19 September 2011

Wax World

Robert Mittenthal is to Seattle what Kevin Killian is to San Francisco or David Abel is to Portland. He's the guy you want to track down immediately to catch your bearings, to see what people are up to, to find out what folks are reading and talking about, and, like Kevin and David both, he's super generous and super, super smart to boot.

I lived in Seattle for a tiny window in 2008, and the highlight of my time there was getting to know Robert and Will Owen and Nico Vassilakis and Joel Felix and Jeanne Heuving, etc., etc. PEOPLE! Living and breathing people making poetry in a town that isn't exactly known for its huge poetry scene.

Upon moving to Seattle, it was clear that Robert was the guy to talk to about plugging in to local activity. And given the interest around his work up north (he's something of a FIXTURE), it seems impossible that Wax World could be Mittenthal's "first book," but, yep, I think it really is the first widely available edition of his work, and we owe Charles Alexander and his Chax thanks (once again!) for making it happen! [On a side note, I think it should be publicly said that Charles and Chax deserve a ton of props for printing totally crucial first books from tons of folks, highlighting Charles' interest in supporting lesser known writers. Thanks, Chax!]

Anyway, the first thing I noticed when I opened Wax World is Mittenthal's use of verbs. Take a look at the first poem in the book, "Skill Set":

Skill Set

Today, the usual money vectors as events describe me

This rhetoric describes how failure holds
To rewrite what cannot be renamed

Monday verbs as lunch then snip snip
Day eats at cloud until its tooth clips and records

Tuesday sleeps with cirrus cumulus
And hands off what in sleeveless flight
Corpuscles an engine to styrofoam white

Wednesday's soup alone clouds
What tied together disjuncts
Any shape at all

Tomorrow, animated - shorter, cut off
Darkness all the way back to land
A little image engraved upon it
Shadow of sea - calm a very narrow
Sockets revolving, swollen

[end Mittenthal]

Here, "money vectors" and "Day eats" and "tooth clips," which are admittedly pretty surprising and interesting twists in the line, but even nouns are verbing here: "Monday verbs" and "corpuscles" might be the verb compliment to "flights" and maybe "styrofoam" is used as a verb in the phrase "an engine to styrofoam white"?

I'm interested in the way Mittenthal's lines slip out of recognition at the moment they seem most familiar. He's playing with recognition and misrecognition here, like a figure in a wax museum. It's not so much how a wax figure "resembles" its subject, but the ways it doesn't. Camille Roy pointed to this idea here on the blog back in May when she wrote: "as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. The moment of revulsion, where the robot is recognized as non-human, is called the uncanny valley." Part of the interest in wax figures is this revulsion: the complex reaction we have when we recognize that a representation IS a representation trying not to be a representation. In other words, when the mimetic shows its seams.

Take the phrase "Until yes thanks you" from the poem "Diseconomy of Scale." Most readers will hear "Until then, thank you" while their minds are wrestling with the shift from "thank you" to "thanks you" which means, of course, that "yes" is the subject: "yes thanks you."

There are so many examples of this creeping misrecognition that it's difficult to choose a representative poem. However, I'm partial to "Gag," which begins with the following epigraph from Agamben: "...indicating first of all something that could be put in your mouth to hinder speech, as well as...improvisation meant to compensate for a loss of memory or inability to speak."


Permission to approach the yellow disk at a distance.

Enclosed in the gesture, a man twists an orange into his mouth.

If appearing not said is lost, memory a speech defect comes with it.
Hand holding hand - no engine of taste forgiveness.

Can't get enough difference - a concrete antenna to balance the sky.
Liar! You glisten beneath narrow cast frequency arrays.

A pun riveted until punched - until its pencil of light cannot be
contained. The sculpture says nothing. It harvests only the gray
grain & cackles when a crow swallows.

Silence is its stupid thing. A body English out of words - out of
names. It fights the flicker of stunted dots - up-screen of erratic paint.

In this school of other import, against the sterile comforts of unbound
life, contagion springs a monster. Its original revolt was too jealous -
earth flattened in the eccentric threads of that one thing.

We removed the grass, the ants and the words - leaving the precept
in a vividness of dirt. Thumbing its green at you - no sweat in relation to time.

A cinema whose separate vacation withheld the steady state.
Investigating the awkward between, fact as boundless self-organized.
History's order - less the crowd.

At the end blossoms go white - tyrant steam to flame. A copyrighted
face on the list of names.

In order of appearance, physical traits empty out - barefoot but fast.
It's a euphemism for the poem - a horror of thought. A parade of
names scrolled out in the colored lights.

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