Review | “No Girls No Telephones”

by Andrew Purcell

by Brittany Cavallaro  & Rebecca Hazelton
Blacklawrence Press

Probably the finest essay on poetry I’ve read this past year is Matthew Buckley Smith’s “Why Poems Don’t Make Sense,” which can be found here in 32 Poems. In it, he explains what sense is, how it differs from logic, and what nonsense entails, while illuminating the concept of theory of mind in relation to poetry. It’s a smart, accessible, and important piece.

I start there because at the time I first read Smith’s essay, I was also in the midst of reading No Girls No Telephones (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) by Brittany Cavallaro and Rebecca Hazelton. A collaborative chapbook of paired poems that take their shared titles from lines of Berryman, NGNT comes with an author’s note at the end that I’ll reproduce here in full, as it’s necessary for understanding how I’m going to come at the work as a whole.

Authors’ Note:
Brittany had the idea of writing an opposite imitation of a John Berryman Dream Song, and suggested that Rebecca write an opposite of that opposite. It was a strange game of literary translation, and by the end, it was hard to know who’d written what. These poems are an homage to Berryman’s singular syntax and diction, and our own engagement with it.

The authors’ note explains the process whereby noise was added to the system, so to speak, which governs the book, with opposites of opposites (more on this later) reflecting off one another to introduce distortion. As you might expect, just like in the game of telephone, the message at times becomes garbled well beyond lyricism, crossing into true nonsense. I tried all the standard ways of maximizing the poems’ content: reading aloud to myself, reading to someone else, reading out of order. Often, I noticed that sense slipped away as the poems progressed. And yes, there’s a natural pleasure born of unexpected and unexpectable constructions (picture a game of telephone where the original message remains intact — ultra dull) but I kept thinking about the essay and my native distaste for nonsense.

So, brief aside, what’s wrong with nonsense? To me, it’s boring and smacks of a writer who, though having nothing to say, nevertheless seeks an audience. And is that what’s happening in NGNT? Well, no, but I was having a hard time figuring out what was happening. While I’m only marginally familiar with Cavallaro, Hazelton is among my favorite “new” poets, and her poems are not merely sensible but frequently profound. The meaning had to be in there somewhere. Berryman may be ethereal or even transcendental but he isn’t nonsensical, and the best games of telephone retain echoes of the intended message despite the accidents of flawed transmission.

Then, once I saw it, how had I not seen it? There aren’t just structural parallels between the paired poems; they are like transparencies to be laid one over the other. I suspect my initial blindness to this (it’s obvious but I was oblivious) came from holding too tightly to the telephone game concept. I kept trying to understand it through that lens, however figurative, despite my deepening frustration. While I can certainly see how it was relevant to the composition of the book, it put me on false footing to assume this would be the most fruitful way to read the poems. This misstep was admittedly my own fault. As far as that goes, the main takeaway for me was that the method of composition does not imply the method of interpretation. Is this self-evident to everyone else? Could be. Anyway, what’s genuinely captivating about the book is how two strophes of nonsense, on opposing pages, would give rise to something sensible if non-concrete, “sense without reference” as the philosophers put it, when considered simultaneously, and that this sensibility resonated as truly Berrymanesque. It’s not the intuitive way to read poems, and it’s not exactly easy, but it ended up being a worthwhile challenge. NGNT taught me something. Not in the way of aphorism or analogy, or any of the pleasant methods through which I expect to encounter a lesson in most poems, but by frustrating my understanding and then composing sense in a manner I had never before experienced.

The last thing I want to get into is how Cavallaro and Hazelton play with opposites throughout NGNT. I’m fascinated by opposites, not so much in the antonymic dark/light, light/heavy, land/sea kinds of couplings, but when we think, for example, of the opposite of a park. The first thing that comes to my mind is wasteland, but what about office as the opposite of park? Or something cheeky like carpark, where car acts as a prefix meaning anti? This way of thinking can work as a lever for the imagination. For instance, what if the opposite of plant is not animal, but something that thrives on moonlight and vodka? The opening lines of the poems “Mission Accomplished” demonstrate this effect to highlight a mode of seeing and thinking that is acutely poetic:

Her inner life was left on a marked tree    |   Our outer hearts are found in an unmarked grave

That’s just for the flavor of what’s happening. But because I can’t reproduce two whole poems side by side, it’ll have to do. Overall, my experience of readingNGNT was non-recreational but rewarding. I don’t know that it’s exactly avant garde, but for me it expanded the possibilities of nonsense in ways far more sophisticated than the attempts made in the vast bulk of conceptual poetry I’ve come across. And it has me thinking I perhaps ought to mail my copy to Mr. Smith.