Jim Schley's Essays

Noose and Hook by Lynn Emanuel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010)

Lynn Emanuel's hard, bizarre, at times frightening new book of poems opens with a preamble that ought to be quoted whole:

My Life

Like Jonas by the fish was I received by it,
swung and swept in its dark waters,
driven to the deeps by it and beyond many rocks.
Without any touching of its teeth, I tumbled into it
with no more struggle than a mote of dust
entering the door of a cathedral, so muckle were its jaws.
How heel over head was I hurled down
the broad road of its throat, stopped inside
its chest wide as a hall, and like Jonas I stood up
asking where the beast was and finding it nowhere,
there in grease and sorrow I built my bower.

Notice how the reigning metaphor is stretched and accentuated: a birth that's alarmingly reversed, not out through the canal from a womb but into the slippery, cavernous enclosure of a whale's belly -- the world -- as the Biblical tale is made rank and damp and sudden with grief.

Look at the inversions in syntax, which in other hands might be quaint, like the poeticisms of Victorian verse, but here sound flexed, like metal bent under pressure. And listen to how the poet's layered vocabulary has grasped and twisted together the archaic and absolutely up-to-date, with so many sly rhymes, skewed but audible: "deeps" and "teeth" and "heel," "struggle" and that marvelous "muckle," "heel" and "hall," "head" and "hurled," "broad and road," "road and throat," "inside" and "wide," "chest and beast," on and on through "sorrow" and "bower."

As you can hear, Emanuel is not one of the (innumerable) adherents of the "I went here and there, I saw this, I realized that" style of contemporary poem.

Noose and Hook is Emanuel's first book in more than ten years, and only her fourth in twenty-five years, so she might appear less prolific than better-known peers. But each of her books has been uniquely challenging, and progressively stranger, in leaping the gap between erudite and streetwise.

She has taught literature and writing for many years at the University of Pittsburgh, and anyone encountering her essays, interviews, or lectures has probably been bowled over by the thermonuclear brainpower. Clearly fascinated by complicated theories of literary transmission and reception, Emanuel has also been pulled towards much grittier forms of expression: "noir" novels and movies, the satirical tomfoolery of cartoons and vaudeville, hyper-kinetic painting and the theater arts.

As teacher and critic as well as poet, Emanuel's has played a role in American literary circles akin to that of the jester in Shakespeare — the one who, making light of things, sheds light on things. Emanuel's books deliver disturbing truths in linguistically playful ways. And her new book is her most playful and disturbing yet.

The cover of Noose and Hook has a super-real photo of a snarling dog, close up, open-jawed with incisors and canines and a string of flung saliva like beads on a chain, with no eyes visible but splayed nostrils and prickling whiskers above.

In 2010, seeing that dog, and hearing the phrase of "noose and hook," can a reader fail to think of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison with its obscene tortures, or America's "black sites" where captives are renditioned for unspeakable treatments?

I bore experience's leashes and tourniquets.
I stuffed myself deep into the nooses of its collars.
I was equipped. I was like a ship plated with the armor of experience,
nosing the seas which are its seas.

But now I have other things to do. I will not write about dying
my hair blonde-on-black for my post-post-feminist project. The wicked
must be punished.
The innocent exalted, butchers called forth for the slaughter of the lambs,
and doctors
called from their face-lifts to perform amputations.

This is our everyday English but floodlit, scorched.

Intriguingly, according to an out-of-date online biography of Emanuel this new book was previously entitled "Mob and Torch," which is similar in its rhythmic spasm and its menace of violence, but in Noose and Hook she has shifted the emphasis from the crowd to an individual target and victim.

Here we are, with all-out combat underway on multiple fronts, but unless you have a family member in the service it is possible to not even think about our true situation. Are there other poets writing in such a feverish way of our endless state of war, not as expository subject matter but as blistering tempo and cadence?

The graphic dog on the cover reappears in Emanuel's sequence "The Mongrelogues," a nightmarish set of poems typeset as play scenes and with a dramatis personae comprising Dogg, Mistrust (Dogg's mistress), the P'lease (police and dogcatchers), and The Court — Interrogators, along with The Cold, The War, and A River and Shore, with cameos appearances by A Distant Metropolis, A Fence, and A Nation along with a small cabal of authors, ancient and modern, most importantly cartoonist George Herriman, whose stark, existentialist comic strip Krazy Kat ran from 1913ñ1941 in many U.S. newspapers, and from which the poet has plucked these characters.

R yew that dogg
the contree iz goin to?

Emulating Herriman's hallucinatory argot for fresh purposes, Emanuel forces a reader to sound out these poems to really hear them, aloud in your ears like a deranged radio drama.

The court askt,

wuz i guiltee uf "Indigence"?
Derangement? Identitee? Gender?"

Wuz i "in the abstract or particular,
A bitch? A witch? A lush?"

The best way to approach Noose and Hook is to accept that its author is attempting to cause a new kind of meeting between writer and reader, requiring different ways of reading:

I hear the call to rise out of the trance of myself
into the surcease of the dying world,
Then it went dark. Real dark. Like snow. (9/11 witness.)

I will never again write from personal experience.
Since the war began I have discovered
(1) My Life Is Unimportant and (2) My Life Is Boring.
But now, as Gertrude Stein wrote from Culoz in 1943,
Now, we have an occupation.

Emanuel's aim in writing Noose and Hook seems to have been to refresh her own excitement about the possibilities of poetry, to discover techniques for creating poems that aren't diary anecdotes, or versified editorials, or short stories, but something else, distinctly and irrefutably.

She's written book that begins and ends with "Hello" — a cipher, an infinity sign, looping with zany energy. This is difficult work, more buffeting than consoling, but remember as you read that Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert said the purpose of art is to say: "Wake Up!"

—A slightly different version of this review appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on April 19, 2010.