Reviewed By Melih Levi
- Omnidawn (2017)
- 80 pages
“The real difference,” writes Mary Hickman in “If the Heart Does Not Restart,”
between a surgery that ends well and one that doesn’t is the way the body is closed. If the surgery is successful, then the patient’s heart restarts and the pressure comes up. A regular rhythm is achieved and we close each layer—heart, sternum, any little blood vessels, fat, each layer of dermis. If the heart does not restart, there is no careful sewing. A staple gun closes the skin but not the layers underneath. The sternum is still pulled closed with wires, but fewer and less neatly tied.
Prose poetry is exceptionally good at staging death. It can mimic pallor and submit to the resources of syntax with ease. These sentences produce a cadaverous sensation. Reading them might make you feel sickened, revolted, uncomfortable. Your attention might be further sharpened as you turn the page only to realize that the poet is putting the poem to its inevitable death. Just a few more lines:
I grab the incision’s edges, tug them together with one hand, and with the other, start the grating plastic click click click of the gun. The table is pulled away and the drapes peeled off the skin. We wipe away the blood and the betadine. We pull the blanket to the chin. I never stick around to see what happens next. Or I do and now I don’t know.
“The click click click of the gun.” The poet cannot help inserting these closing sounds into her poem. They are right there in her imagination, acutely reverberating and demanding attention. The mechanical sounds of this final, careless effort suddenly give rise to a distinct rhythm in the poem. The possibility of an abrupt and unrestful rhyme appears. An erratic, slant heartbeat of “gun,” “skin,” “betadine,” and “chin.” Betadine, the sound of which is unnervingly conscious of its now-useless function, is an antiseptic and has no use for a dead body. Yet, depending on how it is pronounced, it produces the possibility of an abnormal musicality that awards the relationship between life and lifelessness an artistic vitality. This vitality provides one of the central energies for Hickman’s poems. At the end of this poem, though closure is described in depth, there is no closure. The poet’s departure from the poem and the surgery room is simultaneous. (“I never stick around to see what happens next.”) The poem clearly craves a metaphorical liaison between these two roles. But it won’t happen. The descriptions are too fresh and disruptive to either frame or be framed by concepts. They resist being likened to, and even the aural affinities, the rhymes they manufacture, are marked by their inability to forge refreshing kinships. Betadine, after all, is an image terribly conscious of the futility with which it delivers one final shock to the poem.
Hickman’s interest in surgery is unsurprising, as she herself has witnessed many open-heart surgeries during her time as a pre-medical student in Idaho. In fact, Cole Swensen picked up on this in her praise for Hickman’s first book: “She had the job of holding the patient’s heart in her hands. Literally. Could this inform her work other than metaphorically?” Swensen’s response peels the rhetorical skin off her own question: “I think so. I can never read her poems without feeling her hands around my own heart, keeping it intact.” Metaphors already always trouble the relationship between life and death. As Robert Frost once said, “You don’t know how much you can get out of [a metaphor] and when it will cease to yield.” When images, which take their strength literally from the moment between life and death, strive to become metaphors, a general resistance against metaphoricity develops. It is too real for the mind to wander off in another direction. To measure the endurance of her own images, Hickman often sets out to compose her poems with the kind of sobriety that a surgeon has to maintain during an operation. Her images strive to “retain that shiver or shimmer between life and lifelessness,” as the poet once said of Chaïm Soutine’s paintings.
All the poems in Rayfish combine biographical details with the poet’s responses to specific works of art. They are so organically linked that it is often impossible to mark the points at which the poet transitions between biography and aesthetic response. In fact, many poems are about this very impossibility of viewing art in isolation and staying the same after an artistic encounter. Hickman quotes Jean-Luc Nancy in her epigraph: “We develop within [a work of art] as it does within us.” All the poet’s gestures are crowded with an awareness of this inseparability. The poems are also rife with quotations and adaptations from other creative and theoretical works. While montage would not be the right word to describe the production processes of Rayfish, montage is certainly a chief rhetorical strategy. It produces a pulsating consciousness that keeps alerting the reader to the existence of multiple surfaces, multiple bodies in the text—bodies that can no longer retain a sense of singularity. In “Everything Is Autobiography and Everything Is a Portrait,” for example, the poet’s discussions of three different paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi cannot stop producing perspectives for each other. The posture and gestures of Cleopatra, transfused with the poet’s autobiographical readings, conjugate her subsequent response to Danaë.
In “I Have Had Many Near-Death Experiences,” the poet synthesizes her reactions to Kazuo Ohno’s dance performance in My Mother with autobiographical accounts. “[Kazuo] must unfold his body, loosen the face and prepare for a face made utterly unfamiliar.” Encounters with art, the main subject of this book, bring one closer to certain forms of understanding. All of a sudden, the self—projected onto the gestures, colors, turns, shapes and forms of movements within a work—turns into a traceable notion. In “Everything Is Autobiography,” Hickman writes, “If I can catch a glimpse of my face reflected in the facets of the pain, in the mirror of your shoulder, I feel myself lost inside the body that I see.” Or look at how, in “I Have Had Many Near-Death Experiences,” the poet’s encounter with art culminates in a return to the self that cannot be entirely disconnected from her aesthetic response:
There is something unsettled about the image, like form passing into a gesture that is live. Eight ghostly-white bodies emerge from the sea and scramble over the rocks . . . Exploring caves underwater, squeezing through smaller and smaller openings but always sure there would be another opening ahead, I was diving without equipment. I saw the reef and a school of squid just beyond. When my lungful of air began to run out, I tried to surface, and I saw a hole in the rock leading up. As I swam, the opening narrowed. I had no air left to go back the way I came or look for another way, but I couldn’t get through. I thought I’d pass out and drawn. I forced myself to push my body upward and shoved my body through the tube of rock until I was scraped and bleeding but breaking the surface. I dragged my body to the surface.
The diving incident is invited into the poem through the sensory associations produced by Ohno’s performance. The introduction of the “I” feels like a chance encounter. When the “I” emerges after a series of subordinate clauses, it is already deep in water, about to drown in a sea of syntactical markers. The effort the reader has to make to release the “I” and bring it back to the surface coincides with the effort the poet is making to disengage herself from the intensity of her encounter with Ohno’s performance. She reaches the surface but, as in all the poems, the surface is invented. In his poem “Interior,” Paul Auster writes, “in the impossibility of words, / in the unspoken word / that asphyxiates, / I find myself.” Here, too, the encounter with the self is staged and self-conscious of its constructedness. The conceptual difficulty of using language to discover one’s self is inseparable from the more material difficulty, that of uttering “asphyxiates.” This insistent coupling makes out of language a surface, a newly found surface that can reflect “all the illumination of arrival” (“Everything Is Autobiography”). How did we get there? That is the most important question in this book and possibly also in every encounter with art. Mary Hickman’s poems create what Geoffrey G. O’Brien so beautifully calls the “immaterial commons in which we read not of things but of dispositions towards the thingly.”
In one of his lectures on John Ashbery, Charles Altieri of the University of California, Berkeley said, “Bringing poetry close to prose reveals what poetry cannot give up.” In prose poetry, the question of what to give up is not so relevant anymore. The transition has already taken place. Now the more pressing question is how the poem has given up and how it tries to recover. Consciously or not, Rayfish grapples with this question on every page. I consider this book a revolution in the history of prose poetry because of its successful resistance against elevating this question to the realm of metaphor, where everything suddenly becomes more graspable. In other words, Hickman does not postpone the tensions, which arise when using a hybrid genre, to the realm of abstraction. She confronts them head-on with images that relentlessly reorganize the body, the surface of her poems. Her images are saturated with a perpetual on-the-verge feeling.
Hickman asks elsewhere, “What is it to be a self without dissolving into the other.” Is this even possible when the idea of self only emerges when it is already caught up in some sort of movement, always already in relation to someone, something, or somewhere?
Melih Levi is a PhD student in comparative literature at Stanford University. He studies English, Turkish, and German poetry from the late nineteenth century onward, with particular attention to poetic form and prosody. He is also a translator. His co-translation of one of the earliest Ottoman novels, Felâtun Bey and Râkim Efendi, was published by Syracuse University Press in 2016.