Arielle Greenberg, My Kafka Century

by Michael Peverett

This works best, I think, if you read it as a collection – not exactly a sequence, but a collection. I mean, not as individual poems. Images and themes swim across these constructions: which individually are loose, zany shoulder-shrugs; glossy and hollow, perfect for reading-groups and eZines. But let's take a tour.

        my draped milk-white pearls
    which I have pulled out on their silk strand
    from the blood-hole, one by one, sobbing on the string

is from the violent sexuality of "Private, I". In "Red Rover" (children's game where you try and break through a line formed by the opposing team), this clot of imagery shows up again:

    How are you, friend, across the milky highway?
    This blood-moat, a fairy tale made of lost teeth?

The expression "milk-teeth" never actually gets used. But children, like dogs, and other disturbingly cutesy domestic, innocent things, get snarled up in these discourses. "The Missing, The Maybe" begins with a real tooth extraction. Greenberg is still preoccupied with that silk strand, the nerve of the tooth or whatever it is:

    This is the central text:
    middle of the book with its white silk thread
    cut through like a tooth.

The collection does, sometimes, take on aspects of a sequence. At the end of this same poem, she's talking about a pet dog:

    I keep an animal with me like an Eden,
    for protection. From God. From history. From the spells.
    Me and her, we speak with the same black tongue.

In the poem that comes next ("Hotel"), there's more about this black tongue:

    Death is a very close door in the hall –
    see how our foot slips in?
    (The sweet taste of shit.)
    See how everything, history, is a chute?
    See how our tongue, this close door,
    is also that black, that sweet?

And in the next poem ("Babel"), more again:

    A Jew tried to bleach his tongue…
    the towering desperation of the Jew to be clean;
    our spirits, the language of a dog.

Perhaps this poem is, as it purports to be, about Dr Zamenhoff and Esperanto, which "never worked". But is it also about Hebrew, effectively a dead language in the mid-nineteenth century, now the first language of millions of people (and thus an inspiration to the makers of auxiliary languages)?

Anyway, let's go back to the dog and its language. In "Shirley Temple, Black", Greenberg is trying to get outside the shutter of human reason:

    Go through the window and you become an animal,
    and are so happy to lie in your little round bed, stuffed with cedar.

    I mean that madness is a ship to back where our thumbs did not oppose.
    I mean that this is where we relax back into our cracker shapes…

    I think I am most at home inside the ear of a dog,
    sweet portal to lunacy, where no day is Jesus, and a kickboard
    keeps me from bursting into yet another child star.

But maybe it's not such an exciting experiment for the dog, kidnapped like all dogs from its mother and responding with dumb loyalty to the kidnapper:

    She adores me, goes off leash
    impeccably, is my own pretty Patty
("A little ditty I like to call 'Stockholm Syndrome'")

Greenberg, whispering repetitious endearments to her little pet, likes the euphony in that and varies it:

    She's my own Patty Duke… She's my own Patsy Cline…
    She's Tom Verlaine to my Patti Smith Rimbaud.

For most UK readers this needs notes. Patty Duke, another child star, was kept "a virtual prisoner" by her management, the Ross brothers, whom she later accused of abusing her. Patti Smith's first single, around the time she was hanging out with Tom Verlaine, was "Piss Factory/Hey Joe" (1974): the A-side celebrated her discovery of Rimbaud's Illuminations. On the flip, there was a spoken-word piece about Patty Hearst. Hearst's attorney would later confirm Smith's surmises about the sexually-abusive origin of Hearst's own case of Stockholm Syndrome.

Substantial threads in my own Greenberg glossary (that is, all the things I knew I didn't really understand and had to look up) included: US pop culture icons (Patty Duke, Chuck Yeager, Katie Smith, Nancy Drew); US cultural commonplaces (carpetbaggers, John Henry, President Howard Taft the trust-buster, soda fountains, dry jack, the Superball craze of 1965, the Bicentennial of 1976, Crisco cooking oil); US vocabulary (back to smarts, drink along, kickboard, stink-grass, lugnut, foamcore and various baseball terms); Jewish expressions and concepts (Dybbuk, menorah, mitzvah, Hallel, mama-loshen, chalilah); Biblical allusions (two references to rubies refer mainly to Proverbs 31:10, "Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies."); and fabrics (organza, damask, cotton duck, gingham, luxe). You also need to know that Peter Lorre played a child-killer in Fritz Lang's M, how an ocularium is used, and who Robert Wilson is.

And Kafka. Besides A Country Doctor, The Hunter Gracchus, Letter to His Father (all named explicitly), there are stray references to In the Penal Colony, The Castle, America and probably others. Kafka's other legacy, the wearing of hard-hats by construction workers (according to Peter Drucker), seems to have been skipped. Here's how A Country Doctor plays out, in "Kafka Bicentennial":

    As they say, born old.
    Winter brings its white rape,
    its endless wormy prostrators, each sudden,
    expected as a guest –
    that's the belief, anyway.
    We (who?) sing the Hallel, a grace after rape,
    the tuneless of the hills dancing their demise,
    and woe of fever.
    Another chosen pervert – save you, save they –
    hushly drops enchanted sodomy onto its favored child.
    The horses, in their glittering rape bells,
    stir like Russian moons.

("The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs" Psalm 114:4, part of the Hallel group of Psalms sung on days of thanksgiving. Prostrator: [religious] in general, a worshipper, supplicant, or penitent; more specific meanings in the Buddhist, early Christian and Islamic traditions; [political, pejorative] an uncritical follower, an abject apologist; in Zionist circles, a pro-Palestinian Jew.)

The moral discomfort, the feeling of getting embroiled in unacceptable positions, was already a large element of Kafka's fable. Greenberg develops this element further; here and elsewhere in the best parts of My Kafka Century, you're left feeling queasy about where your imagination is made to go, the incompatible things it has to negotiate.

I seem to have come to rest on a poem that's highly concentrated, where even the small lines ("that's the belief, anyway", "and woe of fever") do disruptive work. At the opposite extreme the poems can get too conversational to generate enough of that friction: "City of Paper", for instance. Mostly they stake out a bewildering between-land. They can be various mixtures – always a mixture, though – of sentimental, brutal, mocking, personal, sexual, devotional, grotesque, glittery and childish; they usually resist coherent expression and coherent reading, but not quite always (if they always did, it would be a lot less unnerving).

Greenberg's own reflections, so far as they went in April 2003, can be studied in her essay On the Gurlesque, an attractively modest and lucid account of a new feminist wave of poetry whose own attractions are neither modest nor lucid.

Arielle Greenberg, My Kafka Century, is published by Action Books, 2005 (ISBN 0-9765692-2-1).

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