Words are playthings, and by no means is this trivial. There is an unadulterated joy to constructing language—to cutting up and arranging the pieces. There is suspense, an unalloyed momentum, to the words that endure tangibly in poetry. Unfortunately, language is frequently inundated by a deluge of abstractions, forcing the simple pleasure of words to vanish along with their material reality. We can quickly be swallowed by this abstraction, a process that ultimately deprives us of a tool designed to invigorate our physical world. In short, there is no need to deny ourselves those pleasures. And Elise Houcek reminds us that language is fun—often hilarious—in her debut book, Tractatus, delivering an unrelenting retaliation against material abstraction that’s packaged within an enchanting joke architecture.
Houcek introduces us to Tractatus with a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein, stating that “a serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Immediately, Houcek immerses the narrator into the confines of language, suffocated by a “linear” narrative traced by dated pages. Within those confines, however, the physical world unravels as language transforms into a momentous series of deferments. The narrator is pulled into an unstoppable sequence, leaning forward into the splinters of language where the pieces, the playful words, are unveiled. Behind, the narrator abandons abstraction, stating “I feel the cavernous bluff behind me, caved in, the grassy part on which we are standing”—a haunting criterion that propels us through the book in search of something tangible.
The narrator is actively escaping abstraction, impelled to push forward away from the cavernous bluff, “… having begun in the garden – the prime place to destroy a language and lose friends. I walked up the steps looking at them, they glistened with the impending doom and death of to whom they would be subject ….” The narrator is challenged by her natural antagonist, LEE—a painter “obsessed with paper and pins” who is able “to produce paintings that were exceptionally strange and relevant: the alluring trash/ meanness of the feminine.” This antagonistic relationship torments the narrator. LEE embodies the ultimate contradiction: the trappings of language—unable to slip into the playfulness and movement of the real world. Near the end of the book, the narrator notes that “I’ve finally decided to leave the space in front of my kitchen sink and go out into the woods, to really live. I will take no camera either. So the entire time it will be like I am leaning into the world and in no position to step back and criticize it.”
Tractatus illuminates an approachable world nestled within the splinters of language. Equipped with plenty of jokes, Houcek creates a stimulating chronology that hurls us through the book alongside its narrator. The poems jump from vignette to vignette, opening questions and observations without a concise explanation. That is the game that Tractatus presents. We are participants in the philosophical challenges, harassed within the joke architecture of the book,“But who, really, when we consider the topic of riddles, is the one being harassed, the one being tested? I would never say it was GOD or his magic capacity for PLAY …” As the narrator leans into the world, we lean into Houcek’s playful riddles, watching language unfurl into previously hidden startling insights. By participating, the poems transform into playful objects intended to incite a natural curiosity. Tractatus invites us to explore the “bimbo retrospective,” restlessly frolicking in the midst of meaning. In this way, deferment and resisting abstraction manifest a form of incantation where the seams of language are realized.
Pressed to the page, the folds of language take shape. As we lean forward into Tractatus’ physical world, Houcek’s intentions emerge in their purest form: an assemblage of words strung together in one long joke. With persisting anticipation, the punchline evades, facilitating the collection’s god-seeking propulsion. We are compelled to dance within latticed language as the narrator moves through her world, navigating an ocean of accrued words—or events. And Houcek’s narrator is actively emboldened by her position, one defined by these god-seeking, playful fixations, stating “At least now I know what I am. A platypus swimming—nay, lurching, scooping, threading through the muck. A cut-up scope. My beak’s a cutting nose making meaning by accretion, attrition.” This act of attrition and accretion mimics the text’s relationship with language—a poetics birthed from tangible, manipulatable words. This offers the foundation for a comical, playful syntax that elevates humor and strengthens Houcek’s signature joke architecture.
Language is a laughing matter. Houcek employs jokes, suspense, and comedic turns to inform the narrator’s (and our) connection to meaning. Tractatus liberates language from a material abstraction, instead suffusing the text with sharp edges. This comedic injection carves moments within the text that examines the language directly: the structures that ensnare us in abstraction. Tractatus mirrors Hannah Weiner’s ability to tactfully integrate humor into the impetus of a violently moving collection. Weiner’s “clairvoyant” avant-garde journalism is adorned with cutting humor that snatches us, tripping up the text and drawing attention to the creases of language. Similarly, this humorous form bestows the entry point to Houcek’s antithetical book, inspiring a playfulness with language that disposes of rigid philosophical thinking. This dynamic joke-telling strategy allows Houcek to prove the permanent ability to manipulate language—to mutate metaphor into material, or rather into playthings. “I am carrying some kind of scissors, cutting up the scene like a sleuth.”
Playfulness, however, is not simply for fun. Tractatus gestures towards authenticity; towards language unfettered from these despised predisposed structures. Here, predestined language is obliterated, and Houcek duels with the interrogators of the material world. She presents her “FINAL PROOF OF THE REVERSE OF MORALITY AND THE ETERNAL SUBJECTIVITY OF LANGUAGE.” Within the mutations of language, Houcek echoes deconstructionist efforts to uncover the chains, or chronologies, of language, dismantling the structures of language, patriarch, and oppressive conditions. Similar to how Jacques Derrida wrote on deferred meaning that“differance is the is certainly but the historical and epochal unfolding of Being”—and Houcek accomplishes this philosophical undertaking while making us laugh.
Tractatus coaxes us into bewilderment, informed by challenges of memory, space, beauty, romance, and youth. To avoid cliche, Houcek plays with these themes in an act of contortion that is simultaneously terrifying and seductive. In some moments, the narrative is feverish, and in others, disquietly lucid. Houcek examines the struggles of structure; of toxic associations with others and language itself. Her distinctive joke architecture creates a necessary slack, breathing room to move about the text freely. Near the end of the book, the narrator fixates on a plastic ball pit—a vision that quickly manifests as futility while in love. She confesses, “I wanted the air trapped within that plastic to finally be able to breathe, and I guess only just now realized this is impossible in toxic relationships.” This puncture gestures to the book’s most insightful accomplishment: an aperture to needlessly hidden materiality. To resist the pressures of the world, tell a joke. Or read Houcek’s Tractatus.
Tractatus, by Elise Houcek. Brooklyn, New York: Spuyten Duyvil, January 2022. 102 pages. $16.00, paper.
Maxwell Rabb is the author of the chapbook Faster, the Whirl Wheel (Greying Ghost, forthcoming 2023). He lives in Chicago, leaving his heart in New Orleans and Atlanta. His poems have appeared in the Action Books Blog, Sleepingfish, GASHER, and ctrl+v, among others. He is currently an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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