Joyelle McSweeney. The Commandrine and Other Poems.
Fence Books: 2004. $12.
In her second book, The Commandrine and Other Poems, Joyelle McSweeney executes an act of self-identification liberated from the confines of narrative, landscape, and body. The voice talks back at self with complete empathy for object as vessel of personal communion, a purer introspection than the world as mirror. Each image and word-image found in that interior serves in the continuous act of defining (defiantly in the face of matter) its maker by (rather than lashing words to facts) fashioning the necessary facts out of words. McSweeney treats words, like images, as instances of their precise contents rather than symbolic references, as reassemblies of exterior action into thought made more visceral. The world of the Commandrine is fluid and nameless, so words are momentary and exact like the seconds in which they exist, cannot be refused, and through their introverted infinitudes hyper-expand in a terrifyingly blithe example of form opening microcosms.
The eye requires hallucination to conceive of that-which-is-beyond-the-visible, as in “Youth Idiom,” where in a movie theatre the adolescent discovers
My eye was repeating itself,
splitting the screen and splicing into
other scenes, choosing among times. I became
elevated from the row of seats. Reclining
in the dark air, interfering with the projection,
my own form entered the screen.
The disassembly of the object world leads to a collapse of ordinary sight (and thus of the ordinary narrative-landscape-body), replaced by the phenomena of seeing-all-sides-at-once, the indistinguishable presences of outer and inner in one line of sight. The confines of time and space lose meaning as speaker elevates, recognizes self in the vision, and adopts for her voice an image (Bogart) to speak out of the “mirror” of the film:
Bogart turned to me, and said
Why are you assembling these mirrors?
What do you want to see?
By continually disassembling ordinary sight, all voices become hers and speak back to the ever-listening self. Through a friend’s talking, the adolescent recognizes the voice’s power to expose the limitations of sight:
She had so much to say it was a world of talking!
It was uncharacteristic and a delight.
I let me eyes blur out till I could see the pins and needles
plates and barbells, rods, the shape of vision
without content. My face felt hot and cold. I felt anything
I could turn to I could understand. But my eye
corrected me. Don’t you know
the riddle? I am that world I cannot see.
The estranging entrance into her friend’s “world of talking” abstracts the senses and dislodges object (image or word) from meaning. The eye, however, suddenly veers the unanchored mind back to fact by offering a riddle, but the riddle is ironic in that though it cannot be seen, it can be heard. The voice carries thought, and thought conceives when carefully cohered upon the substance of object world.
The more self-asserting “Bureau Of” begins, “This is the body of,/waiting to turn on.” The omission of self-identification turns around and reveals the voice as the primary manifestation of self, “graced with a little tremor.” Thereon, the voice finds that it can define self in language on its own terms:
:voila. The pathetic filofax
unfurls, the owl describes;
on air; makes an apse; loops left
off the phonepole, woodenly.
we rise above the windpark,
The owl, and the words she uses to “describe” her flight in unison with it, is not a mirror-object she beats language against in the hopes that it will bounce back and mean something, nor is it a point of reference: McSweeney’s words project more than empathy, but through empathy the self enters a merger of identities through language by which the maker perceives self. The unstrained and fanciful instigation of the almost nonsensical “commemorially” works as its own line in a magnificent undulation of flight, a perfect linguistic synthesis of remembering-together, and carrying a connotation of death.
The venture into free language does not forget itself and become language poetry, however, as “The Air Sign” epitomizes the poet’s vision through the voice. Each word adopts its own meaning of many possibilities and rises out of the context, containing its microcosm: “In the river of luggage and pieces of the bridge,/I felt a scaly muscle rise between my thighs/and that was the joy side.” Despite the introduction of narrative, landscape, and bodily contexts, McSweeney makes no move to work within those restrictions. The image of the water-serpent is evoked by the voice describing the sensation of touch: she could be the blind seer. Riding the “scaly muscle” (or the image—and how can anything be symbolic of the image?) to safety provides no safety, so she “besieged the Creator” (the maker) “with harp-cries, with the tenacity of the already gone.” No rescue occurs, but the self is left with a diminished but defined and surmountable visual perspective (note the opening reflexive pronoun):
is looking out at the famous plant
in the Oregon countryside; cheese is produced here
and Highway 101 is on the right, where you can’t see it.
Outside the limits of the cheesecam. Your sweet
cannot be truncated.
Piquant and tongue-chastening.
Even the tongue gets the slap in the end. McSweeney destroys the rules of the senses for the love of what is sensed, essentially self.
McSweeney’s book, like the universe, is full of universes. Perspectives may diverge and take hold of their own visions. Scrutiny reveals no end. I read this book over and over with joy, finding myself each time on “the joy side.” As maker, Joyelle McSweeney has created and departed, leaving no directive, no goblet, no Cracker Jack prize. What’s left for us is the form of the invisible.
--Review by Matthew Henriksen.