Reviewed January 27, 2012 by Daniel Moysaenko.
Ezra Pound (along with Ernest Fenollosa) famously analyzed Chinese characters as pictograms, finding associative meaning attached to each of the ideogram’s pictorial qualities. A dot and a king indicate “jewel” without much trouble, but how does the pictogram of a mother relate to its ideogrammatic meaning, “plum”? Pound’s lack of familiarity with the language aside, this exercise was a form of poetic play for him. Ariana Reines takes up a similar game in her newest book, Mercury. Alchemical symbols start each of the five sections and appear at intervals in the eponymous one. While some of these symbols are accurately identified via corresponding text, such as the image of what is clearly an hourglass and the corresponding mention of hours, others become a Poundian pictogrammatic riddle. What appears to be an envelope missing its bottom and standing up like an “E” is matched with “email” rather than its actual alchemical meaning, “week.” What this associative play accomplishes and how it relates to Reines’s book as a whole remains remote and mysterious, although the molding of a system of (alchemical) transformation seems to be at stake.
Physicality surrounds Mercury. One is told to pay close attention to bodies, appearances, sensation, and most importantly, their seeming ability to provide solutions. Human beings rely on bodies to function, on sex, the anchoring sensations of pain and pleasure, and the comforting notion that what appears to be an envelope is an envelope. In her stronger poems, Reines does not just demolish the insistence on a correspondence between physicality and the non-empirical; she accepts the terms, becomes a slave to bodies and a victim of thought, enacting life’s often difficult, yet intoxicating peculiarities. I find myself enticed and unnerved by Reines’s breathless, iambic cadence, by her frank, candid observations—the crisp detail and graphic sexuality of her subject matter. But most of all, I revel in Reines’s searching. Mercury is a venture through clear writing into a realm where certainty and simplicity collide with uncertainty and the complexities of social interaction. Reines is as quick to issue aggressive proclamations as she is to retreat into timid questions, creating a complex speaker whose escapades are abundantly on display.
In the process, one is presented with the difficulty of sincerity. After three or four poems involving hardcore sex, after all the mentions of butt plugs, fake nails, tans, and greased basketballs bouncing, I feel overwhelmed, as though stranded on some nightmarish, or at least carnivalesque porno set. Are these scenes actual experiences or opportunities for commentary? Does it matter? “I hate myself for watching,” Reines writes, mirroring the reader’s own voyeuristic position. The sex feels at odds with passages that gush with archaic cadence, syntax, and diction: “Whenever with a full heart you open the ark / Where all your promises are burning / To death and kept be the selfsame light of all things?” Reines knows just how far to push in one direction; the sentimental finds power in her turns. The inverted syntax of the first line and its “full heart” become palpable, purposeful moves of sound and image when “open the ark” appears. The second line breaks dramatically and then falls into its counterpoint (“to death”), allowing the coexistence of elegance and matter-of-fact commonplace. Reines’s ability to sustain this struggle throughout Mercury leaves me haunted. One inhabits the same shifting ground of thought and physicality that the speaker does. One must constantly move to avoid falling. And yet the poems’ demand for adjustment and engagement does not become tiring. I move naturally with the poems, hungry for the next line, the next poem, the next leap.
In the first poem of the collection, “Aria,” one is invited in, simply, sadly, rebelliously. “It is Wednesday,” the poem begins, “I don’t know who I am / How did I get here? I don’t know / That’s a lie.” Already, the speaker’s sincerity becomes problematic as the insistence on ignorance is toppled with “that’s a lie,” but the poem continues, qualifying the speaker’s statement:
In Reines’s hands, the traditional, first-poem invitation unsettles me with undertones of invasion, sex, and expectation. The speaker denies herself identity so that spectators may fill her emptiness, create her. Thus, it is the reader, rather than the speaker, who is saddled with the responsibility of representation, of determining fact from fiction. To classify Reines’s poems in Mercury as confessional would be an oversimplification and a mistake. “I want to hide what I dream / In a big boot, and wear the boot,” she writes in “The Four Seasons,” at once concealing her thoughts without ridding herself of them. Sharing, shocking, or unburdening may be the means by which the poems appear but not Reines’s essential concern. Her writing is more a function of walking, her wearing her boot and living. The poems shock and unveil incidentally, it seems. The speaker undertakes a larger investigation.
The attempt to solve emotional problems through the physical, since the physical often seems to cause such problems, demolishes itself in Mercury. Out of anger and disgust for brutish masculinity (“When you peed in the yard […] you shaved / & greased your body and stood over me like a pig”), she admits in the poem “Area,” “I wanted to kill but had nothing to kill / But myself.” At once an explanation for the self-destructive behavior in some of the poems, these lines also point to a tragic kindness: the refusal to direct anger at others. However, such kindness may have root in fear; it is better “To kill what hides // The light in me than make you / Dead, never to leave me alone.” Rather than challenge the empirical cause of pain and then find herself alone, the speaker turns inward, taking the reader along. The physical is a dead-end. Throughout Mercury, even love feels less important than total, alchemical transformation—the magic that is poetry. “Suturing one thing that is too meaningless to the other thing that is also too meaningless,” she writes, “and wondering if I can engender an eventual accumulation out of all of it instead of a baby.” The outcome sought is not physical, and it becomes increasingly doubtful that the physical can produce the desired outcome. Even “poetry’s not made of words,” but we work with what we can.
There is an odd balance to this vivid yet accessible work, a space between satisfaction and horror where one wants to visit often, knowing full well how easy it is to become bewildered or pulled under. Beyond her command of music and language, objective-correlative gems, pacing, and presentation of confusion and pain, Reines is able to create something ineffable. One may grope through her lines and dissect how they work but remain speechless; an element is left unsolved. And that is what makes solid poetry compelling and lasting. In Reines’s clear-cut style, she writes, “The way junky / Ladies suck on candy canes. I could disappear / Into that world forever”—the way Mercury charms and haunts, so could I.
Daniel Moysaenko hails from Cleveland, lives in Chicago, and is a reviews editor for The Volta.