Posts Tagged ‘Anamnesis’

Put My Thing Down, Flip It and Reverse It: Lucy Ives’s “Anamnesis”

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

Lucy IvesMaybe the most important things I can say about Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis (winner of the 2008 Slope Editions Prize) are that it is the first full-length book of poetry I can remember reading in one sitting, one of the very few that made me cry, and the only by a poet of my generation that I’ve ever argued about with friends for twenty minutes in a bar.  There are many other things to add—about the ways in which the poetry behaves and why it might be that these ways work so well—but they are not the reasons you should buy the book (which you should).

As you might already know, Anamnesis is that poetry book everyone (relatively speaking) is talking about where the poems say Write and then something in quotation marks and then Cross this out and then something else and so on, e.g.:

You can write “Do you want to go together?”
Cross out “together,” write, “as a pair”
Cross out “pair,” write, “way of seeing if what we originally thought
….about the neighborhood is true”
Cross this out
Write, “The beech forest was not that beautiful, because I was
….embarrassed about other people there seeing me”
Say, “Why were you embarrassed?”
Cross out “embarrassed,” write, “feeling lonely”
Cross out “not that beautiful”
Write, “a place where people wrote names on the trees”
Say, “Who were they?”
Cross out “about,” write “for”

The idea that one must always read a poem twice is taken care of here, as you have to read each movement of a poem three times at least to read it even once.  Perforce, you don’t read through the poems so much as loop through them, gaining and sliding back and gaining again like the snail in the well in the riddle.  It’s a lovely effect, absolutely lovely, and I don’t go around calling things “lovely” every day.  Independently of anything the technique could be said to “mean,” I hope you’ll agree that the above excerpt is intensely pleasurable.  Speaking for myself, I additionally find it (and the poems in Anamnesis generally) genuinely beneficial in what you could call a meditative sense, and postulate that one’s favorite poems in Anamnesis, if kept handy, could actually stop a panic attack.  I can think of few compliments that cut more directly to the core of what it almost certainly is that poetry is supposed to be for.

But as for the technique, just to prove that I can address it as well as anyone, which is after all why most critics spend more time addressing it than they spend informing you that the poems are awesome, the first poem begins:

Suppose we write the sentence, “Paul had a very great mind”
Lateriweicanireturn,istrikeithroughitheiwordi“mind”iandiwritei“brain”
Lateriweimightiadd,ibeforeitheiwordi“had,”itheiwords,i“theiowneriof
….the restaurant”
We might add, “whose sign is in the shape of a sleeping deer”

So we start off echoing Camille Paglia’s observation about Emily Dickinson, i.e., that she always says “brain” instead of “mind” (as well as, if I’m right about this being deliberate, the Ben Franklin anecdote about the sign outside the hat store), the difference being that a mind is an intangible function of a brain, whereas a brain itself is a material blob of stuff that can be dropped on the floor and smushed.  Similarly, a poem (the effect) is an intangible function of a poem (a series of marks on a piece of paper).  What we are doing here is observing brain surgery, probably from the little tilty-windowed skybox from which TV has taught me such things are observed.

Another way of putting it is that we are in a poetic version of a Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) script.  And just like how during a Kaufman movie you begin to think after a while This is really cool but if the whole thing is like this it will get precious and annoying, you begin to worry the same thing here.  And also just like a Kaufman movie, Anamnesis is too smart for that mistake, and the thing you are afraid is going to get annoying becomes something just different enough to be even more awesome right at the perfect moment, without altogether becoming something else.

During the third section, in which poems begin to out themselves as being about the death of Ives’s father, the Writes and Cross this outs remain but recede, cropping up more as punctuating sucker punches than a constant device.  These middle sections—such a complete blindside after the reader was so secure of being in “OMG fun gamez with language” territory that I feel I should have begun this paragraph with ((SPOILER ALERT))—are so internal that it feels like one of those scenes in a movie where someone goes deaf, and yet manage to come off as not the least bit inside baseball, but rather so, so—how shall I put this?—generous.

Write, “You made good choices, good good choices”
And the love of teachers, well, that is like the green
….bower in a tale
Even they are not in place
Not for so long
Cross this out
The world just slips over itself and then what was isn’t
Recognizable but no longer to be known
And that transparent man at my shoulder
Carrying within him a lazy boat and all the
….colors

This generosity is possible because the literary device that shapes the book is, quite flatly, not a literary device at all but rather a way of making real life bearable by disguising it as a literary device, i.e., all that literary devices were ever supposed to be anyway.  Though people who labor under the misguided impression that this is a compliment will insist that Anamnesis is poetry about poetry, it is not.  And although the book is imagist and meditative—there is definite haiku vibe, which combined with the fragmentary architecture gives its longer poems the feel of renga composed among a court of one—neither is it simply about the experience of being alive, but more specific that that.  Once Anamnesis really gets cracked wide open, it feels as much as anything like a book about the Oughties.  Consider:

Write, “The woman was saddled with debt, on the bus”
Cross this out
Write, “It’s not enough simply to say the things”
They have to go in an order
Cross this out
Write, “That is the problem, in a world in which order is both present
….and not”

…and…

In being leaders, did they want to keep being leaders?
It’s a question like, in telling the story, did I want to
….keep on telling it?
What if it were to remain unfinished
Infinite, in this sense
Granted it’s only a very narrow sense
Cross this out

But the politics never displace the individual here.  Ives is writing not about our times but rather our generation’s experience of our times, leaving room for little gems like the following, one of the most efficient and memorable poems about the fear of aging I’ve ever seen:

Write, “There was a lamp lit in the room behind her”
Write, “The time is 11:15 in the morning and a sheet of
….wind before the window”
Cross this out
Write, “27 plus 5 is only 32”
Cross this out

In keeping with the theme of aging and the device of time, the book’s last two words—“older now”—of course continue being true.  And in keeping with the theme of death, until they’re not.

I’m not sure where poetry this remarkable comes from.  One of my friends in the bar said that Ives here reminds him of Marina Tsveteava, which is such a good observation that I won’t try to take credit for it myself.  My own initial reaction was that, particularly in the last half, Anamnesis reminds me of early Pound, which is odd, because I really like Anamnesis and I don’t particularly like early Pound.  But then I went back to early Pound afterwards and for some reason I like it now.  Weird.  I’ll also toss out that the book puts me very much in mind of Jane Siberry’s When I Was a Boy, the album she did in 1993 with Brian Eno (the one with “Temple” and “Calling All Angels” on it, although re the similar vibe to Ives I was thinking more of the tracks “Sail Across the Water” and “All the Candles in the World”).

If you’re thinking that this sounds like smoke and mirrors, and that all the anaphoric Writes and Cross this outs are merely a device tacked onto what are surely just series of disjointed epigrams that wouldn’t be any great shakes alone (as in, say, “America” by Allen Ginsberg, which actually is, to a great extent if not utterly, smoke and mirrors for exactly that reason), your skepticism is understandable—that’s how I would react to a project like this if I were hearing someone describe it instead of reading it for myself.  You’re right that it shouldn’t be as good as it is.  But it is.  The Writes and Cross this outs shouldn’t—certainly not by the last half of the book—be able to do as much work as they (evidently) do, but they do.  And in my experience, when I’m looking at something that, based on everything I think I know about poetry, shouldn’t add up to being much good, yet somehow ends up being brilliant, it means that what I’m looking at isn’t just brilliant, but genius.

Natch, this all runs the risk of being pigeonholed as “work about the process” (you know, the pro-cess, as pronounced in the ghost-robot voice), and while that’s there for people who want it, it also, as far as I’m concerned, totally doesn’t matter (how much it matters having been the subject of the twenty-minute argument in the bar now referenced several times).  As far as the Person Who Didn’t Go To Grad School Test goes, a person who didn’t go to grad school would still read these poems and go “Hey, this is cool” instead of “What the fuck is this shit?”, and that’s really all I need to say about the pro-cess.

Likewise, it will be impossible for anyone to write a review of Anamnesis without using the word erasure, and a good number will offer that the book is about how “utterance is impossible.”  I decline to take this route, for a few reasons.  One, the fact that you are holding in your hands a book of poetry that is real good means that, duh, utterance is actually not impossible.  And two, no critics (or at least far fewer of them) would be saying that if the book were by a man.  The “utterance is impossible” line is an (ahem) “compliment” we give to female/minority poets to signify that their work is morally acceptable, i.e., un-hegemonic, or whatever.  But I don’t see how it helps female/minority poets (or poetry in general) to act like any experimental thing they do is by design this weird Bartlebyish side-stage performance because they’ve figured out that poetry proper is either evil or doesn’t actually exist or both.  If a poem, of any nature, is good, then it is poetry proper, and the poems in Anamnesis are beyond good.  How the hell could one of the best books of poetry I’ve read in years constitute a protest against poetry?

I was being deliberately ignorant a moment ago: this line, of course, does help the poets about whom it is used because it provides their work a stepping stone to academic usefulness, i.e., visibility at all.  Saying “Hey these poems are really awesome don’t you enjoy reading them and oh btw they say cross this out a lot and the author happens to have a uterus but so what?” does not render a book useful to the fashionable pedagogy, but ignoring the first observation and making the last two the whole point does.  Probably we are all in agreement that poets should not compose with an assist to the fashionable pedagogy in mind—but after the composition comes the handling, and if all the handlers handle with assists to the fashionable pedagogy in mind, then incalculable amounts of damage to the art are done just the same.

Ives, I would certainly imagine, did not compose the poems in Anamnesis with anyone’s pedagogy in mind, but composed them purely to be awesome, and they are.  I shudder at what other reviews have done and will continue to do, but Ives herself must not be blamed for this.  She is a woman poet who had a cool new idea, and this means that most of the reviews are going to be annoying.  The only things Ives could have done to stop them would be to not be a woman or not have cool new ideas.  If you think the way that other people discuss her book is annoying, then the best thing for you to do is buy her awesome book, and then maybe people will start writing poetry reviews with you in mind instead of aiming them exclusively at annoying people.

So, to recap:  Lucy Ives’s Anamnesis blah blah blah “erasure” blah AND ALSO THE POEMS ARE REALLY BEAUTIFUL AND WILL BRING YOU, A HUMAN BEING WHO IS ALIVE, PHENOMENAL PLEASURE TO READ, EVEN IF YOU HAVE NOT BEEN TO SCHOOL FOR POETRY, AND ALSO CURE PANIC ATTACKS I THINK.