Intervening Absence by Carrie Olivia Adams and Song of a Living Room by Brigitte Byrd
Most poets I know are interested in film. This is true in the widest way. It is fairly obvious, I guess, that serious film (and/or video) mimics the mode of meaning-sharing that serious poetry achieves; this is an issue of image communication, of the elliptical, of colliding strands of information, of tone, of the illusion of “containing” the viewer’s/reader’s brain, of movement, of documentation of the passing of time, and of other things even more complex and faceted. Film turns out to be a very useful study for poetry, and poetry is easily adapted to film. If, as Emily Dickinson so elegantly put it, “the brain is wider than the sky,” then film and poetics, I think, act as a frame through which we contemplate this wideness. They act as a lens on the unsettling tension that is human consciousness and existence.
We all have the experience of patterned idées fixes, notions that seem to pop up repeatedly over a period of time, suggesting a kind of web of brains. My husband notes “banal coincidences” as a kind of wonderful magic. Once you start an obsession -- Woody Allen films, let’s say -- the themes and connections just keep appearing everywhere. Lately, every time I talk business with a poet, I end up discussing Bergman or Fassbinder or Buñuel or anyone of that ilk. I attribute this commonality to a few things: 1) what I said above about the similarities between the forms, 2) the obvious increase in DIY filmmaking à la digital cameras and YouTube, and 3) the growing sense that so little of the modern world is “real” and that, consequently, film provides a salve for unwieldy brains.
This brings me to Carrie Olivia Adams and Brigitte Byrd, two poets from Ahsahta Press. Adams's new book Intervening Absence plays quite openly with film-ish images and movement; Byrd, in Song of a Living Room, treats speakerhood as a Godard-esque narration of disconnect.
Adams's poetry has a funny way of hooking its consumer. I want, of course, to use a film-viewing experience as an analogy, but that’s too obvious. Adams references Antonioni, clearly uses third person to create a roving eye (i.e., camera) upon a scene of broken down morale in a crumbling city, actually calls one poem “Notes toward a Short Film,” and interrupts the text via a series of poems all called “Intervening Absence[s]” (i.e., white screens). So, clearly, film intrudes. And just as film is very much about architecture and space and time, so it goes with Adams's poems.
The conversation should be on the balcony.
But the camera is inside the room.
We witness it only through the glass panes of the door.
The lightning crisp. The sky as if about to crack.
We are not watching faces, but his shirt flaps blowing.
He looks away from the camera and over the balcony railing.
Though facing him, she will tell him without ever looking up.
But maybe this is a silent film.
And all that could be told will be spoken
by her hand as it repetitively traces the inside
of her forearm. Maybe we see
only her fingers.
I like this stuff. But there is an easiness to it. Adams deals in a kind of candy: the lovely melancholy, the “scene,” the romantic failure, the dramatic move in and out of spaces and bodily zones. I find Adams much more challenging, actually, when she says less: “What she would like: / To be living every scene at once.” And here is my analogy: I recently watched Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Ackerman). It is mesmerizing. It does not move. Things “happen,” but very quietly. The morning after seeing it, I was working in the kitchen. I could not help but be drawn into an imaginary world, transposed on my own. I was Jeanne Dielman. I think this is very, very common. In fact, this experience is probably why our country’s relationship to TV is so fucked up. But it’s a great thing when the moving image is beautiful and intellectually stimulating. Adams has this effect: there is a blankness to the “characters” of the narrative. There is space on the stage for the reader to enter, to put on the costume of a player, to even be the eye, if relevant. The suggestion, very fascinatingly so, is that the eye of film is a fallacy, a failure to grasp the largest picture. By viewing, by reading, we are in and of the text: “Tiny scissors. / Or the smallest moment of warmth. / Standing above you. / Strung. Grabbing. / & Lost.” “Consumed somewhere / by couch cushions, the door frame. / Was it the black pearl of the afternoon moving seamlessly / into night? / [. . .] / Did he know this? / [. . .] / Did you know this?” Adams's world is all about rooms and domestic life and wistfulness, but it is only about those things so far as the image can be seen. Everything can be muted by the landscape or by the other things in the room. “What becomes of intention?” is a question answered by Adams's poetics: “They want to feel what is watching / What is watching feels them.”
Brigitte Byrd’s book is a good poetry-sibling for Carrie Olivia Adams's. Byrd is overtly concerned with domestic spaces and the stories told by our domestic lives. She is less explicitly filmic than Adams is, but there is simply no escaping the cinematic experience of her tone. Her wonderful notes (a decoder ring for some lines of text in the poems) include references to Samuel Beckett, John Berryman, Raymond Queneau, Anna Akhmatova, and Martin Heidegger. I mentioned above that she has a Godard trick. I thought this was happening before I noticed the notes in which he is mentioned. This is what makes Byrd’s film a different experience than Adams's film. Byrd is not so dedicated to the eye (though image has a delightfully oppressive presence here); she’s into narration. The reason I heard Godard is because there is an inimitable sort of “voice-over” in the poems. It’s created, in part, by third person perspective and odd diction. But there’s also an unknown at work (maybe somewhat attributable to the fact that Byrd’s first language is French and her first art was dance?). It stumps me. I even find it kind of annoying in some spots. But I still like it. The book compels. The poems accumulate heavily, heavingly, even.
His was not an architectural quandary. He said There is latitude in your typeface. She had caught the bulk of his aesthetics by casting a blue outline on his paragraphs. In theory it was the second day of December. It was just like being undressed. It was just like loving what they were doing with their bodies. It was just like sitting in a car to ride through the sordid. For a moment she had the notion of a poem. He plugged in his guitar and she crossed her legs. What else could they do amidst this stripped hour. His heart was naked and she said My eye is killing me. There was nothing to remove from this philosophical evening. The focus had shifted to the smell of coffee and she liked the sound of his voice on her skin.
Byrd does a lot of excitingly weird things with sound as image and vice versa: “Like the regrettable sound of green beans,” “Like a despicable snow peas serenade,” “Like the deafening brutality of water chestnuts even if they were a blundering transgression.” Byrd’s poetics are much more trinket-collection in style than Adams's, but I can’t help but see the two as linked. When Byrd writes, “She wrote polka-dots papier-mâché watermelon-wasteland miserable-miracle and inside her cinematographic longing a sea flung wide,” I hear the “living every scene at once” line of Adams; I also feel the terrible and illuminating sensation of the desire that is bred by good art. I feel that I am Jeanne Dielman and Brigitte Byrd and Carrie Olivia Adams and Gregor Samsa and an eyeball in a Man Ray. I wonder if this is what I mean to say about film-and-poetics: it is a form of absences; it sculpts space and time; it suggests interiority by removal of the self. Do these books simply reveal something about Ahsahta’s tastes in contemporary poetry? Or are they, in fact, documents of this mode of thinking? Brigitte Byrd: “Was this is a swarming sequence to.”
Intervening Absence by Carrie Olivia Adams
Song of a Living Room by Brigitte Byrd