Sunday, January 6, 2013

Absence is such a Transparent House by Aby Kaupang
(Tebot Bach, 2011) 

reviewed by Andrew David King

Of all the challenges Aby Kaupang’s Absence Is Such a Transparent House poses to a reader encountering poetry through narrative goggles, the most vexing might be that of voice: who’s speaking, and when? Kaupang’s collection dismantles the hegemony of the “I,” though not entirely; shards of the first-person shred through the background chorus’s panoply. These instances of individual testimony manifest like ghosts—forms that linger long enough to be recognized but are intangible, secondary to the landscape of material things. More specifically, these poems long for the materials of the body: what it’s tied to, how it breaks, and what’s lost in its dissolution. “Language poetry had as its explicit aim to oppose such ‘natural’ expressivist speech, such individual voicing and accessible syntax,” Marjorie Perloff writes in Unoriginal Genius. Kaupang’s book is not the sound of any single voice, but the clamor of bones in a box.

And there is music in this bone-clamor, be it the glossolalia of “{tongues}”—“cori cori cori cori kana nai,” one line reads—or the fatigued syntax of the “I”-speaker in “what he’d seen | seen through.” In a stanza from the latter poem, the logic of the first person is interrogated:

    one set of lips or
    tongue beneath my age
    & I concedes

“what closes in on me          concerns me alone” offers another such complication, one page after the provision of the name of the woman whose death, it seems, spurs the book’s project:

    this is my deaths I’m anxious for
    but there you are

In both these excerpts, the “I” is lost—first in a whirlpool of mourning, then in a multitude of second-person possibilities. This isn’t Kaupang’s modus operandi, though, which includes enough conventional “I” sentences to prompt the inference that, despite the grammatical complexity on display, there’s a human presence in there somewhere. In “{admittance},” it emerges several times: “I am a girl with a flawed pelt” and “I am the one tonguing in flesh.” But why is this parsing of the “I”-speaker from its linguistic materials important? Because in its attempt to unravel grief Absence becomes concerned—no, obsessed—with the self and, as an extension, what makes up the self. Everywhere in these poems the “I”-speaker, whether comprehensible or outside of the realm of intelligibility, seeks to reconcile his or her individual existence not with the fact of loss as much as in spite of it: and so ensues the fight for sovereignty.

That many of these poems would deal with the mystical as well as mythical, then, makes perfect sense; the psychic terrain explored is rough, and requires such. Only in the last third of the collection do more telling details about the tragic event that serves as its locus reveal themselves—this is more a symptom of this slow-burning self-investigation than a failure of exposition. But when Kaupang’s Heideggerian speaker voyages into the theological, some of the collection’s best, most rending pieces are produced. In “{Soak},” the self agonizes over its uncertain place in a cosmology that is one part Elizabethan Great Chain of Being to two parts Donato Creti paintings:

    me, a tender haunting in the glass beneath the waves
    me, a blessed peacemaker
    me, tonguing Chiron for his skiff
    me, my own My Heavy—

The beatitudes, a famed centaur, and surreal proper nouns: each is subjugated to the antecedent, anaphoric “me” that begins the lines. This search for grounded-ness that starts out with the deceptively clear coordinate of the “I” grows out of anxiety and disintegrates into discord. “Little ‘g’ god grows tired of me,” the speaker confesses before the question of “me” becomes a necessary, chant-like repetition. Religion is the façade, but the materials of language are most of interest to the consciousness behind these pieces. For Socrates, the body was the prison of the soul; this same impulse is on display in poems like “{living tombs},” a four-part opus on the life cycle and the problematic divide between living organism and corpse:

    the body  {the body mumbled

The poem employs brackets that echo and compartmentalize—much like the titles in this section, all of which are in brackets. Bracketed text is visually segregated from the rest of the field; it is a container, one that holds something, but one that cannot be read as existing in its own reality entirely despite the barrier between areas it represents. In this way, like many other sleights of hand sleeping in the wrists of these poems, an examination of language-as-body is prompted. Both are vehicles; both appear to hold something, though how much they can hold and whether or not they distort it is up for debate. But do both decay? In the face of mortality, is there any possibility of self-preservation via linguistic embodiment? And what about clarity—can we attain it, or are we doomed to the sarcophagus of what we almost successfully said?

Kaupang’s speaker throttles, and is throttled by, these notions of identity that language imposes (or, as the case may be, the ones it holds hostage). But rather than “defeat” these notions by shoehorning them into reductive, clean-cut epiphanies, she gives us the gore and ragged edges. Excluding the book’s Prelude and Postlude, it consists of four sections, termed “symphyses.” It’s fitting that a collection so intently scrutinizing the body as a permutation of language, and vice versa, would label each of its composite parts with the word used to name the fibrocartilaginous fusion between bones. Language, after all, is what holds the artifice together—even if it is artifice, even if it eventually falls. And loss can rattle the rafters: “what is death to me now,” the speaker asks in “I hardly remember the days.” The book’s sense of fatalism gives way to chaos, which in turn gives way to fatalism again, as in “{three angels canting}”:

    2.    god    my brute necessity
        is perfectly

    3.    if

        god wants me     god will

        find me

Models of supernatural ecology are plotted in the collection—corporeality as an extension of ethereality, ethereality as an extension of divinity, which is itself a form of corporeality—though it does take a breather here and there. At points, the speaker recalls being found asleep “in [the deceased’s] jade scarf,” and that at the funeral “her rings were a transom / her guitar was a transom.” There are the quotidian but immovable things—green valleys, anise, maroon bells, hyssop. And then there are aggressive, Zukofsky-esque loops, as with the dizzying “{Adventum].” But Kaupang is at her best when her speaker’s associative flywheel doesn’t off-kilter the poem with its momentum, when there’s visible conflict between her linear and nonlinear inclinations. In “we go to the garden of swords and fire    and go,” the speaker ponders how small a catalyst could send one into the afterlife:

    even the underworld articulates emergency
    and snarling and poppies startling
    in their sudden orangeness

    these are sights I could leave for
    accidentally—my driving eye drawn
    to a plosive bank of poppy

The sonic flora here is dense: the sharpened glee of “snarling” and “startling,” the alliteration of “plosive” and “poppy,” the enjambment of “I could leave for / accidentally”—and all of this faux-tiered by triplets. Relatively short words and earthen sensibilities govern much of this musicality; “what sudden lightening in a torso / what Rorschach of angst song,” she writes in “a woman chooses a bird and buries it.” In “{Ecclesia}” and “{Ecclesia cont…},” among the most well-wrought poems in Absence, several call-and-responses are paired, one addressing language (“& this too is semantics”; “syntax is long remembered”) and another time (“god lays such burden on us—eternity”; “such a burden on eternity      living with god”). The seances in Kaupang’s throat recall poets ranging from Dickinson to Brigit Pegeen Kelly.

As the books closes, the speaker’s verbal riffing, that angst of which is clear, sets roots down: we’re given more details about the central event, its character (Sue, maybe the woman to whom the book is dedicated), and a scenario (death by car crash). Whether or not Kaupang intended this incorporation of narrative elements to so fully aid the book’s speech, it does so; in light of the second half, the first is made more sensible in that it seems the necessary, aphasic stage preceding any communicable attempt to cope with grief. The book eventually defends its titular hypothesis: though grief is a place to be inhabited, its walls are transparent, constricting but unable to be navigated. The tone of the work might not be overtly optimistic, but the fact that such an experience can be at least partially conveyed is promising for the speaker and for language’s capacities in the midst of loss. “And death i think is no parenthesis,” writes e. e. cummings in his 1926 collection is 5. And neither is it a bracket, as Absence Is Such a Transparent House uncovers.

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