Tougher Disguises, 2005
Reviewed by Geraldine Kim
Tougher Disguises Press, publishing poetry since 2002, is consistently erupting with fresh texts whose concerns range from flarf (Deer Head Nation by K. Silem Mohammad) to radio frequencies (The Frequencies by Noah Eli Gordon). Now based in San Diego, TDP has sung beyond its own octaves again with its two recent books, Circulation Flowers by Chuck Stebelton and Telling the Future Off by Stephanie Young. Both texts thrive on the contradiction and the abstraction of the conventional in (divergent yet) similar ways.
The poetry in Circulation Flowers, by Chuck Stebelton (Winner of the Jack Spicer Award,) can be best described as anti- “poems of decorative emptiness… [or against poems that appeal] to the convention” (from Chris Stroffolino’s introduction). In “TROUT LILIES ARE BULBOUS PLANTS,” the anti-decorative/conventional is replaced by the simultaneously transparent/opaque:
Asiatic dayflower is a commelina.
This flower grows on wooded slopes
The fire pink is a catchfly of rocky hillsides.
Beautiful flowers of the coral gum.
Each space between the lines is a turn, a flash, possibly an image—asking us to empty the flower of its social connotations—and focus on its flower-ness, a privileging of the quality of things over the things themselves—something (non-) imagistic. Through turning the trite into something undiscovered, the flower becomes transparent in its opacity, a contradiction that circulates back and forth with/between itself.
“The trout lily replicates a masked replica” is another line from the poem that supports this idea. Through having the flower replicate the image of itself, the process of emptying the flower from its social/conventional space transforms the flower into something more and more like a mess of molecules under an X-ray microscope—a “masked” abstraction whose process, while apparently transparent, challenges the reader with its foreign landscape.
Almost every poem in Circulation Flowers seems to share this same concern but does not necessarily deal with flowers. In “POEM (TU FU)” the subject in question is the poem itself:
In this couplet the subjects, flowers and birds, come third
in the line, while the following couplet compound fires
and letters from home come at the beginning of the line.
The lines themselves are abstractions in need of focusing/concretion—this project confounds itself since the subject of the first line is “flowers and birds” when it says in the second and third line that “fires / and letters from home” should be in the first line. One can only assume “beginning of the line” refers to the first line. And how can a couplet have three lines? Regardless, neither “fires / and letters from home” nor “flowers and birds” are where they say they should be.
The irrevocability of place in a line asks us the same question of metaphor for flowers—should the metaphor and the flower occupy the same space? But how can two concepts (one imagistic and one mired in social connotation/convention) be singular? Is it possible to separate the conception of a thing from the thing itself? Circulation Flowers says “yes,” “yes,” and “yes” while it shakes its head “no.”
The call for transparency in poetry’s abstractions while being aware of the contradiction in that call is a sentiment shared by Stephanie Young’s book, Telling the Future Off. In “THERE’S LANGUAGE IN HER EYE, HER CHEEK, HER LIP—NAY, HER FOOT SPEAKS,” the last few lines demand command in the concretion of abstraction (in this case, it is the female body):
…Exacting my labor with the spade
and research documents passing as freely through a transparent body
in the voidest space…
I am the rightful owner, I demand to know the cause of your sorrow
and appeal to the popular girls, likewise, like Marilyn
a young woman of an artificial school
with a message I must deliver in person
in my loud and authoritative voice
This poem ends without punctuation, without any “sense” of command/authority. This voice that demands ownership of the female image lacks the authority/ownership of its own voice—a contradiction.
However, contradiction, while conventionally used as proof of the falsity of a statement (reductio ad absurdum), is a point of hope/a justification in this poem (as in Circulation Flowers). The labor is done with a spade/”spayed”-- something that unearths for further fertilization/erases the sex of a female object—allowing it to become something sexually neutral and consequently, a (bodiless) body with power.
Through this spaying, the body becomes abstract, again, but not in the gendered way the female body is abstracted. “It” (both the body and the poem) is bodiless, “the voidest space.” “It” is a black hole, a mathematical singularity that defies conception and observation but commands the movement of its surrounding context through its non-existence.
In “TODAY I WILL BE A MODEL OF CONSISTENCY,” the use of the contradiction as a mode of making the abstract concrete is used again, this time by replacement of semantic terms:
I know now that I should have tried harder
to be a body in a car
who gestures at another body
in another car
stripped of artifice, conversation, a raincoat
which if worn too long during a chemical attack
will increase the danger of heatstroke.
I have never seen this clothing
but believe it is useless
including weather, after all
The car is “stripped” of its “artifice” and is left to become something that could be best described as not-car—something that can be easily replaced by a “conversation, a raincoat”-- which is then rendered un-raincoat since a raincoat’s existence is defined by its function against weather—leaving what (if anything)? The poem ends “to open my head / and water rushed the cavity.” Through its “cavity” or “combination of openings” (line 22), the speaker’s existence is defined by its non-existence.
While both Circulation Flowers and Telling the Future Off have analogous projects in terms of abstracting the abstract to make it concrete and use of the contradiction as justification, Telling the Future Off acts through non/presence while Circulation Flowers focuses closer and closer in the concrete to render it unimaginable (and/or vice versa).
CHUCK STEBELTON is the author of Precious (Answer Tag, 2005). He co-curates the Myopic Poetry Series at Myopic Books in Chicago, and works as Literary Program Manager at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee.
STEPHANIE YOUNG lives in Oakland and performs a wide variety of secretarial and poetic activities. She is the editor of Bay Poetics (Faux Press, 2005) and has published her writing in a number of magazines and collaborative postcard poem chapbooks from Poetry Espresso. Find her online at http://stephanieyoung.durationpress.com
GERALDINE KIM was born in 1983 in West Boylston, Massachusetts. A graduate of New York University, she is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction and Poetry at San Francisco State University. Her work has been published in Dicey Brown and Fourteen Hills and her play, Donning Cheadle, was chosen to be produced for the SFSU One-Act Festival and SPT Poet's Theater. Her first book, Povel, was the winner of Fence Books' 2005 Modern Poets Series and was named as one of the top 25 favorite books of 2005 by the Village Voice.