Saturday, October 28, 2017
PIONEERS IN THE STUDY OF MOTION by SUSAN BRIANTE
NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Pioneers in the Study of Motion by Susan Briante
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, Idaho, 2007)
Author, essayist, activist, translator and poet, Susan Briante is an associate professor of Creative Writing and English at the University of Arizona. From 1991 to 1997 she lived in Mexico City working as a journalist for the magazines Artes de México and Mandorla. She has received grants and awards from the Atlantic Monthly, the MacDowell Colony, the Academy of American Poets, and the US-Mexico Fund for Culture. As well as being the author of two chapbooks and three books of poetry to date, she writes essays on documentary poetics and on the relationship between place and cultural memory. Pioneers in the Study of Motion, which issued in 2007, is her first full-length collection.
Despite its title, this is not a book about the invention of the paddle steamer, diesel engine, automobile or airplane even though the poems themselves move across continents with effortless ease. Nor does it reference the development of moveable type. Rather, it relates to something larger—the locomotion of people, the transaction of goods and the circulation of profit which make up the global economy. It is a motion that affects both the population and the planet—and not always in a positive way. This is hinted at by the quotation from Roland Barthes’ “The Jet-Man” that heads up the book:
…motion is no longer the optical perception of points and surfaces, it has become a kind of vertical disorder, made of contradictions, black-outs, terrors and faints; it is no longer a gliding, but an inner devastation, an unnatural perturbation, a motionless crisis of bodily consciousness.
The book is divided into three sections of equal lengths. The first section, Eventual Darlings, contains many poems that were originally published in an earlier chapbook, Neotropics: A Romance in Field Notes (Belladonna # 52, Winter 2003). Interestingly, the series of poems entitled Eventual Darlings did not have place-names attached to them in the chapbook: Galang Island, Kinshasa, Mexico City, Brasilia and Kanpur were all added in parentheses later on. In these poems, each of the places is succinctly described before moving on with an account of what modern living has done to them. In Galang Island, for example, we find ourselves in a detention camp for Vietnamese boat people who spend their time constructing a model of the Statue of Liberty—the first of many Briante “juxtapositions”. In Brasilia, we go from virgin forest to built-up city. These poems are interspersed with another sequence, all set in Mexico, related to numbered days in the rainy season, e.g. 3rd Day of the Rainy Season, etc. and a short sequence called Cintas derived from translations of Aztec poetry. Of the other poems in this section, Love in a Time of NAFTA signals early on in the collection Briante’s interest in economics and trade.
The middle section, Pioneers in the Study of Motion, take things at a slower tempo. The outer sections, especially the rainy day sequence and the final section are where Briante is at her most compelling. The middle section references specific occupations which appear in the titles, such as an illustrator, a money-changer, a typist and a domestic. These help to anchor the subject, whether it be an exploration of the past or an illustration of the present, while others concern relationships: the cartographer’s son, the missionary’s pupil, the dressmaker’s daughter, the archaeologist’s lover, etc.
In The Cartographer’s Son, Briante shows us her lyrical side:
Translations swell until the lyric is sung to the wrong woman, brown instead of black, velvet instead of cotton, some shallow veil of crepe, or not a dress at all, the water at certain times of the year like gauze, like the blurred lines of age or the lines that were forgotten the last time someone sang it, making her much less.
You get a particular sense with Briante that every line is voiced inwardly before it is written down. It is tested for its lyricism so that every syllable and every phrase is finely balanced and evenly placed.
The final section, How Cities Get Founded has a distinct autumnal feel about it. From a seasonal viewpoint, Briante often draws us to the end of summer or the beginning of autumn presenting the reader with various kinds of images in autumnal form. In Song with Typewriter and Bleating Sheep:
Summer ends in a kink at the back of your neck, burgundy wildflowers
Summer ends with a baseball through your window. You worry
in foreign policy, in a former lover, a factory. You take off
his shoes and socks. Groves fill with punch-card light.
The writing certainly has plenty of motion in it. The overall effect is one of acceleration in which Briante takes us through a series of urban landscapes with her foot pressed firmly down on the pedal. There is never any moment when we might get bored. Travel transports us out of ourselves and offers a new perspective. The intriguing imagery comes thick and fast and is often confined to just one or two lines of stunning brilliance. In The Domestic, for example, she writes:
Witness the aesthetics of 6 lanes of bus fumes, cluttered
sidewalks where claustrophobic anticipation works its corkscrew.
The way a Briante poem works is by association. Her poems show a desire to forge connections. She has the ability to write about a multiplicity of things all at once. These themes are interconnected and woven into the tapestry. In 12th Day of the Rainy Season, for example, there is the Pan American Highway and later other linkages to this image (the tollbooth, the traffic, the automobile, the bus). At the same time there is the rural scene (the farmhands, fields of roses, plant biology, market produce, a beekeeper and bee hives). Then again, there is the medical imagery (the doctor, the stethoscope, the pills, heartbeats, ovaries, fertilization). There is also a line lifted or paraphrased from André Tridon’s Psychoanalysis and Love (which is a standard feature of all the Rainy Day poems). In the poem Briante also moves from the local to the global (the IMF) and from somewhere predominantly rural to an awareness of the spread of urbanization:
a billboard celebrates300,000 more miles of pavement.
All of this is compressed into a poem of just 15 lines. The alignment of one image up against another is an integral feature of this collection. In an interview posted by Primitive Information on December 9, 2011, Briante comments “In many of the poems in Pioneers in the Study of Motion, I wanted to use juxtaposition to create sparks like those you see in the contact between two metals – the conqueror’s sword and the warrior’s shield – or the smoke sometimes observed when the wheels of a plane touch down on the runway. I hoped juxtaposition would draw the reader’s attention to the poem’s surface lest they be fooled into believing they might actually be seeing Mexico rather than a glimpse of my mind.”
Juxtapositions in a poem like Unquiet provide a good example. As the title suggests, the poem sets off at a frenetic pace, almost like a rushed liturgy, and it never lets up until it is through:
Vertex of the Chrysler Building, pray for me; linemen, bartenders, muses, pray for me; crow covered highway, sing for me; over the bridge of a Washburn 6-string, lay me; crazed molecule! terse atom! play for me; with the moans of forklifts, speak for me; in satin, sable, calico, adorn me…
Three sets of imagery permeate this collection. The first set is to do with tall buildings—a kind of vertical motion—status symbols for all the world to see and pronounce upon. Here we find mention of office towers, columns, building cranes, the Chrysler Building, the Torre Latino. the Pemex Tower. The Torre Latino, when it opened in 1956, was the tallest building in Latin America and the Pemex Tower was the tallest building in Mexico from 1984 until 2002. It housed Mexico’s largest company and the world’s fifth largest oil and gas company. Briante uses these images as reference points for the aspiration and over-reaching ambition of big business, and, no doubt, corporate greed and power. They are the new cathedrals that soar above the steeples.
The second set of images is to do with combustion—a kind of horizontal motion—a danger that must be contained less it spread like wildfire—or an oil slick—once it gets out of control. Here we find mention of gas, oil, propane, gasoline rainbows, Agent Orange, petrochemicals, phosphorous, kerosene, smokestack, anthracite combustion, 6 lanes of bus fumes, oil drums, etc. This set of images leads neatly into the third set which centres around the theme of urban waste and pollution.
What have we done to our planet? We soon find out in this extract from a piece called As A Series of Settlements which appears in the last section of the book:
In cases of heavy exhaust burden, in cases of relatively stable air, in cases of heavy burdens exhausting relatively stable air, the sky is concentrated with oxides of nitrogen, with hydrocarbons; the sky is oxidized in concentrations of nitrogen and hydrocarbons; the sky is heavy and exhausted and burdens the lower atmosphere…
Down the straight vein of Avenida Revolución, the sun’s rays cause a complex chemical reaction between oxides of nitrogen and hydrocarbons to form a dirty yellow veil of secondary pollutants, which cause a complex chemical reaction between a beauty parlor and the Indigenous Institute, between these oxides of nitrogen and a tart afternoon, between the cinema and the sidewalk and merchants, a straight vein, an avenue, a veil.
The repetition in these passages serves to highlight the heaviness of the atmosphere. It is as if there is no room for any other vocabulary to be used.
In her images she stirs our conscience, lets the pollutants rise to the surface and confronts us with the evidence. This is poetry that demands to be heard. Highly recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, England, 2017).
Posted by EILEEN at 9:08 AM