(Click on the Image to check out the book)
There are three types of vertigo: objective (your environment seems to move), subjective (you sense yourself moving) and pseudo (something seems to be turning in your head). Or so Wikipedia tells me. Does this classification carry over into poetics? You could say that some poems foreground the linguistic object, others the lyric subject, and still others create their own little worlds of expression. But wait, Wikipedia on vertigo takes a skeptical turn: “While this classification appears in textbooks, it has little to do with the pathophysiology or treatment of vertigo.”
So the three vertigos turn out to be “previous”, no longer relevant to medical practice. Still, this very irrelevance makes the vertigos particularly relevant to contemporary poetics. [Pardon the belabored analogy; I do not mean to trivialize the real experience of vertigo. ] A rhetoric of opposition—speaking vs. writing, subject vs. object, conservative quietism vs. avant-garde experimentation—makes for good categories. The “confessional school”, it would seem, asserts the transparency of a message. The “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school”, by contrast, asserts the opacity of the medium. That said, the classification of poetry into antagonistic schools has recently been an object of critique in its own right. Such critique might play with avant-garde polemic; take Keston Sutherland’s Theses on Antisubjectivist Dogma. Or it might shift the focus of the debate. In Lyric Shame: The “Lyric” Subject of Contemporary American Poetry, Gillian White suggests that a “lyric I” is an object of “shame”. Thus it has an uneasy pervasiveness, with “opponents” sometimes perpetuating and “defenders” complicating it. This “lyric I” is not a well-defined object, but a way of reading.
How does “Suds”, the second-last poem in Previous Vertigos, and the only one that does not mention a physical object, ask to be read?
The experiment is
it is in
the expression of unsatisfaction
Are you extending?
for you there is no extreme, no extravagant
The poem strikes me as a reflexive piece, engaging the “lyric shame” that White identifies. Is it an ars poetica in defense of the lyric subject? In a context that fetishizes “the experimental”, the speaker turns the tables on those who would shame her. First, a statement : experiment is not in the experimental. Then, a question, which dramatizes the exchange: “Are you extending?” sounds like an “Are you listening?” as much as an “Are you experimenting?” Finally, a condemnation. The speaker shames the addressee.
But what are the “suds”? Expelled, ecstatic results of the experiment? [The Wikipedia disambiguation page informs me that SUDS is an acronym for “subjective units of distress scale”, but this would be a stretch.] And who is the you? An absent interlocutor, the poet herself (a possibility that Afric McGlinchey’s review raises), or a hypocrite reader? If this is a manifesto, it is a reticent one, in spite of its auditory insistence. After all, the repeated sound “ex” is a prefix that can signify the previous, the passé. Not that we should take this sense uncritically; the repetition is so emphatic that makes a close reading feel absurd. The constraint of the “ex” words draws the poem beyond whatever statement Karacosta initially intended, if any.
Previous Vertigos appeared in 2011, before Sutherland’s manifesto or White’s book. Still, I think it bears reading in light of these critical trends. This is not to reduce it to a symptom or magnify it into an intervention. It is one among many possible configurations of the elusive lyric “I”, and happens to be one that I like.
At first glance, the collection seems firmly on the side of the confessional lyric subject, whose existence we just problematized. Skimming the book, you encounter a figure worn down by drugs and war and consumerism even as it is expanded by global travel and cross-cultural exposure, and yet alert to the body it inhabits, the landscapes through which it moves. The persona that moves through Karacosta’s pages does not coalesce into such a caricature, but it does gesture to all these possibilities. Some of the landscapes are explicitly marked: Greek coast, English countryside, New Mexico desert. Relationships, whether with people or substances, feel plausible and even “compelling”. An abundance of multisensory imagery, framed in verbally exuberant phrases, brings various pasts to life in visceral, often vertiginous form. The word “I” appears over sixty times.
For all this, the chapbook is not the diary of Nina Karacosta, Greek-American poet and actor, regurgitated for your vicarious consumption. More often than not, the people, things and places appear in a disorienting space or time—in the immaterial past of memory, the insistently material present of text, the conditional of genre. Here and there, you find imperatives. One poem, “War Games”, consists entirely of such imperatives. It ends with these: “Count your bones. / Breathe air.” Both injunctions involve bodily awareness; one seems oriented toward death, the other toward life. The emphasis on bare life makes the poem feel “universal” even as it evokes an individual body. The chapbook doesn’t give a gloss here, but an online version presents it as a “response to events in Gaza in 2009, meant to highlight the absurdity of war”. The phrase “highlight absurdity” can hardly exhaust the poem’s effects. The second-person imperative invites empathy, and the specific imperatives—while they have no immediate effect on the actual victims—offer this second-person subject an ethics and/or aesthetics of bare life.
“Can’t Talk About It” takes place on the page and in the body. Here, the body is that of a first-person speaker. The right-aligned part of the poem describes a surgery. Then comes a left-aligned meta-narration that explains and stops this account: “Doodling at the edge of the white paper / I want to write about burning three fingers / and ending up in the emergency room / but instead keep doodling” . The last few lines, right-aligned again, seem to have moved back from the medium of writing to the spoken message, but the terms have moved from real to surreal. It ends “I am / a corridor of rain,” (is “rain” a sublimation of “pain”?) without any closing punctuation. In this line, the lack of punctuation places the “I” in suspense, while the words themselves designate an impossible interior.
“Psychotropic Hurrah” is tentative in its ecstasy: “i can maybe write a pow wow poem”. I am drawn to its phrase “attic cylindrical frenzy”, which evokes an impossible interior like “corridor of rain”. Gloss “attic” as adjective, meaning “Greek”, and a different shape emerges. It recalls, at least for me, the Grecian urn that Keats invoked as “attic shape”. Whereas he read movement in a static object, Karacosta shapes a stasis out of her disorientations.
Perhaps the lyric subject of Previous Vertigos is new, after all—if only in its precise groundlessness. Consider the last lines of the first poem, “Solitaire”:
I am not
me because if I were I would know what
I’m not. All this adds up to nothing.