Rust or Go Missing by Lily Brown
(Cleveland State University Poetry Center, Cleveland, OH, 2011)
I began reading Rust or Go Missing, paying attention to my reaction to the poems on first pass, and found myself struggling with Brown’s syntax, usage, and form,. About halfway through the book I came across the opening stanza to the poem “Old with You”:
I wait for my wrist lines.
If I push them,
boxes will make themselves.
It was at this moment that my thinking about the poems crystallized in a single realization: I have no idea what’s going on in this book. Thus was evident to me the two-fold challenge of Brown’s poetry: the struggle, and frustration, of tying the poems meaningfully to concrete experience, and the ongoing revaluation of critical analysis the poems force upon the careful reader. The poems in Rust or Go Missing present isolated moments of experience that, at best, refer to a world that may be, with considerable effort, recovered through the language, and at worst leave me feeling as though I am on the outside of a running inside commentary. The best of the poems here -- “Knower,” “Water-Rocking,” “On Reading” -- deflect each poem’s subject into mystification; that is, these poems abstract the poet’s perception of an experience and at the same time re-inscribe something new in the world.
However, in other poems, I have a harder time trying to locate the subject in the speaker’s own experience, and I strain to make connections between the internal relationships of the lines, or within individual lines, or even between a poem and its title. The challenge became, for me, not so much experiencing the poems but struggling to read them. In many of the poems, I discovered that I didn’t trust the nouns or the syntax (as in the sample from “Old with You”).
Many of the poems exhibit the kind of inventive syntax and wordplay that characterizes Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons; in that sense, Rust or Go Missing challenges the reader to discover the internal logic of the stanzas, and individual lines, in the hope that there is something latent in the structure beneath. Sometimes, though, I have less a sense of formal inventiveness as I have of an attempt at abstraction. Abstraction as an aesthetic practice forgoes figuration to consider aesthetics -- in painting, of line and color, and in poetry, of syntax, language, and signification. This is all well and good, but I cannot escape the idea that abstracting is a process of taking away from something concrete. In the majority of Brown’s poems, I see what is on the page, but I am at a loss to ground the imagery in something concrete, which reduces the work to at best syntactical experimentation and at worst mere wordplay.
The poems in Rust or Go Missing are self-contained (as far as I can determine) and are all executed in the same style, which I might describe as echoic / elliptic. That is to say, I have the sense that not only are words left out (in terms of both function and conveyance), but that there is possibly a coherent narrative running underneath the world of the poems, a world the reader is attracted to by a few tantalizing images, but ultimately denied access to. The effect on the reader is a little like being aware of being on the outside of an inside joke. For example, consider the first two stanzas of “Family or Places”:
The nightclub is huge. The bouncer
lets a flower in. You stumble
out of your face.
The shrub says Affirmative
and Negative. A man presses
his arm up to the wind.
This seems to point to a real, authentic event, and I can appreciate the suggestive phrasing of the subject stumbling (presumably out of the bar) “out of” her face, as opposed to “out on” her face. But nothing in the poem locates the shrub for me, much less a shrub that can offer affirmation or negation, nor any context in which affirmation or negation would be meaningful (the “stumbling” subject disappears after the third of six stanzas), or the relationship of any of this to the empty image (it doesn’t relate to anything else in the poem) of a man (not the man, or anything beyond a cipher) pressing his arm up to the wind.
But, consider the poem “On Reading”:
I was working
on my speech
when the shower
head said, Speak
man. The sickness
said, You thought
to make speech
less devastating and this is
What is hand
written with spindly
tails won’t touch
the rim. Thought
works off its moorings.
The speaking shower ‘head’ that commands the subject herself to speak is wonderful; the idea that the speaking head, and the speaking illness, are both making an inquiry into language (language touching the rim, which I take to be a semiotic / linguistic concern, if not an epistemological one) centers the poem on a cogent theme. The concrete images are perhaps scalene, but are connected to this theme. I can’t claim to understand the line breaks, or the “spindly tails” image. But I can sense a connectedness at work in the poem.
Unfortunately, to my reading, this is rare; of the book’s 41 poems, perhaps five are as effective; the rest function somewhere between mere syntax / wordplay and poetic posturing without the benefit of enthymemic diction. The poems that offer the reader a way into the poems ask the reader to challenge assumptions of aesthetics, usage, and form. The rest, though, hold the reader frustratingly at bay.
Bill Scalia has published essays on literature and film in the journals Religion and Literature, Literature/Film Quarterly, and in the anthology Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema. He also edited the anthology Classic Critical Views: Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is currently at work on a book concerning Emersonian aesthetics, poetry, and film. Dr. Scalia teaches literature and writing at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, Maryland.