Male anxiety, embarrassment and rage; pervasive fear of the world around you and insistence on controlling it; naked cynicism and impotently blinkered idealism, with all the economic, political and technological pressures that activate them—Concealed Nations, a new book of poetry by Joel Felix, brings all these to life and suggests how they horribly, oppressively cohere. Concealed Nations is Felix’s second full-length collection of poetry, preceded by The Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die, a meditation on his personal pilgrimage to civil rights sites throughout the North and South and on the memories, forgetfulness and violence grafted onto those sites. In both books, Felix is interested in the intersection between American subjectivities and the oppressive patterns of ideology and history that help shape them. Many of the most striking poems in Concealed Nations brilliantly use familiar techniques of modernist poetry—the fragment, collage, allusion, image and enjambment—to illuminate the interpenetration of paranoid behavior and ideology with what in his previous book he termed the “illegible violence of the state.” Others, however, movingly reveal a resilient, resistant, vital core that violence does not squelch.
As in his previous book, Felix’s poetry in Concealed Nations is interspersed with prose pieces that stand somewhere between poems and essays. The book opens with one of them, “Fall 1,” in which, after the speaker (we assume he is Felix) briefly explores his sense of dislocation from the Loop as a returned former resident of Chicago, events cascade into paroxysm. He hails a Pakistani-American cab driver to take him to a famous deli. Asked about how it is to be a cab driver in Chicago, the driver simply says “hard.” Soon after, speeding through alleys amid heavy traffic, the cab driver almost hits a female pedestrian; she gives him the finger. Enraged, he leaves his cab: “Who is she? Bitch! Who are you? … I will beat her, I will beat her.” Felix desperately distracts the man by claiming someone has damaged the car, then ends up hiding in a storefront. (I couldn’t quite ignore the fact that he never paid his fare.) We are left in consternation, not for the last time in this book.
All of the prose pieces serve to reinforce and elucidate the themes of Concealed Nations, but also to discomfit us. They put different aspects of male aggression or embarrassment on display, from a conceptual performance in which a man falls off a roof to a conversation with a corrosively cynical coworker before he disappears into an MBA program. Felix doesn’t spare himself; in “Fall 3,” he even includes a photograph of a fairly awful quasi-imagist poem, “El Mariachi,” that he read at a wince-inducing poetry reading staged in a Mexican-American neighborhood but upstaged by an insistent drunk. Commenting on the mortifying frisson of the experience, Felix reveals one of his artistic goals: he is aiming to “undress the autonomy of the imagination,” to humiliate his imagination in the face of the unsettling real, and to see how he can mediate that confrontation lyrically. At a 2019 reading in Seattle, Felix termed many of the poems in this collection “a kind of psychotic Spoon River,” attesting to how the poems take us into their confidence even when we would rather not go there. In particular, “Concealed Carry,” a poem named for the point of view advanced by one party of guns rights advocates, collages together language from gun rights blogs, an interview with a witness who discovered a dead body, quotations from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, and pieces of environmental regulation alongside an opening riff on the Ohio State song. All these elements twine together as a single, disturbed and perturbed voice that mimics the ebb and flow of a trip down the Ohio River. As we make our way from one enjambed fragment to the next, we are forced to inhabit the casual emotional numbness and attentive paranoia that have come to seem like natural features of the riverscape:
I was relaxing and I don’t know why I was so intent to see the red shirt
I looked closer—I saw the ear and the shoulder …
roll up from the dull green middle,
muddier than spring,
as if the witnesses eyes rise out of the day
like the scribbling song
of a Bell’s vireo
Sunday hunting the embayment
for concealed tags and elements
in the low-tempo tactical noon.
Also strikingly disturbing is the long poem “Kill Chain,” in which the logic of drone warfare comes to haunt privileged American reality. This poem, which takes as its premise a world remade by ubiquitous surveillance, serves to expand the significance of the violence in other poems, finding its sources in the state and expanding it across the globe. As we read, we move from the point of view and technical jargon of a military drone operator to the worlds of air traffic control, of parking lots and even kitchens with pickled ginger, in language permeated by hints of technological menace. In this disquisition on the ascendancy of digital data and the spaceless moral vertigo it induces, we are left wondering about everything the poem describes, “Why should it not explode?”
If Concealed Nations only concerned itself with the roots of American paranoia, it would still be a timely book but a less moving one than it is. What makes it moving is the way Felix imagines the way we resist our ecology of induced violence. For Felix, the source of resistance is both inter-subjective and natural, in impulses nothing can erase. For instance, consider the many references to dogs in the book and how each of them signals a return something vital beneath embroiled thought. “Hecuba” alludes to a tale about the enslaved wife of Priam, king of Troy, who, upon cursing her enslaver Odysseus, was turned into a dog and thus allowed to escape. Felix melds that story to images of a wrecked slave ship on which freedom, like Nike, alights:
It was this compass
that called freedom to appear
and we a scrambled populace
vomiting the charry water and seaweed
That I, with my dog’s head
bow down to eat.
In “[…] Aqui Vive” the speaker describes “a meaty dog” (what a simple, vivid adjective!) outside his apartment:
I hear his toenails on the tile when
he clambers to his feet and lies down again.
May he never abandon me.
This insistent animal embodies life and freedom, however fumbling.
Near the end of Concealed Nations, in the prose piece “Downriver,” Felix describes how he hung out with his boyhood Detroit friends near a train track, and how they used to throw stones to try to break the windshields on the new cars the trains carried:
The fist-sized rocks of the rail bed were terrific missiles … we tried to crack as many windows and windshields in a railcar before it got by. I don’t know why we did it; we had formed no opinions of property or pride, nor urge to protest the product our area survived on. Breaking the glass was just what the imagination provided. The form that makes the mind. I’ve not added much to this. The page is the glass I’m trying to break.
This is a pretty canny description of Felix’s poetics throughout Concealed Nations, even a kind of credo. You could say that, throughout this book, Felix is forcing us to look at the windshields but also cracking them, showing us the fissures in his speaker’s language, so that we see that the glass is there, that it’s a world-made thing, ideology not nature. And he shows us that breaking things is not simply an induced violence, but that underneath it an inchoate but vital impulse persists. That notion seems quite timely.
Concealed Nations, by Joel Felix. Chicago, Illinois: Verge Books, January 2020. 89 pages. $19.00, paper.
Dave Karp is associated with Margin Shift, a Seattle, Washington, reading series dedicated to supporting writers outside the mainstream. His articles and reviews have appeared in Golden Handcuffs and Heavy Feather Review.