Book Review

In the “Notes” to Vibratory Milieu, Carrie Hunter describes the book as a work of “maximalist fragmentation.” She cites news media, social media, poetry, film, music, feminist theory, meditation, friends, and dreams among the book’s sources, and lists no fewer than sixty-two films by name. The surface of the text hums with contexts and meanings. As poet Rob McLennan asked of this book, “How does one read a poem that moves in all directions simultaneously?”

The book’s first section, “Lusimeles,” begins,

My mind has switched to vertical, just like the dream told me it
“The durian is the king of all fruit.”
It’s best not to leave behind anything you will think about.
Historyless exception:
                           I left with a star in my hand. Pointed. Yellow. It was said to be
                                                                                                            performance art.
2-dimensional strawberry pizza

Radical fragmentation in film—the montage, the jump cut, the splice—is a good reference point for engaging with this book. I think of Abigail Child’s film series Is This What You Were Born For? produced between 1981 and 1989. Those films aren’t in Hunter’s notes to Vibratory Milieu, though they wouldn’t seem out of place there. Film curator Mark McElhatten writes about Child’s films,

Here the subliminal cannot caress, it comes out with its hands up, the smile wiped from its face. The accelerated velocity of these films doesn’t create an alternate camouflage. At this speed viewer passivity is unsafe and active viewing is a necessary pleasure.

“Accelerated velocity.” “Active viewing.” These phrases are way finders for moving through Vibratory Milieu. Reading this text is a game of 3D or 5D chess, an overload of possible routes and strategies. Though in fact, “velocity” feels like the opposite of what’s happening. I think instead of viscosity. A fluid’s resistance to flow. Syrupy, sticky. The accumulation of associations and entanglements make it impossible to move quickly.

I want to trace the associations and entanglements of the first few lines of “Lusimeles,” to explore the richness of Hunter’s poetics. In the opening line, “My mind has switched to vertical, just like the dream told me it would,” we’re in a world of mental states but also dream states, the cognitive informed by the imaginative. The switch to vertical could mean the compressed time of a lyric poem, which operates outside the linear, horizontal time of a narrative.

In the second line we learn “the durian is the king of all fruit.” A botanical or culinary assertion, a promotional slogan from a tourist board, a hint of irony or humor in light of the durian’s famously foul smell. The quotation marks set this line apart from the first-person speaker of the opening line, but how does this confident declaration relate to the verticalized, dream-aware mind of that speaker?

Then we find, “It’s best not to leave behind anything you will think about.” Already we’re accumulating too many associations and references to think about at one time. But we can’t leave anything behind because we don’t know what we’ll need as we go on.

In the next few lines we find a new font, and perhaps a new poetic persona,

Historyless exception:
                           I left with a star in my hand. Pointed. Yellow. It was said to be
                                                                                                            performance art.

“Historyless” might be a callback to the vertical mind. But is this exception historyless because history has been denied, or because the exception itself has no history? What’s the relationship to the “I” of the first line? The star, pointed and yellow, might designate a specific traumatic history. Then “performance art” shifts to an aesthetic context. Does this art refer to a specific history? Or is it just starry?

The next line, “2-dimensional strawberry pizza,” pops up like a moment of Dada absurdism, without resolving questions about the yellow star. Maybe we’re back with the king of fruits. Or maybe the flat red mark carries some hint of a wound or a scar, a link to history after all.

Halfway through the first page, we reach the emphatic line, “WE ARE VERY, VERY FRAGILE.” We the voices of the poem, we the readers, seem indeed to be fragile, in our grasp on meaning, history, context, or identity. But this fragility doesn’t mean collapse or failure. Here, fragility works like a fulcrum, where the emotional energy of the poem thus far concentrates into a point and projects forward. We are fragile, uncertain, a little bit ironic, and we are going on.

The collage techniques of Vibratory Milieu are integral to Hunter’s poetry. In her essay “No Wave,” Hunter writes,

At whatever point that I found my voice in poetry, my aesthetics always seemed to come together as a collage, like a visual art piece gluing together all these different bits from life, which is indeed what our lives are like, and also what my mind is like.

Collage writing is rooted in radical political perspectives, reaching back at least as far as Tristan Tzara, through Kathy Acker, the Language poets, and on. Collage and fragmentation can disrupt complacency through the subtle displacements of an open poetic field or the jolts of dissonant juxtapositions. Like other works of radical fragmentation, Hunter’s writing defies comfortable conclusions. Themes emerge in Vibratory Milieu—gender, sexuality, spirituality, race, the environment, the workplace—in complex fields of meaning that resist resolution. As she writes, “It’s best not to leave behind anything you will think about.”

In its multiple sources and dislocated contexts, Vibratory Milieu erases the speaking subject—it’s an effacement, reflected in designer Kit Schluter’s uncanny cover image, a portrait of H.D. with the face erased. Vibratory Milieu is a polyglot chorus where the lines reverberate in a sound cloud, and where we take in more than we might have thought we could handle. It vibrates, this cacophonous milieu. The title of this potent book makes a resonant promise that the work delivers on.

About the Reviewer

Mary Burger (she/they) is a writer and artist working at the intersections of perception, memory, and narration. Her/their books include Sonny, a novella of disintegration depicted through and against the Trinity atomic bomb test, and Then Go On, short prose works about crisis and epiphany. Recent writing is in new or forthcoming issues of the High Dawn anthology from Small Press Traffic, the Journal of Narrative Theory, La Vague, The Minute Review, Sublevel, Tripwire, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She/they are working on a memoir about gender, class, religion, entangled family roles, and the behavior of black holes.