Book Review

Babette, Sara Deniz Akant’s latest poetry collection, sends a jolt through the atrophied imagination. Filled with jury-rigged words and impossible images, the poems ooze sensory relish, fortified by hints of embedded significance. Babette’s pleasures derive from rhythms unmuted by message  yet still suggestive, as exemplified by these lines from “the meadow”:

       loop berry loop berry loop
       berry on, loop berry looking through
       the stars has none

Dark humor permeates such distorted syntax, confronting the reader with language serene on the verge of breakdown. Punctuation arrayed in abstract patterns often stands in for titles, as in “_:˄:_ _:˄:_ _:˄:_.” Lines such as these:

       . . . merely swamp—a tusk—
       a blunted mind of nothing but red aster—the bird-like
       flesh of old sawdust . . .

summon a spectral embroidery. Reading Babette feels like skimming in a floatplane above a fog-steeped landscape before coming to rest, as you turn the last page, in a secret lagoon.

From this boggy vantage, I realized that somewhere along the line, the poetry mainstream—if such a unifying term can be said to apply—must’ve dutifully choked down the Biblical yet postmodern prescription “nothing new under the sun.” So that now and again I find myself doing a double take when the sun sets and pow, I stumble on some new thing. Babette is precisely that. But don’t mistake me. By “new” I wish to evoke neither some cult of genius, nor the unoriginal genius of a self-proclaimed vanguard couched in academy and canon. No, I mean a thing unremixed and unappropriated, a radical departure from the automatic forms and tropes that glut literary venues today.

Akant utterly stymied my habitual mode of reading. I typically use a pencil to track motifs, scan lines, take marginal notes, and draw connections between poems and texts. With other titles, especially unorthodox ones, a pencil in hand reliably deepens my engagement with the work. On its own though, this method proves unequal to Babette’s effects which, by and large, outflank the conscious mind. But Akant manages to short-circuit meaning meaningfully.

In Babette, not a single category nor definition remains stable for very long. Akant troubles the borders between life and death, between consciousness and the unconscious, through a “gohst” that figures—often in the space of a single poem—as sometime speaker, sometime subject: Babette and Babette both. A poem sequence titled “gohst” develops this ambiguity early on, crowding together pronouns and shifting between them:

she returns to these same questions:
. . . I will not name them. I will
wait for my (very fine)
form. I scream. I embrace her.

These pronouns merge at the close of the sequence:

folded in their forms is a gohst . . .

for to look like other people
is a gohst in my dream to me—

Akant appears to take literally the notion that a text relives some mutation of itself with each rereading, with each new reader, or even the same reader in a new stage of life. But she uncovers something grotesque in this oscillation between life and death, sleep and dream. The text is uncanny, undead. It encrypts and decrypts itself:

is it a part of space. is it a gorse
in the glare of its own
lace-pattern . . .
it is not a part of space.
it is a gohst in the glare
and it’s going somewhere else.

Perhaps this Babette is a “gohst” because she walks through walls—the walls, for example, that demarcate “manor” from “meadow,” and “host” from “horse” from “gorse.” All boundaries are fuzzed beyond recognition.

“In clatter things / can happen,” Akant’s speaker says (or mumbles, or susurrates), rounding off the poem “dahal.” A free-associative reading of this phrase may grant a peripheral glimpse into the life-in-spite-of-death that animates Babette when, hypnotized by its pleasures, one doesn’t stare too fixedly. So, how to read “clatter”? The word is quasi-onomatopoeic: with its short “a” penned in by sharp consonants “c” and “t,” the word doesn’t sound arbitrarily affixed to its meaning. It furnishes a sliver of overlap between word and world, but a discordant one—less of a sound than a noise—a disturbance among “things” that “happen” of their own accord. Imagined or real, a bump in the night. Either way they happen. Or can. Things as happenings, free to happen. Autonomous, they choose. But can they happen to, or only by way of the reader, filtered, as another poem hints, through a “different kind of knowing”? Uncanny, because unfettered by will. Non-representational but miming representation, all the more tantalizing for Akant’s indefinite stance. Now to replace the phrase in context:

the hostess finally
she came out brilliant
in clatter things
can happen

Who then is this “hostess”? Babette, Akant, Babette, the reader? Is she hosting a party, parasite, or poltergeist? Akant’s line breaks render such enigmas, which proliferate with every poem, impossible to definitively solve.

With this wholesale dissolution of categories, poetic forms and genres meld together, into a hybrid of concrete and sound poetry. Traditionally, both genres have hinged on a dubious purity, with linguistic sound in the former, and typography in the latter case, supposedly purified of syntax and meaning. Babette, on the other hand, crunchy in its shrapnel of half-recognized words and syntactic fragments, shocks precisely by corrupting that purity. Pantomimes of sense-making haunt the work.

Take a closer look at “inpolé,” for instance. The poem weaves itself around a clutch of lozenges (◊), themselves arrayed in a lozenge pattern. This ancient motif features prominently in Ukrainian, Celtic, Phrygian, and Ottoman iconography—but it reappears in this context via word-processor technology. Such connections do not feel alien to the poem at hand if, with reference to the title, we recognize its maypole shape. And further, how “gaz ◊ helle” summons not only “gazelle” and “elle,” but “Helen” and “hell.” And how “incrypticon” morphs into “in[s]cription,” then into “incryption,” finally encrusting its own “innovation,” Clearly, a deathliness pervades this fertile field—a crypt that forms the core of encryption. In “r-to-m” one may see “r” as an “m” half-formed, or deformed. This “in / crypticon” is a sort of undead, fetal codex. Read in this way, the poem slips into horror-genre guise, a move not often made in contemporary poetry, which tends to shut its eyes to genre and become generic. But shades of meaning proliferate if “inpolé” is read against another poem. “Involi” is in many ways its mirror image, with its “ever-verted world” and “map / of a disappearing diamond.” Here, the word-remnants “viol” (evoking the instrument, violence, violation) and “voli” (volition, revolution, volatility) orbit and infiltrate each other, producing “invol.” One might read this as “involuntary” clipped, a gesture at automatism as surrealist technique, or the brutal overlap between animal and automaton, which paradox defines for us as “machines of the living.”

I’m inclined to call this a somniloquist poetry—a sequence of dream-utterances that, in one and the same moment, crystallize Akant’s subconscious and her reader’s. Before, I said the book was something actually new; of course, things only manifest as new in how they relate to older things. Babette’s inner workings can be just made out in the glow off one of its harbingers, surrealism. In his essay “Surrealism: Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” Walter Benjamin writes of a literary movement for which:

Life only seemed worth living where the threshold between waking and sleeping was worn away in everyone as by the steps of multitudinous images flooding back and forth, language only seemed itself where sound and image, image and sound interpenetrated with automatic precision and such felicity that no chink was left for the penny-in-the-slot called “meaning.”

In Babette we discover a systematic wearing away of thresholds between states of consciousness, but also, at the level of form, between image and sound. Benjamin goes on to describe surrealist artworks as “not only before meaning. Also before the self.” But he adopts the standpoint in his analysis of a practitioner applying surrealist techniques. In other words, at the moment of composition, he does not consider, in isolation, the moment of reception. With Babette this moment of reception transpires, likewise, “before the self.” Just as it refuses a singular speaker, one self-contained subjectivity, it gives the lie to a singular reader. At the level of language, Babette’s “gohst” permeates all borders and boundaries. It recognizes none of the checkpoints, border patrols, or razor wire erected by market forces between “author” and “reader,” which channel the flow of meaning from producer to consumer. That’s why the word “genius” fails to adequately describe Babette, despite Akant’s originality, since the book hinges on its reader’s participation—but not as a Barthesian. The flow of meaning does not simply reverse. Babette fields a co-operative interplay, occasioned by the poems but not reducible to them. And this only works if the reader consciously thwarts the hyperconscious frame of mind with which we’ve been trained to approach language, not only by orders, assignments, and instruction manuals, but as much by literature itself, be it modern or postmodern.

As a work of inverted surrealism, Babette does not stop short at representing images harvested from dreams. It coaxes our own dream-logic, as a machine for making meaning, back into motion. As such, Babette calls for the rigorous development of surrealistic techniques and games but for reading. It reminds us of how the new is—of course—always a recombination of the old, and not a rehash. What should be clear has been distorted by the institution of author as genius—the star system of literary production that lavishes a select few with grants, awards, and academic posts. After literary theorists peeled back these distortions, declaring the Death of the Author (inaugurating the Reader as Producer, to modify another phrase of Benjamin’s), sections of the literary establishment that called themselves “avant-garde” co-opted and rehabilitated this opening as a cynical excuse for appropriating othersʼ words, dispensing with the imaginative work and play that so complexly recombine language, they transform it.

But art need not be theft. With Babette, Akant reclaims the imagination as a site of transformation—one chunk of the means of literary production that cannot be owned. A place where the categories, definitions, and language of our society can be smashed, melted down, and made anew—into poetry.

About the Reviewer

William Repass’s poetry has appeared in Bennington Review, Denver Quarterly, Hobart, Small Po[r]tions, and elsewhere. He lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.