The Cow

by Ariana Reines
Fence Books December 2006
Reviewed by Mike McDonough


The Hardness of the Frame

the cowOK, that is a slaughterhouse on the cover of The Cow, and those are dead cattle. Framed by the clinical language of a livestock manual, Ariana Reines’s first book runs language, culture and sex through a meat grinder, and the results are not pretty.  Perhaps those who like poetry or sausage should not watch it being made. But as the Koran points out, “Do you then believe in a part of the book and disbelieve the other?” Reines insists on showing us “the other side of the animal.”

Consider vomit and velleity. It’s not a matter of whether one word is poetic, and the other not. It’s not just a matter of balancing diction so that the same poem can plausibly use both words—let alone the same poet.  It’s a matter of using vomit to describe a real transaction between inside and outside, retaining all its disgust, the reflex of it, as a way to address ideas like cultural bulimia without hiding behind the adjective.  In the same way, velleity needs a similar anchoring: used non-ironically, it can still compare the language of consciousness with the fingertip precision of sewing lace. In both cases, the feedback loop is profoundly physical. Unfortunately, both times “velleities” is used, it is misspelled.   Either way, Reines’s relationship with language is fraught, ambivalent, and serious. The work contains quotes from Ashbery, Baudelaire, Burroughs, Proust, Rilke, Stein, and the Bible, among others.

Reines’s work is undeniably raw and powerful. Her verbal shredding has none of the clinical neatness of the computer algorithm, or the vaguely reassuring frisson of scissors on paper.  The insistence on blood, shit, cum and guts within an experimental framework reminds me of Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets, down to the use of a similar sans serif typeface, but it also sets up useful contrasts. While Schwerner’s sense of cultural transformations is similarly sexual and his body parts are similarly scaled, stacked and strewn, Reines will not let the aura of myth slur the body count.  The cow is sacred, a mother, a lover—and equally, “murdered meat.”

Reines removes the scholarly mask and talks even more directly: the harshly clinical frame of the manual and the constant sense of the body as muscle, blood, and water make the possibility of rebirth or any meaningful myth much less luminous, and much filthier. She reminds us that the cultural construction of bulimia is not that different from putting a portal in the stomach of a cow so that the digestion process can be seen. The myths are real. It is the people, the bodies that are ruined, not the tablets or the statues.  She writes, “We were the real’s dead mimes”.  No warm nests to return to here. Only slits, gashes, and holes.  Reines scolds us: “We are going to be smarter about these things from now on.”

In “Item,” Reines combines a discussion of feedlot/slaughterhouse practices, and the advent of mad cow disease with the story the speaker’s down-and-out mother, once a medical practitioner, walking downtown from Washington Heights to ask her for money for a steak.  This wraps itself around a discussion of language and truth. After describing how cows cannot digest their forced diet of corn without massive doses of antibiotics, she writes:  “A wimple fell over the real as if to protect it: a ruckus in the girl is artificial as anything, fortified by nutrients.” Despite the tone of this line, Reines often calls the ironist’s bluff by using language as literally as possible.  She calls the cyberpoet’s bluff by calling our attention not only to shredded texts and the cultural commodification of desire, but actual holes in physical bodies. She might even call Beckett’s bluff: she is not convinced that language can’t describe real things, but the purgatory effort is just as bleak and wearying as anything Beckett’s characters confront.

What happens to the world when a body is a bag of stuff you can empty out of it.
Errors, musculatures. 
Can I empty language out of me.
What difference does it make how a thing dies.  Consciousness.  Nobody knows
what that is.

Be warned: the obsession with bodily functions is pushed past the comfort zone, however sturdy your sealegs.  Reines wants to make you sick, and shock you into a different place. The last stanza of “Advertisement” reads:

You have got to sometimes become the medicine you want to take.  You have got to, absolutely got to put your face into the gash and sniff, and lick.  You have got to learn to get sick.  You have got to reestablish the integrity of your emotions so that their violence can become a health and so that you can keep on becoming.  There is no sacrifice.  You have got to want to live.  You have got to force yourself to want to.

By any measure, this is hectoring, risky, and, in this case, not concerned with being good poetry.  Reading this book may be a test of your masochism, but it just might change you. She’s aware of the risk.  The book is peppered with such lines as: “Ailmenting the world perpetuates it,” and: “I will not train myself to love this shit.”  With all the aggressiveness of Reines’s stance, it is unsettling to see the oddly beautiful spaces her work opens up on the killing floor. Look at the cover long enough and you may find an unsettling balance between beauty and horror, a sense that stays with you long after the book is closed.

The last quarter of the book does permit something approximating gentleness to appear. The poem “Rest” starts with “Hymns can make your forgetting happen.” and ends with “The mouth’s a haven for all an eye cannot disperse.”  But in the context of such fraught, relentless hammering, such brief moments of beauty can risk seeming like desperately mimed cliches. Here’s a chunk of “You:”

I looked up and was assuaged.
I carried to my mouth the ointment of the cloud that had ceased to move,
That had ceased to pass over me. 
I found a secret duct amid these floes of air and then they left off their coquetries,
        their complications. 
The beauty makes me feel it really happened
The sky had stars in it they glittered like calories upon the world

Whatever the state of poetry, words like “beautiful” and “lovely” should never be taboo, but it’s harder to earn the right to use them: the cost of beauty is greater today.  Using such a vague word as beauty requires a corresponding concreteness.  Vagueness gains its relevance by the hardness of the frame. Reines pushes this logic to a place it hasn’t been before, and doesn’t want to go, a place past politics, but profoundly informed by it; a craft that appropriates and shreds other texts, but which sometimes hides the theft; a search for beauty under piles of carcasses both metaphorical and real.  At one point she asks, “how badly does narrative long to be beautiful?” Does Reines succeed? Given that all meters are in the red, and that the answer has to wait until the end of the book, “Afterward” sounds understandably weary, but oddly, cautiously hedged. Hope is hard, too.