Thomas Fink

a review of Bruna Mori's Dérive

Bruna Mori
Meritage Press
(St. Helena and San Francisco, CA)
51 pp.,
ISBN-10: 0-9709179-6-1.

As Bruna Mori explains in her “Note,” which acts as an epilogue to her first full-length poetry collection Dérive, the French word dérive is translated as “drift” and refers to Situationist Guy Debord’s performative concept involving “one or more persons” letting “themselves be drawn by the terrain and the encounters they find there, detourning one’s steps on noncapitalized time” (48). Debord’s notion can itself be considered a political spin on Walter Benjamin’s emphasis of the flâneur (cited in the prose-poem, “Marking,” 5) or casual urban pedestrian in Charles Baudelaire’s poetry.

Mori’s Anglicizing gerundive use of a related Debordian activity, “detourning”—appropriation of a dominant culture’s discourse for ends that subvert the “host’s” interests—suggests that a dériviste can use a city’s directional signals to drift toward “marginal” areas and thus subvert the dominant group’s urban narrative. Among many luminaries who made poetry from their strolls around New York City, Hart Crane apostrophized the Brooklyn Bridge and celebrated Burlesque clubs, and Frank O’Hara and James Schulyer often focused on the most prominent areas of Manhattan. Mori, on the other hand, reports that the beginning of her drifting resulted in “an assemblage of interwoven images of Manhattan’s Chinatown” and that her “later work involved increased outward engagement in the boroughs—an exploration outside usual paths taken, based on riding subway trains to the end of each line and disembarking to lose [her] way among new immigrant communities, ‘70s era public housing, halfway houses, and cemeteries” (48-9). Some titles are: “207th Street/Fort Tryon park (Manhattan),” “Jamaica Center (Queens),” and “Brighton Beach (Brooklyn).” The mention of “halfway houses” refers specifically to one of the book’s most powerful lyric events, “Rockaway Park (Queens),” which renders often invisible suffering in spare, imagistically acute couplets:

The sky lines up precisely over the horizon to
the halfway house residents’ medicated march.

One enacts cooking turkey dinner, another
heaves, as each last breath, sunlight and air,

while ambulances with basic life support hover
at nearby nursing homes. Summer comes

cautiously, never so easily, for those unseen;
change in season measured by decibel of gulls.

If this records the experience of a flâneur, she—in Baudelaire’s Paris, all were men—is capable, not only of preserving enough detachment to perceive clearly, but of suspending this detachment to communicate and perhaps encourage compassion (without preachiness).

In this horizontal (5” x 7” rather than the expected 7” x 5”) book of prose-poems, short short stories, poems in diverse stanzaic patterns, and reproduced paintings by Matthew Kinney, the poet implies that New York City is a site of heterogeneity-in-flux—or as Mori puts it, in an allusion to Gilles Deleuze: “heaving trestles of human rhizome” (5). Any moment in New York is like “the middle of a sentence that will never be finished” (“City as I,” 6). In “Bay Ridge (Brooklyn),” “Colon, rectal and gastroenterology clinics intermingle with air force recruitment centers” (23). When her speaker in the first section of “Van Cortlandt Park (the Bronx)” addresses a former “cop,” probably white, who is “wearing a ‘Veteran of the Korean War’ cap,” she alludes to Mori’s own heterogeneous origins: “. . . We are talking about bluefish and your R & R in Japan. You were probably there around the time I was born. My father was doing a little R & R there, too” (32). Mori was born in Japan of a Japanese mother and an Italian-American father.

Because of the book’s horizontal structure, as in the volumes of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, the lines in several texts are extremely long, thus conveying perceptual expansiveness or burgeoning expression. “Rushing” displays a speaker on the defensive in her encounter with Chinatown: “Under a temple, I seek refuge from neon lights flashing, good luck braided into door frames, inverted wet paint signs, stairs I can’t descend. Lampposts feed skies at twilight” (4). The stairs remind this outsider that a full experience of Chinatown is off-limits to her. Further, her picture of the area is influenced by unanticipated contingencies: “You are the unexpected angle that intersects me and the camera. Shadows no longer fall on fingers but that of my body across.”

The large, unflattering generalization, “Chinatown in yellow and red screams even at night”—even if psychologically accurate to the speaker at a particular moment—exudes a naïve quality that distances it from the theoretically aware author, who reminds us often that “one’s experience” is “imposed upon a neighborhood” (48) and that “trying to describe one’s understanding of a city is already necessarily displaced or fragmented” (49). We can surmise that, for many perceivers, nocturnal conditions can drain a good deal of “heat” from Chinatown’s daytime “yellow and red,” that these colors “scream” only for someone who is relatively new to the environment, and that many denizens of the area might be culturally trained to read these colors much differently from the speaker. However, I am not saying that “Rushing” sets the tone for the entire Chinatown section, which also features four box-like prose-poems that fit on two pages. These are meticulously rendered sketches of individuals who either live or work in Chinatown. For example, “hsien ju,” who “does not pray because he finds enough luck at the local mah-jongg hall,” is juxtaposed with a man who “plays sax and tells raunchy stories, adding or switching a line there or here, as i imagine a composer does” (10).

Declaring that her book not only “honors” Debord’s dérive but “strays from” it, Mori cites four poems as “responses to the violent reshaping of the city in 2001, events [that she has] only recently been able to address—not through drift but solely through sensorial and homophonic translations of the Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik’s Textos Selectos” (48). Representation of the destruction of the Twin Towers, the deaths of thousands, the dawning of a widespread consciousness of the city’s vulnerability, and the connection of these things to issues of immigration and U.S. foreign policy not only seem beyond the scope of a method based on dérive but are very difficult to confront directly. Such topics are faced, instead, through poetic procedures that cultivate accidental connections, as in the couplets of “After Affect”:

There is fire in the sun.
There is not much sun.

The reality boat of sediment
dances on my infirm sleep.

There is fire in the sun.
I will visit its citizens. . . .

Now in the innocent hour,
when without sentences,

in the umbilical cord:
An unremembered poem

has constrained your horse,
has imploded your birds,

has gulped the time
with proper concerns.

Has terminated the self
of which nothing commences.

Rebellion consists in the seeing of
the rose after pulverizing the eyes.

In the first two sentences, different senses of “sun” collide. The fact of “fire in the sun” may connote either the use of natural energy for violent purposes, giving a reason for the dearth of “sun” (a lack of cheer or political illumination), or an assertion that human beings can tap a primal source of energy for positive uses, even if that energy seems diminished. The transmission (“boat”) of a tragic “reality” creates a pathology that threatens rest and recuperation with what cannot be absorbed but penetrates every layer of awareness until it haunts the unconscious. After the fifth line repeats the opening one, the sixth declares an individual determination to make contact with the sun’s “citizens”; perhaps the effort to “visit” signifies an encouragement to realize the constructive, compensatory significance of “fire” and “sun.” Of course, such a “visit” is fraught with the danger that fearful “citizens” will answer mayhem with further violent use of “fire”—or will countenance their government’s use of these strategies.

While the post-9/11 atmosphere, in Blakean terms, might be considered a time of “experience” after the “innocence” of U.S. invulnerability, Mori enacts a reversal. Before 9/11, the city’s collective “affect” was one of confidence based on the “experience” of industrial and post-industrial development. Deep insecurity triggered by the terrorist attacks releases a preverbal, primitive affect that returns people to an “umbilical” dependence on perilously simple “thinking.” The “horse” and “birds,” like the earlier “boat,” are tropes for transportation, but ones that suggest potential for liberation. The idea that “an unremembered poem” has disabled these modes of transit and coercively appropriated “the time” indicates that this “poem”—though “properly” “concerned” with national security—merely shores up a threatened collective ego and fails to interrogate global relations, including NYC and the U.S.’s place in these relations, critically in order to develop useful forms of international negotiation.

“The self” as urban consciousness that embraces a sophisticated, internationalist inclusiveness has been “terminated,” and “nothing” valuable can “commence” from this termination. Mori’s figuring of “rebellion” involves a double movement: the eyes compromised by the “poem” of “innocence” must be violently purged of their distorted functioning so that they can visualize one of the most overdetermined symbols of redemption, transcendence, and love in the Western tradition. But “the rose” is not allowed to exfoliate; possibilities of “rebellion” in “After Affect” give way to “hallucination”-bearing, “beloved veterans” whose “cocoons of memories”—undoubtedly packaged by hawkish politicians—are “entering the coffers of citizens,” to references to our “creased land” and to questionable nostalgia for American exceptionalism (“in the memory of the cowboy”) (15). However, in time’s pronunciation of “discourse/ in the moment of a Lilith” (15-16) might be a feminist resistance to male domination, unless one ignores the context of gender and applies the Lilith myth as a trope for the proliferation of violence since 9/11—the senseless murder of infants.

“After Affect” closes with surreal tropes that can be likened to the kind of death-in-life sensations haunting those who keep retracing the horrific images of 9/11 and who contemplate the subsequent destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq:

As someone enters death with eyes open,
another appears in your vision.

The color of time in the abandoned wall.
In my sight, thought parted all.

It’s more than in proximity,
more than near to know what here, was.

Given its strange confluence of abstraction and concreteness, the first line of the second couplet above is especially resistant to parsing, as though it is too psychologically dangerous for language to convey the essence of human vulnerability to violence, and yet it also points to a recuperation of temporal experience. Next, as “thought” becomes the “wall” that blocks the “all,” the speaker seems to maintain the conflict between dis-integrative concentration and the disclosure of a previously hidden presence: the presumption that thinking within her “sight” can achieve a total separation of what is absent from what is present is both an assertion of individual power and a negation. The reiteration of “more than” in the final couplet emphasizes the inadequacy of language to (re)produce the important “knowledge” of a memory of a cherished location in spatial/temporal terms. Elegy fails to grasp and transmit to others the presence that disorders absence and the absence that deranges presence, but the speaker persists in making a claim for the infinitive, “to know.”

Just as Mori’s texts about particular areas within New York City differ stylistically and thematically from her “sensorial and homophonic translations” that circle around 9/11 and its aftermath, Matthew Kinney’s black/gray/white paintings vary in their degrees of abstraction and figuration. Sometimes buildings, riverscape, boats, and bridges are recognizable; at other times, major smudges imply the intrusion of mist or an aura of violent destruction. One black-dominated piece can be interpreted as representing a subtle horizon line poised against a long jagged vertical shapes; this and other paintings remind me of the compositional and textural events in the abstract-expressionist work of Clyfford Still and Norman Lewis, whereas others resemble the patchy geometries of James Brooks. The rich moodiness of Kinney’s paintings complements the thematically and linguistically tenebrous aspects of Mori’s poems, stories and prose-poems.

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