by Oni Buchanan
University of Illinois Press 2008
Reviewed by DJ Dolack
And All And All
I’ve read it upwards of ten times. I’ve spent hours with it, sat down with it in my apartment at various times of day and night, carried it on the subway to and from work, and tucked it away for a few long train rides. I can say that I’ve tried, and then tried again. But after all the self-conscious worry about missing something here, about Doty’s name somehow giving it validation, I simply cannot subscribe.
Oni Buchanan’s second collection, and winner of the National Poetry Series, takes some serious chances with language and — for lack of a better term — experimental poetry, but ultimately it’s a collection that mires in process rather than delivering a substantial or exciting result. Though there are some beautiful moments of bitter honesty and truly well-written, encompassing verse (more on that later), what keeps coming back is the lack of cohesiveness and fundamental aim. The book’s style changes drastically with each section (there are five) and sometimes between lines and stanzas themselves. From the start, I’m not sure what the collection is reaching for, or what the poems are asking me to do, besides hack through what seems to be mostly laborious free-writing, broken into lines and vaguely arranged around some unsavory gimmicks and the theme of (surprise) the life cycle of nature in all its forms.
I suppose this bulkiness of language should have been apparent from the anonymous copy on the back cover, which begins by describing Spring with perhaps the most overused and meaningless cliché still somehow tucked away in the blurb-writer’s quiver: “a tour de force.” But at first I was fooled, excited for what venture could lay inside. I thought Lance Armstrong; I thought Infinite Jest, but by the end of the fist section, I was terribly bored, left to wonder why an author would hold out a closed fist for so long, taking huge pains to describe what could possibly be inside, and then reveal little more than a few disparate seeds. My mind starts out on its course to take in the language, to get the poem, but inevitably I wander, or am driven away by the obfuscation and seemingly endless, unnecessarily imaginative interruptions.
Take the opening stanza of “The Floor-Creatures Begin,” which is filled with fleshy colors and imagery, but really leaves me grasping for an image to take hold:
The skin was stretched tauter, fastened
through the metal hoop — membrane of sky over the earth’s
frame — and the sun struck its last hour
with a mallet wrapped in violet yarn,
tones that rose to the surface, the red swirls
deepening to violet (the disturbed blood darkening)
and outward in shade to the boundaries
(a deep tumultuous sleep)
until the skein grew dark to its edges
(a consuming sleep of coughs).
There is so much going on here it’s just tough to make sense. I want to take some things literally, some are obviously purely figurative, but between the parentheticals, three different colors and a “mallet wrapped in violet yarn,” I’m only guessing. Nothing here really sticks, or even stands out. Pile six stanzas of this very same language on top of one another and you have the opening poem. Pile ten of these poems on top of one another and you have the first section of the book, a terribly frustrating group to enjoy and connect with because of its deliberate arms-length mysticism:
The gray wears a gray scarf, knitted, about its throat,
or seeps from itself, evaporating into gray, a mist, heapings of
of material, gray swathe, stiff canvas of filament — and above,
outside the hallways (rectangular prisms of gray) (two telescopes
capped on either end):
the dull stars stuck over the earth like buttons in a dust
Section two brings some respite, and some pictures — literally. The poems have suddenly (mercifully) been trimmed and whittled down so that the language can breathe. There are moments of solidly brilliant and stark writing that chooses its image and trusts it will bring across the sentiment. In “Envelopes of Sky,” Buchanan gives us
…the coins of rain
through the gutter grates,
the cold clean
hint of the moon,
like water, a wetness
of half-sharp blades,
which does more in six lines than some entire poems in the collection. In “Solstice,” she even gets a bit playful:
An exceptional calculation of berries per starling.
A startling concentration of exhumations per buried.
And marks on the skin
where the electric spine lay underneath.
There are, however, still some ideas here that are not so much ill-conceived as unsuccessful. “Or Portals to Another World” is a ten page dirge and rebirth whose form goes from double-spaced lines centered down the first page, to two — then three — different strings of thought entwined, finally closing with a full page of words scatter-shot across the white space. The piece seems to follow some kind of military bombing campaign by describing the pilots and soldiers, as well as a multitude of animals and crawlers that inhabit the battered earth. (Destruction begets destruction begets life, etc. etc.) An interesting format, I guess, but one that never proves worthwhile because its images are often too vague, and the language sometimes shoots blanks. While describing a pilot taking flight for another round of bombing, Buchanan can only muster what reads like a voice-over in a Ken Burns documentary:
…each pilot plunges direct
into adrenaline, and from
his cramped cockpit,
from his helmet humid
with his quickened breath,
flies high enough above
that the target grows surreal
and feels again
his heart, deafening inside
his chest, his lungs now breathless
with the deed, his senses sharpened
to a super-human sharp,…
This is followed up on the next page with three photographs of an origami bird (plane?) from different angles, each revealing a series of mostly unintelligible words scrawled on its wings and body. This interesting little tangent repeats twice more with a polyhedric shape and square box before the poem and section end. The images add yet another layer to the elusiveness of the collection, and really, I’m too concerned with figuring out what I’m supposed to get from the words to graduate and place some meaning on paper figures too. I have no problem working for a meaning, or with an author teaching me how to read her work, but at this point, Spring is a frustrating puree of styles, voices, tones and images, and try as I might there is very little to which I can grasp. That is, of course, until the next section, a lively and succinct look at the human condition.
Each poem in section three (other than the first) is titled “Dear Lonely Animal,” and it’s here that Buchanan is at her best and, to me, most authentic. She plays nice with the language, and the tercets she chooses to house her lines keep her from straying into the (as Doty puts it) “wildly inventive” areas of the book. It feels as though she is much more comfortable here and not pushing something on us. I follow her through each of these ‘letters’ taking stock of how disgustingly banal and similar humans are to each other, and to more primitive creatures. Buchanan fills us in with such an earnest but amused voice, it’s easy to wish the entire book sported this posture.
Section four brings us back to spotty verse, but it seems Buchanan is at least having a bit of fun with the language. The gimmicky “Text Message” and “Maroon Canoe” take the old assonance and alliteration stand-by’s and wax Heidi Peppermint (whoops, I meant Lynn Staples) on form. Though there are moments of engrossing story, such as in “The Practice” when the speaker slices a man open and empties his body “like a laundry sack, like a complicated // wineskin, like a pig bladder” and proceeds to don his skin (face and all) and kiss her husband. Thankfully, this is in a dream, but it still held me to the page. The thriller quickly ends though, and brings us back to some weak, tiresome language. As the speaker (most likely Buchanan) walks through her piano studio on her way to practice, she takes a moment to flimsily describe the light:
Rainbows shoot in sun rays from a crystal on the window
and burst on the white walls. I step through some rainbows.
Some show on my t-shirt and some on my skin, like beauty
I like to think. I love it here, in the sunny room with rainbows.
It’s moments like this one that appear too frequently in the poems and really take away from the overall effectiveness of the collection. I repeatedly ask myself why Buchanan chooses to stay with some stanzas when it’s quite obvious removing them would shape and tighten. This idea of extraneousness is truly what impairs the experience of reading Spring. It’s almost as if Buchanan underestimates her readers, not quite giving us enough credit to understand the ideas she is creating here, and wanting to overfeed us adjectives and adverbs, redundant imagery, and as many tricks as she can plausibly fit into a book of poetry. The next section both supports and contradicts that very idea.
The Mandrake Vehicles
Before even reading the poems, one notices the book comes with a CD (attached inside the back cover) that contains flash-animated productions of the work. I’m always interested in seeing what people are doing with new media these days, especially in an art so sacredly attached to its pulp and ink. Just flipping through the back section of the book got me excited to see what Buchanan was going to do, and I’m about to give a little bit of the idea, but I’m not going to try and describe it in detail.
The section in the book itself begins with a “Note on the Mandrake Form,” which describes the “Paper version” of these “kinetic poems,” each meant to be viewed in motion on the disc and are simply presented in the book as still frames. We are told that each vehicle “is in constant motion” and are brought through a three page instruction and information session about how to ‘read’ the poems as well as how they were conceived and physically created.
As for the frames in the book, at first the reader is introduced to a huge block of prose, which seems to be right out of a free-write journal: at times maddeningly unintelligible and at others filled with a Beckett-like interest that ultimately leads nowhere — words upon words, seemingly endless, an image here, a lead there, but more like excerpts from a surrealist novel. But, as Buchanan writes, “each text block also conceals a depth of two additional ‘secret’ poems that can be distilled from the top layer.”
A flip of the page reveals white-spaced gaps between and within words where “lighter” letters (in a not-so-random order, as the info tells us) have floated “off the surface of the vehicle and the ‘heavier’ letters remain anchored to the page.” The lost letters (I think) then form random words at the bottom of the next page. The original block of text then squeezes its remaining letters together, which plugs up those initial holes, to form new words and consequently a new poem. This whole process then happens again to create yet more holes, more random words and yes, another “secret” poem. Did you get all that?
I’ve got to admit, it’s kind of fun and a bit fascinating to watch as these letters move and disappear all over the page through flash animation, but I really have trouble understanding why they’re printed in the book. It’s surely an interesting endeavor, and one that has plenty of thought and theory behind it, but again the process takes center stage here, and the poems these Mandrakes emit are experimental at best, barely coherent surrealist exercises at their worst. Here are a few lines from the final version of the first Mandrake:
agree that a
seeds tombs, altars:
a vise intact.
and from the second:
Thin paeans rust
hunger for attar:
a heroine sweet …
sheltered … in
orange alluring …
Wheels tally codes.
Again, there isn’t much to hold on to, but perhaps it’s an inventive look at the craft and process of editing. What I find most interesting about the Mandrakes is that they go through the process of getting a “core poem” while the rest of the collection drives against that very idea. Buchanan makes a point of showing the actual whittling of image and superfluous language, especially with the action of visually shedding words and letters, “eventually forming detritus words which accumulate in a heap,” but when held within the same collection as parts one and two of this book, we get an assembly of poems that constantly shuns cohesiveness and leaves us with a what seems more like selected work from a thirty year career.
Buchanan travels a long way in a hundred pages of poetry, and though I respect her writing, as well as the sheer audacity she shows by attempting to join these poems, I’m not going to say this was an enjoyable or exciting read. The gimmicks and whistles were at times too distracting to let the poems themselves take root and breathe, and often I wondered why some poems seemed simply abandoned when they could have used a bit more one on one attention. Regardless, I think the collection may make us ask some important questions about what’s possible in this tiny world of poetry, and perhaps how we’d like to go about approaching the thought of new media. It’s quite obvious we need to embrace it in some way, especially in a period when the genre’s impact and visibility are weakening with each passing year, but we’ve also got to be weary of new media’s contributions. I think this collection will show that no matter what, effectiveness and poignancy are going to come directly back to the writing itself, and the vehicle for that writing will continue to be an insignificant influence. Spring gives us its tricks and devices through which we can view the work, but these things never really add up to any sort of valuable looking glass. They obscure rather than focus, and many of these poems would have a difficult time standing without their crutches.