Mortality Rate inhabits Belfast, Glasgow, London, Berlin, America—or maybe, as Kafka had it, Amerika. Its world is that of the everyday absurd, in which stories (one poem is “a novel condensed”) run on relentlessly, and characters, such as “Amy” and “Sabrina” (possibly an allusion to Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being), pop up in unexpectedly louche places, a lending library, for example. These poems are not disjunctive in the usual jump-cutting ways; the syntax is grammatical, even complex, and the structure is sequential, but in a manner that makes sequentiality feel more than a touch deranged.
Poems begin in the familiar and veer towards the strange. Reading, one is nudged through a looking glass, usually unawares, until at some point, which may be the end of the poem—it can be hard to stop reading—one looks up and asks, “Where am I?” and “How did I get here from there?” Think of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Now think of it without the framing device, nothing to tip one off to the nested boxes and ground one, as Calvino does, in the cozy world of bookstores and libraries. Elliott strips away any illusion of solidity, leaves one reeling.
Which is of course the point: to give us nausea about the yarns we spin and try—because how else to go on living?—to knit into something wearable. Expanding and unraveling, poems are nonetheless tightly, even obsessively, controlled, corralled into tidy stanzas. They go “on and on and on like the cat hadn’t nine but nine / hundred lives and never ever tired of being tortured,” as “Cherry Blossom” puts it. “Plot,” one of the book’s last poems, tries, with a series of questions, to sum up the book’s existential plight: “The plot has been lost . . . the plot unfolding like some kind / of Houdini act”:
Or is what has been lost some kind of big secret, mightone of them know what’s going on here, might timebe running out, might the world be in danger, the futureof all mankind at stake? Might one be innocent,one be guilty? Might the latter be out to prove their innocence?. . . .Or perhaps the plot is not the point?
Mortality Rate is Andrew Elliott’s third collection. It follows The Creationists and, most recently, Lung Soup (2009), which Ciaran Carson called “a tour de force . . . nearer to the prose of Thomas Pynchon or Italo Calvino in its play with genre than any poetry I can think of.”Born in Northern Ireland, Elliott now lives in London, although this book suggests he knows Germany and the United States too. His writing—sexy, and as full of dark humor and scares as a funhouse trip—shows him to be a sardonic shadower of contemporary life:
Someday you will be there, in bed with a woman,when the telephone rings and it’s your dentist.“Teeth”Shapely, shaved: in a fishnet stocking, a red stiletto,it hangs around the wet street corners of towns. . .“The Man’s Middle Leg Is aLady’s Leg”It’s frightening how often you find yourselfsitting shoulder to shoulder in bedwith a woman whose nails are painted blackbut whose body is as white as her sheetswhich feel as if they’re fresh from the freezer. . .“Flesh!”
The language throughout is as hard-edged as a painting by Giorgio de Chirico. Typically, one image morphs smoothly into the next—so smoothly you hardly notice how far you’ve strayed from the poem’s starting point. Metaphors beget metaphors that ultimately question the nature of metaphor and the nature of reality. In “Lights Out,” for example, a simile takes on a life of its own:
Sometimes the mind goes back where it came fromand finds there a boy in his bed squinting up at it.The mind’s made up, it sees no need to hang about.It falls like a sword and in the blink of an eye, findsnot one boy split in two but two boys looking up at it,each boy with his hand on the other boy’s mouthas if even now, this long after lights out, a masterprowling the corridor might stop to shine his torch in.
When a jump-cut technique is used it discombobulates, as in “Systems Analysis,” a poem whose two long-lined stanzas are simply but devastatingly juxtaposed:
Behind every bloodless nonentity bent to his bowl of cornflakesis a pretty young woman cooking his breakfast—bacon, egg, English muffin—whose eyes are taken by the bomber rising from out of the woods which serveto screen the nearby base from all such eyes as appear to be casually going abouttheir ordinary business—life insurance, air-conditioning, supply and demand. . .In the elephant grass the Viet Cong moved through like mice. . . The jungle was green but peel it apart and it was pink inside.They smelt the smoke; pigs, hens pecking in the dirt; the way the women,who were all so petite, kept their heads down and quickened their step.
“Systems Analysis” is the verbal equivalent of a homemade bomb. Its small, ordinary-looking suitcase is tightly packed: woman, woods, bacon and eggs on the left; women, jungle, pigs and hen on the right, and the bomber rising ominously between them. Another poem, “The Gentlest of Pressures,” takes a more leisurely tack, building a haunted house over several stanzas and providing a running commentary of the work in progress:
Even before this poem beganit already possessed the power to pullthe mind of someone like yourselfto a house put up by the kind of Victorianwho favoured the cupola, mansard roofing,but in which there would appear to be nobody livingif it weren’t for the sound of a television comingfrom a room up the stairs at the very very endof a corridor that converges on a door left ajar. . .
Notice how, when Elliott shifts focus (to the Victorian house), he feels compelled to embellish, like a miniaturist, until one of the details (the television) sets him off in a new direction. Notice also how time stops when we drop down the rabbit hole—another effect borrowed from Surrealism. And when the poems do gesture toward rounding themselves off, their attempts at impossible closure feel perfunctory, adding to the reader’s sense of disorientation.
Perhaps Elliott’s ten-line poem, “Spring in an Ancient City: Demonstration,” shows best what he is about and what his ars poetica shares with other writers: W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and any number of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems come to mind. He disturbs us by burrowing, exhaustively, into the surface of phenomena—seeking what? Perhaps “knowledge . . . flowing and flown” (Bishop, “At the Fishhouses”), which leads only to more layers of the same elusive unreality:
Seen from so high a point of vantagethe crowd appears like something you’ve droppedwhich at the point of impact shatters,little bits of it to be found in the days, the weeks,the months to come, in the nooks and cranniesof a city so old that its history would runto millions of words, thousands of pages,so many volumes that only the strongestof strong men could lift it and even at that,still be forced to leave out almost everything . . .
Mortality Rate is a book I found hard to put down. Ignoring the boundaries between essay, fiction, film, and verse, it subverts expectations—except the expectation of clear writing. Reading it can feel like following an endless trail of hyperlinks through the woods of the internet. Its world is destabilizing, exhilarating, and addictive.
Read Andrew Elliott's poem, "The Killers," in our January/February 2013 issue.
Image: CB editions.