The Blessing of Dark Water by Elizabeth Lyons (Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2017)
You Asked Me to Talk About the Interior by Carolina Ebeid (Blacksburg, VA: Noemi Press, 2017)
Late Empire by Lisa Olstein (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2017)
Walter Benjamin once observed that “what has been forgotten…. is never something purely individual.” Indeed, it is easy to overlook the fact that memory and its elisions are collectively orchestrated, as we constantly borrow, appropriate, and revise material from a shared cultural imagination. Yet, given the presence of a communal consciousness, forgetfulness also becomes something of an impossibility. What is erased from the master narrative inevitably manifests in other ways, making its presence known in the minutia of language, syntax, and grammar. What is left out of the tableau remains woven into its canvas; it is housed, projected, and performed in the texture of language, which functions as a shared unconscious of sorts.
Three recent collections of innovative writing by women fully do justice to this notion of syntax as collective memory, as archive, as ledger. Elizabeth Lyons’ The Blessing of Dark Water, Carolina Ebeid’s You Asked Me to Talk About the Interior, and Lisa Olstein’s Late Empire each consider, albeit through a different conceptual lens, the question of what trauma and violence is housed in the words we use. “I am in a room, labeled difficult,” Lyons writes. In each of these stunningly crafted collections, we are shown the social upheavals and the deeply personal grief woven into the very rules of language, that glittering “machine” turning just beneath the surface of a community.
This enduring interest in our collective imagining, and even more importantly, what lies at its peripheries, is gorgeously visible in these writers’ reframing of silence as a vehicle for institutional critique. Here, the orders of power are jostled and rearranged. We are made to see the absence of narrative as injustice, as violation, as homage, as resistance and feminist gesture. As Lyons herself writes, “I recover. We don’t speak of it.”
* * *
In The Blessing of Dark Water, language is sedimented with history. “I feign deafness,” Lyons writes in the opening poem. The formality of the word feign renders us startlingly aware that the passing of time transfigures the most ordinary speech acts. As the book unfolds, we are made to see that the boundaries between speech and the unspeakable, narrative and what cannot, will not be said, are also temporally situated.
Lyons brilliantly reminds us that many narratives, particularly the stories of women who breach boundaries and challenge our thinking, could not be voiced in the historical moment that they themselves inhabited. There was not yet a vocabulary, a form, or an appropriate architecture to hold such unruly content, a missive that challenged — and still challenges — our most familiar ontological categories. Throughout the narrative, these limiting, constraining categories of being still loom large: “…my mother / showed me off to a friend as we waited for a / movie to start. Held up my left hand in hers— / Married! Married! Getting Married! My saddest daughter fixed!” Throughout the sequence, Lyons draws on hybrid forms reminiscent of the works of Jenny Boully, Yedda Morrison, and Jill Magi to forge a new lexicon, one that can encompass a more robust conceptualization of identity.
In the first part of the sequence, entitled “A Beginning,” we as readers are uncertain if we are inhabiting past or present, historical truth or its fictive projection. One gradually realizes that it is all of these, as Lyons shows us the way that history, its violence, and its upheavals are carried with us, in the words we use. She elaborates,
I draw a tree in chalk to signify the forest behind my home. I draw a body of the girl who was, before an illness. I draw a body for the Elizabeth who feigns politeness when it’s necessary.
I’m ready at the board, eraser in hand.
The sections, for the most part, are clearly marked with dates indicating past or present, but here, that space is left intentionally blank. We are shown an interstitial space as time becomes elliptical, recursive, circuluar. The language, too, drifts between temporal moments and their specific vocabularies: the contemporary colloquial blurs into high lyricism, which becomes a striking formality, the “quiet but not still” terrain of historical memory.
* * *
In Carolina Ebeid’s You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior, the historicity of language that fascinated Lyons becomes a source of strangeness, even wonder. Here, it is the intimacy of address, and the unfamiliarity of each weighted word, that gives the book an aura of the uncanny. Subtly and skillfully, Ebeid shows us that the distance between past and present, between self and other, and between the text and its reader, is luminous, bright, and infinite. What’s more, this vast expanse can be glimpsed in the space between each word, in the distance that the lyric must traverse in order to reach its singular, inevitable “you.”
For instance, Ebeid writes,
A girl reading a letter at an open window,
the air enters scented with pavement
that hasn’t yet set. She’ll curve the paper
into the shape of a nautilus & listen
into the sea captivity, its stammerings.
Here, we are shown self as world, as “nautilus” and “sea captivity,” a vast terrain, where it is impossible to impart full knowledge of its geography to another, even if it were one’s wish to do so. What’s more, Ebeid reminds us that history in all of its complexity is housed within that seemingly small “curve” of “paper” that is the individual consciousness. The mind, for Ebeid, is a ledger, one that has been written over with the “letters” and “open windows” of Romanticism and the “stammerings” urban industrial modernity. Because of the vastness held within each one of us, Ebeid suggests, the distance between self and other grows that much greater. What’s more, intimacy becomes something of an impossibility, as the innermost rooms of the psyche are filled by the objects and ephemera of history, our shared narratives and their myriad philosophical problems, their many injustices.
Ebeid’s great gift is her ability to portray this tension between the individual self and a shared historical imagination with beauty, lyricism and compassion. As the work unfolds before us, she reminds us that despite our ultimate isolation, our deep solitude within the walls of the body, the road is lined with “tulips showing their brilliant throats.”
* * *
Late Empire continues this interrogation of language as vestige, as master narrative in ruins, as archive and as collective unconscious. Much like Ebeid and Lyons, Olstein calls attention to the fragmentation – of meaning, of story, and of voice – housed within syntactic constructions that offer an illusion of wholeness, that deceptive aura of unity and cohesion. In many ways, the tension that Olstein creates between a unified form and this unruly content speaks to the role of grammar, and its implicit logic, in structuring the narratives that circulate within our culture, that echo within each one of us, the stories that ultimately make us ourselves.
For Olstein, grammar implies a very particular type of causation, one that assumes a linear understanding of history, a logic of cause and effect. What is brilliant and provocative about Olstein’s work is that she fully acknowledges the impossibility of forgetting a conceptual framework that has been fully internalized, and the futility of fashioning something wholly new. Rather, she realizes that the rules of language must be questioned, interrogated, and revised from within. She elaborates in “AIR RIGHTS,”
One way to think of it is
I require absence and you are
lifelong a room just left. Except
you bloom not empty half-light
but a stand of trees at the edge
of the meadow where my life
Here, Olstein offers sentences that fit together from a grammatical standpoint, functioning as pristine subject-verb-object constructions. Yet within that flawless grammar, one discovers a provocative fragmentation of meaning. For example, as we move into the third line, the semantic meaning of words is no longer privileged, but rather, their musicality, their sonic qualities, becomes the driving logic behind each clause, each gorgeously ruptured sentence. With that in mind, Olstein offers a vision of history in which language becomes an internalization of empire, the mind itself being colonized by a logic and a worldview that is not one’s own. What is fascinating about Late Empire is that Olstein does not merely offer critique, but begins the difficult work of creating an alternative space, an understanding of language that allows for the hypothetical, the disruptive, the utopian.
Like Lyons and Ebeid, Olstein offers us language that is startlingly conscious of its own movement through history. In doing so, each of these three gifted writers forges her own her own ethics and her own lexicon. These are books that remind us what is possible in the most familiar grammars, showing us the strangeness and wonder that resides just beneath a docile surface, the syntax we thought we knew.
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Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books of poetry, most recently Ghost / Landscape (with John Gallaher; BlazeVox Books, 2016) and the forthcoming Dark Horse (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, a Fundacion Valparaiso Fellowship, and three residencies at the American Academy in Rome. She is the recipient of grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems appear in New American Writing, The Harvard Review, The Mid-American Review, Poetry International, Passages North, Nimrod, and many other magazines. She has published essays in Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Quarterly, Associate Editor-in-Chief at Tupelo Press, and a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly.