three Vagabond deciBels series chapbooks
The Vagabond Press deciBels series chapbooks are small squares, picture-frame size. A friend asked me whether I would review a few of them. Attracted to their titles, I chose Ann Vickery’s The Complete Pocketbook of Swoon, Maged Zaher’s Love Breathes Hard and Angela Gardner’s Thing and Unthing. As is indicated, love is a trope in the first two while the third explores human frailty in an uncannily ersatz world. Loss of dignity is an undertow in all three.
Vickery’s Pocketbook presents as a guide that archly advises readers on seduction rites, opening with “Swoon in miniature; or, The Youth’s Pleasing Instructor”:
Rules of induction: flirt openly
with random honey babes. Underscore tortured past.
Be your own peacock…
Just to be clear, always keep your options open.
Nothing says cavalier quite like a wink.
my little life and all the birds (12)
This poem includes an old-fashioned Neckclothitania diagram, instructing readers on how to fold a necktie alongside catalogued intersections of oppression via antiquated aesthetics. The narrator wonders: “what happens muse-wise / in the mired process of enchantment?” (7) Painting a convincing caricature of the self-centered philanderer, Vickery juxtaposes this figure with the nightmare of omniscient capitalism, and an awareness of the inevitable cost that comes with both partaking in it and resisting it.
The awkwardness when a woman refuses
to take the iron in a game of Monopoly. (8)
This erudite Pocketbook’s attention towards ongoing subordination of women to men is a sour leitmotiv endowed with wit in “Epic Spin”:
Beautiful cliché! I would unpick you
if not so enamoured of your miniature affects
Snow rugs, some tugs. The series begins prematurely.
A tragic cycle: sois belle et tais-toi! (22) (look pretty and shut up!)
Failure of complementarity in love relationships is an associated preoccupation. Feeling her way through “the ever-burdened earth” (20), Vickery’s attention turns towards the consumptive dimensions of romance. In addition to critiquing the micro-conditions of oppression within “free-market” hetero-normative relationships, Vickery attends to the conditions of slavery on which they rest: “I find myself all replica with made-in-China / sundry affections. See, Susie, how I sit so pretty, / pursuing le petite vignette.” (8) In “Another Chardin in Need of Cleaning (after Frank O’Hara)”, for the narrator: “Forearmed is foredefeated” in the face of “a spragged illusion that had me forever” (30). Earlier, this illusion is appropriated as display by “incorporat[ing] all the spoils in the world as splashbacks” (8).
Neoliberalism’s diktat that we sell all of ourselves is taken for a ride by Vickery, whose ludic verse entertains its ruthless enactments of avarice from positions of patriarchy. The possibility of redemption from the “dickybird world” (12) is presented, however. In “Autumnal Hook”, the narrator wonders:
What if Persephone remained a hard woman?
An ethics of care turned towards oneself. Love’s
harvest, the halves of intimacy in these latitudes.
A climate of change revealed as a cycle of constant
return, how to reconcile, farm my inadequacy
for yours or simply distract …
Cross-dressing Orpheus to your Eurydice,
I discover I want as a mode. (20)
Perhaps the only way out of this inequality, in which women are conditioned to serve others, is via an “ethics of care turned towards oneself”, beyond the need for male valorisation. As the climate changes, this must involve a shift away from an anthropocentric pattern of exploitation to post-anthropocentric possibilities of ethical care. This approach would no doubt prove some relief from the “[b]umper bar wind-bags” that “continue to sail along the sweet nothings / that tax the heart’s constitutional” (22). In the Pocketbook’s penultimate poem, “un4seen Fxs”, wordplay fiercely exorcises the pitfalls of amorous texting:
Typographical err Or makes me live you more
peach day; all the fruitiest
salad days of my unastounding youth
fresh firm to touch, sluice running rivulets
down my hum-dingers
leaves of green a sticky miss. Wilt. Upturned fascia to cuss,
my inner coast dealings on display,
here they are 4 all 2 cc. Can I
whistle profanities to you if my mood autocorrects
song to joy always as
and says you are a shit?
Love looks more and more like louvers
when you try to sms this heart and find only glasnost. (44)
The typographical errors enact a series of double or triple entendres: “louvers”, for example, is the cousin word of “jalousies”, for “jealousies”.
Akin to Vickery, Maged Zaher’s Love Breathes Hard grapples with the turbulence of infatuation and whether it can lead to love. Again, the personal and the political cannot be separated. In this poet’s foray into hankering – for what is not, but might be – emptiness persists in a confession, providing readers with a testimonial to a contemporary loneliness.
In different bookstore corners I wasn’t really looking for books. I was searching for a gap in the world. (12)
Divided into three parts, the book is composed in free verse and sentences flow into one another parenthetically across the pages, occupying them lightly when confronted by excess.
I carry my body over the distance between home and work (I couldn’t save the streets from myself). Then I log on to some website with images to sexuallise. Love is inaccessible here. We have – instead – a future to build. (13)
In a tinder-ready landscape where sex is easier than ever to access, love might be readily confused with it. Zaher is conscious that love, as a signifier, is a magnet for readers’ projections and is alert to his particular lover’s discourse. The intimate spaces created by love become sites of praxis – love becomes a verb, an active loving-to of which Irigaray has written – eschewing ownership. Rarely readymade, love is an uneasy enterprise that must be cultivated, regardless of infatuation.
Chivalry is a matter of bleeding: we start to negotiate and I step into your driveway. Sex becomes less coherent, like sleep, adolescence, and hunger. We discuss hunger but feel the particular intrusion of loneliness. (19)
Otherness remains a bridge to be crossed but never surpassed, collapsed, or trespassed. Rather, the bridge is to be negotiated and respected. The poet subject and his muse are altered, “shattered and rebuilt on the image of each other” (19). Their exchange of otherness de-colonises their engagement and collapse is averted in favour of a wandering back and forth. This negotiation instead of consumption might be extended to our relations with reality, which must be cared for: “We looked after reality, it wasn’t supposed to turn into wine” (17). By privileging “reality” over the intoxication of “wine”, the narrator/poet guards against solipsism. There is no completeness; there is instead unfinished business. Love persists, hangs, as an approximation and becomes a practice of satiety in the face of lack.
I was satisfied with street noises, I catalogued them as I navigated the consequences of my body. (17)
Thinking post-anthropocentrically, treading lightly, even when love breathes hard, is perhaps what is most required of us humans at a time in the history of the planet, in which earth is changing and becoming uninhabitable to increasing numbers of life forms. As he allows the texture of his yearning to breathe, the narrator accepts the mess of “street noises” produced by the industrial world of consumers and simultaneously takes responsibility for the consequences of our bodies in their vulnerability on this world.
The moon, being the ultimate voyeur, watches nothing. My wound is the trees. I sit quietly and study Marxism.
The architect constructs our shadows. We create a night without aesthetics.
The revolution calms down. We learn to be contained by the world.
I am finally able to administer your absence. (25)
Absence does not leave, and must not (cannot) be filled. The poet sits with emptinesses generated by projections, amorous and political. True generosity towards the future, wrote Camus, consists of giving our all to the present moment.
This is for you, and for nothing. The erotic is waiting. It is in the description and the yard grass. (26)
In part two, correspondence between the poet and his beloved assumes an informal, epistolary quality.
Hope you had a lovely visit to Seattle.
Can I write you about how special it was to share this intense moment with you – can I write you about the loneliness that is not being touched and how I am amazed you can do it – can I write you about the fantasy of love that was triggered when we met?
Asking permission, Zaher conveys consciousness of projections as distinct from the other’s reality he approaches. What does is mean to love? Poets such as Rilke and Rumi famously explored love’s vagaries and are often invoked to talk about the subtleties of a non-possessive intimacy. In a similar vein, the narrator rejoices in the bridge that separates himself from his beloved and, at every turn, in spite of existential loneliness, declares his commitment to do the work of its crossing and re-crossing.
I will honour all your boundaries, the physical and the virtual. If you want me to, I can disappear and not bother you at all – but I feel it IS a waste to do so – (29)
Later, as he emails his beloved, the poet finds himself wanting to “sign this email with ‘sending you love’”. In his “fit of truth” he finds himself unable to do so and sends instead “tons of admiration and affection. xoxox” (32). By resisting amorous declarations, the poet reinstates loving as a process that accommodates reality: “On another note, keep me posted about job search nightmare.” In contrast to Vickery’s anatomy of infatuation, here love is presented as a way of taking responsibility. The temptation to escape is resisted without giving up on desire, enabling love to exist outside of acquisitive relations of exchange.
In part three, the protagonist reassures his muse:
This is not about seduction.
It is about hanging out
While surrounded by capitalism
And we call it love
This continuous threat of collapse. (42)
Delusions produced by capitalism’s unsustainable pathway towards collapse are memorably conflated with the fickleness of our digital avatars and projections: “Feeding our devices electricity they produce imaginary lovers” (47).
If a central concern in Vickery’s and Zaher’s chapbooks is humans’ inability to master intimate relationships, in Angela Gardner’s Thing and Unthing, it is loss of control of all human grasp of life on earth. As analogue is replaced by the digital “cascade of information” (34), human agency is called into question. The first poem of the collection is called “The Road”. A road invites us to follow it. As non-places, roads transport us from one place to another. Stalling somewhere between Jack Kerouac’s quest and Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale, on Gardner’s road movement lacks direction. Hampered by “rain or … static between radio stations” it is slowed by “sloppy” steering of a car which transports a “ship of fools” and “proves a dog uphill”.
At home nowhere in particular, humans aggregate aimlessly on roads, remnants amongst the earth’s detritus. Unable to manage their environments, weather and technology conspire against them. The “cold bites down / eats into skin” and the high tide “obsessively collect[s] … it throws up / a headless seal / plastic bottles / a car tyre”. Anthropomorphised here, the car, weather and ocean prove more potent forces than the thingly animals whose purchase over them is enfeebled and oblivious as they “make beer rings on formica / and look out the window” (13).
This loss of control to unthingness is reflected in fragmented concrete poetry:
then we drive across
It is not possible to have faith in a sense of future: “It is the end of the road.”
As deterritorialised, disembodied bodies, how do humans find subjectivity in an age of techno-capitalism? How do the biotechnologies, and our attendant neuro-scientific consciousness, remake us? In a world in which mental illness is readily attributed to the mis-firing of synapses, rather than to emotional or structural factors such as inequality, isolation and loss, poems such as “Zero Sum [a mechanical soul ponders its existence]” extend the implications of this predicament:
and inhibiting] how relative at evening
how circadian in its sudden inverse proofs
Atoms cruise the scaly circuitry. The visual
system lights up dubstep
giving spatial coordinates to memory
electrochemical brain-states of the cortex. (15)
Emotions here are the product of a particular biochemistry, rather than having their roots in human relationships. In this way, there is little to distinguish humans from their technologies. In a world in which technology reigns supreme, humanity becomes a peripheral inconvenience:
While the body is incoherent, frayed to negatives.
Language a limit, edge to motion
:oh! the inefficiency that biology
may idly thumb its own prosthetic needs. (16)
Once referred to as the house of being by Heidegger, language here is a “limit”, a use-less and inconvenient sticking point, just another thing among others. Likewise, the idle thumbing of a device – indeed, our devices have become prostheses – reinforces the feeling of impotence. There is nothing for us to do here – we could “discuss gestalt / and dialectical materialism / if we could be bothered” (11). But why bother when the “weather will turn to crap later”? (13). The fetishisation of things, of the material over the immaterial, and the ecological destruction that capitalism and its concomitant master-slave dialectic have brought to bear on humanity is at a dead-end. And the relation between things and unthings remains unsettled and unsettling. “Printing now” (34).
Ann Vickery, The Complete Pocketbook of Swoon. Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2014.
Maged Zaher, Love Breathes Hard. Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2014.
Angela Gardner, Thing and Unthing. Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2014.