The Death Spiral by Sarah Giragosian
Black Lawrence Press, 2020.
“To rend: this is what I want,” says the intrepid and metamorphic speaker of The Death Spiral, from the poem “Notes Toward an Apology” wherein the speaker slices a tomato open with her fingernail, “pulp bleeding from the skin.” This poem’s articulated desiderata, like the other defining statements in this stunning collection, however, is admixed or tempered with other affects and rejoinders, as sculptural as they are mimetic of a probing consciousness at work: “What came first: the fruit or the ache to injure?” And yet, the careful stitchwork and fretwork of these wonderfully subtle, capacious, tensile, and sonorous poems never feels labored, in Giragosian’s second full-length collection, rich with an astounding swath of tropes and themes (family history, species extinction, climate destruction, American empire, and marital love); in fact, it is the poet’s studious yet distinctively light touch that makes even her most complex and multi-layered poems seem effortlessly constructed, as if spun of silk or gossamer. Befitting, for a poet-critic whose most abiding muse (and form of shapeshifting personae) is nature herself.
Giragosian’s acumen as a critic lends her work an uncanny precision; her vantage point and perspective on eco-catastrophe and Trump’s dystopic former reign—the provenance of the collection’s title, indicating a courtship ritual between bald eagles that can end in death—are clear-eyed and unsparing, particularly in her poems that invoke American settler history and contemporary politics, such as “Slave Patrols and Night Watches,” “The Second Moon Colony Will Not Fail,” “Terlingua, TX Haibun,” “Denning’s Point,” and “The Fourth Anniversary.” But her fierce lyrical investigations of the police state, neo-imperialism, neoliberal devastations of the environment, and the plagues of racism, homophobia, and sexism that has made America unrecognizable and, to a degree, uninhabitable, never feel overdetermined or didactic, as can be the case with some poetries that yoke the aesthetic to the political, but are, rather, organic and co-extensive with the poem’s site and origin of utterance: the line, the body, memory, and breath.
Take, for example, “The Fourth Anniversary,” a poem that, like many others in the collection, juxtaposes a celebratory or commemorative event (a wedding anniversary with the poet’s wife) with a backdrop of domestic terrorism: a dream of ICE “burst[ing] onto the scene, cattle wagons in tow,/ to plaster eviction notices everywhere,” and voiding her wife’s green card, the couple and their guests all deemed “security risks.” “When I woke to the twilight’s last gleaming,/” the speaker says toward the end of the poem (ironizing “The Star Spangled Banner”), “I planted my heart under the wedding gown,/ the tread of my blackest boots/tamping down the earth.”
Forensic in her scrupulousness, gifted in her craft, and ontologically fluent, The Death Spiral reminds one of the neglected art of poetic argument in fact, manifestly present in, for example, Robert Frost’s poem “Design,” which subordinates the darkness and chaos in life and nature to the overwhelming evidence for intelligent design, governing “in a thing so small” as a spider, or, in Giragosian’s hands, sheep, linden, octopi, crocodiles, wasps, coyotes, and other creatures: uncaged, reborn, and leaving, as a trace in our collective unconscious, “mice prints in the snow.”
The surety of her protean voice and virtuosic intricacy of her individual poems, which artfully deploy such literary devices as anaphora, consonance, multiple entendres, subterfuge, puns, personification, neologisms, onomatopoeia, and Dickinsonian dashes and caesuras, ensconce the reader in not just a larger poetic tradition and discourse, but also a larger formal imaginary, the likes of which can also be found in Lucie Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, Christina Pugh’s Restoration, Tessa Rumsey’s Assembling the Shepherd, and Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song. These collections, like The Death Spiral, gesture toward a millennial poetics whose import goes beyond that of elegizing the past, invested instead in a participatory co-creation of a sustainable future.
If poetry’s task, according to Seamus Heaney, is to find “images and symbols adequate to our predicament,” Giragosian and the poets and traditions to which she is heir (including mystical, devotional, and transcendental poets, ecopoetry, and queer poetics) does so with savoir faire, but in a way that preserves a sense of the atemporal or eternal associated with the lyric and its ability to dilate or still time—Wordsworth’s “intimations of immortality,” or as critic Richard Howard framed it, “a relation to one’s moment was essential to getting beyond the moment.”
Crises are integrated but not capitulated to, and throughout the collection there is a keen sense of apophatic knowing through negation, such as in her brilliant ars poetica “Memories of Myself as a Galapagos Marine Iguana” (in other poems, such as “Lycanthropy” and “Octopus Dream,” other animals such as the wolf are also invoked), which situates the Edenic scene of naming in the figure of a reptile, or another form of consciousness without language: “I didn’t have a name then for myself . . . I didn’t have a name then for sun . . . I didn’t have a name then for sea.” The poem concludes “You doubt me?/ This is not dreamed up./ This is the glossary at the end of your first primer.” The fascinating movements of this poem (the speaker says “You doubt me?” after describing the process of language acquisition apophatically in the persona of an iguana, while also saying anaphorically “I can almost remember”—as if challenging her reader’s faith) bring into sharp relief another of the collection’s deeply relevant tropes, that of distinguishing between facts, myth, superstition, and poetic forms of ethos or credibility in the 21st century, centuries after Plato banned poets from the Republic during the Golden Age of Athens.
“I’m not to be trusted./ Because a wound to the heart/ is also a wound to the mind,” reads the last tercet of Louise Glück’s poem “The Untrustworthy Speaker”: Giragosian pleads the contrary, in poems such as “Secrets of the Magician’s Assistant,” “Bearings,” and “Denning’s Point”: “Trust me,” the speaker says, “Believe me,” and “ . . . don’t mistake me.” This trust is earned from the start of the three-section collection, which opens with the poem “Family History,” in memory of the poet’s great-grandmother, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide: “A death sentence, and yet—/you breathe. You tell me the rest.” That doorway opened to listening, to ancestry, the other, and the natural world—what Keats called negative capability—marks Giragosian as a poet of porous receptivity and vast imaginative sympathies, and her keen witnessing and respect for alterity is present throughout the collection, such as at the end of “Lover as the Third Kingdom” (“clearing space for us”), the last poem of the second section “To Kingdom Come,” which offers a dazzling critique of empire, Manifest Destiny, and Biblical triumphalism (“bloodshed for paradise”), as narratives, like “politics & philosophy,” that “omit soil,/ the very matter of/ city & love.” Desert droughts, poisoned bees, and triggered frat boys in a land “made into a stage for a tyrant’s psychosis”: what indeed is redemption, in this fraught context? But the poet undercuts her own credulity in “Bearings,” a poem that takes us back to the Paleolithic era and means of spiritual transportation to an afterworld in ancient burial rituals, wherein the speaker becomes the voice of the earth, as in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Mountain”: “how could i forget an age/ before hands . . . before bedtime stories . . . before rainfall/ i was there/ the hot center below.” Casting her aspersions on the colonialists and gentrifiers who pollute rivers and pave over sacred ground, “sunk under concrete and brickworks,” the speaker urges the reader to “Bounce the spirits’ names on your tongue: Wappinger and Wiccapee . . . Tally the points of contact/ made here, this place of revolution/ and sewage, of hard labor.” The cost of such atrocities is “beyond your reckoning,” she says, answering her own question as to whether there can “ever be a calculus/ for the crimes of empire.” As if the true guardian and protectorate of a world of her making, the poet “tr[ies] out the language of wooing in this parched land,” before finally declaring, in “Another Fierce, Exquisite Species”: “The land of milk and honey can wait.”
Along with being formally masterful and inventive (short lines, often of only a few words, coupled with long, winding lines; surprising indentations and enjambments, often mid-word; sinewy syntax and dexterous use of echoic white space; bleeding titles framed as epistolary addresses; and received forms ranging from found poems, concrete poems, and a haibun), the poems are situated in wide-ranging stanzaic patterns ranging from block stanzas to couplets, richly embroidered by dedications and compelling epigraphs that give the reader further intertextual context into her work’s primary sources, which in many ways builds upon and strengthens the fabulous ground-clearing of her first book Queer Fish, an interspecies bestiary.
This dizzying array of visually and aurally pleasing forms is gathered in a collection grounded firmly in place, yet in locations all over the world: Newtok, Alaska; the Chihuahuan Desert; Rio Grande; Beacon, NY; Terlingua, TX; and the Galapagos, from prehistory to the present day. Lest it’s not clear how darkly comedic Giragosian can be, the ending of “T-Rex Stillborn” (“What’s a rex but a flash in the pan?”) gives you an idea of how her inversions of metaphor, and spatial and temporal scale are the occasion of a scathing wit, as are the serial questions in “America: Revenge Poem #4”: “Who doesn’t love the rhetorical skills/ of a cheese grater . . . Who doesn’t love to be hoodwinked, then flopped into a plastic// baggie world of gimmickry and tap water/ spiked with methanol? Who doesn’t love a blade at the back . . . ?” Giragosian wields her sword with equal parts black humor, restorative justice, tenderness, and technical skill, in a range of tonal registers that leave the reader breathless, nearly beside oneself with awe, drinking in the fresh oxygen offered in these 48 painterly poems, at the high altitude of “millennial air.”
While a master of form, shapeshifting, and metaphysical unrest (“the idea of mercy like a wet blanket”), her deeply-situated poems are also concerned with the liminal space, contemporarily, between identity politics and selfhood: in “Father Absence,” a poem eerily reminiscent of Brock-Broido’s “How Can It Be I Am No Longer I,” she writes, “All I know for sure/ is that I will be loaned out/ to some other I.” Charting her work of ancestral mapping, patrimony, naming, and self-mythologizing by recognizing the material body as belonging to the earth, whose cellular elasticity and eventual return to the earth is part of the natural order in the book of the universe, she says: “I am alive, but so close to humus,/ easy with the ancient process/ of living, of dying.” This existential gambit between life, death, and the self, in the first poem of the third section, is recast earlier in one of the first section’s poems, “Mammoth Resurrected”: “Am I extinct?” the speaker asks, then answers, with a wonderful allusion to Dickinson’s last letter: “No. Called back,/ claimed the minds that made me,/ coaxing DNA from Father’s bones/ and toying with Mother’s genome/ to invent a new sequence for me.” This lyric investigation into the bioethical quandaries and exploratory potential of genetic technology evokes another contemporary poet’s work on which Giragosian has written, Charlotte Pence’s Code, and positions Pence and Giragosian at the iconoclastic forefront of a new wave of poetics that breaks down historical antinomies between art and science. This lyrical idea of being “called back,” or Orphic return, is movingly rendered in her poem “Nina,” as well (in memory of singer Nina Simone): “Come back tonight, sing us into being again . . . Enrobe me in song.”
Recognizant of the importance and dangers inherent to the archival impulse (in “Culling at the Audubon Sanctuary,” the poet acknowledges death as “natural,” while commemorating a dead baby mouse that still “twitches inside [her] ear,/ whispering between the small bones/ that even gods must wear their meat”), Giragosian is, nonetheless, an imaginative fabulist of the first order, whose passion for environmental stewardship and devotion to the known world (“A love I can’t name”) remains at productive tension with the “future perfectness of today and tomorrow.”
In a collection where “honey” can be read as a fructifying nectar and term of endearment, and “scale” as a reptilian hide, set of musical notes, and synonym for climb, the possibilities for reading are near-endless, as are the ways she enjoins us to appreciate the ways in which nature (neither “cruel nor moral”) resembles maternal love or erotic love, with its “weird integrities.”
So many forces in postmodern life, particularly life in the Anthropocene, haunted by eco-catastrophe and damage, seem to collude against being and its embodiment that many contemporary poetry collections seem to only provide further evidence that we’re on the brink of entropic collapse, the heat death of the universe, or relegated to post-sincerity games of style in an increasingly flooded and competitive literary marketplace. Yet a few collections of late, however, provide an alternative perspective, and hope, born of the ethical and aesthetic paradigms of the poets themselves; Giragosian’s The Death Spiral establishes authorial trust through her queering of perspective, desire, and ontologies, allowing for and inviting possibility and new interstitial meanings engendered by occupying the space where connections are forged, rather than an overdue emphasis on communicative signs and semantic taxonomies of naming.
“Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back,” begins George Herbert’s poem “Love (III)”: “Who Would Believe It,” could be read as Giragosian’s contrapuntal text, only in her hands, it is love herself, who has “no reason,” to whom this generous poet wishes to give a poetic dwelling: “What are the odds that love,/ so given to smashups,/ will take off her coat/ and stay awhile?”
My guess would be as long as there are poets, readers, and conjurers of the natural world as sensitive and ingenious as Giragosian. “I will become her initiate,” she writes: as we are hers, connected by her “matrix of all relation,” and bounding off to a life after necromantic death on “otherworlding wings.”