Transitory Poetics is a monthly review series by Toby Altman focused solely on current and upcoming chapbooks. You can read the introduction here.
Let me begin with an understatement: contemporary poetry has a complicated relationship with narrative. But that complication is a source of possibility and potential. Over the last 40 or 50 years, poets have stepped into narrative to complicate and expand their practices; in the process they have complicated and expanded the possibility of narrative itself. I’m thinking of books like Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, or Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate—which form, as it were, a new genre, the novel-in-verse. (And why not mention Joyelle McSweeney’s dense, poetic novels or Nathaniel Mackey’s long poems, which step in and out of narrative). But, above all, I’m thinking of books: these exemplary projects have been staged in and as books. Does the chapbook do it differently? And if so, how?
For this month’s column, I reviewed three chapbooks that flirt with narrative. They try narrative on, testing its pleasures, its strengths and its weakness. Even as they take on narrative forms, they also derange the politics and the logistics of narrative as they are usually practiced. In The Sound of Music, Hugh and Mary Behm-Steinberg invade the pastoral precincts of The Sound of Music, remaking the musical as an avant-garden: a seed-bed of subversive narratives. Leah Umansky’s Straight Away the Emptied World decouples dystopia from narrative teleology, opening, in its place, a space for collective identification. Finally, Nooks Krannie’s I have hard feelings & I wish I could quit chocolate takes the narratives that we tell about ourselves—especially online—and exposes their contingency, their performativity, through the deformation of language itself. Taken together, these form a miniature archive of narrative technique—of the ways in which the chapbook stands as a distinct and rich resource for poets who work with and around narrative.
The Sound of Music by Hugh and Mary Behm-Steinberg
Dusie Kollektiv, 2015
The Sound of Music is a beloved musical, or it’s a dark series of thought experiments that unearth “the hidden blood soaked shrine” beneath the smooth exterior of cinematic fantasy. It’s a classic statement of post-war American optimism or it’s a skeptical, ironic avant-garde excursus, powered by “a diet of amphetamines and cough syrup.” Or is it all these things at once? Where is The Sound of Music located and who has the authority to say what it is or what it means? In their collaborative chapbook, The Sound of Music, Hugh and Mary Behm-Steinberg wager that The Sound of Music remains, in a sense, public property—not a fixed feature of our collective imagination, but a site of ongoing avant-garde possibility. As they invade and remake the film according to their own playful principles, they attack and transform it visually and verbally. Mary Behm-Steinberg contributes a series of collages, which recast iconic moments from the film as tarot cards. Julie Andrews, spinning in the mountain field becomes, for example, The Fool. And Hugh Behm-Steinberg supplies a series of prose sketches, which twist and rework the film’s smooth surfaces. For example, in an early sketch, the children discover avant-garde jazz:
After Maria finishes singing “My Favorite Things,” the children pause. “I like this song very much,” Louisa says, “but I think it would sound a lot better if it were more loosely rhythmic, in waltz time.”
“With modal patterns,” Friedrich adds excitedly, “we could stretch it out and really improvise!”
“Let’s stay up all night and jam,” shouts Brigitta.
Over her father’s strenuous objections, Marta concludes, “I don’t want to live in Austria in the 1930’s singing show tunes anymore…I want to be John Coltrane!” The children are thinking, of course, of John Coltrane’s freewheeling fourteen-minute 1961 version of “My Favorite Things”—a recording which post-dates the Broadway show but precedes the movie. In a twisted flick of historical imagination, the children imagine that the art object, which they both are and produce, contains its own reception. In Behm-Steinberg’s hands The Sound of Music is broad and capacious enough to encompass the canny transformations which it has undergone—and continues to undergo as it travels through culture. The musical becomes an open object, which produces and contains mutation and divergence, accident and improvisation.
Behm-Steinberg’s prose sketches are dedicated to producing just this kind of divergence and possibility. In one, Brigitta, the fifth von Trapp child, becomes a devotee of the Hindu god Krishna: “When her family flees toward Switzerland, she travels east. She is never cold, she is never hungry, if there are mountains they are lifted to let her through.” In another, the Baroness spends the war breeding vampire bats and helping Jews; she meets Bruce Wayne “on the slopes of St. Moritz” and takes him to her underground lair. On the facing page Mary Behm-Steinberg depicts the Baroness as the “Two of Swords”—she sits on a wooden bench, blindfolded, with two enormous swords; behind her in the dark sky, the bat symbol floats, tempting and bright. The tarot is a suggestive metaphor for the project as a whole: this chapbook thrives on the way that narratives can be shuffled and reshuffled, producing a series of branching, distinct futures, each equally (im)plausible.
Watching amateur tarot readings over the years, I’ve been struck by the way it is as much diagnostic as prognostic: the way that it tells people what they know but are afraid to tell themselves. Similarly, for all its playfulness and avant-garde pliability, The Sound of Music contains a hard kernel of lived experience. “Any time my teachers were bored, or there was a substitute teacher, or whatever, they’d whip out The Sound of Music,” Behm-Steinberg writes, “I’d put my head down on the desk and hate everything about that movie with all my heart”:
Its pretty mountains, its impossible cheeriness, the idea that if you knew the notes you’d know how to sing, that there exist parents who care for you so much they’d hire a nun just to watch over you. Worse than anything, the way the songs crept into me, beckoning me to sing along, that I could be happy if I just got with the von Trapps and sang along. If you just gave up who you are, then you’d be happy.
The Sound of Music is a cry of protest against The Sound of Music—against the movie’s optimism and its interpolating force. In deranging, expanding, and subverting its narratives, Hugh and Mary Behm-Steinberg create a counter-space within its oppressive operations: a place of freedom and possibility, where the individual can sustain herself in her strangeness and particularity.
Straight Away the Emptied World by Leah Umansky
Kattywompus Press, 2016
Where does dystopia end? In a well-lighted field. In a world populated by traumatized but beautiful white people, whose children are bob-headed, curly-haired, their compact bodies an expansive promise of restitution, renewal, futurity. I’m talking about the end of The Hunger Games, but I could be talking about any dystopian narrative. With generic rigidity, the genre ends in restitution, figured as sexual plentitude and political possibility. We arrive at this scene, inevitably, through a series of heroic acts—the skillful violence of an exceptional individual, who separates herself from the blank, oppressive actuality of her world and remakes it through the force of her personality. In other words, dystopian narratives peddle in fantasy, the fantasy that the individual can master the world. If there’s something optimistic about this, there’s also something pathological about it. The focus on the individual closes down the possibility of collective struggle. The reliance on easy, teleological narratives straightjackets the possibilities of the future, its capacity to be wild, unrecognizable, new.
Leah Umansky’s new chapbook Straight Away the Emptied World takes up dystopia, and the contemporary obsession with it, as a site of possibility and play, rewiring the genre’s narrative logic, its lock-step, teleological march toward restitution. Throughout Umansky’s chapbook, we’re offered fragmentary depictions of a post-apocalyptic world. “This is what evil looks like: abandonment, surplus, disease, hate,” she writes. But these hints remain partial and inconclusive, their referents obscure. As a result, Umansky’s writing conveys a generalized sense of dread, decay, and loss, which exceeds any specific narrative, any particular vision of the future:
This is a story of flooding.
This is a story of leeward sails.
This is a story of a coven.
[choose your own adventure]
Instead of narrative progression, then, Umansky offers us a distinctly poetic mapping of a dystopian future: her chapbook moves laterally, crab-like, branching, launching and then re-launching its narratives. In a series of poems called “Once,” for example, Umansky situates us over and over again at the opening of a narrative, just glimpsing the world it projects:
Once, Love was an armied-thing.
Once, the swine that hung in the market,
were just emptied men; but there is no
word for that.
And, once the smell of gainly plans was a
furious tangle no comb could swoop
The narcotic, anaphoric repetition of “once” gives these poems the feel of incantation or ritual: as though the poet is bringing a world into being with each instance of the word. Or is it worlds? Is it the past or the future which is brought into being in this sustained chant? “Once, you knew, and didn’t have to ask / more than once,” Umansky writes. If she produces these slips and open seams, this flirtation with multiplicity and temporal indeterminacy, it is precisely because the world she describes is characterized by epistemic failure, the loss of narrative, coherence, progress, purpose. It is a world which is best described by the branching, indeterminate, recursive logic of poetry.
In place of narrative, Straight Away the Emptied World invests itself in the tactile particularity of experience and the possibilities of collective life. These might seem, initially, like opposed, contradictory imperatives. But Umansky braids the two together. “With my eyes closed, I want to be dark-grassed. I want to be one with the golden,” she writes. And in the chapbook’s final poem, her speaker imagines herself as part of a pack of wolves:
Together we rise our way through darkened rambles and haunted freeze-frames.
Together we torch what nips at our ankles, and pulls at our hair
Together we anchor each day into a new day, a new existence, a new tomorrow.
Finally, it is collective experience—deeply felt and deeply embodied—which opens an aperture into a different kind of future. This future is not quite dystopian anymore: indeed, the feminist, interspecies, poetic, collaborative community she imagines here exceeds the easy names and narratives we use to imagine our collective future. And this is exactly the point: the chapbook leaves us in a space of unmapped possibility.
i have hard feelings & i wish i could quit chocolate by Nooks Krannie
Moloko House, 2016
I want to start where the chapbook starts: with the title. On the cover of Nooks Krannie’s new chapbook, the first from Chicago-based Moloko House, the last half is crossed-out. On the title, page it isn’t. I kind of love this editorial equivocation. It suggests something provisional, improvisatory about the “i” which the title describes. This an “i” which records its impulses, its needs and desires, in minute detail, even as it retreats from and revises those impulses. It is an “i” in process, an “i” which shifts and strains, which refuses the possibility of producing and occupying an unproblematic identity. Indeed, the equivocation of the title seems like a miniaturized version of Krannie’s poetics, the way that she both flirts with and deranges the self. For example in “Xercise,” she writes:
Sometimes I wish I could say I do more than just spread my ass on the couch while outdated medical dramas play up like the ultimate apocalypse of blood & limbs. I can’t. I’ve hated limbs since I was 4 & my first doll got a charcoal facial in a neighbourhood riot & humans. I’m also very awkward at parties, especially the ones taking place across from a Starbucks because monarchy fashion/ belief system in cardboard cup holders is my real jam love like rabbits fucking in indecent hands, feeling the brick ovens/ over heating le pain for uber posh businesses.
I’ve quoted this poem at length so that you can trace the fugitive energy of her poetry. The poem begins as mundane self-performance—the everyday language of the internet; the binge-watcher’s proud complaint. Then, following its own momentum, it transgresses the standards and constructions of that language, expanding into a plurality of syntaxes, senses, and selves. Who says “I” here? Who knows? Who cares? Krannie explodes the singularity of the voice, populating it instead with the dangerous, delicious pleasure of multiplicity: “Manage a trios is expensive,” she writes, “like risky & I’m deathly afraid of olives.”
Krannie’s poems use the pliability and multiplicity of language to dramatize the mutability, the expansiveness of the self. She works language hard, finding its points of slippage, the places where it is both vulnerable and rich. “you’re looking for work, i mean any job that would sustain a capital invasion of fluorescent beetles,” she writes. The first half of the sentence doesn’t know the second half; we switch speakers and discourses half way through. The speed and strangeness of these transgressions accounts, I think, for some of the pleasure of Krannie’s writing. Yet, at the same time, the familiarity of the language she uses and deranges also supplies a shock of pleasure—the pleasure of being recognized, exposed, named:
I wash my hair at least once a week & every time I do, I cut at least an inch or 2 of hair right off. It’s like a ritual now, to see if my jawbone has started growing hearts on each side of my face. I worried because my chest feels like a hush puppie that’s been greasing in a deep fryer for too long & with no soul & therefore, no actual heart that works.
These poems are a psychedelic Facebook. Krannie opens up the narratives we tell about ourselves and each other. In rewriting these narratives, she shows us how strange, how performed, how artificial they already are. Did I say “they”? I meant “we.”