[About two] year[s] ago now I had the pleasure of trading Jacq Greyja a couple of zines for an early draft of their [then] forthcoming collection of poems, GREATER GRAVE. I have been struck by how brilliant these poems are, and because of this I asked them if I could review it
for the first issue of THE WHITE STAR READER, which I will be debuting tomorrow* (Sunday, August 3rd) at the 16th Annual San Francisco Zine Fest. So as a sort of celebration of Jacq and the fest and the debut of the WSR#1, here is a[n old] sneak peek at my review of Jacq Greyja’s brilliant GREATER GRAVE, available now from The Operating System. Also be sure to attend the release party at Alley Cat Books on August 10th!
I suppose that the experience of being physically arrested, for lack of a better word, is one of- if not the primary- reason people read poetry. I like to say that good poetry is like a hearty meal: it saturates you, surprises you with its combination of tastes and micro-experiences, leaves you breathless, even if you’re not over full. And yet it is a labor, it takes a certain amount of effort and even strategizing- when to eat what and in what order, when to take a drink, when to sit back and just feel your jaws moving over fare, marveling at the deep visceral sensation of the experience. There is some poetry that exceeds even this sort of analogy, that almost immediately affects one in such a profound way that even if the volume is small, it sits on your shelf or next to your bed or in your bag for a year- not because you’re not reading it, but because you can only handle snippets of it at a time. I know that I am waxing hyperbolic here, and also that one of the greatest characteristics of the best poetry is its ability to map and act out subtleties, the middle stuff of life, the stuff that is less easily apprehended precisely because it doesn’t operate at the extreme limits of sensation or registrability. What makes Jacq Greyja’s forthcoming Greater Grave so singularly exceptional is that it does both.
Greyja, a non-binary, mixed race, queer Latinx in their mid-twenties, is currently working on their Creative Writing MFA at San Francisco State University, after having earned their undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, last spring. From their website:
“Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bettering American Poetry, Berkeley Poetry Review, The Fem, Apogee Journal Folio, Gravel Magazine, Columbia Poetry Review, Yes Poetry, The Nottingham Review, and MISTRESS. Their collage work was recently featured in ‘Not Even’: Poets Make Collage at Bushel Collective in Delhi, NY. Jacq is currently completing two chapbook manuscripts: Ejecta Ejecta, the winning manuscript in Where Are You Press’ 2016 poetry contest, and Greater Grave, forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in late 2017.”
As you can see, they’re already prolific. And I, for one, am happy for this, already feeling blessed to have been given a sneak peek at Greater Grave, and already looking forward to whatever is next. I will need some time, however, to spend with Greater Grave.
Greater Grave is an excellent example of the sort of fantastic possibilities I talk about in the essay in this first issue of The White Star Reader*, first, because it works tirelessly to disrupt its own surface, secondly because it relentlessly problematizes relations between things.
Greater Grave has a singular texture, and that texture bears the traces of architecture- that is: it bears sort of signature of its own labor. It makes me feel as though the aforementioned tirelessness with which it works bears the marks of the author’s actual tiredness- that is: it feels like an expenditure. A precious expenditure, like the substance of actual labor rather than a product of labor. I want to say that this is why its texture feels so profound and uncanny: it is as though that which is impossible to make into an object has been given the sensual qualities of an object, like tasting a movement or smelling a sentence.
I’m going to have a hard time moving past talking about the very first poem, whose title “Progress still controls us even in tales of ruination.” -Anna Tsing already displays a sense of the competing vectors mentioned in this issue’s essay: here there are two vectors- two movements- one towards the good (progress) and one towards the bad (ruination) whose coupling calls into question the assertion that the vector of “progress” was ever ‘good’ in the first place. This simple, structuring juxtaposition displays a good deal of the entirety of Greater Grave’s function: to show the brittleness of single signifiers, in this case progress, where a simple placing it in relation to something else can show the multiform fissures of its foundation. But this is the most simple example of this function, as the poem to which the quote serves as a title immediately begins to unravel a number of constellatory relations between things, creating what seems like an objectless allegory: a moving metaphor without a single static node along which its mechanisms function.
First, the structure of relations between the lyric subject and the things within them are structured by desire:
wanting to edit this memory I interject
that I recall feeling not liberated/…
Second, that an impossibility- the prospect of editing one’s memory- is presented as a possibility. This possibility is followed by a broad space, a pointed lack, wherein the reader is implicated in their relation to the lyric “I,” as one who can never be sure to what extent that which they are able to remember or apprehend has been edited: what was in that space before either the edit or the desire to edit it? Why does the word edit feel like the word delete? Because both are impossible, strictly speaking?
Not only does this lyric “I” feel or simply “recall feeling,” but it “interjects” the assertion- an assertion that is weak not only because it is three verbs (interject, recall, feel) away from something other than what it is claiming, but because it follows immediately after the caesura of the possible having-been-edited-memory, which feels like an actual, although negative, interjection. It’s weakness, however, becomes a moot point, when we learn that that which the voice claims to have recalled is the negative of something it doesn’t believe in anyway, now a double negative:
back before I dis member
I forgot that I disbelieved in liberation
The location of all of these things- feelings, the voice itself, whatever the memory is- in relation to each other are thrown into the mysteriously unknowable past: the voice recalls feeling (from when to when?), but reverts (to before when?)- to “back before I dis member,” where all of the sudden to remember- taken as such both because of swift reading and the fact that before one forgets one exists in a state of remembering- is to take apart a body, and somehow now seems to have always meant to dis-RE-member, which semantically amounts to the word “forget,” only with a double modifier: the negation (dis) + a return/ repetition (re) + the verb for “put together.” This is the formal and semantic mechanism of the uncanny, wherein something means one thing and as well as its opposite. The double movement of the competing vectors of ruination and progress which structure the poem are therefore shown to have many more moving parts, necessary tributaries, possible functionalities, and sophisticated middle mechanisms and textures than the now seemingly oversimplified binary heuristic of the title- while it all seems to remain contained within it.
And this in the first five lines of the first poem of the book. But the reader doesn’t come to know the placeless map of constant movement through the act of mapping, which I assume requires a static terrain. Greater Grave, a map of movements, so to speak, is apprehended via the affect produced by the troubled and fluxing relations of and to other relations, by the feeling of being arrested, the sort of paused-with-an-over-large breath inside your chest that needs to get out. It feels felt because it feels embodied, and therein lies one of its greatest characteristics: that this lyric “I,” the I that dis/ remembers and wants and from which the poems of Greater Grave emerge and which Greater Grave never denies, affirms the continued possibility, plausibility, and political necessity of the lyrical poem, of the poetic voice of suffering subjects in the world, of the sort of broken utopian dreams that come from this sort of post//post/postmodern subject, this re-embodied (un-dis-embodied?) voice.