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Tender is a quality of mind. It is also a quality of meat. francine j. harris’s poems are tenderized: they not only insist upon their embodiment, they punch, howl, beat, and bleed their way into being. play dead, harris’s second full-length collection, asks a difficult question: when sex is inseparable from violence, and the life of the flesh inseparable from butchery, where do we turn for relief? The poems encounter many demons while engaging this inquiry, but they turn to powers of re-signified language to slay them, one by one.
For poets as for others, the most difficult demon to slay, let alone identify, is often the past—and not just the past of our adult lives, but our emergence into puberty and the traumas that can befall us at that time. harris’s four-part poem “Pink Pigs,” spaced throughout the book, uses syntactic inversions and discomfiting diction to detail the psychological and sexual trauma of a thirteen-year-old girl. A header and footer run the word girl across the page, suggesting a catcall as well as the easy conflation of “woman” with “girl.” The gesture is reminiscent of a scene in Toni Morrison’s Sula: “‘O Lord, Sula,’ she cried, ‘girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.’ It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
Paul Celan said that only one thing remained reachable, close, and secure amid all losses: language.
Paul Celan said that only one thing remained reachable, close, and secure amid all losses: language. Poetic language, in particular, could be torqued to serve the ends of dictators and despots (on the personal as well as political scale), or it could be reclaimed, tested, twisted, and manipulated to the furthest extremes of nonsense to break free of prior significations. And to sing. This is harris’s work: to sing of girlhood, romantic entanglements, sex, love, and freedom.
Naming itself can be a kind of violence, and this collection takes that originary violence and pushes it to its outermost limits, where language, resisting both cliché as well as standardization, breaks open in an effort to be heard. Conceptual or post-conceptual, lyric or post-lyric, language or post-language, this book obviates such distinctions. Some poems, deft and heartbreaking, occur in the mind as a speeding train, or as a death-defying acrobatic act—the readerly effect, in retracing their initial rush, is a kind of affective whiplash. In “I ought to see myself as the noble rider,” these lines create a torqued rhythm all their own: “Dream / a weave-bobber. the non— // cartographer. the wet-nosed / blind. the knuckled hysteric. the one / knob-kneed. the one whinny whinny. the one // pulling left.” harris’s poems enable us not just to read through but to reread these motions and commotions, dwelling in what C. D. Wright called the “language of intensity” until our perception of the world begins to shift.
In an interview harris described her source for these effects:
I know that, early on, I got some of that twisting of the way the word and phrase is supposed to work grammatically from the Black Arts poets. You know Baraka’s got that great line, ‘poems are bullshit unless they are teeth,’ but then just after that, there’s the lines, ‘or black ladies dying of men leaving nickel hearts beating them down.’ Or like when Larry Neal says, ‘summer girls flirt down our fantasies,’ which only works through associative connotation, not grammar.
Poems that generate such intense sonic effects are meant to be read associatively, but the reader is still wont to piece together a narrative arc of sorts—to make meaning out of individual units of sound and image, spliced and frayed. In “first, take a fistful of hair” these directives unfurl: “Empty your pockets. Check for wild fur / and the pant. who wad seats. or possums who hiss / under wild shrub. Sharp shooters check the wind. / So measure your mouth. the curve of howl. drool / and its drop against the wooden tiles. Possum / under salt and pine. Screech it. Score the rope / with your teeth. Collect the drool in tin.” As with many of harris’s poems, the narratives that can be gleaned are plural: as this poem progresses, it speaks to sexual control (“Mount the mouth”), the deposition of a body (“Pull out the nails. Wait / for the wood to sag of blood”), and a criminal or at least secret act (“Break open the gate with your fist”). If an organizing principle exists, it inheres in the power and seductiveness of the speaker and her ability to create multivalent tableaux that restore language (as well as human subjects) to primal roots.
Naming can be a kind of violence. This collection takes that originary violence and pushes it to its outermost limits.
This broiling verbal landscape is as outwardly referential as it is inwardly focused; this is adamantly a poetics of the now. Divided into three sections, play dead references visual artists Francis Bacon and Kara Walker, and poems by Horace and George Herbert, as signposts amid the clamor. Recent events, such as the death of Eric Garner, also shape the stories of the volume: “Science won’t disprove a cop / hanging from a man’s neck in a choke hold. We doubt / footage of alien ships in the sky.”
Contrasting scenes of human and animal violence, family enters into the narrative in moving ways, as figures appear who are important and yet somehow unable to stop the flood of harm. The mother figure in the book (and her unflinching portrayal in the poem “doubt,” in which each line begins with the anaphoric “because”) seems to be the origin of the book’s impassioned gestures, as in “enough food and a mom”: “I won’t even warm the mom. I won’t flinch even if the ghost tries to hold her mom. After all, / a good séance starts with enough food and a mom. The ghost with a biscuit in meat.” Later in the same poem, “Everyone is dead. now. says, the ghost. The mom is a yard of blackening petals.” In the devastating final line, the noun “mom” is substituted for a verb of reflection or care: “I mom of you. I mom of you a lot.”
Dynamics of family power are rehearsed—and released—in moving poems such as “sister, foster”: “If I could speak / I would name the doll for you. call it a lily. a lilt. / call it some name other little girls might need. You / and I don’t need this. We have the color of stems. / We have the dark of this room. I am so much older // than three. I am your arbiter, here.”
harris deals her pretty words like blades, to quote Emily Dickinson—only harris is less interested in the pretty than she is in the real. The frisson and pulse-quickening effects of harris’s punctuation and diction create a poetics not of shock but of blunt, visceral immediacy. Hers is a collage poetics, yes, but also a poetics of emergency, as in “suicide note #10: wet condoms”: “Dear Blank, // If I start this off by saying he takes his wet condom when he leaves / then it’s more about him, less about the desire for evidence, more about / trust, less about the edge of the mattress and the falling sky. less about / the moment the litany turns to shatter inside the overhead light.” Aristotle said all poetry is a kind of mimesis, but is poetry whose language is specifically mimetic—containing language that cleaves to its subject with urgent bluntness and raw feeling rather than positing an aesthetic, conceptual, or theoretical distance therefrom—more “real” than more traditional forms? harris’s poems introduce the slow subterfuge of a poetics whose visual and sonic effects eventually overpower the reader by their appeal not just to the mind, but the body: this fusion of word and world is what Vladimir Mayakovsky described when he said “A line is a fuse / that’s lit. // The line smolders, / the rhyme explodes— / and by a stanza / a city / is blown to bits.”
harris makes her detonations happen through syntactic and formal complexity. She recognizes how so much depends upon a word’s semantic distance from other words—not just homonyms, but all words, in contexts both slack and fraught. This book is rife with neologisms and unfamiliar words, blends and otherwise (“bunchers,” “musth,” “sprayshadow”). She risks definition through simile, and the risk yields unforgettable lines: “failed like the seed in hunks of hazy mint / melons in necrotic tub garden. Let’s go back and trade kindergartens.” Time and again, harris requires the mind to confront the body’s absolute limit, the threshold of loss of consciousness or death: in “today I watched a porn from Japan where a girl in a straw, blonde wig,” the subject is penetrated by multiple vibrators until “On camera // she passes out.” “They look like // pop mics. They look like / aliens. They look like // potato heads, her body full of vibrators and vibrators / and vibrators.” Adept at plying the very integuments of sensation (and sensation’s inverse, numbness), harris poignantly turns nouns into verbs (“the claw hysteric as pant and wail”) and verbs into nouns (“I hunger you”).
This is about the impossibility of art—of ever painting the final canvas, or writing the final poem.
The book’s tour de force is the ars poetica “canvas,” a poem that lays bare the compositional choices an artist must make when aspiring to verisimilitude and when the line between life and art bleeds. The poem begins with this directive: “You want to make a painting of a fat woman.” The poem then moves from description of what the painter intends to include (“areas of ambiguity with gummy bears and popcorn chicken”) to what she finds herself painting instead (“pigs,” “beheaded cocks”). The images proliferate from there—a butcher in sunglasses, an electrocuted cow, guts on a hook, slaughterhouse workers, and, even more idiosyncratically, a “man holding a beer in one hand,” and “six tickets to Disney.” “Kid after kid” gets filled in; you “shade in // someone’s / house slippers and someone else’s banged-up knee.” The “compositional choices” grow ever more complicated—“you don’t know how to paint cancer. . . . You don’t know how to convey whether or not the pills are working.” Nature is not outside this poem, nor outside this collection, which might be considered a post-post-pastoral: “You draw a tide and a shore,” and then, quickly, “you are running out of room.”
This is a poem about the impossibility of art—of ever painting the final canvas, or writing the final poem, in the Stevensian sense of “a thing final in itself and, therefore, good.” harris’s poems invite us to ask what can be contained in a poem or on a canvas. And how can one create a new idiom to do so? In choosing to include everything, or in search of Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” does a poet run the risk of saying nothing? The collection’s epigraph, from Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man, alludes to this idea: “Nothing you wouldn’t know about.” And maybe that’s the point. In order to clear a new path, harris, in her most lucid and arresting moments, sets the old ones ablaze, showing us that the dark underbelly of personal and sexual development—from adolescence on—contains both ennui and horror. Perhaps it contains beauty, too, but if it does, it is a beauty born of breaking free or being freed—like “the sea torched from its floor.”
Virginia Konchan is the author of three poetry collections, Hallelujah Time (Véhicule Press, 2021), Any God Will Do, and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2020 and 2018); a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017); and four chapbooks, as well as coeditor (with Sarah Giragosian) of the craft anthology Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems (University of Akron Press, 2022). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, The Believer, and The New Republic.
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