Recreating a Miraculous Object: Janaka Stucky’s The Truth Is We Are Perfect

Jenn Mar

Nashville, TN: Third Man Books, 2015. 76 pages. $15.95.

In Janaka Stucky’s debut collection The Truth Is We Are Perfect, heartache is a metaphysical event that drops the poet into a cosmos of loss. While love poetry too often consigns itself to sentimentality and confession, Stucky portrays a subtler case of heartache that delicately relinquishes the banalities one expects from breakup poems. The camera keeps cutting to prismatic images of black oceans and blood—a technique of abstraction that spares readers realistic representations of sex and breakup. Like a cinematographer building a film entirely on the muzzy images of extreme close-up shots, Stucky has vanished scenes and subjects to build a suspense of mood. He pulls from Eastern religious texts, mysticism, and the occult, and casts dirty, hallucinatory images onto graceful lines about love, resulting in a collection that is empathetic, nuanced, and wild. “If I had a finger for every time I breathed / I’d be a planet of angels,” Stucky writes in one poem. In another: “Thus I perish in amazement / My bones liberated by your wolves.” Truth is modestly personal, with rhetorical flourishes, and cobbled with beautiful, otherworldly metaphors. In this way, the collection satisfies the belligerent demands of a broken heart.

Truth’s three-part arrangement sketches an airy structure that follows the speaker from heartache to liberation. But this progression hardly resembles a conventional narrative. Instead the collection grows meditatively inward. At the heart of the book is the shadow of the beloved, an ex-girlfriend who refuses to reciprocate the poet’s affections. She remains, for the most part, a blank face, a set of “reckless hands” by whose power the poet is created and destroyed. Calling from a holding place of heartbroken souls, the speaker asks ontological questions of his situation and delivers fifty-four lyric poems to transcend its limits. Stucky is fond of portraying the eternal return, a concept in folklore that presumes the universe is constantly recreating itself on a cyclical time structure that punctuates grim violence and death with the hope of regeneration. But Stucky expresses this idea with greater imagination and eloquence than does the ubiquitous tail-devouring serpent: the poet is fed to fire, becomes fire, becomes many other things:

Place your teeth upon me and I will be
The sound from your mouth

You see that axe that axe
Is me

Cleaving myself from my self

[…]

I become you coming

The snow you came in
The next great war

I live through

In these highly mysterious images of transmutation, the self does not begin and end with the boundaries of skin, but is miraculously recreated by the trauma of heartache, the poet reborn.

The consistency of the collection’s poems gives it the sense of a seamless whole, although there are occasional shifts in style and tone. “Everyone Thinks I’m Ancient but I’m Only Seven” is sweetly allegorical, while “Destroy Song” has a violent, juvenile bent suited to a melodically tinged rock song. Otherwise Truth has an even arrangement and temperament; the poems offer a singular arc of pain, a series of cries that in time unleashes the magic of prayer.

Here, the wild crop of love and heartache produces endless offshoots: death and transformation, freedom and renunciation, magic and ritual, spirituality and prayer. The spiritual usually extends from the premise of difficult love: again and again, the collection wonders how we can reconcile ourselves to a fugitive existence whose sensations, once passed, become weightless. Take the poem “The Art of Loss Is a Lost Art”:

Because I love a burning thing
I made my heart a field of fire

In this way I own nothing
Can lose nothing

The moon cake you fed me remains
A ghost upon my tongue

Immortal wasp
Tiny white flame I have never touched

Line by line, Stucky’s poems dissolve just as they’ve asserted meaning, mimicking the experience of desire. We’re shadowed by imperceptible forces that overpower our existence; as soon as we arrive anywhere we feel the threat of demolition. Sonically, Stucky’s lines yield to the tongue. It’s a sensual experience, hearing these somber, obliging sounds deepen the feelings of loss and lust the poems explore.

Occasionally, there is a misstep. Stucky at times reaches for graphic, apocalyptic phrases whose charge fails to crackle with sufficient lunacy or head-on syntactical violence. The vulgarity seems overplayed when placed near tenderly affectionate, banal sentiments:

My hieroglyphic fucking
When I forget how to say I love you

Or:

A lake of blood souls with human faces
Grow four legs and fall into

All the things we’ve ever done
Have brought us to this very point
It could have been different                  but not really

Still Stucky should be recognized as, in Bill Knott’s phrase, a “cogent, incisive phrase-maker.” (Knott has written a blurb for the book, and this aspect of its marketing serves Stucky’s work better than some showier attempts at publicity, such as a YouTube video of A Series of Unfortunate Events author Daniel Handler reciting a Stucky poem while mixing a martini, a performance that swallows the poem into an aesthetic of celebrity cool. Third Man Books is the new publishing project of musician and White Stripes’s frontman Jack White, and it brings an energetic but sometimes questionably commercial approach to literary publishing, one which may risk obscuring quality work behind a façade of hipsterfication.) Beyond any simpler aura of hipness that the book’s cover or marketing may suggest, Stucky achieves a strange ontological wakefulness that is crucial to the success of his poems. Consider “Recreating a Miraculous Object,” whose surrealism of marching angels, rising thieves, and moon-filled fingers coalesces into haunting, near-celestial impressions of heartache:

I hear the parade of mouths
Beating upon my sleeping head

I hear the thieves rising
With their fingers full of moon

I hear the ocean I gave you
Waving back against the black

Uniform of the earth
And the saint children marching

Like blood

In “I Hope to Come to You with Nothing but Light,” the contrast between Stucky’s supernatural imagery and cogent rhetoric lends the poem a resonant and variable diction:

If I had a finger for every time I breathed
I’d be a planet of angels
[…]
Dear your hands
Which I have never held
Sieve the light from my approach

Dear white thigh
Growing whiter in my absence
Night sky shudder against my cheek
[…]
Dear your tongue
Let me see you for

The days grow short now
The jellyfish bloom and

We never don’t know anything
About someone

Stucky’s images achieve moments of near-lucidity that dissolve or slide towards altered perception at the line break, forcing renewed meaning. Take the poem “You Are Invisible. Go Visible”:

Inside the mouth of the flower remains
The second eyelid
True darkness

Alien light

Resurrecting us

While these poems appeal more to the viscera than the intellect, they glimmer with a deep knowledge. Truth is resolved to make us both “aware and unaware” of the marvelous truth that we are perfect. Despite the threats of demolition, disaster, change, and death, we will not be defined out of existence: miraculously, we will be recreated.

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