Fence Books, 2012
Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin
The first piece of text readers encounter in Joyelle McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade (Fence, 2012) is an instruction that the poems are to be read aloud. As the poems themselves begin, this instruction becomes more daunting. McSweeney’s poems are dense and don’t allow many obvious spaces for breath. Having had the pleasure of hearing McSweeney read several years ago, I feel safe in my estimation that it is only McSweeney herself who can do aural justice to these poems, though it’s invigorating to try. One might initially wonder if McSweeney had wanted the book read aloud, why she didn’t make any gesture toward that, such the quotation marks that Alice Notley includes in The Descent of Alette which help readers find the phrasings and slow down to process them. Or what about fellow Fence Books author Harmony Holiday’s decision to include a cd with her book?) There are many possible explanations McSweeney might offer for her aesthetic decision—the desire to overwhelm the reader with a rush of sound, the desire to leave it up to the reader to insert breaks and breath where desired, the desire to force the reader to be swept up in the words before there is a chance to parse the phrases.
Percussion Grenade is ambitious. It is comprised of six sections, one of which, “The Contagious Knives” is a polyvocal piece featuring Louis Braille as a 14 year-old girl in “pink panties a pop-star t-shirt from Target.” Another section “Hanniography,” features poems delivered by “Hannie Oakley.” Hannie speaks in prose paragraphs while Braille speaks in lineated verse, but otherwise the voices are similar enough that the reader can easily confuse the two upon a first reading. The voice throughout is unmistakably McSweeney’s—Braille refers to the “necrospheric,” a close echo of the “necropastoral,” a concept which McSweeney has written about at length, namely in her chapbook entitled The Necropastoral, which is not part of Percussion Grenade. There, the closest she comes to a definition is to say that “Rather than maintaining its didactic or allegorical distance, the membrane separating the Pastoral from the Urban, the past from the future, the living from the dead, may and must be supersaturated, convulsed, and crossed. The crossing of this membrace is Anachronism itself.” The Necropastoral seems to be one of the main modes in which McSweeney currently functions, invested in the crossing of the “membrace.” To further define the Necropastoral, Joshua Corey writes, “it would seem to go beyond a pastoral that merely foregrounds its own artifice, the better to play with the tradition of turning nature into a standing reserve for sovereign authority and cultural norms. Is it a zombie pastoral, the pleasure of the walking dead in devouring brains, the hypersublime viral pleasure of mindless multiplication, unlife, earth without world?”
There are no apparent zombies in McSweeney’s work, but she does transverse the membrace, presenting the ordinary (or pastoral) in a new way, as in “Killzone2”:
Those carcinogen, make eyes
Through hard plastic at the fetal body
For I am the Thought and the Light
For I am the Wire and the Lens
Looped with estrogens. Like the evening news
It’s over. And it’s over and over again.
The “over and over again” evokes the repetitive actions that help comprise the traditional pastoral, but McSweeney perverts that by making her body a foreign object (“looped with estrogens”) as she reduces it to “the Thought and the Light.”
Another aesthetic about which McSweeney has written about at length is Flarf, which has been defined in many ways, but by McSweeney in the Constant Critic as “Jangly, cut-up textures, speediness, and bizarre trajectories … I love a movement that’s willing to describe its texts as ‘a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness.’ This is utterly tonic in a poetry field crowded by would-be sincerists unwilling to own up to their poems’ self-aggrandizing, sentimental, bloviating, or sexist tendencies.” Part of Flarf’s original concept involved fusing search engine results together to make a poem. McSweeney is not a Flarf poet—rather, she is post Flarf ergo propter Flarf. While search engine results are not key to her aesthetic, the definition she provides of Flarf could very well apply to her own work in Percussion Grenade. Her diction runs the gamut from virtually ululated neologisms (“Opeeeeeeeegalala!”) to the more technical: “It’s wired to a neural hinge inside a mountain / and swings out smoother than gravity.”
“Killzone” is perhaps the most accessible portion of the book. It features poems that could be read aloud with a surprising ease. One of the highlights here is “Guadaloop:”
Just the whole world like a wadded-up burden in the mouth
Just the asphyxiating banquet
Just rolls around helpless as a star
Just on the noplace of the universe
Just before the speeches can be made
Just like a girl
I also had the pleasure of taking several courses with McSweeney at the University of Alabama. During one day, we were addressing the work of a student which many of us found difficult. “Start somewhere familiar,” she advised. “If there is an ‘I,’ start with that. Who is the ‘I?’ What is the ‘I’ doing?” McSweeney’s “I” first appears in the title poem: “In my / percussion grenade / I loaf and invite myself to lock and load.” So McSweeney’s speaker claims authority (“I […] invite myself”) to be deployed.
Does this, perhaps, answer the question of why McSweeney wanted a breathless text to be read aloud? Is it that the speaker is meant to embody the grenade, something that is both a message and a weapon hurled from a distance to the target? And does this explain the album’s title? There are many readings of “percussion grenade,” including the grenade being the book itself, the tongue striking the teeth and mouth to sound to form the grenade of words hurled against the reader.
In the section entitled “King Prion,” McSweeney explores an interesting concept related to the idea of the book as the grenade itself. A prion is a sort of fatal infectious protein—in short, the body can be destroyed by the very thing that comprises it. Similarly, McSweeney crafts her verse so that it can counteract the organized, linear language against which she rebels. McSweeney has no love for complacency, and she illustrates that in form and content.
She reflects that disgust with acquiescence in the collection’s title poem, which ends with a fourth section, set in prose, that consists of expressions for complacency:
Oh Kay Oh Kay ohkayohkay Okeydoke Yes Yup Alright Alrighty Sure Thing Sure Thing That’s cool That’s dope That’s Affirmative Ten four How many words for acquiescence in the English language I consent I agree
Though that section ends with McSweeney writing “I tell you I promise you yes it is Ok OK Ok OK ok,” Percussion Grenade lives and thrives in the space where things are definitely not Ok OK Ok OK ok, and the world of poetry is better off because of that.
Erin Lyndal Martin is a poet, fiction writer, music journalist, critical prose writer, and essayist living in Madison, WI. Her work has recently appeared in Gulf Coast, Bat City Review, and dislocate. She can be found on Twitter at @erinlyndal.