(Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013)
Aphoria is an antiquated term synonymous with barren, specifically regarding female reproduction. There’s also aporia, which is (according to thefreedictionary.com) “A figure of speech in which the speaker expresses or purports to be in doubt about a question,” plus there’s aphasia, having to do with language disorders, losing the ability to speak, etc. These etymologies are worth considering in the context of Jackie Clark’s Aphoria, a gnomic book that could be “about” any of those ideas: language breaking down, a speech-act of doubt, or a sort of barrenness.
Aphoria is made of three sections (“We Gather At Night,” “The City Salutes Itself,” and “I Live Here Now”), each section comprised of poems titled “( )” (which, to this mathy reader, seems a softened way of saying null set). There is a seemingly consistent first-person speaker (one assumes the “I” in “I Live Here Now” is the same “I” included in “We Gather At Night”) and there is, in many of the poems, a “you” (or “we”) that’s never clarified but which often reads as a beloved (“I am asking / that you not/find anything /wrong”). The poems are fragmented structurally and with regard to meaning: “We move / quickly through imaginary tangents, / / speculate on the how as opposed to the what. Let’s talk about/the thing instead of the other thing” (from the opening of the third poem in “The City Salutes Itself”).
What complicates Aphoria is its lack of specificity: the only proper noun in the book is “Polaroid,” which lends the book a terseness, a withholding of much other than hints, intimations—a technique that makes following whatever’s happening difficult. This isn’t to say that such aridity prohibits serious beauty: “The door / remains open / and asks you / not to resist / the key” is a beautiful, haunting passage, also airy, unmoored, aphoristic (cf. the book’s title). Such deft formulations draw into starker relief the book’s narrative paucity. By Aphoria’s end, one might conclude that something has happened, that the speaker has been on or through some sort of process or journey—is perhaps trying to authentically connect, to escape the infinite in of a single consciousness. Yet because of Clark’s aestheticized indirection, the book may leave some readers—this one included—wondering what actually happened, wondering moreover if that is even a valid consideration.
The book’s second poem (in its entirety)—“The coyote- / lemon horizon / returns / I limit / the tea-trade / and disperse / expectations / throwing them / by the handful / at everything / I remember / but I don’t / remember much.”—is representative of “We Gather At Night”: brief poems, short lines, and a gauzy use of language that can be transfixing and maddening (“coyote-lemon horizon” is fresh, but one wonders what limiting the tea-trade has to do with it). In “The City Salutes Itself,” the lines are broken asymmetrically, and the prior section’s declaratives now reach beyond the speaker. In “I Live Here Now” the poems are back to being left-justified but have picked up the second section’s flutter, appearing like the results of a fine-tuned seismograph measuring footsteps. There seems to be movement from the first section to the third having as much to do with form as content. Clark’s I is trying to connect, to be of the world, and the book ends up feeling like a journey from the purity of solitude to the chaotic jangle of being among others: “It is menacing / to acquire fences / to drive down / from the mountain / day after day” she writes in the final poem of the first section, and by the end of “I Live Here Now” we get “I might as well be alone in a field, / I might as well let my tits hang out, / the rest of this is just some fabricated protocol, / and I know how to fuck myself.” It’s of note for any number of reasons, not least that this is the first time the speaker’s used coarse language, and that what/wherever this is, this now, is different from being “alone in a field.” The book ends up seeming to try to enact a sort of calculation: this is what being together requires.
If Aphoria coheres, it does so by indirection, which makes judging the book’s accomplishment tough. Though deeply withheld and withholding and often featuring language so compressed and whittled it at times startles (“The field is wide. / The field is empty./Injustice is debatable, / as is worth, / or the rounded blowfish.”), Aphoria ultimately seems to be trying to work through a consideration of the cost and difficulties of connecting, of moving outward. Here is where the issues of cutting and poetry come in to play: saying a book of poetry is attempting to address the cost of connecting, or that it’s trying to consider the difficulties of authentically exposing the self (which could be another way to describe the central drama enacted in Aphoria) is general in the extreme. Clark’s poems sometimes forced this reader to pause on the page, scanning both for the magic that made the lines work in such a way, and for whatever got left behind in the poems’ pruning: so many hints but so little to know what I was being hinted toward. Perhaps this is the sort of barrenness Clark wanted the reader to grapple with.
WESTON CUTTER is from Minnesota and is the author of You'd Be A Stranger, Too (BlazeVOX Books, 2010) and All Black Everything (New Michigan Press, 2012).