Remains to Be Used, by Jessica Baran (Apostrophe Books, 2010)
There is a surprisingly dynamic interplay between human beings and inanimate art objects in Jessica Baran’s debut book of poems. The opening of “The Voyeur,” the book’s first poem, willfully asks us to consider what it is about a work of art that seduces the viewer into paying attention, into being moved or repulsed: “She doesn’t gaze at her subjects, she induces them to gaze at her.” This sly disruption of artistic agency is accompanied by the suggestion that not all viewers (like artworks) are created equal. These opening statements operate between confrontation and conversation, and serve as something of a thesis statement for the book as a whole. The speaker in these poems directs us in a lyric voice that’s at once incisive and circumspective, heavy with foreboding, and engaged in a solitary, possibly lonesome, pursuit that as readers we are induced to follow.
Except for the final one, each of the book’s twenty-nine poems in this slender and surprisingly dense book is a response to specific artworks, dutifully listed as footnotes at the end of each poem. Baran, who also works as an art writer and curator, displays an in-depth knowledge of, and fluency with, art, film, and literature, ranging from doomed conceptual artist Jan Bas Ader to the Hardy Boys author Franklin W. Dixon (both referenced in “The Search for Hidden Gold” alongside Bruce Nauman and Howard Fried). Baran’s poetry is clearly influenced by art writing; attentive to sensory detail, she navigates almost clinically the surfaces of the materials, scenes, set pieces, and voices that appear in the poems. What she does not do is enter the psyche of the artists whose work she reflects on, nor the characters sometimes appearing in them. Nor does the poet address personal feelings or emotions directly. Here is “That Obscure Object,” which takes as a departure point That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel’s last film, and Mike Kelley’s 2005 multimedia installation Day is Done:
Shadowy creature, bare black branch, mechanical limb. Helter-skelter. Some things depend on how you look at them. In his carnival tent, the lonely vampire perches on his ornate gilt throne and ponders: blood is all I crave, sweat is what I get, but what I hunger for is— . Insurance, the menace of wild children, of what can become abject bric-a-brac. Monstrous heaps made by hand, boxes stacked but empty: again dawn intrudes, and the best kept secret in the world has yet to be conceived.
The poem does not try to “sum up” these two artworks, or even give a definitive reading of them. As Baran slowly ruminates over disparate elements of each work, we get a sense of how they strike the poet. The structure of the sentences is generally straightforward (“Monstrous heaps made by hand, boxes stacked but empty”), but the sum of them is oblique. The detached tone of the narration is evident, as is a palpable sense of impending catastrophe that is also a hallmark of Baran’s poems. It speaks to her ability as a poet that the latter aspect is so striking and yet so hard to parse. By mostly eschewing narrative, Baran forces us to look to other sources for the movement of her poems. Certainly there is the discerning eye casting around a selected work for its most arresting phenomenological aspects, yet there are also the more ambiguous threads of association and correspondence that bind the various works together into new poetic shapes. Baran builds these poems through the perpetual fine-tuning of selected focus—first the works themselves, then their specific points of reference and description, and finally the connective tissue between the chosen elements.
While the poems investigate their subjects from all directions, there is nothing haphazard in how the lines and sentences are constructed; they are highly curated, presented immaculately. “Shadowy creature, bare black branch, mechanical limb. Helter-skelter.” The first sentence creates a darkened, controlled, and abstracted image. The second imbues it with a feeling of action and amps up the sense of menace. The poems are charged with an electric tension that never explodes into violence, but never slackens either, a permanent state of threat. Many of the poems remind me of John Ashbery’s brooding and subdued “Forties Flick” for the way that poem uses the vocabulary of another art genre (film noir in Ashbery’s case) as a departure point to highlight a shared sensibility that joins the lyric voice to the thing it describes.
For Baran, this voice remains not only oblique, but also elusive. Returning to the opening sentence (“She doesn’t gaze at her subjects, she induces them to gaze at her”), the suggestion of a thesis statement starts to resist us even at second glance. The line itself has a familiar poetic ring: a parallel construction in which the second clause linguistically inverts and logically subverts the first. Considered abstractly, it is nice poetry, a pathetic fallacy to boot. But would it not be “her objects”? Is the speaker (“the voyeur” of the poem’s title we assume), at the very outset taking on a god-like position before the work (which, furthermore, she did not actually create) and casting its elements as royal subjects? Any assumption that the speaker might be the nominal creator the poem refers to is immediately undermined by the note at the bottom of the page that says “Robert Gober, [Untitled], 2005. Mixed media sculptural installation.” Is it possible that the “she” is an object in the installation, “staring” back at the viewer? “Robert Gober Untitled 2005” does not yield the best Google results, but it probably refers to a work in Gober’s 2005 show at New York’s Matthew Marks Gallery. The search, however, did not yield female characters in the piece. Within the confines of the poetic page, there is no way to know whether “she” is Baran’s invention, a detail from Gober’s piece, or something else altogether. By the end of the poem, “she” is gone, while only “I” and “you” are left, linked by some mysterious relationship whose meaning we can only guess at: “And here: up the well-worn stairs, the low-lit guest room, the whole lived whorl beneath blades of a ceiling fan. Strangely, I never see you there.”
However we approach the art references, their use complicates any reading of the poems. A friend flipping through the book remarked that Baran has great taste in art—very true. Yet the references often create slippage where one would think more traction would be created. It is tricky to parse where a reference to one piece begins and another one ends, though this might be a fool’s game.
Take for example the opening of “The Brood,” which uses as its departure points David Cronenberg’s 1979 film of the same name; George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead; Eleanor Antin’s 1970s mail art piece 100 Boots; William Cordova’s 2006 installation of drawings on paper, Drylongos (Pichqa Suyo); and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film Vertigo:
They’re forming into ranks now— a shopping mall arcade of them: sticky little fingers grabbing snow-globes, knocking over milk jugs and juice cartons; blue-bruised fists pounding from the dark insides of display kitchen cupboards. When did the rash spread to the throat? Why couldn’t the self-help books be choked?
Baran is canny with her deployment of details. Having seen both the Romero and Cronenberg films, I have a sense of where one reference (from Romero: “a shopping mall arcade of them”) links to another (from Cronenberg: “sticky little fingers grabbing snow globes”), yet the final effect is of uncertainty and slippage (which film is the rash from?). If my memory of the films serves, it might be from both. And the self-help book from The Brood? But here it’s become plural—a sign that we’ve already passed into a new frame of reference? A whole shelf in a bookstore being brought down in Dawn of the Dead? Or maybe we’ve already slipped into the Antin or Cordova pieces (which I am not familiar with at all)? The poem proceeds in this way, flashing through multiple, overlapping associations at once (“knocking over milk jugs and juice cartons”) until the idea of there being any “right answer” breaks down. The only seamless linkage between the varying points of reference is the one created by the poem itself, “The Brood,” which subsumes all else inside it.
How much would one’s reading of the poems change by seeking out all the artworks listed? Perhaps the sense that this seems beside the point speaks to how and why we approach art. Unlike information that comes to us through a singular exchange or signal, art is not comprehended the same way twice. A viewer’s understanding of the work can even collapse before one’s eyes, something Baran recognizes. But where a poet of a different temperament might have found liberation in the way art can resist interpretation and meaning, Baran tends to create a sense of passivity and helplessness, which ultimately makes the slippage in the poems less playful, more menacing. This sense of indeterminacy in art culminates in the longest poem in the book, “Some Kind of Monster,” whose title refers both to the Metallica song, released on the 2004 album St. Anger, and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary on the band, which appeared that same year. The poem’s other listed artworks make up an eclectic constellation of references: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; Roland Barthes’s Mythologies; and Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Here’s the opening of the poem, which is positioned, literally, as the central poem in the book:
Drag the figure down to the water
in pieces— it— as yet unnamable
but a heap of signs that speaks to you
as limbs, the lank density of a body,
alliterative lips. Any coherent attempt
to render it whole is repeatedly disrupted
by its penchant for scattering. It plays you,
fingertips grazing sand, crocodile eyes
coyly fixed on the moon. Slithering up
from one moment’s rupture and looking back
toward you, it poises itself for utterance.
Redoubling into a neat coil what you read
as a tail, it speaks to you in a voice
not unlike your own. It creatures back.
It plays your tune. You play in the sand.
Though its long form suits Baran nicely, as her associative lines have room to billow out in the manner of a philosophical argument, “Some Kind of Monster” is possibly the book’s most conservative poem in its formal and stylistic approach. The smaller frames of the other poems make for strange and unpredictable dynamics as lines jostle and strain about for room.
In addition to the artworks specifically listed in the footnotes, there is an intriguing influence present at an even deeper, unspoken level. With its lengthy, discursive structure, its division into tercets, and its substantial use of snake imagery that is at once godlike and elusive, the poem seems indebted to Wallace Stevens’s great crisis of the imagination “The Auroras of Autumn.” Baran is not so much referencing the Stevens poem as embodying its gravity and stately pacing, along with its intense concern about the illusory nature of the imagination.
Is it possible that the foreboding tone of the book suggests the poet’s discomfort with the present condition of aesthetics, even while displaying intellectual mastery of it? Remains to Be Used offers no “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”–like counterpoint to its brooding sense of imaginative discord. Whatever degree of discomfort she may or may not feel toward the elusive characteristic of the art referenced in these poems (and what is at stake intellectually, socially, and morally as a result), Baran employs this elusiveness forcefully for her own poetic ends, which gives Remains to Be Used a profound feeling of disquiet that is unfailingly rigorous, intelligent, and deeply felt.