Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Titus, Allison. Instructions from the Narwhal. MA: Bateau Press, 2007.

“Dear Greenland won’t you take off your gloves and sit here by the belly of the stove.” As Greenland melts by the fire, “a folktale gesture” courses through the speaker’s house as an “elaborate gathering,” an “alphabet of sealskin,” scatters and fragments: “Subtract the heel prints from the glacier, the glacier from its drift.” And so commences Allison Titus’ chapbook, Instructions from the Narwhal. In many respects, the first section of the collection’s opening sequence (“How to Harvest Ice”) can be read as an ars poetica for the remainder of the text: a series of surreal folktales set adrift on an oceanic, Coleridgian dreamscape where Ukrainian giants, icebergs, a mummified John Wilkes Booth imposter, discarded souvenirs, and Siamese twins “traipse the bottom of the sea.” But unlike the traditional narrative arc provided by Coleridge’s ancient mariner, Titus’ narrative is more supple, offering “several endings to choose from.”

But Instructions provides the reader with more than an escapist fantasy-world into which surrealism often devolves; the chapbook, additionally, investigates the epistolary form and its many possible manifestations. Take, for instance, the collection’s second poem, “How to Address the Ukrainian Giant.” While the salutation of a letter generally precedes the letter in earnest, Titus defers the greeting until the penultimate line: “Dear giant if such grand scale was easy.” The following poem, “How to Navigate the Arctic Sea, Part 1,” follows a similar pattern, but alternatively addresses the speaker’s landlord. To wit, the question becomes: how does a re-structuring of the epistolary form affect the reader? Or, at least, how does such a re-structuring complicate our received notions of the form?

Of course, the deferrals contained within these selections can also be read another way. In the poem “Letter,” Titus writes:
Sometimes I sat for hours with the word Dear
on the page, forgetting what should have
come next, thinking only of the whitetail

in the woods, body frozen & body darting

in the same instant.
If hours are spent pondering what comes after “the word Dear/ on the page,” the solution to “forgetting” words would appear to be a reversal: write what comes before the word “Dear”: a readjustment of perception: a rethinking of communicative address. As such, dream-memories of a “whitetail,” or any number of animals, objects, and characters found throughout the chapbook’s poems, support, re-imagine, and modify the “unwritten letter.”

Re-imagining the epistle, then, is also the re-imagining of forgetfulness and creative-stagnation, a turn from negation to affirmation. Instead of lamenting the would-be-stifling process of composition, “forgetting” transforms into “thinking,” and “thinking” becomes “the machine that makes the world and the machine that unmakes the world” where we can “take a faithful inventory” of the stories which Titus and Greenland create as a writers, and the “several endings” through which we as readers navigate.

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