Croak by Jenny Sampirisi
Reading poetry is often a negotiation. This book in particular was an intense negotiation. I began, truly, from nothing. Croak by Jenny Sampirisi is billed by the publisher as "a frog-and-girl opera in three parts." What is that? An opera, by definition, is a dramatic text with a musical score. This made me wonder, are these poems, some of them at least, intended to be sung? Though many of the poems have a certain rhythm arising out of their obsessive repetitiveness, their stumbling, stuttering, hiccupping and spitting out of sounds, "this is dd (zzz uff) there are tt many limbs why limbs why ts nn limbs," the poems in this book are not lyrical. They would be difficult to sing. Give it a try:
Appendix A. Amphibian limb. Amphibian deformities. Limb defor-
mities. Pond. Pathogen-mediated deformities. Thallium744-28-3.
Explained deformities. Appendix B. Amphibian malformation.
Studies. Limb segments. Deformities. Girl. Polydactyly. Abnormali-
This excerpt is from the first poem performed by the Frogs in "Part One Limber." The block of prose that begins "Appendix A," is less like a poem and more like a list of antonyms to the word "normal" combined with cultivated selections from the periodic table. Hm, okay. "Begin from nothing." Begin at the appendix.
Turn the page to the next poem. This one, the first performed by the Girls, the other main characters in this opera, asks, "How should we proceed?" This is the type of question I ask as a reader in the first few pages of a book, be it poetry or prose -- how will this proceed? Here the characters ask this question of the audience. Then the Girls suggest proceeding in a way that might make sense for an opera: "We face forward and sing here." But, of course, they don't exactly follow through. They continue to question the audience. "Have you found the way? We face forward. Hold the place with / your thumb. Is it about love? Can you read it?" The first time I read this passage, I wasn't sure how to answer this question. It was difficult to find my way through this book. Could I read it? Kind of. Is it about love? Love? If I hadn't read that exact word on the page, I wouldn't have suspected it. The more I read this book, though, the more I am coming to suspect that it might be about love. I'd be willing to wager that it is partly about love. The Narrators ask in the first poem of part one:
are you okay with the
others that came before or is sharing a compromise if it is then I'm
sorry start again this is the first and you are the first first and no one
will ever come again
Oh, to be the first first. That says so much about love doesn't it? Because love is special. Love is not commonplace, not replicable. For it to be love, it has to feel like the first first. Like the only. Yes, okay, this book is about love, sometimes. But it is much more complicated than that, as The Narrators note in the opening poem of "Part Two Kalimba":
[...] this is limbo ha ha this is
comedy or something worse but we did make a problem of numbers
even before we started so catch up we need to share and get along for
a while though part three is coming and three is a bigger problem
than two and one combined [...]
so part one is gone replaced by two and it has taken with it limbs and
words and aboutness
Aboutness. I like that Sampirisi draws attention to the audience's struggle with the aboutness of this book. Is she teasing us? Because we've already decided it is about love. I guess that means though, that it also about loss. Here loss is manifested physically -- limbs growing in the wrong places, limbs missing when they are supposed to be present. In interviews about the book, Sampirisi talks about the importance of the body as a theme in her work and about the struggle, the weirdness of articulating the body in language.
Croak attempts to write the body in various ways. There are several erasure poems that look like they are derived from scientific reports of frog deformities (due to environmental pollutants, something Sampirisi says she is interested in discussing). In some poems, the characters are used as puppets with stage directions instructing them: "Right leg: higher. Left leg: straight." In others, they list bodily deformities. Frog One says, "Missing back right leg / Extra foot growing out of back left leg / Extra back right leg. / Deformed back left leg. / Unabsorbed tail." There are also scenes where the Narrators show the Girls feeling the limitations of their bodies.
Frog sees the shape of the plot. Considers Girl as
mass but also as a body incapable of escape. So frog dives and this is
a good choice. Frog dives and Girl does not. Girl is a drinker of water
not a king of it.
Samprisi says in interviews about the book, that she is interested in deforming language as the frogs' bodies are deformed. This book plays with that notion a lot, deforming language, deforming grammar, deforming dramatic structure, but it also highlights the power of language, as Frog Zero says, "I stopped myself from becoming nothing by opening / the mouth."
In one of the final poems, the Narrators say "nothing has added up," but the something does add up for me. Not in the traditional way. This book is not chronological, and it doesn't build and crest like a wave. The progression from one section to the next is not something I can liken to anything natural, anything I am used to. No, this book builds and then tears itself down over and over again. In a way, it dissects itself. It deforms then attempts to reform, but the parts never line up quite right. That sounds like a criticism, but in the case of Croak, it is praise. As the Frogs say in their first poem, the "Unexpected. Unfamiliar. Uncon- / ventional [...] / Surprising. Unorthodox. Singu- / lar. Exceptional" is what this opera is all about. Sampirisi also calls that "love."
Croak by Jenny Sampirisi
Coach House Books