We Press Ourselves Plainly
In a review of Touch to Affliction, Meg Hurtado describes Nathalie Stephens as “a tragic poet, in the word’s truest sense.” Stephens’ most recent book, We Press Ourselves Plainly, asks what happens to a body, a mind, a landscape that has absorbed the history of tragedy and then manifests that history within itself. It’s not a comfortable question, nor an easy one, and the speaker offers few answers, but rather attempts to embody that tragedy in a speaker’s voice. From the book’s brief post-script:
If one of the active functions of this work is compression, it is the compression not just of a body in a carefully controlled space, but of all the possible spaces pressed into that body, upon which the pressures of historical violence and its attendant catastrophes come to bear.
I’m honesty not sure I can say what it means to have “all possible spaces pressed into th[e] body” of the text (an ambitious project), but one feels in the voice of this text the “pressures of historical violence,” in the mind and body of the speaker, which are then pressed into the body of the text.
The book is composed as one 97-page continuous prose block, fragments of thoughts delineated by ellipses reminiscent most famously of Celine (also recently employed by Chelsey Minnis, though with sparser text and more abundant ellipses, and perhaps others I am forgetting or are unaware of). The effect of the ellipses is very much one of atemporality, by which I mean that the fragments feel snatched out of time and atmosphere; there is no feeling of progression in the prose, or consistent context, which NS’s* post-script indicates is part of the book’s theoretical design:
Spacially, the room is finite. But what enters, through the body of the speaking voice, orients thought away from its confines toward an exacerbated awareness of endlessly forming breaches.
One of the confines of thought is temporal relation to other thought, disrupted here by non-sequitur and repetition. NS’s employment of the word breach implies the intent to transgress—here, both time and space. Technically prose but not narrative, assuming many of the liberties we associate with poetry, this book slips between and out of generic expectations, another breach.
The world of We Press Ourselves Plainly is one in which the seeming whole of humanity’s history of violence has come to bear in one traumatized voice; “we stand on one side of violence and it is the same violence,” NS writes, succinctly. Also: “We stand on one side of history and it is the same history.” The collective pronoun “we” feels expansive and inclusive—who is on the other side of violence and history? Someone with a different relationship to both, I’d imagine, but the author seems to implicate a whole swath of humanity in the “movement” of violence, which is the “movement” of history. Just as the “I” of this text is anachronistic and geographically un-pin-down-able, so is the “we,” so that the reader feels included in this history and its attendant traumas.
The feeling of apocalypse that pervades the book is not a promise of some future demise but the fact of our own insistent violence in this time and this place. It’s not coming, it’s been here all along. The evidence is all around us.
It is the same warning… The same war… I attend the funeral in Fallujah and in Hyde Park… Nothing happens and it is written down… There are manifestations… The regional differences are deprecated… I prepare for it clumsily… The groans rise off the moors and out of the hospital beds…
The notion that all the wars are tantamount to one long war is iterated again as the speaker announces, “For the sake of simplicity the wars become one war” and “The wars are indistinguishable” (an astute and timely observation, as the rhetoric of any warring country tends to try to justify its war by distinguishing it from the other wars). As the text moves through time and space with its elliptical fragments, the speaker also invokes Chernobyl and Charonne,* as if to assure us that we cannot pin violence to one single geography, one time, one place. If the catastrophes of violence are “compressed” (to use NS’s own language) into one physical space (the book) and mental space (the speaker), the effect is dramatic and heartbreaking. What mind is strong enough to endure that much horror and not break? And then, as the semi-concrete artifact of the mind, what happens to language?
… We stand each on one side of other of a violence and it is the same violence… In the mouth… The mouth foremost… I make a signature of it… A fount of praises and they are immaculate… Immaculate and catastrophic…
So language itself becomes broken, as is both formally and substantively enacted by this work, but it also perpetuates violence, becomes an artifact and instrument of it. (Et quel dommage.) It is perhaps for this reason that the speaker pleads, “… Stop speaking… Just for a time…”
Here, there is nowhere the trauma of violence doesn’t reach. The body, the singular, human proxy for the physicality of the world in general, continuously vomits, as if in a constant state of rejection (rejection of that which poisons us). It is overwhelmed by toxicity:
A small overburdened liver… A mangled spleen… We bear… Bury… Heart spilling blood into the weakened parts… Vomit it into me… … How many times bereft… And swollen… Lumped grievously together… Striated and torn… It spreads indiscriminately to other parts…
The notion of contagion is an important one, the idea that sickness spreads: from one part of the body to another, from one body to another body. This is clearly writ politically and geographically as well: it is said that violence begets violence, contagion on a global scale. NS represents the body as macrocosmic proof of this. (As I will suggest more fully below, it is possible the reverse is true as well; if shadow is contagious, why not light?)
A small promotional insert in the book declares that the project of this book yields “a kind of nihilistic courage.” The books insistent nihilism is perhaps most succinctly articulated in the final words of NS’s post-script: “Sisyphus, outdone.” A feeling of futility underlies much of the text, and for understandable reason. To flatten the time and space of history so that the totality of its atrocities feels immediate would indeed “overwhelm the spleen.” And yet, as the speaker comments, “if only it were otherwise.” It’s a lament that reads as if our suffering were absolute; but I can’t help but read the desire for a different world as the promise of it, or at least the promise of its possibility. Not that I think the speaker of NS’s book would be so optimistic; this is a philosophy exclusive of hope: “I make some progress… You blow on it and it goes out…” At the same time, I can’t help but think that the attempt to make art (like poetry, like this book), even out of the most egregious suffering, is always, in itself, a hopeful act, an act of endurance and an affirmation of applied intelligence, those things which have the capacity to change a damaged world.
It’s well understood that when we write, we choose our focus. And because our focus is finite, something is necessarily excluded (if I choose to write about Medieval London, I am probably not therefore writing about globalization in India). A few reviews ago, I wrote about the romantic pastoral as critically problematized simply by virtue of all that it excludes about the natural world (it prettifies that which is not always pretty); reading this book, I wonder if the reverse is also true, and what its implications are. What I mean is, if the pastoral is felt to be problematic because it excludes the ugly, is work which makes its focus catastrophe, disease, etc., problematic because it excludes the beautiful or wonderful or sublime? And if not, why not? Can we say that one exclusion is truly to be preferred over the other? Or that one is more responsible?
Here is a probably woefully poor analogy: let’s say there is a terrible car accident. Twisted metal, mangled bodies, blood, injury, death; the bodies are in distress, there is fear and unimaginable pain (you could insert a scene of bloody violence here if the car accident analogy isn’t working for you). Now let’s say that people gather around this car accident holding large mirrors in front of their bodies. For those inside the accident, their whole world becomes a scene of horror. Everywhere they look around, there is only suffering. I wonder if the world we find ourselves in isn’t a bit like that—there are scenes of unimaginable horror; but what we hold a mirror up to multiplies the original horror manifold.* As NS writes, “It is the same violence… in the mouth.” I am not saying we shouldn’t hold up these mirrors, but I am saying it’s interesting to consider the implications of them, and whether the imperative to witness might include bearing witness to those things that help us endure the historical and personal traumas we are compelled to endure.
* The front matter of the book uses “NS” for Nathalie Stephens, which I have preserved here.
* Known for the Paris Massacre of 1961, in which at least 40 (and as many as 200) Algerians were slaughtered.
* This seems especially the case given how many different kinds of mirrors we have available to us via television, internet, poetry, art, photography, film, journalism, etc., etc.