A Discussion of Cynthia Arrieu-King’s Manifest

Manifest (Switchback Books, Chicago, 2013), Cynthia Arrieu-King’s fourth collection of poems, opens with a quote from Alice Notley: “You still don’t have a face.” Compressed into the threshold tensions between the title and the epigram (borrowed from one of the eminent poets of the dream world), are the concerns of Arrieu-King’s poetry. It is a poetry that interrogates appearances by way of negation and inversion, which is to say, by invoking “some other version you don’t see,”  (“Night Available”) that may manifest, for example, in the “absurd alikeness of two/shining pints of water: one bubbled, one still.” (“Belonging”). This two-sidedness is signaled by a table of contents split in half (sans numerals) and in the ambiguous dream-image ending to the final sequence of the first poem of the collection, “Ode to Not Dreaming,” in which a dog’s tail must be cut in half in order for the dog to heal. (More about this later.) The poet shares a modernist obsession with animation and movement verses “stillness,” (whose face do we wear when we sleep?) and with “What flies apart…the incomplete, the impermanent, imperfect and wilder besides…” (“Wabisabi, Nebraska”) In a book layered with the “besides” of simile, her self-effacing speaker admonishes:

xxxxxxxxDon’t believe for a minute that similes endure
xxxxxxxxor that like means anything large scale, (see “like minds”)

xxxxxxxxLike-minded, I’ve been stuck with myself. (“Poem to My Younger Self”)

Indeed this poet likes inquiring after the unseen other: “Who knows what aspects of dreams and reality/ run down orange halls in a parallel sense?” (“Ode to Not Dreaming”).  She is keenly aware of self and surroundings, not afraid to be whimsically vulnerable in the face of her readers, and funny.

In a poem titled “Explaining the Sublime,” which just might be at the heart of Arreiu-King’s project, her speaker strives to put Rilke’s “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror” in new light:

xxxxxxxxBut how can a waterfall make you afraid? she asks.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxLike you look
xxxxxxxxinto a canyon and a handful of pearls drops
xxxxxxxxthrough your chest, I say.

xxxxxxxxShe blinks. I spread my arms out:
xxxxxxxxExtreme love, when you’re scared by how much you love someone.

xxxxxxxxShe says, I’ve not experienced that yet.

xxxxxxxxSo, I go retrograde, or long as in an involved classroom discussion,
xxxxxxxxto explain fear or the sublime
xxxxxxxxto the girl who missed weeks
xxxxxxxxbecause a doctor misdiagnosed her with cancer.

Like the dream world the poet frequently references, the sublime can’t be explained so much as experienced. And, as in the dream world, the nature of knowing involves a certain amount of not knowing: “As if this anything can be explained.” (“Bonds”)  Arrieu-King moves her knowing forward through mix-up: “Don’t go back to sleep, I say to a knock on the door….,” (“Ode to Not Dreaming”), an inside-out approach that appears more subtly in this line from “How Do You Define Bliss, Love”: “The birds all trying to sing freedom and beauty / are risks that need a hideout..” We aren’t accustomed to thinking of birds as risks, nor of freedom or beauty as risks necessarily needing to hide out – quite the opposite. Freedom is vaingloriously coupled with “expression” in the U.S.A. and what is beauty if we can’t see, hear, or touch it (if only in our dreams)? But, Arrieu-King is also a poet of intimacy, so her work calls to mind the Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill’s definition of poetry as that which we say when we think no one is listening, that which is overheard. Such is a poetry that requires a hideout in order to manifest. At the same time, Arrieu-King, who is of a generation come of age on war (we’ve been at it pretty much since the early 90’s) calls our attention to and undermines any sentimentality or cliché in regard to nationalism parading as “freedom” or “beauty” through her own formal “camo” (slang for camoflauge) demonstrated in a sophisticated yet seemingly random patterning of individual words as well as images that appear and reappear throughout the collection like brightly lit chimes sounding off the deflected light of her frequent mention of colors. “In this art, / each ordinary mosaic separates to single shells” (“Ode to Not Dreaming”) she explains in an encoded expression of ars poetica. Thus a closer look at “risks that need a hideout..” reveals that the shell of “hideout” – cut in two, as the book is (and as a dog’s tail is early on in the book) – contains its opposite: hide/out. The hidden must out. Authentic songs of “freedom and beauty” that are freedom and beauty, (such as those of Arrieu-King) are needed, must be “Manifest.”

The density of Arrieu-King’s metaphorical language in combination with the undercoating of war (“The war wears rubber shoes to hide its feet”) in “Ode to Not Dreaming,” and the aforementioned sense of the whimsical combined with numerical specificities and frequent references to painting or painters, call to mind the early work of the Irish poet Medbh McGuckian in On Ballycastle Beach. (Arrieu-King’s poems also occasionally share something in common with the equanimity of Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s long lines and recurring vocabulary of dreams in recent volumes, as well as with Brenda Hillman’s sparky inclination to personification.) However, Arrieu-King’s apparently autobiographical relationship to war in Manifest focuses most powerfully in relationship to her mother’s experiences in WWII Paris. In the sequence poem “L’Assemblée Nationale” we learn, in the third sequence:

xxxxxxxxWhen she was four,
xxxxxxxxmy mother crawled, a secret,
xxxxxxxxdown one arrondissement, across a bridge,
xxxxxxxxknees down another cobblestone mile,
xxxxxxxxGermans sniping from the top of L’Assemblée Nationale,
xxxxxxxxthe largest building downtown.

xxxxxxxxThunder roll of bombardment or not, her mother crawled above her,
xxxxxxxxmother an arm and legs shelter.

In the first and second sequences, her images suggest pronged shapes (the metal frame of an umbrella and human ribs, respectively) that will in this the third sequence, develop into the mother’s protective arms, legs, torso. In an astonishingly apt assemblage for the final sequence of the poem, Arrieu-King evokes “a brand of mother – say, / a many-faced Picasso – red, framed, grandly lit, and known…” such that we are forced to see the mother from the eyes of the child-who-will-be-the-speaker’s-mother’s perspective, and that mother’s “crimsons burning the stillest face” under light of night explosions. (As I hope is noticeable by now, the words “still” and “face” are repeat performers in Arrieu-King’s lexicon.) But, as Arrieu-King’s strategy is to provide variations on realities by way of their shadows or in terms of negation, so in this final sequence, the mother she is describing appears to be one that, rather than sheltering her daughter across the cobbles of Paris, leaves her daughter behind.

In the overlay of realities that Arrieu-King creates, facilitated by clipped syntax and an attention to line breaks that is riveting,  part of the pleasure we experience as readers is in the tension of uncertainties. A later poem from among the mother series, titled “French Mother with Tornado Sirens in Background,” gives “the mother” a voice: “I don’t know why I was such a dog for all of you.” This could be read as the ordinary complaining voice of a mother-who-loved-too-much, except we already know about the mother who crawled above her daughter on all fours to protect her, so that together they might escape annihilation. “Give me a real dog,” the grownup daughter-now-a-mother (or, perhaps it is the grownup daughter of the grownup daughter-now-the-speaker’s-mother) says next. We are again reminded of that dog evoked at the beginning of the book in “Ode to Dreaming,” a dog who can’t stop licking a wound. This dog, the dream-vet says, must have its tail cut “in two” – as the collection is and as, perhaps, is necessary for escape from the bonds that sometimes still life us. (In the second half of the book, “Bonds,” a sequence poem with Houdini at its heart, continues this theme.)

As the above examples demonstrate, one of Arrieu-King’s gifts is the ability to mix and invert vocabularies in such a way that realities delightfully blend, even as they maintain their glittering distinctiveness. Here’s another example. “Deer of Los Angeles” begins:

xxxxxxxxThey overhear but don’t understand
xxxxxxxxa man moving his mouth:
xxxxxxxxI’m writing a script about
xxxxxxxxa girl who’s afraid of cars!

xxxxxxxxA Mercury Cougar glazes past, red, and parks.
xxxxxxxxThey touch their noses to convertible hoods.

Arrieu-King makes new the synecdoche of the “hood” when she engages car tops amid a neighborhood of creatures, natural and human-forged, with converted perspectives: deer listen to a man talking about a girl who is afraid of cars, while the deer “touch their noses,” in an intimate gesture, to a car named for a predator. Shortly after, Arrieu-King’s speaker refers to the “spray-painted flanks” of the deer. (Wait a minute, we say, are these real deer or billboards?) In a marvelous and completely surprising snap-shut/open-up ending, they are real deer again (not that they ever weren’t) for “thirteen minutes… slowly becoming men.” Anyone who has attended a Pueblo Indian deer dance or read Linda Hogan’s poem “Deer Dance,” will be struck by this wonderfully and weirdly urban inversion of that ceremony.

We trust the speaker of these poems because she puts her fear on the table, makes a slightly self-effacing joke about it, and proceeds to offer images that are sensually beautiful, while ending on profound metaphysical inquiry.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxYou break out
xxxxxxxxan emerald velvet sack and dump it out:
xxxxxxxxdiamond questions. Can a soul be cut? (“How Do You Define Bliss, Love”)

Notice the sonics of destruction (“break,” “sack,” “dump”) among the jewels. Arrieu-King’s balancing act may tip toward a Gnostic distrust of the manifest world, but she’s far too enamored with connection to land there long. (That “cut” is a negative that adds up to a positive connect.) Mixed in with her delight and wit is a yearning that places her among contemporary descendants of the Romantics and a patience that places her among the wise. “How in this confusion can beloved things accumulate?” her speaker asks in the final poem. (“Waiting”). “Slowly,” she answers, like any skilled conjurer/dreamer: “the thought of this living room/ and everyone I love gathering.”