If Not Metamorphic by Brenda Iljima
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, ID, 2010)
Indeed Metamorphic! ¬— Quick Thoughts
Brenda Iljima’s If Not Metamorphic first struck me as an abstract and difficult art, in huge part because I am such a poor reader when it comes to linguistically experimental work of the avant-garde. Persisting beyond the first few pages, I decided to give up reading by the eye. Instead, I started to read each word aloud, engaging in and listening to its sound. My eyes, on the other hand, then followed the shape of each fragment, receiving each block of words as an architecture of meaning, instead of words as carriers of emotional meaning. This engagement turns out to be quite pleasurable and liberating, and most of all — surprising. I am now a reader and a spectator of a text and performance, as implied by the poet’s own words in her title poem:
in sound ?
Melody pop ether?
Were one to parody this sound
the Siamese connection would falter? Again?
— p. 19
There are four poems in this book: “If Not Metamorphic,” “Time Unions,” “Tertium Organum” and “Panthering.” The generous use of white space throughout the whole book is a clear indicator of Iljima’s desire to explore visual possibilities of page, to transcend the conventional relationship between page and text. In a way, it is also like an attempt to connect compartmentalized thoughts, spaces, people and things. Right at the start, the poet breaks new stylistic ground by plunging into a series — or rather, an architecture — of questions presented in different polyphonic movements. With these questions, she fiercely interrogates the power of a state-governed ideology in an organic society, and how the friction in-between interferes with the creation of meaning in terms of social, linguistic and lyrical subjectivities.
The third poem, “Tertium Organum” is my favorite section of the book. It is also in my opinion, the strongest. In this writing, Iljima lays bare the philosophical underpinnings of her work, and her ecologically conscious agenda as a poet. The political overtone is as strong as the message it wishes to convey:
Birds telling lands since the mouth was born
and shook to pieces. Treasures of light in the beak
shimmers from cave to valley and sculptures
theme of noise. Economic pressure. Chromium,
expertise. Besides, these mechanisms totter
toward night. Terra Cotta. Sepia. Red arrow on the plot
pheromones. Cold clouds, carcasses
even a horse joke. Frightening in a million bundles
give or take. Rhythm in relation to death
Night is anything but night. Death follows
— p. 81
There are many strong acts of linguistic reckoning in If Not Metamorphic. It is an interesting experience to decipher texts that incorporate so much philosophical speculation. From time to time, I find myself yearning for more narratives, but am ultimately rewarded by small moments of “revelation.” Glad that I had found the courage to open this book, an object that displays words/texts as visual codes and literary scores, I consider this reading experience an useful lesson: it has allowed me to better understand the volatility of verse and the dimension of words.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain's book of poetry, Water the Moon (Marick, 2010) is an Honorable Mention for the 2011 Eric Hoffer Book Award. Translations of Bai Hua, Yu Xiang and Hai Zi are forthcoming from Zephyr Press and Tupelo. An editor at Cerise Press, she is also a zheng concertist. (www.fionasze.com)