Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize
The twin notions of microcosm and macrocosm neatly model the dominant orienting lens of Western thought. From the pre-Socratics on, thinkers who contend that they have discovered cosmological truths argue that man is a little world embodying the structure and traits of the greater universe. To know the universe, they say, look carefully at man, and all truth shall be revealed. As man breathes, so does the universe (Pythagoras). As man fights interior battles between good and evil, so they must exist on a grander scale (Sir Thomas Browne). And to affix such a connection: a maker to make cunningly. And so on it goes.
Happily, our canon is also replete with thinkers who seek not only to reveal the hand of a maker in our world, but to construct worlds themselves. A truly golden little book, no less beneficial than entertaining, of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia, better known as the Utopia of Thomas More, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels; The Description of the New World, Called the Blazing World of Margaret Cavendish—were all manufactured to shed light on this world and often to critique the philosophers and scientists who believed their art was merely revelatory, rather than constitutive, of how we map into the universe. Elizabeth Marie Young’s debut, the Motherwell-Prize-winning, Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize, takes up this constitutive tradition, manufacturing little language worlds on every page. I give you “Instructions for Inhabiting a Miniature World” in its entirety so that you may taste its nature:
Somewhere in da Vinci’s notebook lies an earth that can’t be flattened. When you find the fairy you must speak to him, in Latin. Demonstrate your expert knowledge of the forest and your urge to decorate his nook with odd-shaped, dimpled pearls plucked from the rings of widows. He will crinkle his small face. “But I am just a mannikin. I don’t like playing games upon the bridge-too-far.” Then you will disappear into the cool sfumato of his vale and the things inside his leery gaze will twitch their iridescent horns. The inflection of his words will do a dance around the crude gleam of your evening English as it rusts in chunky piles. Amo, amas, amat. Flirtatiously, you’ll try to utter sounds that will explode his world into abstractions. But all you have are nouns and birds torn from the sky by winds so strong they turn the recto into verso: a rabbit’s foot, a lake of blood, a root system that dives below the underbrush to penetrate the forest floor bidding us to join the revels in extended metaphors.
The characteristics of “Instructions” are staples of most of the poems in the book. Throughout we find the prose poem form headed by a long fanciful title; the allusion to past masters (here, da Vinci); the indication of something spoken that never would in actuality be uttered (this poem’s “mannikin” and “bridge-too-far”); the wit and irony (nook decoration); the diction-mix of old and new, high and low, poetical and mundane (the “amo, amas, amat;” the “dimpled pearls;” the “rabbit’s foot”).
While some readers may tire of the repetition of these traits, the reproduction of fundaments is key to the work’s success. A 21st century cosmogony should be replete with multiples that express the tension between individuality and diversity. We facebook daily our individual worlds—but when we peek into each other’s spheres we find them to be both stunningly similar and achingly strange, creating that quintessential 21st century experience of simultaneous alienation and identity.
The repetition also serves to form the book’s particular speaker-authoress. Preferring the pronoun “we” over “I,” and rarely talking of herself, it is remarkable that Young is able to produce a speaker with such distinct personality. Through accumulation, I come to feel very chummy with this enchantress who surely wears a velvet gown, DayGlo sneakers, and a crown of dandelions. Tending to the vibrating quartz and oscillating circuits that power the pocketwatches she has made, set into motion, and very well might smash, she is part watchmaker, part Zen potter bringing us under the spell of her bubble-wand as she whispers to us in Latin.
The worlds of Aim Straight at the Fountain and Press Vaporize do not make pretense of imitation, which sets Young’s book off from something like Gulliver’s Travels, which, though highly fabricated, centers on allegorical representation dedicated to characters that play out an extended fiction in a satire of our lives. Instead, Young’s poems, hyper-conscious of being language-made, refer most often to the world of texts leaping from the Classical world of Lavina, Narcissus, and Caesar to great storytellers, real and fictitious, such as Scheherazade, Freud, Baudelaire and Joyce.
Though more winged than grounded, these worlds are no less well made than their narrative counterparts and prove, if proof is needed, that there are other ways to weave a world than by narrative threading. Poem connects to poem by similarity of prose poem form, and not only does the form act as a steady container of sentences, but much of the rhythm throughout is iambic with a delicate lacing of various intensities of rhyme. These patterns are evident in “Instructions for Inhabiting a Miniature World,” but I’ll treat you to more text. Take “Imagining the Diacritics of the Next Great Death”:
The orphic owl’s out of earshot and, in hindsight, we agree—that errant flickr was a feather, an eclipsed facsimile. The nimble art of deer-hoofed children fetchingly bedecked in purple trim, their pleasure zones igniting without anarchy. We are glum as islanders awash in beauty while sand creeps in like an overdose and deer eat from our hands. Coins and cups and cinderblocks accumulate upon our desks (they once belonged to pirates.) So how can we resist this protoplasm fringed with saffron when the fetid facts caress our mercury through retrograde? Those awe-struck balls of flesh survived the saga, safe as shipwrecks, spreading good news to the ghosts. Uploaded in our consciousness, the afterimages compute the power of the pendant while a slow tornado sprawls its deadpan furthermost and emits one last hurrah. If these walls were more than grey they could explain it all, perhaps, while we stand on the burning deck hoping our sobs won’t sink the ship.
The first sentence provides an object lesson in the easy iambic scansion of much of the book’s rhythm:
The or|phic o|wl’s out| of ear|shot and,| in hind|sight, we| agree|—that err|ant flick|r was| a feath|er, an| eclipsed | facsim|ile.
To track only two of the interlaced sounds, the /i/ sound, hi-lighted in the first two sentence endings of “facsimile” and “anarchy,” thereby making the first two sentences echo a couplet. In addition the sound patterns through agree, facsimile, fetchingly, anarchy, creeps, beauty, eat, we, and mercury. The /e/ patterns through bedecked, desks, fetid, flesh, shipwrecks, deck.
Not only is such echoing of formal lineage—within the body of prose poetry—a delightful device, this blend of old and new texture and rhythm acts as microcosm for the intertextual and hybrid impulses of the book as a whole. In addition, the fact that the poems are not all entirely iambic, and make many imperfect diversions, is also echoed at the formal organization of the entire book. A glance at the table of contents reveals the fact that the poems are organized as an abecedarian—except for one anomaly near the center of the book. “Empty Space is Vast Inside the Cells of Human Wit” comes erroneously between “The Day Your Tattooed Ship Capsized Inside my Tattooed Ear” and “The Graphics Smear and Raw Transcendence Spreads Its Ugly Jaws.” You have to admire the iambic cadence of the titles and feel that with such pattern, error cannot be accidental. Or can it, knowing the clinamen swerves of the universe? Perhaps the book works in imitation after all.
Regardless, by incorporating the desire for the perfection of the traditional iamb, along with imperfection and mistake, this book admits to its own constructedness. As such, Young takes a marked stance among and against a lineage of cosmological treatments many of which propose that—rather than having a hand in creating systems through description— they actually expose the “true” bones of natural, social, and psychological and spiritual systems. These systems, so the story goes, are so well-ordered that they cannot help but imply a maker.
While exhibiting the hallmark revelry and jouissance we expect from work inflected with such post-modernity, the book is not uncritical of this stance and what it might achieve. Moments such as “And still they lurched and dragged their rickety old model up the mountain where they leapt off into the huge distance waving feathers pulled from caps that had dropped below the treeline” (“Among the Seekers of Ether”) comment directly on the efficacy of our “rickety” old models. Catch the irony of “leapt off into the huge distance:” isn’t one supposed to test the model with, for example, a monkey at the helm rather than jumping into the beater to have a go at it oneself? Moments such as: “How lucky we are to be but suicidal flirts in a texture so far-reaching it drowns the hovercraft in its own pretentious thrill strung out on crystal meth and delicate beading. Bemoan your lost vacation days, high-voltage quadrupeds!” (“As the Evening Primrose Crimps the Skyline’s Opulent Toilette”) couldn’t have a sharper bite.
Such critique and careful making render this book an apt response to any thinker who is still skeptical of the efficacy of a book that takes its own construction and the fact of language as its content. Lest skepticism still stand, we might direct ourselves to the Western tradition’s source text for all making: “And God said ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light.” Hasn’t cosmology always been a language thing?