Emetic, Bouquet, Galaxy

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

Roxanna Bennett’s “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” first announced itself to me in early 2020. My own poem rejected, I huffily clicked over to the online magazine’s website, muttering “well, what DO you want, then?” I was immediately decked by “Winged Victory,” now a part of Bennett’s third collection, The Untranslatable I. In wing-like stanzas, “Victory,” chiastic and ekphrastic, brings into language the movements (cognitive and physical) of a speaker living and honoring a body both socially abjected as disabled and in pain:


what holy is. Armless, headless, “right wing

truncated, reconstructed” nonetheless, a vision

of wholeness. Let my body be so in translation. (5)

I mean.


I have here, in three new collections, a fistful of poetry doing the hard work of creating poetics for embodiments lived under erasure, embodiments read as queer, as trans, as disabled, as too much or not enough of each of these things. After Foucault scholar Lynne Huffer, I am calling this work chiastic, to name this labour of revealing, through the poetics of inversion, descent, and mise-en-abîme self-reflection, the ongoing failure of existing regimes of knowledge to allow for such lives. Huffer describes Foucault’s “ethics and . . . politics of counter-conduct . . . characterized by chiasmus, a rhetorical structure of inverted parallelism” (22). These poets, Bennett, Stintzi, and Nickerson, enact in their work a chiastic dailiness as counter-conduct: they rummage through the given world for something they can use to reveal the bar(r)ed self. John Elizabeth Stintzi’s Junebat concretizes this self-reflecting structure. Billeh Nickerson’s Duct-Taped Roses demonstrates that the chiasmus is emotional and relational as well as linguistic.


Roxanna Bennett fashions The Untranslatable I from genres of daily reflection governed by medical regimes of self-knowledge: CBT worksheets, symptom trackers, gratitude journals. Bennett’s speaker strives ceaselessly for visions of livable embodiments through an ekphrastic mythos pieced together from the hoards of English museums, Anne Carson’s translations, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Superman’s bottled city of Kandor(/candour).


How to write, speak, eat, travel, perform the activities of daily living, when the speaker is daily abjected, spit out, by medical and social regimes of wellness: “Can I tolerate / enough radiation to illuminate / the origin of suffering? As if it’s // born in the gutsack, not imported” (18). These poems insist on the affect of nausea, the inside forced out. The body cannot acquiesce to the rules of polite consumption. The speaker refuses to pretend otherwise: “I picked at the picture / perfect entrée at the Michelin-starred restaurant / & delicately vomited into the table bouquet” (15).


Bennett pieces together a portrait of an emetically eloquent speaker. She evokes a medicalized dailiness made up of waiting rooms, prescriptions, diagnoses, insufficient medical coverage; of condescension in the doctor’s office rendered, by repetition, mundane but never barbless: “’You’re just sensitive,’ / says Dr. X, noting tears unshed. ‘You’re just / insensitive’ I don’t say, afraid to offend” (35).


If Bennett’s poems enact a seeking, active ekphrasis, a gaze that claims, rejects, and transforms in pursuit of a livable image, John Elizabeth Stintzi’s Junebat is a predictive ekphrasis, conjuring the not-yet-formed.


The junebat is Stintzi’s figure for the elusive (im)possibility of a livable self-image. Junebat is arranged into three sections: two outer wings and a central body with a chiastic centre of three poems, “Apophatic Junebat,” “METAMORPHOSE” (X-ed out in the original), and “Cataphatic Junebat.” “Selected Definitions of Junebat” invokes the possibility of a new grammar, “a noun which is neither a person, nor a place, nor an idea” (8), and invites the reader to try “junebat” as every part of speech.


The collection’s formal experiments vaporize reference in the hope that it can re-condense into a new, more livable pattern. Stintzi’s “I am every stranger here except myself” (20) echoes Foucault’s sed ego non sum ego: I return, no longer myself (Huffer 23). This apophatic strategy appears throughout the collection, iterated by thought-stems like “you are not your” (27) “what is a body if not” (16) and “a junebat is not” (37). Negation is inverted into a tool of possibility. The dailiness of a train ride becomes the occasion for a revision of psychoanalytic binaries: “Am I the station or am I the New Jersey Transit / train that hit it?” (9). In the second wing, the junebat imago becomes more habitable, if not more translatable. The first wing’s “the best way to look at a junebat / is to look away” (28) becomes the second wing’s “we begin / to fashion a Frankensteinian sublime” (56).


“Your poem, your poem / on the bus, on the Skytrain” (38)—Billeh Nickerson continues to be the West Coast poet of queer dailiness. The poems in Nickerson’s new collection, Duct-Taped Roses, align themselves with the iconic queer poets of the New York School: Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara. As CanCon camp, Celine Dion replaces Lana Turner in Nickerson’s mythos of the everyday. “Langley” is a memory sequence echoing Brainard’s I Remember: “I remember walking under the power lines near my house and how if it was raining and you held an umbrella you’d sometimes get a shock” (68).


The moving prose-poem sequence “Skies” explores the dynamic between a queer son and his father, a bush pilot. In one vignette, the father shows the son the cockpit of his plane. Nickerson stages the painful and comic failure of translation across the chiastic gap between straight father and queer son. The son points to the control panel, asking the child’s question, “what’s that,” over and over. Each time, the father answers “a fuse” (48). Fuse is just what their understandings cannot do. They are father and son, images of one another, and yet neither can offer a useful reflection. Their positions are inverted in relation to the AIDS epidemic: as a pilot among flight attendants, the father knows more gay men who have died than does the son: “JeanEduardoPierreMarcTim rolls off his tongue” (49).


What use is a poem, that sublime stranger? It is a pattern for the gaze’s surrender: it is emetic, bouquet, galaxy, reflection.


Work Cited

Huffer, Lynne. “Foucault’s Queer Virgins: An Unfinished History in Fragments.” Foucault Studies, vol. 29, April 2021, DOI: https://doi.org/10.22439/fs.vi29.6212. Accessed 10 Nov 2021.

This review “Emetic, Bouquet, Galaxy” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 8 Jun. 2022. Web.

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