On At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky by Bridget Lowe

Lucy Biederman

Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon Press, 2013. 64 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover images to purchase)

Remember when Betty Draper shot at the neighbor’s birds, in the first season of Mad Men? With her cigarette hanging out of her mouth, in her gauzy nightgown, she looked so maternal and sexual. She was horrible, glorious, and bored. The episode ended to the music of her rifle shots, then a golden oldie started playing, the credits rolled, and of course no one, not Don or anyone else, ever mentioned the incident.

That scene takes place in the same neighborhood as Bridget Lowe’s poems. This neighborhood is far from the major, clearly marked thoroughfares of what Yeats called “passionate intensity,” and it is in neighborhoods like these, knotty and off-map, where, I imagine, most of us spend most of our days.

Lying awake after I first read At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinksy, I kept hearing the poems in my mind’s ear, gross and pretty and weird. Lowe has zero interest in weirdness for the sake of weirdness, but there is some weird shit in here: “God is a mathematician and in my dreams / I’m held down while my head is wrapped in netting / and strangers lick between my legs and laugh”; water trickling out of the “stony baby dick” of the cherub in the fountain at the mall.

Vaslav Nijinksy is Lowe’s first book, but the authority she asserts as the driver of these poems is a fearful thing, all the more so for all the disguises it wears. Here, for example, are the final lines of the poem “Prayer”:

I tear my garment in my
heat, in my love, O, Lord, your name is like a bird
in me, your name is like a bird which imitates
but does not truly speak.

In the space of these four lines, Lowe builds a monument to a Lord whose very existence she then tears apart, leaving imitation—less than nothing—in its wake. Susan Sontag once said it was the easiest thing in the world for her to pay attention; if anything, she said, she had “Attention Surplus Disorder.” Lowe is in no danger of such diagnosis. In the lines above, she extinguishes the flame of her own rapture so economically that not even the smell of smoke remains. Many of the poems in this volume do like “Prayer” and jolt you awake from the very spells they cast, continually and insistently refusing a too-easy sense of beauty and wonder.

Like Plath, Lowe has a mind that seeks and finds the chink in the china, the white lie in the master narrative. And so the book’s animating, recurring myths and characters—the wild boy of Aveyron, the pilgrim, the forgotten actress—retain a certain unlikelihood, as if Lowe herself does not believe in them as anything other than poem-making devices. Even the Internet, which holds our eyes steady all day, seems boring in Lowe’s poems:

Someone takes my photograph
from behind a potted plant
and puts it on the Internet. Is this my fantasy?
It’s so small and cross-eyed,

she writes in “The Nihilist Takes a Bow.” This is not the Internet of brand-new lit journals and YouTube, with all its glittery possibilities for fame and its endless new items of interest. The Internet seems, instead, as “small and cross-eyed” as the speaker’s fantasy, just another mild wind extinguishing Lowe’s rapture.

The condition of girl- and womanhood is a fatal one—and mortality and fatalism are never far from the minds and voices of Lowe’s female speakers. They efface themselves almost literally, dressing up in confidence and, like the forgotten actress, smiling through a shame they find slightly delightful. “She could fashion a noose from a hair bow,” Lowe writes in “State Line.” The poem titled “Whatever You Thought Your Body to Be” implies, but never quite says, you were wrong. The body, like a lover, is untrustworthy: “see it out walking, forgetting your name.” “Eat Not the Heart, Neither the Brain” ends with the lines,

But listen to me when I tell you
the soul is best avoided.
Or don’t. Who am I
to warn you of what you’ll suffer.

The poem offers an operatic conclusion, and then an equally dramatic reversal of that conclusion that undermines the authority of the speaker who has taught us to trust her—or does it? “Who am I,” the speaker asks, but the lack of question mark at the end of the sentence might be the real story. Under the banner of that seeming self-effacement, the speaker asserts and withholds her knowledge “of what you’ll suffer,” leaving it to hang like a knife.

The psychic space in which the speakers in these poems consider their relationships—and the intricate, surprising sounds with which Lowe portrays those considerations—refuse to give up their mystery. The first poem in the book, “Poem for Virginia as Joan of Arc,” is one of the book’s most phonically and lyrically enthralling, every line like a shot arrow (or maybe one of Betty Draper’s rifle shots). Here is part of it:

Alone you stood and flickered in the kitchen,
alone you stood on stage.

The dog stepped around you,
the television throbbed

a bruise-colored comfort, beacon for your bed-boat.
In the basement your father’s waders

Hung on a hook, and, even out of water,
Held the shape of a man

You held the shape of a windowpane,
And what sights it showed you, things it demanded!

What is most easily readable here, familiarly suburban, only drives the strangeness deeper. The first couplet, for example, clearly presents a pair of places in which the poem’s starring “you” has stood alone. But even in the inverted syntax of “alone you stood,” Lowe begins to unmoor us; and by the end of that line, as the subject of the poem “flickered in the kitchen,” she has called into question where—in what world—this poem takes place. The vectors of slant rhyme and alliteration within and across nearly every line, beginning with flickered/kitchen, suggest a secret meaning, some code or form imbedded but unknown. There is a horribly fathomless Something, an X, running through the center of the book. That Something runs not against the grain of Lowe’s extreme precision of language, but through it.

Layers of reality and illusion swarm around each other in Vaslav Nijinksy, but where other poets might slip out the back door during the confusion, Lowe locates moral centers and beating hearts. In “The Forgotten Actress as Contestant on Dancing With the Stars,” Lowe uses waltzing tercets to depict the actress’s “sublime” experience performing in front of an audience and judges. The final lines unsettle each other, one after the other. The judges deliver a low score and “Cruelty came / like a surreal joke. The audience cheered / for more. You liked it.” The great surprise here is not the low score, not the “surreal joke” of the audience’s excitement at the actress’s failure, but, in a jolt that is all the more jarring for its complexity, that the actress “liked it.” “It” meaning the whole shebang—the dancing, the cruelty, the joke of it all, the audience celebrating her failure, the spectacle. Lowe’s expertly controlled language conveys the emotional perversion of this scene; the actress didn’t love it, which might suggest an ability to subvert or control the role she’d been given. The poem doesn’t even give her that. She merely liked it. There is bravery in Lowe’s focus on emotions besides love and hate, in the rigor and ruthlessness with which she describes, instead, disappointment, disgust, humiliation, and mild surprise (“eating a candy bar while staring at the moon”). We waste our days on those feelings, too.

Some of the poems in the book take place in settings that recalls those of poets like Lucie Brock-Broido and Karen Volkman, whom Stephen Burt has categorized as elliptical. Lowe uses phonic invention and association to create an otherworldly, romantic effect. For example, here is the first stanza of “Leitmotif”:

I was devoted, I sat at your feet.
I called a photograph of a telephone
twenty times a day asking for you, for you, for you.

In the space of this poem, Lowe, as Broido and Volkman tend to do in their poems, creates an airtight dreamscape in which pure devotion is possible. Instead of a telephone, there is “a photograph of a telephone.” Only at such a far distance from the recognizable social world can one devote oneself like a saint. Calling someone twenty times a day in real life is creepy; in the hothouse world of this poem, it is a symbol of devotion, and devotion is love. But the poem has a hard core of emotional resonance—responsibility, even. “Leitmotif” ends with the lines,

When I awoke, I met a statue with your face.
It was as if no time had passed at all.
I bowed. I began

a polite conversation about weather.

The lush romanticism of the poem’s first stanza (for you, for you, for you) contrasts with the ascetic simplicity of its final moments, particularly that quotidian final line. In these last lines, Lowe vanishes the dreamscape she has built. In the world of awkward humans, “a polite conversation about weather” disappointingly, tragically, replaces the beautifully desperate adoration in which the speaker, and the reader, too, had indulged.

Lowe is a magician in reverse—no, not quite that: she is an anti-magician. Instead of sawing the woman in half at the end of the show, Lowe shows the audience the secret panel. In the title poem, an undefined “they” look for some explanation in the great dancer’s feet for his extraordinary abilities. They “searched inside the gristle / for a machine, / a motor and spring, the wheel,” but find, of course, a regular foot. As the poet at the autopsy, it is Lowe’s self-appointed task to say out loud that there is no magic in that foot. The poems in this book impart that terrible knowledge. They go deep, beyond the beauty and the ugliness, as T.S. Eliot instructs, to “the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.”

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