Explode, Lie, or Fail

  • Daniel Scott Tysdal
    Fauxccasional Poems. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Samuel Andreyev
    The Relativistic Empire. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Shannon Maguire
    Myrmurs: An Exploded Sestina. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Michael Roberson

When Samuel Andreyev writes, with seemingly anxious reassurance, “writing is contained / there / writing is contained,” he opens a closet door to expose the skeleton of poetry. “[T]here”—where no one has to see it is the essence of, and perturbance to, language. Within poetry, language is contained, restrained by form, whereby the conflagratory potential of language, its danger, threatens: to explode, to fail, to lie. In the newest books by Andreyev, Shannon Maguire, and Daniel Scott Tysdal, “writing is contained,” but it does not behave.

On the cover of Maguire’s Myrmurs: An Exploded Sestina, David Bateman depicts vibrantly and expressionistically what Maguire calls a “collagelision”—bringing disparate elements into proximity, leaving out the redundant, the unnecessary, and coaxing the “incommensurable” to “collocate.” Inspired by the notion of myrmecochory, Maguire scatters six core words of her sestina across a whole book, like a worker ant “harvesting seeds of noise”; each iteration of a core word functions as the title of a new, wild poem, strewing the entire poem farther from itself, “multiplying strangenesses.” The poems that share titles do not necessarily create coalescent serials within the “new ecosystem,” but more a “lattice of asymmetric intentions.” In fact, the six words—“noise,” “letters,” “pleasure,” “crowd,” “volume,” and “incorrigible”—suggest both qualities and objectives. Incorrigible and voluminous noises serve as “prickly” missives intended to pleasure and provoke. And while “strange & varied poetic forms” abound—many of which exercise with, and meditate on, the sestina—these forms testify to the studied nature of the book. Still, these poems push beyond formal gesturing: they operate at an “interrogatory frequency,” rattling loose the politics of language and gender.

Not only do ants serve as a formal trope—one running on six legs, the other on six words—but they also represent a particular political position. “The most visible ants,” Maguire writes in her opening epigraph, “are non-reproductive females.” In a series titled “Pleasure,” Maguire identifies as a “lesbo bachelor grrl . . . sorting out the linguistic & political responsibilities that come with being of Métis heritage (among others) & settler upbringing.” Ultimately, Maguire embraces and exploits the arbitrary nature of the sestina’s ordering of words, forcing a reading that requires “foraging” and “rummaging” rather than following “normative procedure.” Contained in writing, but not by writing, poetry threatens our “erosive English syntax” by celebrating the “blossoms of several languages.”

Unlike the Holy Roman or the British Empire, Andreyev’s The Relativistic Empire sets out having already failed: The “song of the ultimate mammal / drawing a lonely crowd.” Andreyev posits an empire with dominion over contingency, equivocation, approximation—an empire as a “flawless / simulacrum of itself.” Like the line drawing on the cover, gesturing toward specificity, but without committing to anything but the rough outline of a boot, the contents of this book only resemble poems, taking a step toward them, but really just squashing them underfoot. Like Maguire’s poems that don’t necessarily coalesce, these poems don’t necessarily add up (which isn’t entirely a bad thing).

Throughout the book, Andreyev suggests how it is “cut out of plywood,” a “joke,” “a flimsy / excuse.” While his tight, columnar poems don’t add up individually—“settling into stasis”—they add up aesthetically—“laps[ing] / into the continuity bracket.” These “funny little items” do not offer a “stupid manifestation of reality” or “what / anybody / says or sees,” but still, “there be words.” As Andreyev writes, the poems represent “wax fruit with real vegetables,” a seeming nod to Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads.” With their non-indicative titles, surreal absurdisms, and rhetorical punning, these poems celebrate purposiveness without purpose. In a poem titled “Recursion Cookies,” Andreyev begins:

send knives down the phrase or

kick cows to gel the steaks together


is a method forgetting near the

pad and launch this mislaid thought[.]

As ridiculous as these lines appear, they suggest the ongoing thematic reflexivity of the book: understanding “semantic units” requires a knife-like method of parsing the “mislaid thought[s]” throughout word, line, and poem. An initial contact with the book impresses that the poems might be simulated, by computer or by “mindlessness,” but in the end, an answer to that question remains relative, or at least something like it.

When Ezra Pound originally wrote his aphorism, “‘[l]iterature is news that STAYS news,’” was he imagining himself in the future as a nightingale tweeting with iPhone in one hand and cold-brew coffee in the other? Or, rather, what if some scholar, in the archives at St. Elizabeths Hospital, discovered notes of Pound’s plans for Twitter that also point to “In a Station of the Metro” as the first tweet? As preposterous as these questions sound, they represent the kind of imaginings behind a project like Tysdal’s Fauxccasional Poems. Fauxccasional poems both “celebrate or memorialize . . . fake or speculative occasion[s],” and deliver “Real Fauxccasional News.” As advertised on the tabloid-like cover, Tysdal writes “exclusive” poems that revise history and foretell the future, in which poetry represents a more significant discourse than it does today. The book begins and ends with a “Last Poem,” both for the occasion of Year Zero. In each resetting of time, a “leadership” has banished poets because poetry is a “weapon” that “made lures / of lie-wrought lyres.” Bracketed by banishment, the remaining poems in the book serve as defences of poetry.

While the catalogue of appropriated voices, tonal shifts, and formal exercises seems like a partial vita for a creative-writing instructor with his own textbook, Tysdal engages stakes beyond his aesthetic prowess. When, for example, he assumes the voice of President Obama, or Frederick Engels, or Nicolas Cage, or John Lennon, he does so to perform, however fallaciously or facetiously, “the dazzling marriage, at last, of life and art.” Certainly, poems of occasion, faux or otherwise, are about poetry’s (self-)importance, but while Andreyev cherishes poems as funny but effete, Tysdal imagines poetry as funny but responsible. For Pound and Tysdal both, poetry maintains its currency, not because it contains fact, but because it sustains possibility. So, Tysdal asks: “Was it from ruins or raw material that he fashioned / new parts? Did he invent a new vehicle for the people / or from his creation were a new people cast?”

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