(guns and butter) by Montana Ray
Argos Books, May 2015
I was sitting there eating lunch with one finger to my phone just flitting through the newsfeed and listening to the person behind me. “They took the kid out of school when they found a weapon on him, you know, because of all the like shoot-ins that were happening.” Shoot-ins, as in sit-ins, as in die-ins. Basically, shoot-ins are not a thing, beyond this oblivious and damaging misspeaking in reference to the history of sit-ins. With one swipe, this person both strong-armed peaceful protest and demonstrated the word currency of American violence. The phrase just came out with such ease it was almost stunning. The same ease, the same docile function with which the newsfeed refreshes itself. The total assault enacted by this flat slip of the tongue. This to me is the basic mindset of takeover. The root of the takeover as a soft and intimate winnowing of history—an eclipsing shoot-in. So there I was that time.
And there I was the other time last summer during the Troutdale, OR school shooting, teaching a summer class, just completely stewing in my own hysterical juices. Thinking to myself, it never gets easier digesting violence unloaded into a crowd. Hits me like heat from the back end of an AC and I’m sitting there in that hot hot summer classroom with this twirling screen saver in the back of the room. Everybody’s talking about photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s sense of the ordinary and I’m thinking that what I’m looking at as I ask them questions is clearly a trauma in timed color trails. Sense of the ordinary. The sense of the ordinary as the newsfeed as atrocity. The sense of the ordinary is that the American violence we all stew in is a violence of permanent crisis. A bodily poverty and a poverty of interface.
It is in this state of mind / of emergency that I read Montana Ray’s concrete poems in her first full-length collection, (guns & butter). To say a little about the mechanics of the book, (guns & butter) is a book of concrete poems that takes on two shapes: guns and recipes (the romance!). There are more guns than recipes. The recipes domesticate the guns. Augusto de Campos’ “Concrete Poetry: A Manifesto” formulates: “Concrete poetry…refuses to absorb words as mere indifferent vehicles, without life, without personality, without history—tabu-tombs in which convention insist on burying the idea.” Another quote: “The concrete poet sees the word in itself—a magnetic field of possibilities—like a dynamic object, a live cell, a complete organism, with psycho-physico-chemical properties, touch antennae circulation heart: live.”
The content of the gun poems is constructed in a series of parenthetical phrases that feels almost like the B-side to the prophetic quotation marked underground of Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette. Where …Alette is an aggressive system of polyvalent narrative, (guns… is an aggressive system of asides.
Concretism locates the poem in the (real) world by prioritizing form, the spatiality of language, where words no longer sit like “corpses at a banquet.” So here we have the spatiality of violence, and the shape we historically give it. Guns are a nationalist ideogram of power, the individual, the Power of the Individual. They are a deletion and, maybe Ray shows us, ilk to any space that commodifies and exploits identity. The terminating and ultimating hashtag.
Ray asks us to accept her guns as her poetic constraint, a form that at first seems to interrogate its own lyrical interiors. But this aestheticization of interrogation goes both ways and leads to a subjectivity that is both articulated and evasive via the chain of parentheses. The gun poems take up their own arms by both burning the gun effigy and reclaiming the gun effigy for narrative.
“(I mean, the difference) / (is a dead boy).” Right, these lines are worth repeating, especially in a context in which so much comes to us via the apparition-ish newsfeed. Or if that feels too #hyperreal—then especially in the context in which so much of poetry is thought to be determined by symbolic coordinates. Ray’s gun poems pressure their coordinates into a political context, but also more likely expose the lead bellied politics of our symbolic coordinates as already there.
It could be said that concrete poetry is some kind of hybrid form born of form and content, but I’d say that Ray’s poems show us that to blend the two or regard them equally is shortsighted. The gun poems do not assert some kind of aesthetic sense of balance, I’d also say they do not assert a context in which it’s productive to just read the poem as subordinate to, or passive conveyor of the political. The content of these guns is distressingly intimate—“(u can touch it).” It distresses when the lyricism begins to illuminate the form. We interact with the weaponized representation as though we were interacting with representations of the encased / parenthesized intimacies. Something is knowable, right? Credit scores, order histories, [edited] posts, our virtual world situates us as knowable. But for whom is this knowledge optimized? For whom is this context and information generalized? Poetry distresses these reductive categories. It clogs rhetoric with discourse, “wasting it beautifully” (to borrow Rosmarie Waldrop’s phrasing from her essay, “Alarms & Excursions”).
The more we focus into the parenthetical, separate cells, working to somehow interrupt or de-emphasize the narrative, the more we encounter the convention that the poem’s kernel or “aboutness” resides external to the poem. In this way, the shape of the gun is celebratory of the idea behind concretism itself (reclaim / bring the word-corpses back from the dead). Except this isn’t only a shift into a physical context, we shift deeper into the literal body of the poem, materially and intangibly. The parenthetical cells agitate the living cells, as though both detained and delivered. Ray’s parentheticals clarify this by working similarly to Notley’s quotation marks. They detour the language in a way that fixates on a source outside of the poem, as though the poem is conveyed from an external, plugged-in consciousness.
“(hitched),” like many in the collection, is an acute play between innuendo, explicit violence, lyricism and parody. The scene is a splicing together of kids playing house à la The Oregon Trail with a sequined Annie Oakley cabaret and concludes in exalted apostrophizing: “(oh, / quotidian pain).” We begin reminiscent and end reminiscent but facing in different directions and with differing intensities of fantasy. “(take it)” the poem insists. How could you not want it, the poem asks. On every level we are given a shape of idealism, dominance and fantasy. These gun poems are in the market of the unthinkable, and their reality is reminiscent of the most breathtaking scenes of the unthinkable—which is to say a reality reminiscent of itself as a reality of conflict: “(my x moved to the nabe) (from 3 states / away) (to stare me down).” The banal is straightforward and an unthinkable horror. The banal becomes the object of fantasy—as it enacts our fatalist scan of the newsfeed. We take it in (like of course this keeps happening) and the shock is discharged.
These forms of violence call into play the hyper-racialized lines we draw around origins of violence and the racialized enactments of blame that are perpetuated by them. Just as the oblivious damage of the phrase shoot-in conflates violence with a history of struggle for racial equality, so do the gun poems expose any similar moment of a crisis of representation.
(guns + butter) invites us to read its shape as an idea firmly rooted in our contemporary experience of crisis: engage > delete. It invites us to read the voice in these poems by the same model. Our role as poem-spectator and civilian-spectator are inseparable. How do we measure the success of a poem in the shape of a gun? Or in the shape of a recipe? What is there to take away from any platform or prosody that is premised on the end-goal, objectivity, neutrality, the cathedral spaces of discourse? The two poles of this collection, guns + butter, are the consumables of these questions. Lethal + edible. They are evasive because of their everydayness. Ray reminds us that docility and absentmindedness are how we are asked to approach them, the newsfeed, drones, the tar sands. (The conveyors of political content) are not the conveyors of urgency that art can be.
Each poem in (guns & butter) comes into focus and quickly escapes it. The parentheses mushroom to an (((((((((((( inward rate, at the same time they and the recipes force us to engage some idealized result. (guns & butter) has us think about how our poetry becomes pressured by crisis, how we can pressure crisis and engender crisis with our poetry. A concrete poetry of a parenthetical narrative becomes an aesthetic imperative to recognize violence as its own organism, a beast we feed, a beast that feeds on us. Art is also a beast we feed, or choose not to feed. It’s when we overlook the conveyors of art within crisis, or the conveyors of crisis within art that we have truly given up. These are after all poems and we would die without them.