Reviewed By Kristin George Bagdanov
- Burnside Review Press (2018)
- 88 pages
Yield Architecture, the debut full-length collection from Jake Syersak, is an unyielding investigation of how linguistic and material structures intersect to shape one’s perception of reality. “Yield” here connotes both productivity and acquiescence: the measured output of machine and human as well as the softening of resolve, the point at which one gives in to a structure rather than resisting it. A poem, of course, both yields to and yields its own architecture: revising, incorporating, and resisting forms and ghosts of forms that necessarily populate it. Throughout this collection, Syersak reconfigures and responds to art, philosophy, poetry, and history by directly addressing them. The “dear” of “dear architecture” that opens this collection represents the structure of address—what Syersak calls the “apostrophic pose”—that this book endeavors to build through matter and language.
This “apostrophic pose” is shaped by several interlocutors throughout the collection. The first section, “Skins, Skeins, History, Hysteria, & Dust,” renames and reframes the paintings from Thomas Cole’s nineteenth century series, The Course of Empire, which depicts the rise and fall of civilization in five stages, beginning with “The Savage State” and ending with “Desolation.” Syersak’s retitling of these pieces redresses the work’s underlying ideology of colonial nostalgia and reimagines the progressive arc of history. These poems address Cole with the same intimacy of “dear architecture,” a form of relation that alters how we think of the anxiety of influence and the practice of ekphrasis. “Dear Thomas,” one poem reads, “I’m in love like you are with impermeability’s ability to archive Arcadia, to dress its ideological empire up.” The speaker acknowledges the temptation of teleology—of seeing a pattern through to its end—as well as the price of such manufactured coherence.
In the poem preceding this one, a similar concern is raised by engaging “Le Corbusier,” the nickname of the important modern Swiss-French architect who defined architecture as “‘establishing moving relationships with raw materials.’” The poem deconstructs this definition by tending to its linguistic underpinnings. It begins by considering how language is a type of matter that can be designed and conjoined: “thing, as in: marriage of the & ing.” “The,” which Syersak elsewhere defines as “a window: a clear space for speech,” or an uttered absence, is joined here to “ing,” the suffix indicative of progressive movement, to produce a lively, dynamic “thingliness.” By this logic, design is not a practice that grants objects meaning through their reconfiguration, but a way of describing how “the raw moves on moves on.” This vision of architecture sees space not as empty but active—an environment in which movement unyieldingly unfolds.
To contemplate the dynamic architecture of space, it is necessary to address the speaking subject. The collection’s second section, “Soldered Opposite of Weather Was Yourself,” considers how the “I” shapes or is shaped by space. After another intimate address to architecture, the section begins: “it’s my fault. because I can’t see the economy I am I am the economy I see / a seedling.” The “eco” of economy and ecology grow from the same Greek root: oikos. Here the representation of the self is bound up with the management of the household and the more-than-human world. The impossibility of seeing the self is symptomatic of a larger problem with representation: “The more I’m aware of the doves beside me the more I’m aware of their awareness of.” To be aware does not guarantee one has a firmer grasp on reality, though this is a common assumption underlying both poetry and scientific observation. Every attempt to speak of something else folds in on itself, a metacommentary on the inability to speak.
The third section, “Fractal Noises from the Foliage,” is a series of sonnets and prose poems that transition the collection from its focus on visual to aural representation as it considers the distinction between noise and song. The prose poem series, “Notes to Wed No Toward,” revisits the marriage of “the” and “ing” into “thing” as it unwinds and rewinds this enigmatic title. Each word is reconfigured throughout the series until together, they become indistinguishable as “fractal noises.” For example, the sonic parity between “to wed” and “to ward” is divided by the “no,” which can be read as the residual echo of “notes” or a resistance toward “to wed.”
This type of feedback loop represents the uncanny sonic logic that guides this collection. A stunning and subtle example of this method occurs in the sonnet series, “Appendices to Jim Wilson’s God’s Cricket Chorus,” where the repeated first line, “Noise rarely comes to us from foliage,” is transformed throughout the sequence:
Noise rarely comes to us from foilage
as noise & why’s that sequoia a music-making thing, despite
its daily ritual of wrestling with its shadow
. . .
. . . What a tree’s aluminum-foil alleges
is the first tell of unapologetic landscapes: bouquets of Neo-Romatic
The sonic leap between the “foilage” and the “aluminum-foil” tree develops its own logic of static and noise, commenting on nature and what it eventually yields: “Ikea’s idealism & the idea of table alone in a room.”
Finally, the last section, “Impressions in the Language of a Lantern’s Work,” explores the properties of perception—from light to “lighght” to “les soileils furieux.” Throughout this section, shapes, colors, and words mutate into each other and back again, making one unable to distinguish between what is and what appears to be real. For instance, the body of a sleeping lover becomes language, tree, and then back again: “curving the S of you into I / into us—like lovers // carve into oaks / each others.’” These impressions are simultaneously music and noise, legible and unreadable. The relationship between them is a line that leads just as easily from “Cy Twombly’s / painting of peonies” to the boy who “applies / a crayon” to it. The structure produced by this relationship is not a clearly defined architectural feat, but a note “to wed no toward,” a towardness that this whole collection leans with and into. Lean into it too, dear reader, and you will not be let down.
Kristin George Bagdanov is a PhD candidate in literature at University of California, Davis. Her first full-length collection of poetry, Fossils in the Making, is forthcoming from Black Ocean in 2019. She is the poetry editor for Ruminate magazine. More at: kristingeorgebagdanov.com.