June 2010

Josh Cook


Anamnesis by Lucy Ives

“Anamnesis” refers to several methods of recalling, including a Platonic sense, in which one accesses information stored in one's soul. Recalling has a number of different functions; it preserves past events by replicating them, either through telling other people about the events or committing the events to media; it explains the present by demonstrating its causes; and through it the recaller seeks to understand her own emotions and reactions to the events recalled. Lucy Ives's Anamnesis serves the third function, through which the speaker, identified early as “Lucy,” seeks to understand or “work out” her relationship with “Paul.”

Rather that telling the events of the relationship, the speaker touches briefly on what could be events and focuses on the generated emotions and on the method of recalling those emotions and events. Ives uses a two-part refrain to focus on the mechanics of recollection. The first part consists of phrase like “Write” or “You can write” followed by either a quoted or unquoted line. The second part consists of the line “Cross this out,” or a variation. For example; “You can write, 'We hear the train at night'/ Cross out 'train,' write, 'satellite'.” This refrain does two major things; it describes one of the challenges of memory and it doubles the work, creating two poems in one place.

Recollection is filled with edits; we conflate, separate, confuse, rationalize, add, and subtract. No matter how deeply we may hold a memory it is still in flux. Furthermore, some neurologists now believe that the act of remembering, the act of recalling can change the memory itself. They believe that remembering is less like opening a computer file, and more like re-filming the entire scene. The scene is preserved, but changes can be introduced in the process of re-shooting. Whether Ives is up to date on current neurology or not, her refrain perfectly captures the instability of memory.

“Cross this out,” and its variations, doubles each poem in which it appears by creating the poem in which the preceding line exists and the poem in which the line or a word in the line or sometimes the entire poem, is crossed out. Through this technique both poems exist simultaneously, like Schroedinger's cat before the box is opened. Furthermore, this cedes some power to the reader, as the reader can make the edits, either mentally or by actually rewriting the poem, or not. This coupled with the presentation of the complexity of memory creates a very nuanced poetic space.

However, the “edits” don't always match the grammar of the lines they alter. Following the instructions to cross out and sometimes replace lines or words sometimes creates lines that follow an entirely different grammatical structure than what preceded them. Poetic grammar is more fluid than prose grammar and one could argue that since a “new” poem is created it shouldn't be beholden to the grammar of what it replaces, but if Ives was committed to exploring that fluidity, why do so inconsistently, or why use the edit and replace trope for lines with a prose-like grammar at all? One could generously read a statement about the introduction of error or decay through the process of replacement, but nothing else in the work seems to indicate that theme. In fact, the erosion of the grammar felt more like the result of the author's inattention than an exploration of an idea.

There is good writing in the work in addition to the refrain. Ives really nails the emotions of a confusing break up in a number of lines; “Write, 'But I stay like this, I change and I don't, embarrassed of my own presence”; “The world just slips over itself and then what was isn't”; “I'll take the Staten Island Ferry alone, and go nowhere but Staten Island”; and “When it is a holiday things are odd in the subway.” These lines give language to the confused emotions of a breakup and the intellectual and emotional efforts one goes through in understanding exactly what happened. Many readers will read a line or a poem and think, “That's it, that's exactly how I felt.” In that sense, this is very successful work.

This may not be a fair question, but I have to ask, does the world really need a collection that processes the breakup of “Lucy” and “Paul”? Humans are emotional animals defined by our relationships with each other, and so emotions and relationships are at the core of all of our decisions and, thus, all of our problems. But poetry over the last hundred years or so has spent so much time understanding the interior of the poet, that I'm just not sure the world needs more literature of “working things out.” I'm not sure Lucy Ives believes it does, either. She writes, “Write: 'All this is only writing.'” Well, if it's “only writing,” then what's the point? One Lucy Ives might argue that if her work helps someone in any way no other point is needed. Another Lucy Ives might just be hedging her bets with a lazy nod to the post-modern deconstruction of value. Regardless, if it helps someone then it isn't “only writing,” and readers will deconstruct value with or without the work's permission.

Ultimately, the emotion this collection best describes is floundering; the disorganized, passionate, confused struggle to understand something. As a reader and writer, I immediately identified and identified with this emotion. The constant crossing out, rehashing, and second guessing perfectly capture that experience of floundering. However, I'm not sure the work is strong enough overall to communicate this to someone not already turned in to look for it. Though daily life is filled with floundering; from the emotional struggles described by Ives to the inability to pick out dinner at the grocery store, ultimately I don't think the writing is good enough to connect its floundering with mundane floundering, in the minds of most readers.

Anamnesis has many brilliant lines and perfectly captures a number of emotions. Furthermore, its sophistication is subtle and the work is devoid of the usual failings of so much contemporary poetry. It is a good work, but it is not important. Though there are many ways to evaluate this statement, Anamnesis is “only writing.”

Anamnesis by Lucy Ives
Slope Editions
ISBN: 0977769844
106 Pages