petals, emblems by Lynn Behrendt
(Lunar Chandelier, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2010)
Lynn Behrendt’s first full-length collection petals, emblems (in an attractive edition from Lunar Chandelier) begins with the sentence “Thee thine hat is a ship called Ruth,” so we know right away to expect a degree of disjunction. However, the next line immediately qualifies that disjunction: “What is & what is & what isn’t a that?” We can parse this line a bit: what exists, and of things that exist, what is and what isn’t a that—what can and can’t be defined or demonstrated? The language is reminiscent of Aristotle’s definition of substance as “a this,” which Zukofsky called Stein-ish. I can’t help but hear all three of these people in Behrendt’s opening.
In any case, the question presupposes that something is that isn’t a that, that can’t be named or classified, and petals, embers feels to me like an extended attempt to track down these ineffable . . . what would we call them? This question’s precisely the problem, since to say what can’t be said is, on the face of it, impossible. Behrendt’s solution is to adopt a firmly immanent stance toward her material: she plants herself inside the language and attempts to “feel out” the space from within, to ask, “What are our whos? / Where are our whats?” The words ask questions of words, and the structure threatens to collapse—it’s a scary place to be, and Behrendt occupies it fully and confidently, setting up this poem’s final, disguisedly programmatic sentence:
It used to depend on red define it map—
a faux history, part prep part roach,
how the hook plex
re matters the so next now into such
exact pleural writhing—
love’s contextual It.
We can hear where the punctuation might fall in the first line: “It used to depend on red” then the command to define “it,” which can somehow be achieved by mapping “love’s contextual It.” While at the same time Behrendt tells us that the process of mapping takes the form of a faux history that revolves “the hook plex / re matters.” Hooks pull, -plex is a suffix of joining, re means regarding, matters could either be concerns or materials—a joining of something (words?) that isn’t quite the concerns of the world but has a real relationship to it. This overlaps with the second promise, one the ear hears: the book “re-matters the so next now into such // exact pleural writhing”—the book puts words’ detritus into new configurations, gives it new concerns, and makes it matter in a new way, to effect a writhing of pleura (a membrane in the lungs we need to breathe or speak). It’s hard to not hear “plural writing” in “pleural writhing”: Behrendt’s poems, as the gesture toward what can’t reside in words, cannot proceed by a naïve creation ex nihilo but engage in the fundamentally plural process by which meaning must arise, in which love’s It is necessarily contextual.
At the beginning of another stand-out poem called “The Ulna Slash Uvula Laid Bare Lingual Age” Behrendt tells us “I am a language vole too.” This feels instructive: voles burrow. The fourteenth issue of Galatea Resurrects contains an interview with Lynn Behrendt, in which she describes her use of word lists, limiting herself to a fixed set of vocabulary options so that she can better focus on “the glue or waste in between the static objects/ideas/things that linearly chronologically accumulate into narrative—the syntactical substance that moves, displaces, makes things ping off one another, or decompose.” It’s a method of approaching language from the inside, one that acknowledges the presence of collage at the bottom of any writing act—whatever we establish as the basic unit of composition is a material given, whether it be phrases taken from texts & Google-searches or words that we didn’t invent or the letters of the alphabet. Again, creation ex nihilo is not an option: Behrendt establishes rules and explores their implications, burrowing into the language.
The result of her methods is thrilling to read. In this sort of writing, the texture of the vocabulary comes to mean so much, and Behrendt seems to favor the “primitive” in her sources—when she writes of living things, she favors insects, reptiles, root plants—when she writes of the human body, she tends to write of its constituent parts. The poem “Slats” reads, in its entirety,
tree stripped of bark
The sequence of words has no “sense” because this poem’s subject, built by burrowing in words, is not a that. But to me, at least, this poem seems to evoke a very specific feeling: the tree gets stripped and gives way to moss and stain, the lotus bowl gives way to derision and forceps, and in the end the scale of the poem’s referents is reduced to the larvae of some unidentified species: though before we could assume the forceps exist to pull a human child into the world, we have no idea now what kind of larvae is developing. But of course, to tell us what the larvae are would be to make them into a that.
Elsewhere in the book, Behrendt builds an illusion of a stable “I,” one that flirts with the psychic integrity of the Confessional lyric only to step back and mock it. Quite a few poems and passages are based around an “I am this; you are that” pattern. For example, “Marcasite” includes the lines
I’m the clouds—I just coagulated—did you see that?
You’re the retrograde hail that starts to fall
a mathematical migration, boyscout carrying canteen.
You’re a bridge with a flag on it, obstruction in the rock salt road
a crucified rune or rock carving—after the third or fourth sedative
I’m something small & spin-dried, a bull in a labyrinth.
There are some broadly thematic trends we can notice in the poem: the “you” seems in each of these metaphors less ephemeral and more fully-defined than the “I”—even migration is mathematical (the math describing the event can outlive the event). But to call these metaphors feels imprecise, since they can’t be “solved” in the way that metaphors invite us to attempt. Like the “I” and the “you,” the metaphorical structure has been generated by working from inside the language: it’s being exploited as a rhetorical construction, not as a one-to-one equivalence among the things these words can signify within their “proper” contexts. (Having seen the way Behrendt can pull the rug out from beneath the language of the personal lyric, I was pleased but not totally surprised to learn that she’s working on a book that uses a Google-sculpting method similar to that of Katie Degentesh’s remarkable book The Anger Scale.)
All of which is just to say that I had fun with this book. It’s a joy to watch Behrendt twist the screws on words and make them do things that they shouldn’t. There’s always a sense of something sinister in her poems, and there’s always a swagger in the face of danger, as in this passage from the long poem Luminous Flux (formerly issued as a chapbook that, I think, is sadly impossible to get now):
give pussy some milk
prepare an all-night vigil near my vagina
I’m not minor I’m not minor I’m not nothing
drugged in the back room
papilla drawn on paper
verily my dried buffalo skin
performs coitus with just the thought of you
a tingling sensation doctrine
lump of something in the throat
it’s dangerous, isn’t it sister, dangerous
but I want to eat strange foods
and not even ask what they are
perform pathopoeia on what used to be
your gallows lousy with verbs
That, to my ear, is a virtuoso performance, building a unnerving pathos out of what used to be simply the material given of a word list. This is strange food, but it goes down smooth, and though I have finished the book I keep thinking about the unnamed, unnamable “I” and “you,” no doubt each pl(e)ural, that appear in so many almostsensical configurations in petals, emblems. It’s a beautiful book, well worth the time it takes to read.
Allen Edwin Butt is a poet from South Carolina. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines and web publications, including Peaches & Bats, Otoliths, ditch, 2River View, Faultline (forthcoming), Venereal Kittens, and Poetry.