Tracer. Richard Greenfield. Omnidawn. 90 pp, $15.95.
Tracer, Richard Greenfield’s second book of poetry, ups the promise—and the ante—of his first book, 2003′s A Carnage in the Lovetrees. In that volume the poet proved himself relentlessly and bravely willing to bare emotional traumas within the context of equally relentless cutting-edge poetics—translating, as it were, Plath’s confessional shriek into the post–Language Poetry landscape and adopting a measured, even flat tone and testing personal detail against linguistic inventiveness (and vice versa). Where in Lovetrees Greenfield explored the past, Tracer takes on the now, particularly the post-9/11, post–Patriot Act, post–Iraq invasion world—the departed George W. Bush’s world, yes, but also a world whose legacy Barack Obama’s America must grapple with. In this milieu, Greenfield’s “I” acts as both an autobiographical signifier and allegorical Everyman; indeed, the book’s great theme is the relation between the individual and his or her culture (and, especially in the second part of the book, his or her natural environment) —as well as the question of where, exactly, culture or environment ends and the person, per se, begins. In Tracer, Greenfield upends Whitman’s paradigm of personal and national self-making, reversing it into a question of how much of the self is self-made and how much is received or constituted by the culture—particularly those darker aspects of ideology and national mythology that the speaker, we are to understand, would normally, consciously resist. Greenfield, in short, engages in a kind of personal and national soul-searching; his dissections of cultural values are also, necessarily, dissections of self, and vice versa.
Thus the book’s first poem asks, who is “I” to speak for “we”? “Already I am we,” states the aptly titled poem “Speaking For,” less as a sheepish apology than as a recognition of the movement of “I” from the specific to the universal, even when it doesn’t intend to— and calling attention to the consequences of such a movement. The poem, along with its bookend counterpart, “Guideline,” serves to summarize Greenfield’s poetics, and his vision of what we might now call Glenn Beck’s America: a vision, and an America, marked by tinges of paranoia and the apocalyptic, framed in the commonplace and domestic. At one point later in the book the poet confesses, “I am also subject to / the hysterical point of view”—though, importantly, the poet takes this mindset itself, whose “needs // are formed behind blast shields,” as the object of his inquiry:
Our mail is here,
I read here too that the corner influence brings up the price,
that in the State, questions are protected until they are
answered, until we listen and
turn the noon into an archived document of torture, until falling
statues precede the capital that permeates after, until our needs
are formed behind blast shields and sharpened into form
and played in the role of rage
which I read now is emitted as a remotely-activated hypothesis,
until what could be
terrified could be the embryonic atoms of a greater terror
Here, and throughout the book, Greenfield’s speakers are alive to the material and ideological worlds, and to the ideological-as-material world of need-forming capitalism. The speaker—and by extrapolation of the Everyman trope, everyone—the book implies, is in some way complicit in these personal, national, and global waste lands, and the drama of the book revolves around the speaker’s recognition of this. Even readers of the book are reconfigured, in “Speaking For,” as being on the other end of the “listening devices” which serve—in an unsettling of John Stuart Mill’s definition of the lyric as overheard speech—both to surveil the speaker’s movements, and, ironically, to provide the kind of public attention to private events that certain models of contemporary, celebrity-obsessed selfhood yearn for. “[O]ne is so small in the age of terror as to be vast . . .” reads the concrete poem “Harm,” “many devices are tuned to our choices. . . . ”
In place of Whitman’s conflation of the “we” into the “I,” the poet forges a dialectic of personal and public that we have seen in the work of Adrienne Rich and others. Yet in Tracer the two are so subtly intertwined as to be essentially synonymous—even horrifically so:
my occupation lies in the stains, in the in medias res radiance of the
the room cleared of the fixtures, cleared of the clutter from old
rooms, interlocutors between my body
and its incentives, with rot in the air,
with the open wound of leaving in the midst, taking seconds,
with the dawn’s effacing
daylight, the rooms evacuated, loud nailholes in the drywall
In these lines from “The Sign,” the poet’s attention to language opens up multiple worlds, most prominently that of a military occupation; one can imagine the blasted-out interiors of urban warfare in Fallujah and elsewhere. Yet ultimately, through the hinge-word “occupation,” the poem situates this violent world in the domestic, even banal, setting of a rented apartment somewhere in the American heartland, and the nailholes—which just as easily could have been bullet holes—not only leak autobiography, but bloody history. Here, there are no “private” and “public” worlds, only the world, and, as with the outgoing tenant above, we—individually, collectively—bear responsibility for its condition, even as we must recognize the limits of our powers of control. “We go on,” Greenfield writes in “The Future,” “as a guess, interposed / between the private and the republic / by default.”
Again and again, the book returns to the valences of the word “plan,” which seem emblematic of the American, if not Western—if not human—psyche: planned communities and the plan of a life, a poem, the planning of civilization, superstructure, the plans of homes. At the same time it shows, in classically tragic style, how hubris—here figured as the capacity to plan society, plan nature, to “nation-build”—always releases unintended, and sometimes catastrophic, consequences: the paranoia of the Homeland Security state, the elongated occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the existential anxieties of the twenty-first-century American psyche, environmental devastation. Against the paradigm of planning illustrated in the manicured lawns and boxy trappings of rented apartments and starter homes, the book enacts the elusive, exploratory, frame-breaking forms of contemporary poetics, in wide spacing and a inclusive, meditative register grounded in sometimes stunning sensory detail: “The horned lark was / in his evening singing,” goes “The Laws,” “the vaunt of the last / western wave, / a trumpet / pouring through the scenes.” But what is most honorable about Tracer is the poet’s willingness to delve into what we might call the Greenfield-American psyche and speak from what he sees there: “We can’t tell ourselves / from those whose loss is actual,” ends the book’s final poem,
I was working on a grocery list, the broadcast was absorbed into four
sealed walls, the resonance met the space, the receiving area was
larger than itself,
a better value than
I would ever pay
I was thinking of the things
The intensity of the repetition and spacing of the “I”s here drives home Greenfield’s point about individual complicity in the affairs of the world and responsibility for them—and, indeed, the poetic imperative in recognizing how the very way we use language—”I / thought // I / needed”—is an aspect of the problem. Elsewhere in Tracer the poet gives glimpses of a solution, in straining to forge an ethical relationship with others through a radical self-effacement:
I saw enough people at the park today
I vacated myself
through the veil
of the other.
Yet even at the height of apparent lyrical transcendence, the next line breaks the spell: the speaker is “no nearer to that other.” The practical, everyday difficulties—in the end, spiritual difficulties—remain, the poet implies, as do the real work of making such a life, and such a world.
Andy Frazee’s book reviews and criticism appear in the Boston Review, Jacket, Verse, and elsewhere. His chapbook of poetry, That the World Should Never Again Be Destroyed by Flood, is forthcoming from New American Press. He lives in Athens, Georgia.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- That’s Just Semantics! (or, the Proper Treatment of Richard Montague in Literary Fiction) Discussed in this essay:Less Than Meets the Eye, David Berlinski. St. Martin’s Press. $19.95.The Mad Man, Samuel R. Delany. Rhinoceros Publications. 520pp 0. Death is Not the End On March 12, 1971, the funeral of Richard Merritt Montague brought a very diverse crowd to the Praisewater Funeral Home in Los...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Andy Frazee
Read more articles about books from Omnidawn