Friday, March 20, 2009

Svalina, Mathias. The Viral Lease. Brooklyn, NY: Small Anchor Press, 2008.

The Viral Lease is a chapbook length lyric poem that re-imagines both language and the body within a disjunctive framework where the reader is told to discard that which “your parents/ left dangling/ from your throat,” so that “words [may] breath shadows”; or stated in another way, the poem attempts to reformulate standard narratives by severing the normative, associative links we create between words within discrete syntactical units, as well as the relationship between individual images. Take, for instance, the follow lines:
Underwater eyes
wring from blasphemes

in the quiet
of hallways.

Heirs burst
with stairwells.
While contemplated in isolation, “underwater eyes” could literally refer to someone’s (or something’s) eyes while underwater, but complications arise when analyzed within its grammatical context. Specifically, what is the relationship between “blasphemes” and “eyes,” and how does one “wring” the latter from the former? The poem does not provide this information for the reader, thus we must foster an absurdist image and, at least temporarily, submit ourselves to its plausibility if we are to make “sense” of the phrase. Adding an additional layer of complexity to the couplet is the fact that the syntax of the sentence succeeds in displacing the agency normally attributed to the verb “wring”: a subject “wrings” the object of the verb “from” the object of the preposition (i.e. “He wrings water from a rag”). In the case of the above excerpt, there is no object of the verb and thus the lines reorganize agency so that “underwater eyes” are now complicit in their own extraction.

But beyond the reversals taking place within a given image, the interrelationship between images is also problematized. What can we, as readers, claim to know about the narrative or semantic correspondence between “underwater eyes” and the “heirs” that are “bursting” two stanzas later? On the surface, little connects the two, but what does is of utmost importance: the confining passageways of an unreferenced building (i.e. “hallways” and “stairwells”). While the disparate nature of the images forces us to make an associative leap from one image to the next, the relative similarity between “hallways” and “stairwells” aides in bridging that gap, although not fully; while a connection can be made, there is room for associative-slippage between each reading or between different readers.

The question, then, becomes: why does the poem enact this particularly oblique poetic? Is this only a matter of writing in antithesis of what one’s “parents/ left dangling/ from [one’s] throat”? Not in the least. The poem, it would appear, claims the stakes are a bit more elevated than simple oedipal relations. In fact, the poetic is a war-cry (“Give me the war”), and the war takes place not only on the page (“Sheaves of war”), but on the body (“The war has broken/ & bruised wider// than eyes.”). But if this poetic signals a conflict, carrying “the bodies/ from the classrooms,/ limp arms dangling” has left the speaker disillusioned and oscillating between a call-to-arms and self-doubt. Specifically, we find this ambivalence in a brief but salient confession midway through the poem: “I am writing you a letter// in the weather reports/ & my every prediction is wrong”; additionally, this sense of resignation redoubles itself when the speaker states: “the viral lease,/ the verses we hear// are nevers.” As the end of the poem approaches and we wait for one last chance at salvation (or at least the hope for future salvation), it soon becomes apparent that there will be no such thing. The poem concludes by collapsing into the “nevers” ever more violently as we are “broken by the throat’s/ red gag,// broken by the bomb.”

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