DECEMBER 1, 2022
HARD NOT TO cold-quote a book that snaps off the block as crisp as Hyperphantasia, by Sara Deniz Akant (Rescue Press, 2022):
Hello — I’m Phanta — your personal expert on style.
I just know we’ll be the best of friends!
Press “yes” to set my clock.
Time to set my clock. 7 o’clock in the morning.
8 o’clock in the morning.
9 o’clock in the morning.
So begins the first body poem. Slow down skipper, we might demur. But what we don’t assent to, the poem presumes. For “Phanta,” the shapeshifting intelligence that dominates this book, silence means “yes.” By the second stanza, we, as readers, are somehow an integral part of the poem; continuing to read, we proceed to press a little button, and in the process we become a little button-like ourselves.
Akant sets up camp in the uncanny valley between the proliferating artificial intelligences that quietly curate what we can and can’t see and the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t artifice of poetic techniques, out of which, we can almost swear, a real voice speaks. But voice is as manufactured a quality in lines as it is online, and this recognition becomes for Akant’s speakers a source of both play and angst. If, as anyone who has written a poem or gone online knows, identity is infinitely manipulable, what happens when the boundary between these netherworlds and the real frays? And if, furthermore, that would-be anchor of continuity, the father, vanishes? Akant twists, at such a juncture, toward both Hamlet, in his metastasized performances, and the ghazal, which, in its maqta, tethers the poem’s flights to the author’s name. But Akant’s speakers are too many, their identities too othered, and the stabilizing gesture unravels: “My name is Sara, Saray / Sarah, or Saroh. Saroh is a Sultan, she is definitely no Pharaoh.”
It’s a tight and engaging nest of themes: a dead father, an uncanny voice reaching out from the wires, questions about infertility, multiple selves, melancholic repetition. And it’s not depressing at all! Rather, what comes through are the fizz, fun, jump cuts, surreality, and intelligence of the book, in lines like, “I ask for total transformation and receive a vacuum-packed museum what the fuck”; like, “I was the martyr of my own timid implosions,” or “We are busy training roaches to grow ghost doves in their wombs.” If we want, we can read the jagged, but still sad and questioning, electricity of lines such as these as originating in the response to loss; but doing so would thin the poetry, explaining it away as merely a local effect, a protestation against the obvious wound. It would also imply that Hyperphantasia endorses the idea of a self independent of language, transiting predictably from depth trauma to surface response, when the book seems to propose the opposite model: identity as a quality that shifts utterly with its refractions in an inherently unstable medium. As in comedy, Akant offers a yes-and logic of grief. Rather than passing gradually from mania to depression, she’s more likely to overlay, in the same breath, thrilling intensity and sloughs of anhedonia. In the process, she slips in some of the most succinct statements about the nonlogic of family that I’ve encountered. Call this a general theory of relativity:
I am getting up for bed, for they will not respect my genius.
I know that time is made of entropy or whatever, the reverse.
I know the molecules of family might regather
And become themselves inside a different corner
Of the ceiling. Gravity is lies.
Family, these lines suggest, is quantum: an infinitely interesting, infinitely unpredictable way of relating in the penumbra of universal laws such as “entropy” and “gravity.” It’s where you get up for bed; where people (as molecules) float on the ceiling; where the tiny building blocks of language, prepositions, judder into another, as one sense of “for” slips into another, and the family is “inside” a corner. It doesn’t make a shred of sense, but that weathered imperative, family, perseveres. Held together by a shared tone (slightly formal), a common space (an implied living room). In this, it resembles (here it comes) a poem, a stanza. Did I mention this is a book of sonnets? Akant works hard to disguise it, with lines caroming around the page, some 20 beats long, others a half breath. But in the stanza above, for example, notice the ghostly iambic beat and the near rhymes (two terminal -s’s, two –er’s, with “reverse” mediating between them) becoming more regular as the poem tightens toward its end. Such a cycle of repression and return, playing out on a formal level, offers a cogent structural parallel to the not-mourning the book vamps. Though the book’s CGI’d dramatis personae and chopped or hypertrophied meters strain the sonnet into near unrecognizability, the sonnet remains as the powerful grave the book, for all its melancholic reiterations, can’t imagine itself without.
Or, “Turns out there is no present tense and never was,” Akant writes in “Renovation Song,” an interspersed series that thinks about both biological and poetic inheritance as it twists, with grim humor, the threat of “barrenness” into an almost liberatory universal condition: “Turns out there is no actual creation.” If we grant the speaker’s conclusion, or, better, empathize with the losses she’s wrestling with, what remains are values like recycling and mechanical iteration. And even if these are masks, they’re how Hyperphantasia often glosses its own acts of making, because iterating is a solution of sorts to the problem of being unable to make life or poems new, and of course one can recycle in any key — heartbroken, madcap, heroic. By hooking these concerns into sonnets (the book is often tightest at the stanza level), Akant connects back to work in the vein of Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets and Ben Lerner’s The Lichtenberg Figures — projects equally suspicious of the mystifications of authenticity, and invested in the analogy of machines and poetic form. (The suspicion that sonnets are sticky-puttied together out of well-worn roses, tears, and tinsel wit, is, however, as old as the sonnet: see Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130.)
So Akant’s poems, for all their skitter and digitalia, are balanced by a self-aware formalism; history haunts them like a virus in a network. This tricky balancing act, which sustains an edged modishness while playing erudition at the level of gesture and wink, is equally one of the delights of Jessica Laser’s second collection, Planet Drill (Futurepoem, 2022), a book thrilling in its bravado and intelligence. If, however, the voice of Akant’s Phanta presumes our acquiescent consumption as it flashes pyrotechnics, Laser courts the rewards of difficulty and dares readers to sharpen all seven senses as they move in, through, and against the text. Immediately after a brief invitation, the title poem of Planet Drill announces:
Into freedom I seek to ascend vibration
Into freedom I seek to ascend vibration
To ascend vibration, a glass wall long enough
Long enough we’ve waited, our heads under desks
We might suspect at first that we’ve missed something. The grammar of the first lines parses until we reach “vibration,” at which point the eyes involuntarily jerk back to try again: a vibration of the mind, that the line’s repetition tempts and underscores. At stake is a relationship between progression, flagged by “into,” “seek,” and “ascend,” and atelic states such as “freedom,” “vibration,” and repetition. At this thesis moment, Laser is asking, or rather acting out, a subtle question about how the desire for progress and narrative movement is constituted by circular or lyric mental states and their modes of expression. It’s a deeply formal question, in the senses both of technique and dignity. As a book, Planet Drill makes good on the promises in these first lines, vibrating eerily in tight constraints as it pursues the receding horizon of (American) freedom and its reflections on the page. In the process, it inscribes lines of great beauty at the contested frontier of sense, such as these, from later in the same poem:
A deck is evening, the evening chamber
The evening chamber as the evening draws back
The evening draws back to planet-original color.
The tendencies this poem hints at grow to themes as the book advances. For instance, what manifests in scherzo as the needle-skip repetition of a line in “Planet Drill” swells largo: three poems later, we get “freedom’s withstanding vibration,” and later still, “there is a vibration in the immobility.” The freedom that Laser announces manifests in part through a bardic speaker, whose adventures emerge through the fragments of narrative buried in these poems, as in “Rust”:
And I, the only non-violent
shard of society’s unbent will, took
away distraction, set the wind down
out the cig, twang off, lay in my wanting
However wry and eroded, there’s a Romantic vision of the poet’s representative role lingering in such lines, and I hear an echo of Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators” in “shard of society’s unbent will.” The exquisite precision of Laser’s ear and sensitivity to line, evident from the first poem’s shuddering contract with the reader, means that to hear freedom’s formal corollaries, we have to learn to become sensitive to the self-reflexive ache and humor in lines such as these:
The disappearance of the public reason
The disappearance of the Pacific Ocean
Wanting to mate disparate sounds he came unto his microphone
These lines stand as the first three lines of “Changing Planes,” one of Planet Drill’s 13-line sonnets. The poem’s first punch line — and where it opens onto the book’s deep themes — is the tempting proximity of “public reason” and “Pacific Ocean,” which, despite their jangle, grate metrically against the ear. They are “disparate sounds” which will not be “mated,” and so refuse the consolations of parallelism: easy narratives of the social and the natural, collapsing in on their Stevensian pomposity in the third line. Laser’s sprinkling of 13-line sonnets through the collection (and the frequency with which lines land in crisp pentameter) is another marker of the book’s rehabilitations of form. If Akant’s antic idiom pulls our attention away from the architecture of Hyperphantasia, Laser fronts with a dignity of purpose and a virtuosity at the level of the line that expects the notice it deserves: “Not as the last planet but a latent surfeit.” Chipping the classical sonnet — a neat, 14-line block of thought-counterthought-resolution — into angular performance pieces, sonnets like “Uniform” need to be read along several axes simultaneously, for what they refuse (of both the quote-unquote new and the speciously old) as much as for what they choose to preserve. “Uniform” ends with plaintive pride: “Who understands / Understands my choices, what I cannot be.”
Northrop Frye remarked that though drama is easily understood not as action but as the representation of action, poetry is usually read as thought itself, and not, rightly, as a performance of thought. It’s helpful to keep such a frame in mind while reading both of these books. I found myself hearing their language as if performed in a black box theater, which helped make legible the tight pivots between voices, the self-reflexivity, and the social stakes (however orphaned) such as we hear in Laser’s “Defense”:
Gestures must be thought kind art
This is a kind of exaggerating
I want real touch
Perhaps I’m obsessed with reality
Or this conclusion to one of Akant’s sonnets titled “– ^ –”:
In the end, I played the villain. I took the bus back home.
I dry-rubbed off my dead skin in a sweaty plastic room.
I also split in two — I arrived on top of you.
I also split in two. I visited both places.
Reading poetry as performance (it’s worth YouTubing both poets, whose performances are highly innovative and eschew reading per se) has the curious effect of liberating the experience of reading, and throwing it back on our own pleasure and receptivity. We can be in it without parsing, or even registering, each gesture. And, as Akant’s lines reflect, it’s the reader’s presence that begins the pas de deux, transforms a text into an event, and allows us to feel language as sensuous experience: “I arrived on top of you.” We can recognize that we’re lingering in a zone adjacent to “reality,” where, as Laser’s “Poem with Lies” reminds us, no statement can be quite true or false, and despite our carefulness, we can be enthralled — captured — by a mastery, and a one-way intimacy, with which we identify without entirely understanding:
Time passes so quickly now
I can hardly say all the words
I don’t want to say to say
I can’t say them. I have.