Whereas most bildungsroman and autobiographies begin “I was born” and proceed to rattle off the date, the place, and the whole damn story, Allison Cobb’s Born Two won’t even take that much on faith. Its title, which is rendered born2 on its cover and Born Two on its title page and spine, already challenges the singular status of both birth and self. By various means and angles of attack, the poems of Born Two pull apart the bona fides of myth, place, name, form, personal history and event itself. This disoriented world is sensuous, capacious, various, and somewhat woozy—and, unlike most poetry books which endeavor to “play,” it’s fun to read.
The first of the five big poems that make up this volume is “The Little Box Book.” The epigraph, “Whoever goes to Los Alamos will go crazy,” suggests that this chapbook-length poem is set in that fatal New Mexico town, but the syntax in which this signpost is couched hardly confirms this. Just inside this hazy threshold, an incantation waits:
No father no boy
human and not
in the box a book
and in that book
another and in
visible waves that
make the fish split
something’s un- un-
In the first stanza, the short phrases are not necessarily enjambed, but their brevity impels us to read through the eight lines as a speaking-into-being of the poem; the more coherent second stanza introduces us to the book-within-a-book which opens or “splits” into the poem itself. The first stanza seems to channel by turns the critical, defensive, and vatic language used to discuss the bomb, while in the second stanza the qualities of the bomb are distributed to the book in the book in the box which, like Allison Cobb herself, comes into being in Los Alamos (Cobb was born there). Maybe these, then, are the multiple births of the volume’s title: the two books; or, the books and the bomb; or, the books and the bomb and the poet. The more you look at Cobb’s apt figures, the further they split.
This unstable yet persistent identification of Book-with-Bomb-with-(perhaps)Poet is confirmed in the poem itself, in which the aforementioned book-in-a-book-in-a-box becomes a glyph-y, baby-like personage referred to as “the little box book.”
Then the little box book is more
gone a sort of scorched
awake through all—the fire
storm the indelible
infant crying to itself.
Here the figure and ground continually pile up and change places. Does the stanza report an actual fire (such as the one that swept Los Alamos in 2001), metaphorically described twice, first as a “storm” and next as an “indelible/infant crying to itself”? Or does this stanza describe a bomb test, the little book here standing for the bomb itself? Does it describe an actual infant turned “indelible” like the people whose shadows were burnt into the ground at Hiroshima? Or is the firestorm imagery, the “scorched awake”-ness, all describing the coming-into-consciousness of the baby herself? With the openness of the syntax, and the richness of Cobb’s subjects, this un-belabored stanza can connote all of these readings.
Thus is our beguiling introduction to the trope of the little-box-book-as-infant. This strange gambit succeeds and “the little box book” becomes a syntactical unit around which the events and special effects of the poem revolve. She is not so much a real character as a placeholder, and her main attribute is mercurialness. “The little box book likes more liquor—grows/back tongues a hydra”; novels and songs are attributed to her; she sings and, with a Native American originary logic, the figure of whom she sings, “Stick,” appears, walking his dog. At the same time, the little b.b. is baby-like and thus terrifically vulnerable to the nuclear and nuclear-familial risks around her; these risks are often, like so much in this poem, doubled and thus doubled in strength: “The little box book breaks funny/heels on shaky ankles O/someone is breathing[…]/she’s open/the little box book.” One of the most striking moves in the poem comes when Cobb appears to reverse the temporality of the piece so that our “heroine” erases back into the body of her absent father. Then time again moves forward and she is glimpsed, finally, and again, in the womb: “Come watch the little box book form/those bruises will be her eyes.” The ambiguity of this couplet is a fitting ending to the first section of the volume, blurring as it does the extent to which the little black book is a bruised victim or an engineer of her own rebirth.
After the sui generis verbal universe of “The Little Box Book,” “One-foot Book” is a series of visual collages which posit another myth of origin: “here is where One-foot burst born.” Conquistadors’ documents and illustrations of their garb are set against fragments of Cobb’s poetry and farcical cartoon maps of the sort that used to grace diner placemats. The interplay of language and illustration calls to mind A Humument, as do, in a goofy junior-high way, the doodles blotting out words in “The J Poems,” which come later in Born Two. The “One-foot Book” picks up on the themes and locales of the earlier poem, briefly mixes them around this new figure of One-foot, and pours the entire mixture into the next chapbook-length poem, “One-foot: a History Play.”
This poem has the opposite method of “Little Box Book.” Rather than revolving around a single glyph-like figure who has no qualities of her own, here a whole slew of figures form a surface: the aforementioned “One-foot”; a character, “Rose,” who may refer at times to the Major General Maurice Rose mentioned on the title page and at other times seems (just) a vehicle for Steinian homage; and, charmingly, a poet-speaker who writes to various people about the text. A fourth communal set of voices, representing townspeople, recurs, and, atop all this, time is marked by a lunatic countdown a la movies shot in New Mexico. This brimming mixture allows Cobb to bring out resonances in the history of the region; the sixteenth-century violence against the native population becomes fatally indistinguishable from the violence of twentieth-century conventional and nuclear wars and from the twenty-first-century fire that destroyed much of Los Alamos. The violence is also ecological and political; the communal set of voices has an accusatory tone and an imagery of contamination runs through its patter. The result of all this doubling up is not the radial energies of “The Little Box Book” but rather a super-saturation:
One-foot can smell the maiden
water he grows enormous skin chews
his hunger to blood mountains topped
he oozes two rivers.
Do I look pretty he says.
For relief from this density and for Brechtian clarity the poet often intervenes to write letters about the poem-in-progress, most humorously to her mother: “I’m writing this now about how the Conquistadors came to New Mexico and what happened remains there, like everything else.” The directness of this voice seems brightly peculiar amid the swimmy tendencies of this baroque poem.
After the place-based thematics of the first three sections, the final two sections of Born Two retain its methods but turn their attention to more erotic matters. These themes segue nicely, as the body and its damage has been an undercurrent of the book heretofore. “The J Poems” is a visual poem; with stickers and teenager-y scribbling, Cobb has used removal and addition to reveal an erotics within a bland Dick-and-Jane type reader. The reading comprehension questions are used to particularly good effect. In “Polar Bear and Desert Fox,” the third chapbook-length poem of the book, two female-seeming childlike protagonists become embodied and then entangled in a semi-narrative series built on the movement of names and nouns through sentences written by Steinian techniques: “Light I wanted I sick baby sweats watch is this how it is to feel to be. On the back of my life between breathes.” This jam-packed section is well paced, yet the baby talk and picture-book diction, recalling Stein, is a touch wearing. This diction seems both a product of and a metonym for the protagonists’ erotic intimacy, yet its insistent winsomeness makes it, for all its invention, the only flattish element in Cobb’s wide and wild book.
The effort to define poetry’s nature and its task is the constant side project of our genre, yet every effort to delineate is a compromise, because some aspect of poetry is inevitably left out. Of course not all poetry need be experimental in form, but perhaps all poetry must be experimental in spirit, that is, a process of pushing beyond what comes easily to the particular poet and into that material or mode which seems beyond what her poetry is capable of doing or being. Books like Allison Cobb’s fling everything they can at and into poetry in the effort to bring into being something that needs to be born. We need such books more than we need definitions.