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Friday, July 1, 2011

Well Known Poet Reviewed by Street Artist with Knack for Words

Title: Swallow
Author: Jendi Reiter
Author's Web site:
Publisher: Amsterdam Press, 2009
Publisher's Web site:
Genre: Poetry Chapbook
ISBN 10: 0—9822221—5—7
ISBN 13: 978—0—9822221—5—7

Reviewed at Ampersand Books website by Martha Rzadkowolsky-Raoli

Jendi Reiter created a tidy poetry book in which swallow means everything you can expect swallow to mean. She exhausts the word; its mashed remains a mix of cow meat, desire, intestines, bird. If you read the book, and you should, you’ll experience the beating of the word. Swallow. How else to learn something new ?(about the parameters of language) — – something only poetry can do, and these poems do it. Let me tell you how this book satisfies me.

I want a tight machine of a poem. The sound and look of its words should feel immutable, as movable type rendered tight, for letterpress. The first line of the book, seemingly fixed, knocked me out:
“We are all trying not to think about sex or food.”
So true, Jendi Reiter, so true. The line feels familiar, which is to say, it feels like someone ought to have said it. If it rings familiar it’s because it’s so right on. It should have been said.

Maxims and Tombstones

I can see it (“We are all trying not to think about sex or food”) engraved in Jenny Holzer’s marble slabs. Or on a tombstone. Or accompanying a New Yorker comic. Or as a bumper sticker (such an undervalued medium for speaking to a captive audience, considering the traffic in the city) Some of the other maxims suggest to me their own possible context:

“Beautiful women have not confided in you.” (found in a fortune cookie.)
“You can still tremble unstrung,” (emo song lyric.)
“You have to look at whatever the hand wants,” (salesgirl pitch)
“Every proposition starts with a cow,” (butcher treatise)
“Better to sit here with knives/ spinning the sun in a bowl,” (folk wisdom)

By suggesting disparate contexts, these aphorisms maintain a collaged-world view. I like Reiter’s objection to a poetics bound by singular points of view. I like when word-artists comply with the rules of our new universe (a mess of sources coming at you from everywhere: billboards, email, the doorman). This kind of work feels real. Reiter acknowledges this multi-media world when she asks of the swallows in “Goodbye Capistrano”:
“How would they know what lies ahead, without telephones, without magazines?”
Love this. Indeed, without our iphones and Vanity Fair, how would we?


I’m drawn to things. These poems are tactile; Reiter is object-crazy throughout. The objects in these poems bely an organized universe: objects that don’t belong together are crammed into a stanza. Including this passage, from “Pill”, which lets loose all kinds of matter:
“Pupil, meteorite crater, drill, data, cell, needle, library, wrecking ball, cowboy, funnel, dime bag, pill, camera, sparks, pinhole, eye.”
In “How to Fail a Personality Test”, the thing-y, evidential bent of the book, offers: Household cleansers, tailbone, bat, velvet cape, pelvis, tails, pictures, crab, toad, lace mantilla, clouds, horse, ceiling, map, clouds, popsicle stick, chair.
These things are responses to Rorschach blots. In the dialectic of this poem, the operative question is: What does the viewer see? How does what the viewer sees reveal his personality?

It’s the nature of Rorschach tests to determine meaning, to decode whatever the patient says he sees. Pupil, meteorite crater, drill, data, cell, needle. The things that are “seen” must first be coded, in order to be decoded.

When I read this poem, I don’t have a trusty code. Derrida (who makes small appearance in this poem) would ask, What do these things “signify”? What do these images say? and “Why this picture?” and not that? Neither I (nor the administrator of the poem’s Rorschach test) can draw from a tried-and-true semiotics.

Body I & Body II

I like the rhetorical dissonance between these two poems, with linear-sequential titles. They beg to be read and reread together. There’s a sphinx-dialectic at work within each one and between them too. They speak to each other, poem to poem. Here’s a line from each:

“Keep washing till it smells like nobody”
“I would have to become nobody”
Both Body I and Body II, with two really distinct rhetorical stances, share the shaky sense that the internal logic of the poem is slippery. The dialectic is established by non-sequiters. Some delightfully nutty ones that are very Theatre of the Absurd. Here’s some of the wacky interior logic at work:


“Here’s the body the body
was born in: In the ground”
“There is no way I would tell you these things without wearing my real hair. I would have to play the piano first…”
“Here’s the thing the body needed:
Take it away boys take it away.” (I love this little soft-shoe)
“You’re the salt in my coffee, the cream in my stew. There are a lot of people I would have to swallow first before you.”

Reiter’s rhetorical tricks can remind me of the riddle-ish catechism I was taught. The relationship between premises in these poems get downright eucharistic on logic’s ass. Mysterious pronouncements sound as zany as any church stories of body-magic: The body jesus lived in, the jesus body that is the eucharist, and the jesus body that you put into your body. Here’s Reiter’s esoteric cosmology of the body/soul conundrum:

“Here’s the thing about the body:
there’s no one inside”
“Here’s the body that went into the body… “There are a lot of people I would have to swallow first before you.”
“What holds the body becomes a body…”

These lines are really beautiful to me because they are honest about how little we know.

Hunger and Hungered

A sweeping hunger contains these poems, unites them, How to sate the appetite? Should it be sated? What terrors befall the One-Who-Swallows? The- One-Swallowed? And which one is which? Are they one and the same?
Is our hunger why we swallow? Or are we swallowed by our hunger? More importantly: Am I the body that went into the body? Or am I what holds the body? And if so, who did I become? And if so, did I swallow? And if so, I hope that I liked it. I’m sure I did.

~Martha Rzadkowolsky-Raoli is a street artist.
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