We Press Ourselves Plainly
5" x 7" | 120 pp. | pbk.
Nightboat Books 2010
Reviewed by J. Mae Barizo
“I should like,” the narrator declares in We Press Ourselves Plainly “for my own name made illegible…” Indeed, we never learn the identity of the devastating speaker whose body and mind is the landscape on which violence unfolds. It is not a pleasant voice nor is it necessarily appealing, yet it enthralls in its immediacy, a distinctive intonation which begs the reader to devour it in its singular attempt to articulate the tragedy of history.
A 97-page book-length poem in the form of continuous blocks of text separated only by ellipses, Stephens endeavors neither to elucidate the source of violence nor to expose a chronological representation, therefore the fragments—some of which are complete sentences and others only partial slivers thereof—have the aesthetic of immutability and timelessness, a voice existing in the present moment yet also in the dredges of the past. “There is a room and there is a war” the speaker declares, yet the poem exists also outside of a room and concurrently in various locations: Berry Head (a coastal headland in the English Riviera), Paris, Hyde Park, Fallujah and Donostia (the Basque region of Spain). Perhaps there has been a war or there will be one. “The wars become one war” and “The wars are indistinguishable” Stephens writes, adding to the atemporality of the poem and the omnipresence of violence. The book opens with a quote by Franz Kafka: “Everyone carries a room about inside him.” which further puts forward that the location is the body itself which bears the carnage. The post-script furthers this idea of the body as an object of compression and cruelty, stating that one of “the active functions of this work is compression...of all the possible spaces pressed into that body, upon which the pressures of historical violence and its attendant catastrophes come to bear.”
This notion of compression, most prominently set forth in the book’s title, stems from the root of the word press, which harks from the early thirteenth century Old French noun presse which means “crowd, multitude.” The verb form also dates from the same century: preser, “push against”. Though Stephen’s book is titled “We Press Ourselves Plainly” (italics mine) the speaker in the book is a very convincing “I”; seldom does the “we” come into view, yet the overall sensation one derives from reading is a collective sense of calamity, as if the voice is representative for a multitude or nation, even if the experiences cited sound at once both ubiquitous and painfully intimate. “There was one country in particular…It became the particularity of every country...” Stephens writes. In other sections the voice seems to shuttle back and forth between a collective and the sentiments of a lover: “The bodies that fall unheld into the next day…I would like to kiss you…The field of vision narrows with the century…We stand on one side or another of the century”.
Notably, when the “we” comes to the forefront it is often in this context of being on one side or another. “We stand on one side or other of the glass”, “We stand each on one side or other of the crossing line”, “We stand each on one side or other of the monument and it is the same monument.” This motive repeats itself with the “we” being on one side or the other of violence (p.47), a door (p. 55), skin (p. 75), name (p. 81). The last time this motif appears is on p. 87, but the object is modified in the latter half of the sentence: “We stand each on one side or other of a pleasure and it is the same pressure” (italics mine). Here the word pressure takes on an agreeable, if not sexual connotation. This “being on one side or the other” subtly presents a type of political counterbalance which seems to be at threat throughout the entire text. The “We” seems to refer to a group of people on different but not necessarily opposing sides. Other times the “we” becomes the pronoun signaling a sexual relationship or perhaps the bond of two individuals forced into close confinement. “We slept in a single bed” (p. 11) or “We are naked for the moment…I grant you this one torment” (p. 15) and “We bear..Bury…Heart spilling blood into the weakened parts…Vomit it into me..” (p. 39).
This dichotomy between singularity and plurality, while rampant in Stephens’ book, neither weakens or undermines the integrity of the speaker, though rectitude seems to be the least of his/her concerns. Rather this contrariety points to the existential dilemma of identity and the self. “A book is less the appearance of a self than the disappearance, a grievance against self,” Stephens wrote in her 2007 book “The Sorrow and the Fast of It.” The brokenness of the language in “We Press Ourselves Plainly” insinuates a further fragmentation of the self:
…All the buried things arise…The rivers with the bodies of everyone…Each save the first one…It crawls over me…There was one language and this was the son…I refuse the offerings…There are flowers in a vase…I throw them down…We wake and are watchful…The bodies accrue and we name them…Small rashes that spread over the skins…Our languages become enlarged with the grief…
The body, in Stephen’s book, is continuously beaten, cut out or scourged by mysterious malaise like the “small rashes” in the above excerpt. Not only that, but the speaker is perpetually vomiting, as if in an attempt to purge itself of the trauma it has been subjected to. What happens to a speaker which is surrounded and inflicted with excruciating emotional and physical torture? The result for the reader is an erasure of the speaker and the self, so that the excess of remembrance that the speaker endures becomes a longing for blank space, an insistent forgetting or “a compression layered of other moments just like it.” (p. 23)
…Shorn and emaciated…I forget all of it…The disordered remembrances…There is knocking…It comes from inside…A strangulation…The tripes pulled up into the ribcage…A thick elastic band…Not breathing…
Stephens has been compared, and understandable so, with Jean Genet and Hélène Cixous, yet for me Stephens manipulation of language and form is heir to a long tradition of French (though Stephens is French-Canadian) poetic innovation that goes back to Francois Villon and makes itself manifest in contemporary writers such as Edmond Jabès and Claude Royet-Journoud. The form of “We Press Ourselves Plainly”, simultaneously litany and lament, brings to mind Alice Notley’s “The Descent of Alette” in its aesthetic and also its use of punctuation (Notley used quotation marks to separate fragments in much the same way as Stephens utilizes the ellipses). For me, however, the most obvious predecessor of the form that Stephens has chosen is the short dramatic monologue “Not I” by Samuel Beckett which features the same block text separated by ellipsis. “Not I” explores the emotional upheaval experienced by a woman after an unspecified traumatic event. In the performance of “Not I” a black space is illuminated only by a bright light focused on a human mouth, which utters in a frenetic tempo a logorrhea of angst-ridden sentences and sentence fragments, quite in the vein of an audible inner scream. This inner scream is what Stephens has articulated so skillfully.
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J. Mae Barizo has reviewed for Sink Review, Matrix Magazine, Coldfront, and H_NGM_N.