Book Review

Annelyse Gelman’s newest book, Vexations, is formally modeled on Erik Satie’s piano composition of the same name. Notorious for its ambiguity and duration, the piano piece consists of a haunting melody repeated 840 times—a true feat of stamina as a performance can take upwards of twelve hours. The one Gelman saw at age sixteen—the event responsible, years later, for this book—lasted “from dawn to dawn, twenty-four hours straight.”

As Satie strove to do, Gelman has composed a single, long song that plays with attention—flitting between observations, statements, and narrative pieces:

Eyeless and terrible, said the book, and the book was right
Pain was the shadow of a bird on the shadow of a branch
Daughter bucked like a fledgling in the back seat

Moving this way, Vexations makes the same impossible demand upon a reader as Satie’s composition: try and retain it all—hold each line in your ear and focus on everything at once.

The “it” that must be retained is, at its most concrete, a delve into a dystopian landscape that questions post-capital and post-urban communal survival: “I babbled like a baby in the center of the Sharing Circle” and the strife of cult vs individual: “Selfhood is parasitic, said the man in the pony mask.” Empathy, sympathy, and attention work, in this vision, as a kind of currency—the poem commenting on the economization of human interaction: “The economy of attention was an economy of care.”

Gelman puts “the economy of attention” to the test; Vexations moves in rapid, subtle, and perceptive links:

I strapped daughter in and we got going
Bugs made abstract expressions on the windshield
Scientists put jellyfish genes in a rabbit
The g-forces were delectable in my pelvis
We had retained the word mammoth to talk about big things

Note the speed of thought—the flitting observations. The “abstract expressions” of bugs transform into jellyfish, then into genetic mutation, until we dissolve into the body and eventually land on the linguistic remnants of “mammoth.” Mammoth later turns us to the daughter’s feeling overwhelmed with urbanity. Such is the movement of the poem at large. As I read Vexations, an initial feeling of discontinuity gave way as the poem taught me to see its way of proceeding—of opening upon a stanza as one thing and then another until what is seen is impossibly between those two:

In the firelight a brown duck looked like a rabbit
A rabbit looked like undetached rabbit parts
Coincidentally arranged in a rabbit-like configuration

Caught in the current of these metamorphoses, Vexations finds its ultimate crisis: to be unable to truly pay attention to any single individual, unable to acknowledge fully the too-many disasters and care-needing points at hand in a fractured and fracturing world:

As for the islands of trash in the middle of the oceans
Sometimes I thought about them, then I thought about the next thing
Because it was difficult to speak honestly
It was difficult to think, honestly

By moving through such rapid juxtaposition, the poem creates and comments on the dissolution of attention: dissolving into a kind of ambiance that seeks only to be aware, not aware of.

What marks Vexations as truly wondrous, however, is that it does not rest at this commentary on displacement and overwhelmingness, but takes seriously the possibility of striving to pay attention—to notice anew again and again. The ambiance of the poem is not a total dissolution but rather re-concretizes at the point of language—treating words not as empty signifiers, but as specific points of description that offer, perhaps, a repeatable return of focus to the world.

While Satie’s repetitions create an ambient drone, repetition in Gelman’s Vexations serves to reinforce a point of return:

People slid the specimen into the tray and sanitized their hands
People riding the subway got shot coming home from the park
People formed intimate bonds with inanimate objects
People hiding in bathroom stalls got shot in nightclubs
I thought it was firecrackers, said the DJ

Lines often begin as these ones do—in a kind of litany of remembrance. The anaphora serves as a kind of pivot point to try and recall everything, every instance. Here, “people” returns again and again to remembrances of interactions. Elsewhere, litanies try to call meaning back into words or back into speech:

Creamy with tenderness, someone wrote, regarding a child’s affections
Creamy pulp, someone wrote, regarding a brain cut by a scalpel
Creamy, someone wrote, regarding a sumptuous evening
Creamy, someone wrote, regarding a flower’s waxen flesh

“Creamy”: the poem does not abuse the word, repeating it so often that it dissolves, but instead reiterates, tries again and again to bring the word into focus from its uses and, in so doing, creates a kind of constellation of meanings that crystalize into the footings language may offer us within an overwhelming world. And this is, to me, the miracle of Gelman’s long poem: that it returned me, in my hazy and awed exit, to the ever-new possibilities of truly hearing words and phrases in all their complexities.

I do not want to be misleading and say that Vexations is ultimately uplifting or hopeful; the poem exists within its own precarious strife between an overwhelming world that commodifies attention and the attentive possibilities of language. But I believe that by caring for language in so many deliberate ways the poem offers speech and phrases as a way of navigating attention and of, paradoxically and importantly, noticing a lack of focus:

Elsewhere, we were living to completion
A spoken word is not a sparrow, went the saying
The sutures would heal over, leaving barely a scar

About the Reviewer

Adam Ray Wagner, a poet from rural Nebraska, is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Boise State University.