A friend of mine is a photographer or, as he puts it, an artist who uses photography. He’s also a professor, and I asked him recently if he finds it difficult to teach undergraduates. “Yes,” he said, “because photography doesn’t have to be art.” Unlike easel painting or classical ballet, photography is a fixture of the everyday world. It is ubiquitous: we see photographs on billboards, at bus stops, on social media. The photograph, in other words, is so closely linked to advertising that the ad seems not just to appropriate the image but to preempt it. Every picture wants to be worth a thousand clicks.
Compare that observation to something the poet Eileen Myles said in 2015 in The Paris Review: “It’s really hard to figure out what’s poetry and what’s a tweet at this time.” Photography doesn’t have to be art, and words—even those that, as Myles says, “notate a vivid, fleeting experience”—don’t have to be poetry. But how to tell the difference? If the Web-based explosion of images has depleted our ability to distinguish visual art from marketing or promotion, the Internet’s hunger for content in the form of first-person narrative—highly condensed, written in an oblique yet evocative style, anchored in feeling, and built on a fiction of intimacy between authors and their audiences—has surely affected how we evaluate poems.
It is, after all, these same qualities—condensation, obliquity, an emphasis on affect, a posture of confiding—that define the poetry generally called “lyric.” Lyric poetry is what most people think of when they think of poetry, if they think about it at all. It’s poetry that allows the reader into the private consciousness of another person, often the poet herself. When it’s not being put to pragmatic uses like political organizing or information sharing, social media is an intensely lyrical genre. That’s what Myles means when they say that, online, poets “can show the thing [they] saw, or not…sending [it] out to seven thousand people right now” and enjoying the gratification of knowing they’re “not alone in this particular way.”
A public culture dominated by individuals talking about themselves tends to buttress the idea that poetry is mainly, even exclusively, about personal experience. It has also allowed writers and their audiences to believe that no special formal operation is needed to turn life into literature. (This is not true of Myles; few have a more sure, shrewd grip on the curvature of a poem.) With so many avenues available for the succinct expression of interior passions—for talking about how one feels, what one has done, and how one feels about what one has done—can poetry still offer something that other media can’t? And really, does it matter?
It may not matter, but in Vexations, her extraordinary debut, Annelyse Gelman proves that it sure can pay to ask. In this apocalyptic dream-vision of a poem, Gelman confronts head-on the question of what separates poetry from other uses of language, particularly the dystopian vernacular of corporate newspeak, pseudo-therapeutic jargon, PR hype, and the dolorous cant of bourgeois self-talk. These are the sounds and syntax that orchestrate our speech and even our thoughts: “Looking at screens made me think in screens,” Gelman writes, “looking at pixels made me think in pixels.” Verse flips into jingle and back again while lyric utterance dissolves into obsessive-compulsive thought loops. The poem makes a sound as terrifying as it is familiar: the nervous patter of a world at the end of its days.
Surreal, often nightmarish, flecked with grim humor, Vexations is a litany of bizarre images and turns of phrase, head-spinning non sequiturs and flights of syntactical fancy. “In camps along the highway we transformed our thoughts,” Gelman writes. “Witnessing a conflict made my otoliths wobble.” Men eat lightbulbs, babies neigh, bodies are harassed with needles and electrodes. In over two hundred six-line stanzas, or sestets, her poem flows downward into an uncanny valley where anything and everything could be a simulation:
The outskirts of the city were still rendering
Each house on the block was a blurred approximation
With a flat gray façade and half-hearted seasonal decorations
I knelt to film a close-up of a single black ant
Carrying a purple flower across a clump of dry grass
We tried to talk but didn’t know what to do with our hands
“Rendering” is the process by which a computer program generates an image from a 2D or 3D model. This city—this reality—is virtual, its existence forged. Here, a perception is already “a close-up,” mediated through some apparatus, probably a phone that Gelman’s speaker uses to capture the snapshot of an ant carrying a flower. These disorienting conditions baffle the body, which has lost all sense of how to interact with other bodies. The collective subject “we” seems something like a robot that can’t process instructions or improvise, short-circuiting when it discovers it doesn’t know how to coordinate speech and gesture.
Gelman veers between the first-person singular (“I glared at the doctors in a petrochemical haze”) and the first-person plural (“We generated intimacy by reading each other’s diaries”). Her speaker is not a character but a vocal effect, a disembodied clamor of boilerplate slogans and strange, emotionally vivid observations. “A major adverse event buried the contingency plan,” the speaker announces, or “I swiped left in search of a suitably uneventful habitat.” Bits of other people’s writing float through the poem, less allusions than scraps of text shaken out from the dustbin of history. “If you become a little boy and run into a house,” Gelman recites, “I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.”
Those lines, from Margaret Wise Brown’s classic children’s book The Runaway Bunny, land as transmissions from another world. The overall effect recalls the film theorist and experimental composer Michel Chion’s concept of the acousmêtre, a term that describes a character in film who is heard but not seen, like HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Neither inside nor outside the image,” Chion says, the acousmêtre is neither a detached narrator-spectator of the film’s action nor a mysterious presence hovering in the wings, waiting to be revealed. It is rather “a kind of talking and acting shadow” that seems to be “wandering along the surface” of things, “seeking a place to settle.”
Gelman is quite clear that Vexations is an acoustic as much as a poetic work. In a note at the end of the book she describes the poem as a text score for Erik Satie’s 1893 piano piece by the same name. Satie’s composition is notoriously difficult to perform: it comprises only half a sheet of musical notation, with a motif to be repeated 840 times. In 1963 John Cage organized a marathon recital of Satie’s Vexations, with John Cale (among others) on piano. Gelman recalls hearing the piece at the age of sixteen, when it was performed for twenty-four hours straight at the California Institute of the Arts—an experience, she says, that “planted the seed for this poem.”
Vexations, the poem, advances at an ominously steady clip, as if to set the ruminating of a mind besieged by information overload against the background drag of real time. There is no narrative or story per se; images and events accumulate without adding up. As for time, the precise historical frame is a moving target. “Even the grass was coming up positive,” goes the poem’s very first line, a phrase that instantly calls to mind the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, with their tidal surges of infection. A few lines later, however, Gelman evokes the more diffuse temporality of climate change: “That was the year the hurricanes began/…A tree couldn’t move without tearing its roots.” And a few lines after that? “Crowds coagulated to watch falling bodies.” So where are we? Somewhere in the year 2020? The second decade of the twenty-first century? September 11, 2001?
Each crisis bleeds into the next, every horror compounds the one that came before it. “People drinking soda got shot in a bowling alley/People hiding behind racks of blue T-shirts got shot in department stores.” And yet, Gelman observes, “there was no other world to bring a child into.” Among its catalog of terrors Vexations includes parenthood. The poem’s speaker has a daughter, referred to only as “daughter,” who suffers from a mysterious illness along with the usual agonies of becoming a person: “Have you ever watched a child develop subjectivity?/Her eyes open slowly, like two dark oars emerging from the mist…” Caring for daughter means acclimating her to a life of perpetual shock. It means trying to keep her alive with “bodies piled up, blocking out the light”:
Daughter was waxy like a memory of someone
You haven’t seen in a really, really long time
The screen had twelve faces on it in varying degrees of agony
Twelve faces to communicate the entire range of human feeling
She tapped one in the middle, trying to be brave
I tried not to think about the thirteenth face
It was like she was tuned to every channel at once
Like all her nerve endings were exposed
She glowed like a skinned angel in the bay window
Every leaf of every tree of every wood, went the saying
Her sense of sight had a sense of touch, the world
Penetrated her with detail
Readers may recognize the italicized phrase as part of a sentence that appears in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Funes the Memorious,” about a man who remembers everything he sees as well as “every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it.” “My memory,” he explains, “is like a garbage heap.” In these stanzas, it is the screen that becomes the repository of all human sensibility and experience, a suite of channels that prompt and direct our physiological and psychological states, whether we like it or not. If looking at pixels makes Gelman’s speaker think in pixels, it also makes her—and everyone else—feel in them. Pain, sight, touch, sensation, interior life, and even reality itself are outsourced to invisible sequences of code given physical form by machines.
Perhaps poetry will share the fate of Borges’s sentence, which, in Vexations, has been dislodged from its specific aesthetic context and thrown into the mix with old saws and cheery self-help aphorisms, like those that periodically blare through the poem from a PA system: “Over the PA someone said, A diamond is forever!”; “Over the PA someone was keeping it light”; “Over the PA someone said, Be the change!” When Gelman slips into rhyme, or when she makes use of alliterative verse (“I swayed where I stood, sessile”) in the style of Beowulf or Piers Plowman, she invokes a literary tradition that doesn’t seem able to hold its own against a contemporary tide of linguistic rigidification, much less contemporary political and ecological disaster. But she also creates something new: a poetry of the garbage heap, standing fast amid the detritus of the present for as long as it can. Reading it is a gulp of fresh air.
Vexations is a closed system, a fractious biosphere. For something completely different, take Elisa Gonzalez’s Grand Tour, likewise a debut collection haunted by great pain. In the world Gelman gives us, suffering is at once pervasive and unnameable, a gas saturating the atmosphere. Gonzalez’s grief has a name: it is Stephen, the younger brother to whom Grand Tour is dedicated. In “After My Brother’s Death, I Reflect on the Iliad,” the second poem in the collection, Gonzalez responds to a barista who asks how she is by blurting out, “My little brother was shot.” It is this grief that Grand Tour considers, at times obliquely, other times head-on.
There are thirty-four poems in Grand Tour, grouped into four sections of various lengths. Formally, the book is miscellaneous: Gonzalez writes in free verse, in prose, in couplets, in lines that sometimes stretch to the end of the page and sometimes split off after two or three words. Her references are many and erudite. There are poems with titles like “In Quarantine, I Reflect on the Death of Ophelia” and “Lovers’ Discourse” (a nod to Roland Barthes’s 1977 book Fragments d’un discours amoureux) and subtitles like “after Augustine” and “after Wallace Stevens.” Several poems are geotagged to a particular location: Cyprus, Gdańsk, Berlin, Warsaw, Cabo Rojo, Yale.
Gonzalez’s solemn perambulation around the globe and through the canon reimagines the famed “grand tour” from a perspective it never included: that of a young woman whose parents “didn’t speak money” and who has left “a house with no heat” and a room “shared with seven brothers and sisters” to attend an Ivy League college. The grand tour was a custom that sprang up in the seventeenth century of sending wealthy British and European men in their late teens or early twenties on trips through France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and sometimes Spain. This was not a religious pilgrimage but an aesthetic education, meant to give members of the elite a close-up look at their cultural inheritance. The popularity of such excursions peaked in the eighteenth century, before railways made short-term travel easier for both the luxury and the middle-class consumer: Why go all the way to Geneva when you could enjoy a weekend by the British seaside?
Not surprisingly, letters, journals, and travel memoirs documenting the grand tour tend to take more pleasure in describing present-day sights and sounds than musty relics of the past. Writing of Venice’s Piazza San Marco in his A View of Society and Manners in Italy (1781), the Scottish physician John Moore observes that
in the evening there generally is…such a mixed multitude of Jews, Turks, and Christians; lawyers, knaves, and pickpockets; mountebanks, old women, and physicians; women of quality, with masks; strumpets barefaced; and, in short, such a jumble of senators, citizens, gondoleers, and people of every character and condition, that your ideas are broken, bruised, and dislocated in the crowd, in such a manner, that you can think, or reflect, on nothing.
In Gonzalez’s Grand Tour, it is the search for silence—for an opportunity to think and reflect—that is perpetually aborted by the cacophony of other people, even or especially people one loves. Each poem strives for contemplation only to be pulled back to the uproar of the world, to the parents, teachers, husbands, and lovers who compete for Gonzalez’s care and attention. How to grieve amid the noise?
Gonzalez’s poems are strongest when they frustrate her reader’s expectations. She has a feel for the way the sound and shape of a line can interrupt the arc of a story, turning the most straightforward personal narrative into something unexpectedly evasive. In “A Tuesday in May,” seven clipped tercets describe a grandmother’s death with none of the saccharine satisfaction the workshop-ready theme of “dead grandma” brings to mind:
My grandmother died the day
the missionaries came for our souls.
To save them, I mean.
They cycled up the drive
as my mother and I carried her to the van,
on our way to the hospital.
We didn’t hear them till they dismounted,
we were so bent on moving her
These are the first three stanzas, and you could read them several times over without realizing that their tone, which is something like ominously bemused, has been carefully crafted through the embedded play of sonic and syntactical repetition. Notice how the last word of each stanza’s first line begins with a d, echoing the impact of “died” and so threading the specter of morbidity through from line to line. And note the subtle assonance that builds up between “day,” “came,” “save,” “way,” and “pain,” or how the gathering lament of those drawn-out long a sounds is slowed by the flat and stiff open middle vowels of “as” and “van.”
While the music of the poem creates a trembling stasis across its lines, the words on the page likewise speak of a confrontation between people moving in different directions. The missionaries approach the house and get off their bikes; the family picks up the grandmother and moves out of the house, toward the van. One bends when one dismounts a bike, so we imagine, perhaps, the missionaries dipping toward the ground while the family is “bent” on keeping the grandmother comfortable. The poem doesn’t just describe human beings at cross-purposes—saving souls, saving a life—it gives their opposition form, texture, density, a substance we absorb even if we don’t quite realize it.
Gonzalez writes poems that dip and swerve away from resolution. In “Puente de Piedra”—the title refers to a natural stone bridge in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico—prose and verse are mixed together as terse paragraphs several sentences long alternate with more conventional lineated patterns. This mirrors the encounter between the reality of mourning and its overintellectualization. “A philosopher,” Gonzalez writes icily, “tells me that I am thinking of everything in the wrong way: what is survive what is death what…” Whoever this loser is, he can’t “stump” her:
…to survive is to wake up early and for a period no longer than twenty to sixty seconds not remember that you are dead.
To survive is to pray this interstice repeats every morning for the rest of my otherwise unendurable life.
And death? (I smile enigmatically)
Death to philosophers! What do you think of that?
(He disappears, mosquito in the bladed breeze.)
The poet asserts her authority through language and form, beginning in prose but then breaking it up into a trio of lines punctuated wildly by question marks, exclamation points, and parentheses, an almost operatic riposte to the philosopher’s complaint. “I would like a substitute word,” she says, “unspoiled by human structures.” Poetry has no such words—it’s no natural bridge, but an artificial “bridge of stars that are in fact fluorescent lights strung at intervals according to an engineer’s logic”—but it might also be a stopgap that makes life less unendurable, that provides a means, however tenuous, to persevere.
Death is the central preoccupation of Grand Tour, but it is shadowed by a subtler emphasis on sex. If sex is not quite death’s inverse, it nonetheless opens avenues of the desire for more life. “I hold her naked on the carpet,/my body spilling/out of my lavender dress,” Gonzalez writes in “Roman Triptych,” and then: “Body, if you could be forever/spilling out of your lavender dress.” There’s a tartness to this moment: the speaker’s attachment is to her own body, not the woman she clasps to it.
It’s worth noting that there is no melodrama around queerness in this book. Lovers are sometimes “he” and sometimes “she,” sometimes “my husband” and sometimes “A, whose long auburn hair preserves my modesty/as bliss destroys thought.” The dimly remembered prohibitions against sexual indulgence that prompt “Epistemology of the Shower,” in which the speaker reminisces about being thirteen and touching a female friend’s naked body, have no sway in the present. As Gonzalez puts it, “I learned you can separate pleasure from disgrace.” And yet this recognition creates as many problems as it solves: “It’s hard to make a habit of pure happiness, when there’s so much to know.”
In “Secret and Invisible Folds into the Visible,” the speaker says that, like Saint Augustine, “I have a young man’s mind, deranged with desire.” But whereas Augustine, in his Confessions, memorably rails against his own weaknesses of the flesh—recalling a misspent youth in Carthage, he thinks of his teenage soul as “covered in sores,” “itching to be scratched by sensual things”—the first-person confessor of this poem shares a couple of sexual fantasies (her psychiatrist pinning her against the wall, a woman pushing her into a bathroom stall) before thumbing her nose at the figure of “The Editor,” who, she says, “would delete all of this, would save me from my propensity to humiliate myself.” There is no humiliation here, only cool, convincing self-assessment.
If Grand Tour carries any shame, it lies in the uneasy dishonor of class mobility, for as Gonzalez puts it in “Failed Essay on Privilege,” “even the good is regrettable, or at least sometimes/should be regretted.” By “the good” Gonzalez means Aristotle’s notion of eudaemonia or “the good life,” which she references earlier in the poem. Eudaimonia can also be translated as “happiness,” “well-being,” or “flourishing,” but Gonzalez glosses it here as a mastery of dubious life skills. “I know a fine shoe when I see one,” she acknowledges, “and I know to be sincerely sorry for those people’s problems.”
Wherever she is, whether she’s surrounded by family, in bed with a lover, traveling, walking around a museum, or—as she says in “Notes on a Divided Island,” a poem about visiting Cyprus—passing with naive blitheness through a border checkpoint, Gonzalez is always both sincere and skeptical. Grand Tour is a diary of vigilance, a record of standing at arm’s length even from life’s most intimate experiences in order to appreciate their strangeness and, later, to capture that strangeness in words. “I am somewhere between visitor and pilgrim,” Gonzalez says, and this is the book’s posture, too: searching, suspicious, unconvinced but undeterred.
Neither Gelman nor Gonzalez is defensive about using poetry to engage with crisis, whether personal or world-historical. If anything, the poem is a refuge, even if it is compromised or porous. When, in a poem about the early days of the pandemic, Gonzalez admits that she sent “an ill-advised email,” though not “an ill-advised text,” we are reminded that poetry is a slow art, a retreat from the impulsive emotionalism fed and rewarded by that sinister entity known as the algorithm. If people say regrettable things in poems, at least they do not say them without thinking a bit first.
And yet, as Gelman puts it, we still find ourselves in a moment when “all speech [is] a form of advertisement” and “all observation…a form of confession.” How do we evaluate “what quality of life [is] worth preserving” when “the dominant metaphor for thought [is] virality,” when to be of value means to be suddenly everywhere, passing from person to person like a disease? Dystopia is defined less by what happens—floods, famines, plagues, wars—and more by what is lost, including the capacity to wrest our experience from its preemptive commercialization. If this is the cost of belonging to the present, perhaps it is too high.