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Friday, January 23, 2009

Anne Blonstein's memory's morning, reviewed by Kathrin Schaeppi

memory's morning
Anne Blonstein
Shearsman Books, 2008
ISBN 9781905700769

Reviewed by Kathrin Schaeppi

memory’s morning is a collection of 71 condensed poems that bridge the years 2000 to 2003. The collection was released shortly after the author’s fiftieth birthday in May 2008. In their original state these poems were glued to the back of postcards and sent out at regular intervals as “poemcards” to a wide range of friends. These poetic “diaries” document a specific historical/autobiographical moment. The poems were written over a four-year period—as many as 250 were sent—and can be distinguished by their annually changing forms. The changing themes and approaches make it difficult to make any comprehensive statements except regarding the form, which is broken-sonnet.

Blonstein, a British poet (and ex-geneticist) living in German-speaking Switzerland, is influenced by world poetics and by word creation. There is an exciting friction as the author brings together different planes—neologisms, hybrid vocabularies, current events from interdisciplinary fields (the arts, history, biology...)—on the surface of her cards where the contents meet and rub against one another.

Tucked in the poems are clues on how they may be read. One such clue is that “she strings words caught in what/ isn't what it seems” (43).

The image on the book cover is a trompe-l’oeil. Three heads rest on a cloud-pillow. A lawn-green bedcover is fringed with a railroad track and brick border. Focusing on one face, your eye will vacillate between a mouth with lime lipstick and an eye with lime shadow. Depending on your focus the face looks either towards the center of the image or towards the margin. By turning the picture on its head, a yellow face also moves (in)voluntarily. Wittgenstein named this phenomenon a gestalt-shift. Like a trompe–l’oeil, Blonstein’s poetic vocabulary is full of shifting words and phrases.

---------------------------my language. it operates. it
cleaves and it cleaves. (57)

Cleave means to separate and to resist separation. The first poem is titled “lashing mauve”. Lashing means both lacerating and binding. As words “waver” the poems reveal multiple, ambiguous and contradictory layers.

The last poem in the collection is titled “lemur-orange”. By creating a small crack between letters, lemur, the animal, transforms into le mur, French for the wall. The connection and break between lemur and le mur is that most lemurs are endangered or threatened species about to hit the dead-end wall of extinction. Orange, the universal danger sign, signals the irreversible break where deforestation and hunting lead to loss of habitat, which leads to lost species, which lead to lost memories. And this is all happening now, this morning.

Pun-rocking word creations
mindscapes, heartscapes, phraseskins, moontripped, hysteroglyphs, lyographies, logorhythms, soundmesh, driftwords, antibodily, x-raged, becoming-dermal maps

These unique pun-rocking neologisms sliced and spliced from different disciplines let us experience their vulnerable gaps and breaks as they open and cross linguistic borders and boundaries. Driftwords travel spaces differently. In reading we become as nomadic, alive and sensitive as the word creatures we engage with. This language breaks from routine patterns of abuse and overuse:

-------------what to do with the overworked words?
the burnt ones. send them on vacation
or offer them child support? for example—silence. (64)

Blonstein has been establishing notarikon—a form of reverse acronym—as a poetic interpretative process. Here is an example from the poem “still life grey ground”:

------------------------------------------my fingers
on your pulse. your body reads the lyographies i form
in languages i cannot decipher (her eyes breach rivers
elegizing westward). in my mouth your tongue finds
a speech i was never taught (you interpret disappearance).
the walls of my utterness break—and shed hysteroglyphs.
end at a beginning. reframe it in your want. (25)

Encoded in the parentheses we find the acronyms Hebrew and Yid (short for Yiddish). Here notarikon encodes a longing for a language lost to the author who is an assimilated Jew never taught Hebrew or Yiddish, though her grandparents spoke Yiddish (17). In the notarikon contained within parentheses—a symbol for lips, womb and also for wound—an incision is made to mourn lost languages.

Soundmesh and logorhythm
In German, dichten, the process of writing poetry, also means “to condense.” In these poems messages are tightly packaged in lyrical phrases punctuated by endstops that resemble the end of a measure. Short first lines mimic pick-up notes and syncopations. The poem “diez rosas de azufre débil,” composed “after lorca / cohen and others” is an adaptation / interpretation of “Take this Waltz” by Leonard Cohen, which in turn is based on Federico García Lorca’s poem “Little Viennese Waltz.”

------------------------------------in a remote attic
the children may be writing legends with pinions
from a romanian song. while this poem is condensing
behind a mirror of ash. (36)

And to underline the link to music, the poetry in this collection is infused with onomatopoeia and musical terminology: grave, clef, note, scale, strings, logorhythm. The first poem in the collection is a soundmesh of local and international, daily and atrocious sounds that create a polyphonic world music.

jangling wrist to elbow on the arm of a girl whose arm
was blown off by a landmine. the music of church bells
and of central heating. the songs of lena horne. and
war symphonies. the archives echoing from kabul

-----------------------------to leningrad (9)

Jangling, bells, clangs, vocal jazz, and explosions of destruction and their echoes. The author composes consonant melody with dissonant accents where atrocious reality strikes as crescendo.

Each sound bite unfolds a piece of history. In line three above, the songs of lena horne refers to the iconic jazz singer and actress born in 1917, alive today, who is a symbol of overcoming racism. Horne was the first African-American to sing in a purely white orchestra. She became famous for her role in the all-black cast of the movie Stormy Weather in 1943. The phrase war symphonies connotes Shostakovich’s Symphonies Four to Nine (1936–1945), which were a musical counterattack against Stalin. The phrase the archives echoing from kabul signifies archeological, material and human disappearance. Each phrase has the potential to unfold a longer story embedded in world events.

In some poems, stanzas “bridge” as in musical compositions. The space appears to the eye as a gap, and to the ear as silence. This space and what follows accentuate a smooth, abrupt or unexpected “turn.” In the above poem themes bridge seamlessly from racism, to war and destruction and then to feminism, in the third stanza, where the poem returns to Basel and to a local specialty, a three kings' cake served on January 6th that contains a hidden object. This cake has mutated into a three queens’ cake with a hidden question.

Egalitarian language
Authors have often reverted to writing exclusively in lower case letters, such as Elfriede Jelinek in “women as lovers.” Jelinek did so to force the reader to break reading patterns and thus create awareness for oppressive structures in language. Blonstein writes in lower case to “bring down” the egotism of the capital I. Also, a connection is made with Hebrew, which does not distinguish between upper- and lower-case letters.

In some poems Blonstein strings together parallel constructions linked with clauses beginning with articles, prepositions and conjunctions that coordinate, rather than subordinate.

Cone and tear
The last line of the last poem ends with a cone and a tear:

fir cone and tear. the memory of glaciers. (82)

The fir cone, the spore-bearing and seed-producing cones of a fir tree, are endangered by warming climates. The extinction of glaciers is linked to the extinction of the fir cone is linked to the extinction of the tree of life is linked to the tear-shaped water droplet is linked to the tear in continuity is linked to the conservation of our world is linked to this conversation about words.

end at a beginning. reframe it in your want. (25)


ellectrique press editor Kathrin Schaeppi lives in Basel, Switzerland where she writes literary reviews, fiction and poetry. Her work has been published in Interim, Jacket, Dusie, Sous Rature, AWP Pedagogy Papers, OSL Verlag, Horizon and Pitkin Review.