If Not Metamorphic
If not metamorphic, changed by geological pressure, then what? Iijima’s newest book uses the long form, frequently in choral antiphon, to ask what kind of pressures exert change—as in the title poem, where war and human cruelty have turned even the kelp murderous—and what exactly is changed: sometimes words take on other forms before our eyes, sometimes sentences try on new endings in shameless view, and puns on popular culture poke through the deepest meditation. These poems truncate and disrupt narrative, borrowing now from the parataxis of renku, now from the verse-prose travelogue of haibun, but do not foreclose the possibility of epiphany; Iijima still envisions a “Great Swan” that holds within it creation and destruction: “Eureka / Or death?”
from IF NOT METAMORPHIC?
The deep sea? A deluge?
The ever-present dancing machines
Threatened to kill you?
Designed by whom Designed by whom
Departure it seems, doesn’t it
By the roadside?
Threaten to kill you?
Designed by whom
Departure it seems,
A soft, green, beautiful mountain?
The strangling, like anger?
One nude war? Kelp?
Illusionary? Encloses the neck?
A snake was circling?
Made virtual by design?
Threatened to kill—design
Threatened to kill?
Would this be syncopated
In the greatest country?
Threatening a soft, beautiful mountain?
Designed to be held in the hand? Hand
held? Will it securely?
Designed to hold 400 pounds? Will it hold
this weight securely?
Is that what you meant,
Copyright © 2010 by Brenda Iijima.
Throughout If Not Metamorphic are signposts of contemporary life; each page contains several words that refer, redirect and re-contextualize the images, ideas, feelings that contain them. The phrase “composted lexicon” appears near the close of the magnificent poem “Time Unions” and one cannot help but apply the purpose and performance of a compost pile to the language of If Not Metamorphic itself. Language that has been left to decompose and develop bacteria is now being used in different ways, for different purposes. Words and phrases that have no cultural reference have been broken down with those signposts of contemporary life to create the “skeletal nomenclature,” as she writes in “Tertium Organum,” of a whole new entity. Cultural signposts such as “industry,” “tear gas,” and “sanctions” are complicated by context, and tempered by tone. Iijima removes a historical legend from the compost pile as “don’t tread on (me) / do not” and doubles-down on her self-erasure. At the end of the poem, she writes a litany of pictures, of differing images:
pictures of rivers
pictures of rivers
pictures of spinal columns
picturing the body, picturing dog
optical illusions have pictures
the autonomy of one owl is a picture
upside down picture
whereas mirror animation picture
when in fact picture picture
picturing pictures solidified
it’d felt as if I answered
Just as mountains are emblems of thought for Emerson, for Iijima pictures are what we make images and objects into with a kind of violation. She tries to break the system down by resisting language, letting language resist itself. When she writes, “it’d felt as if I answered” it is a lost-for-words moment in an attempt to lose one’s words, one’s language and self. Losing one’s words is what we may need to embrace what we violate by describing, equating and aligning with the cultural detritus we use those same words to discuss. Losing one’s words is what may be needed to let mountains be mountains. —Christopher Kondrich in Cutbank Reviews
I grew up in the hardscrabble town of North Adams, Massachusetts—expropriated Mohican land. North Adams is a post-industrial mill town that lost much of its economic spark when the industries faded. To compound matters, the town was left with the legacy of an abundance of Superfund sites toxifying the town. My family lived on the foot of Mt. Greylock. Behind our house is a large swatch of forest that extends up the mountain range. Tributaries of the Hoosic river run behind our garden. My parents were (are) avid gardeners—a fair amount of time was spent planting and maintaining the gardens. My parents were also very committed to epic recycling efforts—so when the Urban Renewal in the 1970’s took place and much of the historical Victorian architecture was razed to make way for generic box stores like Sleepy’s—their adjacent parking lots—and generally ill-construed space for commerce, my parents organized my sister and me to haul and reclaim much of the rubble. With this material, my mom (and her conscripted help, me) beautified the town by creating community gardens, intricate slate walls, landscaped spaces etc. The way land use changes over time through human manipulation left an impact on me. Land that was shared as a commons was exploited for industry and was now imploding into craters and mounds of debris—gardening felt subversive. If I wasn’t hauling rubble or retreating to the forest I was involved in gymnastics. When I qualified for the Nationals I thought I might pursue gymnastics seriously but that didn’t happen and the life of the mind took over.
At Skidmore College I was a visual arts major but also spent a lot of time studying philosophy. I did take one class in poetry on the New York School taught by Terrance Diggory. My first job after college took me to Dongying in Shandong, China, where I taught “Themes in Western Literature” to juniors studying geology and engineering pertaining to oil refinement since the University was situated on one of the largest oil fields in China. During that year I painted a lot but also found myself compelled to write. I began questioning the material properties of painting. Once I settled in Brooklyn I got at job at Columbia University in the Sociology Department. This allowed me to audit courses for free and chat with the Sociology faculty. Painting and collage were my active focus but I was engaged with poetry also. After I left the Sociology department I ended up doing free lance floral designing and food styling until I started a part time gardening business while also activating around local matters like environmental and eminent domain issues. These days I also teach poetry at Cooper Union, run Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, and work on drawings, paintings and collages as well as poetry.
If Not Metamorphic follows after Around Sea (my first book, which was published by O Books in 2004) chronologically.
It is a lyrical study of organic and synthetic variation and difference—how this plays out contractually between the social and lingual in terms of meaning making. Permutation, polyvalence, atmospheric conditions, temporality and energy exchange are attributes of this project. I’m interested in syntactical textures, synesthesia and kinesics—gestures of being. The concerns of the work have to do with transcribing the myriad registers of ecosystem/body/mind/history/gender/sexuality/race/class/empire/politic. An attempt to make connections between compartmentalized subjects and spaces—spaces that open as participatory, inter-relational and porous.
The book consists of four long poems. A welter of questions opens the title poem. It is a dissonance chain of query. Questions refer to the power of the state apparatus but also to interpersonal subjectivities: civic, imaginative, sensual and otherwise. “Time Unions” follows. Its structure is a vortex. Within its plume are autobiographical details of the year of my birth suspended in a column as well as whirling fragments of cultural detritus. These cultural facts are a sort of dna sequence. The third sequence in the book is called “Tertium Organum,” which takes its name from P.D. Ouspenky’s Tertium Organum, The Third Canon of Thought, A Key to the Enigmas of the World. Ecological bellwethers and the fault lines of the social are the friction of this piece. If Not Metamorphic ends with “Panthering.” The impetus to write this piece came from an experience in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. Along rural roadside Highway 106 heading out of town is the last extant Mississippian Indian intaglio effigy mound in the shape of a panther. In the National Register of Historic Places its historic function is listed as landscape and its historic sub-function is listed as garden. Fort Atkinson is named after General Henry Atkinson who served as commander of U.S. forces during the Black Hawk War. History as has been recorded is inconceivably unjust—and works with erasure as much as glorified exposure.