An epic poem by Annelyse Gelman connects figurations of mother and daughter to dystopian ecologies, Surrealism, and Erik Satie’s
Vexations, by Annelyse Gelman,
University of Chicago Press, 49 pages, $18
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“There was no other world to bring a child into.” There wasn’t and there’s not. Annelyse Gelman’s book-length poem Vexations begins with the speaker pregnant as the world around her does not so much crumble—a turn of speech that implies the familiar language of personal grief, not systemic collapse—as issue some siren announcing its apocalyptic, climatic coming to end. “That was the year the hurricanes began / I hardly swelled but felt her features forming,” she writes. “Crowds coagulated to watch falling bodies / Daughter depicted them on my uterine walls.” Gelman sets the biological against disappearing biosphere, reproductive figure against dystopic field. Her poem proceeds in sestets that fall down the pages like nuclear ash. Rarely punctuated, her oracular lines make meaning in their steady, glittery, toxic accumulation. She delineates a dying Earth—as dry report, as creamy choral litany—while a daughter grows up and futures close down. But the child is too sensitive and the world too lethal—and we’ve heard this story before.
To narrate the making of and caring for a singular life in a moment of collective perishing is perhaps our new-old form of epic poetry. The Trojan War—as total annihilation of one’s world—has become, in current conditions, climate collapse, ushered in by the death cults of late capitalism and its eager escorts (despots of democracies and dictatorships, multinationals, tech or oil and gas oligarchs). Gelman’s poem, as such, is at once ancient literary technology and nascent climate theory. She invokes The Odyssey—her “wine-dark sea” edges a shrinking glacier, the figure of a man sweeping its melt back into the bottle with a broom—but also recalls a more recent raft of poetic epics considering kinship structures (Paterson, Midwinter Day, Autobiography of Red). And while a specifically American present is lineated—all patriotic flourishes and school shootings—Gelman’s book is also an archive of theoretical gleanings, both speculative and ecological (Butler, Le Guin, Tsing, Coccia, Moten).
It is a more popular genre, though, that her end-time ecologies most resemble. The guiding of a vulnerable child across a dystopic landscape has become one of the manifest tropes in recent fiction and film, television, and gaming. Consider The Last of Us, with its parental figure shepherding a girl across a US of zombified saprophytic fungi. Closer, though, is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), with its aching, atomic telling of a father leading his small son south as ash scripts the apocalyptic American air. The laconic stylings of McCarthy’s parable—his characters are known as “the man,” “the boy,” and, appearing ever briefly, “the woman”—are echoed in Gelman’s similarly curt “Daughter.” But Gelman’s lack of possessive pronouns only emphasizes the mother-speaker’s odd distanciation, and the daughter’s unreality.
A refrain of questions about “Daughter” stud the poem like nails holding the beams of stanzas in place, suggesting the same theoretical detachment. “Have you ever watched a child develop . . . ?” is posed, repeatedly, with the concluding nouns—subjectivity, solitude, shame, terror—being heads on the proverbial nails. Despite the painful pointedness of the queries—Have you ever watched a child develop terror?—the line of questioning feels academic. Daughter, likewise, is “porous,” permeable, less a child than a vessel of vulnerabilities. Her mother-narrator remains equally enigmatic, despite her Cassandra-like speech, compulsively describing the accelerating annihilation.
“A sentence, like a massacre, had to be answered,” Gelman writes. Is her poem both question and answer? What is the antidote—for the child as well as the world? Speaking of some Balthus reproductions, Daughter asks: “Am I the reproduction?” Here Gelman collapses art and life, with childhood as poor copy. Yet her interest in how language reproduces systems of violence is perhaps her book’s most compelling aspect. Among its jingles, sirens, and empty oratory are the metaphors we employ for our central concerns: bodies, brains, cities, computers, viruses. Gelman articulates how each is transposed—biological for nonbiological—in an attempt at understanding that ends in language divested of real meaning: “The dominant metaphor for the brain was the computer,” she writes. “The dominant metaphor for the body was the engine.” Call-and-response as consumer algorithm.
More allusive is the refrain of horses—“a conspiracy of hoofprints”—that haunts the book, with the phantom animal a recurring motif. Gelman cites Sylvia Fein’s Heidi’s Horse, but her equines evoke, for me, both the spectral scene in W. G. Sebald’s Vertigo of horses spinning off a cliff during a Napoleonic campaign, and the dark horse head figuring a white bed in The Godfather. For the patriarchal necropolitics that feed both works are also the poisoned spring for Gelman’s poetic epic.
Yet there is another source, more life-giving than death-spiraling, from which Gelman’s book emerges. The title Vexations is taken from Erik Satie’s titular ca. 1893 solo piano composition. Its manuscript notes that, in order to play the theme eight-hundred-forty times in succession, as the piece demands, “it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” Vexations was first staged by John Cage in New York, in 1963. It took over eighteen hours for its pianists (Johns Cage and Cale, Viola Farber, et al.) to perform. When Gelman was sixteen, she saw a twenty-four-hour version of Vexations at CalArts in Los Angeles. This performance “planted the seed” for her poem, she notes, “which is also a text score designed to accompany Satie’s music.”
While reading Gelman’s book, I found a recording on Youtube of Vexations and turned it on. Neither funerary nor transcendent, Satie’s composition is halting and muted, a prism of repeated tones. Glacially paced, it seemed to score the room as I read. The poem itself seemed to be scored by the weather outside. In my city, Sahara dust rained down; far away, in the US, tornadoes sped across the country, destroying entire towns. War raged, people did. As I read Gelman’s poem, I discerned no affinity with the enharmonic minerality of Satie’s affects and effects. His tempo, très lent, is unlike the accumulating speed of Gelman’s stanzas. Yet the unsettling temporality of Satie’s Vexations—collectively performed, endured, embodied—might be analogous to Gelman’s narrative of time inflamed by the apocalyptic endings of life-forms. In counterpoint to the endurance poetics of Satie’s work: Gelman’s poem, despite its length, reads like a thriller (this is not a critique).
It’s not certain why Satie chose the number eighty hundred and forty, despite his interest in numerology. As he was composing Vexations, Satie started an esoteric cult, the wonderfully named Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus the Conductor. Composer Philip Corner, one of the pianists in Cage’s 1963 staging of Vexations, writes, though: “Eight represents a new beginning, a resurrection, a rebirth . . . Four represents Earth, the visible creation . . . Zero represents non-being, eternity, death.” It’s a three-part structure that seems germane to Gelman’s augury, and its genres. By citing a cryptic composition from the past whose meaning lies in its crushing repetition, its near un-performability except by collective action, is Gelman implying that our cataclysmic futures will have to be handled accordingly? What role does collapse play in repetition? Is life, its pleasures, to be found in the variations of death? “The scent of growth was the scent of decay,” Gelman notes. Endurance is the score, she might add (but doesn’t).
Quinn Latimer is a writer based in Basel and Athens. She is the author of Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (Sternberg Press, 2017), among other books. She is Head of the MA at Institut Kunst Gender Natur, HGK FHNW, in Basel. SIREN (some poetics), the book accompanying the titular exhibition she recently curated at Amant, Brooklyn, is out soon from Dancing Foxes Press.