Mouth Trap by Rebbecca Brown
Arc Pair Press, September 2018
61 Pages / Amazon
Rebbecca Brown’s Mouth Trap is a collection of poetic writing that slips between poetry and prose, and commonplace and dreamlike, focusing on home life and childhood, adult life and love, urban life and landscape. In this expanse of subject and mode, the constant is how deftly Brown uses sound in the imagery of the language and in wordplay itself to make sound, linguistic and musical, a pervasive presence and force. This book is full of terribly glorious clamor.
In the first lines, “Divested of word and tumbledown,/ sometimes sounding vicious, it is quickly/ forgotten in a scattered heat that is/ homebound. It cracks the lens of another/ mind’s eye” the poems identify that sound is ephemeral and dissipates quickly, but this is a misdirection for the reader: the writing almost immediately voices dangers present, past and always immanent by playing with sound and meaning of language, letting us see where commonplace and odd come close to one another, and where violence is often present. Though time is the limiting duration of sound, it leaves behind an unsettled feeling. In “Exhibit,” rather than the body of the elephant girl, sound becomes the focus of attention: “The phonemes of the elephant girl were on exhibit” and are finally “the only wild things.” This conflation of smallest parts of speech and the girl’s appearance, making spectacle of sound and functions like the performance of language—the poets task of speaking to the audience directly and in their presence, or indirectly through the speaker of the poem. The girl’s language displaces her appearance in importance, regardless that it is magical or odd. This effort of reconstituting sound continues through the wordplay of the title of “Not Exactly Clear or There “ and into the lines: “Love, love and love, one announced beneath a window in exuberant, longing moans” mirrored in “Wave after wave, her heart pumped seas of blood.” The relationship of sea to body is in the sound of moving forces, and sound itself is a fundamental force of living. The movement of sound through the writing, is visible, auditory and palpable, not so much describing a body but becoming enfleshed.
The reader arrives at “A Father the Tuba,” and the sounding body becomes a suspect instrument. According to the speaker, the daughter in the poem, “…arrived older and broken from the back with a hunch made of brass” inherited from a father whose “valvy mouth” blows sound and fear onto the landscape. The deep bellow of the tuba/father becomes beguiling at night: “when the wind was slow and tremoloed, the tuba would hum low enough to tempt birds with blue beaks and feathers into the pockets of trousers” and it is left to the reader to understand the potential dangers and pleasures of sound and person. That “she” inherits the sounding body of the tuba—“She curls her tuba fists and makes sounds severe as heartbeats”—continues to trouble the ambiguity of sound’s value: loud, soft, severe, tempting, threatening. The capacity for sounds of all kinds is passed along, gift or curse, through the family just as the curve of a spine might.
It’s in “What I Did and Did Not Do,” an essay-ish piece, that a large part of the value of the embodied language in Mouth Trap becomes most explicit. The essay begins with a quote from Palestinian “resistance poet” Mahmoud Darwish: “No one spends a night [in prison] without training his throat on what resembles singing, for that is the way one is allowed to tame solitude and preserve the dignity of pain.“ The second epigraph, taking Darwish’s instruction on singing literally, is a quote from a song by Interpol in which the song’s subject is watched as she walks down a street. The essay examines sound in relation to imprisonment, particularly in the speaker’s experience being held in a cell for a hearing. From her cell, she recalls the man who handcuffed her as having “jowls of meat blabbering around his head” and has a cellmate named Stella, a reference to the titular character in the Interpol song. This is a neat conflation of sound and character that creates another sounding body in this essay. Stella, in the essay, shares a cell with the narrator, both women having broken patriarchal rules governing women’s behavior. The essay as a whole identifies the hearing parts of the human ear, refers to songs by Joan Baez, Otis Redding and John Lennon, and recounts bits of the process of the speaker’s initial hearing (emphasis on hearing) and conversations with friends on the nature of sound, as it considers the ways in which sound is gendered and the sounds women make are regulated and disciplined. One of the most telling statements in the essay is in a conversation with the narrator’s singing partner: “…it is not actions that are taboo, it is breaking the silences that surround them.”
Brown breaks silences constantly and calls for us to listen in a way that speaks to Anne Carson’s essay “The Gender of Sound.” Carson reflects on sound as representation of the inside: “Every sound we make is a bit of autobiography. It has a totally private interior yet its trajectory is public. A piece of inside projected to the outside,” and a patriarchal tendency to value a self-control that censors difficult sounds. In the final line of her essay, Carson wonders “…whether there might not be another idea of human order than repression, another notion of human virtue than self-control, another kind of human self than one based on dissociation of inside and outside.” Thinking of Brown’s writing, particularly the ways in which the body is sound, and often difficult sound, leads to a possibility in which there is no difference between inside and outside. Return to the image of the blabbering jowls of the jailer, for instance, or the conclusion of the essay, in which the narrator realizes she’s mistaken her fellow prisoner’s name: “Her name was Starla. Star-la. A constellation singing a single note in that night’s blackening, blue sky” for human order in which inside and outside are the same note.
The essay comes in the first third of her collection, and is a demand to listen and to be heard that is carried throughout the book. In “On Progress,” the speaker responds to “wordy and languorous” oppressors, saying, “We will wrap our tongues of them, create a means to desire, make sure what is in the way is straggling and diffuse, a trail of worms and words at our heels as we wreak what will not be known as havoc,” the use of the collective pronoun asking us to join in breaking silences. There are always silences that need sounds, and women’s speaking bodies that should make noise and be heard. Brown’s collection gives words, sometimes only sounds, to difficult tensions between women and the world of men, and themselves. In “This Began,” she writes: “The words will come, and if not, make them. They are ready and wanting to catch beneath your needs.”