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Review
 
Eléna Rivera
In Respect of Distance
Beard of Bees (2007)

Reviewed by Alex Pestell

 

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     Ken Edwards


 

Distance is a key concept in the thought characterising much contemporary poetry. If the maturity of ethical thought is to be gauged from the breadth of its application, distance is first of all a measure of this thought’s sincerity. It is also, however a significant object of this thought: as the material and imaginative creation, concealment, elongation and destruction of distance contributes to the self and its relations with the world, so these operations tend to become the focus of contemporary lyric poetry, which analyses and submits itself to their activity. As an instrumental concept in the romanticisation of the unfamiliar, distance is also the hidden terror in what ought to be most familiar. From the uncanny apprehension of distance in what was previously thought to be a situation of intimacy, to the ersatz Islamic vocals which saturate many contemporary soundtracks, it can be by turns menacing and comforting. Eléna Rivera’s pamphlet, freely downloadable from the Beard of Bees website, explores the senses through which distances are exploded, foreshortened, and inhabited.

In Respect of Distance makes use of the themes of exile, habitation, and prophecy supposedly suggested by the use of world music in film scores, though with rather less nauseatingly manipulative intent. Where certain soundtracks recruit the vocal and instrumental techniques of a homogeneous middle-eastern / North African / Central Asian culture and use them to present a neutered, reverb-drenched exoticism, Rivera’s poems, beginning with an epigraph from Isaiah 40:3: ‘make straight in the desert a highway’, examine the implications of immediacy, directness, and distance presupposed by them. The poems in this collection each resemble straight, attenuated paths interrupted by exploded 3x3 matrices of words. The vision of divine glory, for which a path is to be constructed in the wilderness in Isaiah, requires the straightening of roads, the removal of obstacles in our perception. In Rivera’s poems, perception is complicated by a number of formal features. The sparsity of punctuation produces retrospective and prospective meanings as each line breaks:

passengers wear wool coats
for warmth
and space articulates
alters
everything
packed into a suitcase
experience
attenuates
the line

(‘Who promised safe passage?’)

While it’s possible in certain passages to divide the poems into pockets of demarcated sense, for the most part the syntax permits a continuous revision of the running meaning making it difficult or impossible to judge the point at which a statement can finally be said to have been made. Cutting into this stream of constantly readjusting articulation, however, are the blocks of words which disorientate the reader’s perception by simultaneously permitting a multiplicity of readings (depending on the direction the eye follows), and brutally reducing the sense-making capacity of these readings, most markedly by a repetition of vocabulary:

grasshoppers
dwell
in information
and bring
nothing
this country’s dream apportioned unevenly
filled with mirages
            lie                        mattress            lay
            high                    lying                    false
            mattress            lay                       high
air memories are
present tense
uprooted

(‘Shaken by encounters in an eidolon-flooded city.’)

In each case a block of uprooted words interrupts the construction of the path to perception. It’s easy to see how these words may have at one point borne some relation to one another: ‘lie’, ‘lay’, ‘lying’ are things one might have done or might be doing on a mattress, but the disarticulation of syntax allows meanings to seep into one another, either by association, so that ‘lying’ produces a response in ‘false’, or by assonance, ‘high’ responding to ‘lie’. In one poem, the interruption is explicitly announced:

desire
finds no satisfaction
in the book of the battlefield
the power of
STOP
             cinders              sweep                 wash
             type                    dirt                        earth
             sweep               wash                    wipe
GO
coins
the nation’s cry

(‘Manufactured cravings are contrasted to the population of disuse.’)

Here again, it’s hard to explain the presence of ‘type’ except as an echo of ‘wipe’: although as one word in a series evoking the mundanity of manual labour it just about earns its place. Indeed these obstructions implicitly evoke the mechanical and bare: where the silence surrounding each word in the matrices promises a rich concentration of meaning, the repetition of certain words, which, if read in columns, resemble the three reels of a slot machine, seems to abbreviate their connotative possibilities. Choice is reduced to a bare subsistence, words recur with monotonous predictability.

These sections tend to overshadow the rest of the poem they inhabit: as blind spots in the meaning-making process, they impede interpretation, tactlessly blotting out the rhythmic tiptoeing of the surrounding lines. These surrounding lines often portray bodies in flight, celebration, consumption or introspection: ‘pursue / bodies in a strait / the materials / moving arms, feet, chest / fingers around a pencil / the first / attentive / unwrapping / the last excitement’ (‘Fall into the cuneiform, into the storm.’); here the short lines, though often, like the matrices, composed only of a single word, are conducive to an intimacy permitted by the formation of a series of possible narratives around the conjunctions thinkable between each line. Crashing into this intimacy, the blocks of interchangeable words give the reader a curtailed set of available positions (‘drink / large / grow // small / stand / large // grow / small / think’) suggestive of a hallucinatory immediacy: the illusion of proximate accessibility actually results in the alienating production of distance. Listening to Rivera reading the poem, it’s notable that for these blocks she moves closer to the microphone, creating a portentous amplitude and a sense of nearness just when meaning is held at a remove. The removal of the mediating ligatures of syntax, rather than smoothing the highway to presence, makes movement as such impossible. As the pamphlet’s title suggests, not only is distance a concept susceptible to a variety of interpretations, it is also one to be preserved in its complexity.