by James Pate on Feb.27, 2013
like contagious knives. Like a sidewalk
made smart with brain matter.
— from The Contagious Knives
A few years ago, I watched one of the special versions of Guy Maddin’s Brand upon the Brain! at The Music Box Theater in Chicago — one of the versions where a live actor read sections of the film (in this case, Crispin Glover) and where a crew was in place (called the Foley Artists) to create the sound effects. And the effect I remember most was the scene where a character turns to cannibalism, biting into the skull of another character: one of the sound artists at that point crunched and chewed a piece of celery into the microphone. (As I write this, I realize I might be mis-remembering. Maybe he twisted the celery in his hands instead? If anyone out there saw any of the shows, feel free to correct me!) The moment was funny, sickening, and unsettling in a way that’s hard to describe. It might have to do with the juxtaposition, and how it becomes almost an act of translation. The person in front of us eating celery = the image on the screen of a character eating brain with an all-too-real sound. The crunch, the saliva, the swallow. (Or so I remember it.) But of course it cuts the other way too, and by doing so taints the act of eating a stick of celery. Never had eating celery seemed so full of ill-intent. It reminded me of how Artifice can make the unsettling more so. The almost-pink blood in so many horror films from the 60s always seems more disturbing to me than the darker, more realistically colored blood in later movies. To me, something about the artifice made the violence more visceral. “Fake” fake blood can be more effective than “real” fake blood. Another example would be the bright “blood” Godard used in the 60s, a kind of POP “blood.”
To misquote Zizek (who was quoting Kieslowski): the fright of fake blood.
Anyway, I bring up the Maddin/celery/brain chewing incident because something about that experience reminds me of McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade, one of my favorite books of American poetry in the last few years. The “fake” blood in this book is all the more real for being fake. Good taste (the realm of “real” fake blood) is often a way of letting us stay in our comfort zones by whispering in our ear that Realism, after all, can never hurt us. It mimics reality. In can never be it. Percussion Grenade offers the reader/performer no such assurances.
The collection is about violence, war, contamination, catastrophe, kill zones, contagions. We walk through this decimated landscape that seems to have has no beginning and no end — there are no privileged, aerial views of the disaster here. In “Dear Fi Jae 3,” the speaker works in a factory owned by a multi-national: “I had a glue pot & several brushes & I had a smock // which fastened at the neck with a thong and an eye // and my hair in spit curls like eyes on my forehead // and another eye for each cheek // and my feet thrust in half-slippers called moliere shoes // striped like circus tents.” The language-spill here — the eyes that foam over the scene — and the odd precision of the shoes (“striped like a circus tent,” with its childlike vibe contrasting strongly with this setting) create an atmosphere of menace. The speaker goes out to take a break and meets “the killer of little shepherds.” The factory floor soon turns into a killing floor. The speaker tells us, “I am no shepherd sir I tweeted // when I went back inside // he spilled my guts on the floor // too-clogged fish gear // drain damage system crushed emotional mutating agent // multinational.” The poem then turns spectral. The speaker says, “I dipped a latex cover’d hand to the glue pot // I glued the ghostface to the ghostproduct.” This Blakean poem ends on a Blakean note: “When this you see remember me.” The terrain here reminds me of the flattened worlds of Bolaño and Cormac McCarthy (especially Blood Meridian) and Godard’s Weekened. Flattened because there is no teleological escape hatch in those zones, only landscape and days and weather and years.
There are countless great lines and images in this book. The language at times seems wonderfully drunk on itself. (One example from “A Peacock in Spring”: “He shrugs obscenely green, / obscenely jewel-toned, obscenely neck-like, / an obscene grandeur and an obscene decadency, / A screen, a mask, a dance, / A thousand green-groping eyes.”) Artifice runs like acid through the pages, dissolving the usual connections and groundwork. In the play “The Contagious Knives, “Louis Braille stands alone in pink panties and pop-star t-shirt from target…He ties a brown leather strap around his eyes and inserts an awl into the right. In liquid eyeliner, he paints big black tear drops…” In the same play, Bradley Manning appears, played possibly by Andy Warhol. And there’s a wedding chorus made up of the Jack Smith Superstars circa Normal Love.
While reading the book, I kept thinking of the introductory titles in Godard’s Weekend: a film found in a trash heap, a film adrift in the cosmos. Art that exists in a fallen state — the art of “no future” — is also an art that exist in a guerilla state, with a guerilla sensibility: an art that doesn’t believe in the usual notions of representation, the picture window view, but in coordinates and montage. And McSweeney’s Percussion Grenade is a great example of it.