by Joyelle McSweeney
Fence Books, 2012
96 pages / $15.95 buy from Fence
1. “Hold a cheerleader’s cadaver up to Nature.”
Percussion Grenade is full of these lines that leave me a little breathless, a little confused, satisfied, sad, all sorts of things. I think the dead cheerleader is an accusation: evidence against the concept of nature.
2. “I maketh you lie down in fracked pastures
in central Pennsylvania
o my blood boils, my tapwater burns”
My favorite part of this book is The Contagious Knives: A Necropastoral Farce which made me put down the book and step away, walk around the block a few times, and then finish the book.
3. Since Kyle Minor wrote on this book here I’m going to try to focus on the The Contagious Knives and a few other sections of the book that he didn’t focus on.
4. I think some concepts that Tim Morton uses in his books Ecology Without Nature and The Ecological Thought are useful for thinking about the necropastoral. The essays Dark Ecology of the Elegy and Queer Ecology are also interesting to read along side Percussion Grenade. The authors are not strangers, and other people have talked about them together.
5. Object Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism might also make an interesting groundwork for looking at Percussion Grenade, the rest of McSweeney’s work, and the Necropastoral, but I’m not sure what to say about it at this point.
6. “The ecological thought includes negativity and irony, ugliness and horror.“ This quote from Tim Morton seems like it applies to the Necropastoral of Percussion Grenade.
7. “To appear to be acting masculine, you aren’t masculine. Masculine is Natural. Natural is masculine. Rugged, bleak, masculine Nature defines itself through contrasts: outdoorsy and extraverted, heterosexual, able-bodied—disability is nowhere to be seen; physical wholeness and coordination are valued over spontaneity.” From Queer Ecology
8. McSweeney has a particular interest in the marginalized, the other, all of the opposites of able-bodied, heterosexual, extraverted. She’s interested in how a particular kind of power or ability is derived from instability. The Contagious Knives is full of allusions to Tiresias, the archetypal seer, who happens to be transgender and blind.
9. “My Prius drives to the reservoir for some system downtime
without me: to blow off steam. There runoff collects
from picturesque slopes and shops. O Jeunesse, Dream
Prius, Brainless, Brained.”
Mont Blanc (lines 1-4) – Joyelle McSweeney
“The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Mont Blanc (lines 1-6) – Percy Bysshe Shelley
10. The Prius replaces the mountain and Ravine of Arve as object of aesthetic and philosophical contemplation. The Prius becomes a sort of liaison to the non-human, communing with the runoff.
11. In The Contagious Knives Shelley’s everlasting universe of things, from Mont Blanc is transformed into “the fetid universe of things.”
“The postmodern mode of Shelleyan excess or the Keatsian uncanny has not to my knowledge been fully theorized within an ecological context; but certainly the “necropastoral” for which Joyelle McSweeney has become a forceful advocate is one of its strongest contemporary manifestations. If asked to find a lineage for this writing in American poetry (yes, I realize how provincial I’m being, but that is my area of expertise), I would pick out Emily Dickinson (as so often the great foil and other for her contemporary Whitman), Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, Sylvia Plath, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Alice Notley. (You will notice this second lineage is more heavily weighted toward femininity and queerness, which is probably not accidental; I would also emphasize the importance of Rimbaud and Baudelaire.) The revelatory encounter with uncanny objects, bodies, and drives dominates this poetry, which is much harder to reduce to a program or politics than the relational mode; this is no doubt the core of its strength and necessity, in Morton’s view.”
13. The King Prion poems appeared in the Necropastoral chapbook. A prion is maybe one of the strangest
organisms proteins things that I know about. See:
“Prions propagate by transmitting a misfolded protein state. When a prion enters a healthy organism, it induces existing, properly folded proteins to convert into the disease-associated, prion form; the prion acts as a template to guide the misfolding of more proteins into prion form. These newly formed prions can then go on to convert more proteins themselves; this triggers a chain reaction that produces large amounts of the prion form.” From Wikipedia.
14. The Prion is queer, or uncanny, because it stretches the boundaries of what we can think of as alive. The Prion is what Morton might call a “strange stranger.”
15. All characters in The Contagious Knives could be thought of as strange strangers. In The Ecological Thought, Morton describes the strange stranger as “liable to change before our eyes, and our view of them is also labile.” For example, Louis Braille is described as, a “kiddie Oedipus”, “a teenage girl”, a “girlboyteen,” a “crackerjack cum harajuku.”
16. The King Prion poems have this aggressive & violent tone, the voice of the cartoon sexual predator “-Hoooooooo / Wolf whistle’d and Cadillac’d” http://gifsoup.com/webroot/animatedgifs1/1273761_o.gif
17. McSweeney uses cars:
“…let me maketh a place for you in my glade, let me drive you in my nickel-plated Escalade.”
From The Contagious Knives
“the big metal bird went whup whup whup
with my blood it was whet as it went up up
a girl in the tread and a girl on the blade
a girl in night vision and a girl on nightraid
defibrillate night’s sternum with your enfilade
defibrillate night’s sternum with your Escalade
till she wears her martyr’s dressing like a coach wears Gatorade”
From Avarice Reverie, USMC in Phoebe
18. The car becomes a sublime object; the Escalade, is sublime in its opulence and absurdity; it completely lacks utility. While one might argue something similar about the linguistic opulence of both Shelley and McSweeney, Percussion Grenade is aggressive about doing something. It has goals. It is critical politically and socially, and asserts that a poem can exist as purpose, beyond itself. A book like this can remind us that Bradley Manning and Drones and Escalades and Prions and fracking and champagne and Gatorade all exist in the same world.
19. That quote comes from the Swan in The Contagious Knives. Both the Swan and the Devil are trying to seduce an un-incarnated? Louis Braille in the underworld. They’re competing for souls or youth. They fight over Louis, who is plotting all along to murder both of them and take over. It’s worth excerpting part of this dialogue.
Devil: Chaser! Chaise Lounger!
Swan: Bulimic! Bored Priest!
Devil: Bored priest? I’m King of the Fiends.
Swan: I wonder. Or just a boaster? A stew hen pretending to be a rooster?
Devil: You’ll soon see who’s chief defiler.
Swan: Don’t Forget I’ve Dined at your café and it’s a bistro: quick, quick.
Not much beating in that little stick.
20. Identity in the Underworld of The Contagious Knives is decentralized, malleable, labile. Much like in Lynch’s films Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, or the Shakespearean forest, all the players play different parts throughout the piece, and it’s hard to tell when a character is playing vs. some other thing.
21. Like DeLillo’s book of the same name, this is also a place that trash goes, but isn’t like, transcendent trash, it will never disappear, it doesn’t get thrown into the sun, not a place that you can forget about. The play takes place in the margins of death, but even the Underworld in The Contagious Knives (or the Odyssey or the Iliad for that matter) is inside the world, the barrier is permeable, and classically is is possible to return from a katabasis.
22. “Rather than maintaining its didactic or allegorical distance, the membrane separating the Pastoral from the urban, the past from the future, the living from the dead, may and must be supersaturated, convulsed, and crossed. The Crossing of this membrane is Anachronism itself.” From Necropastoral
23. “I wonder if we can imagine a reconfigured or non-configured Sublime, that does not rely on the topographical maps the Romantics configured but exists as obscurity, all inside, inside the atom, say, that is simultaneously also all outside, on the impossible-to-imagine denatured Moebius strip of the ampersand or Lyotard’s libidinal band? What if it were not a circuit but a zone?” Joyelle McSweeney on Montevidayo. In the same post you can see McSweeney struggling with the notion of sublime in Mont Blanc.
24. In the climactic scene of The Contagious Knives, Louis Braille utters the phrase, “Now I am become a zone of violence,” which echoes the line of the Bhagavad Gita, made famous by J. Robert Oppenheimer upon detonation of the first atomic bomb “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” (Bhagavad Gita Ch.11, v.32) Instead of the apotheosis or transcendence of the sublime, the zone of violence “translates.”
25. As Louis Braille expands the sublime zone of violence the world fills with blood. The space itself bleeds, boundaries are “convulsed and supersaturated”; Louis Himself is drowned by the blood that he lets out. The organic matter of the “Natural,” which seemed safely internal, floods the scene, translating the play into a homogenous field of organic matter. The blood-flood is the necropastoral. It implicates everything.