Constraint by Delia Tramontina
Dancing Girl Press, 2019
Delia Tramontina’s brilliantly constructed debut of warm, challenging, muscular maximalist statement poetry that appeals at least as much to the suggestive intelligence as the cognitive packs more logopieac intensity into 21 pages than many books of poetry do in 100, and gains even more resonance on repeated, slow, readings. Against a highly formal, sophisticated, urbane, backdrop with its penchant for dramatic intrigue, this polyvocal, gender-bending work of unpaginated discursive “lyrical prose” (beyond mere prose poems), throws into question any easy assumptions about what exactly constraint is, and isn’t (even though, aside from the title, the word never appears in the book).
If, for instance, people are constrained in professional or social gatherings, is poetry or writing, in a society of solitude, a way to liberate us, to put in writing what you could never safely communicate in polite or professional company without constraint? Or is writing valued for being more constrained than day to day social encounters, as a sublime form of impulse control?
At the risk of using the title as a can-opener, one of the dictionary definitions of constraint is “stiffness of manner and inhibitions in relations between people” and is associated (if not necessarily synonymous) with words like: formality, inhibition, uneasiness, embarrassment, reserved, reticent, guarded, awkward, forced, self-conscious, stilted ( I find it hard to even type that list without clenching up, yikes), and in Tramontina’s hands, it’s capacious enough to suggest an infinity of overlapping concepts and feelings and, more importantly, a comedy of manners that could also be “a treacherous accounting that encourages empathy” (“Urbanity”).
So many themes are threaded, or threads are themed in this collection, which relentlessly samples, investigates and speaks to, a series of common pathologies & self-abuses in a society in which many “wear complicated ailments like chastity belts” and “skirmish with phobia until we are drunk on social dodgeball,” with detachment from what could be termed pathos (though I wouldn’t call this book anti-romantic in any pejorative sense). Encouraging empathy by emphasizing ethos & logos rather than affective appeals, Constraint asks can we talk about physiological holistic health in terms of sex (and vice versa) while also turning the tables on various traditional forms of patriarchal authority (and having a lot of fun in the loophole of “judge not lest ye be judged”—it’s okay to defensively judge those who have judged, or otherwise inscribed, you!).
Tramontina’s characters often become rigid points of view: the deputy editor and judge, the young melodramaticist, the complainer, the victim, etc. Not only does Tramontina’s poetry “shrink” the “traditional affect” cross-dressing male erection muse, but also works to “castrate all editorials into morphemes, grunts & gestures.” (“Beaten Path”), and emasculate the spurious superiority of the moralists who “tout erections as mission statements.” They might be even more repressive, oppressive, and puritanical, and often found to be hypocritical as Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (“Do as I say not what I try to hide”), or as the “sightseer” and “stay at home saint” of “Transact” (“this dummy is less a randomized persona than a housebroken cadaver assaulting eroticism and reality in equal measure”) who says, “Not to boast, but my top selling purity smells better than your pussy.”
Or consider the voice that says, “buy me a hereditary advantage, I mean a cognitive predisposition to hyper-flexibility” (“Beaten Path”). I love the way she mordantly challenges the “first thought, best thought” dictum as the cry of the many a poor person is “corrected” or at least sublimated into what might seem a better thing to wish for, to be hyper-flexible, to adjust to other people’s demands and needs better—but it’s still hoping someone else can buy, not just “flexibility” but a “cognitive predisposition” as if an armor against any chance encounter, which is another form of what Tramontina elsewhere calls “pre-frontal manipulation” or grandstanding often used to avoid intimacy, for instance.
I do not mean to imply that DT’s tone is purely critical of this mindset, and does not acknowledge the possibility that she herself partakes at least as much in the mechanisms of restraint as in the liberations from it, or that the constraint is actually one with what I call repression, as if that is always a pejorative thing –and doesn’t have pleasure and joy…
Although the word “constraint” does not appear in this book, in the book’s penultimate poem, “Urbanity,” a voice advises: “Hold your urine, young one, and incite relief after you can gather anxious restraint.” So given the fact that potty training is a core belief of civilization, some forms of restraint or constraint are better than others….or if one took this advice as poetics, or at least a characterization of what this book does, one might translate it to “poetry, at its best, is like learning to hold your urine for a long as possible to increase the pleasure of inciting relief!” Or is that just an erection talking? Yet, this book is not an essay, and there’s always a dimension which resists this—or maybe any—interpretation; after all, even the voice of the sexual libertine indulged in many of these poems could also be a voice of constraint that “speaks better in preventive light” (“Modus Operandi”). Indulging constraint, ultimately, I find a deep permissiveness in this book that encourages empathy despite, or maybe because of, its lack of “emotional” language. Constraint is a major debut, from a writer who deserves to be more well-known.
Chris Stroffolino is the author of 5 full length books of poetry, most recently “Drinking From What I Once Wore: Recent & Selected Poems, 1995-2017” (Crisis Chronicles) and “Slumming It In White Culture” (Vendetta Books), as well as 2 books of essays of literary and culture crit., and a memoir. He currently lives in Oakland, California and teaches at Laney College.