Book Review

In many ways this book is a continuance of what C.A. Conrad formally outlines in his 2012 book, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics. “Formally,” because the practice of (soma)tics is one that began for Conrad as early as 2005. Ecodeviance continues the work of A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon in its structure and concerns. Each poem or series of poems is preceded by a (soma)tic exercise. What is remarkable about this approach is that Conrad allows us to see his writing process. At least, he lets us see it to the extent that we see how he gathers the raw materials for each poem. Almost every exercise has somewhere in it the directive to “take notes.” These notes are to record what Conrad describes as an “an ‘extreme present’ where the many facets of what is around me wherever I am can come together through a sharper lens.” What happens to Conrad’s notes to make them into a poem is the part of the process that is left unspoken, but I get the sense more and more that it is an act of distillation. The poems in A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon feel like they are live transcriptions of the extreme present the poet attempts to create through the exercises. The poems in Ecodeviance are almost extracted from the notes. Some of the poems are even concrete in their formal existence on the page. Some look like four-legged animals, others look like people. Not all the poems are concrete, but once Conrad awakens me, as a reader, to the possibility of concrete form, it affects my perspective of the poems thenceforward.

We know from an interview included in A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon that the present of “extreme present” is not meant to wake up the poet to the present moment—and therefore allow the poet to experience a present which is eternal. This is something that Conrad describes as “futile.” Rather, this “extreme present” makes the poet aware, sometimes painfully, of the body, which has its undeniable presence. Being made aware of the body is absolutely crucial to Conrad’s praxis, as he calls it, because this is where our memory resides. As he says in the 2012 interview, “The latest research on the human brain locates the actual, physical life of memory. Memory is a THING….We also know from centuries of pressure-point manipulation, acupuncture, and massage that muscles and other human tissue hold memories. Our bodies actually remember.” So, to be acutely aware of one’s body is to enact the body’s memory, which is different in respect, but not in kind, to the memory of what we commonly consider our mind, and “memory,” as Conrad puts it, “is everything.” Most importantly, memory is the first step to understanding the difference between what is right and what is wrong. Without memory, there is no ethics. The poem then, as a distillation of notes from a (soma)tic exercise, is a record of what is ethically necessary at the time of the writing of the poem: this is the need for an “extreme present.”

As for the poems themselves, they are gathered from experiences which are meant to help the poet see things that are either very small or regularly overlooked, either that or they aid the poet in reimagining the worlds as such. In the exercise “Time Travel Application,” Conrad is traveling from Philadelphia, where he lives, to give a reading in Buffalo, NY. “Spring” he says, “is in FULL BLOOM in Philadelphia, while the land in Buffalo is still asleep with winter.” He travels by train and has with him two photos: one of spring in full bloom and one of spring asleep with winter. While still in the spring which is alive he holds up the picture of winter and says “THIS IS DEAD!” and “step[s] hard on a piece of broken plastic” in his shoe. He continues to do this every ten minutes, and when the train progresses into winter, he switches the photos, continues to step on the piece of plastic (his foot is bleeding by this time), and switches what he says to “THIS IS ALIVE!” He ends the explanation of the exercise with this: “Spring rolled back into winter, the only season America deserves.” The poem that Conrad writes out of the notes from the exercise is called “Scheduled Poison” and begins:

this poem
while my
nation brings
other nations
to their knees

This is how the exercises function for Conrad: he forces himself into an “extreme present” and this gives him the moral clarity to write a poem.

This is one way the (soma)tic exercises work. The extreme present as an effect in two general ways: one is on the poet as an isolated entity, and the second is on the poet as a member of society. One must understand one’s own relation to the people in the immediate present. For Conrad this must the people in the United States. For those who have not read Conrad, he is relentlessly critical of the United States. He abhors war, yet he also admits his complicity with it, he demands that we all admit that we are complicit with the deaths of people in foreign countries that account for our own relative safety. A cursory glance at Conrad’s work proves this to be abundantly obvious. From “It’s Too Late for Careful:” “Killing babies is less / threatening with a politically / correct militia;” from “The Dream Part of This Was Never Harry’s Occult & Spiritual Supplies:” “if you are pro-life why are you / sending your son to war.” The emphasis is always on unnecessary violence.

The violence that Conrad sees is not necessarily violence enacted by humans on humans. It can also be by humans on nature. There is a poem titled “Be a Monster to / Anyone Who Is Cruel / to Animals and I Will Love you Always,” another is titled, “Our Planet to the Highest Bidder / Don’t Ask for the Deposit Back.” In “Built to Shake / Ourselves Awake,” for instance, Conrad writes:

Squid as verb
the recurring dream
squid as examination tool
squid as prefix to love and
other used kisses tasting new
squid squeal and
cry as suffix to
fixing the
smallest needs

Conrad uses the squid as an erotic symbol, and by doing so recognizes his own complicity in the human impact on nature. Not only do we harvest squid from the ocean for commercial use, we use them in our poems, material—literally a prefix of a suffix—that we use to make ourselves. Again, this making is also literal, because the poem is shaped like a human being, hands outstretched, which makes me wonder if we’re honestly reaching toward something beyond us in order to try to understand that which is beyond us, or if we’re just zombies, slowly eating the brains of the planet.

These poems are extreme, it’s true. There’s no way to, there’s no reason to, deny this. When Conrad explains that he wants to “create” an extreme present, he doesn’t mean that the present which he creates is one that is extreme by virtue of the fact that he has bloodied his foot or inserted a plastic tube into his penis, it is extreme by virtue of the fact that we have all made it extreme—“I blame everyone when I blame / myself I’m that good a shot,” he says in “Now Only 30% Taphephobic / Feeling Better by Open Holes.” But, in his typical all caps approach, C.A. Conrad seems to ask us whether we can think of a more extreme circumstance than the ones we find ourselves in now, and if that’s true, don’t extreme circumstances require extreme measure to deal with them?

About the Reviewer

Drew Webster is in the MFA program at CSU.