End of the Sentimental Journey: A Mystery Poem
I am old, I leave the house less and less, I don’t go to as many poetry readings as I used to. But I read a lot of poetry—a reader might hope a reviewer would. But readers of poetry reviews, i.e. y’all, are not like readers of movie reviews; the latter might see a few movies a year, and the former are likely reading as many books as the reviewer. Similarly, the average movie-goer is probably not too concerned with the film she’s currently directing. So I think it is safe and fair to say that whatever anxiety the poetry reviewer feels is akin to the anxiety of the poetry reader, akin to the poetry performer, akin to the poetry writer. I think all but a few of us feel some anxiety about our preferences, our “likes” and “dislikes” and the apparatuses we build to explain and justify them. Those lucky few who feel no such anxieties unreservedly seek what I like to call dominion over the beasts of the field: a set of uniform standards for who says what, and how. The most dispiriting part of this martial quest is how quickly and completely claims of taste become markers of morality. There is no judgment as blissfully severe as that of any poet of any other poet.
All paths into poetry intersect, and thus what occurs on one of those paths likewise determines what occurs on the others. If you ever move up one path, you will surely wander down the others, and you are thus a likely candidate for the crude, sweet, candid and plainly brilliant and brilliantly plain charms of End of the Sentimental Journey: A Mystery Poem. In this book, Sarah Vap is curious about how we come to judge both what we make and what is presented to us. Happily—but also vexingly—my greatest challenge in writing about the book under review is finding something to disagree with. End of the Sentimental Journey starts, as the subtitle indicates, with a mystery, and concludes with its solution (though it’s worth noting that a solution and a resolution are not the same thing). To wit:
First Clue: Difficulty
People often ask me: Do you mean for your poems to be so difficult? Why are they so difficult?
A shadow of response that I always have: Why do you want them to be easy?
But what I mean is: What is “difficult” anyway? and, What is easy?
I begin to feel a little bit worried. (Am I difficult?)
And then I wonder: Does that mean other people are easy?
Hours later I might be asking myself: is there such a thing as “good-difficult” and “bad difficult”? “Good easy” and “bad easy”? And who gets to decide.
Well, that is exactly right. The question of who decides is the question of who will achieve dominion over all the beasts of the field, and the question here is conspicuous only in the deliberately direct and colloquial diction Vap insists on using. She may be conducting a mystery, but she is hell-bent on making sure no one gets confused or lost on the way; as with Gabbert (reviewed here), she puts things as simply as she can, but never any more simply that she has to. From this initial clue, Vap proceeds to identify an argument about an experience of poetic difficulty in terms of access and the feelings inspired by failure to access. Access, of course, is a concept most frequently presented in terms of whether any given poem is accessible, which suggests strange assumptions about what a poem has to offer and what a reader wants and where responsibility lies (if anywhere) for how and whether the reader can “access” whatever num-num treats the poem allegedly contains. The roles implied by this formulation lead Vap to her first big analogical leap: though it seems at first like a small one, it will end having profound consequences for not just the direction but the terms of her investigation. Because she has named a mystery, she names “clues” in the solution of that mystery; the first is “difficulty,” and the second is “sorrow,” and between these two Vap delineates how readers come to find poems difficult or inaccessible and the irritation, sadness and resentment this can provoke in both reader and writer. But the next clue she names is “blueballs,” a condition from which she introduces questions of putting out—in whether the poem should, and when, and to whom. This reconfigures the conditions of ease and difficulty well enough so that Vap can wonder if “too easy” simply means that “Compared to me, the poem is a little dumb and slutty.”
From here, Vap moves to questions of intimacy, a condition dependent of hope: “There is an unspoken agreement between a poet and a reader that, by reading the poem, we will both feel less alone.”
This sounds simple. It isn’t, and Vap knows it. To this general definition of and desire for intimacy and understanding and acknowledgement, she quickly adds the following list of what she identifies as her needs:
rejection, humiliation, shame, distance, reprimand, being totally ignored, being dumped, being crapped on, being inappropriately solicited, pity, being sought after to no avail, seeking after to no avail, intrigue, mystery, no mercy, make-up sex, fistfights, fisting, being told to put my fucking clothes back on, just a friend, strangers, loneliness, artificiality, superficiality, having the door slammed on my face, not being invited to the party, not showing up to rush, getting kicked out of the honors program, an STD, being the only girl in fourth grade without a friend, being the new kid everyone ignores, travel without knowing the language, dry-humping, pull-out method, born-again virgins, constipation, bad reputations, unconvincing dominatrices, false rumors.
grandparents, parents, children, childbirth, death, ribbons, rainbows, ponies, music boxes, solar systems, summer dresses, blood, guts, history, tradition, no history, no tradition, no human beings at all, no objects at all, God, Goddess, no gods, no goddesses, solar system, no solar system, everybody being nice to me, everybody understanding me, everybody missing me when I’m gone.
It’s at this moment in the book that I was convinced that Vap was going to be a perfectly trustworthy guide through the thickets of want, whether applied to poetry or to life more generally, and it is also the moment where it became apparent to me that she is more concerned with the condition of the beasts of the field and not so worried about how she can come to dominate them. The impulse to dominion is exclusionary: it may express itself as a desire for control of everything, but in practice everything tends to refer to only a few things. The signature of dominion is decimation, right? Dominion excludes, winnows, eliminates, reduces. As the list above makes clear, Vap wants to make room for everything, and of the items included in a catalogue are those that will appear contradictory or exclusive. Generosity, in other words, will and must lead to complication and all form of disagreement: difficulties.
However, it’s quite a commitment to conclude that the best alternative to dominion is a complete lack of discrimination. A world with no room for standards whatsoever is very likely to serve whoever has power already, and Vap would rather figure out and make clear and public who is controlling or advancing the standards and to what purpose than pretend the assertion of standards isn’t part of the process. And recognizing this, Vap proceeds to multiple variations of ease and difficulty, concluding her analogy by saying that
I think we’re talking about that very fine line between putting out, but not being a slut.
And I have never figured that one out!
Having established an axis or continuum whereby to think about the relationship between assessments like “difficult,” “easy” and “sentimental,” but apparently not wanting to subscribe entirely to the axioms that continuum generates, Vap pauses. She has already said, in the early clue about “difficulty,” that she is “more and more inclined to think this is a conversation about gender. And about sex. And about money. Specifically, this is a conversation about you having sex with. And more generally, about poets having sex with each other.” I think it’s absolutely correct that if Vap finds the metaphor of sex especially telling in how it reflects and predicts the language of what readers and writers want, she must admit that sex and gender cannot be divorced. And, in citing third- and fourth-wave feminism, when Vap clarifies her desire for the right and ability to write “exactly what I want write and how I need to write it as the fully complex human being that I am” she is admitting an ambition, the impediments to which concern gendered and sexualized histories and practices of power.
To speak accurately and honestly into and against those histories is no small ambition, of course, though it is hard to imagine any smaller ambition that could possibly be worth pursuing. But in a gesture that is very likely to be the one that will earn End of the Sentimental Journey a fame that belies its extraordinary merits, Vap performs a set of hypothetical responses, a sort of judgment theatre, but one in which the taxonomies are not those frequently associated with poetic responses. For example, see Cincinnati Bowtie, Pasadena Steamer, Angry Dragon, Alligator Fuckhouse, Glass-bottomed Boat, Donkey Punch, Blumpkin.
Ideally, then—using this third or fourth-wave spectrum of human experience, and using an ultra-contemporary vocabulary of intimacy—a conversation about any given poem could go something like this:
Reader 1: That poem is like Tea-Bagging, and I actually prefer something a little more difficult, like a Cincinnati Bowtie.
Reader 2: I had a slightly different response. That poem, to me, is much too difficult and much too dirty. It’s like receiving a Pasadena Steamer or worse, an Angry Dragon. And so on.
At this point I will pause and admit that my first thought, naïve and hopeful, was that Sarah Vap is simply a genius at the manufacture of terms that sound like real things but could not possibly be real things. Ha ha! Oh Raymond. The terms above, which I am sure are familiar to more adventurous, cosmopolitan and erudite readers, do in fact refer to real things. If you don’t believe me, please deploy the Google device, but make sure your privacy settings are ON. However, as with her refusal to admit that being indiscriminate is the inevitable cure for tyranny, Vap doesn’t let the terms or the practices to which they refer go without scrutiny:
Helping the Writer
But if I consider, truly, someone shitting in my vagina, stabbing me with their cock as if I’m a trough, or hitting me so hard I lose consciousness during sex… you can imagine how hated I might feel.
And how the vocabulary of intimacy has failed me!
Some will wonder if Vap’s inclusion of these terms is purely for shock value, but I think she actually uses them in a way that inoculates the reader against shock, because she thinks shock itself is proof of having been subject to one kind of moral and aesthetic dominion. As noted above, her response to the very idea of some of them is brilliantly understated, humane and merciless all at once. I think that anyone who cannot imagine how hated the woman considering such terms might feel is really not prepared to have any human experience at all. That isn’t shocked or shocking; it’s self-possessed.
That self-possession, Vap’s calmness and candor, encompass the whole point of using reference sources (for all their obvious dissimilarity) like Urban Dictionary and Online Etymology: they share a blunt facticity about what they describe. And Vap is using these words and practices to extend the depth and range of the sexual metaphor with the purpose of narrowing her definition of difficulty:
Thesis: When I say that the question of “difficulty” or “sentimentality” in poetry is really a discussion of poets having sex, what I actually mean is that I believe it to be a gendered discussion. And perhaps it is also a discussion about what poetries of certain identities can and can’t say.
I mean that it might really be the discussion about who can say and think what and how they can say and think it.
You see? Dominion, a state under which Vap does not want to labor, for she understands its fundamental inequality and iniquity:
I worry that what is difficult is actually just an internalized alarm that gets triggered when certain people deviate from certain languages and certain subjects.
Particularly in this poem I think that we’re calling poets sentimental or difficult or impenetrable for writing poem’s that touch more on women’s lives than on men’s lives.
Vap goes on to describe multiple continua in an effort to delineate all the factors that inform her own responses, which are subtle and contingent but also secure enough that she can assert the claim—defend it impeccably—much of what she is against is just “unreasonable obedience.”
I think that this book describes via negative portraiture the audience that could never abide its manner or its conclusions: this is not a collection for zealots of any stripe. If you cannot tolerate Vap’s use of things like the Cincinnati Bowtie as a metaphor, then this isn’t the book for you. But if you cannot imagine that anyone under any circumstances could respond positively to a Cincinnati Bowtie, then this book isn’t for you either. But I don’t think that means Vap is simply speaking to those who already agree with her. Rather, she is inviting those who are in conflicted dialogue with themselves—what they want, what they make, what they hope for and fear—participate in the writer’s articulation of her thinking-through those very questions. And while she faithfully constrains her conclusions to her own experiences, I found her conclusions so sensible and well-reasoned that I could not help but distrust anyone who rejected them, and would in fact suspect them of being one of those whose desire for dominion creates the very environment Vap so craftily, calmly and boldly navigates her way out of. In response to these questions
Should we devour the poem, or should the poem devour us.
Do we submit to the poem, or does the poem submit to us.
Are we to monitor poetry,
or is poetry to monitor us.
I will submit to—and be devoured and destroyed by—some poems,
but not every poem, after all.
And what of the paradoxes and dangerous dichotomies enabled by even the most sophisticated continua? Vap intends to “Pile them on top of each other / like the hexagrams of the I-Ching,” to “add them all to each other to form some kind of neverendingly long thread.” End of the Sentimental Journey concludes not just by offering mystery in favor of certainty; it offers a good mystery in favor of a bad one, and that’s too generous and wise a bargain to resist.