Book Review

In recent years, writers have felt an increasing amount of pressure to be able to categorize and label their work, to fit it neatly into the confines of existing genre categories. After all, many of the opportunities available to writers—namely fellowships, grants, and publication by journals and presses—are predicated on the assumption that one’s work fits into an existing genre category. With that said, what’s exciting about SplitLevel Texts is that the editors privilege hybrid texts and call attention to work in a particular genre that draws upon other modes of writing and thinking. As a result, poetry is no longer confined to its own literary tropes, and may utilize the strategies of fiction, lyric essay, and even non-literary types of writing. Two recent books from this innovative press, Carla Harryman’s W—/M— and Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century, each offer an expansive poetics, suggesting that the inherited conventions of poetry afford new possibilities when presented with the documentary tasks inherent in many non-literary types of prose writing.

While Meng and Harryman seem similar in their attempts to blur genre boundaries, this documentary impulse manifests differently in each of their collections. For Harryman, the desire to record, document, and preserve appears as a manifestation of grief, particularly as the speaker of the poems mourns the loss of a loved one. Thus Harryman’s documentary poetics becomes a novel variation on the elegy. Meng, on the other hand, invokes a range of web-based sources, particularly Google and Wikipedia, envisioning poetry as a means by which to document, memorialize, and make permanent the ephemeral web-based texts that are quickly produced, published, and erased.  What’s most striking about these two collections is the desire to situate inherited forms—particularly the lyric and the elegy—within the context of personal loss, technological advancement, and the loss of culture caused by these new technologies. For both Meng and Harryman, this twenty-first century subject matter calls for the poet to expand her repertoire.

As the two books unfold, the techniques of poetry illuminate and complicate the documentary tasks that these poets have taken on.  Consider Harryman and Meng’s efforts to label and categorize texts. Throughout Harryman’s W—/M—, for example, the poems appear in numerical order, each text in its proper place. As the book unfolds, Harryman frequently undermines the readerly expectation of order that she has created. She writes, for example, in “7.7”:

William and sometimes Willomina or Will or Willow and then there’s Wallace and Willem and others and Lace or Lac which sometimes becomes lock when emotional revenge is involved. These who are one, sometimes live in a little room with a door onto the roof of a very old church.

Here, Harryman uses documentary techniques (particularly the copious labeling and ordering of the individual poems) to create an expectation that the text will unfold in a precise, linear fashion. I find it fascinating that Harryman ultimately undermines the reader’s expectation of linearity. This breakdown of order seems most apparent in Harryman’s sentence structure, as each sentence unfolds by associations between images and sounds, rather than through the logical connections between ideas. While this associative logic would likely seem commonplace in poetry, it appears provocatively out of place when included in Harryman’s neatly ordered paragraphs, with their unbroken order and corresponding decimal points. With that in mind, Harryman’s blending of documentary techniques with elegy renders her depiction of grief even more powerful, as mourning appears as a complete breakdown of reason, order, and control.

Likewise, Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century frequently draws from documentary techniques, which illuminate and complicate her treatment of the lyric. Throughout the collection, Meng situates impermanent writings—particularly found text from internet sites and search engines—within the more permanent domain of poetry. Meng’s use of found language, and her copious documentation of these ephemeral texts, calls into questions many of our assumptions about the lyric: To what extent are the relationships between the speaker and the addressee just as impermanent? Are our attempts to address others always contingent, dependent upon culture for context and legibility? Lastly, to what extent is the poetic text just as ephemeral, as it will soon be revised and reinscribed by future generations? As Meng teases out possible answers to these questions, her work proves similar to Harryman’s in her use of documentary practices to illuminate and complicate received poetic forms (in this case, the lyric).

As the book unfolds, Meng asks us to consider the underlying cultural values that render some texts impermanent, even ancillary, while others are enshrined for future generations. For example, she writes:

The human form is stand-in (reaction
that distorts point of view.
Pure gesture.  Pure motion.

Emotion is rendered as background
where plastic bags get caught
in the upper cross-hatchings
or soggily
clog drains.

What’s fascinating about this passage is that Meng invokes the lyric as a means to pose questions about the structures of power and authority associated with writing. Prefaced by a quote from Wikipedia, Meng’s lyric suggests that every piece of writing enacts a power dynamic, in which authority is rarely distributed in an equitable manner. Just as “[e]motion is rendered as background” and the “human form” is no longer relevant, as it “distorts point of view,” the values that we as a culture affix to different types of writing are increasingly determined by utility. Thus texts that were once valued and preserved have become impermanent, disposable. Much like Harryman, Meng draws from the resources of other genres to call into question our assumptions about received poetic forms, and to expand what is possible within them. For Meng, the lyric, and the relationship between speaker and addressee, becomes a vehicle for these challenges to existing cultural values, which unduly romanticize the very form in which she has chosen to write.

With that in mind, Carla Harryman’s W—/M— and Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century are provocative new collections, produced by writers who are as innovative as they are well-versed in the work of their predecessors. Additionally, these new books offer a window into the offerings of an exciting new press, which challenges not only the distinctions between literary genres, but the very structures of cultural production and dissemination. In short, SplitLevel Texts is a press to watch.

About the Reviewer

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of sixteen books, which include Melancholia (An Essay) (Ravenna Press, 2012), Petrarchan (BlazeVOX Books, 2013), and a forthcoming hybrid genre collection called Fortress (Sundress Publications, 2014). Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Poetics at SUNY Buffalo.