One of the great cliche conventions of 90s experimentalism was that narratives were inherently conservative. In part this came from the (justified) criticisms of the “narrative poetry” (or “Quietism”) that used to be imposed on students in most poetry writing classes. But the problem with the Quietist poems is not necessarily that they are narrative but rather that they use narrative in a boring way: I look out the window (literally or metaphorically) and see something that makes me remember and based on that memory I have some sensation of transcendence or epiphany.
These Quietist poems depend on a self-righteous sense of interiority and authenticity that allows no interesting language. You have to find your “voice” (interiority) but it’s a voice that sounds like every other quietist voice and anything interesting you might do with language will be a threat to that voice. And the narratives tend to be from behind the “window,” remembering, so it rarely feels that anything is at risk.
(I often quote that essay by Robert MnRuhr where he uses disability theory to critique the epiphany as an ableist model of coming back together, becoming whole.)
But narrative is not the problem. Narratives are often fascinating. I remember when I was a child, my grandmother telling me stories about Swedish kings poisoning each other. Years later, I found a photograph of my grandmother dated to “Berlin, 1933” and my uncle told me that she had had dubious political sympathies back in the day. Narrative can be mysterious. “She’s full of secrets,” the little man says of Laura Palmer’s ghost in that famous Twin Peaks dream sequence (Of course in Quietism there are not supposed to be any secrets, that would be too thrilling.).
Some of the most interesting poetry books of the past few years have been explicitly narrative: Think of Chelsey Minnis’s poems with fashionable killers in Zirconia (“… uh… I want to wear hot pants… and rest my boot on the back of a man’s neck…”) or Bad Bad; or Ronaldo Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man and how those two get muddled up in Poems of the Black Object (“So tonight, when you saw this white man, in glasses, mid-30s with an early grey mullet, lift up his Alpaca sweater to reveal the slit in his abs beneath the bloody curtain of his shirt, you said “Welcome to Brooklyn.””).
I love detective/crime novels, but I only like the first half. I love it when the authors set up a good crime scene, and by good I mean mysterious and unlikely (burning swans, a mysterious note beside a mound in an abandoned train car etc). A good crime scene is like a surrealist montage:the most evocative, unconnected objects possible. And like an assemblage, the crime scene generates an ambience, so thick and dense you think there’s no way the detective will make it out of it. Or he will fall in love in it. Or he will become sick with diabetes in it. The killer appears all powerful in this ambience.
But unfortunately, the detective novel convention means that the detective has to figure out the narrative; that is correct the narrative by going back in time to find out what really happened, and most often as part of finding out what really happened, the detective finds a motive which can usually be found even further back in time, in the killer’s childhood. We’re back in the realm of quietist interiority and childhood memories…
(And then there’s Publisher’s Weekly’s review of Joyelle’s Salamandrine, in which the reviewer said that the extrvagant language “capsized” the plot. Ie, refused to find the killer, refused to find “the voice”, became too saturated with Art.)
Anyway, this is a long way to start writing about some really splendid recent books of poetry that presents fascinating narratives – the Norwegian poet Gro Dahle’s A Hundred Thousand Hours (translated by Rebecca Wadlinger) and Mexican poet Dolores Dorantes’s Style (translated by Jen Hofer). And they are quite similar in their approaches to narrative. Although neither book is a murder mystery (in any obvious sense), they do feel like they were written in that ambient narrative space of the early part of a detective space. Both books are series of (sort of) prose poems arranged in a narrative sequence, but rather than creating a “narrative arc,” each piece tells a kind of narrative as well as accumulating an overall narrative ambience.
And each narrative acts ambiently. Ie there is little sense of causality; the characters do not “change” or “grow up”; there is no epiphany to make them whole again. In diametric opposition to the typical quietist poem, they do not learn, they remaind in the zone of risk.
Dhale’s A Hundred Thousand Hours (first published in 1996 in Norway) tells the “story” of three generations of mothers. That sounds very middlebrow, but that’s not the case. Their relationship is strange (even “surreal”) and violent.
The speaker’s mother is mythical and ominous figure:
The snakes grow out of the earth where my mother goes.
She eats away at my brain through my eyes.
Sucks out my thoughts with a straw. I’m silent with two
tongues. Her reptile fingers on my arm.
Let me go. Let me escape. Roses can sing, so
they sing about air and love. They whisper, so
they whisper about the sun. They can scream they scream for fresh
water in the vase. Fresh water in the vase, damn it!
But the relationship is not one entirely of subjugation:
My mother stands before me with tears on her lap lik an
apron. Then I go through her. Then I traverse
through her uterus. No other way than out.
Don’t wait for me, Momma. Dont’ sit by the window in
your nightgown, golf jacket over your shoulders. I’m
not coming home, Momma. Hit me. Hit me. I am
cheating on you.
Things get more complex when the speaker gets her own child, which enters into the same volatile ambience of love and violence, power and submission:
I turn myself into food. I turn myself into wool.
Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Let me drown you in milk.
Smother you with bread. My baby. My baby. Hold you
so tight you can’t breathe. This is my privilege.
These relationships get increasingly violent, but interestingly the violence is part of the home, that blissful domestic space that is supposed to be the shield against violence:
I am still hoping for the chance to stab
my knitting needles into you. Sew your ears together
with white thread. Do not dare come closer than five
hundred yards. If I see you on the street, I will bake
gingerbread in your face. If there’s another, I will
black-scorch your heart int eh oven at 450 degrees
Dolores Dorantes’s book Style (much of it can be read here, the whole book is forthcoming from Kenning Editions) is set somewhere quite different: no in the domestic home, but in a kind of zone of violence. But it also explores the startling meeting point of femininity and violence. Here the women of the war are both tortured and torturers, both victims and aggressors:
Goldwork inlaid painfully onto the sky, we want to turn around. We want you to have us face down. Your codes burning. The zone you cannot tread. We want you to hold us up pliantly. Line of graves and kidnappings for your consumption. Interchangeable faces. Doll’s legs. When you wish it, the sky opens its mouth. When you wish it, the sky turns and hides you atop our arsenals. We cover our girlish faces. We are the war.
The women are involved in a kind of co-dependent sado-masochistic relationship with an ominous president (similar in a lot of ways to Dahle’s mamma):
Give us a bottle and let’s be done with your world. Light us and the fire will spread like a plague. We arrive at your office. At your machine. We arrive at your masterful chair. At that world that is no longer the world. Where nothing touches and we kiss each other. We join our girlish lips damp with some kind of fuel. Give us a forest. Give us the presidency.
I’m really into this kind of narrative these days: an kind of ambient sequential narrative rather than a narrative of causality and interiority. They are theatrical but they are as much about the stage as the dialogue. They explore the power dynamics of the reading experience: The absent figure (mom, president) is both powerful in their absence and vulnerable.
Anyways, two thumbs up. Read these two books!