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Dusie Press. Paper 79 pp.. US $15 978–0-9819808–1-2 paper
True to its title, Nicole Mauro’s Contortions performs linguistic feats of strength and flexibility: in five long, sequential poems, language twitches, gawks, ologizes, ophosizes, babbles, mewls, curses, sings… Mauro deftly marries the sacred and the profane, the poetic and the colloquial in lines like: “In the hinterland /a stuck /tree /loved doggy /-style /by the breeze” (“the Contortions”), “it needs ham, latex, a vineyard /of grapes… / to hold like a child /and smear with the /‘excrement of a seabird,’” (“Spanish Pangram”) and, finally, “What to say other than I’m warm, regulatory quo. And somehow the world remains on its axis, whoa” (“The Ending of Days”). Somehow, despite all of its contortions, Mauro’s first brilliant, deviant, and edgy full-length collection remains on its axis, whoa.
In a recent “Cage Match” with Montreal poet Carmine Starnino, the well-known conceptual Canadian poet Christian Bok argued that poets have yet to prove their pertinence to our own cultural experience. Contemporary poetry has yet to turn its attention to the basic software of reality: to words like microwave, to texts like video game manuals, to the ludic provocative and outrageous linguistic uses and abuses that supersaturate our lives. Bok’s arguments are, of course, ludic, provocative, and outrageous. Mauro, certainly, is not the first to prove him wrong. She does, however, prove him wrong splendidly, uncannily, and deftly. From soap opera summaries to Rorshach tests to National Inquirer riffs, Mauro’s poems breach the gap between the “poetic” and the “ordinary,” the “archaic” and the “contemporary.” There is room, in poems like “the Contortions,” for both Freud and “tanned men on the lawn bailing /greenhouses /away, scenery.” For both the “licentious sun” and “a person /so tall and carelessly hung.”
Indeed, the genius of The Contortions is its ability to operate on multiple levels at once, to juxtapose semantic and sonic sense, to transpose the human onto the natural and vice versa, the natural onto the human, and to cleverly re-stack the cliché and thereby, as Jena Osman praises in her blurb on the back cover, transmit “the fantastical double life of language.” Like the images in Rorschach tests, everything in Mauro’s poems is double: nothing can be read once and fully apprehended. Nothing is as simple as it seems. In the first lyric sequence in the collection, “the Contortions,” free association speaks “on behalf of all /the unshaven /mounds,” the erectile walls are “joints /taxidermed /within our tactile /cocoons,” and the slain animal on the floor plays “the role /of the role.” Think twice, Mauro’s poems insist. Let us show you how…
In this poem, for example, Mauro turns the act of relieving oneself into fodder for a Rorschah test. “Dutifully locked/ in the bathroom,” she taps “code on snatch,” wobbles “on as a foal,” ums “‘happen’ and ‘what,’” and “tongue finds[s] /coniferously.” Once outside the bathroom, she’s at her desk, “scribbling, /spastic,” longing for “longer /bygones, a box /for the attic” and watching Jeopardy, asking herself “what’s /with insects and all the names /for their fucking exteriors?” Mauro’s imagination is like a curiously gifted and curiously twisted child’s; she turns the domestic routine of shitting, watering house plants, and watching game shows into an opportunity to examine the fantastical psychic undercurrent running beneath the surface of the everyday and to explode expressions’ syntactic possibilities.
Similarly, in the final sequence “The Ending of Days,” a collection of prose poems, Mauro weds soap opera synopses to meditations on Wittgenstein, the sex life of fruit trees, the architecture of limbo, and the anatomy of eyes. After quoting the plot of a General Hospital episode in which Laura envies Tammy working with Luke, Alexis is questioned about her feelings, and Carla pleads with Bobbie, Mauro writes: “How to sumac the simple-minded plant, secrete maple by the bead. That’s what that actress is thinking about all the men on TV.” Like George Saunders in his superbly sarcastic parody of reality television, “Brad Carrigan, American,” Mauro turns our assumptions about reality inside out and upside down. She steps inside the actress’s head, imagining how not the actress but, rather, the soap opera character might think and feel. She challenges us to confront the ways in which the unreality of the world of the soap opera does, in fact, inform the reality of our own world. She calls into question the autonomy and self-assurance of the “I” that speaks, echoing questions raised by Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: Am I even me or “am ‘I’ a gearshift to get from one sentence to the next? Should I say we? Is the voice not various if I take responsibility for it? What does my subject mean to me?”
I am, Mauro’s extended sequence “Jackdaws Love My Big Sphinx of Quartz” asserts, pangram of the unknown, “a hymn /of human /-types in multi /whose robes are ill- /fitting.” The hymn is all-inclusive and brutally direct: not surprisingly, Mauro’s pangrams compose a choir of a “normal” mammal feasting on “extremities and innards,” an old lady who removes “her furrier stole and run[s] naked /away from the milieu” and “a nun deconstructing a motif /of whores.” Listening to the songs this choir sings is disorienting, to say the least; it is like reading a poem written in a funhouse mirror: skewed, oblique, scrambled, spliced at an odd angle to the conventions of normative speech. “Someone,” as Mauro writes in her collaborative poem “Dispatch,” “get a violin — .” There aren’t any brakes on this rollercoaster ride through pop culture and possible syntactic pathways, so we may as well play along.
Emily Carr is recipient of fellowships from the Jack Kerouac House and the Vermont Studio Center. Her book of poetry, directions for flying, was the winner of the 2009 Furniture Press Poetry Prize and is forthcoming in March 2010. Another book of poetry, 13 ways of happily: books 1 & 2, was chosen by Cole Swenson as the winner of the New Measures 2009 Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Parlor Press in 2010. Emily has published scholarly work on poetics, performance, and pedagogy in Jacket, HOW2, and English Studies in Canada.