Living Review: Caryl Pagel’s “Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death”

(Note: a living review is one intended to occur over the lifespan of a book — one naturally encounters a book of poems over a year or a decade rather than a day or a week, in which sense to fully review a book for purchase shortly after it appears can seem a disingenuous proposition, if a valuably disingenuous proposition. This review form is intended as an alternative, a record or representation of one reader’s ongoing relationship with a book. It is meant to expand and alter with time, each response integral to the whole and thus not replaced but amplified or reframed by a later thought. Check back. –AS)


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available here


Caryl Pagel’s first book has a sense of humor. It isn’t the first thing you’ll notice, it’s rather grim, and I sometimes wonder if I’ve imagined it, but no, it’s there, most evidently in “Common Plant & Animal Names (Existing & Not Existing),” also notably in the sonnets she called in her public letter “gothic, spooky” — especially “A War-Time Parade” and “Gravedigger.”


I suppose I could make a likelier statement, but it seems worthwhile to note that this undercurrent exists in a book that has, for good reason, been taken to be rather deadly in its serious matter and its serious impact.


I see it here:


                       I glimpse this minute your syrupy skull
                       bobbing along & cracking itself half-
                       open into a grin           Who can still           tell
                       if that’s my arm waving HELLO?           You who–
                       yooo whooo–can you?


and here:


                       Because I am the Gravedigger I can
                       no longer be the Mayor


and truth be told, even here:


                                                                                He says: I
                       watched in awe
           Says: I’ll tell you what
                       Horror
           I’ll tell: The small one ate
                       the large one on — his first flight out


That’s funny, right?


And seeing it here as an undercurrent, I confess that I begin to see it everywhere. The humor of deepest anxiety, the agape mouth confronted with true and crushing irony, true and overwhelming wonder. And thinking this way, I go so far as to imagine that the ending of “Verdical Hallucination,” NOT FUNNY, NOT AT ALL, has some amount of humor in it. It can’t be. I must be crazy, it’s a trick of reading I’m playing on myself.


Except, except: I think it actually isn’t.


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Close cousin to this kind of funny is terrified. Terrified is what I am reading “Levitation” and “A Vision,” the opening and closing poems in Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death. In a completely different way, I am terrified reading some of Cesaire’s poems. That aside, I can’t think of other poems that genuinely make my skin crawl:


                                                                                                       After recording a blank mouth slack hands
           straight back           all will conclude that what one witnesses is made: string smoke mirrors
           It is           not The walls hum & quake; a grim audible gasp escapes the lips of a           lady


or:


           See: there are dark soldiers at my back


           They compose an army


           This morning I am aware that if I take one step forward they will take one step forward


           If I take one step back I will join them


The key to my terror is the remarkable calm with which these lines are delivered. Though they seem to come from the furthest reaches of nightmare, the images are related so lucidly and with such simplicity that I am forced to confront them as ordinary occurrence. And they may well be ordinary occurrence — but damned if that isn’t the most frightening thought I’ve had in awhile.

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