The smallness of our everyday lives has grown to epic proportions. We have survived the shock of ending a Zoom call two or three glasses of wine deep only to come to terms with the sudden fact that we are, and have been all along, alone in our living rooms. We have learned that prolonged screen time comes with a headache that can sincerely rival that of being stuck in city traffic, inching along between a closed bridge and a never quite finished construction site. Our isolation has become a stream of constant Twitter screaming matches and reality television show marathons. There is a general feeling of waiting for a pot to boil. Everyone thinks they’re ready to resume “life as normal,” but honestly who are we kidding. Miranda Mellis, author of None of This is Real, The Revisionist, and The Spokes, knows how tired we have all become. Her new book of 99 poems or “aphorisms,” Demystifications – out June 1st from Solid Objects press – is a fitting read for this moment.
Mellis is a master of the small journey, which is what most of us really need right now. The days when time stretched out endlessly before me and I thought myself capable of reading Infinite Jest are passed. My attention span has shrunk to the length of an Instagram story and my last Zoom meeting asked me to pretend I was paying attention for the length of 360 stories. The aphorisms in Demystifications are bite-sized and thought-provoking. They gave me the good feeling of reading a 200-page novel, without having to drag myself through one. They understand that what I think I want is to take a big vacation, but after being home for over a year thinking about getting onto a crowded airplane makes me feel like hyperventilating. They know that really what I want is just to be able to safely sit down inside a restaurant or go to Saturday night karaoke. This book made me smile. It asked me to think, but it didn’t ask me to do any seriously heavy lifting. I was still reading about Nietzsche but in a way that was enjoyable instead of mind-numbing. The poems have some serious things to say but they aren’t taking themselves too seriously.
Demystification 1: Getting up early is the cause of a long day. And it may be oh so simple but my gosh isn’t it also oh so true. Personally, I would expect nothing less from a woman who once said that she never starts her classes before 11 A.M. if she can help it because writers tend to be up through the night. A potentially curious thing for a professor to say for sure, but a not-so-curious idea from a writer who understands the potency of the mind’s ability to wander. It’s no wonder that in her classroom, at a small liberal arts school in the Pacific Northwest, you might learn the term “hyperstition,” as in self-fulfilling prophecy, or spend three months learning how memes and detournement (a Letterist/Situationist term meaning to hijack or reroute) are pretty much the same thing. Mellis is fluent in this type of experimental thinking, finding the vastness in all its small forms, pulling insight from Allen Ginsburg, The Surrealists, House of Cards, Marx, Frank O’Hara, and her students, among others. This carefully choreographed chorus of voices reaches out a hand and gently offers to guide you through a mind in motion.
The poems of Demystifications are smart, funny, and insightful, and range anywhere from commenting on the environment to politics, from pop culture to the nature of time. Most of the poems offer you a way into thinking beyond the book: “If you hit on you, would you want yourself? / Would you know exactly what to say? / Would you confidently seduce yourself? Or would you be like, ‘Look I’m not a mind reader.’ / ‘Fuck it, this is too much work.’” The verse is humorously thoughtful, and at times has a whimsy that is a little like one of those deep truths your friend who smokes too much weed says out of nowhere, that gives you a nice chuckle (if said friend also happens to read Deleuze in their spare time, which given how this year has gone may be entirely relatable.)
Mellis’s ability to show you the wonder in the mundane is smart and joyful. “The child hangs an aspiration on the door: / Private / Do not enter”. An architecture that is both puzzle piece and full picture lends itself not to a “full narrative” but to a circle that attempts to see and speak the world for what it is — a collection of small fragmented moments that add up to life. You are both the watched and the watcher, a reader and someone being asked to join an ongoing conversation. Quotes from many sources speak together with Mellis’s own voice. “Leo Sedar Senghor wrote / And even his song, the melody and rhythm of his song are dictated to him.” The many quotes of this book turn what could have easily been a one-way conversation into a chorus of voices.
In Mellis’s book The Revisionist, a runner becomes a giant conch shell. He is found by a child and taken to her house where, in her absence, he explodes all over her room. Adults abandon their children and leave for Start Over Island, where everyone gets to become someone new, but where you are also required to pass your parents or former friends in the grocery store and pretend you don’t know who they are. So, I am not surprised in the least when Mellis writes, “I opened my mouth and millions of bees flew out.” Nor am I surprised when she suggests, “You could deliberately do things wrong.” I read these things and know I’m in the presence of a work that is not interested in getting to the bottom of things the ordinary way.
In this spirit, I am going to assert that Demystifications asks to be read from the end. The 187 word index sets you up for the otherworldly and expertly interconnected manner in which these poems weave their way through your mind. I won’t tell you not to read the book beginning to end, but I earnestly don’t think that’s the intended way to read it. I’m suggesting you follow her advice to deliberately do things wrong and see how it can feel so right.
Sitting at the back of the book is an index like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Since receiving the book I’ve basically been carrying it around and showing it to everyone I come into contact with. During a recent workshop, I held the book up to the camera because even blurry over Zoom the visual index is immediately captivating to look at. At first glance, it looks like magic, some sort of crisscrossed and twisted spell drawn out in front of you, or it might bring to mind what Donna Haraway’s Cat’s Cradle would look like if it was made visible. The index – which lists entries such as antipathic goals, extreme meditation, marketplace magic, and tiny activations – offers you another way to engage with writing altogether. The circle is drawn through with visual cross-references linking things like marketplace magic to art, embedded in war or transactions to insect failure, investigation of scale. Made by Katie Aymar, it is an attempt to visually show the way an author’s brain connects one subject to the next, an endeavor I think it succeeds at representing. Visualize something like a color wheel or a partially finished spider web.
The index, which folds out from a pocket on the back cover of the book is very detailed but may be too small for some reader’s eyes. Though the size of the book came as no surprise to me – Mellis’s other books are also slight, holdable objects that fit snugly into the smallest of hands – I appreciate that the index is removable and folds out to a size much larger than the book. In this case, it would be a shame for something so vast to be presented so small. With that said, should you find the details of the index difficult to see, I suggest you check out this particular section with a magnifying glass, which is an activity that basically turns you into some sort of existential detective.
Miranda Mellis writes: “Do you know the word dialogue? / How about conversation? / It’s not the same as monologue, where one person talks the whole time.” I think we have learned the truth of this over this last year we have all spent alone together. As we start this long day at the end (because who are we kidding, we are already so tired), Mellis’s Demysticifcations is a small pleasant read that offers to help clear some things up for you, or at least offers a few things to think about along the way.
Georgie Fehringer is an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, where she is an Iowa Arts fellow. She spends her time writing and making paper portraits. Originally from Seattle, she currently lives in Iowa City with her roommate Richard and her (very) clumsy cat Mushu. You can contact her through her website GeorgieFehringer.com