“Frenzy of material, frenzy of discharge!”: A Review of Zoe Darsee’s Bell Logic by Maxwell Rabb

Music is ornamented by the caesura; by the muted punctures that impel the audience to imagine deprivation. The song’s melody is impeded, and for a moment, there is disorder. Immediately stopping a song’s melodic momentum, the listener is propelled into silence, but the song moves forward, unabated by the composer’s predestined pauses. In sequence, the caesuras are followed by a musical deluge, engulfing the audience in its newly charged melody. Employing similar techniques, Zoe Darsee composes a turbulent poetic score in their new chapbook Bell Logic, transfixed to the tolling bell that oscillates between noise and silence.

Darsee promptly introduces discordance, opening Bell Logic by announcing its bell deficit. The poetic topography is immediately defined by the noiseless, or rather by absence, where the nation struggles to compensate with its detested loudspeakers. The absence of the bell’s toll perpetuates an infectious disorder, illuminated by the abandoned tower.  The opening poem, “Bellwhistle [Counter-Fugue],” situates us beneath the  “vacant square in the sky,” silent and aimlessly dispossessed. Bell Logic emerges directionless, instilling paranoia provoked by the seizure of sound. Noise, embodied by the bell, is the material that delineates the chapbook’s poetic landscape. Darsee establishes sonic textures that propel us through Bell Logic’s treacherous topography, weaving between the counterpoint that becomes distorted as the collection moves forward.

Language reverberates, echoing similar to a tolling bell placed in a chambered room. To indemnify the missing bell, Bell Logic erects the voice, persistent against muted monuments and ringing unremittingly. Darsee writes “when I got out of my sleep compartment I tied my voice in the bell tower and still is signaled!” The voice vibrates similar to the vibrating metal, materializing as Darsee’s sonic textures. The ringing is compiled into layered music, a poetics of signals, that requires us to closely examine the melodic movements, or rather their transmutations. The movements are tethered to the perforations—the silences between tolls—that generate a deep condemnation for the “state” and its “loudspeakers.” The poems confront the muted, bell-less world where bureaucrats “exchanged my head for a piano, composers for municipal jingles, dictators for joy of the jurors, harmonies smashed for rhetoric, pipes for an organ of sewage.” In this collision, Darsee asks  “Can’t you hear the tunes, stinking?” The song deflates; the bell emits a dissonant vibration.

With dissonance, Bell Logic operates with bathos[1], composing a sequence of anticlimaxes that are adorned by jingles, jangles, crowds of voices, silences, and the ever-present tolling bell. Darsee suggests that “In my belief, the world disappears by eating its anus. / Nothing to fear. Compare collapsing.” Consistently, the text deploys a series of linguistic turns, jarring us into unknown territory. The sequence is immediately stopped, driving the bell’s audience into a disillusioned sentimentality. For example, “Despot, dancing” orchestrates a dissonant poetic, creating a texture that searches for climaxes. Instead, the poetry falls deeper into absence, the noiseless, where “a bell without a tongue is a head without a bell” concatenates into “a child-likesto suffocate.” Bell Logic’s diminutions create a stymied harmony, and this system of bathotic silences exposes the monuments, the consistent figures “in which a viewer is reminded of authority.”

Bell Logic conflates language with material, noise with language, and silence with texture, crafting a poetic foil comparable to compositional fugues. The fugue, in music, introduces a principal theme that’s played simultaneously with sounding melodic lines to create a counterpoint, which operates harmonically interdependent while retaining an independent melodic contour. This process imbues a poetic stupor onto us, systematically hiding and revealing material and sound in Bell Logic. The fugue poetics imitates the steadily tolling bell, a new voice that Darsee situates in the empty bell tower. This linguistic imbrication is refined and transformed from the counterfugue into a true melodic fugue, a systematic imitation interweaving repetitions to reveal its core: a monument to admire. Darsee writes “Monument, too deep now to hide its bell. As it is with rain, suffocates sound,” in a revealing conclusion. The poems search for monuments as guidance, presumably for revelatory refuge, because “monuments speak of this light as warmth, owed.”

Despite only containing 35 pages, Bell Logic manages to create a sonic and poetic texture that requires rereading. The complexity of the layered fugue emerges as the text is revisited. The cross-references and multi-faceted conflations link the poems together into a systemized harmony. In “Fugue [A cymbal, please],” Darsee introduces a self-referential mode of composition, writing:

Having catalogued the incident and drowned the papers
Having addressed the parties and drowned the politic
Having signed the document and drowned the conflict
Having filed for the certificate and drowned the seal
Having achieved the achievement and drowned

There is a meticulous process of composing a bell’s score, to detail its stratified vibrations and the energy they possess. Imagine the kinetic while faced with dispossession: a deficit. The body folds into the bell, joining the growing noise. Darsee writes “my body is a mosaic on a house owned by another” as the materiality of sounds is cataloged and questioned. Bell Logic interrogates the bureaucrat, the state, the masculine, the antihero, the noise, the quotidian, and the immense. But its clamorous poetry presents its commentary through  anticlimactic caesuras “[i]n which nothing happens. In which penetration is a figment of disaster’s communication. In which penetration. In which abjection. In which place removes itself from the reflection.”

Bell Logic proposes that “there is no metal like memory.” Language, by means of poetics, vibrates, and a calculated logic emerges (though not immediately). Overtaken by the “frenzy of material, frenzy of discharge,” we are required to learn how to navigate the sonic topography. The collection features a sequence of curriculums that teaches us to decipher the logic of the bell, to “microdose semen,” and to listen to the prognostic voice. Darsee writes “my own voice, prognostic, like an angel or mantic hole for danger, is Clear and made for weeping,” delivering dictations that fill the chambered nation. To read Bell Logic, Darsee teaches us to echolocate, traversing a sonic landscape that established a rule “to learn better is to turn off the lights.” To engage with Darsee’s poetics, we are urged to forfeit themselves to the bell.

The score is composed to disguise its punctures; however, the silences (or caesuras) allow us access to the poetry’s logic. Darsee’s idiosyncratic construction is reminiscent of the visual scores created by the artist Jaap Blonk. Specifically, Blonk’s Triangle Stories provide an impenetrable musical composition composed for a soloist or small ensemble. The polygon triangles are accompanied by sparse instructions with the most pertinent mandate requiring the performer “to strive for a mood of storytelling.” Engaging with Blonk’s visual scores compels the musician to forfeit themselves to the logic of the song, traversing sonic landscapes where absence becomes the guiding point. The ensemble then engages, from a single instrument, a harmonic fugue, whether it’s a ringing triangle or a tolling bell. Darsee accomplishes this on the page, allowing the score to collapse and subsequently dilate. The collection gives deluges, and subsequently deprives the page of language, making us an instrument in its poetic texture.

Beneath the dysfunctional bell, Darsee signals several collapses. Fueled by counterpoints, “a whistle obsesses the air,” pushing us into the chapbook’s sequence of anticlimaxes. Bell Logic is overrun by the rings, jingles, and vibrations of a metal bell, a tolling head, and faced with potential dispossession of monumental warmth. We must navigate a duplicitous sonic topography. Noise and silence composed together become the genesis of Darsee’s poetics, one of intensity and anticipation. Darsee writes, “a flood relative to my speaking is set / to demolish itself through speaking.” The collection threatens to deflate–or collapse entirely–but is sustained by its monuments. The collection places these immense figurines as the composer, onlooking as “the municipal district floods,” and despite the deluge “visible is the peak of monument. Twin bureaucrats doggie paddle for mercy.” Deployed by the anticlimax, the poetic caesura, Darsee composes their harmonic bell-driven collection that tolls, vibrates, and disappears, leaving us searching the pages for its melodies and counterpoints.

Bell Logic, by Zoe Darsee. Spiral Editions, 2023. 35 pages. $12.00, stapled chapbook.

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 othersHe is currently an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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[1] Elise Houcek introduces “the bathos of the bell” in her blurb, located on page 2 of the collection.