These responses to Will Alexander’s long poem “Concerning the Henbane Bird” from The Combustion Cycle were written by the members of the Graduate Poetry Workshop at the University of Notre Dame. Every week the class has been writing responses to a wide variety of texts – poems, essays etc – developing a collective reading framework. While the posts here reference some of the previously discussed class texts (such Anne Carson’s “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” as well as student poems and in-class discussions), I think these posts can also be helpful to readers from outside the class.
I first encountered Will Alexander’s poetry about a year and a half ago. Asia & Haiti, an early work from Alexander, served as a spellbinding introduction, reminding me of Louis Zukofsky’s modernist epic A and various works of Aime Cesaire. Alexander’s work also reminded me of staring down the Atlantic ocean as a kid: in sparkling massivity, in furious decadence, in sprawl, I felt myself overtaken by an intensity both meticulously textured and blank. Kelly Krumrie, in Tarpaulin Sky reviews of one of Alexander’s later essay-collections, A Cannibal Explains Himself to Himself. She writes, “reading Alexander is like trying to track the manic paths of an ant colony, but the ants are words.” The truth of Krumrie’s extraction is evident from the first page of this cycle: “I exist as incessant cylindrical magenta/inside my black vertiginous eye” (21). Well, what the fuck then, Will? Tangles everywhere, passing and morphing too briskly to define with cognition, “Concerning the Henbane Bird” cannibalizes itself endless, as phraseology fangs its prior flesh through repetition. No matter how many times Alexander uses the word “alabaster,” in this text or in his other work, I still can’t give and exhaustive definition of this word’s utility. This feature is joyous to me, not only for my personal penchant of maximalism, but because sensibility, carnality, the felt, is so often depleted in the face of exchange value, the legalistic confinement of meaning and anyone who has ever lusted after the enforcement of their own notion of reality and legitimacy upon everyone/everything else.
So I agree with Krumrie’s description, with one minor adjustment: what if, like, we’re the ants? What if we’re the thing that exceeds our own comprehension, our state-sanctioned modes of “expression,” and Alexander’s drop-dead celestial baroqueness just coaxes this dissonance towards actionability? What if, when the shamanic speaker writes, “I am implicate/scorching/phonemic as trespassing material” (30), there’s nothing to “get” (or buy or sell), there is just the scorching implication of sound as a transgressive materiality? Disintegration through proliferation, erosion and explosion as conjoined principles of being. Everyone/everything falls apart; the remains scatter, mushroom and blossom with risk. (All prior questions are rhetorical, though I’d be excited to hear what any of you make of this. As a more pointed query, does this text trespass against you? Does this text trespass against methods of capture? Is there a role for trespass in your own writing, and what is its substance?)
But I’m too obvious. Anyone who’s ever been in love, studied literature or done hard drugs already knows that everything falls apart, but Will Alexander doesn’t want you to know it, he wants you to feel it. Knowledge without carnality is just reproduction, and by political necessity, it is the reproduction of capital in all its stratified cruelty. “no/by a sense of omniscient vertigo/by levels omniscient with vertigo & nostalgia” (33). Omniscient vertigo, nostalgia: two examples of knowledge at its limit, where “knowingness” blacks out, intoxicated by creative power. I think of Misael’s first workshop submission, specifically the line: “me: Misa. miss…” Alexander does something similar, at least on the level of performance, when he begins stanzas with a singular I, only to revel in its unwieldy multiplication. For example:
being the void of greatest liberty
who understands the core beyond the central firmament
its greatest hurricane as wilderness
ubiquitous with phoneme upheaval
with classical disruption
so as to create from a prior solitary rubric
without zeal which invades toxic interconnection (46).
Where we’re dwelling here, as readers and freaks and knots of ungovernable slime, is not “information” “about” a “self,” but a jar of nerves that spills beyond such distinctions. I think Misael and Will Alexander crank the same ontological lever, as they use the self to launch their poetry into tangible ambiguity. It’s not about rejecting self, but about accepting it for the only thing it’s ever done well: fall apart. “I am the beast one can never renew” (55). What’s left when the self finishes eating itself is the non-individuated “mechanism of feeling and thinking” which Oliverio Girondo describes as the only thing worth studying. I’m paraphrasing here, and the operative word is “studying,” because I don’t think “non-individuated” ever means “non-rigorous” or “non-meticulous.” On the contrary, Will Alexander is thoroughly meticulous, and this machete-sharp attunement becomes all the more evident to me the more force I apply to it. I recommend reading as much of this cycle out loud as possible: vocal technique really accentuates all the nuances of this text’s sonic qualities.
Meaning: I think any text of Will Alexander’s could be close-read for lifetimes, or sped through like a sniff of powder. I prefer to oscillate between the two methods, reading quickly until the sonic lushness becomes too unbearable to resist, or I find myself surprised in some way, at which point I zoom in and comb through all the sensuous linguistics I can taste. But how did you all read this? What was your method? Were there certain trip-wires that shot you deeper into the work? How did you maneuver such a massive, agile flux of sound? I’ll close with a favorite stanza from page 117:
I am permitted no locales of burning
no profile as testament
no worship pursued through autocratic foundation
This excerpt, to me, walks towards a question Johannes posed in his email to us: why is this poem so long? Why does Will Alexander choose not only to carve astral (massive), mythic (massive), and chemical (yes: massive) language into the poem, but to make the poem itself an agent of that very massivity through its literal size? I think this stanza offers some insight, as the speaker voices a denial of localization, representation, and dogma. I think
Will Alexander, in the tradition of Cesaire, wants us to shake us out of our binds on a plane of touch, experience, not merely “understood.” An open-ended toppling of ourselves. But I don’t have an answer, because I think this book’s incomprehensible wingspan precludes answers. What do you think? What is the advantage of reading something that exceeds you? Of writing something that exceeds you? Of the Pafundaesque departure from “satisfaction” into cannibalistic star-leaping?
 Referring to Misael Osorio-Conde, and his poem, “It is like the story where nothing ends and nothing begins.”
 Referring to Anne Carson’s essay, “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” as she quotes Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Will Alexander’s text strikes a complicated relationship with embodiment, naming, precision, measurement, and mapping. At surface level, we encounter these practices/qualities as forces of destruction and imprisonment, but Alexander is also concerned with the sorcery enacted by language. As we enter The Combustion Cycle, we find ourselves privy to the logic of a winged consciousness flying above the Andes, mapping onto the landscape many abstractions as it displays the ways in which it is “ventriloquially able to emit my condition” (47). Through this ventriloquism, we receive a shapeshifting, yet controlled speaker that both speaks the language of scientific measurement and precision, and shamanically channels a conglomerate of ancient voices who remain distant from the earth, exiled in the pain of the Anthropocene. Temporally, the speaker gives us hints that we are in some destructed “now”: “billions of years in the blankness/ the Andes:/ ruined magnificence/ my perch: ruined & magnificence” (47), but we see few specifics of what has been destroyed: “my universe,” it says, “never one of corporeality or capture” (38). This refusal to exit the “dialectic,” proclamatory space (continuously marked in the text by the language of logic and causality, with words like “therefore”) seems both a mockery of, and a form of resistance to, destructive tools of “progress” that stem from Enlightenment thought. This speaker fully understands how language (and particularly, scientific language) functions as a force of violence, and rejects the “laws” of language: “no/ I am not a potentate/ or some skilled adversarial candidate/ formed at his essence by diplomatic juvenalia…nor do I partake of the exosphere/ by which habitat is measured…one cannot describe me/ with ‘8 pairs of ribs’/ an ‘extensible’ tongue/ lateral nostrils/ ‘alular feathers’” (48-49).
The complicated terms of scientific precision (and signifiers of even the earliest measuring tools, like the “clepsydra”) contribute to several levels of distance-making that happen in this text. First, they make the reader work—as Marcella Durand suggests in her blurb for the book, having a dictionary handy makes for a richer experience if you are curious about the taxonomies Alexander uses. Whether or not we are driven out of the text to confirm a word’s meaning, we must confront the arbitrary complexities of naming; the tedious parsing of living systems and functions into smaller and smaller parts and more and more specific ways to “capture” a phenomenon. Second, they point toward an examination of scale: we are receiving this poem from high above the earth, where the speaker can only speak in abstractions rather than particularities. Just as the carving of maps and the naming of genus and species creates clinical distance between scientist and living object, so Alexander creates distance between the speaker, the text, and the reader: we cannot be fully absorbed in the text because the text rejects language that could be absorbed into bodily experience.
But it is not just in unfamiliar words that Alexander rejects our desire for concreteness and closeness. Signature to The Combustion Cycle are strings of familiar words that, when smushed together (often in a triad) become unfamiliar and force us to wrangle up a new conception: “dazzling juggler’s liquidity” (46), “primal inquisitor’s prism,,” (42), “extraneous psychic terrain” (42,) “tense coronal rain,” (43), “fragmented sepia vocality” (40), “darkened cellular nomadics” (38). The list could go on, ad nauseum. All of these new, abstract concepts resist the common poetic impulse toward corporeal imagery; they refuse to be captured and contained in a recognizable embodied form. We want to imagine what this “dazzling juggler’s liquidity” could look like, and maybe we can picture some amorphous lump of a jester’s outfit leaking ooze, but the mental product is not going to be universal. Again, we cannot feel the things because they’re not “things,” and we’re left swimming in the text’s shadowy, swarming and circling motions with “the leptons & photons that vanish/ the quarks & their ghostly mesmerisms that spill & regather/ in odd cryptographic ambrosia” (47).
To return to an earlier observation I made about the idea of the speaker being a shamanic channeler: I’ve listened to several interviews over the years with people who claim to “channel” a conglomerate of entities, often with celestial-sounding names (of the kind that Alexander uses throughout his work), and they often say that the voices are always there, but that they can choose when or when not to tune into them. What strikes me on this note is that while reading Alexander’s poem certainly feels strange and surreal, it surprisingly does not feel chaotic—rather, the speaker feels quite controlled about its shifts between more ancient, mythically minded systems of naming and more contemporary, scientific ones. The recurrence of specific names, particularly the speaker’s refrain of “I, as Hillstar” remind me of one particular channeler I heard who refers to his intergalactic companions as “The Zs.” It sounds woo-woo and insane, but I think that the poet (and perhaps, Alexander) is always performing a genuine act of channeling. Who the hell knows where the voices that pop strange phrases into our heads come from, or the personas we take on? Sometimes it makes me feel like a language computer when I can’t stop the wordflow, and that’s kind of how it feels reading Alexander’s work. There’s an interplay I sense between celestial language (the language of the galaxy) and the way in which his phrases are strung together as though randomly generated by a computer.
That brings me to PJ’s question about why this poem has to be so long, and I would say that this speaker/being (bird or amorphous something) would never be able to communicate all the years of bearing witness that it seems to have endured without such length. There is little recognizably “emotional” expression that I found throughout the work (though I did not reach the end yet), but as a reader, I felt exhausted by bearing witness to all of this abstraction and not being able to land myself anywhere. I wonder if the speaker, hovering above the world between earth and the heavens, feels the same.
I’ll close with a note of curiosity about embodiment as it relates to “GNOSTIC RECOGNITION,” and the “OCCULTED PANORAMA OF THE COSMOS” which Alexander invokes in his preface to the text. My experience with Gnosticism (a few years ago, my boyfriend and I infiltrated a Rosicrucian temple a few times until some spooky FreeMason-type things happened and we bounced, but that’s a story for another day) has taught me that Gnostics view the body as a necessary meat vehicle, but ultimately something to be shed so the ethereal, light consciousness can be freed (and perhaps reincarnated). Gnostics tend also to be really interested in the myths and beliefs of ancient Egyptian civilization. (I noted that Alexander invokes hieroglyphs, but since he embraces indigenous South American beliefs and names, I took that to be ancient language systems more generally). Since Gnosticism is a sect of Christianity , I wonder where the text does land on its spiritual questions. On page 27, Alexander writes, “I could speak/ of ‘black umelanin’ or certain types of ‘phaeomelanins’/ & I would find myself in bloodless worlds of scholarly/ anti-frothing/ because I exist in absentia/ I could post-exist an Irazu/ as a Juan Fernandez Hummingbird.” Here, the act of uttering these clinical, taxonomical phrases seems to enact a kind of sorcery, as the speaker says they would literally be transported to the “bloodless worlds of scholarly/anti-frothing.” But isn’t it already in a bloodless world, far above the earth? The world of Hermeticism/Gnosticism/magick also embraces this idea of casting “spells” through your words. In much of his poetry, Alexander also uses the word “sigil” repeatedly—do these poems cast a kind of spell around the poet and on the world below the Henbane Bird?
Jillian A. Fantin:
My initial reading of Will Alexander’s “Concerning the Henbane Bird” from The Combustion Cycle was informed by the near-warning offered before the piece began:
Absolute fearlessness is required,
because at every step, at every second,
you must wage war against everything
that is established. (11)
This sense of consistent war certainly came out to me throughout Alexander’s massive text, as well as his self-proclaimed attempt “to clear…obstructive self-detritus” (15). Although his sequence is certainly long and stuffed with myth, the cosmic, and tonnes of time and space, Alexander refuses to allow unnecessary poetic debris to muddy the piece. Doing so creates a piece that is visually massive and filled with references, themes, and language without ever reading as exhausting. Alexander’s speaker and poetic inclination towards the colossal provide insight into the piece.
PJ mentioned this particular statement within his instigation, and it certainly struck me as the precise words required for an in-depth exploration of Alexander’s poetry: “Disintegration through proliferation, erosion and explosion as conjoined principles of being.” Will Alexander’s stanzas often appear extremely sparse. However, as the poem continues, this initial scantness falls away to reveal inherent density within the lines themselves. For instance, near the very start of the piece, Alexander’s speaker says, “I merge & cease to merge” (23). In only a few words, the speaker communicates an inherent dualistic paradox within their being as they move throughout this world. The speaker continues to make these statements of duality throughout the text: “here I am / upon this complicated precipice / before & after death”, “I exist / by neither night nor day”, and “I / the re-engendered bird / devoured & re-born” (30, 50, 203). These revelations, in PJ’s words, both explode and erode the speaker, shrouding them in mystery while simultaneously revealing a world that defies traditionality and convention. Even as the speaker continues throughout the text and eludes convention, they clearly and continuously assert and reassert their existence. Additionally, the speaker reveals how they maintain their existence: “I persist by presence of echoes / knowing / that I pass back & forth between what is known” (66). Though this particular passage refers specifically to cellular modalities, the speaker reveals how their inherent dualities maintain their existence within such a dense world. By existing as “echoes” of multiple sides and multiple essences rather than a single concrete entity, Will Alexander’s speaker finds themselves able to navigate their world’s erosions and explosions of language and theme, as well as exist and persist within both sparse lines and thick language.
“Concerning the Henbane Bird”’s seemingly-innate need for immense space certainly emerged within my first reading. PJ poses a question regarding this poem’s massive nature, asking why Alexander decided to make his poem “an agent of that very massivity [of language] through its literal size.” The answer to this question first emerged to me within a stanza towards the centre of the text:
& I am inhabited by language
by a language that breaks apart
by a language that gambles
that stuns in its elastics… (195-196)
The themes and language PJ identifies are massive in their own right, requiring space for appropriate explication; these themes and languages combined, then, require even more space. Language fills everything and becomes part of the speaker’s assertion of agency within this world. Similarly, as the speaker themselves is filled to the brim with language, the poem itself becomes a similar “agent of massivity” as it seeks to contain (but not constrain) the largeness of the cosmic, the scientific, and the mythic. Just like the speaker, the poem fills with language and is forced to expand to accommodate its vastness. “Concerning the Henbane Bird” manages to take on agency for itself and argues that these aforementioned concepts need to be explored on a vast scale that broaches traditional poetic boundaries. Alexander’s poetry requires immense space, and the poem takes on this task in order to accommodate language.
Ultimately, Will Alexander’s “Concerning the Henbane Bird” proves how poetry must extend beyond when language, themes, and subjects require extension. “Beyond,” in this case, cannot be defined, as I find Alexander’s work to simply push any and all boundaries or traditional definitions in order to achieve its poetics.
When I set out on the hero’s journey that was reading Will Alexander’s The Combustion Cycle, I was happy and surprised (when talking Will Alexander, pleasantly surprised feels too subtle, and I also wish to highlight the importance of conjunction later in this response) to find a Mircea Eliade appearance in the book’s epigraph. His name is one which, ironically, functioned as a kind of taboo in my undergraduate studies in religion, shelved alongside other mid-century philosophers and historians of religion because of their their status as “living room” philosophers (think Joseph Campbell, or the application of Jung in either Eliade or Campbell’s writings) whose immense popularity at the time of their writing seem to annul the value of their theories in contemporary religious studies. Primarily they were discredited because of their failure to understand religion and religious experience as wholly contingent cultural and historical phenomena: Eliade’s notion of hierophanies can be said to imply a kind of dualism between sacred and profane reality, and further, a kind of essentialist or platonic phenomenology; similarly, the idea of the “eternal return,” which Eliade and Campbell share in some fashion, suggests a kind of universality that can be applied transhistorically and transnationally. Reading The Combustion Cycle, I am reminded of why I didn’t want to utterly reject the notion of a distinction between sacred and profane space and also why I couldn’t totally accept this distinction either: my proposition is that Will Alexander’s work in this book enables us to exist both in difference/definition and in a space of a kind of pure energy and incantation in which difference or différance is annihilated and we are awash in the space of paradisiacal psychedelic non-meaning (because what else is this paradisiacal shamanic space besides outside both meaning and non-meaning all together, besides outside and all-encompassing of both ellison and distinction). And how else could he write this poem?
One way in which I see this happening in The Combustion Cycle is through the careful listing of particulars, of the proper names of people, places, and things, shortly followed by language that seems to work to undo these particularities. He writes, “if visible/I would consider myself incarnadine/my blood alive & indescribable with salt/describing myself with an echo of nouns // say/the Paramo Sapphire-Wing’/the ‘Green-backed fire-crown’/the ‘Plain-bellied emerald’/or perhaps the ‘Purple-throated mountaingem” (26). And later: “I could speak of the “La Plata River’/of Venezuela & the Andes…I could speak of spinning Andean Lakes…& I am speaking of only one chemical diction/of one circumstance evolved/from an optimum habitat of light // & this light…totalic as an invisible cognomen/is a syntax of deities/is Anubis/is Thoth/is Ishtar/is Shiva” (30). Both of these excerpts demonstrate the ways in which the The Combustion Cycle enables use to thrive in/to feel within both difference/distinction and its annihilation, especially in the way the above lines pronounce a kind of “totalic” and “indescribable” “habitat of light” which is at the same time “describing myself with an echo of nouns” and contains an “invisible cognomen” which from it flurries out the multiplicity of the names of deities. And this dialogue between distinction and its obliteration continues throughout the poem in a kind of cyclical, “eternally returning” style. And we are, after all, living in the Kali Yuga. As Alexander writes, “I merge & cease to merge/with manifestation & its rifeness” ( 23).
Repetition itself seems to function as a kind of ars poetica of this thesis, displaying or unfolding a kind of multiplicity through the incantation of sound that simultaneously elides these distinct bodies into one great body. For example: “as I hover inside the Andes/as the fuel of an interior lightning subspecies/as an ark/as a sun on a tremorous ruby” (21). Here, the consciousness of the speaker is blasted out across time and space and yet there seems to be, at least for me, great enjoyment in existing in the specificity of the ark, the sun on a tremorous ruby. So both difference and psychedelic merging can be seen as modes to play in. Different object-bodies through which to experience experience. And I wonder if this quality of playfulness–which seems to be more what can be said than that this poem either says or does not say, that the paradisiacal makes meaning or destroys/lacks it–that exists in this shamanic “proto-reality” (the sense that we are traveling back in time in this poem is strong, and the word “proto” repeats throughout) might be viewed alongside the notion of “paradisiacal babbling” that Aase Berg puts forth in her essay on Language and Madness, and the way in which this particular kind of knowledge or being belongs primarily to children, their ability to try things out, to play.
I want to start my response to Will Alexander’s “Concerning the Henbane Bird” by investigating Henbane. Henbane is a plant, and I wasn’t the first one to google it. “What does henbane means?” is suggested as one of the top questions to ask the algorithm, and, in the answer google gives, it goes on to say how its parts are used for medicinal purposes though it can be poisonous in high doses. This innocuous fact in turn sheds light into the opening of Alexander’s apostrophe in which the speaker begins its vertiginous meditation on its “mystification” properties (Henbane’s) though soon enough it declares “no.” Before I go on trying to make sense of what the poem makes happen for me, I’m tempted to play with the title a bit, enjoy some humor that perhaps wasn’t intended in the cycles because, from my reading, the tone of the poem feels rather magistral and dignified, “Here I am / upon this complicated precipice / before and after death / never declared as a singular substance,” here we have henbane speaking through the nexus of chemical, biological, nuclear processes, and yet, in stark contrast to this tone, in the title there’s this moment when I think of the plant as a hen because it’s next to a bird; this speaking hen could be either a vain or bane bird which is in itself a rather silly figure of resistance but it makes for an interesting read to picture the voice coming not from a bird like an eagle, hummingbird, even less from a mythical plumed serpent but as the silly hen, a mother and a feeder, insignificant and yet appropriate as a metaphor of origins, else why would we ask—where do we trace the question of “who came first, the chicken or the egg?” But even more damning and significant we can also consider the association to violent human practices of consumption, I’m thinking here of a meme going around where in order to prepare breakfast chicken meat is bathed in its unborn offspring, I’m thinking here of the aforementioned “singular substance” but also thinking about industrial animal rearing practices in which chicken are fed literally their own remains because those remains are rich in protein enacting thus an endless cycle of cannibalism. In any case, this is just one instance of the associations I make from the title and for someone that doesn’t usually have much to say, it’s interesting how generative Alexander’s effective use of title and opening lines direct my response to his sprawling and massive production.
The element that surprised me next in this cycle was the use of quotation marks to announce itself as an apostrophe, and this leads me directly to Jonathan Culler and his idea that an apostrophe “is the pure embodiment of poetic pretension…perhaps always an indirect invocation of the muse,” and I am thinking here of Mary’s question regarding our own consciousness and mental processes aimed at situating our identity, “who the hell knows where the voices that pop strange phrases into our heads come from, or the personas we take on? For Alexander, the answer seems then to be resolved in his apostrophic endeavor aimed at creating a pure embodiment in the shamanic utterance “I am these given names” but since the names are given, they cannot ever be sufficient and this explains to me the vacillation with which Alexander’s speaker seems to be existing between being and non-being, what Jillian already has identified as statements of duality: “here I am / … / before & after death”, “I exist / by neither night nor day”, “I / the re-engendered bird / devoured & re-born” statements which to me signify a reaching after but also the realization that such reaching would never be enough much like the enterprise to completely catalogue human experience of the natural into scientific nomenclature or political labels which could be one way to interpret Alexander’s penchant for scientific and historical jargon.
The other interesting element that I couldn’t help but notice in this cycle is the generative function of negation, “no.” Early on, Alexander’s speaker begins his apostrophic meditation by refuting google’s implication of its poisonous effects. If I’m correct the second instance of a “no” comes some nine pages later this time again negating definitions of identity based on functionality or psychoanalytical postulates. The speaker denies ever just being “a stunning technical maintenance / or simple colour by melancholia.” A couple of pages later the “no” is used to affirm the ways in which this speaker’s identity can sense its edges in “omniscient vertigo…vertigo & nostalgia.” As Alexander’s Henbane moves in his reaching after definition this “no” serves as a torque which forecloses the possibility for closure. In this sense, one possible answer to PJ’s question regarding the massiveness of the poem could be to say that like Henbane every definition offers the potential for negation, in the words of the poem this is possible “because the galaxies reach & do not reach me.”
If we consider Alexander’s cycles as poetry that attempts to do what a science field like biology is supposed to—define and interpret life, then it’s massiveness and constant equivocations are more than justified, they are an inherent feature of the project. I was struck by the bodily definition of humanity in terms of a process of communication presented when Henbane says “& I am inhabited by language / by language that breaks apart / by language that gambles / that stuns in its elastics by geologic premonition.” This, in turn, reminded me of Fernando Vallejo’s Darwinist Tautology, how in his final chapter, “Biological Waste” he claims that “Life’s contingent and useless: it can or can’t exist, and other than going towards a growing complexity, it goes nowhere.” This is not to say that “Concerning the Henbane Bird” goes nowhere, but to suggest that if we try to grapple with what it means to be alive, living in a cosmos where molecular interdependence seems to be a driving factor of our existence, then we also have access to the materials to try to map the infinite connections of what it means to live through the poetic.
Valerie Virginia Vargas:
time becomes known as a calendar of wolves
EVERYTHING MAKES A SOUND, like a howl of a wolf in the forest in the cold, and it carries across the surface of the world until it is absorbed back into itself. The sounds of the self—is the collective sigh of the universe—the utterance where language falls short and cannot be contained within itself, “a word that does not intend to be translatable. A word that stops itself” as Anne Carson suggests in her essay, “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent.” Will Alexander writes,
so that utterance spins
like a sunbeam through a conifer …
of schisms (72).
The sounds move at the speed of light (no one knows the exact measurement), but is also creating a storm of itself. In the introduction to Anne Carson’s Antigonick, she writes, “Antigone…you want us to listen to the sound of what happens when everything normal/ musical/ careful/ conventional of pious is taken away” (6) and at the end she writes, “dear Antigone,/ I take it as the task of the translator to forbid that you should ever lose your screams” (6). I am thinking of Antigone: resisting the state in the name of nature—and Carson’s task of defending the screams of Antigone—in the tragedy of nature’s will against the alabaster throne. Will Alexander’s poetry can be read as a work of translation, and the translator is condemned to the task of “uttering its name through strange electrical ghosts” (73).
The scientific dialect deflects the ‘knowingness of happening’ throughout the text, the source or speaker wanting to identify itself but its method of doing so continuously separates and reimagines itself through movement and its modalities of reincarnation. Time takes its course in this poetry, in other words, every moment is a quantum shift for Alexander—which allows the consciousness to move through the modalities of reincarnation. Just like translation, a word has to die before it can be reborn in another language; it has to stop itself, fall silent.
I persist by presence of echoes
that I pass back & forth between what is known of (66).
What is known of, is inclusive of consciousness and language, in this poem it is a nebulous space, being indicated by “I Am,” (the name of God) and reiterating itself by disorienting and deconceptualizing itself to re-enter language:
…I persist in echo without count
without quantitative conclusive
yet at the same time existing
as the scattered observation of a knowable species me (66-67).
The ego wants to make “perception” a logic. Meanwhile the illogic is Keats’ negative capability: where we get to enter the muck and mire, the unknowingness, suspense, and supernatural and understand it by not having to make it logical; because when we make something logical we restrain it.
so that I can listen to terrain
as a firmament in exile
able to dwell within (100).
The poem has no interest in definition, but listening to what is unheard, “the sound of what happens when everything normal/ musical/ careful/ conventional of pious is taken away.” This whole thing (poet, poem, reader and all) is in a state of resisting the dimension of duality. Yet, they cannot escape their own consciousness—they are constantly defined and redefined by what they are and are not.
The ontological states of being in this poem are in relation to the limits and possibilities of language. Trying to capture and encapsulate the illogical, or the un-nameable in the nameable. In naming something we’re always delineating it from the un-nameable. And what gets lost when you name something? Because then we say that there is something else that is un-named and that, potentially, gets stuck in that space. As soon as you have the language for a Thing—including poetry— we can’t escape it’s meaning or it’s lost meaning.
In translation there are things that get lost when we jump through the quantum capacities of language. What is taken or misunderstood in context might be regained with its arrival into a new dimension of language, where its own consciousness is at a state of its own perception of capability. Or it becomes something new entirely, a reincarnation of the Thing that is being moved.
In the words of Alexander, “I remain bereft/ ceasing to re-cease existing” (102). The only thing I can actually promise about this text is that in not understanding most of it, I understood myself and my concept of language, a bit more.
Mary Dwyer is a poet with work forthcoming in Guesthouse. She holds a BA in English from The College of New Jersey (2013), and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Notre Dame, where she serves as the Social Media Coordinator for the Literatures of Annihilation, Exile & Resistance lecture series. She is from the Jersey Shore and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
Jillian A. Fantin is a poet whose work focuses on decadence as resistance, self-aware hedonism, and nourishing the autonomy of the marginalized. Jillian’s poetry is published or forthcoming in Wide Angle: A Journal of Literature and Film, The American Journal of Poetry, Sprung Formal, TIMBER, and Entropy.
Elise Houcek is pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Notre Dame. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Posit, Prelude, Afternoon Visitor, Always Crashing, and elsewhere. She writes and makes house music in South Bend, Indiana.
PJ Lombardo is a poet and essayist from northern New Jersey. He’s an MFA candidate at the University of Notre Dame and has worked as a publishing assistant for Action Books. His work is forthcoming from or has recently appeared in Dream Pop Journal, Protean, DREGINALD and Foothill Journal.
Misael Osorio-Conde is a Mexican poet transplanted from Southern California to the Midwest to earn his MFA at the University of Notre Dame. In his work he attempts to capture the passage of language through the threshold of the body.
Valerie Virginia Vargas is a Venezuelan-American poet and printmaker from South Florida. Her work can be found in Jellyfish Magazine, [PANK] Magazine, and TYPO Magazine. She is forthcoming in Waterproof, book two of The Miami Trilogy published by Jai-Alai Books.