Pioneers in the Study of Motion
Ahsahta Press, 2007
Reviewed by Paula Koneazny
Susan Briante’s Pioneers in the Study of Motion opens with a quote from Roland Barthes’ “The Jet-Man”: “motion . . . has become a kind of vertical disorder . . . an unnatural perturbation, a motionless crisis of bodily consciousness.” A study of motion suggests an investigation into modes of human locomotion and, indeed, these poems circulate along and alongside networks of highways and tracks. But the motion Briante concerns herself with here is not that horizontal rush from coast to coast that in earlier centuries defined Americans’ notion of travel and the movement of goods and services across a continent, but rather the vertical movement of money, labor, culture, and anguish across the borders that separate North from South, especially the ultra-politicized U.S. / Mexican border. “Love in the Time of NAFTA,” the title of the second poem in the book, would make a fitting subtitle for the whole collection, as Briante continually juxtaposes private and public reality, making a connection between love and economics. Her poems inhabit a world where “Routes fall upon us” (55) and, at the same time, a world where poetry traffics in fraught border-crossings between bodies, the sensual transactions between lovers who lie down for each other in corrupted landscapes.
Pioneers in the Study of Motion is divided into three sections, “Eventual Darlings,” “Pioneers in the Study of Motion,” and “How Cities Get Founded.” The first section interweaves a series of “Eventual Darling” poems that take us to Galang Island, Kinshasa, Mexico City, Brasilia and Kanpur with a series of “Day of the Rainy Season” poems involving an American woman, perhaps pregnant, who is living in Mexico. Also included in this section are two poems, “Cintas (1)” and “Cintas (2),” derived from translations of Aztec poetry.
“Eventual Darling (Galang Island)” transports us to a detention camp for Vietnamese boat people in Indonesia where detainees spend their time constructing a model of the Statue of Liberty out of “Pure products of mother boards and strip mines. Welding and machete.” This replica fabricated from debris “clutches a crude pine bouquet instead of a tablet, a parrot where she should hold a torch” (6). The Statue of Liberty reappears in the final section of the book in the poem “Clutch” as the “lady with her pedestal, mockingly” (65). This is Lady Liberty gone awry, quite different from the icon that welcomed the “refuse of your teeming shore” (65) to America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The quote from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” stands in stark contrast to the debased contemporary idol whose dignity has perhaps been auctioned off under orders from the World Bank or as a consequence of a Free Trade agreement.
Susan Briante’s poetic “I” rarely settles. She is a present-day nomad, an avatar of globalization, a Westerner (presumably American) who relocates to various non-Western (what we once called Third World) locations. The ease with which her “I” moves around the globe mirrors the irresistible incursion of World Bank, IMF, and NAFTA policies into traditional, local economies. Perhaps her tourism is a positive by-product of the global marketplace. Or merely the other side of the coin. Just as Mexicans enter the United States to find work, this poet-speaker crosses borders to acquire language and experience, raw material for her poems.
In the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 12th, 14th and 15th “Day of the Rainy Season” poems the speaker does settle, at least temporarily, as she relocates to Mexico and becomes engrossed with a pregnant and material body that reiterates the fecund tropics. Here the body is sensual but not romantic. Despite the lushness of her surroundings, she remains solitary. Her lover is offstage and the people around her are not intimates (with the one exception of “Sara’s baby” ). On the “12th Day of the Rainy Season” she contemplates “the number of heartbeats per minute within this pasture of traffic” (19). On the “14th Day of the Rainy Season,” she catalogs the types of possible love, at least those available to her as a foreigner:
Selfish love, anxious love, detached love, primarily Western love.
The power goes out with a thud.
A drum is an indigenous referent reinforcing nationalist sentiment.
Water murmurs through the pipes.
Physical union, writes André Tridon, is probably the neutralization of 2
A statue of Emperor Cuauhtémoc falls into a slate silhouette.
Whole neighborhood’s dim; Sara’s baby tugs at the collar of my shirt.
Unstable love, detached love, underperforming love, neo-liberal love.
40 percent of retail shopping in Mexico occurs at a Wal-Mart owned outlet. (22- 23)
Love and trade in a post-global world may be “free,” but they are also fraught with contradictions. Mexicans can now, if they have the means, shop at Wal-Mart just like Americans do. At the same time, the lights dim in their neighborhoods. Sex takes place disengaged from feeling, merely a “neutralization of 2 electric currents.” This wasteland theme of detachment and disengagement runs throughout the book. Isolation is now normal. Only a baby’s playful tug at a collar (satiated after breast-feeding in a way that one can never be satiated after shopping at Wal-Mart) and an “indigenous drum” allow us to glimpse the possibility of a more engaged and satisfying future, one nourished by a pre-market past.
The poems of the middle section of the book, “Pioneers in the Study of Motion,” may be the least essential in the collection. Most of these poems, rather than break any new ground, simply amplify or add detail to the “Eventual Darling” poems. At times, such amplification is fruitful, as in “The Missionary’s Pupil” where we are asked to consider “How much/ damage is done in touch? In debt and obligation?” (31) One highlight of this section is the series of intriguing titles that reference occupations or statuses; for example, “The Typist” and “The Pornographer’s Father.” This alternation between job and relationship seems to imply that in the global economy, one may be an illustrator, a typist, a groom, a bride, a domestic or a money changer, but only related to (son of, father of, pupil of, lover of, daughter of) a cartographer, a missionary, a pornographer, an archaeologist or a dressmaker. This list of occupations invites us to think of the poet too as having a job. She is certainly a typist and may be an illustrator or even a domestic; she may well be a student or lover of cartography, archaeology or pornography. There are tools to her trade like “a key pressed to paper” (61) and occupational hazards, such as “a kink at the back of your neck” (61). She writes books that once published circulate through the marketplace. Unlikely as it seems, her books may even be for sale at Wal-Mart.
In the final section of the book, “How Cities Get Founded,” we return to a speaker who resembles the woman we met in the “Eventual Darling” and “Day of the Rainy Season” poems. Many lines in the earlier poems, such as “Romance plays no part” (3) and “we make love: eyes swollen, palms wide. And it is like clear cutting” (6) are echoed in these last poems, for example, in “Song with Typewriter and Bleating Sheep” where “for a while there was so much/ give: the laying beside, the pulling at one another like crows” (61). The image of sex as a tearing apart, as a form of greedy combat that ends in isolation is a harrowing one. The lover’s body is at best a skittish location. In “Tracks, Unconjugated, Trees,” the protagonist disengages, “unsentimental, because I roll out from under him”(68), and remains the unromantic observer: a body observing and an observer of her own body. A woman “adjusts her hem against a backdrop of heavy yellow machinery” (68), her sexual body moving across a stage set with urban detritus. She is wrapped up in an individuality dictated by location and history. In “Roanoke” she notes, “Entire swaths of a nation encircle the frail white farmhouse of my throat” (66). Susan Briante implies that there is no difference to be found along the Pan American Highway or Hiway 75 South, or Routes 9 and 22. No amount of mileage seems to avail her. Wherever she goes, New York is the same scene as Mexico, just minus the tropics. Her poems prompt us to consider what has been lost in such a world where space appears to be swallowing time, where syllables and vowels are dropped and “whole letters . . . slip from your name” (66).
Paula Koneazny lives and writes in Sebastopol, California where she earns her living as a tax consultant. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Volt: The War Issue and Pool and is forthcoming in Aufgabe. Her reviews have been published in American Book Review, Verse, and Rain Taxi. She has a chapbook, The Year I Was Alive, out from dpress.