Animate, Inanimate Aims by Brenda Iijima
(Litmus Press, 2007)
“If the creative writer pushes far enough into language, he finds himself in the embrace of thought.” That’s Lorine Niedecker, as quoted by Meredith Quartermain, in her review of Iijima’s Around Sea (Jacket 25). I understand this to mean something like if you get all the way down to most granular (the Planck length of language, so to speak), you’ll somehow magically arrive at the point of “as above, so below”, and thinking will occur. Another way to put this might be anecdotal. One of the best pieces of advice my son, who is a photographer, ever got were these words from an old pro: “Every square millimeter is on you.” Since then, Sam’s photos have never been the same. Or, to put it as Jules Verne did, in the epigraph to Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, “Look, with all your eyes, look” (Bellos translation). But are eyes enough? Let me answer myself with Zukofsky’s “If you once desired to be all eyes, you do not feel compelled any more unless it be to look at Shakespeare’s words as if they were tuned objects that strike off tones.” (Bottom: On Shakespeare, p.333, as quoted by Bob Perelman in his Foreword). How, and why, separate/distinguish-between the eye and the ear, then? When the senses work as one, all 999 of them, “the creative writer” has a chance to reach that Planck length, and the magical embrace of thought. I take thought here to mean the something big happening with/in every syllable. Which brings me, by a commodius vicus, to Brenda Iijima. Or at least to an aspect of her work, the aspect of Animate, Inanimate Aims (which I will call A,IA) that impresses me most: every grapheme, every phoneme, counts.
I need to mention two things before I get into her work. First, To quote the letter that accompanies my review copy: “the poems are bookended by a series of [Iijima’s ] own drawings and collages that illuminate a sensorium of “Spectral graffiti” where “Ostensibly / The world / Gestured the matador.” . I won’t be addressing those drawings and collages here. Second, there’s a puzzle vis-à-vis the text (fittingly enough, the first poem is titled “Puzzle”). I take the bold uppercase bits at the top of certain pages to be titles. What I don’t know is this: are the texts on the pages with no bold uppercase at the top separate, or are they parts of longer, titled, texts? Since half the time texts stop halfway down the page, format is no help. And since in many cases there are no obvious continuities between the text on one page and the text on the next, again, I don’t know whether I’m reading sequences or … I choose to bracket this just don’t know and to accept a degree of and and as well as either or.
Nevertheless. Because of. And and. This is a wonderful book. As I read I thought: Wow, this is huge. There’s tenderness:
Some green tea?
So you might live
To be 110
Right next door (3 lines away) there’s close observation of nature (and yes she knows that nature’s constructed blah blah blah -- and yet … and yet … sometimes: so what?):
Out to trowel soil
For this yearling
To explode into bloom
Any day now
Is that just a bit more tenderness? No. Those lines are followed directly by that which contextualizes our tenderness and awareness of the beauty (and wonder and and …) around us (the somewhat unnameable that plays havoc with our hearts):
Spectral graffiti is our
Unique labor. I imagine
By an ineradicable code
(A contrary) A difference (French)
An abyss prevails over rapture
Vertigo escorts daily over
There’s anger (righteous wrath) here too. At environmental degradation:
Pitted earth where the mines were
Turn over soil
Time and again
Mine and again
Hath utterly m. void Num 30:12
Thou hast m. void covenant Ps 89:39
They have m. void thy law 119:126
Be heirs, faith is m. void Rom 4:14
From the lion’s
Lust for revenge …
At war. The war. All the wars. (I transcribe a page in full):
In the case
Of the declarative sentence that goes
“War won’t go
A glazing on vocabulary
How we employ our words. In this case
And more war
Have it your way
This is the section
Of rocky human
Aims to be
But is porous
Fought for their
At the door
All of the time
“Have it your way”: the Burger King slogan. “The machines / fought for their / Lives”: do we even know what war is? These poems are never simple, never. Because, ahem, life or wherever it is we find ourselves (“the section / Of rocky human / Feelings”???) , which is right where these poems are, isn’t either.
And do they sing. To continue Niedecker’s gendered language, with which I began, boy, do they sing. I keep thinking of Zukofsky’s “upper limit music, lower limit speech”. And how, “[i]f the creative writer pushes far enough into language, he finds himself in the embrace of …” each. And and.
I await her next book eagerly. It’s called Rabbit Lesson, and is available from Fewer & Further Press. My copy’s on its way.
John Bloomberg-Rissman's most recent publications are No Sounds Of My Own Making, World0, and (forthcoming) A Spectrum of Other Instances. His work is anthologized in The Hay(na)ku Anthology Vol. II. His current projects are editing the anthology 1000 Views Of "Girl Singing" and constructing the interminable Autopoiesis. He has just been named co-editor of Leafe Press. You can catch him in action at Zeitgeist Spam.