Percussion Grenade by Joyelle McSweeney. Fence Books. 96pp, $15.95.
The explosion of Joyelle McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade begins in the form of a promise-command. In her preliminary “Indications” to the collection she writes:
The pieces in this volume were written for performance and should be read aloud—a-LOUD! If you have lost your voice or are among the voiceless, please stand in front of a hotel mirror and translate the poems into international hand gestures, or the belting and masking of flight attendants, or those bodily and facial poses which communicate so much among the Looney Tunes.
Poetry’s fundamental a-loudness and the accompanying interpretation that the process of reading aloud necessitates—reading-as-rendering—sets the stage and cranks up the volume for the pieces in Percussion Grenade. McSweeney continually returns to the interface between the sonic and the visual, the textual and the performative, as the site that questions as it constructs: “Is it ok to live inside this percussion grenade” the book’s title poem begins, and continues:
In my gondola of clouds
I loaf and invite myself to lock and load
dine under the table
stir the alphasoup with my epiphaneedle, the thick hours with my riflebutt.
The voices that emerge from the alphasoup are fierce, indolent, rigorous, and isolated. Yet, as seen earlier in the form of the promise-command, Percussion Grenade is also as deeply generous as it is manipulative, a book that coquettishly offers itself as a sensuous treat for the reader (“one lump or two?” McSweeneywrites in “Indications”). This generosity adds to the ethos of melding, and we see, in bits and pieces, a community being pieced together in the flash and glitter of performance and show. The pieces collected here present in no uncertain terms the sharpness and rancor of language and imagination under the stresses of current political, cultural and environmental climates, yet also they also present the possibility of collectivity—McSweeney is always insisting on places where we can enter and join her, where we can help build and destroy. These poems are dynamic and multidimensional, asking the reader to inhabit and activate different voices and vernaculars. The poems in this collection both articulate and fiercely defend the notion of performance and the collaborative experience embedded in the traditions of poetry, while they carve out a space for new possibilities and inflections of meaning with every reading/performance.
Translation, as one of these modes of performance, is at the core of McSweeney’s aesthetics, and translation as an imitative, contagious act is one of her many models of critical, aesthetic joining and deconstruction. One such moment occurs in “King Prion,” a series that, like many of the pieces collected in the volume, mimics and blends a broad range of vocabularies words and sounds of pop culture merge with folklore. Each poem begins with an invocation, whistling in the same way, like a banshee (“hooooooo—”) but is also inflected with vocabularies of technology, politics, and microbiology (a prion is the infectious agent responsible for the spreading of disease in the brain tissue, such as in the case of Mad Cow disease). “King Prion” suggests an economy of imitation, infection, and absorption, and this is emphasized by McSweeney’s own layering of translated texts within the poems:
switched like a cat
I call that man lucky who, sitting next to you
in the afterglade goddess
Goddess-dragged the lad
Then dragged the river over that
we dragged the river for his
What emerges from this passage is both Sappho’s famous fragment 31 ( “He seems to me equal to the gods that man” in Anne Carson’s translation) and the tensions between languages and gender constructs that the poem has come to represent in translation. McSweeney plays upon the efforts made by Sappho’s translators, beginning at least with Catullus, to “drag” Sappho’s love song and make its speaker a man. She exposes these pathways of interpretation and manipulation with dashes, ambiguities of gender, grammar (“him-her”), in a wash of words. Just as the river in the passage is “dragged over” physically and then “dragged,” searched, for bodies, grit, “alley marrow” words are asked to perform an accelerated associative range of meanings, in an homage to translation’s power to both distort, transform, and expand the possibilities of language. The poem therefore asks us to acknowledge the various residues of translation praxis, a remembering of fragment and form, and the potential destruction that accompanies the production of translation.
Cycles of destruction and production are everywhere in the collection, and there is a brutal fairness to this balance: “if you withdraw from it you have to pay into it / what you subtract from it you’ll add back into it” McSweeney writes in her fourth “Poem for the Catastrophe.” But though these cycles return they are by no means exhaustive or predictable. The passage continues with the unveiling of a scar, a moment of ambiguity: “did the damage come from the ears or from the rain.” It is hard not to read these broken cycles and structures of meaning within the political and environmental climate in which the poems were created.Indeed some of the poems are suggestively, if not explicitly, political. “Poem for Comrade Duch” (first collected in Starting Today: 100 poems for Obama’s first 100 days, an anthology in honor of Obama’s first days in office) begins with a series of bleak questions filtered through the language of educational bureaucracy:
What choices do I have
And how will the student be graded
And how will we know that the student work is good enough
And how will we know that it is the best possible work
If the grade is meaningless
If the choice is meaningless
The poem continues to modify the question into the search for meaning as a search for utterance, “where then do we look for meaning / what slips from the lining of the lung.” It is often in the search for meaning, interpretation, theory, performance, and poetry, that the pre-established balance comes undone, and there is an eros in pure devouring and destruction, a decomposing in the face of pleasure. As Narcissus says in the poem-play “The Contagious Knives”: “first you must enjoy him / then you must ingest him.” In the series “Hanniography,” Hannie Oakley says: “Here’s a theory of performance for you: aim for the rafters. Shoot the room. Aim for the kids in the back.” It is in these moments of destruction and rupture that the guttural shock of interpretation emerges.
“The Contagious Knives” is a septic, remarkable poem-play included towards the end of the collection. It features a vibrantly decomposing cast of characters, including Louis Braille, Narcissus, a “syphilitic Swan,” and “the fiend.” The cultural debris stirred up by the power and force of the poems that precede it settles menacingly, and the characters appear on a stage thick with ooze. Around them “are arranged the spoils of culture, that is, the amputated emblems of meaning: lyre, scale of justice, bow, arrow, shield, rifle, owl, bandolier, tobaccoplant, cornplant, state seal, chalice, mask, opium blossom.” The reader/performer of “The Contagious Knives” is similarly mired, surrounded in the sudden detritus stirred up by its post-apocalyptic vision. In the play one character asks another, “why is this happening? I was sleeping happily inside the swell / before you roused me.” The same might be said by the reader/performer of McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade: we are uprooted from our familiar language and directed towards the slime and ooze of our own cultural and linguistic practices—and by the end of the book we are agitated, our throats are sore, and we are almost giddy with the gorgeously sinister promise-commands and expansive vision of Percussion Grenade’s command performance.
Diana Thow lives in Berkeley, California, where she is pursuing a PhD in comparative literature. Her work has been published in The Iowa Review, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.
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