On Brian Barker’s Vanishing Acts, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, and E.M. Cioran’s All Gall Is Divided
The more I write, the more I find myself distrustful of words. Take, for instance, the previous sentence, within which I might have easily substituted “distrusting” for “distrustful of.” Or “furious at” for that. Or “disappointed in.” Or “skeptical of.” All of which would have adjusted the thrust of the argument to come, nudged me subtly from caution into rebellion, agnosticism into iconoclasm. But I didn’t—I went with what I went with—and the prose flowed from there. And here is what worries me about that choice (and, in fact, about all choices I make when drafting a piece, Dear Reader): the sound of the words influenced my decision just as much as their substance. The repeated “more” at the beginning of the sentence pleased me; the triple “f” in its latter half pleased me more; that the final word, “words,” is its most important, pleased me most. (And note here the “f” of “half,” the tripartite structure’s semicolon-accelerated punch, the slippery echoes of “s” and “m” and “t” at the sentence’s end.) It’s not only that I made a choice—it’s that I made it (and always do) while linguistically inebriated. Words are a drug more potent than most. Where the challenge lies is in treading the fine line between flow and lack of control, giving oneself over to the rhythm of a clause, a pause, without allowing the argument of which they are each a small part to unravel. Words do not only fail—they bely. They mislead. Which leads me to the three texts I read this week. (And note here the quarter-rhyme of “leads” and “read,” the half-rhyme of “leads” and “week,” the monosyllabic snappiness of the entire sentence. This need for prosody, Dear Reader, this insatiable lack: it does not end.)
Brian Barker’s Vanishing Acts, the collection of prose poetry with which I began this week, functions both purposefully and accidentally as an anticipatory eulogy. That it succeeds in the first of these ways is a testament to the fertility of Barker’s imagination, which is well-equipped for the task of burying the world. Through alternating sections of cheekily-named “re-creation myths,” he resurrects such fantastically-evolved creatures as lobsters that “eat the sea and outgrow the world’s largest pot,” pelicans whose deflating corpses “bellow softly, like a cluster of tuba players tuning up before a parade,” and moths whose heads are “burnt matches.” The untitled sections that interrupt these myths, meanwhile, act as a sort of commentary on them, an orienting complaint by an off-stage Greek chorus. “Charon’s Pawn Shop,” in which Barker stocks for us the shelves of the titular store, serves as a telling example of this poetic politicism: “Unfold [this handkerchief] and you have a Rorschach of blood that makes for a unique parlor game. (I see a snake that swallowed a porcupine. What do you see, young lady?)” The various extinctions Barker depicts, as lines like these again and again make clear, can be blamed upon no one and nothing but us. We did this to ourselves, and now can only mourn.
Where these poems struggle, though, is in the places in which Barker becomes blind to his own creations, too closely tied to the language he’s given life to step back and check whether he’s said what he set out to say. Language is powerful, remember, and to tap into such power is to render yourself at least partially under its sway. In “Tubas,” for instance, he presents to us the image of “tubas… blubbering back and forth like hung-over lumberjacks commiserating about a heat wave.” It’s a beautiful chain of verbiage—the phrase “hung-over lumberjacks” satisfies me particularly—and it succeeds where Barker needs it to. The image is singular, the effect at once tragic and humorous. The intrusion of a heat wave, the suggestion of unemployed self-medication: the despair of our contemporary world is evoked in one singular, subtle swoop. And yet: I don’t really care. Not as I do while reading fellow prose poets Daniel Borzutzky and Charles Simic, nor even fellow fabulist Kelly Link. Subtlety, like singularity, has its place. One can only plunge through grim wonder for so long before longing for stable, stony ground.
By a wide margin, my favorite poem in the collection is the penultimate “The Future of Loneliness.” In it, Barker’s lushness at last takes a backseat to bluntness. “All that remains of you are some cancer cells that won’t stop growing,” the poem opens. Loneliness, we are reminded, devours. It is a starving, senseless mutation, and its appetite cannot be sated. The rest of it not only commits to this tone, but doubles down on its unflinching grimness. Barker’s surrealism, instead of exploding outward, widening to include the world, collapses, drawing one’s gaze inescapably inward. We see cells that glow like “candlelit room[s]”; we listen to machines that make “a constant white noise that part of you thinks might be God preparing to swallow you whole.” In the middle of the poem, as his style briefly waxes once more, it is only as these cancer cells dream. And even then, the escape is imaginary, incomplete; the final oneiric image—“a single live oak flickering in the diesel fumes of dusk”—brings us crashing back to the awoken world. But the best line of the poem—of the book, if you ask me—isn’t an image at all, but a silent epiphany, an inchoate cry. “Part of you thinks, Fuck you, Darkness, and doesn’t realize that even this is a kind of prayer.” For all his consistently visceral daring, Barker has until now clung to the kind of kaleidoscopic fabulism that represents the best of prose poetry to many, but to me pales in comparison to the unfiltered rage of something like Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human, or the unvarnished grief of Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me. The appeal of ambiguity is real; it is easy to turn over in one’s hand a gemstone, admiring the variety with which it holds and turns back the light. It is braver, I think, to build a door, and to do so of stone. And then to open it, and usher us into the darkness that lies beyond.
There are many reasons to read Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House, and she’s been commended for maybe half of them. It is a testimony of the sort of insidious, ubiquitous abuse that by and large goes on in silence. It is at once a celebration and evisceration of genre. It is a love story. It was recommended (then lended) to me by someone I care for more than I can say, and I read it with the appropriate care. The reason I liked it so much, though, especially in comparison to Barker’s Vanishing Acts, lies less in what it accomplishes as a whole than in Machado’s line-for-line prose. Because while she can, if she chooses, throw down with the best of stylists, in In the Dream House she holds this impulse in check. After all, as she herself puts it while describing her attempts to describe her abuse: “Putting language to something for which you have no language is no easy feat.” Such is the case with both the most terrible and wonderful things of this world. The problem is that language, in attempting to distill their essence, often instead clouds their embryonic fluid, thereby obfuscating them. We flee from clichés—what Machado deems “one of the most dangerous things in the world”—only to end up writing tentative, solipsistic nonsense.
Now, I’m not saying this is where Barker’s collection lands. Nor am I saying that this is where Machado’s short story collection Her Body and Other Parties ends up, although I did like that work significantly less. My point is instead that some things are better said as simply as possible. This was Hemingway’s first and final lesson. The band Big Thief, in their song “Not,” took things one step farther, answering the why of Existence in the negative. (“It’s not the energy reeling,” the song opens, “nor the lines in your face…”) I could attempt to liken love to a broken-down spacecraft on a frozen moon of Jupiter—and perhaps I would succeed. As I see it, though, I would do better to say this: If the worst were to occur, dear, I would not know how to go on.
The last item on this week’s docket was E.M. Cioran’s All Gall Is Divided. Of this text I’ll say the least, although odds are that it influenced me more than the prior two works. Just like in The Trouble With Being Born, the French philosopher’s condemnation of life is total. Unlike in that later work, though, his resignation does not stretch back to birth, but only to the point where we became literate, self-conscious thinkers in this world. In one of his more playful aphorisms, he asks, “What would remain of our tragedies if a bug were to offer us his?” Similarly, albeit in a decidedly more sober entry, he wonders, “Will man ever recover from the mortal blow he has delivered to life?” It is not life that is inherently awful. Rather, it is our attempt to rationalize it, to wrangle it within our pen’s invented symbols, that poisons it. A bug’s life is far more brutal, stupid, short. But a bug is also uniquely blessed; of their suffering, they know nothing. And unlike us, they do not wish to explain it away.
To begin to write is to believe in the power of words. To continue writing is to accept the awful, far greater power they hold over you, and to persist in your silent verbalization nonetheless. I liked every work I read this week, but I was also scared by their words. Because the more I write, the more I find myself entering into an essay, a story (a sentence, an aside) with a definite intention, only to end up led (shivering, flailing) into deeper and dreamier waters than ever before. In one of the similar stories of abuse Machado cites while telling her own, she sketches for us the scene of an abuser on a beach, barraging her fleeing lover with a deluge of stones. In terms of my writing, especially of late, I feel like the swimmer in this story: fleeing the thing I love, pushed by it into increasingly uncertain territory. Because there are islands out there, often just beyond the limits of a writer’s vision. Barker washed up on one; Machado, another. Cioran, not finding any, built one for himself. My hope is that I find one of these stylistic islands, no matter how rugged or minor. My fear is that I won’t.