Guess Can Gallop
From the incestual mingling of verse and perversity, spring the delightfully monstrous poems of Heidi Lynn Staple’s Guess Can Gallop. Here, the dictions and directives of the dominant paradigm are reshaped to admit their covert content of hostility, prurience, and slippery fun.
The volume opens with “Another Story with a Burning Yarn In It”; the title picks up the thread of Anne Bradstreet’s “On the Burning Of My House,” but whereas Bradstreet’s speaker chides herself for her momentary distress and reasserts orthodox belief, this “Burning Yarn” (erotic tale? fuse? burning clew?) leads the speaker to no such orthodoxy—religious, syntactical, or otherwise. Indeed, even the orthodoxy of a continuous sentence across enjambed lines is here undone:
They say getting started must be innumerable
or at once also, so I referred to my connection
guide, I waited in acute between the two.
Usually, I. If not, the house from zero.
The zero was where anyone is. None by none,
worlds grew off, and that should have told me
somebody. Letters are mad and broken. I
from what I understand. [….]
Thus the language of account zanily breaks down. The speaker never emerges from her distress, but remains “acute between the two.” The “guide” she is equipped with never zeroes exactly with the landscape; instead, the zero-meridian, the landmark from which direction is gauged, keeps moving with the viewer (“the zero was where anyone is”). “The house” cannot be found and drops out of the poem. The substitution of “None by none” for “one by one” increases the phrase’s bereftness by a degree but also prompts the reader to start reading by ear-rhymes, so that when “worlds grew off” we hear ‘birds flew off,’ ‘words flew out,’ etc.
Staples’s technique of using sonic substitution to frustrate the reader’s overly smooth progress and to grow multiple worlds in the space of single words and phrases is the dominant method of the book. This technique is shown to best effect when applied to canonical and difficult forms such as the ghazal, villanelle, and sestina. Her ghazal is particularly delightful:
Back then, the sky is a tent tilting toward perverse,
at the edge, I turned to believing to weird perverse.
She was a word unto myself. In the end, it was her whirred
again mine. Yes, it was my mind gone true where perverse.
Here I find it charming and funny that the syntactic sense of the line breaks down just where the rhyme should most portentously appear and cap the couplet; this is a sprained ghazal that keeps lurching lecherously off in different directions. The tone of doomy pleasure seems appropriate to the piquant affair it both invents and recounts. On the other hand, the sestina “Awe Enduring Countenance” provides subtler innovations; here, the sestina spools itself out quietly and with an eerie beauty, erratic line spacing blocking our ability to perceive the form:
The way the window ought to look, mirror
of the passage, out of the box, into the throes
of another mattress. Like somebody’s king
the heart uprises, retreats, falls down dreamt, coming
up for err. Objections we’re closer than they appeared,
she warned him, briar naked and as cold as the surface
of the man. They had a scream, riding shout past the surface.
no one else for miles, the wind blew mirror.
She talked like a cellar, like his childhood appeared
in its parking lots, it’s spooky, all the cars desiring the rose […]
Here it is the swerve from sustained lyric similizing (“Like somebody’s king/the heart uprises, retreats, falls down dreamt”) to the pun (“coming up for err”) which enacts Staples’ subversive tool, the instrumental error. At the same time, this poem’s themes and energies are in good company with those of the canon. Despite the indie-rock lyricism, there is something Victorian about the way Staples remembers to undo every single corset button in the form (OK, inverted Victorianism), and the “mirror/of the passage” reminds me both of Bishop’s Monument and of Tennyson’s Shallot, whereas the interlaying of jokey pun and serious metaphor seems, well, Shakespearean to me. On another note, I hear both Yeats and Hejinian in that final “rose;” yet I love the polymorphous perversity of assigning desire for the rose not to the poet or a bunch of knights but to cars. A fine Romaunce.
Staples sets up the totality of her knowledge, education, and experience like milk bottles in an Old West show; then, like a trick-shooter, she takes her shots backwards, over her shoulder, standing on one foot on the back of a jerky pony, and always hits her mark—or at least hauls her mark with her into the lunatic act. However, because she is always also in the ring, her poems maintain a first-hand, humanist tone. Some poems, like the sestina above, bear a good deal of lyric and emotional content. “Heidi You Orange” works by inserting the poet’s first name into a dense OED definition. This poem begins as a whimsical exercise but ultimately exposes the vicious colonialism itself laced through the word’s history—meanwhile, our mysterious “Heidi” is multiplied yet reduced to a word, appearing as a term in surprising sentences, surfacing and disappearing from the text.
Other poems here are audio “echographs” of either canonical or original poems that render one English-language text into a new quasi-English-language text. The results are various; the rewriting of the Pledge of Allegiance in “Play Ledge” is nakedly and effectively political. The villanelle, “Wrestling with the Concrete,” is translated three times and as its original coherence breaks down a wild and lurid energy explodes from the same repeated elements. A syllable-by-syllable rerendering of Donne’s “The Expiration” is nearly Tourettic in its explicit outbursts ( “Ho’s! Ho’s! rape scoff piss lapse men tiering fist”) yet exposes the misogynistic and always bodily concerns underlying Donne’s famously well-made conceits. Other times this technique is used to less obviously political effect, but it is still fun to hear “Jingle Bells” and nursery rhymes suddenly erupting out of densely woven lyric surface.
In Guess Can Gallop, Staples has invented a flexible, funny, cerebral but plainly sensual poetic that can be turned on many near and far targets but remains keen. Politically speaking, these poems seek to dissolve and damage one dominant paradigm while refusing to establish a new one to delimit subjecthood and define what the words mean. In its diversity and deviltry, then, Guess Can Gallop enacts perversion as revolution.