by Aaron Boothby
Domenica Martinello’s Interzones. Words(on)Pages, 2015. $12.00, 32 pages.
The look that the girls turn on the city is a look of lust, it expresses her dreams of possession of herself. (Anne Boyer)
I follow the text through the speaker embodied by it. Where does she lead? She says I but she doesn’t always seem solid, seems more like a ripple. I follow a ripple arriving at the concrete base of condos burying Toronto’s shoreline into suddenly ancient history. Behind, the city is waves of noise, collisions of bodies and odours, eddies where flow catches on a tower or someone stops suddenly in morning pedestrian traffic. Forms repeat and make space for memory and thought. This ripple will never become a breaking wave, arrive at no beach. Its drama is a minor one but its form is the potency of natural law as defined for human minds by concepts. A wave carries in its form a concept and a noise that makes possible arrival upon bodies it does not even touch. So it is with texts: one leads to another and a text is always both something in the act of arrival and a shore upon which another text can arrive: a definition requiring conception to be considered in thought. A little history forms of how two texts meet and startle each other.
Coincidence isn’t the same as accident; if two texts find each other in a revelatory collision, this can be called fortunate. Toward. Some. Air., recently published by Banff Centre Press and edited by Amy De’Ath and Fred Wah is a collection of poems, conversations, essays and manifestoes from the wide sphere of contemporary Anglophone poetics. It is a carefully made delivery vehicle for poetic collisions of all kinds. Among the words printed on the cover are Emptying, Militancy, Indigeneity, Pastoral Margins: diversity of concern and intent worn as a garment. It should already be considered essential, a multi-purpose tool of avant-garde poetics, but is part of the story here only more narrowly. One of the texts delivers collided fortuitously with the one under consideration: ’Lyric Conceptualism: A Manifesto’ by Sina Queyras opens up a way to read the nearly simultaneously published chapbook Interzones by Domenica Martinello, from the Toronto press Words(on)Pages.
Interzones defines its own concept outright: “the liminal space between tracts, historically the place between two military occupied areas.” Another name historically has been no-man’s land. In the form of a book a series of such zones arrive, carrying their own signs and implications. Zone three times in fading type on the title page for three parts of the text each accompanied by three Zone poems, entry points to the concepts that frame them.
The formula is Concept + Zones: “Time Zones” with its “sex drive run rampant, a wildfire sickness in your cells,” the consumptive lack of time that was Keats’ flame, time altered, slowed or sped by sex or sickness. “Dead Zones” where “Things go bad so quickly, ‘quickly’ relative to how much time spent strung through with a catheter” and what’s worse, but inevitable, that “Things do not go un-bad.” “Contact Zones” that moves from bpNichol to a noticeable lack of strip clubs, the contact of a body within the city and bodies navigating proximity in avoidance of contact where the poet wants “to drink / in the ravines, to believe in no suicide, no Walkley Avenue, no mute red square, unilingual dream.” When a concept becomes a poetic zone it becomes an area for exploration, play, the frivolous and the dangerous.
While the zones denote concept the poems are not themselves conceptual. They are lyric poems within a container of the conceptual and begin at the sensual, the experienced, with remembering, desiring human bodies intersecting. We’re a long way from the strict conceptualism of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day, maybe a little less far from Christian Bök’s experimental constraints, but here the lyric mode is worn shamelessly. The lyric, to the surprise of some, is tough to kill. They might call it a weed and be half-right because it has the persistence of living things to keep living. This is not to say it can’t learn some new tricks from the conceptualists who call it irrelevant, cannot be excited and shaken loose by theory that scavenges from it.
“Lyric Conceptualism: A Manifesto” begins with a definition: “The Lyric Conceptualist has moved beyond the indigestible and the unreadable; in fact, beyond all gestures that have made pleasure the enemy of reading.” It also ends with a definition, and there a jarringly fortunate collision: “to create openings rather than closures…a transitional space, reclaimed land, an idea without end.” In fact the poem is a series of such statements that accumulate into and expand the concept “Lyric Conceptualism.” It is also a series of gestures as tumultuous as they are orderly that form a poetic body, “not necessarily a feminine body, but it has the stink of the impure.”
Certain conceptual poets forget when they read the autopsy reports of real, murdered bodies that bodies often destabilize concepts. “Lyric Conceptualism” suggests precisely the injection of the impure body into the problematic purity the conceptual poem. Where theory is disembodied it becomes criminal. Where conceptualism appropriates bodies, refusing their value as bodies, it becomes offence enough for the poet to be mockingly marked for death, as Kenneth Goldsmith found after he read the autopsy report of Michael Brown. “Lyric Conceptualism is not bound to appropriation,” writes Queyras. It cannot be, for the lyric must always originate in real, feeling, thinking bodies, not conceptualized ones, be observed, grasped and somehow extracted from that body.
In an act of extraction from her body Sappho is often depicted with a lyre, singing her poems. Sometimes it takes music to draw the lyric out from the body. Waves are one way to announce a shore is near. The cries of gulls are another. Far from the sea, in Montréal, the gulls announce Spring in a city between shores. Within a body two texts leave their marks.
Within each of Martinello’s zones, bracketed by concept, uncertainties, entanglements and impurities agitate, glance and startle. Bodies continually disrupt concepts. Definitions become dangerously flesh and pleasure is the conductive circuit of reading as sex and elegy mingle. In her own most recent book of poetry, MxT, Queyras included diagrams of circuits as frames for sections of text: Emotional Sensor Circuit Overload, Emotional Circuit Breaker, Ohm’s Law of Grieving. The mourning and the desiring poem are the song of the body animated by electricity. Where circuits connect transfers occur. Mourning is one kind of desiring. Lust is another kind. Both make the body more porous, make a lyric from Martinello like “I’ve sucked out your sockets and slurped spoonfuls / of jellied delicacies into my mouth” (“Erasure”). Every body imagines himself a closed circuit but this isn’t true; where the electricity of another touches our own we consume and feel consumed.
Through the sight of others, making another kind of contact, we see ourselves. “Lyric Conceptualism is a voyeuristic mode,” and seeing herself through the lens of concept is the kind of voyeurism that can subvert lyric by allowing perspectives outside the obscuring I’s.
As she traverses zones the body moves as fluidly through the city as through the text itself, taking it all in and putting it all in. In one poem a friend bakes bread; in another the speaker sleeps on rocks. A long scene unfolds in a hospital waiting room. Home, a place not in-between, never seems to appear. Under the red glow of heat lamps an interchange of desires occurs and the speaker, who may have thought she was being hunted, suddenly is unsure who laid the trap (“Sonnet on Hunting”). Not one, but two voyeurs: that precise moment where the conscious selves appear, watching each other watch each other. “I wore the negative space in each gap, he wore the whisky swirling in the tumbler it gave him a shiny fishlike slickness,” arrives out of a blocked shoreline of text in “The Old Doubling-Over.” The negative space in each gap is a zonal possibility. To say it can be worn is to ask a particular kind of question: who is falling into it, who can look without falling?
“Lyric Conceptualism is informed, not enslaved, by theory,” says another arriving phrasal wave of the manifesto. “The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas…” says a cutting of a fragment of Barthes standing between two paragraphs of his text on the pleasure of text. Poetry in the age of the concept requires the intelligence of someone used to getting out of corners and a resourceful cunning. Theory is either oppressor or a set of tools allowing a scramble towards a glimmer of light, towards some air. Theory is poetry’s playmate and each has a thing or two to learn.
Freud shows up in a zone. He’s being read; his body is now only the textual body. Notes are being taken and he is distilled, reduced to an essence. “a loud, long-drawn out ‘o—o—o—‘ / under the bed, and so on” is all we need to know for now about Beyond the Pleasure Principle (“Freud Fragments”). Not on the bed but under it. Where she’d like to be, not where she’s supposed to be. Freud is an excellent playmate and would have had questions for anyone who would prefer him a master.
“…for my body does not have the same ideas I do,” ends Barthes’ fragment. Elsewhere he refers to tmesis, Ancient Greek for “a cutting,” for a text split apart and more text inserted between the halves. The formula goes: Lyric + Conceptualism. In theory, can’t we split ourselves? In the lyric cannot what is unlike be knitted together?
In “Contact Zone,” the city appears with a question of where all the strip clubs have gone, which halves are refusing to touch. Toronto proclaims itself as not Montréal, the city Martinello was born and grew up in, the city Queyras lives and teaches in, island bounded by shores. Who’s this other city kidding by pretending bodies aren’t on display?
The city brims with bodies
jostling for place where location
is no factor: a crowd is a crowd is a
How can there be flesh where every
armpit smells like soap?
is not sterile. Like the tighty-whities
of some baby-faced lawyer, I want to soil
its silk designer drawers.
Flesh is hidden or obscured, but flesh insists on its presence as it does its uncleanliness. We assault flesh with products but flesh reasserts oils, grime, bacteria and sweat. We ask the body to conform to image in denial of other senses and the body itself.
As a poetic body, does poetry really want to be sterile, dressed up and made up and untouchable, a pornography of objects appropriated by concept? Crowds by name crowd and in them bodies entangled following desires flow. No word makes these facts less real.
Even if “The Lyric Conceptualist is most often a spectator,” she keeps close to that impurity of bodies, “never in retreat.” The voyeur knows how to watch and also how to follow, to pursue. Zones of contact are defined by area, by that negative space in which contact is accidental, an error in avoidance. Where the bodies brim are bodies posing as atomic individuals. They wash the residue of other bodies off with soap. They don’t know how porous they are, but the speaker of these poems knows how porous she is. She doesn’t just want to see their dirty underwear as a spectator but soil some for herself. So much for retreat.
A lyric poet, conceptualist or not, voyeurism aside, can never remain a spectator in part because the impulse to lyric begins with and returns to elegy. Continually aware of desire the lyric poet is equally aware that some of what she desires is impossible, even if it was until so recently possible. Every moment is outlived until, suddenly, the moment outlives us. If the conceptualist evades grief, or worse, appropriates it, the lyric poet is running towards it, through it, electrified by mourning. Loss, in a kind of perversity, has the pleasure of intensity.
Perhaps because of this, “The Lyric Conceptualist is an excessive elegist,” but any child becomes an elegist the first time a dear toy is lost, let alone a parent, a grandparent, a friend. To be an excessive elegist is something else: it is to proclaim elegy, making it a textual garrison of grief. It is to embody a shore on which waves of grief and mourning arrive, arrive, and do not cease, driven by mechanisms as unknown to the mind as what impels each ripple and wave. A body that doesn’t necessarily share its ideas with what we’ve named I.
That an elegy is framed within a conceptual order of zones does not only contain it but allows the discharge of grief and mourning in unexpected locations and within unexpected bodies as they make contact with those zones.
Sappho was an excessive elegist we have only fragments of, excess reduced by time and error to a stark minimalism. A concept drives Anne Carson’s presentation of Sappho in her translation If Not, Winter that says leave blankness where the text was lost. The poems wear their negative space and become phrases and words on a scaffolding of emptiness. What is lost is never theoretical when it is actually gone but concept grants a way of ordering what is disordered. There, again, lyric and conceptualism find a way to meet.
In the interzones a garrison of elegy is the house of grandparents now unoccupied, reduced to stasis but each object charged with those precious moments of living: “I recall my soft nails tearing gleefully / into the plastic coverings of the faux leather dining room chairs, once / expensive totems in the way they all matched, now a symbol so tattered / they’ll soon be parcelled off to the trash” (“I Heard a Heartbreaking Saying”). Loving something does not prevent its decay. Within a space of previous living and loving, laughter and meals, sayings transferred from an old country to a new, the speaker is now a spectator as elegist. Grief is the ultimate interzone, caught between the living and the dead.
I follow and suddenly the speaker is trapped between reality and the uncanny looking for something like a space in which there is room to breathe. Towards some air, just enough air, something other than a poetics of suffocation where the form or concept rules and the body remains forever object, devalued as subject. With just enough space to be ambivalent Martinello writes, “I don’t want to create my own reality, you can’t make me,” in a poem titled with the entire Latin hierarchy of the animal English names rat (“Animalia Chordata Mammalia Rodentia Muroidea Muridae Murinae Rattus”). It is a lyric poem soaked by genus; an individual drowning within an order of concept who is “skeptical of theory / and reality leaking.” In the ordered hierarchies are all that the concept can deliver but not the fact of flesh, for which it is a trap. In a dream vision of a poem is a suffocated rat and the speaker unsure if she is trap or water, a place things go to die. The language refuses all stability and closes in, with “Walls too high to scale the I’s,” until, at last she floats, saturated, unable to gain air. It’s an uncomfortable poem. No one said the interzones were comfortable places or that escape necessarily exists. Look across no man’s land and see someone trying to cross it. Many fail. In the age of the concept the subject drowns easily.
With a few tools she has a better chance. A good manifesto acts towards a clearing out, a cutting down, an insertion of new possibilities within the space of definitions, in this case between those two words, two concepts, of Lyric and Conceptualism, seemingly opposed. It makes for new ways to read any body and makes the space within which new works can live. Here the two texts, in their collision, form their own interzone, a new area of contact in which the other may thrive.
Are the two texts aware of each other? It doesn’t matter. Coincidence and error are not small parts of survival or literature. The lyric speaker finds her way, expanded by the conceptual, informed by theory, but bowing to neither. The concept is a container the elegist, in her excess, will cause to leak but may also drink from: “turn your back / on me for a second / and i’ll be lapping // from the milk dish” (“Milk”). There’s always a need to go back to pleasure and pursue where it leads. To get across no man’s land, it might help to be a woman. “The Lyric Conceptualist,” Queyras writes, “is a master of collision.” An adept, perhaps, of navigating the zones where bodies, theory, grief and language, are not obstacles but waypoints, a wanderer at home with being in-between, at ease on liquid between shores. What one poet defines, another poet, sure enough, is already up to, drawing through her body into the poetic text.
 From “The Girls’ City”, in Towards. Some. Air., Banff Centre Press, 2015
 The Pleasure of the Text. Roland Barthes. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
 Vintage, 2003.