‘Percussion Grenade’ by Joyelle McSweeney
“Spit and ash/Makes a black ink”
There is no denying that this last year was marked by senseless violence; by racism and misogyny in our politics; by continued wars and the all too tangible evidence of global warming. The buzz words we in 2013 are left with are bleak, sobering: “the 47%,” “Superstorm Sandy,” “The Fiscal Cliff” and “The War on Women,” and optimism about the future is melting away like the arctic ice caps. It is in encountering the apparent hopelessness, violence and senselessness of our times and our way of living— as well as our own scrolled through and constantly re-uploading hyper-awareness of it all— that McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade sketches out a landscape between the trenches. In leading (and perhaps misleading) us through this conceptual hell, by pointing a finger at its absurdity as well as its dead seriousness, we discover that, here, “Over eggs in the nest of/ complexity. Easy’s over.”
What is most striking about this collection is the furious, almost manic pace of the language. In “Indications,” the poem that ignites the collection, the reader is told that “The pieces in this volume… should be read aloud—a-LOUD!” — an imperative that calls for “those bodily and facial poses which communicate so much among the Loony Tunes.” From the get go, then, readers receive a matrix of levels at work: a cartoon violence that is met with solemnity—cartooned exaggerations and postures that might be the only possible and appropriate response to actual traumas, to wartime. McSweeney mashes words together to create a kind of amphetamine-driven lexicon (“Goodmorningnews,” “mountainface,” and “spoonshovelmoon-wide,” to name a few), but at times, it seems as if the sounds are busting out of the frames of the words themselves. Every poem in the “King Prion” series, for example, begins with the striking incantation “—Hoooooooo,” followed by barrages of imagery in which the medical (“A case of adolescent sarc-/Oma) rubs up against the commercial and the political (“…Despite/ the Nazi hinges”) to carve out an aesthetic body (“I’m an artist so/ like a broken clock I never have/ had to Repeat myself—”). Like a fuse sparkling towards its stick of dynamite, the sounds and lines seem to build on one another, working in an idiom of relentless accumulation.
And in this combustion thrives a postmodern admixture of characters and references: Robert Frost is re-uploaded (“something that does not like/our fortunate fall & does not love/our firewall”), as is Bradley Manning, the US Army Private who was caught leaking intelligence to WikiLeaks. In truly incendiary fashion McSweeney evokes—and eventually undermines— the Great White Father of Sprawling Free Verse, Walt Whitman. The eponymous poem, “Percussion Grenade,” resurrects his optimism, his self-assuredness, recasting it in more cynical, even deadly terms: “In my/ percussion grenade,” she writes, “I loaf and invite myself to lock and load.” “The Leaves of Grass,” seemingly, have become a chemically groomed, unstable and overwatered monoculture, where “the blood unfolds like paper from the hewn lawn of the skull/ Shaking the map out, reams of material.” In doing so, the “reams of material” have an expanded scope, attempting to speak—as Whitman did—for all of us, while remaining conscious of the impossibility, and indeed absurdity, of that project.