Dusie Press Books, 2008
Reviewed by Drew Dillhunt
Robyn Art’s first full-length book of poetry, The Stunt Double in Winter, strives to disentangle the complex, and often veiled, relationship that exists between culture and the feminine. In order to unpack the vocabulary of this collusion, Art develops a chorus of voices entrenched in a series of overlapping narratives, each of which insists on the existence of alternate vantages. This perceptional realignment extends beyond the individual – beyond the narrative arc – infusing the very syntax of Art’s poetic line.
The Stunt Double in Winter engages in an active struggle to rework the logic of the sentence, to establish a new grammatical hierarchy where adjectives are no longer confined to the subservient role of modifier. Objects – both real and imagined – densely populate the litany-laden universe of this text, whose varied milieux include artifacts ranging from the contemporary kitsch of Corn-Nuts, fanzines, oven mitts, and saline implants, to the Orwellian futurism of Bliss-Simulation Chambers, Ubiqui-Cams, Hydro-Vac Suits, and Fro-Zo-Sperm tanks. These worlds are filled with a captivating (and often unnerving) collection of baubles that ask us to confront the subtext of a physical world we’ve conditioned ourselves not to see. The specificity of these inventories, and the fundamental role they play in defining these landscapes, make it all the more remarkable then, that ultimately, it’s adjectives – not nouns – that provide the driving force behind the poetics of this collection.
Robyn Art employs loaded descriptors to roll out idiosyncratic dialects, reveal the subtext of each narrative line, and render expansive metaphors that offer glimpses into the singular worlds each of her characters occupies. Her adjectives are rarely content to quietly define the perceptual details of the objects and ideas to which they’re attached. Instead, they overtly extend the act of description by suggesting something about the very ontology of objects they describe.
As a result, the conventional role of the adjective is exploded so completely that descriptors begin to obscure the nouns to which they are attached. Pastoral and otherwise conventionally “poetic” subjects frequently serve as the context modifiers through which ultra-specific adjectives – without significant assistance from nouns or verbs – go about building the subtext of these poems:
corrugated night (51), hyperborean regret (79), mnemonic ash (21), mammiform hillside (31), labile birds (31), lacustrine hair (54), palpitant wheat (83), corpuscular tide (85), tenuous woodlands (41), enumerated dark (49), itinerant weeds (11), epistolary stars (18), indigenous petals (30), undulant sky (30), redemptive shadow (32), perforated sky (32)While none of the objects listed here refer directly to pregnancy or childbirth, adjectives like lacustrine, palpitant, and perforated, swirl around the emotional, physical, and social implications of this narrative, and indirectly inform us about the distinct (and overlapping) realities of each character. Unfettered by verbs or prepositions, these pairings make metaphorical connections that move beyond “like,” “as,” and even “is.” We learn far more about Art’s characters from the words they choose to describe the material world they occupy, than by anything they say or do.
As the collection proceeds, this adjectival dominance is further established with ever more specific descriptors drawn from an array of technical lexicons. Art pays special attention to the linguistic arenas of medicine (fulminant glow , diastolic wherewithal ); biology (benthic desire , nulliparous thighs ); and anatomy (lactiferous yearnings , labial cellar doors ) – all three of which allow for meticulous dissections of the relationship between gender and society. The precision of these terms, and the nested meanings they contain, result in juxtapositions far more overt in their efforts to frame the particular context of each speaker.
Throughout, there is a pervasive sense that the nouns in these poems are involved in an organic process of becoming adjectives. Art favors adjectives that read like nouns, especially those that have a closely related nounal variant. She freely devises adjectival forms for nouns that don’t already possess one (metaphastic lives , dictaphonic birds ), and then uses these inventions to fine-tune her character’s evolving dialects. Nouns are also applied as adjectives directly from their native state (Nag champa speed-dial , roach clip skyline ), as if to emphasize the fact that description and comparison are the first steps in the development of metaphor.
This process of syntactical transmutation is made explicit in the book’s third poem, “Jedi Mind Tricks.” Here, Art generates a list of individual nouns and then proceeds to “define” them with phrases that reflect that speaker’s relationship to the words, rather than any strict sense of meaning. This technique, which recurs throughout the collection, effectively points out how the adjectives housed within a given object or idea are particular to the context of individual voice interacting with them. By focusing on descriptors – and the transmutation of nouns into descriptors – Art masterfully maintains her focus on the particular contexts of each poem’s speaker, through which the narratives of the book unfold.
Art’s concerted efforts to rework our conception of the female body neatly parallels this unfolding grammatical coup. Even as her language pushes us to acknowledge the tangled relationship between grammatical modifiers and the words they modify, Art’s poetry demands we confront the assumed, and frequently invisible, relationship that exists between culture and the feminine.
The Stunt Double in Winter is a startling next step towards what Lisa Robertson, in the notes of her poetic treatise XEclogue, describes as “the possibility of a collaborative feminist history and writing practice.” By extending the socio-syntactical approach begun in that volume, Art realizes a cacophony of collaborative conversations that overlap and interleave; even the two voices that do recur – one futuristic, and one contemporary – are more a series of closely related permutations than discreet singularities. At every turn, Robyn Art reminds us that our world is “...a nest / of startled notes that sound like eat, and fuck, and maim...” (91), that language, at its most basic, is a descriptive act.
Drew Dillhunt lives in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle and is co-author, with his father, CX, of the chapbook Double Six (Endeavor, 1994). His poetry has appeared in The Pitkin Review and Hummingbird: Magazine of the Short Poem. He has recorded and released two albums’ worth of songs, including one with the band Fighting Shy.