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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The narrator of “On a Scale of 1-10, How ‘Loving’ Do You Feel?” compares herself, with simultaneous self-deprecation and signifying strut, to Kim K., “backwards-straddle” on Yeezus’s motorcycle, she of the omnivorous presence, plumped up with “soul implants.” “I once met an Australian,” this narrator says, “told him he could have my underwear. / He didn’t want it. I’m better / when I’m mysterious. / I’m better when I’ve had a few / days to forget / how much I want you.” One riddle of the moment is scratched at, there: living under surveillance, smiling by reflex, how do we manage to keep something up our sleeves as we reveal? Credit to Kim K., after all, for cutting a porno spliced right, edited tight, leaving something for the imagination and thus generating a need for re-up. Confessing desire—even that act of “recit[ing] the pleasure sounds”—isn’t the same as getting others to want you back, however. Our narrator fears she may be awash in a “sea of masturbation” but the poem ends in stardust and in blood.
Duplan eschews the Kim K. strip-tease routine—holding back as you bend backwards to show off. Instead, this book is about intimacy, wounded and weaponized. Here hearts are flipped inside out, exposing equal parts longing for affection and longing for revolt. The awkwardness of romance in the late Anthropocene is balanced with the possibility—dare we say the promise? Yes, we can—of riot, that tenuous algebra of precisely how many clinched fists will tip us toward a derailed train. Thus, we have domestic scenes and domestic gurus, in and out of prison, competing with Oprah and the tags of boutique tea bags at offering lifestyle advice. We have the lover illuminated by screensaver in confined space. We have messages missed and messages never sent and messages obsessed over even as phones get dropped in toilets. But we also have a shuck and jive in a world littered with suicides—those who did the deed, past tense, and those still taking their daily dose, on the installment plan. We have a narrator who says, “My life is a ballad, it goes: O / ooooo! I can’t breathe” and while she goes on to specify in what embrace, some broader, more structural holds are brutally implied. “We’re asphyxiating and we don’t even know.”
“When you face the wolf / do not comment on the color of its eyes,” we’re warned, but color matters, all the same. Duplan, creator of the Center for AfroFuturist Studies, has plenty to say about color, ending with that particular shade of “blue / nitrile” used by coroners and forensic investigators in the field, fields perilous for compounded reasons. Above all, there is blackness, “reflected in the careful / accident of a bramble-knot,” a sheen, a weight, an idea, a label stabbed into flesh. One response—that of the rabbit, zig-zagging toward the briar patch—is a sort of shape-shifting, represented here at points by literal use of shapes as stand-ins for characters. By mimicking the use of ciphers in analytic philosophy, Duplan can cushion excruciating scenes, adding an abstraction that, while it doesn’t numb the effect, accounts for a kind of time delay. We see a triangle ask a square “Did I hit an animal back there?” and the square replies, “No, don’t look back.” In another poem, “A toddler on the express / train put a note in my hand, it said / never to turn my back on a man / with a gun.” That combination being as ubiquitous as selfies of Kim K., it’s not easy to figure out how to move around, let alone stay alive. Duplan is not naïve, but she believes in the performance of the impossible; her narrator may never have received a telegram saying “Please. Hold out hope,” but such a message is nonetheless imagined. These poems, likewise, offer messages never previously received, urgent if elliptical texts, warnings and reassurances, confessions and moans, songs of hunger and mourning, of wars petty and vast. “I will die / here on this planet here on this blur, me.” But in the meantime, chaos can be conjured with a plea and a struck pose. The clenched hand may hold a rabbit, or it may hold a gun. There are reasons to be wary around either.
Official Anaïs Duplan Web Site
Official Brooklyn Arts Press Web Site