POETRY
Poetry as Alchemy

Ariana Reines
Mercury
(Fence, 2011)


Ariana Reines casts a powerful spell with her sublimely hardcore poems in Mercury. It’s the Brooklyn writer’s third book after The Cow (2006), Coeur de Lion (2007), and her Obie Award-winning play, The Telephone (2009). In this new collection of long, connected poems, Reines works her own stunning brand of semantic alchemy to “pass through” the grimy screen of culture and language for a glimpse into the core/ore, the “luster of this world” that elevates and unifies us all. Like alchemists who believe that lead is just another form of gold, Reines sees the essential light that can be hidden in all aspects of life, however sad and ugly: encounters with skeevy pervs on the L train, damaged, neglectful parents, schizophrenic siblings, ambition, abusive lovers, Internet porn.

Reines’s goal to connect her readers with unalloyed beauty is laid out in the book’s title: Mercury is the Greek messenger to the gods, the magician. In alchemy, it’s the transmuting metal that transcends earth and heaven, life and death. The opening poems invoke the transportive powers of alchemy’s masters—Hermes, Artemis, Rozenkreutz, Nicholas Flamel. Alchemical symbols illustrate short spell-poems like “EMAIL/SORROW/MOON” and “FUMES/POWDER/ESSENCE,” which are crisp and evocative counterpoints to longer pieces that come at the truth from crazily varied directions with language that’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes trashy and plainspoken.

In the laugh out loud “Truth or Consequences,” the commandments for truth and art are revealed in a vision of beef jerky. In contrast, the devastating poem “When I Looked at Your Cock My Imagination Died” is an e-mail from an anonymous person outlining the shots for an Internet porn movie. Reines’s inventive, anti-poetic language brings us uncomfortably close to the strangled soul of the pornographer.

The poems that follow beg the question: At the root, aren’t we all whores to our desire, whether it’s for sex, fame, or even the truth? Reines struggles with this concept in “Rainer Werner Fassbinder” where she’s caught between her ambition to make pure art “a sacrifice melted down / To become the very ore of beauty that makes worlds” and desire for critical acclaim by a culture that’s corruptive. 

Perhaps Reines’s wise poem “Save the World” elucidates the poet’s artistic vision best; in it, she writes: “It is only through this mesh of faults / That I see.”

Contributor

Marietta Abrams

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