Brief Reviews: Three from Burning Deck (Howard, Dubois, Doppelt)
The weight of the terror and loss of 20th century European history hovers—nearly unspoken—in the background of the prose poems in Isabelle Baladine Howard’s Secret of Breath (Burning Deck 2008, tr. Eléna Rivera), all of which explore communication, miscommunication, and the limits and end of communication. The pieces are divided between sections in italics and sections not in italics, which seem to sustain a dialogue between them, although no stable identities are maintained by the marked divisions. Instead, the attempt at dialogue constantly breaks down, or open, because of a social landscape of uncertainty and horror: “the earth is plundered and the bodies abandoned./They changed the names of countries,/they no longer even know from what.”
If one senses, in these prose poem dialogues, the lurking presence of more specific details of European history (“here we are at the gaping borders” brings to mind many possibilities; I thought for instance of Walter Benjamin’s suicide at Portbou, but many other implications are possible), those details rarely emerge; this is a book whose power comes from suggestiveness rather than direct treatment. That technique leads to a few lines whose heaviness seems more posture than profound (“the talking of everything and of nothing,” or “The tires scream as though someone were insane with pain”). For the most part though, Secret of Breath is an unsettling book, one providing no clear answers to questions which can never quite be raised.
The group of serial prose poems that make up Caroline Dubois’ You Are The Business (Burning Deck 2008, tr. Cole Swensen), all revolve in strange circles of displacement around the idea of the double, of split identity. Each of the seven individual prose poem series latches onto a specific set of names/characters around whom to spin their tight, often funny permutations, with some of the names drawn from the history of film.
In one of the serial sets, Simone Simon (the French actress perhaps most famous to American audiences through the evocative Val Lewton horror films The Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People in which she stars) becomes, with her human/jaguar split identity and her neatly split female/male name, a perfect site for a set of twisting reflections on gender identity and more: “Or Simon name of daddy so slightly exceeded because I’m a girl inscribed inside with the silent and so that I Mmm there name of Daddy in my own”
The poems in You Are The Business are tautly constructed, often lasting just long enough to turn in a new direction off the previous poem in a way that makes the serial aspect clear; each poem seems to think again on the one before it. The result, over the course of the book, is a kind of gleefully paranoid hall of mirrors in which viewers, thinking they are watching the spectacle of the world, end up often seeing only their own projected distortions–which, to some extent, is what Dubois suggests makes up the spectacle of the world.
Suzanne Doppelt’s Ring Rang Wrong (Burning Deck 2006, tr. Cole Swensen) fascinatingly combines visual images with prose poem paragraphs that appear at first to be explanations of, or at least reflections upon, the visual images but turn out to be no such thing. The black and white images, all in rectangular frames, are mainly abstract textures divided into two contrasting halves, though the occasional insect or pair of human hands enters either directly or in distorted silhouette.
But it’s in the prose poem commentary that surrounds these images that Ring Rang Wrong comes most alive. The commentary seems at first to be notes for some kind of explanatory lecture, yet the notes veer off quickly into obviously nonsensical statements that still have a metaphorical, even symbolic, resonance (“The sun is as wide as a man’s foot”), or similar statements that, while seeming ludicrous, are actually quite exact (“To experience imbalance just spin around for awhile and then stop, you get the vertiginous sense that it’s the earth that’s spinning, a rotation—swirl and vertigo”) These statements show, quite often, how a very precise specific can seem almost too weird to be true.
Within the commentary, occasional sections of pun-heavy invented or borderline pre-existing language strings sometimes take over (”Orclôsśorambĺocha” begins the start of one such string, which includes multinational or just plain invented typograhical marks that I can’t recreate, while some of the language seems vaguely French or else unlike anything I can recognize).
The result is a funny, precise, ambiguous set of often dissociated reflections that bear many resonant implications for the surrounding images, while neither explaining or exhausting them. Ring Rang Wrong is a book operating on multiple levels of oddity and precision, and is well worth returning to more than once.