowledges, ‘I could live until I am / very old but I am assured of No place in heaven,’ seeks solace in the cyclicality of physical life, turns tragic as ‘years turn into forgotten houses a first tragedy / forgotten word trapped in horror,’ and finally sounds despondent as ‘passionless passion laden’ yields a ‘late Summer birth / I died and grew an extension / of fear.’ The tone of this poem is consistent with Kasimor’s depictions of domesticity and the challenges of single motherhood; one of the things that make her treatment of these issues so interesting is the number of other voices we hear as she does so. The impression is of a life not described by way of literary allusion, but lived through the lens of fellow poets, past and present, expected and surprising.
Ultimately, Silk String Arias is a book whose recollective tendencies remind us that memory is more suitable to the imagination than it is to argumentation. Kasimor often returns to images, ideas, and turns of phrase, such as that of making claims that do not stand up to the standard of proof: ‘the girl makes claims that cannot / be proven,’ and later, ‘sentences make wild / claims.’ The poet, she nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth. Borrowing the terms from Sidney is instructive, here, for the poems in Silk String Arias are not poems of affirmation, they do not argue in the name of factual validity. Instead, they make claims that both express the will of the speaker and have purchase on that of the reader.
Robert Zamsky is an Assistant Professor of English at New College of Florida, where his teaching focuses on interdisciplinary approaches to modern and contemporary writing. He has published critical essays on Gertrude Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, and the role of avant-garde jazz aesthetics in Nathaniel Mackey’s “-mu” series.