The Excited Interrogative: on Catherine Imbriglio’s Parts of the Mass, Craig Watson’s Secret Histories, and Burning Deck Press
Catherine Imbriglio, Parts of the Mass. Providence, RI: Burning Deck Press, 2007.
In his essay, “Eros and Incantation,” Charles Segal argues for a “ritualizing, incantatory” quality in Sappho’s lyric, a quality that “draws upon [the] reciprocal relationship between poetry and the physical reactions of the body” (63). Catherine Imbriglio, in Parts of the Mass, likewise affects an incantatory quality in her poems—in fact, these poems could be said to exist half on the page and half in the air, waiting for some mouth to take up their vocables. Segal and Imbriglio both seem to understand something about the nature of the poem; that is, the body and its utterances are not discrete. The poem comes from the body and lives in the body, affects the body. The fact that these poems constitute a kind of mass themselves—taking their titles from various “parts of the mass” (its liturgical readings, the apostle’s creed, its hymns)—foregrounds the relationship between word and body. The book itself is organized according to the progressions of the Latin mass—beginning with the invocation “In Nomine” and proceeding through the Gloria, Kyrie, Epistles, Gospel, Communion, etc., the poems themselves given to us typically in short prose blocks. By invoking the mass, Imbriglio sets us square in the middle of a ritual which takes as its premise at least two things: that a collection of words uttered by a collection of people has the power to produce a miracle of transformation (the bread becomes body), and that the broken body in turn gives power to the words uttered by those attending the mass. Imbriglio takes these assumptions and morphs them into an investigation of the relationship of word and body and word to incantatory power.
One of the recurring incantatory expressions that Imbriglio assumes for her poems is “in the beginning” (which many know from the New Testament Gospel of John as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”). We find it in her “Epistle 4” rendered as:
Rather than “word,” as it is in John, Imbriglio substitutes “country,” a timely substitution suggesting the old hierarchy of allegiance, still sometimes invoked, of “God, country, etc.” If God is absent (dead or missing), then “country” usurps the “word”—or, more importantly, country becomes the word; it tells us how to live, what our relationships are with others (adversarial, often). When Imbriglio writes “whom” she calls our attention to the “whom” that countries contain, the “whom” that become the country, that will make themselves a community or a political adversary. Later she will write, “and the world was with who, and the world was who,” which suggests that the world’s relationship with its inhabitants is a tangled one, that one is implied in the other. Formally, the colon returns the reader constantly to the “beginning” as it keeps us in a constant state of expectation—the expectation of a clarifying or defining phrase, the expectation of resolve that does not come. She puts us in a readerly state of beginning, essentially taking us out of time—a particular quality of chant, which this passage invokes. Matthew Goulish, in his microlecture on beginnings, concludes that “beginnings are all there is;” if texts are in a constant state of present, the “ever was” and “shall” conflate into a constant “now,” which is the readers’ time, the poem’s time, the book’s time. The beginning of John’s Gospel returns its reader to the beginning of creation; Imbriglio takes up this gesture to return her reader to the beginning of the text’s creation. She furthermore seems to pick up where the biblical genesis leaves off—that is, the world having been created and populated, what is the human relationship to this given land?
This interplay between Catholic/Christian texts and Imbriligo’s own questions, her current and fragmented language are in part what makes the book feel like a revised mass. Her “Gloria,” for example, performs a gradual Zukofsky-like procedure on the Latin “et in terra pox, hominibus bonae” as she writes, for example, “Et in terra./Et in terror pocks./Et in terror pocks, ho, ‘meanie,’ buss,/bone, eh?” This phrase, often translated, “and peace on earth to men of goodwill,” resonates differently in their English homonymic translations; the earth becomes pocks of terror, men of goodwill are now “meanies” (Imbriglio is not without a sense of humor), and our bones come into question. The sounds are the same, or similar, but Imbriglio turns this Gregorian chant on its head. It is not just revised (re-visioned) into our language, the languages play upon each other, unfolding into one another, tearing down semantic boundaries. Which begs the question: if we utter the same sounds but mean them differently, do they possess the same ritual power? I’m not sure Imbriglio explicitly presents an answer (perhaps they take on a new power), but it’s an interesting question, the question of the word’s relationship to power, especially as our contemporary understanding of language and meaning has ensured that one cannot claim intrinsic meaning to a series of letters, and therefore that the power of a word is not intrinsic but is assumed powerful via the conventions of its use. One of the pleasures of this book is how much the poet invites the reader to think with her in this way; it is as if she creates a map of thought through language but gives no explicit directions and we are thus encouraged to set about the journey, readerly hand in authorial hand, through an expansive territory.
Craig Watson’s Secret Histories, also out from Burning Deck this year, shares this exploratory quality, affected in part by his robust use of the aphorism – an aphoristic style that blends Ben Franklin’s straightforward pith with the more enigmatic style of Edmund Jabes. We read, for example, “Law makes the law” which recalls Jabes’ law-aphorisms (“the laws of light are inspired by the laws of the dark”) but bears a discernable pared-down logic that brings with it a force of truth (I’m thinking of a Badiou-ian truth here, a brief and contingent glimpse). We could call this truth a discrete one, emerging from and disappearing into lines on either side that do not bear this logic out in terms of its consequences but rather makes other, similar claims (such that the logical moves themselves become the content of the lines as much as anything, which is not to say such a statement does not feed the mind), such as “This is that which is excepted” and “To populate the future,/One must first reverse it.”
The book itself is divided into four sections, each section exploring differently the effect of one line on the succeeding/preceding line and the power of a claiming (declarative) syntax. We see this exploration of the declarative in the section called “Pre-Science” in lines like “This is the person that is not a person./This is the world that is not a body.” One of the questions inherent in such a construction is whether or not the negative (“that is not”) undoes the claiming syntax—in other words, if a person is “not a person,” if the claim of personhood is negated, can the writer be said to have made a claim at all; does the negative negate the operative syntax? “Pre-Science” is riddled (to pun a bit) with these kinds of question-rich statements, statements that ask more than they say. The title of the section itself suggests a way of knowing that precedes logical deduction—that is, prescience, what we know before we know it, a preceding consciousness. In this way these claims are cast in a somewhat intuitive light—what kind of statements might a person make from a space preceding an empirical encounter? And in what way can language mimic an empirical construction but bear non-empirical content, and what are the consequences for such constructions? There are dozens of examples from our vexed and violent current political moment that suggests the consequences of assuming a rhetoric of truth without a substantive rigor behind its claims can be both world-altering and heart-breaking. Which is all just to say that, like Imbriglio’s collection, the questions that Watson takes up have a feeling of urgency about them.
The first section of the book, “Steppe Work,” composed of seventy-eight short stanzas, most of which Watson disrupts with bracketed interjections, act as a poetic rendering of thought in motion. Like “Pre-Science,” “Steppe Work” traffics heavily in declarative language (“war makes culture,” “the romance of nations/only exists in confession”), but it also describes and asks questions outright, as in part 52:
The lexicon of Secret Histories, as should be apparent by these examples, is often culling from the geo-political; Watson does not shy away from the questions of empire, conquest, and identity, language and war. In fact, each mode of syntax he takes up finds some consequence in the geo-political—what are the political ramifications of the “claim” or “truth-statement,” what is the relationship to poetry’s exalted and intrinsic spaces of uncertainty? Is it, as Watson suggests in part, a disruptive relationship? (The formal qualities of these poems suggest that this is probably so.)
If the mind bends a bit reading these poems, I think Watson encourages and celebrates such bent cognition, as does Imbriglio. On the surface, these two books have only cursory commonalities, aside from the fact that they are both issued from the same press in the same year. And yet the kind of reading-work that goes into these books is perhaps what distinguishes them as Burning Deck books. Run by poets Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop (both remarkable writers in their own rights), Burning Deck has achieved an esteemed reputation of being one of the foremost small-press publishers of experimental or vanguard writing in America, evidenced by a catalogue that includes but is not at all limited to: Barbara Guest, Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge, Robert Coover, Marjorie Welish, Rae Armantrout, Cole Swensen, and Emmanuel Hoquard. And though I’m too uncertain about what it means to be either vanguard or experimental (believing, as I do, that poetry has always been an experimental medium), I am happy to use the word exciting to describe the books that Burning Deck puts out, in that they require the mind to move a little faster, stimulate the poetic faculties, often re-envision the possibilities of what poetry can do, when given the space to do it. Keith Waldrop is fond of saying that one should not read what one does not enjoy reading, and this seems to be an abiding publishing principle for the Waldrops—they publish the books that most interest them, and we as readers get the benefit of their aesthetic and substantive judgments, such that we suspect, coming to books like Secret Histories and Parts of the Mass, that close attention to these texts will ultimately yield enormous pleasures of language and thought. And they do.
Christina Mengert holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Denver and an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University. Her poems and reviews have been published in Web Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, The New Review of Literature, Parcel, and Aufgabe. She currently lives and teaches in Denver, Colorado.