I AM THIS STATE OF EMERGENCY, by Robin Myrick. Dallas, Texas: Surveyor Books, August 2020. 152 pages. $17.00, paper.
In the late nineteen-sixties, composer Pauline Oliveros began a series of “Sonic Meditations,” early experiments in score-based deep listening that encouraged small groups of participants to listen attentively to their environments. “Take a walk at night,” reads one score. “Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.” As Kerry O’Brien notes, Oliveros began her sonic meditations at a moment of profound political despair, in the wake of the assassinations of King and Kennedy, and framed these exercises in “expanded consciousness” as a way out of the “temper of the times.”
Robin Myrick’s debut collection, I AM THIS STATE OF EMERGENCY, also seeks to find a way out of the temper of the times—our times, specifically the years 2008-2016, but easily extending to our current moment. For eight years, Myrick, who lives in Dallas, Texas, undertook a sounding of the political landscape, engaging in her own practice of deep listening, first in physical town halls and then (inevitably) in social media contexts as well, As she explains in her preamble: “I decided … to listen to what was around me … deeply, with my ears wide open—and really hear the astounding, fragile, complicated, unbeautiful things others had to say about their lives, or mine. From there the poems that make up this book began to take shape.”
As she goes on to say, the collection reflects both what she heard—“direct quotations and bits of conversation”—and how she heard—“tone, emotion, authority, coded language, and so on.” It reflects, one might say, Oliveros’s distinction between hearing and listening. With these poetic remixes of contemporary political discourse—or perhaps more precisely, the discourse around contemporary politics, especially electoral politics—Myrick creates a space for reflection on what we sound like now.
I AM THIS STATE OF EMERGENCY consists of Myrick’s preamble, a rousing reader response or “postamble” by Bradley Powell, and in between, four sections of numbered poems. They are numbered by the order in which they were written, not the order in which they appear in the book, which adds a durational aspect to the collection, anchoring it in time. Myrick calls attention to the oral/aural aspect of her undertaking by naming the sections “sides” (as in album sides). Side One, “Bless Your Heart,” signals from the outset that we need to listen harder for the real meaning of the forms of speech that have come to dominate our collective soundscape (“bless your heart” being both a genuine Southern expression of empathy and a euphemism for “you’re wrong” or various epithets to that effect). The poems in this section deftly reveal that behind the supposedly political “us” lies a solipsistic “I” who must continually “own” the “you”: “You are not focused on the family, I am. You are not star spangled and battle scarred inside, I am. You are not an expert on anything, I am. You are not a student of the constitution, I am. You are not an authority on medical malpractice, I am. You are not the exonerating evidence, I am. You are not the holiest kombucha, I am. You are not the face in the cloud, I am. You are not the forgotten future, I am. You are not going to open the pod bay doors, I am. You are not talking to me, I am.”
Myrick plays with (pitch-perfect) persona and address to suggest that the so-called authentic speaker, untethered from any shared reality, is merely a syntactical effect—though certainly one dripping with affect (“Authenticity is / a feeling I have”). As she notes in the preamble, initially the collection captures the frisson of the “disenfranchised voter seizing the moment,” but as it continues, the “signal-to-noise ratio flips.” Like the Language poets before her, Myrick is laser-focused on the scripted nature of our antagonisms (by language, yes, but also by the algorithm), even as (at least in 2008) we believed ourselves to be finally saying/free to say what we really meant. A form she introduces in this section, and plays with throughout the collection, is the fill-in-the-blank poem with an answer key at the end (we determines the ordering). While it’s difficult to extract citations from these particular pieces, #51 reads in part: “I am / I am not / I hate / I suspect / I control / I believe / I am proud of / I want,” with possible answers being “Academics, adulterers, Americans, an abortion survivor, anyone, bi-partisan, concealed weapons.” In later iterations of the form the answer key disappears, and we are left to contend with the blanks, which is to say, the sensation that these pronouncements, so emphatic, are in fact empty of real social content.
True to Myrick’s prediction, as we make our way through Side Two, “A Faulty Trigger By Design,” Side Three, “Because, America,” and Side Four, “This Eulogy is a Burning Rope,” the affect of the poems changes—it cools, ironizes, and truth-telling becomes more complicated: “If you’re gonna take a position, you, like / have to tell the whole truth / which is like two half-truths with a sliver of truth in the middle / or on the side, like a pickle.” And yet, the only whole truth remains a personal, at least rhetorically “felt” one, true because it is not shared: “My fear is valiant, yours is childish / Your pain offends, mine inspires / My violence is proper, yours is vulgar / Your revolt is narcissism, mine is redemption / My actions are precise, yours are careless / Your safety coddles, mine convinces / Mine are spawning, yours are waning / Yours is a fantasy, mine is the real.”
The state of emergency that unfolded before me as I first read these poems was the absence of forms of solidarity and ways of understanding collective experience that might allow us to escape the hyperindividualism that separates and isolates us from one another (though the pandemic may have made a difference). “I am this state of emergency,” reads #55, “The one I describe, the one I’m in, a different one than you think we’re in/I want to quit raiding the spiteful junk drawer that is my brain / I try to be sane and careful in the realm of the possible / But the only way out is out.” Myrick’s great feat by book’s end is not to leave us longing for mere “civility” or surface “unity” in the face of all the vitriol, but for liberation from the vicious “I” (exalted and monetized in the town hall format and across all social media platforms) that passes for a politics nowadays. Her poetry offers us one such line of flight.
Janet Sarbanes is the author of the short story collections Army of One and The Protester Has Been Released. Her book of essays, Letters on the Autonomy Project in Art and Politics, will be published by Punctum in 2021. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches at CalArts.
 Kerry O’Brien, “Listening as Activism: The Sonic Meditations of Pauline Oliveros.” https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/listening-as-activism-the-sonic-meditations-of-pauline-oliveros.