JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“You’re my sister” from The Bounty: Four Addresses by Kate Schapira
(Noemi Press, [as Cruces, NM, 2011)
“You’re my sister” is a longish prosepoem in 14 parts. Each part is a paragraph and each paragraph gets its own page. I’m not going to transcribe it.
And I’m not going to do it justice. It needs to be read in full, because it is a thicket of luscious language, which perhaps hides as much as it reveals, though how can a poem be said to hide anything, when it’s nothing but itself and there’s nothing else but itself to read?
(That’s actually a question I must grapple with here. Is there a behind the scenes? Is this poem at all referential?)
I tend to believe, I tend to read this, as if it is an actual address to an actual biological sister. I don’t know if that’s because of something Schapira has done in the writing, I don’t know if that’s because of my naiveté “(You’re my sister” means “you’re my sister”), I don’t know and any argument I could make to back up my belief would be pure cobbled-together sophistry on my part. But I don’t suppose it matters how much this is real address and how much it is fiction, whether the sister is biological or not, because it carries the weight of how I have experienced sisters in relation to each other, the love may be strained at times but it is unbreakably deep.
I think the sister addressed has some sort of mental illness. Or developmental disorder. Or some sort of intense personality that it’s often difficult and painful for the author / narrator to encounter.
But I’ve pieced that together, and am no more certain of it than I am of the sister’s actuality.
But what is a reading if not a kind of sophistry? I’ll turn to the great oracle Wikipedia for an explanation of what I mean:
In the second half of the 5th century BC, particularly at Athens, "sophist" came to denote a class of mostly itinerant intellectuals who taught courses in various subjects, speculated about the nature of language and culture and employed rhetoric to achieve their purposes, … [centuries pass] … In modern usage, sophism, sophist and sophistry are derogatory terms. A sophism is taken as a specious argument …
A specious argument is one that looks golden, whether it is or not.
I take the work I’m doing her to fall somewhere between the ancient and modern meanings of sophistry. I am reading a poem, which is a rhetorical device, and am using another device, also rhetorical, to elucidate/illuminate it. In order for a reading to be in the least convincing, however tentative it is, it must appear to contain at least a little gold …
Anyway, this is to let you know how uncertain a reading really is, in spite of surfaces. This is to let you know how uncertain my reading of “You’re my sister” is.
I think that, in spite of the difficulties the author / narrator encounters, the purpose of this address is to tell her sister that she is indeed a bounty, in the sense that she is a blessing.
The poem begins: “As kids we loved to ascertain. Little toys unwound into a mess: it’s better if you can’t put knowledge back, picked out in glitter and threat …” So we know from the beginning that there has been and will be breaking as a way to knowledge, and that such breaking is dangerous.
The second section begins with a very terrifying sentence: “You’re hitting yourself on the forehead again and my not enough is not enough.” Though it is impossible from the poem to know why the sister is hitting herself, I can’t help but assume that something is seriously wrong, and the author / narrator is helpless to fix it. Later in the same section: “… the force of your glance sparks what I can’t know.” There is much lush imagery, as noted before. The section ends with: “Season of lumpy, awkward fruits, stems augmented with twine, come again, your sound a cocktail of rubber, pavement and pressure.” I can’t parse this, at least not convincingly, but I can feel it, and it feels oppressive and problematic to me.
The third section only makes one direct mention of the sister: “the sister in my office, eating onions.” I don’t know what to make of this, honestly. Is this odd behavior? Is it not? Is she eating them for health reasons? In any case, the rest of the language in this section, which includes bits like “Voices divorce from their timbres …” do nothing to diminish the tension encountered so far.
The fourth sections opens with “The bird-amoeba”: some serious creepiness. Later there are the lines “There’s no relief and no arrival” and “The standard of sickness driven into the earth …”
The fifth opens “You call to ask if I think your idea is good or if you’re crazy. I say a couple of things to show I understand it.” … There may be a suggestion in this section and the last that the sister’s troubles have physical causes, but it’s hard to know if I’m trying to hard here.
In the sixth section, the author / narrator talks about herself a little: “Misguided sibling, throwing myself in the path of your reality: it’s symbolic of my struggle with fiction.” Does this mean that she recognizes herself as trying too hard to ‘normalize’ her sister, to want her different from what she is? This, of course, need have nothing to do with illness …
In the seventh section, it’s difficult to ascertain who’s being addressed, the author / narrator or the sister. It may relate to treatments the sister is getting: “You get as far as to be real is to deserve and fear to lose consciousness.”
I certainly realize that I have an unfortunate tendency to attempt to find meaning in much of what I read. Personally, I blame the writers, not. Sometimes it’s obvious that “what you see is what you see.” And sometimes it’s all so borderline. I mean, if the author is “telling it slant”, then the author is telling “it”, and I can’t help but try to figure out what “it” is. Which means I may be making an “it” where there is none. It’s quite a challenge. “You’re my sister” is quite a challenge. I actually want to apologize to Schapira if I’m doing her poem too much violence.
Maybe this is what happens when I read a poem a day and write on it. I begin to think along with the Geto Boyz, “My mind’s playing tricks one me …”
In any case, as the poem continues, while it would be too much to say that the author / narrator comes to terms with whatever’s damaged or broken her sister, she begins to emphasize the intactness-nevertheless of the sisterly bond. By section ten she’s able to write: “Would you believe, I’m happy, little squid, little tentacle fingers; it isn’t like always, but we are like always, seeming higher, in our bounty, to each other.” Section eleven: “no experts like sisters.” Section twelve: “That one should suffer more than anther moving like feet on the stairs, your beetling brow, snag of obligation. Not just the bounty, but where the bounty is tending.” I take tending to mean both “nursing” and “the direction this is taking us”.
And what direction might that be? It might be death. The first sentence of section twelve reads: “Be completed, disappear.” The whole section reads:
“Be completed, disappear. That one should suffer more than anther moving like feet on the stairs, your beetling brow, snag of obligation. Not just the bounty, but where the bounty is tending.”
I’m sure that taking this first sentence to mean death would be over-reading, were it not for what comes in the following sections (which is not to say that I’m now convinced that it’s not over-reading. I must keep emphasizing how tentative this reading is).
Section thirteen contains the only direct quote from the sister in the whole poem: “You said, ‘As it is for all of us.’ I am struck by “You said”: past tense. Since this section begins: “We meet where houses meet and lean against each other” I now wonder whether they can now only meet in the author / narrator’s imagination.
I will quote the last section in full:
Imagine you are entering a house of potential mutual benevolence. Nerves run in milky channels through your surface, under your chin, what would you think then, sensitivity would be real then, would be in good faith, whitish and clean. There isn’t much research on entering the glance, passing again into cold, bright streets. Fretting as your laptop grows calm, ahead of the gun. What is it you keep telling me? Elsewhere, I don’t recognize your voice.
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.