I’m trying to figure out what they call the synopsis wherein each big event is separated by a dash at the beginning of a novel’s chapters. You know what I’m talking about? Like in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian:
Childhood in Tennessee – Runs away – New Orleans – Fights – Is shot – To Galveston – Nacogdoches – The Reverend Green – Judge Holden – An affray – Toadvine – Burning of the hotel – Escape.
Hot damn if that isn’t a poem in itself. Just like Jorge Luis Borges wrote reviews for nonexistent books, Rauan Klassnik, when he’s on top of his game in The Moon’s Jaw, writes poems that are synopses for chapters so seedy they remain unwritten, heretofore only imagined in all their lurid detail:
—Grazing Deep In Me—Deer Stand Up—Like Clocks—
—Chirping—Chirping Gargoyles—Between Our Legs—
—I’m Two People—Me & A Woman—Abruptly—
—Then Playfully—Passionately—Adam & Eve—
—A Plucked Bone—Wreathed—& Teething—
But let’s back up and talk about the book’s form. Glyphs of the waxing and waning moons separate the five pieces in the collection. These moons link the act of reading to a passage through the lunar calendar. For the true aficionado, “The Great Poem” will be even greater during the full moon, or new moon, depending on how the glyphs are properly interpreted. Running parallel to this organizational strategy is another, in which prose poems on the left page face the abovementioned dashed poems on the right. Moon’s Jaw makes me question how I move from one page to the next, challenging my codex reading habits, much like Davies’ Golden Age of Paraphernalia or Nowak’s Shut Up Shut Down. I could read all the poems on the left-hand page as one extended work, ignoring those on the right, or vice versa. Klassnik goes one step further in spilling the poetry over the textual apparatus: two pieces precede the table of contents, hinting at what’s to come; “—Why—Am I Laughing? —Why—Not? —” is the Parthian shot fired after the author’s note. I’m not sure how this form meshes together with the content, but it’s pretty neat.
Klassnik isn’t always on top of his game, unfortunately. When he threads a single thought through dashes, rather than letting me imagine what the dashes omit, when he chooses words too thin to sustain my attention, his poems can sound stilted, exceedingly convinced of their own power, Shatneresque:
—I’m Kissing Myself—& Shaving—& Jerked Off—
—In My Mouth—Thrust Up Like—A Dog In Heat—
—The Sidewalk—Rolls Up—Birdcages Cracked—In Me—
In my reading “birdcages cracked in me” rather than “—Birdcages Cracked—In Me—,” the dashes disappear. I guess this empowers me to choose how to combine phrases. It could also be “rolls up birdcages cracked.” Well, maybe. Or maybe content is shoehorned into form. Dashes just because. Which makes me feel silly for bringing up Blood Meridian in the first place. But dash-happy Emily Dickinson and George Oppen don’t seem like proper analogs to Klassnik, either.
Ah, silly reviewer! Why waste time comparing Moon’s Jaw to what it isn’t, why not instead read it for what it is? The problem is that if I read passages like “She pulls me along by the cock. & we’re tearing our clothes off,” and “—Mouths Of A Whore—Spiced Up—Diseased & Sore—” and
When you aren’t crying: Or cursing me out: You’re begging me to cum on yr tits again. I should never have promised I’d stay here:
I don’t find enough “what it is” to satisfy me. If you’re into “whores” and felching and cock-tugging, there’s plenty in Bukowski, Burroughs, Genet, Miller, et al., who did it earlier and better.
My dissatisfaction leads me to the author’s note for a guiding light. Here I read that, “Much of this is pieced together from bits & pieces of some erasures (‘Imperfect Erasures’)” and “I owe much to my readings on disease, sex, religion, violence, God & the Holocaust: especially the godlike Tadeusz Borowski.” However, many erasures, such as Bervin’s Nets or Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow, gain their power through retaining the gaps of what once was there and through allowing the reader to interpret how the new text plays upon the source (Shakespeare’s sonnets in the case of Nets, Victoriana in the case of Shadow). With no one indicator of the gaps, or constraint to a single source, or effort to disclose that source, or explanation of what makes an erasure “imperfect,” these poems fall flat as erasures. And if I say I’m reading about sex, religion and violence, I might as well say I’m reading all of literature. References to Klassnik’s Jewish cultural identity may prove helpful to a more patient reviewer, but for me the allusions to The Old Testament—Eve created from Adam’s rib, circumcision, a rabbi—are superficial and scant in the poetry itself.
Having failed to find any pro-tips in the author’s note, in my quixotic journey for authorial intent I now resort to the paratextual. On his blog, Klassnik has written, regarding the grotesque movement with which he seems to travel,
we can rely on more space and boatloads of work “influenced” by her [Aase Berg’s] strange grinding and shining wave-brilliance to wash up in our journals, blogs, breakfasts and books. But most of this work, of course, is going to suck. Failing to properly learn from Berg and incorporate into their DNA most under the influence will merely flail about with her vibe, gore, compounds and gestures…The Montevidayo bosses (Johannes and Joyelle) will say this is a good thing and eyeball gleefully the whiners’ mostly academic throats. And I guess I would kind of agree. But I am, at heart, a real fucking grouch.
It’s odd that Klassnik’s concern about a grotesque-lite could be applied to his own writing. Pardon my academic whining. Let me explain before my 15 minute break is up and I have to return to my minimum wage retail job: there’s a poem called “Interview with the Queen on National TV” in Lara Glenum’s Maximum Gaga which runs as follows:
Q: Is it really necessary to make such abominations?
A: It is absolutely necessary to make such abominations.
Much as I want to say, Right on!, still I have to ask, Why is it necessary? Necessary for whom? Maximum Gaga, which reveals the pathology within the patriarchal concept of normal, has a good answer. As does Ariana Reines’ The Cow, which mixes messy sex with Reines’ difficult relationship with her mother with documents from the dairy industry’s treatment of cows. Klassnik’s grotesque, by contrast, lacks driving motive. And judging by his verb choices—carve, castrate, vomit, splatter, scrape, splice, suck, ache, drool, splinter—he’s not straying far from the playbook. Lines such as “In spirals of boiling semen…A toilet—Filled w/ roses” or “I’m in a room w/ the president. & he’s on his knees: A long, thin curved penis. & I’m talking him into orgasm” are typical takedowns of the high through juxtaposition with the low. At any rate, if Klassnik’s trying to approach grotesque content with a casual, understated tone, rather than the usual urgent, hyperbolic tone, it’s a neat experiment. As are his hybridizations of the grotesque with a good ole lyrical epiphany. Lines such as “Like Making Love— / —To a Corpse…—The Universe—Blossomed—In Every Way” or “A baby like a crane, on fire—Rising, Up, Over, the Alps. Screeching. Our souls. All of us” hew too close to Wright’s “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” But every once in a while, I go back to Moon’s Jaw and discover “Like the heart’s taut shadows: Light’s dribbling in thru the frozen leaves. Soldiers: & music. Swarmed: In our hair. Down our faces. Columned. Spired. Domed.” and it’s fucking beautiful.
The Moon’s Jaw, by Rauan Klassnik. Boston, Massachusetts: Black Ocean, March 2013. 76 pages. $14.95, paper.
Jeremy Behreandt lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
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