‘Twinzilla’ by Barbara G. S. Hagerty
“we were understudies to minnows”
Some poets develop a well-honed distrust of the lyric “I,” treating it as a mere bridge over the subconscious, eschewing encounter or address with multifarious selves lurking below. These poets—John Berryman, Mark Levine, and Susan Wheeler, to name a proxy few—divide the self into two or more selves/voices, taking on and delving into aspects of the other in us: they resort to the plural “I.”
In this vein comes Barbara G.S. Hagerty’s Twinzilla. Recalling her precursors, Hagerty separates herself from her twinned self, a cloning the speaker describes as dividing ego from id. Where Berryman discovered his multiple, divergent personae via varied dialects and voices, Hagerty’s poems all seem to proceed from the same speaker—yet one with a split personality, a mild Jekyll-and-Hyde dichotomy. Hence her Twinzilla. Significantly, she doesn’t attempt to reconcile the split personality: “I cannot tell you a thing in words.” The speaker seems resigned to (or pleased with) the split condition.
The book is composed almost exclusively of self-presentations or -revelations, foregrounding the speaker’s mourning, comedy, naughtiness and grief. The speaker identifies as “a dimpled absence,” noting “my bandwidth is no longer than a song” without reference to setting or time or season. Observing the connection between experience, expression and signification in the poems, I am struck by this refusal to cohere around a locating or identifiable set of values. The poems appeal to “transparency,” tag the other “faithless,” meander in “ordinary bewilderments.”
This is less a diary of what happened than a reaction to what happened, or what might have happened, as the mind leapt backward, sideways, and forward. The poems prefer to ground themselves in the unpredictable psyche over geography; perusing the titles, one finds “Postcard Mailed from the Future,” “Twinzilla Solipsism” and “Twinzilla Grist.” The action, elliptically addressing the speaker’s absences and presences (again: ego and id, life and loss, desire and behavior) lends itself to a disjointed format, jumping from page to page, colored with instability, humor, guilt, and anxiety. The speaker is informed of a lump, a universally traumatic event treated on the surface as comedic, though real fear and dread are highlighted by the irony: “Lump in my throat, / in my oatmeal. Lump, / I have no affection for you, / only for all of me that isn’t you.”
Just as one digs into a plain’s soil, with effort and sweat, there is the possibility of breaking into a further revelatory depth, a synthesis of imagery, objects, and themes. Such is “Twinzilla Disequilibrium,” quoted here almost in its entirety:
. . . Pardon me
if my myth-making machinery’s closed for repair,
making mitochondria and skinned knees my go-to.
After a few false starts, most of us finally get in touch
with the Big Crunch, the Little Bang. With the right
utensils, you can smoke out any liar, fry any trainwreck.
Sentient beings on the fast track do not epiphanies make,
and hordes just want to score the best stadium seats.
For the rest of us, any forgery naturally feels real.
Of course, to make an object—let alone an object of art, of the self—presents both opportunities and dangers. Objects do not exist independently from how they appear or how they are encountered; rather, what we encounter are correlates of consciousness, for it is only in consciousness that we in fact apprehend.
Although Hagerty offers plenty of verbal beauty in revealing the speaker’s consciousness—as when she imagines naming herself “Istar. Nectar. – Blossom Breaking – Into –Light”—she is not always a reliable speaker. Her lines often break into flat declarations (“Her iced tea sweating as she dug,” “Try cilantro instead of rebar”) and often the poems dispense proverbs or advice for the other; at times I get the sense that the speaker is talking “at” instead of conversing with the other.
Yet much of the book exudes the deep, underlying sense that we are listening to private speech, one sifted and refined by the poet’s skill but also by life’s hard knocks. In this category we place her departure from ordinary grammar, her “naughty” tirades, her use of puns, her layout on the page, her insistently personal qualities, and her dedication to taking herself lightly. What’s endearing and enduring in the work (and what ultimately saves the volume) is Hagerty’s dislocated, ironic self-awareness, as in “Twinzilla Paleontology:”
We were somewhere between Bodhisattvas and recycling,
on a day of successive approximations and coming
closer, but to what, I couldn’t say. But closer.
Still, we were understudies to minnows, we drank
cold water, we tore bread apart with our hands and ate.
Roland Barthes made famous the notion of the death of the author: the idea that the author is merely the maker of the text, but that the text is the site of free play or pleasure instilled and propelled by the reader. The reader, in bringing her experiences, history, and understandings to the text, actually realizes one or more intents. In Twinzilla, the happy reader finds a vast inner landscape in which to co-create with Hagerty.