As the first cautious reader of Eliot’s The Wasteland navigated those snaking lines, he must have felt the way I did as I ventured into Evan Willner’s new poetry cycle, homemade traps for new world Brians–that is, on fire, electrified, but no, not electrified, infected with a brilliant new disease–a linguistic disease that catastrophically and irrevocably invaded the chatter bouncing around inside my brain. Words started to come together to form bizarre new thoughts, speak new sounds, and in some cases utterly fell apart leaving a gigantic, pregnant space that made my brain lurch much the way my stomach does before plunging over the crest of a roller coaster. The English I used to build my thoughts was being assaulted line by line, bombed, shattered, and then pieced back together in a way that lifted a veil to a new vision of the world and of the morphemes and phonemes I used to interpret that world. And birds and meat will never be the same.
Hyperbole? God yes. But well-deserved.
Willner is a recent graduate of Boston University where he received his PhD in poetry. His latest work, homemade traps for new world Brians, is a dynamic attack on language consisting of fifty-two utterly bizarre poems. The opening salvo is a preface followed by fifty twelve-line poems titled first state, second state and on down the line until the final fiftieth state. Another preface in the middle breaks up the two major sections of the work. Each poem can stand alone, but their full dimensions are only perceptible when they are read together. They excel in all the usual components of good poetry–judicious line breaks, word play, assonance and consonance. Everything down to the spacing has been meticulously crafted and constructed. Lines reverberate and echo and sometimes form jagged cacophonies. They are always musical. The opening line of first state reads:
The first finch rafted in god blessed and bacterial
The accented, monosyllabic f words launch a heartbeat momentum that opens out into the flow of the longer b words. You feel like you’re bouncing on the surface of something miles deep, which echoes the movement of the raft and the line’s position as the “launch” point of a book of poems. Or take the first line from twenty-second state:
She made herself some cancer to enhance her organs
teat her veins to its undifferentiated
face, infiltrate connective tissue and thrill her
fucked body with stubborn life.
The Jack and Jill-like rhymes and trochees of the “cancer” and “enhance her” crash hard into “teat”, this playfulness then dissolves away into the complex syllables of the academic “undifferentiated” and “infiltrate connective tissue”. It skips briefly back into nursery rhyme territory with “thrill her” before slamming into the unvoiced monosyllable of the vulgar “fucked”. It’s fun to say, fun to feel the sounds dance out of your mouth. The shift in register, from lighthearted to play to academic to crass is deliberate, of course, and typical of the poems, but it is the mood of play that dominates and keeps Willner’s complexity fun and adventurous instead of obscure and tedious.
The attention to sound, this technical virtuosity is part of what makes these poems such a blast to read, without a doubt, but it is only a piece of the gestalt that lets them do such strange alchemy on thought itself. Another piece is the carnal imagery, and I invoke the word carnal in all its senses for Willner uses the meat and blood and bone inherent in the Latin root “carn” together with the hard-core sexuality that the modern word conjures up. One of the themes of the poems is creation, and all sorts of creatures and creators stalk these verses–mothers and children, dolls and their makers, golems and their gods, the eponymous Brians–and they are constructed of a variety of things ranging from wire and brick to words. Of course, as objects in poetry, they are all constructed with words, but one of the principle materials used to create is body parts. According to forty-third state:
Say that there was a pound of flesh folded over and
In over thickening months in an underground
Uterine facility until it was packed
With organs, feeding tubes, knowhow and connective
Gristle of its own;
Inside becomes outside. The word “facility”, evoking images of factories in the suburbs, is a uterus–the bare organ is out in the world, a bladder next to a subdivision. But it is not just organs and connective gristle that make up this body, but “feeding tubes and knowhow”–the blood and slime of our internal gore has become a component of the machines of the outside world and creates a visceral awareness of body as machine–physical, fragile, infinitely breakable.
The eponymous Brians are creatures first named in twenty-seventh state, at first, a single being (later he, too, multiplies and breeds) who, after being delivered from the vein soaked field is:
swaddled for a time in in
human acids that peel away a Brian’s
butter to access the secret embarrassment
The “peel away a Brian’s butter”, as an image, is completely grotesque, but that’s what makes it so effective. You can almost chew it. These tactile, gustatory images are typical of the poems–fatty, vaguely nauseating, and edible–marking us and creation in general as part of a voracious chain of meat devouring meat. This is alluded to in the “secret embarrassment of meat”. But this line, like so many of the images in the poems, is infinitely mutable in interpretation. Depending upon where you are–whether you’ve just meticulously read twenty-seventh state in succession after twenty-sixth state or whether you’re browsing through it as a stand-alone poem or going back to it after finishing all fifty-two poems–the implications shift and slide, the words carry slightly different connotations. For the thing about Willner’s poems that stands out most is how they affect the language that makes them up (a theme within the poetry itself, too). Words and images build their meanings as the poems progress. Each new use of word and image from poem to poem adds a layer to what came before, modifying, morphing, and at times, reversing the meaning to make one word encompass opposites. This layering becomes a physical presence in the poems themselves. In thirty-ninth state, when describing the destruction of a skyscraper, Willner writes:
the tongue thick accumulation of tenant dust
years of parchment soft feet, sleep, hair, and friable
insulation, every membrane that has settled
over other living membranes to become the
packed piled organs of our city
Or in discussing a recently birthed creature in forty-fourth state:
abandoned, it can just
ball up in its own homemade nesting doll states tight
like skin that loves the muscle sliding under it
That this imagery also refers to language is hinted at in thirty-ninth state by the word “parchment”. This layering of meaning does not happen to words in stasis, the layers are like living flesh and cells, moving and growing, stretching out long tentacles toward each other and toward you, the reader. The way words shift from meaning to meaning can be vertiginous. In the example drawn from forty-fourth state, the words sliding under it mimic the perpetual churning that accompanies the metamorphing semantics in the poems.
The construction of meaning brings to mind Derrida, who said in his essay Differance “Every concept is inscribed in a chain or in a system within which it refers to the other, to other concepts, by means of the systematic play of differences.” The “movement of signification” is possible “only if each so-called present element, each element appearing on the scene…is related to something other than itself, thereby keeping within itself the mark of the past element, and already letting itself be vitiated by the mark of the relation to the future element.” The clunky, jointed dolls and golems and Brians that walk the latter half of new world Brians literally embody this idea, with each doll part acting as a concept “already vitiated by” its relation to other parts, but the images of nesting dolls, and membranes lain over membranes, and flesh folding over flesh also give flesh to Derrida’s words. new world Brians is one of Derrida’s systems, a system of magic and myth different from the every day system of language we use to interact with the rest of the world. Each poem affects the other, both forward and back. Take the word “face”, for instance. It pops up first in the preface as part of the title itself and maybe you just take it as that, a simple part of a word naming a self-explanatory part of the poetry cycle. But then in third state if a man:
sprays plugs of come into nature’s blanks and
blind spaces, it was only to fill in the day
light with himself…
the trees bob agreeably to seed field ruts with
the recognizing woodcock wink of his genes so
the clouds would bulge with folding fetus shapes…
until everywhere he turned he could roll himself up
in the supplication of nature’s faces.
Now a face is something a man creates with plugs of come and then wraps himself in, as if for protection. In the next poem, the inhabitants of skyscrapers:
came on each other, breeding infinitely
photographable faces that press out from the
towers, faces lined like their much photographed sky
In fifth state:
each walking one of us parts the gluteus sun
light with fine outfolding facial muscles
In the eighth:
what are you fucking looking at? Windows aren’t
public either, so quit peeping in them for some
wishful Boone face to father your rippling face
It would be difficult to say exactly what “face” means in any of these poems, simple synonyms do not readily come to mind. “Face” means creator. “Face” means creation. “Face” means work of art. Rather the word “face” draws substance from the actions it’s associated with–and sometimes these actions are mutually contradictory. In third state a face is part of what has been spawned by the sprays of semen, a creation then used by the father like a blanket for protection; in the fifth state faces operate the muscles that push through the world, a tool of expression, of inside moving outside. In the eighth, they are part of a thing that can father other faces, in other words, a creator. In the fourth, they are things stilled by the attempt to create art (photographs) and at the same time measurers of the movement of time. Face becomes both the man who sprayed the come and the thing he birthed, the flow of time and the stilling of something in an artistic act. And all of these meanings reflect back on the initial word preface–preface; a thing that comes before the created face of poem three. Or preface–the thing that ‘father’s’ the rest of the poems, seeding them into life. Or preface, that which stands before the poems as an introduction to created objects. Or all of the above all at the same time. Words lose their stillness as you read. They tremble with tension, vibrate, strain against opposites. As you approach fiftieth state, you feel like some of them might burst their skins and spill their meanings haphazard all over the page.
This is a mystical approach to language as much as a philosophical one. It’s like the way the Quran is read by many mystically inclined Muslims. You cannot take the word “garden”, for instance, from a single sura and assume it only carries its literal meaning from that one sentence. Instead, you most consider how the word “garden” is used in every sura throughout the Quran, and meditate on the collective meaning of every use as it modifies and reflects on any individual use of the word. A reader must do the same thing with the words and images in new world Brians. Word play is also used, of course, by Jewish mystics in their effort to understand the divine. In Kabbalistic tradition, God manifests Itself in the world in ten emanations called sefiroth. The sefiroth are not so much different parts of the divine, but different levels of expression of the ineffable God. The Godhead from which the sefiroth spring is so removed from the world that it only makes sense to use the word “It” when referring to it. The first three manifestations are a little bit closer to humanity, so the pronoun “He” is used. The next three sefiroth are addressed as You, and only toward the end, when God becomes manifest in the world, does the divinity refer to itself as “I”. A similar thing happens in the poems with character and narrator. The first characters are the finches, expressed in “it”s and “they”s. Humans do not appear until the man of third state, a “he”. A “she” arrives in the seventh. The first person collective “us” is unveiled in the fifth poem. A truly intimate “you” appears in the sixth, but it still interacts only with the collective “us”. A personal “I”, the most private of all, does not appear till thirteenth state. And this is not the “I” of confessional poetry, not Willner’s double, but rather an “I” unearthed by the mining into deeper layers of intimacy, layers of skin and muscle pulled back to unveil something more vulnerable and prone to pain than before. And at the bottom-most layer is the sense that there is another step down that the mind cannot take with words, that in every word exists something of the ineffable, that to grasp at language as something solid is to run your fingers through smoke and light.
new world Brians is not for those who want their poetry to wash cleanly through their systems. They do not follow a simple narrative flow. They are not confessional. You have to work through them like you would a puzzle, but they provide they same thrill that puzzles yield, only with a much deeper reward, a profound awareness into the nature of thought, language, and creation. You move among the poems as an alchemist might move among elements, trying various combinations of semantics and sound to reach the ineffable beneath, an idea echoed by the appearance of a toad in first state, who sits at the tree’s roots. The toad was a symbol of the “First Matter” in alchemy, the primordial substance from which all things come and was often depicted in alchemical iconography as sitting at the roots of a great tree. He is a perfect herald to the world of new world Brians, where language itself passes through the fire and emerges at the other end as a shiny new thing.
My copy of new world Brian’s looks like an alchemist’s text might look; fiercely annotated, that is to say, ruthlessly marked up. Lines of varying colors draw arrows between words, circle things, make notes in margins, draw enthusiastic exclamation points in red, write bursts of insight in green. There are tiny pictures illustrating some of the lines, bits of prose inspired by an image scribbled diagonally down from one of the verses. There are pictures drawn over scribbles scribbled over exclamation points noted on arrows that cross inspired verses of my own devising. I’ve torn the paper in places from writing so much or so hard. In fact, God help anyone who borrows it, I’ve rendered the whole manuscript illegible, page for page, because it was fun to read, fun to think, fun to play with the toys Willner had given me, namely, his words and lines and images and the way they sound and clang and fight and fuck against each other.
Read these poems. You will impress yourself. You will think, at some point, as I did, “Damn, I didn’t know my brain could do that.”