In Lessness, everything is in ruins—machines, landscapes, buildings, bodies, histories, and language. In terse elegies and effaced text, Lessness forces us to question the body, and through it the stability of the knowable. All builds toward a lengthy, strangely gentle “wreckage,” where the surrender to inevitable infestations does not negate small triumphs.
“[N]ot only does Henry write about the thinghoodedness of everyday life, and about actual encounters undergone, but he also writes about these elements without damping down any of the emotional, physical, and intellectual aspects of his relationship with his world.” —Karla Kelsey, Constant Critic
“What impresses the most is the fact that Henry is still experimenting and growing and there is a genuine excitement preceding each new book. As he has proven so far, there is little in language or subject matter that cannot find its way into the poetic idiom.” —John Findura, Cutbank
here funereal & sleeved, the lack
of pressure at the wound’s zipperish
opening will yield a rush of fluid
no bandage can squelch: cake the gash
with ash, rake it with anti-bacterial foam
& rinse. The bite will be intense
but quick, you'll forget the feeling within
the month. The shock of all that red,
though, will stay until the plaque in your brain
wipes it away, along with the names
of your progeny, your street, most parts
of your body, & so on, until even “name”
holds nothing but the space it occupies
on the page, in the air, until you look at yourself
in the mirror and see a figure there.
Copyright © 2011 Brian Henry
Brian Henry interviewed in the Kenyon Review here.
“Henry’s seventh collection explores decay, erasure, and corruption at a variety of strata: ecological, social, political, sexual, bodily, lyric. The title is emblematic of the book’s project. Whether the work begins from a global perspective (Henry is also known for his translations of the Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun), from regional landscape, or from pained and personal reminiscence, there is virtually no subject or object left intact: the poems start from a condition of ‘less’ and then subtract, cut away, or further destroy. Such destruction is not limited to the outside world but is equally manifest in poetic process; especially notable here is Henry’s use of deletions (figured as wavering thin strike-through lines or emphatic black-marker blots obscuring entire words), which look like both means and indication of violence, both injury and the scar it leaves. Regardless of the forms or modes of individual poems, which range from the dystopic haiku (‘Already part gravel/ the frog in the tire track/ another weed to pull’) to a series of loose, precarious elegies, this book offers a powerful re-calibration of the senses, shifting our attention beneath the surfaces and skins of things.” —review in Publishers Weekly
“The depiction of violence in poetry necessarily differs from the more immediate, sensational depictions in, say, film. In comparison to other forms of art and expression, poetry still seems to demand a more rigorous, participative brand of interpretation; its ideological or even affective aims tend to appear disguised, self-referential, oblique. So when Brian Henry states that Lessness, his latest collection of poetry from Ahsahta Press, ‘commits itself almost entirely to investigations of violence in its many guises,’ his declaration is not immediately suggestive of an explosive treatment of bodily and emotional horror typical of a culture obsessed with violence. While undercurrents of this invasive, exhibitionist brand of violence do pervade and propel the book, Lessness more often reveals a kind of violence that acts upon perception rather than baser emotive stimuli—a violence that, as it disintegrates and dissolves landscape, relationships, and the body, creates a logic of absence, of negative space, that gives substance to the nothingness it uncovers.” —from the review by Gillian O.B. Hamel in Mary: A Journal of New Writing
An interview with the author in lieu of a bio.
Why violence as your primary subject?
Violence is something that’s always intrigued me—on a personal, emotional, intellectual, and artistic level. I’m repelled by real violence but am drawn to violence in films, books, art, and video games. Because I usually can’t watch depictions of actual violence—even on those grainy surveillance cameras you see online—but am clearly fascinated by it, it’s probably inevitable that I end up examining that in my work. All of my books contain a certain amount of violence, but I try to get at it differently in each book, so that the kinds of violence you find in American Incident, for example (aggressive but also ridiculous, absurd, cartoonish) operate in other ways than the violence in Quarantine, or Lessness.
I’m also drawn to the failings of the body, which can stem from, or lead to, violence. Pain clarifies.
In your author’s statement, you mention that Lessness “was conceived as a companion” to your 2003 book Graft. How are the two books related?
Both books deal with violence, but Graft’s lens is often filtered through lust—the violence of lust—and thus also voyeurism and eros. I also worked with both the body and the natural world as landscapes. I actually wrote some of the poems in Lessness and Graft around the same time, but I found that the Lessness poems were too stark and elegiac for Graft, so I held them aside.
When I write, I often mentally place the poem in a tableau, with me—my eye—either looking down on the scene (as in the beginning of Quarantine, which I envisioned as taking place on a kind of stage, with me hovering above) or occupying the scene at ground level. From this perspective—from the perspective of perspective—Graft and Lessness seem quite different. There’s a bit—okay, maybe a lot—of sex in Graft, and the perspective is often ground-level. In Lessness there’s almost no sex, and the landscape has been cleared (the opening poem, which deals with colonization, attempts to clear a space—a physical space—for the book, in a somewhat twisted process of decolonization) for the poems that follow. Despite all this, I feel like Lessness offers a few moments of consolation, hopefully at key points in the book.
If Lessness was written as a companion to your book Graft, do the two books need to be read together?
No, they can stand on their own. But reading them together, one would find overlapping concerns, landscapes, figures, strategies—and hopefully these make the books speak to each other, enhance each other. But there’s no information or context provided in Graft that one needs in order to read Lessness.
Your previous book with Ahsahta, Quarantine, was formally unified. why the formal variousness in Lessness?
Quarantine was an anomaly for me. I wrote the fifty parts of “Quarantine” in three days and constructed “Contagion” over the following week, so the formal consistency is probably a result of the book’s quick composition. My more natural mode is to try as many things as possible, to activate as many sites as possible, and I figure that one’s chances increase if working in multiple modes. I want friction, not fluidity. And formal variety, or cacophony, is a way of producing friction in a book. I’m not interested in the so-called “signature” style or formal device—it might help get a book published, it might be shrewd marketing or branding, but I think it too often leads to complacency, self-imitation, especially when spread over multiple books. When I was younger, I swore to never write the same kind of poem twice—that’s impossible, of course, because our obsessions hold onto us, but the attempt to do something new whenever you write—to give each poem its own form and speed and relationship to language—seems preferable to knowingly producing clones of earlier work. A poem can simultaneously establish and exhaust a style—you don’t need three books’ worth of poems to do that. But speaking from the specific perspective of Lessness, I didn’t think it’d make sense to try to get at different modes of violence in a single circumscribed poetic mode.
Lessness contains two sequences: “Elegies for Failure” and “Wreckage.” you’ve written poetic sequences before (“Bystander” in Astronaut, and of course Quarantine). What attracts you to the non-individual poem?
Sometimes it’s a matter of taking a stab at something that a short poem, or individual poem, cannot manage on its own. Sometimes, as in Quarantine, it’s an attempt to develop something over a larger space. Sometimes the sequence itself is a journey, as in the poems in the “Bystander” sequence. The original title of “Elegies for Failure” was “My Most Common Mode Is Failure,” which I dropped because it seemed too self-reflexive and too wedded to a specific moment (someone had asked me what my most common poetic mode was, and I said “failure”—but then I started thinking about that notion as applied to a life, where failure is the primary current, or currency, of that life). I’d mixed up poetry and prose in American Incident and wanted to do something similar but on a smaller scale and in a more concentrated fashion. And I wanted to explore a life by examining various instances of failure in that life—I say “a life” and not “my life” because the piece is not autobiographical. I guess my own life provides a template of sorts for the work, but most of the events in “Elegies for Failure” are imagined or intentionally misremembered, dismembered. And sometimes when things got too close to the bone, I’d strike certain details, but then I felt uncomfortable removing text for non-aesthetic reasons so I left the marks and traces of my editing (which sometimes seemed like self-censorship) in order to call attention to the process. (The one exception is “Subterra,” parts of which are scattered across the page because I deleted much of the connective tissue and kept the remaining parts of the poem in their original places.) / I wrote “Wreckage” after reading Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s Poetry as Experience and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Those books served as catalysts for thinking about vision, presence, perspective, and landscape. In some ways, “Wreckage” involves a journey like the “Bystander” sequence does, but a much more contained, claustrophobic journey, as if it’s fenced in. Like a backyard.
You’ve been translating poetry for the past few years. How has that affected your own writing?
Well, on a practical level, it usually keeps me from writing. But on a deeper level, translating Tomaz Salamun’s poems essentially rewired my brain. I had read and re-read all of his work published in English, but that didn’t prepare me for the experience of going into the original Slovenian. His poems in English have always been very important to me (in fact, I couldn’t have written Quarantine without his A Ballad for Metka Krasovec), but floundering around in the Slovenian poems and seeing firsthand what kinds of impossible, barbaric, absurd things he was doing—things that aren’t always translated into English, sometimes because they get smoothed over—literally did something to my brain. This affected my poems for a while (one or two are in Lessness), but also made it so I could no longer write linear prose (especially prose about poetry) without enormous effort. Thinking about poetry in prose now seems alien to me, when it used to come easily and naturally. /
The poems in Lessness investigate how landscape (physical and mental) and violence (physical, psychological, visual) bear on the individual—specifically on how one sees and experiences the world. Sometimes the violence is explicit, sometimes it’s passive (as in deterioration, neglect, or forgetting), sometimes it’s nebulous (as when one’s vision is blurred by rain). But it’s always there, working on the poems and the poems’ speakers. Violence also becomes manifest graphically, via strike-throughs and black bars, leaving a residue from the editing process.
Lessness was conceived as a companion to Graft (2003), which navigated the natural landscape and the human landscape (the body) and the various kinds of violence committed against both. The poems in Graft worked to confront the violence of lust, the erotics of violence and the violence of eros, while also seeking to discover what happens when language is grafted onto the body and onto land, and what happens when sexuality, language, and landscape collide. In contrast, Lessness forgoes a focus on eros—the sexually explicit material in the book is anything but erotic—and commits itself almost entirely to investigations of violence in its many guises.
I intended for Lessness, like Graft, to be formally diverse. The book includes traditional forms (especially the sonnet), invented forms (e.g., the “switchback”), and different modes of free verse. The book also includes two sequences: “Elegies for Failure,” a fictionalized hybrid autobiography inspired in part by Anne Carson’s Plainwater, and “Wreckage,” which juxtaposes notions of experience, perception, landscape, and language.
Poems from the book date back to 1995, and the four newest poems in the book were written in 2008. Because of this long span of time, it can be difficult to pinpoint what readings or events or imaginings influenced the poems, but I do remember responding to Tomaz Salamun, migraines and migrainous auras, totalling my car in an ice storm, Andrew Zawacki’s By Reason of Breakings, several deaths in my family, Graham Foust’s Leave the Room to Itself, living in a trailer for about six months, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s Poetry as Experience, pornography, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, The Pixies, The River’s Edge, John Kinsella’s serial poem “Graphology,” trees coming down, rotting stumps, Catholicism, nightmares of termites, Marathon Man and pre-Abu Ghraib torture, televised images of Ronald Reagan’s funeral, early Jane’s Addiction, Belly, Ethan Paquin’s early poems, the railroad tracks between Ashland and Alexandria, Jeff Buckley, living for a year in a room with no windows, living in a house with a yard, yardwork, Charles Wright’s Black Zodiac, Hamlet, Anne Carson’s Plainwater and Glass, Irony & God, St. Augustine, a herniated disc, Heidegger, a wisdom tooth sawed in half before removal, being evicted from an apartment before moving into it, and various real, imagined, and misremembered mishaps . . .