The Return Message
Easier to damn than praise: that’s my complaint du jour, that insufficiency begets a surplus of critical analysis, and true achievement begets only silence. So Rumsey’s done it right, and there’s less for me to say about that fact than there would be had she done it (if not wrong) (then commonly) otherwise. So I’m going to describe the landscape in all its oppressiveness and let her manifest the exodus herself: expect long whole quotes, which will speak to the case more directly than I ever could. If that isn’t criticism proper then abandon this document altogether and buy the book. If this isn’t proper criticism, well, let me reach back to the schoolyard (which we haven’t really left, for all the rhetoric and gloss): like it or lump it, y’all.
Some things you ought to know about wisteria: the vine can grow to a height of twenty five feet, sometimes higher. It blooms fragrant flowers that expand as the foliage advances. Various flower colors include alba, carnea, longissima, macrobotrys, praecox, purpurea, rosea… the plant climbs best on wires, trellises, arbors and pergolas. It’s a heavy, monstrous, gorgeous thing, and it advances up by advancing out: a staggered step-pole. It’s also the anointing foliage of Tessa Rumsey’s second collection, The Return Message. So goes the vine, so goes the book.
It gets tedious, watching poets try to think. Isn’t that awful? It isn’t for lack of effort. But we know what it’s like to read/hear a poem/book and think, I know. And not the I know of shared meaning, elaborated mutual experience, but the I know of frustratingly accurate precognition. I know what you mean and how you mean it, I know where the meaning comes from and where’s it’s going, I know how it will get there, with what expectations, diversions, epiphanies. This is the awful cost of literacy, of experience altogether. And it’s nobody’s fault, as if fault were a useful idea. Poets themselves have only have words with which to get the thinking done, and the words are willful. They bring baggage of association and board trains always heading elsewhere—hard to centralize your intelligence with the words railing off in every direction, hard to make do with the few already moving in the direction you think you’ve chosen. Hard, also, to think with them instead of being thought by them. You can feel the curse of tone shuddering up a book’s spine against the will of its author: suddenly fey, suddenly wan, suddenly coy, ironic, icy, antic, detached, earnest, sincere.
And once the train’s tone has locked down the text, what’s the point of even trying to think outside the compartment prediction provides? There’s no air in there anymore, but then again, there’s also no need to breathe.
In and around cool Beijing, wisterias fashioned to grow up trees.
Maximum pow in Bamboo pergolas.
It is heartbreaking: growing over piled rocks.
That’s diptych left.
You may ask yourself / you may tell yourself / you may sugarcoat yourself.
To swallow the thing you have become: the sun, or a half-sunken sculpture.
Of Apollo’s chariot rising from a pool in crumbling Versailles, the dry.
Eye of its drowning horse transmitting see me, see me—
As if the stampede.
To live depended on the existence of a witness, the empathetic presence.
Of a candysucking audience: If a stone beast falls in the water, and no one.
Watches her shatter—
And that’s diptych right. One title, reproduced twice: left page, right page. Left minimal, right maximal. Butterfly wings in asynchronous flutter, asymmetrical articulations, a staggered step-pole. That’s how the pages look, and it’s also how the pages think.
So the problem with thinking, with poetry as expressive of thought or observation, is essentially a problem of exclusion or pruning. What “thought” to leave out? Disputes as to words v. ideas or sounds v. sense notwithstanding, poetry inevitably invites mind, and almost as frequently suggests it. But what can any one mind start that another mind cannot finish? What can be finished renders the poem redundant before it has barely begun, what cannot be finished poses an equally disenchanting option: reader’s abdication, reader’s disinterest, reader’s immunity. Most poets have access (sought or unsought) to a wider variety of language utilities than their poetry allows them to use, and it only takes a dot of empathy to see why: with the exponentially expanding net of association every new utility offers, the burden of creating a syncretic model of each and all becomes exponentially more difficult. So some choose a radically delimited (language/tone/point of view) and what they gain in lucidity they lose in texture—you cannot get lost in a Bonsai forest, hien? And so some choose a little bit of everything, but lose the shape those selected languages might have once had—and often conclude like a bomb in a bouquet, spectacle of color and light and senselessness.
But what if you could build a hothouse big enough to suggest the true variety of the world from which it is divided by glass and magnification wall? So that each microclimate could flourish within the world you could savor in a single walking?
Your mother wove vines to make your jacket, trousers, stockings and shoes.
She also made a bow and an arrow.
When you step into sun, you will explode into blossom.
Intense bursts of energy are now emanating from the sun. And you are lit from within.
Like it ain’t no thing. “I am lit from within!” The seconds so facile to glitter through.
But there is only so much a light switch can do for you. Soon the fog resolves the gold.
Situation into a more recognizable Gray Area, a wet terror turning luscious: a tropical.
Hysteria. Queen Suburbia, you have the inalienable right to be both depressingly awful.
And insanely beautiful, simultaneously. They say that to illuminate the unknown way.
You must embody a perfected degradation, until your true core resembles a collection.
Of luxe yet outdated cartophilia. To revivify your spent imagery: reflect a subdivision.
Beneath the consolidated sun, speak in tongues of a wrecked grandeur, build a private.
Architecture of Elizabeth Taylor, a screaming Judy Garland solar system, wear despair.
As if it were a Renzo Pianoed, couture cage—oh careful dear, of what you weigh, lest.
You burst the bars of this edifice. (There was a time I could not have imagined this.
Before the unearthing of my lost Copperopolis.) Every breathing body has a city buried.
Beneath the surface of its false yet certain shimmer—Zut! You drink yourself insensitive.
You kill the morning with a jailbait hangover, and when your outside aches as much.
As your interior’s hidden sadness, you cry until your vanquished metropolis shines…
And lo! You are lit up from the inside! A Jules Verne spaceship that cannot fly—
And the problem with the hothouse, of course, is the risk that occurs in the moment of exiting it. For all the floridity or aridity or combinations thereof, there’s always the fear that stepping from the glass world to the unbounded one will make the wonders of the former seem cheap as compared to the unorchestrated glories of the latter. I don’t want to disappear into a movie only to leave the theater and be reminded how flat and facile was the alternative world in which I just left a chunk of my ego; I don’t want to take off my headphones and be reminded at once of everything that recording, for all its intensity, deliberately ignored; I don’t want to put down a book of poetry and think immediately of how witless is the designed language of the poet within the accident-laden full-language spectrum from which it is drawn. I don’t want to be forced into less than I know, but I don’t just want to hear what I know already, over and over again. I am a fussy motherfucker, I guess, but I want poetry that accommodates the widest variety of the poet’s language without sacrificing the poet’s guidance of that which is clearly and inevitably superior to that guidance.
It’s a lot to want. Few provide, and Tessa Rumsey is one of the very few who provide more than I, as her reader, know to ask for. Her asymmetries reflect the disjunction of scale all honest desires admit: as simple as the surface transmissions to the Beloved might seem, the dialogue between the speaker’s experience of want and the result of that want is infinitely fertile.
NOTES ON COINAGE
And if you ask how I… found the Beloved.
“The waves that came out if it, they were like surf waves.”
Rolling in warm air. Suspended in spring. So many flowers. I could not breathe.
NOTES ON COINAGE
We begin to “think” the city into being; there is nothing to think; we wander hopelessly into believing.
The Beloved is wallpaper; the room in which you spend the night is defined by unbearable architecture.
Like an eclipse, a heartbeat disappears from its chest only when overwhelmed by a sound more sumptuous.
Than itself; this disparity points languidly to the genesis of wealth; and thus I came to be a pauper.
Inside your highly reflective city; whereas elsewhere I was rich enough to think (the beloved into being).
How could I have known Pharaoh asks from his throne that something wasn’t right here while a profusion.
Of symbols passes through Egypt like coinage, buying a harbinger here and a heretic there, portraying.
A swarm as innocuous as weather; so that later; amidst the spoils of empire; the conqueror can utter.
It was there all along (an incestuous song) or, more historically: my loneliness is killing me—
We are indebted—to every loss—for in its wake—it leaves us.
The half-broken battlements and outdated currency conscripting the metropolis of memory.
Our fortune’s future rests (at best) upon our ability to interpret signs; as if losing one’s place was losing.
One’s mind; and where was I? Splendid as a child and shy, asking why, why is there blood in the Nile?
This wisteria is organic, and is therefore a machine. The language-station from which trains of thought emerge and to which they return is also a machine but one of less subtlety and surprise. The function of that machine is prediction; however many tracks may multiply, they only secure departure and arrival, and the trains cannot skip them without disaster. But the machinery of the vine: its evolution is not its meaning. It climbs and blooms with precision but without predetermined purpose; that’s how machinery comes to live. To marry the dumb might of that impulse to the flowering of imaginative will is the genius of The Return Message. Thinking up by thinking out.
I do not desire to eradicate any poem, any poetry drawn from or to need or pleasure. But the pleasure I need is a poetry that can cover the polyform surface of the world, remake that world’s texture and color while preserving its shape. Like a cityscape both softened and sharpened with verdure.
And this is it.