My Enemies, by Jane Gregory. Brooklyn, New York: The Song Cave. 81 pages. $17.95, paper.
Jane Gregory’s first book, My Enemies, possesses the density, richness and protean quality of a book that seems to feel not only its own moral weight, but also its mortality. Gregory’s never breathless speaker is nonetheless often at haste, always imbued with the energy of the continuing line but seemingly uncertain of their own capacity to contain that energy. The structure of the book (spaced by ten poems each titled “The Book I Will Not Write”) ascends to the book’s penultimate movement and one of its longer poems, “At the Back of the Beyond/Apophinia on Tape.” This movement, paired with the repeated indicative of the book’s returning poem, simultaneously suggests an uncertain yet willful force that propels “My Enemies” to its final gesture in “Desert/Rest.” This is a book that feels the need to say it right, but also to say it fast—perhaps to express the utterance before language itself catches up with the impulse that created it and performs the linguistic functions that distance the image from the sign. In short, the utterances of Gregory’s speaker resist misunderstanding via the belief that one must always speak in as immediate a present as possible.
But how? For Gregory, this gesture toward the present seems most accessible through a mode of apophinia itself. Defined as the “unmotivated seeing of connections” accompanied by “a specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness,” apophinia is usually manifest as an instance in which there are patterns in otherwise random information. Take for example Gregory’s habit of creating connections between seemingly unconnected words by titling poems through a method of semantic drift, such as “Every/Each,” “Concept/Receipt,” “Doom/Mood” and the book’s final prose piece, “Desert/Rest.” It is in this final poem’s concluding line, “When I was making a leaving out of concentrated selfishness, I imagined you said to look at you while thinking of something else,” that a strong suggestion toward a manner of reading (and perhaps living) is suggested.
Consider My Enemies’s beautiful, fascinating, and initially mysterious cover (designed by Mary Austin Speaker), which features a photograph from Guy de Cointet’s 1975 performance piece, “Lost at Sea.”
This performance (the first of a series de Cointet’s staged in the 1970s) featured an actor posing in a staged scenario that included some type of cryptogram subsequently described at length by the scene’s actor. Theater critic Frantisek Deak remarked upon the structuralist mode of this work, stating that de Cointet’s work contrasted “lifelike casual conversation with contrived literary language … [pointing] out that both are particular styles and that, with a certain distance, the casual conversation will appear contrived as well.” This is an interesting idea to apply to a book that dialogues with the idea of the unmotivated connection and suggests perhaps that in the style of the cryptogram on the cover of her book, Gregory’s speaker invites us to find the connection between the casual and the contrived, the abstract and the concrete, through a life practice of “looking at you while thinking of something else,” a traditional beginning for code breakage. The word apophinia broken into its component parts, after all, means apo as in away from, plus phaenein as in to show, and is reflective of the state’s nature (as opposed to the sonically linked “epiphany”) to take one away from connections, away from
My Enemies asks questions about our own belief in our capacity to speak so quickly we can perhaps override the codes of language itself and achieve something like … authenticity, epiphany, and perhaps mere relevancy. I love this book’s capacity to work in the indicative mode in the style of both Hannah Weiner’s oft-writ “Write It,” as well as Alice Notley’s Alice Ordered Me to Be Made, while also existing in a state that is often not a commanding presence, but rather questioning and frequently observant of its own shifting nature. Take, for example, this passage from the first “Book I Will Not Write”:
This is the book I must and know how to write because
and therefore it helps you.
The kindnesses are just
propositions, one a promise that if I have powers and go
deaf you will only maybe become mute. If in this
book I am a monster, what you get is the benefit of
leaving it and going on to look like what you’ve been
through, rather than what you are in.
Within this poem’s first declaration, the slippery syntax of “because and therefore” softens the speaker’s claim to resist the writing of the book that “will not” be written and suggests that Gregory’s speaker possesses both the power to create the helpful object and the vulnerability of the uncertain creator. In “Trip-Wire,” she is able to craft the “pure noise” that can make such mythic declaratives as “I have fought with fire, I have lent you this bird, thick and/ brown I have lent you this horse I have lent you this horse/ now spare it.” But, as in any effort at pure noise, the articulation is of greater volume than the utterance itself. This conflation of articulation and presence is one of the most striking elements of this book. Gregory’s speaker is capable of asking, “If in this book I am a monster, what you get is the benefit of / leaving it and going on,” a gesture that smoothly sacrifices the author for the project on the word “it,” in which we read “it” either as the book itself that is to be left or the monstrous author who has transfigured into the vague pronoun. The experimental “if” or “lest” often invigorates this work with the capacity to extend in many directions, to suggest limit situations, and to imbue the speaker herself with a mythic quality.
This grammar of the experimental is, for me, what enables Gregory to create a work that wishes to and does dialogue with the hybrid nature of author—the mythic/monstrous nature of the creator who utterly comprehends the responsibility of language. My Enemies has one last curious facet: after the book has ended and the acknowledgement pages have been read, there is yet one last poem titled “Document” that separates iterations of keywords throughout the text into three different columns. This document perhaps serves as an offering of code breakage for the reader; its three columns separate words into their past, present, and future tense and correspond to the book’s separation into parts I, II, and III. Separated by one more black page (a sort of homage to the blackness at the end of film), Gregory concludes the book with this passage from Paul Valéry: “Books have the same enemies as man: fire, wet, animals, time…and their own content.” This passage perhaps serves to remind the reader of their own energy dialogue as a reader, but also of the speaker’s intense obligation to decode her own content, to find the cryptology offered through the intense present.
Candice Wuehle is the author of curse words: a guide in 19 steps for aspiring transmographs (Dancing Girl Press) and EARTH*AIR*WATER*FIRE*Æ*T*H*E*R (forthcoming from Grey Book Press), as well as a recent Pushcart Prize nominee. Some of her poems can be or will be found in The Colorado Review, The Volta, Fairy Tale Review, and The Atlas Review. She lives, reviews, studies and edits for Beecher’s Magazine in Lawrence, Kansas.