Join us on Friday, May 8 at 7PM for a FREE event to celebrate the release of Roberto Harrison’s bicycle (Noemi Press, 2015) and Eric Elshtain’s This Thin Memory, A-ha (Verge Books, 2015). More information here. Optional RSVP on Facebook.
[While I write this review I am sitting in a coffeeshop where I watch the leaves and branches of an outside tree reflected on the laptop screen of a woman seated near the door. The reflection shakes in time with her typing. It is spring in a North American city.]
Eric Elshtain’s first full-length book of poems, This Thin Memory A-Ha, is bracketed by two short snippets of text: at the beginning, a dedication (“For Mom, who taught me words and world; and for Christie, who makes both new.”); and at the end, an invocation (“your time-idea does not disappear/ but unsifts heat we give to air/ and to the faint, future music we play near”). The two passages feel like a sort of mirror, reflecting back at each other two of the book’s central concerns: on the one hand, the fraught and tenuous relationship between language and the things it names (“world and word”; “time-idea”); on the other, the fragility of the world of named things, which can be either “made new” or threatened in any given second. The invocation, while lingering just beyond the edge of easy parsing (what, exactly, might be meant by “unsifts” here?) seems to suggest a relationship between the idea of time and the “heat we give to air”—it’s hard not to hear the “faint, future music” of the anthropocene age.
In his essay, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Dipesh Chakrabarty discusses the implications of theories of an anthropocene age on the study of history. In particular, Chakrabarty points to a number of ways in which an acknowledgement of humans as not just organisms within an ecosystem, but rather, as drivers of shifts at a geological scale, fundamentally changes the relationship between human and natural history. If humans can change the earth’s chemical, climactic, and species makeup, then we can’t imagine nature as a passive “background” for human history. Instead, the two must be intertwined, twinned, reflected in one another. History—and especially world history since the Enlightenment—needs to be understood not just as a narrative of human agency and progress toward “freedom”—whatever that word is taken to mean, whether “human and citizens’ rights” or “decolonization and self-rule”—but also of human impact on land, water, and other species.
I detour through Chakrabarty en route to Elshtain because Elshtain’s poetry—adamantly difficult, insistently sonic—simultaneously refuses easy readability and piles up repeated and related images. The most common images are wet—oceans and lakes on the verge of reclaiming the land, “making high water marks everywhere,” as “some-/ one’s evolution out of water mammals back/ as slowly now” (“Stemming from Volumes for uninvited Guests,” 48; “On It Lives,” 32-33). Evolution is here and elsewhere perched precariously close to self-undoing:
When back from an eye
into my hand flies my conversion,
the horseshoe crab means I am back
far enough now. (“Mnemonic Aquarium,” 104)
These poems move like Benjamin’s Angel of History through the whole period of life on earth, alert to time, surveying or attempting to rebuild from the wreckage. However, Elshtain, unlike that overworked angel, is able to move in both directions. His poems travel back not just generations, but deep into pre-human species memory:
We swear we have no ancestral fears while the
very index of our anxiety is a stripe of
fur tricking us into never sensing in time
the edges of the animal. (“A Swearing Out,” 78)
They also pivot toward what appears to be an all-too-imminent end-point:
Let me hold up
a last salty cup
and drink to tidal pools
before you think
I’ve nothing to do
with your dirty little cosmos
and consider me
just one more
overdue creation. (“Then Come Crashing,” 132)
Sound becomes the way of knowing in these poems, which proceed along trails of assonance, consonance, and alliteration at the same time that sound is thematized:
The sea never sounded
like this like
what foam does to rock
or sharks to reels. (“Mistaken Fancy,” 92)
The onomatopoeic and wavelike stutter (“like this like”) and “hiss” of the sea is a sonic presence in “Mistaken Fancy,” which describes the water as “a gargled brew// a slurp of curd/ as if tensed against/ your epithet for its moon.” The problem of this poem is one of auditory estrangement—and it’s at the level of auditory estrangement that Elshtain’s work shows its areas of both overlap with and divergence from much contemporary experimental writing.
Many late-twentieth and early twenty-first-century writers have sought to estrange (to enstrange?) language through appeals to various pre-existing systems of linguistic organization—the dictionary, google search, the discourses of law, medicine, or “news.” These kinds of writing diffuse the work of “poetry” through the social system—not the “genius” of the writer working in isolation, but the writer acting as a member of some larger formation. Chakrabarty’s reframing of the Enlightenment (arguably the birth-date of the authorial “genius”) as a moment not only in the history of thought, but also in the history of human environmental impact, may suggest a problem with these methods. While the use of “impersonal” or “objective” dictionary-based or media-based systems in poetic composition can displace Enlightenment and/or Romantic concepts of the author as lone “genius,” these pre-existing systems of textual organization also carry the unexamined baggage of Enlightenment. As such, this aleatory work runs the risk of uncritically replicating other sorts of power relationships—as in the recent case of Kenneth Goldsmith’s “performance” of Michael Brown’s autopsy at Brown University’s Interrupt 3 conference.
Elshtain’s work primarily takes a different tack, frequently organizing itself on an almost-purely sonic basis. I found my reading experience most thrilling when I tried to attend closely to the patterns of sound in his poems, when I began to unravel the density of assonance, the nearly Anglo-Saxon alliteration, the close attention to meter. I suspect that Elshtain’s well-tuned ear comes out of his work with computer-aided poetry composition. Before reading This Thin Memory A-Ha, I was most familiar with Elshtain through his online press, Beard of Bees, which publishes both single-author poetry chapbooks and chapbooks written by authors in collaboration with the computer program Gnoetry. Beard of Bees’ website describes the program: “Gnoetry generates sentences that mimic the local statistical properties of the source texts. This language is filtered subject to additional constraints (syllable counts, rhyming, etc.) to produce a poem.”
This approach to language—replicating the structures built into the syntax of a source text—strikes me as a sort of attempt to imagine how a language might self-organize, in the absence of dictionaries, search algorithms, and other meaning-heavy structures. I like to think that Elshtain is, in his work, attempting to imagine language as autonomous—as potentially post-human, watching over its writer’s (its reader’s) puny attempts at organization. Borrowing from Alan Weisman’s human-extinction fantasy, The World Without Us (Chakrabarty’s starting point in the essay I began with), I like to imagine that Eric Elshtain’s poetry marks a set of attempts at “language without us,” and that this language, grown sentient, may offer new hope for the future.
 The anthropocene is a proposed geologic period starting around the time of the industrial revolution, in which human activity is the engine of large-scale geologic change. Most strikingly, Chakrabarty quotes from climate scientist Will Steffen: “The current ‘rate in the loss of species diversity,’ specialists argue, ‘is similar in intensity to the event around 65 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs.’” (207)
Eric Elshtain is a homemaker and teaching poet whose poetry, reviews, and interviews can be found inMcSweeney’s, Skanky Possum, Notre Dame Review, Ploughshares, American Letters & Commentary,Denver Quarterly, Chicago Review, Fact-Simile, and other print and on-line journals. The author of several chapbooks including The Cheaper the Crook, the Gaudier the Patter (Transparent Tiger Press, 2004) andHere in Premonition (RubbaDucky, 2006), Elshtain has a full-length book of poetry, This Thin Memory A-hafrom Verge Books. He is also the editor of Jon Trowbridge’s on-line Beard of Bees Press.
MC Hyland is the author of Neveragainland (Lowbrow Press) and several chapbooks including TOOTHLESS ALTAR (Shirt Pocket Press), Every Night In Magic City (H_NGM_N), and Residential, As In (Blue Hour Press). She is the founding editor of DoubleCross Press, a Printshop Steward at the Center for Book Arts, and a PhD candidate at NYU, where she is working on a dissertation on the idea of the commons in Romantic and postmodern poetry.