June 24th, 2012 / 9:03 pm

A Few Notes about Joyelle McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade

The Montevidayans, a loose group of writers and poets and visual artists (including Joyelle McSweeney, Johannes Goransson, Lara Glenum, Danielle Pafunda, and, more loosely, Kate Bernheimer), are distinguished from the preponderance of those who are identified (or who self-identify) as avant-garde or experimental or “new” or otherwise willfully other, by their willingness to embrace and explore rather than to exclude, and by their idea that art can accommodate the high, the low, the middle, the sideways, the backwards, the constructive, the destructive, the deconstructive, the narrative, the anti-narrative, the lyric, the dramatic, the miniature, the epic, the restrained, the willfully artful, the willfully artless, the garish, the respectable, the kitschy, the hybrid, the hi-bred, the high bread, and the red hype. Where others out of explicit big-timing (and implicit self-protection or self-promotion) construct ever smaller boxes within which art might reside — and say, implicitly (and sometimes explicitly): because I reject your standard notion of rules, which are meant to bind and shame me, I will make an idiosyncratic notion of rules, which are meant to bind and shame all who are not like me — the Montevidayans, in general, say: Yes.

This is not the only reason I am drawn to their work (or to their ongoing discussion of their own work and the work of others, which might also be considered part of their work), nor is it the main reason. It’s the work itself which is exciting, and also the ever-evolving ideas that drive the work, most notably McSweeney’s notion of the Necropastoral, about which I’ve written, at some length, here. Also of interest are the ways in which the work of McSweeney and Goransson, in particular, is intertwined. (They’re married, but — and this is rather unusual — their work also seems to be married.)

In Percussion Grenade, McSweeney’s new book of poems and plays, the point of most obvious intersection is the play The Contagious Knives: A Necropastoral Farce. It is a play that is probably impossible to completely stage, except in the mind of the reader, and it is also a play that offers the reader an opportunity to direct it in many different ways — a different Contagious Knives with each reading. In these ways, it belongs to a small genre also occupied by Goransson’s book-length Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate. (about which, more here.)

The Contagious Knives begins with a monologue that precedes the rising of the curtain (and, indeed, the curtain doesn’t rise at all until the third scene of the first act.) The speaker is Louis Braille, but this Louis Braille is a fourteen-year-old girl in pink panties and a pop-star T-shirt from Target. The stage directions are worth excerpting:

As he speaks, he carefully dons a diadem of awful awls, spikes and knives, twining his golden curls artfully around them. He pulls a Victorian child’s sailor suit over his t-shirt and panties: a Harjuku cum Craker Jack look. He cakes his face white. He ties a brown leather strap around his eyes and inserts an awl into the right. In liquid eyeliner, he paints big black tear drops, swoops and lacerations down each cheek like a kiddie Oedipus. He finishes this off in black platform boots, stolen off a passed-out teenaged hustler.

Soon he gets into a mini-lover’s spat with Narcissus (who at play’s end morphs into Wikileaks hero Bradley Manning) about the means of the making, whom he instructs: “Okay, cry . . . But look alive. We have to set it up before we can serve it,” and, later: “It’s time to self-destruct. We’re going to rule this place because we got fucked, we got fucked and fucked and now we’ll be the King of all the Fuck-ups. Curtain up!”

Although the Montevidayans decry manifestoes, this might well be their ars poetica.

That’s not all there is to love about Percussion Grenade. The book also features several extended movements of poems. The King Prion sequence, which originally appeared in The Necropastoral chapbook, sits alongside the three-page Whitman-meets-Tarantino title poem (“In my gondola of clouds / In my / percussion grenade / I loaf and invite myself to lock and load / dine under the table / stir the alphasoup with my epiphaneedle . . .”); the “Hanniography,” which is a series of three monologues by “Hannie Oakley” and one by “Hammie Oakley”; and four “Poems for the Catastrophe,” which close the book in echo of Geoffrey Chaucer, a forefather of the Montevidayans: “time and tide / leave no man behind.”

For all those pleasures — each of these sequences deserve their own review, at a greater length than this one — what’s really special is the book’s third section, a dumping ground of sorts titled “Killzone 2,” after the first-person shooter for the PlayStation 3, and also after McSweeney’s ekphrastic poem of the same name, which seems to connect the video game to the tragedy of the contemporary soldier, and, by extension, to the contemporary young American who has bought into the rhetoric of corporate globalization (“I take a bullet / For every member of my team / A learned violence from the game of the year.”) The Killzone 2 poems are a more varied sequence, a thematically unified showplace of great formal variety, which includes a Necropastoral rewriting of Philip Levine’s “What Work Is” (titled: “What Work Is By Phil Levine”), an anaphoric spree with the neologistic title “Guadaloop” (which in its repetition of the word “Just” interrogates ideas of bigness, smallness, sacrifice, the value of human life, and the nature of justice), the long loose lines of “Septina” (“. . . The human race / shall be packed back into their toxic barrel and destroyed. Nothing could be / simpler / than undoing this species that wants to hold on to flesh like a pathetic flea, / black bonnet.”), and the culminating “Arcadia (Post-Caucasia) for the Caucasian Dead,” which for all its other undoings, also undoes Robert Lowell.

In Percussion Grenade, McSweeney (temporarily?) leaves behind the theorizing that undergirded the chapbooks that preceded it, and stretches out into the work itself. In the best sense, it seems a transitional volume. The ideas and tropes of earlier volumes are repeated and deepened, but there is a new freedom with and embrace of all the resources of language and poetic device appropriate to a project titled Percussion Grenade, whose prefatory prose poem, titled “Indications,” prescribes: “The pieces in this volume were written for performance and should be read aloud — a-LOUD!”


  1. New book by Joyelle McSweeney + New album by Amanda Jo Williams | Cautio Criminalis

      […] whose reviews I would read if he reviewed only brand of cat litter, has JUST published “A Few Notes about Joyelle McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade” at HTML Giant. (See also: Minor’s “A Few Notes on The Necropastoral by Joyelle […]

  2. Anonymous

      It’s stunning to me when people can come up with legitimate, well-grounded reviews of work that’s this tough. I previously had written Joyelle’s stuff off, but a friend loved Percussion Grenade so much that she ordered me a copy from Amazon, and my mind has been continuously blown for the last few days (did you follow the foreword’s advice and read it aloud, Kyle?). I too love Killzone 2 the most so far, in part because it seems the most accessible. It feels a little like a Matt Hart book (or maybe I’m just reading both at the same time and drawing parallels that aren’t there) : a bunch of pretty spot-on art theses connected by this scattered buckshot lyricisim. The preceding sections, while a lot harder in my opinion, are also really easy to get submerged in, if just because of the thumping percussion.

  3. Roxane

      She read from Percussion Grenade when we read together in Boulder, Colorado in April, and it was exhilarating. The way she performed the poems was so explosive, so bursting with life. I’ve never seen anything like it. As great as her work is on the page, it is even more electric when she performs it.

  4. Nick Demske

      Thanks for this. Supremely difficult work in that book and worth every second of attention it demands. Thanks for letting me add your insights to my own now.

  5. 25 Points: Percussion Grenade | HTMLGIANT

      […] 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 […]

  6. 25 Points: Percussion Grenade | LITERARY GIANT

      […] Since Kyle Minor wrote on this book here I’m going to try to focus on the The Contagious Knivesand a few other sections of the book that […]

  7. What is Contemporary Poetry? | Montevidayo

      […] Percussion Grenade by Joyelle McSweeney – Seth Oelbaum recently called Joyelle one of the three greatest living US poets, and that’s probably right. This is Joyelle’s best, most rambunctious, radical and necropastoral jam. (Also check out her new prose book Salamandrine: 8 Gothics.). Here’s something Joyelle recently wrote about the play, “Contagious Knives,” which is part of the book. Here’s a recent review in HTMLGiant. And another. […]