Blackbox manifold

Issue 15: Adam Piette

Monica Berlin & Beth Marzoni, No Shape Bends the River So Long (Andersen, South Carolina: Parlor Press, 2015) – edited by Jon Thompson, Free Verse Editions.

The story of poetry beyond the sequential: a curling back of words upon the tongue and at the ear, sounds resavouring their own traces on their ways towards dispersal even before they’re said and done. At the core of the specific short lyric, questions of occasion, suspicions of cerebral self-boosting, dog the encounter, unless this curling back allows and triggers force of flow, emotional, impetuous, uncontended, along patterns of dispersal lines. Force here is a riverrun: a power of waters to flow. Securities abandoned, for a while; formal control simply there as a holding, a handling, shaping gesture of the hand towards. And it is here in this simple timing of the flow-words on their way that the occasion rises and arises, with some menace, to occupy the mind and its fields, its points of view, its memory territories. But attention paid by the mind to the flow assumes technical form too: a listening that has already been at work as it were revising what is heard, rescripting occasion as flow-extended textual sensorium, so that the event reads as having had to occur as such & such and as so & so and yet always having its occurrence happening still, too, resounding.

The sequence as such cannot fend against this other patterning force; but may contain the energies, like a levee, for a while, enough to settle in time the anxieties and fears associated with unleashing. And so the making is altered to an orderly procession through tenses, recall-capturing narrative past enclosing the suddenness of the event’s present flow. The barrage and damming of the flow in temporal frame is just good enough to be a mode of control confessedly symptomatic, in secret subjection to the riverrun force. The poems examined here in this review exemplify various ways in which temporal control framing struggles to present as rationally beyond the reaches of the event’s true impetus and turmoil.

            Rare to find poets collaborating seamlessly and selflessly on a common project: Wordsworth and Coleridge having to divide the lyrical ballads project into domestic and supernatural styles is one instance of what looked like perfect combining but was in fact polarized. Perhaps true collaboration depends on rare sustained friendliness (as Alan Halsey argued recently of his Wallace Stevens collaboration with Kelvin Corcoran) or demands profounds of trust most are unwilling to risk. The rarest of birds is the co-production of text that is indistinguishably the work of the duo or collective, as when Breton and Soupault abandoned all personal styles to generate their automatic writing texts. It might just take extraordinary circumstance to drive poets to write together (as against the more ordinary collaboration between different arts): given the drift towards greater and greater atomizing and isolating of the subject in post-Romantic lyric composition, given the attrition suffered by poetry with its exile from the public sphere, given the psychomachia of talent-torment which the market generates when you see fuse together copyright ownership and its commodifications and the artist’s braggart rights to the auratic art-object made by the self alone.

The extraordinary circumstance that has drawn Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni together was Hurricane Katrina – and the drive to collaborate draws its energy from one most dubious source, the disaster’s own awe-inspiring forces. As the doubly-authored lyrics in No Shape Bends the River So Long progress, the flood and its traumatic transformations of cityscape and landscape, its devouring drowning unstoppable rise and deterritorializing powers, the cruelty of its destructions and disappearances, the shocking scope and reach and extent of it, the pagan awe the river Mississippi inspired with its overturning of all that’s made, of all that lived along its banks: all these gain formal impetus too as negatively shaped lyrical impulse; but only in the dishearting sense (a coinage of this volume) that this epic Biblical flooding of New Orleans was truly a decreative act of undoing and unmaking with no rival despite poetry’s ancient claims. Berlin and Marzoni have humbler aims, and more focussedly ethical agenda. The lyrics here establish the grounds for witnessing which inform their collaboration in very moving ways. For it is the double authorship which displaces the I of lyric, substituting the we of collective experience. The third person plural in the poems here has been earned by the work done in the collaborative composition; but reads as the subject position of collective witness to an event so unprecedented and vast as only to signify at all if collectively told as something suffered by the whole of New Orleans, by the whole state of Florida, by all Americans (if they’d only listen and feel the force).

            As an example, the early lyric, entitled ‘TIME ANOTHER LIMB DOWN & ANOTHER’: note the ampersand, and the foregrounding both of the temporality of the event, and of the problem of sequence (the limbs of the trees falling again and again are borne witness to as one trauma after another, linked yet discrete, building up in power yet drained of all power too through numbed over-experiencing). The poem’s title is a line, and sequences into the next, with something like a zeugmatic switching effect: ‘TIME ANOTHER LIMB DOWN & ANOTHER // fuse blown, something about a door // & force & whatever else, / say, hinges’. ‘Another’ does not refer back to fall of limb, but forward to the fuse blown: just as the time of the event Katrina is neither isolatable as a single event, but flows & floods to & fro across temporal fields in trauma’s presently past bi-temporality. The common style adopted by Berlin & Manzoni has its own bi-temporality: clearly absolutely contemporary, for it is recording this great tragedy as though during its catastrophic rise and fall, so written in urgent contemporary American language of witness in the spirit of true documentary; yet other times protrude, for the poems have the look and feel and diction fusing Berryman meditating on 17th century disasters (those ampersands) and Dickinson gauging the intricacies of destruction within the mind’s deep speech (the shape and quirks of her syntax).

The ‘force’ of these lines lie in the recording of the disorder and panic and scary inarticulacy of all the narratives being quickly generated during the event by those experiencing it: yet the real force is the river’s power, its decreative drive mastering the witness voices. The poems feel their way into the broken syntax and manic trauma of voicing suffered under pressure of the river’s violence – the obsession with doors and hinges is unhinged, the voices turning to thinking rather crazedly of the keys and switches and bolt mechanism of the doors when what is really being communicated is the river’s force destroying all doors, leaving the doors of perception open to the terrifying mobility of the waters (‘& more & more the bolt slips – / what’s moving’). Without the security of the locked door, raw emotion and the river’s cruel mobilizing come & flow together in an apocalyptic zone of riverrun: but leave something else too in their wake, something moving us with the almost unbridled pathos of the event so brokenly felt. Felt together: the collaboration of the two poets is given companionable form with the two-line shape of the poetry on the page; with friendly half-rhyme very rarely occurring to make the collective third person plural designate all witnesses:


& force & whatever else,

say, hinges. So tell us

when the key turns the mechanism

we call lock


The swirled syntax across the lines drowns the onward meaning-making, but this can be recuperated by the soft shock of the ambiguity of ‘what’s moving’: what the sentence says is ‘tell us (when the key turns in the lock…) what's moving’. It’s a weird question to ask when floods are wrecking homes. The next lines explain: ‘Everything // looks like a body in this light / waning late.’ It is fear of the return of the drowned dead come unlocking at the doors – fear as absolute as fear of drowning if the waters fell the door. And that fear is creating a collective nerviness which rocks the temporally framed world, just as the river’s force mocks all locks. The Berlin & Manzoni line is similarly rocked, with a beached syntax of part-objects, a weirded language that says and does not say:


Time was our bodies remembered.

Time was how to name what nouns,


what verbs, & gone we know, but going

casts everything conditional


‘Time was’ starts as meaning ‘there was a time once when’: but changes to mean something closer to ‘time was fashioned by [the way / the question as to]’ – but this does more to obscure the sense-making process than to clear the way to surmise. What is happening is a linking of the language as it arises to the composing mind to the destructive rise of the river, a condition of relationship which is a rendering radically conditional: a provisionality of disappearing memory-words. Again, Dickinson is summoned as a spirit of strange voicing of a radical sublime: but a sublime made of traumatised words, at the edge of our senses. This is a real and startling act of witness; and made up of real poems, two hearts and minds beating as one with the forces of riverrun.

            The first section of Berlin & Manzoni’s collection is sub-titled ‘Dear So & So–‘: the reader is given an identity as any old body; yet the uncanniness of the occasion, and the weirdness of dual authorship and its collective bite, mean that So & So’ breaks down to a voicing of sequence, as in ‘thus this occured then thus another thing followed on and occured’. ‘So’ may have the force of ‘so then’ or ‘so therefore’ or ‘so very’: the three senses populate the poems, so we have ‘So, to understand the bay …’ but also ‘living among them is so hard’, and ‘What they called The End / of Days wasn’t so, so // we wake the next morning’. The play on soes stages and obscures the sequential as identity-shaping: for we are all So & Soes, busybody nobodies who act on impulse from elsewhere often: our causes and consequences are scripted but not anything more than outwardly collective – we are so, and then we are so, but the time is not ours as such: ‘but So & So, no hours // ever simple & the river carries its own / mechanism for keeping time. Because trace // & error.’ The river is whatever rises and arises beyond the timing and sequential logic of our occasions: the so & so identity collapses into other timeframes beyond human computation. Simply transcendentally good writing here.

Adam Piette is co-editor of Blackbox Manifold, teaches at the University of Sheffield, and is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, and The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam.