If Not Metamorphic. By Brenda Iijima. Ahsahta Press. 128 pp., $17.50.
“. . . during which time / soften the eyes”
“In the meantime,” writes Brenda Iijima in If Not Metamorphic, “time means fissures.” She continues:
Obliterator still a young machine
Bowled over, the boys teach it self-reflexive
techniques up against photographs
philosophic red button
To sunder tundra
during which time
soften the eyes
This is apt advice: to soften the eyes while reading these dense and fluid poems, to absorb them in the literal sense of the word, bodily, as if by osmosis. Iijima writes, “the concerns of the work have to do with transcribing the myriad registers of ecosystem/body/mind/history/gender/sexuality/race/class/empire/politic,” in her Ahsahta Press author statement.
That she takes on not one or two registers but ten is a tribute to Iijima’s fearlessness to engage injustice in her work. She asks the fathomless questions with mysterious and uncivilized bents. She acknowledges that the answers are not easy and often incomprehensible, but still must be insisted upon. Her poetry inhabits a kind of animal mentality that is both intelligent and subtle, and is cyclical rather than linear. While Iijima’s stated conceit is ambitious; the work that embodies this conceit reconstructs it as vital. It is at once shedding and multiplying, inhabiting and evacuating, living and dying, growing and decaying. Morphing, as is the reader. Meaning, as I read these poems, I need all my senses. This heightened awareness feels like the first step on a long path toward reconciling an animal nature with a brain that has been conditioned to believe we’ve moved beyond that.
If Not Metamorphic picks up where Iijima’s first book, Around Sea (O Books, 2004), left off. In both collections, Iijima is interested in exploring not just the porousness of states of being, but also of states and spaces that human civilization in the twenty-first century have compartmentalized and tried to keep separate. She does this by attenuating each level of comprehension: visual, aural, and sensory. Indeed, the poems are primal (hence the softening of the eyes); they act as non-human animals do, with their multiple awarenesses, their insistence on cacophony, their total immersion in the world. In the bodily taking in of language, the brain (usually so insistent on interpretation and definition) sheds its illusion of itself as the unlocker of mysteries and begins to function as an alter-brain. Alter-thinking, then, may be the reader’s best tool in creating spaces for this necessary osmosis to occur.
The first poem, “If Not Metamorphic?” is, in Iijima’s own words, “a dissonance chain of query,” which unravels as it picks up speed, questioning power and the dominant mode of thinking and being in a society (as it pertains to ecology, industry, humanity as the ruling “animal”—really all of Iijima’s aforementioned registers) as well as the sensuality of being a being in the world. The fluidity, or the lack thereof, in the meeting of modes. Writes Iijima:
The significance of a white handkerchief?
So that the organism will survive?
Total annihilation in an expanding universe?
How we learned this?
Embossed by sound? The sounds of joy
emitted from your lips, your limbs, the
well deep inside you?
Which is followed shortly after by this:
In the greatest history? I (they were/are)
was that delicate (beaten) bird
(population) beaten to a history (by a
dominant culture) bruised by the
floodlights of inspection the belligerent
rank and file of monstrous power as in
this example . . .
and probably my favorite lines:
Outmoded you think this theory is
But we breed this theory
tirelessly, don’t we.
“Time Unions,” the second long poem, is a twisting funnel of autobiographical detail. And like a funnel cloud it plucks the material of this world seemingly at random. Some is incorporated into the funnel and some is crushed mercilessly into debris and spit out. It is difficult to see which is the refuse and which is the not-yet-incorporated, and this is purposeful, of course. At the most basic level a dichotomy based on value is nonsensical. Who can separate the details of her life from the lives around her? Which is hearsay? Which is memory? Historical fact plus time is an uneasy union, and a shifting one. The speaker does not claim ownership of these details as much as share an identification with them:
Infinitesimal azure twilight
animalian brimming sail
wallow orbital we do, we do
in the brain, pliancy.
The third poem, “Tertium Organum,” organizes in stanzas of varying length and structure that are joined by this symbol:
which came to feel like more than just a symbol indicating a break in the poem but a holding of absence itself, an integral something that cannot be called anything in a language with so many liabilities, but nonetheless must be acknowledged. It is akin to Iijima’s line, “a sentence can’t handle this fall.” Grammatically speaking, there are no sentences in “Tertium Organum,” though there are clusters of words with periods at the end. What Iijima offers is a linked chain of sometimes grave, sometimes wry observations of ecological degeneration and the renting of our social fabric, linked again with alternative actions and modes of thinking/being in the world:
Janus figure turned kaleidoscopic
turned inward totemic
If you think she is
contented monumental dementia
seams sewn sorrow
The cutting edge, granite proportion
Then, on the next page:
Thirst for narrative
Ha ha ha
where your throat
Tonally it is just right, managing a devastating sadness that does not tip into something overwrought, as well as provocation, humor, vitality, and the suggestion of agency.
The final poem, “Panthering,” takes the name of an endangered cat so rarely seen it is almost mythic and mobilizes it, activates its name, morphs it into a verb. Iijima uses English intentionally and unconventionally. In this case, to concisely convey what is otherwise buried in the brief, harsh, and willfully entrenched history of colonization, ecological destruction and white American expansionism. It is written around an experience Iijima had in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin involving a Mississippian Indian mound in the shape of a panther, and the recorded and unrecorded histories surrounding it. It begins:
—Torn when edges
Remora mound where body—
|Went was covered
In grassy expanse
—Hail havocWe exchanged feline brains—
“Panthering” is a howl of displacement, the permeable membrane between states of being, and the idea that being (and even beings themselves, as we are beginning to accept gender and sexuality) functions on a spectrum rather than a dichotomy or hierarchy. It is a powerful and urgent summons.
On the blog Elective Affinities: cooperative anthology of contemporary u.s. poetry, Iijima writes about a series of dances she choreographed that are set in her hometown of North Adams, Massachusetts. These dances, she writes, “take place on land whose significations are highly emotional. I’ve come to think of some of these locations as sacrifice zones (that’s the way they’ve been treated) which necessitate spasmodic, wild gestures to deal with the contentious issues at hand.” She continues:
We want very much to purge some of the sadness of this space. We share its molecular structure. These dances activate the neuroarchitecture of remembering by engaging the fascia, the matrix of connective tissue that envelops the body and gives the body its structure. Simultaneously, these dances are an ecstatic connection with the land ().
Iijima’s poetics—full of spasmodic, wild gestures, matrices of connective tissue and ecstatic connections—perform in just this way.
Ellen Welcker is a poet living in Seattle. Her first book, The Botanical Garden, was published last fall by Astrophil Press.
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