Say Bye to Reason and Hi to Everything, ed. by Andrew Durbin
Chapbooks by Amy De’Ath, Cecilia Corrigan, Jackie Wang, Dodie Bellamy, and Lynne Tillman
288 pages – Capricious
In light of events both recent and long past, it’s safe to say that all is not well in what has been, historically, a man’s world. But if the visions of the authors gathered in the new collection Say Bye to Reason and Hi to Everything (Wonder/Capricious) are to be believed, there’s some good news on the horizon: the future is resoundingly feminine.
Depending on your sense of what makes a book a book, Say Bye to Reason and Hi to Everything, edited by Andrew Durbin and with cover art by Nayland Blake, either is one—an anthology of discretely-bound chapbooks—or several—a boxset of sorts—or both. (Accordingly, this is either one review or several.) Regardless, it is astutely and under an appropriately capacious title that Durbin has assembled these five short(ish) works. Though the writers—Dodie Bellamy, Cecilia Corrigan, Amy De’Ath, Lynne Tillman and Jackie Wang—span genre, subject matter, age and voice, all share a vexed preoccupation with the intersection of art and politics, a dedicated attention to the individual mind at work within a complex system, and all are women who, to varying degrees of explicitness, take up the contemporary question that is gender.
From its title onward, Amy De’Ath’s ON MY LOVE FOR gender abolition positions itself at the explicit end of the spectrum. The eight lineated poems—the only work in Say Bye immediately categorizable as poetry—offer an often humorous critique of patriarchy, as well as a more somber testament to the frustrations that abound even within that critique.
De’Ath opens the collection with the pointed and readily tweetable, “Every feminist man thinks he is a good friend.” The violence this familiar figure enacts in the poem, “Value at Twilight,” and throughout this chapbook, is insistently non-literal (“He wouldn’t hit a woman, nor rape her”), but insidious in its very insistence (“maybe he would write something to pause the brain, a / Heraclean litany or regular love song.”)
Though patriarchy’s oppressive nature is one of her frequent subjects, a triumphant sense of play characterizes De’Ath’s poems—the joy of punching up:
d Who says a man.
wields power everybody does. I do.
Condominiums and condoms are the
same thing we all know that.
Masculine solutions to problems of boundary? Ubiquitous? Undeniable?
De’Ath doesn’t just make light—of “the power of pet culture,” for instance, in “Red Dog.” The theoretical mind is also at work here (“the abstract emerges from difference, like doge”) and a sense of the tragic too. “Red Dog” concludes: “And it’s always didactic, & difficult through a straw / No matter how much dog loves you.”
Still, poems like “Tuff” offer a hopeful resistance in the face of apparent futility—
Once I had the confidence of a bad identity
and a start-up the size of an inflatable sofa so
I made everything inflatable. Why not?
—even as the word “once,” echoed in the final sentence of the poem, shifts from a statement of historical fact to a conditional qualifier: “Once / I am released from this beautiful form of / political mystification.”
Sometimes, the speaker of these poems is something of a feminist vigilante, making literal the mostly metaphoric violence. “Permanent Enmity” imagines a gender war in miniature:
d I never knew I had
Joined a side since it was the side of the
Beautiful form of political mystification.
Later, faced with “a man who // was bigger than [her]” “who was // Desperate” “who / Emailed [her] five times in one night,” the speaker takes matters into her own hands:
Five times I shot him dead pretending
To be a Free Woman of Spain, five
Times I shot him dead to live more fully.
De’Ath flirts with a kind of popstar lawlessness here. The poem explicitly invokes Nicki “Minaj // herself,” and the scene described, of killing a man at once predatory and pitiful, evokes a Rihanna or Lana Del Rey music video as much as it does the Mujeres Libres. That reference to the Spanish women’s anarchist organization, of course, is not incidental; these poems also get caught up thinking about class: “What’s a working-class poem, is it / always bitter foam or can it be just a shrug / does it lack self-reflexivity”?
Like many academics, De’Ath’s speaker seems to have mixed feelings about the liberation made possible through theory, painfully aware that a life of scholarship often defies the politics that have motivated it in the first place: “Nobody told me essays on Marxism and poetry would be hated / But theory really does undermine what they do!” What’s the antecedent of “they” here—essays? Marxism and poetry? Can any of these things really be extricated from the specter of theory?
De’Ath’s poems are notable not only for how they claim and resist power, but also for their willingness to examine their complicity in its structures: “Because every white woman can think she is outta there, not / eaten inside by the Enlightenment…a kind / of no-strings accumulation where to destroy men is merely / to dream with them.” It is into—and out of—this double bind that De’Ath speaks.
Cecilia Corrigan’s diaristic, genre-bending Cream features a protagonist as anxious about her privilege as she is about her skin. The delightfully meandering, off-the-cuff narrative of being young and neurotic in New York almost recalls the time-capsuled quality of Joe Brainard’s I Remember, if Brainard had been a millennial preoccupied with beauty products and the performance of gender (yet another form of self-reflexivity, Corrigan suggests). Her blocks of prose occasionally break down into lines, sometimes spilling down and around Jocelyn Spaar’s accompanying illustrations, which imagine the poet as a heavily eyelinered Alice in Wonderland.
In many ways, Cream feels like an extension—or realization—of the “dumb blonde” persona Corrigan has been playing with in performances for the past few years, leaning in to the ostensibly superficial in order to reveal just how deep “skin deep” can be. In Cream, femininity becomes both a blessing and a burden: something precious requiring constant maintenance.
It’s sad how most men don’t get to use lotions,
except for the mysterious “aftershave.”
It’s like they don’t have any secrets.
Like De’Ath, Corrigan pokes pitying fun at men—even “mysterious ‘aftershave’” doesn’t have much mystery to it. But in a narrative “where ‘Dad’ is the greatest insult,” Corrigan’s commentary on gender remains ambivalent. As she explains in her final pages (which I’ll get to later): “I started notes about makeup when I was writing Titanic because I was thinking about drag because I was thinking about transitioning.” In her judgment, she walks the razor’s edge between what she might covet and what she might be superior to.
Like many of us, Corrigan is full of contradictions. Her greatest fear, she tells us, is something she doesn’t want to talk about:
My biggest fear and least favorite
topic is being sucked out in to space.
I don’t want to say any more about it.
At this point, she has already had plenty to say about it. And while thinking about skin might be the opposite of thinking about outer space, it is also a way of thinking about a specific space—the surface of the body—rendered manageable via its specificity. Corrigan seems obsessed by the idea of control, an antidote to the feeling of “sucked out in to space,” even as its reality often eludes her in the (mis)adventures she recounts.
I recognize a lot of myself in Corrigan’s narrative—and not just in the incisive phrase “twinks with attachment trauma.” The persona Corrigan conjures in Cream might be the acme of a certain kind of young, white, upper-middle-class progressive relatability: she’s read Judith Butler but her epigraph is a quote from RuPaul (who she knows is just as important); she recognizes her own positionality but doesn’t want to give up any of the small luxuries that make life worth living; and she wishes, more than anything, to feel in control in a world that feels increasingly out of it.
This desire for control might explain why Cream ends the way it does—with a brief apologia in which Corrigan spells out what she has been up to for the past fifty pages:
I wanted to write about makeup because I thought it was interesting how self- conscious I felt about wearing it. At one point, I wanted to make it into a point of pride but didn’t feel I was allowed to access the sense of defiance makeup carried in drag and at the same time I didn’t feel brave enough to sacrifice the idea that I could make my own appearance political and confrontational through bending to normative standards.
Such an expository move makes the work of a reviewer easier, to be sure, but it also mitigates the risk Corrigan has been taking in her embrace of the self-indulgent, which in turn lessens the force of that risk. Even if unevenly distributed, however, the self-reflection she offers here is valuable, particularly in how it contextualizes the work squarely within the political. It feels not just appropriate, but right that Corrigan ends a book that is ostensibly about skin by pointing towards race:
I went to the protests this year, not enough of them, not that it matters, and in a protest I felt the things I feel about feeling good walking across the bridge, I was ashamed to experience the emotional release, my egoistic need for narrative after seeing the videos of shootings, and you’re not helping you’re just putting your body in some little space, these things happen all the time and it’s systemic, my body’s ability to occupy space is violent and is part of the problem, it doesn’t matter.
The sense of futility with which the book concludes—its last words are “the agony is mutual”—might be telling too. Corrigan is correct, of course, that her subject matter (“self-pitying criticism,” as she describes it at one point) does have political value—but also that this value must lie, in part, in realizing and acknowledging its limits.
Of the five works in the collection, Jackie Wang’s Tiny Spelunker of The Oneiro-Womb: Dream Selections, Oct. 7, 2014 – Feb. 4 2015 takes the most satisfying risk. By this, I mean to praise its form: a dream journal, that most private and potentially humiliating genre that exposes all the extraneous stuff of the unconscious. “There’s no novel in this,” Wang advises in a brief introduction. “Just a lot of sadness, and some dreams.” Though she has since stopped documenting them (“Grad school is killing my connection to the world of dreams”), she has preserved them here in their original forms, intermittently interspersed with short epigraphs from various writers. Her introduction concludes:
I thought about going back and trying to fill out these dreams, maybe clean them up, standardize the tenses, add some details, tinker with the language—you know, turn them into real poems. But every time I tried to “edit” the dreams I ruined them. Dream logic is hard to reproduce with the conscious head.
Almost every dream is recounted in monostichs, some captured in a single line and others going on for pages; one, dedicated to Fred Moten, comprises two dense blocks of prose (this, presumably, is what Wang refers to as the one dream she “did not compose on Twitter”). Though her lines are unbroken, their spare, deliberate effect on the page and “fragmentary, stop-and-go cadence” still invite us to read them as poems, whether “real” or tweet-like, without compromising the integrity of their logic.
As in the narrative of Corrigan’s Cream, the names and scenes that populate Wang’s dreams will be familiar to some readers, though these are, of course, reflected here in the fun-house mirror of the sleeping mind. And, not unlike De’Ath in ON MY LOVE, Wang’s unconscious is often preoccupied with the many imperfections of academia.
Sometimes the dreams resemble real life (“In the dream the revolutionary reading group failed because everyone was academically affiliated and had something to prove); other times more firmly surreal (“There are mushrooms growing in the grass of the house I grew up in. Tiny mushies but also a giant hallucinogenic marshmallow puff’). The variety among the vignettes keeps them from ever becoming boring, however mundane they might be, and from having any narrative trajectory, even as themes emerge: grad school, of course, and desire for women, and anxiety about the “lacking political content.” Sometimes their genesis as tweets is clear: “Dream: all you can eat underwear.” Wang’s voice is crisp, funny, and touchingly sincere.
In addition to her vivid concision, it is her dreams’ latent (and sometimes apparent) political content that distinguishes them from uninteresting ones: even her unconscious has a political consciousness. One short entry skips over the dream itself: “Woke up from the dream with the phrase “catastrophism of the self ”: a parallel theory of apocalyptic thinking turned inward, by women.” Here, Durbin’s title comes to mind (Say Bye to Reason), and Wang names a super-genre that could include all five chapbooks in the collection: “apocalyptic thinking turned inward, by women.”
But while Wang might share an interest in deconstructing womanhood (“I am Simone Weil, and I take myself as seriously as the women split off from my ego in the dream”), the politic of this dream journal is informed by race as well as gender, and, in its intersectionality, the most expansive.
I make the hero’s journey to the liberal white woman of the trees who prides herself in having a black husband.
Because of her bad politics and narcissistic anti-racism I cannot take the self-help guru’s advice seriously.
Her critique is often of such nominally anti-racist whiteness and its uselessness: “In the dream all the academics who want to be cool have a conference on Ferguson but it’s bullshit so I don’t even bother to attend.” White, as both a color and a construct, appears throughout, with image and concept sometimes merging in the same dream:
Didn’t write down my dream of popping and repairing a white inflatable raft.
Dreams of deflating whiteness with scissors …
The triumph of Wang’s Tiny Spelunker is how much she manages to say, and how pointedly, from the slant perspective of her dreaming mind. Rather than compete with her concern for the world, her efforts to make sense of the self—herself—help to clarify it:
When I return to Earth on the zebra I dig up The Book of Jackie.
It is a modest book, with only a few words per page.
She was a girl who lived,
I felt touched by the simplicity of my own story.
The book’s portrait was generous.
I accepted it.
The writers covered thus far all look eagerly towards the future, ready to rid themselves of the unjust vestiges of the past, and happy, it would seem, to Say Bye to Reason. Dodie Bellamy, however, complicates this forward orientation in her contribution, More Important Than the Object. In this collection of essays, which span roughly three decades, the feeling that prevails is nostalgia for a pre-dot-com San Francisco.
It’s interesting that her longing for the past is somewhat at odds with the momentum espoused by De’Ath, Corrigan and Wang, especially given that Bellamy, a titan of the New Narrative movement, is a clear stylistic predecessor of all three. New Narrative, with its insistence that there was room in the autobiographical for theory and experimentation and politics, is the apparent progenitor of a number of young writers straddling the worlds of visual art and poetry today (Trisha Low and editor Andrew Durbin also come to mind).
And so much in Bellamy’s essays does reverberate elsewhere in the larger collection. The first and oldest, “No Live Organism Can Continue for Long to Exist Sanely Under Conditions of Absolute Reality: An Experience of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” originally published in 1985, establishes many of the characteristic moves and subjects of the writers in Say Bye: the ekphrastic impulse, the inquiry into gender that is at once personal and theoretical (“Objects are more patient than women)”), and even the send-up of academic writing: “I put the word ‘juxtaposition’ in every paper. No matter what I was saying, the professor would write in the margin beside it, ‘Good Point.’”
Bellamy is more troubled by art institutions than academic ones, however; she confesses: “Sometimes I feel like an artist trapped in a writer’s body, that my literary concerns make more sense in an art context than a writing context.” “Permanent Collection” is a deft indictment of institutionalization, that “something about art museums that makes [one] feel diminished.”
“It is like being invited, and then disinvited, from touching Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Golden),” she writes. In this essay, a poorly supervised installation of the Gonzalez-Torres work (“a gold beaded curtain hanging across one of the entrances to the second floor galleries”) at SFMOMA’s 75th Anniversary opening becomes a synecdoche of a larger loss:
It’s like people couldn’t believe the art museum was allowing them to touch something, and they spun into a frenzy of touching. The crowd’s raging repression eventually blew its top, and three strands of beads were pulled down. Suddenly a line of volunteers—in their official 75th Anniversary T-shirts—was standing in front of the beads, staunch as bouncers, not letting people enter. We had to come in from the other side because it was too crowded at that end, they lied.
Ostensibly, the move into a museum is a good thing for art: it is legitimized, spoken for, promised to be preserved. And yet, a museum remains an institution—that word in which the history of the “hysterical” woman removed from society still echoes; there’s an implicit parallel here between how art and women have both been institutionalized. And even insofar as a museum is a kind of home, domestic space has its own dangers. As Bellamy writes of a woman’s house in her essay on Ackerman: “What should be shelter easily becomes a prison.”
This might be what the chapbook has to warn us of: that progress comes at the price of admission, and nothing is gained without something lost. Back at SFMOMA in a different essay—“Re: Mission”—Bellamy stands in the SECA/Mission School room and experiences a flood of memories of her artist friends in the neighborhood during the 1990s, only to admit that she “can’t feel the aura of those raucous nights clinging to this work”: “This art, I think, has lost the battle. It is now one with the impenetrable cleanliness of the institution.”
Perhaps Jackie Wang has the right idea in one of her dreams, writing, “I want to care about art // but I only care about people.” People themselves, Bellamy suggests, are our only shot at authenticity in a world where “art communities are transitory, neighborhoods are transitory.” In her last essay, in which she recounts sitting for a portrait by the artist Zina Al-Shukri, Zina says speaks against “impenetrable cleanliness,” recalling Wang’s introduction to her dream journal: “She said she couldn’t bear to lose the drips, that to change anything would be risking adding ‘untrue elements’ to the painting. Throughout the process she was very much concerned with telling the truth in my portrait.”
The truth usually drips beyond the confines of neat lines. In “A Poetics of Boundary Problems,” Bellamy writes:
Living/dead, one/many, male/female, inside/outside, animate/inanimate, liquid/solid, animal/human, demon/doll: the slashes signify order. A on the left/B on the right. And never the twain shall meet. The slashes are a membrane, a dimension, the balcony in Romeo and Juliet, a locked iron door. The slashes are very weak and when they get leapt over or penetrated we, the Western Civilizationers, are filled with fascination and dread
Past/future. Bye/Hi. Reason/Everything.
Lynne Tillman’s In These Intemperate Times: 9 Frieze Columns is more suspicious of nostalgia as a strategy. In an essay cheekily taking up the tired question of whether or not the Great American Novel is dead, she jabs: “To moan about the ‘loss’ of the GAN is to cry over spilt milk, and a fictional past.” Of course, fiction isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Tillman also writes, “I’m never more serious than when I’m ironic.” (Corrigan’s Cream comes to mind.)
Though I suspect the five chapbooks within Say Bye to Reason and Hi to Everything could be read in any order, to different effects, Tillman’s essays nicely book-end De’Ath’s poems, as their works are the least hybrid. Tillman’s might be the most “explicitly” political, as well—in that her primary subject matter tends to be: disasters, state violence, borders (and of course art and gender too, and the way none of these are really separate categories). Her title indicates the general uneasiness that pervades her prose and declares her commitment to training her attention on the precarious nature of the world—from which even the average Frieze reader is not exempt.
Tillman’s essays are, on the whole, too short to offer tidy answers (“I’m told visualizing helps, but the ability to form a picture, in an ‘image-glutted’ culture, comes too easily”); they function instead as brief but powerful articulations of vaster complexities, distilling a day or week or life’s work of hard thinking into elegantly composed forms. And its composure isn’t just formal—though autobiographical details abound in Tillman’s essays (as they do elsewhere in Say Bye), they are, it seems, primarily there for texture, a sense of verisimilitude. Her self is not the subject even when the self is.
And yet this relative critical distance frequently leads Tillman to the same sense of futility with which De’Ath, Corrigan, Wang and Bellamy all find themselves grappling at one point or another. Retelling Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”—“one of the greatest works of art criticism ever written,” according to Tillman—in her essay “Marking Time,” she has this to say about the artistic project:
Rather, I want to say, hesitantly, that the story, in part, describes the conditions in which a singer, an artist, and her public, or her people, rely, in a profound sense, upon each other for meaning, joy, cohesiveness, all certainty of which is impossible, and standard-less. What Josephine ‘wants,’ Kafka writes near the end, ‘is public, unambiguous, permanent recognition of her art, going far beyond any precedent so far known.’ Kafka understood futility. What a joke. Then he kept writing.
All the writers Andrew Durbin has included in Say Bye to Reason and Hi to Everything understand futility, whether personal or political or both, and have kept writing in—or into—the face of that understanding. While the futility Tillman refers to here is that of ever satisfying the artist’s ego, she also shows how that ego does not exist in isolation, that it is, in fact, an integral part of a community. If, as Corrigan asserts, “the agony is mutual,” Tillman suggests that the joy is too.
None of these writers is projecting one specific, feminine future, but each is engaged in the question of how to build another—better—world. And though these books at times share in a celebration of the eventual “end of men,” there is an intermittent awareness that even the end of men cannot fix things as they are. Within and between each chapbook, the writers demonstrate, in different ways, the limits of white liberalism—and white feminism especially—in imagining a future that dismantles the present. Ultimately, our present is the threshold Say Bye to Reason and Hi to Everything documents and delivers us to, Janus-faced: one looking forward and one looking back, lest we forget either the promise of the future or the lessons of the past. These writers are, to quote Dodie Bellamy, “very much concerned with telling the truth in [our] portrait,” and still, to quote Jackie Wang, “The book’s portrait [is] generous.” (First I had to change a pronoun; then I had to change the tense.)
Jameson Fitzpatrick is the author of the chapbook Morrisroe: Erasures, which comprises 24 versions of a single text by the artist Mark Morrisroe, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Awl, BuzzFeed Reader, The Offing, Poetry, Prelude and elsewhere. He lives in New York, where he teaches writing at NYU.