Book Review

Robert Frost’s poem “Directive” begins with a violent rush of monosyllables. It throws us into an anxious language in which we have to find our bearing: “Back out of all this now too much for us.” Reading such lines, I come to experience language both as a glue and a knife. The line is struggling to hold together, to make us catch a sustainable rhythm so that individual words can participate in the general construction of meaning. Words are also cutting meaning into pieces so that each particular sound feels like a protest against construction. The word construction, for instance, is different. It is more overwhelming than a monosyllable. Once used, it places (not throws) us right in the middle of discursive regimes like an anthropologist in a field.

The anxiety of monosyllables is compounded in Frost’s line by the ambiguity of the original leap. Are we supposed to read the first word as an adverb: “back, out of all this now,” as in, we are back, having been liberated from the pressures of the present moment? Or as an imperative, “back out of all this now!” where the present moment is so overwhelming that we need a way out. The ambiguity is powerful for the poem establishes the now, the present of utterance, as both a form of dwelling and of violence. We can play with words, their intonations and combinations, searching for the meaning intended by the poem, asking, well, which one is “it”? Even the act of limiting the scope of ambiguity—either this or that, or both—creates the illusion of choice, of choosing our part in the construction of meaning.

We still have a say. But soon enough, iambic certainty will intervene like an ideology that reasons and clarifies. Shortly, iambs will assure us of a structure that holds everything together. We will recover from our momentary thrownness into the anarchic language of the now. The poem will teach us how to see anew, within reasonable limits. As the literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once argued, “There is always a potential for a terrifying involuntarity of meaning.” The more the poem punishes “metrical deviations,” the easier it will be for the poem to create readers who will be eager to master self-discipline and to recognize deviations as a series of special case studies. Why is there a “feminine” ending here, and why does this line start with a trochaic inversion? There must be some meaning. The anxious shapelessness of meaning at the outset eventually transforms into an anxious guarding against its absence.

I feel guilty for starting with such a long aside on Frost, monosyllables, and rhythm, where I had set out to write a review of Nomi Stone’s remarkable second book of poems, Kill Class. But I hope that this framework will prove useful for revealing the power of what I see in Stone’s poems, which are held together by an incredibly complex social and narrative structure. Stone is an anthropologist and the book is based on her fieldwork in mock Middle Eastern villages in military bases across the United States used for training purposes. The speaker of the poems is both an observer, witnessing the various simulated “war games” and a participant, as she ends up performing certain roles, engaging with and building emotional ties with various soldiers and Iraqi-Americans who role-play as villagers.

Eventually, of course, the lines between being a witness and a participant begin to blur and the presumed authority of the lyric speaker, the so-called “lyric-I” slowly disintegrates. The ambiguity extends to the experience of the reader, so much so that the deliverances of lyric poetry become suspect. Short meditations on the nature of a feeling or emotion turn into anxious imperatives for maintaining a resilient awareness of political conditioning. “Love Poem” consists of three lines:

Undo the next time beauty
turns into tenderness turns
into a killing

The poem, like Frost’s, starts with an uncomfortable imperative. What does it mean, to “undo the next time”? Is it an invitation (reminder, order) to loosen the structure of an instance so that one can see the various structural dynamics that govern its intelligibility, so that the recognition of beauty becomes suspect? But the poem does not seem to be about the moment of recognition. It is about a transformation. It is not about the next time beauty appears, but rather about resisting its uncontrollable flow into violence: “the next time beauty / turns into tenderness turns / into a killing.” The syntax is already undone, it’s loose enough that we might wonder if the poem is already in the act of undoing “the next time”?

The relation between undoing and being undone is central to the entire collection. After all, untying the knots that hold experience together and breaking down acts, words, and utterances would be tantamount to a loss of self-consciousness. “Love Poem” is preceded by “The Etymology of Alāsah, ‘Wartime Snitching,’” which traces the etymology of the word alāsah through an uninterrupted thought sequence: “The lexicons spoke / of its early / life: it meant to eat.” The poem, written in tercets, catalogues the different meanings of the word before it came to mean “wartime snitching.” The heavily enjambed structure forces readers to recognize meaning as a gradual process of transformation rather than a steady dictionary definition. An essentialist attitude about the meaning of the word becomes impossible with each enjambment demanding further qualifications: “it meant to eat // especially wheat / three grains to / a husk.” The word thus comes to contain experience rather than mere meaning. But it also raises aesthetic expectations around a foreign word—an expectation that can overburden the word with undue significance. As meaning gets replaced by its use and experiential significance, “what I see in the word” might start to receive unjustified authority. Nevertheless, the speaker continues to qualify the definition:

. . . Such good

quality but so difficult
to cleanse. It is a black
grain, and you will

consume it but only when

The lexicon is not the only “speaking” entity anymore. The lyric speaker address you indirectly, like when people use the second person pronoun to define a concept: “Envy is when you. . . .” Even then, the shifts from lexical to experiential, and finally, to a kind of address that directly involves the reader come to involve us in the gradual transformation of—what—a beautiful word? Too early to say. But you are involved.

. . . It came to
mean embroidery,

a nervous raising
of needles into cheek
of cloth, metaphorically

the clicking of talking
like an itch, a twitch

This is not the lexicon speaking anymore. An aesthetic ambition comes to dominate the description of the word’s journey across time. What we say and what we mean come to overlap. The “nervous raising of needles” is like how we raise the words off the page and realize various patterns of inflection. Notice the insistent enjambments, the internal rhymes (clicking, talking, itch, twitch), the tongue-twisting alliterations of “l” and “t.” The question “what do you mean when you say” might be more appropriate than “what does it mean?” because the meaning of the word alaasa emerges in the act of saying and performing its very meaning. On the flip side, we are now talking about the word, about this other aesthetically pleasing thing. It is only a question of time when the recognition of this beauty licenses us for other, more sinister ends:

like an itch, a twitch: bad
mouthing, getting

told on; also theft of
words; theft of
whomever you said

you were; no, theft
of who you truly
were; the limit of

cash for which you
give away my

Throughout the poem, we go from reading the lexicon to being addressed and involved in the transformation of meaning. Finally, we might even be speaking the poem, blaming the speaker for exposing us, for pretending to be a simple lexicon or etymologist. But if we are exposed, what does that say about our initial desire for beauty of inflections in the first place? Can we really claim innocence if we ultimately find ourselves exposed for looking, acting, or performing in a certain way, of wanting to learn the rules of the game?

Each poem in Kill Class delivers such radical and uncomfortable transformations of lyric experience. The speaker often sets the stage for the simulated war games, outlines individual props, assigns roles to Iraqi-Americans, and repeats the “directives” issued at the soldiers. But even such descriptive moments which prepare the stage for “the next time” implicate the reader. As a result, the mock games become quasi-metaphors for the thought experiments or “let’s say” situations that we invoke on a daily basis. The merely imaginative war scenarios are not imagined only in military bases. They are a part of our daily rhetoric, of news and political speeches, of hypothetical scenarios and thought experiments. They are, in other words, what constitute our political rhetoric, and as Kill Class masterfully demonstrates, they sneak into our everyday imaginings. They are latent even in the simplest utterances and gestures. “Plug in: Kill. Play. King. Play beating / heart in my shoulder, painted / wounds circled by bees.”

The most uncomfortable aspect of reading Kill Class is the combination of this political reality with the way Stone foregrounds the material aspects of language: the harshness of monosyllables, the cracking alliterations, the tongue-twisting repetitions. This is the undercurrent in Stone’s language that keeps the reader alert to the sudden passages between beauty and violence, between witnessing and participation, between language being used to glue a community together and being used to break it apart:

The war scenario has: [vegetable stalls], [roaming animals],
and [people] in it. The people speak

the language of a country we are trying
to make into a kinder country.

Language is always an essential agent in the construction of imagined war scenarios and political realities. But the poem asks the question differently, from the other side, as it were: What if language was introduced into the war scenario to make it more realistic, more believable? And such is the cause of our everyday linguistic disorientation about war. Rather than talking about violence, we talk about its representation in everyday discourse. Are we in a war? Are we going into a war? Are we already in a war? Are we merely in a warlike situation? Will it turn into a full-fledged war? The final stanza of “Mass Casualty Event” demonstrates this violent splitting of political discourse into the steadfast monosyllables of everyday rationalization:

I am in war. No,
I am in a game
of war. No, I am in a painting.

Stone’s monosyllables do not merely throw readers into a disjointed language that gradually gets absorbed into an ideological discourse. Rather, they pervade the entire book, turning language into a game that can break down, misfire and fail to take off. Often the “exactitude” remains and “the frame” disappears. And we have to wonder what it is that we are aiming at with language, and what our desire for precision could possibly amount to.

About the Reviewer

Melih Levi is a PhD student in comparative literature at Stanford University.