Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Brooklyn Copeland: Borrowed House

Borrowed House is a chap released this year by Greying Ghost Press. I do not know if Brooklyn will have a problem with being labeled post-avant; yet these poems are, in fact, exemplary of what poems from the "narrative branch" of post-avant can do. They derive their energy from dramatic metaphors, some of which are extended for the length of the chap. Copeland's language never veers into the literal; figurative language predominates, and so narrative (in these poems) is immediately distinguished from language, as it appears in mainstream poetry. Copeland's poems haunt out of a sense of heightened tension and drama that is more potent for being understated. Despite their reliance on dramatic metaphor, these are demonstrably "relationship poems," that work out their edge via "we" rather than "I." Between these divergent impulses, unique textual entities present themselves, that demonstrate both the freshness and the disturbing quality that I look for in post-avant poetry.

The conflicting strains manifest palpably in He Is Watching which, in its eight solid lines, brings together many of the best elements in Copeland's poetry:

Press into the window.
You become

the shallow face
that presses into the window,

surveying all that was
and wishing for just one

more chew on the blade,
another second to swallow.

As is the case in Stacy Blair's work, the understated quality of the poem belies its visceral intensity, the physical nature and sensations that accrue to close readings of it. This response is encapsulated in the final two lines: "..chew on the blade,/ another second to swallow." Revulsion is part of the point, what lends the poem its potency, and why I would align it to post-avant. It is disturbing, unsettling, but not presented in a grandstanding way. In fact, if read quickly, it is rather inconspicuous. You have to read it slowly and carefully for it to cast its spell. The title (He Is Watching) clues us in that the poem, on at least one level, concerns voyeurism. It could be emotional, psychological, or sexual, but it undoubtedly involves a self-conscious narrator, who cloaks her rhetoric in metaphoric terms; a sophisticated narrative-thematic gambit Copeland is making. It is, also, a surprisingly complete performance from a younger poet, and doubly surprising because the different levels are not immediately apparent on first reading. If you dig deep into this poem, it is perceptible that the lack of sentiment and fanfare are specifically what allows the poem to turn its tricks successfully. Levels of temporality are important here too: the narrator is "becoming," while "surveying all that was."

Other poems in the collection play their games more overtly. Flirtations turns psycho-affective confrontation into a children's game, minimizing its seriousness with dollops of irony and raw frankness:

Drunk beside the pond, we play
with ultimatums

:if you cannot fathom this thick mud.

:if you cannot pull the legs from this daddy-long.

:if you cannot stew this prepubescent carrot
in your own blood.

:if you cannot hitch the butterfly with your sugared thumb.

:if you cannot look me in the eye
when you recite

the filthiest passage in the grassiest language.

The anaphoric catalog presented here is interesting for a number of reasons. Since both partners are "playing," it can be difficult to tell which partner is saying what. The most obvious ultimatum, of course, is the "prepubescent carrot in your own blood," which seems to issue from the female protagonist. She seems to be indicting her partner's sexual immaturity, his inability to raise himself above infantile self-obsession. These two lines are placed in the center of the anaphoric structure, making them both more visible and asked to carry more weight. Conversely, we are presented initially with the fact that these lovers are "drunk": this would seem to cast doubts on whether the catalog can be taken seriously, or if it is merely a kind of game again. Why are the lovers placed "beside the pond"? The pond, in fact, reappears throughout Borrowed House, but what it denotes remains elusive. A pond is not wild or active like a river or a sea; it is (like the astrological sign Scorpio) "fixed water." As such, it can be taken to denote the settled feeling of unease that has developed between the two protagonists, or something they have in common, or something between them that is draining their energy, or a little bit of all of these. Ultimately, Flirtations is interesting because it seems to contradict its own title; rather than seeming like flirtations, these ultimatums feel more like a game of Russian Roulette. Between the title and the substance of the poem, a layer of irony is added which makes the poem that much more satisfyingly obtuse; and that kind of depth, multi-leveled attack, is what post-avant is all about, or should be. I continue to explore these issues here.

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