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percussion grenade by joyelle mcsweeney

Fence Books
  May 2012
  96 pages

Dear Kevin,
You might not know this but I am stealing. There is a writer I know—a very good writer—who writes poems to his friends who are poets about the conversations they have about poetry. But this is how I want to talk to you about this book, Kevin, and form is important, as is transparency. So Jon will forgive me if I bite his style for this review.
Kevin, I posted a tiny little scrap of Joyelle McSweeney’s new book, Percussion Grenade, as a Facebook status update: Easy’s Over (pg 25) and LIKEd™ it and she commented “ah, to contaminate the language of the tribe. . .” And so that’s what we’re going to talk about now, isn’t it? Because Joyelle initiated it with me and then I did with her and now I’ve initiated it with you and it isn’t going to stop at this letter. Pretty soon I am going to email you this review and then we are going to go to our favorite bar where you will be doing a crossword puzzle and I’ll say, “did you get my review?” and we’ll discuss the mechanics of it, but eventually, after a few beers, we are just going to start talking about the language of our tribe. I almost went and typed trouble there instead of tribe, but you know what I mean.
You can see that McSweeney’s got an ear for beautiful language in her previous books, which are so sonorous and gliding they make me wonderfully and terribly aware of utterance and my own tin ear. In the beginning of this book, McSweeney prefaces by insisting that we actually read it aloud. I think because she knows the way language, especially her language, can intoxicate, and perhaps also because to perform the language is to implicate yourself as a part of it while you are lulled by it.
McSweeney’s natural tendency to make song (military industrial language ahead) is deployed here to subvert our expectations of the convenient what-comes-nextness of speech. “How are you?” I’ll say, as I signal the bartender for a beer. “Oh, fine,” you’ll say, which we all—you, me and the bartender—know to mean absolutely nothing. But Percussion Grenade is not having that kind of speech. There is relentless spewing-forth of images between these covers carried along by her singsong language and made complex by twisting colloquialisms ever so slightly to make them menacing, grotesque, and disconcerting in the best way. You know, Kevin, that I think subtlety is irrelevant; I like a good hardy aesthetic wallop. I want a little blood spattered on my dress at the end of a good read.
McSweeney commits a violence against language to drag language out into the light and air, which I hear is good for all infections, and show us that language is violent. Committing an act of language, even/especially the most commonplace, goes on every day and it MUST go on— Billa can I get another Bud over here,— but maybe, Kevin, we can re-dress by twisting it all up and making something new of it. If you can’t fall back on the convenience of colloquial expression, you have to really think about what you are saying, do you know what I’m saying? “Politics and the English Language” was some of the very first nonfiction I ever read and I’ll tell you, I got real excited about it. “Latin words fall upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.” He writes. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” Isn’t it funny how he implicates himself in this messiness he condemns by turning right back to metaphor to explain himself? We can never be clean and we can never shut up.
Plus, the book is beautiful to look at. It is not a neat, orderly book. It is inkblotted and crooked. The typeset inside the cover, the section title crowded beneath the number on each verso page; the text layering and multiplying on top of itself, so many cells reproducing until one phrase engulfs the proscribed limits of the page entirely. The physical artifact of the book creates atmosphere. This too is I think deliberate and necessary.
There is so much to talk about here, Kevin. There is character performance like I haven’t seen since Maximum Gaga—I keep thinking about those sordid midnight cabarets in Weimar Berlin, hellcats and cowgirl succubi and glassy-eyed catholic cardinals in the back of the family station wagon on a road trip to the Grand Canyon—it is a mimicry of the same kind of perversion of power that follows us into the ordinary without comment.
“If you think there’s a moral here,” McSweeney writes, “or a femoral artery, a Pasteural/ Good news, you missed it, you’re missing it./ You’re missing the morale boat…The overall thrust/ At the throat. Of the heart.” That just brings me to my knees. Is there no there, there? Is that the feeling of emptiness, façade, the reason I keep slipping off the surface of the text, unable to drop anchor and conveniently relate? “Yes, it was like that for me too.”
No. Not like that. 
Matt Bell recently drew my attention to this quote from the artist Bruce Nauman: “If you only deal with what is known, you’ll have redundancy: on the other hand, if you only deal with the unknown, you cannot communicate at all. There is always some combination of the two, and it is how they touch each other than makes communication interesting.”
That I keep slipping right off the page might be McSweeney’s intention, is what I’m saying. I am uneasy, I am questioning my capabilities as a reader and the authenticity of how I relate. Maybe me too! isn’t the point. And I need to (military industrial language ahead!) interrogate the way I am reading and relating or nothing is going to change. This book sometimes alienates me, as good art, in my opinion, should. I remember looking at Nauman’s “Human/Need/Desire” with a friend a few years ago and thinking it was so simple it could just slip right past me, and how dangerous to let it slip by. Or another way to think of it maybe is the way sometimes you hear a fact or a turn of phrase and soon enough you forget where it even came from and you believe it to be true just because it is there.
There are many writers who are moving in and out of that space between alienation and identification over and over, and urging us toward it, in books like this one. Dismantling the rote avenues of thought and the words we make out of those thoughts and the meaning we make of the words we read in an endless feedback loop. One of my favorite quotes ever is Julia Kristeva’s mandate that one must always be drawn “toward the place where meaning collapses.”  And mine nearly has, in this review at least, though I know by the time I meet you at the Tuesday crossword you’ll revive it, and me.
Save me a stool.

farren stanley's place-of-origin is Santa Fe, NM, but her heart followed her body to Tuscaloosa, AL. She lives under a magnolia tree with two dogs, two goldfish and seven orchids. She is published or forthcoming in places like Handsome, Front Porch, RealPoetik, Caketrain, H_NGM_N, New Delta Review and Greying Ghost Press.

photo credit: Sandra Neumann