The poems in Propagation might seem quiet at first, or early on in the book, consisting mostly of simple phrases restated again and again with different line breaks, subtle emphasis shifting in language we might otherwise overlook, and while that might be true in some cases, don’t be fooled: these poems are loud shouts and angry jokes, raucous and just as ready to hit you as to be read. And this is a good thing during a manufactured crisis in poetry having to do with affect and identity and stuff you already know about if you’re all conversant with what’s going on in the poetry teacup right now.
What’s great is that all that stuff is beside the point. Delivered in a deadpan lateral slide that manages to recall both Gertrude Stein and Larry Eigner, Propagation is a defiant book, ready to just provide you with language you’ve taken for granted and let you figure it out. Again, this is a very, very good thing. Propagation doesn’t so much present with you with poetry to appreciate or interpret as it presents you with words and phrases cut mostly like chunks off vernacular language and just offered, take it or leave it, life for example the following excerpt from an untitled poem:
this is really
thanks and you
So what’s above is both devoid of content and overdriven with it: devoid because we as readers don’t “get anywhere” beyond a stutter of I, you, this, and thanks, and overdriven because the more insistent the excerpt gets at connecting “you” and “thanks” the more sinister it seems, as if the thanks might be forced or insincere or desperate or all three. Many of the poems here work like this: what seems wan gets pounded home with great force until something as ephemeral as a thank you lands in a constantly shifting territory between and I and a you that don’t need to be named or described because it’s not them that matter it’s the gesture trapped in the stammer.
And as deft as Elrick is with empty generalities, she’s just as good with the kind of local and particular that you might be looking for in a “normal” poem, as in the following excerpt:
to know why this svelt pixie
is cutting the floor to pieces
why you approach on impulse
she danced with two knives in the hallway
circling her intensity and anguish
which has something to do with Tecumseh (?)
vaguely but it does why
this girl is stabbing her kidney
do you want
the highest stiletto
the best speech
want the schooling
(you said you did in the application)
So above we slide from a query into a bizarre cluster of scenes involving an intense woman or women with knives and back into a sardonically prosaic query that twists into a kind of accusation, a wide slide containing several different kinds of violence in the poem and directed at both “you” and you as you make your way through the steady even move word by word through text both impersonal and almost insinuating, if not angry.
The book proceeds in these two directions, a kind of intense stammer and a stuttered spill of pointed information, sometimes keeping them separate and sometimes crossing the two. What’s most striking about the poems is that they balance the above-mentioned facelessness and lack of affect with a huge amount of affect lingering just outside the poem, or often in an ending twist. Many of the poems here operate almost like jokes, with iterations of simple phrases given a sudden left turn in the last line or lines. A good example of this is in a repetitive page-long untitled poem (all the poems in the book are untitled) about a sword swallower that ends with the simple statement “six / bucks.” The poems here both stay out of the fight of any kind of lyric “I” but also avoid completely detached delivery of facts; what they do instead is bear a kind of remote but implicitly angry witness.
The witnessing going on in the poems is thanks largely to the subject matter of the individual poems, which don’t cohere as a thematic whole (and don’t feel lacking for it) but often focus on some kind of work, whether it’s an office job, a hostage negotiation, sword swallowing or sex traffic. That, or violence. Or knowledge. Or two of the three or all three at once. Elrick doesn’t treat work etc. as narrative so much as position, a fixed point around which she can fix and refix language until the subject, whatever it is, is covered without leaving the poems seeming like they’re either abject depictions of abject subjects and persons on one hand or like shrugworthy information on the other.
Some good examples of work (and violence) in the poems arrive throughout, as in the hostage negotiation poem:
have you got any hostages
are there other people in there with you?
don’t say I’m the negotiator say
my name’s Joe can we talk
The poem takes the form of advice given to the negotiator about how to do his job effectively, but there’s something off about the need for advice: why does “Joe” need it if this is already his job and who is giving it to him? By both getting involved and staying away from a narrative or lyric I Elrick creates a scary and actually funny poem about the boredom of being a hostage negotiator, implying that negotiations have to go on but are going to lead nowhere. Elsewhere the work/violence/knowledge reportage is a lot more direct, as in the following two excerpts, first from a very bloody poem:
coming out and
the blood is coming out
the blood is flowing
the blood pools and
and the blood is
and this goes on for four pages, wandering into wonder over whether or not “the blood” is real and the unsolved question of whom it’s flowing from. The poem simply continues to stumble through a widening circle of knowledge and speculation (in the poem) about the blood without ever even reflecting on what might have caused the blood shed, much less whether it’s good or bad.
Elsewhere the poems are more straightforward, as in the following excerpt about a person crying on the porch of a trailer:
on the porch
at the trailer park on
and cry on it
porch crying porch
There isn’t ever any story about why the textual person is crying, or what the reaction of others is; the poem expands a bit to decide the porch is regal but otherwise sticks to hammering home the simple fact of crying until it takes on emotional heft regardless of the lack of information we’re provided as readers. That’s the real genius of these poems; they both remain distant from and simultaneously inhabit all the suffering and grotesquery that Elrick presents.
Stark and flat but alive with subtle feints at a flood of action and emotion, the poems in Propagation steadily populate an unsteady, cruel world, one with no happy ending because there is no ending, only the text of the poems themselves. Some list foods, some list names, some explore Elrick’s involvement in the world she creates more directly, but all of the poems in Propagation are massively smart dissections of an indifferent world and how we struggle to locate ourselves in it.
Nicholas Grider is the author of the forthcoming short story collection Misadventure (A Strange Object, 2014).