Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Words, skittering and shouting their way across the page, cantillated for performance but also overlapping and angled wildly, cannot be quoted, only paraphrased, in this review. While some text is straightforward, legible, other text veers and slides, changing size, covering other words, printed backwards, blocks of text collaged upon each other, words in English and in pidgins—in tongues—just as the arrangement on the page is itself a kind of language. Kearney gives us, first of all, libretto as at once choreography and performance, musical direction and visual art. One result of this is the dissonant sensation of this book as at once a teaser for some future opera in-the-flesh simultaneous with the feeling that these pieces—dancing and careening, whispering and bellowing as they do, in print—are works complete onto themselves.
The first piece, “Sucktion,” is the most narrative, with stage directions and descriptions of Irona the housewife’s trajectory toward union with a vacuum cleaner. Refusing to continue to let her husband’s desires define her, Iona experiences a “cyborgasm” of “metamorphosis”—erotic connection and, it seems, ontological merger with cleaning machine. Much of his singing is on the inhale, a suck-sound, like a motor or the rush of blood through veins.
The second piece plays on African myth, Anansi the trickster reimagined as Nanzee the spider living in a claustrophobic “big house” from which there seems to be no exit, “a vast tenement complex—a luxe projects” wherein people hunt for meat to eat and retell/relive old tales.
The third opera, “Jig,” feels most timely, turning to minstrelsy, with the minstrel not merely object but also actor, dancing feet and blunt voice. While his black face is reduced to cartoon, his black body to commodity by the market of/and the stage, the minstrel refuses to perform according to the role as laid out. A talking mirror takes a hit in a gunfight between bounty hunters and rebels, but, in the end, our hero Jiggabooyow turns Jiggaboobonic, declaring the jig to be up by transforming himself into a weapon: “black powder in black power. a bomb-ass Trojan Horse. a koonikaze pilot light lit to cop cops at the precinct.” Boom.
The arrangement of words is far more muscular than standard libretto: form here makes demands. As the use of phonic tongues forces the readers, standing in for the performers, to mouth different, to embody the script, so too the layout of the text forces the readers, here as directors and choreographers and dancers and actors, light techs and audience all at once, to see the scene staged in their mind and hear the harmony and cacophony of overlap and block, echo and trill, gasp and sigh.
The admirable intricacies of form—albeit controlling, like the python some phrases make in a scene featuring such a creature—do not eclipse the content, the semi-foreign tongues, the seemingly-ancient tales, and the reiterating concern not only with race but with its broader source, rigid ideals of representation, an unwavering insistence on categories. As Irona, the housewife, is defined first by her husband’s wants and then the means available to her, via commodities/tools, to reach the ideal of “clean,” so, too, Jiggabooyow must shoot out his own internal mirror shaping how he sees himself and behaves in this world named and shaped by those oppressors who erect big houses to mass incarcerate the hungry and the cold, who build walls to keep “ours” from “theirs.”
The difficultly of Kearney’s text, then, is not of the initially challenging experimental form but what that remarkable tactic conveys: tongues, took, hear struggle to speak back and be heard, to raise a babel against the barricades and ignite a burn.
Official Douglas Kearney Web Site
Official Subito Press Web Site