Book Review

In Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy, the performance that lends its title to Luke Roberts’s new book, Glacial Decoys, a group of five female dancers wearing long, pleated white dresses spin, slide, and shoulder their way across the stage, moving against a backdrop of projected black-and-white photographs that change at regular intervals. The dance unfolds in silence, without music, and yet the performers manage to execute a complex series of choreographed movements, often in synchrony, symmetry, or responsive relation. Time is kept, if anything, by the procession of images in the background—pictures of American ruin, rust, metal, waste, and livestock made by the artist Robert Rauschenberg, who also designed the diaphanous gowns for Brown’s dancers. The lightness of each dress exists in soft contrast to the stark realism of the imagery, and as the dancers move their gestures linger in the air, enriched and blurred by the slower, falling folds of costume. As a consequence of the loose tulle, each motion is delayed and amplified, rendered larger yet also less precise. Movement serves to obscure structure, contour, shape. It produces a vapor of belatedness, blown away then reintroduced with every limpid new extension of the arm or spine or leg. If Rauschenberg’s gowns bring a sense of delay to the dance, it is only a temporary or transient lateness—the lateness of what just now has occurred, the eye catching up with the image, the image catching up with the body, always just a little slower on the take.

Though they share a title, Brown’s dance makes brief appearance in Roberts’s book, a volume of sharp, fragmentary essays on poetry, politics, history, and literary criticism that inaugurates Free Poetry’s new “Poetry and Poetics Series.” Roberts himself admits that his fascination with Brown’s work is based on watching just ninety seconds of Glacial Decoy, which manipulates the space of the proscenium to give the dance a playfully prismatic, disorienting effect:

It was one of the first of Brown’s works to be devised for performance in a traditional theatre, and if you watch it it’s like a joke about the wings. The dancers appear and disappear like ghosts. There are two, then three. Then maybe there’s four or five, you lose count. They appear and disappear, like a joke about ghosts or friends.

When they exit the stage, it’s as if they ascend, in a wisp of diaphanous pleats, only to return unchanged from the opposite side. It’s like an incredibly moving joke about loss and recovery. At least that’s what I thought as I watched ninety seconds of it.

While Roberts insists on the humor of the dance, he must also know that Brown explicitly denies all place to jokes in her work, since he later cites an interview in which the choreographer declares:

I have in the last two years excluded jokes from my work. Walking like a duck used to be fair game, but no longer. Jokes come to mind so easily that there must be something wrong with them. There are ducks in Decoy, beyond the title, but they are performed so quickly that the humor is perceived subliminally, if at all.

Though jokes may be few in Glacial Decoy, there are, apparently, plenty of ducks, appearing even in the title, the wooden mallard as a hunter’s tool. Elsewhere, they surface and vanish in a fraction of a second, in the interstices between a dancer’s movements, the glimpse of a joke sped up or slowed to a glacial creep, imperceptible beneath a gown of alpine fog and flung or floating limb. A joke, of course, is all about timing, or being present in time. But at the same time as it synchronizes minds, aligning them along an axis-flash of recognition, of mutual comprehension, it also introduces a lag—the hastening of logic to catch up with fleet-footed paradox, like light-spun fabric falling as it follows a dancer in her duck walk. And so a joke involves two temporal modalities: the now and the just-now. The second, split. To slow or speed this process, as Brown claims to do, is to ruin the effect of its delicate clockwork. It no longer results in a double take of shared bewilderment and understanding, a sudden small conspiracy, which means, etymologically, “a breathing-together.” Describing Glacial Decoy as “a joke about ghosts or friends,” Roberts perhaps perceives in the dance the afterimage of a duck, the ghost of a joke, and so, too, the ghost of a community or conspiracy made possible in the time or timeliness of the joke.

Throughout Glacial Decoys, Roberts tries to establish who is “in” and who is “out,” who “gets it” and who doesn’t, assembling an intimate network of ghosts and friends in an attempt to redeem the time or timing afforded by “an incredibly moving joke about loss and recovery.” Fundamentally, the crisis of this book is a crisis of time in a time of crisis, a time when neither time nor crisis work the way we think they should. By separating the now from itself, identifying an asymmetry or inconsistency in the present, a joke is a kind of crisis that moves swiftly toward resolution, recognition, a reordering of perception that produces a unified, unifying effect in an instant of time. In this way, it works like a model of revolution in history: critical events are produced immanently and proceed dialectically. For Roberts, by contrast, these historical mechanisms have been suspended, either sped up or slowed down, as in Glacial Decoy. His solution is an attempt to reorient himself and his readers in time, taking a cultural and literary survey of the first two decades of the twenty-first century in order to better understand and operate in the now in terms of what just now has occurred. Sometimes drifting a little away, sometimes pulled tight against the skin, Roberts’s essay fragments float like the “diaphanous pleats” in Rauschenberg’s gowns, trying to catch up with the times the same way a mind tries to catch up with a joke, leaping, ahead of itself, toward clarity, toward a state of hilarious solidarity, of “breathing-together” with other knowers, those who, undeceived, can understand.

Glacial Decoys is about movement, movements, and immobility, or the simultaneous failure to move. Thus it is a book of false starts: a few pages in, Roberts “abandons” his “project,” and insists instead that “we have to start somewhere else,” while near the end of the book, in a long poem called “Vernacular Captions,” we find that the poet is still writing, “I wanted my poem / to really begin.” For Roberts, this is essentially a historical problem: in a dream in which the writer is visited by a group of children who criticize him for writing in the “language of the previous century,” he tries to apologize for his belatedness by explaining his theory “that the 21st century still hasn’t begun. All we’ve had for twenty years is decades. In the long chain of catastrophes, stuck sometimes up to our ankles, our necks, our waists, we were doing our best to start it.” So far just a series of catastrophic deferrals, the twenty-first century has yet to encounter its defining crisis, making action, forward momentum, or movement(s) of any kind all but impossible. As Roberts puts it elsewhere: “The weird catastrophe of the 2010s. What kind of literary movement could ever have cohered in such an impossible decade?”

Answering this question, Roberts identifies then castigates the essential incoherence and inefficacy of those movements in poetry that have managed to coalesce over the past two decades, which he classifies variously as “the new poetry,” “the poetry of the jeune-homme, 2007-2010/11,” “government-issue” poetry, the poetry of “revolt, 2010-11” and later of “defeat, 2011/12-2015/16,” or the poetry of post-Brexit, when “all the poems started looking like iPhones: beveled edges, no hard corners.” The problem with these false, abortive movements is manifold, but Roberts primarily denounces their belatedness and bad faith, the ensnarement of poetry in an apolitical logic of decadence, resignation, and complicity. As he insists, “all of this, whatever it is, means nothing without the politics,” which he defines as, at “bare minimum,” a “hatred of authority, especially the police; acute intolerance of the very rich; distrust of fakes and fame; hatred of war; hatred of fascists; opposition to boredom and bullies.” As always, the obverse of a politics of righteous hatred and intolerance is a strident yearning toward utopia, which, according to the author of Glacial Decoys, is “the same” as poetry: “just as reckless and ample, just as wrecked and deflated. It’s where it all happens.” Against those who would argue that “poetry makes nothing happen,” Roberts would invite us to return to our Auden, who elaborates on his famous dictum, clarifying that poetry is as much a nothing-happening as a form of survival “in the valley of its making, where executives / Would never want to tamper.” Creating an environment hostile to order, wealth, and development, poetry survives the extreme tenuousness of its own saying as “a way of happening, a mouth.” Crying, singing, sucking, eating, making love, or raising hell, the living mouth first takes its shape around the poem’s O, that void or zero that begins each open-ended invocation of the muse.

Though poetry may be “where it all happens,” Roberts finds that happening, that “real movement” is not just elusive, but actively impeded by the false movements listed above. While “we” might be “doing our best to start” the twenty-first century in order to rectify the “wickedness” of the twentieth, “we” turns out to be a pretty small group. Denouncing a literary establishment that crawls with “depressives, alcoholics, compulsive liars, people lacking in all discernible social skills, creeps, at least one actual paedophile, insomniacs, fantasists, bores, careerists, abusers, opportunists, nerds, try-hards, sycophants, charlatans, and frauds,” Roberts reserves his praise instead for “the work of Keston Sutherland and Andrea Brady, Chris Goode and Sean Bonney, Marianne Morris and J. H. Prynne,” adding that “to find it was like a confirmation of both the historical record and your own internal dynamic: of agitation, fear, fury and depression, nausea and vertigo and frenzy. It was courageous work, real work. I retract my years of bad temper”—a vitriolic spleen that saturates Glacial Decoys, retraction or no.

And yet, Roberts is as much a “pedant of negativity” as he is a student of softness, the “diaphanous pleats” of Rauschenberg’s gowns. “We were more tender than anyone knew,” he writes. This tenderness is something sought even in criticism, though Roberts implicitly insists on the shared etymology of critic and crisis, the critic as a bringer of crisis, discernment as a kind of cut or rupture. Illustrating what he “wanted, and never got, from the criticism of his time,” Roberts relates a quiet anecdote written by the German poet Heinrich Heine about his first encounter with the senior poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

During so many long winter nights I had thought about how many lofty and profound things I would say to Goethe if I ever saw him. And when at last I saw him, I told him that the Saxon plums tasted very good. And Goethe smiled.

Rather than a criticism of puffed-up, performative intelligence, a criticism of shared pleasures and intimate encounters instead, mediated by a knowing smile or wink. For Heine as for Auden, the mouth is a way of happening, of forming relationships by simply saying what is there and what is good. Solidarity by means of taste, the taste of what is on the tongue, a Saxon plum or an apricot from Afghanistan. Early in the book, Roberts walks “into a kitchen in the 21st Century,” and finds his mother eating from an old jar of apricots picked in the Nangarhar Valley, then preserved and sold “in a health food shop in Leeds in about 1978.” Still edible, the apricots remind the author’s mother about the war in Afghanistan, entering its fifteenth year at the time of writing—a fact that prompts her to ask “with authentic feeling: ‘What if there are no more apricot trees in the Nangarhar Valley in Afghanistan? We must plant the stone.” And so they do. Though Roberts withholds explicit commentary on the dubious affect in this gesture, it is obvious elsewhere that his mother represents a more tender, though no less subversive, response to the problems posed by the twenty-first century, thereby offering a potentially viable alternative to the criticism of “vitriol” that Roberts applies elsewhere in Glacial Decoys.

For example, as an inveterate collector, Roberts’s mother practices “the ritual of collecting and preserving partial and fragmented things. Fragments of plastic kept lovingly in tins. Small boxes of items to sieve and sort and reunite with whatever phantom they belong with.” Reflecting on these practices, her son wonders:

. . . isn’t this in some way a means of showing you and sharing with you some essential piece of information? That she too is incomplete, abandoned, or broken, and needs to be treated with care. Or is something else held back, so this is truly decoy activity? I write decoy rather than displacement for reasons of my own. . .

Here, Roberts suggests that tenderness toward fragments might be a kind of “decoy activity,” that fragility can be strategic, that bare survival can be a way of happening, a mouth, or a “soft provocation,” as the author puts it elsewhere. Make a weapon of your wound, your ruin. Throw bricks, use rubble. More than that: identify with what is incomplete and wrecked. Roberts reports that his “favourite line of poetry anyone wrote in 2012” is by Tom Weber: “‘Massive solidarity with the first modern objects ever to appear in poetry.’” To this line, the author of Glacial Decoys appends a list of objects that have appeared throughout the book, a signal of his solidarity with the least of what is given: “A Chinese cigarette packet. Some light-green moss. A plastic quartz heart. Some metal. Bricks, an apricot tree, a photocopier. Trying to find the last modern objects. Trying to write the last modern poems.”

Themselves fragmentary, often sharp and jagged, the essays in Glacial Decoys are collected with care, tenderness, and even humor. In the absence of music, this book tries to keep its own time, to duck and dance with grace against a backdrop of harsh images. The lateness of these essays is their virtue, their soft diaphony, “white light folded, sheathing about her, folded,” as Eliot puts it as he works to redeem time in “Ash Wednesday.” Though Roberts craves periodicity and punctuality, the vigorous tempo of a revolutionary march, he settles for a looser drift, the ampleness of flounce and wisp, taking shape for long enough to hold the image of a body as it struggles to begin, to move from wing to wing or page to page toward friends or countrymen, or co-conspirators at least.

About the Reviewer

Kylan Rice lives in North Carolina. His writing is published in Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and West Branch, among others. His first book, Incryptions (Spuyten Duyvil 2021), is a collection of essays.