New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2016. 74 pages. $16.00.
Of all the images that constellate the dense personal mythology in How The End Begins, Cynthia Cruz’s new collection, perhaps the one that best encapsulates the book is a “tiny, frozen diorama, / With a black and wild piston in it.” Behind this image we might hear an echo of Emily Dickinson’s line, “The Feet, mechanical, go round— / A Wooden way.” Cruz’s poems also tend to act under the influence of this uncanny mechanistic logic. However, in How The End Begins, the compulsory repetition of feminine performance denies her speakers the consolation of the “formal feeling.” Instead, constantly restaging femininity forces the speaker to endure the interminable wearing out of the machine. Faced with this endless reiteration, death becomes a performance and a site where agency can be reclaimed in its production. “The music // Box of death / Is inside me: // And the blank moon, / Moving like a lost god over me,” the speaker declares in “Self Portrait In Porcelain Tub,” a poem which is full of the icons of illness, feminine performance, and patriarchal violence. Not only does this book manipulate these spectral Dickinsonian mechanisms (including borrowed lines from her correspondence in the “Letters To Emily” sequence), but it also heavily features God, Daddy, and doctors—Plath’s patriarchal villains. How The End Begins locates itself in the aesthetic territory staked out in “Self Portrait In Porcelain Tub,” emphasizing the attritional effects of patriarchal culture through the speaker’s fascination with death.
Cruz achieves this sense of wearing out in How The End Begins by forcing the lyric I past its point of collapse, resurrecting it against its will: “I repeat what I cannot bear: / Chronic repetition.” This forced repetition characterizes the movement of the collection. Image systems of beehives, winter, blonde hair, and Mercedes sedans cycle through the book, creating the sense that the text turns on an occult axis rather than moving in a single direction. “Let me drown in a dream / Of turning,” writes Cruz in “Siberia.” In another “Self Portrait” poem she refers to the “dioramas of my pretty / Poems,” another type of revolving spectacle.
The rotational motion of How The End Begins is also freighted with religiosity. This collection seems particularly haunted by a distant god figure repeatedly appearing as a “blank moon” or a “child- / Like voice” or a Plath-like “Daddy.” The concept of resurrection functions as the natural pivot for the book’s structure of repetition and the anxiety produced by the “lost god” figure. Resurrection is no comfort in poems like “The Hinge,” though:
We are talking
About the Resurrection.
We are walking dead
We walk, dumb
Into the tremendous and endless
As the speaker is worn down by a tyrannical god and unwillingly resurrected, How The End Begins becomes saturated with the weltschmerz that titles the book’s second poem. Weltschmerz is not simply world-weariness, but the sensation of a misalignment between an ideal world and the actual world. As the title suggests, How The End Begins is concerned with the idea of apocalypse, although it can be ambiguous as to which world is actually ending. In the opening poem, the speaker announces, “I dreamed the earth burned down.” In other poems, it is a dream world that is ending: “Inside the warm, white hive of your childhood / It is freezing black ice and shattering.” In a surprising turn, this collection destabilizes the dream worlds—the zwischenwelts and nebenwelts—constructed by Cruz’s previous books. Here the border between the actual world and the dreamlike underworld is indistinct. The sense of weltschmerz in How The End Begins arises from the notion that the dream world should be less horrifying than the actual world, but this is not the case. In these poems, the dream worlds deny the speaker’s ability to exercise full agency. In “The Enchanted Snow,” for example, the speaker swerves between absolute authority and the desire to relinquish it:
Swoon, I say
And the swallows fall from their elm,
I said I wished I were
Drowned. But this time
Not just in dream.
In oscillating between command and wish, the order to swoon and the swoon itself, these lines recall again the dizzying music box motion of the text as the speaker swings between dream worlds and the actual world. The compact stanzas and use of enjambment toward which Cruz is inclined also contribute to the swoon-like effect by subverting the reader’s syntactic expectations.
The disorientation caused by the swooning, slow death of worlds also relates to the attention to gender performance in How The End Begins. The “End” suggested by Cruz’s title is less cataclysmic than processual—the end is ongoing, precluding even the consolation of oblivion. The lack of finality contributes to the gradual wearing out of the speaker through repetition:
I spend my days riding the train
To the very last station,
Playing cards with the dead
Most of me
Is gone now.
In these lines from the title poem, the beautifully unsettling line break over “dead / Girls” forces the reader to experience the speaker’s attrition as inherently gendered. These poems often point to the unsustainable aspects of femininity as a “Non-stop theater of compulsive / Repetition.” After all, the apocalyptic rider in this poem is a woman who “smells of drugs and death and pulls / Her small white poodle / Along with her.” Death, femininity, performativity, and commodity fetish all wind into the same figure, an assemblage that the speaker simultaneously gravitates toward and seeks to elude.
How The End Begins displays the enthrallment with girlhood and its objects that characterizes Cruz’s bibliography, most acutely felt in The Glimmering Room (2012). In the “Birthday Ceremony” sequence, girlhood artifacts like ball gowns, horsehair, ribbons, and silk diaries appear alongside the Tarot, funeral mass cards, and the I Ching. These occult activities mirror the act of playing dress-up. The juxtaposition lends the scene a more sinister character as the speaker rehearses a feminine role, “masquerading in mother’s // Stage make-up and Halston / Ball gowns, wishing / God’s ghost back into us.” Girlhood’s occult influence lurks behind the attrition experienced by the speaker. As the sequence progresses from one birthday ceremony to the next, the speaker has no choice but to reenact these rituals. This compulsory repetition is animated by a refrain: “The uncanny / Always comes back.” Paradoxically, just as the refrain is repeated in the final poem of the sequence, the speaker declares that “The mansion of childhood / Is shattering.” These statements warp each other with their opposite gravities and leave both speaker and reader suspended in an impossible space between the constructs of girlhood and womanhood, repetition and ruin.
Perhaps the weltschmerz that permeates How The End Begins arises from this paradox of disintegration loops, this shattering that never fully obtains. At times, its beautifully oppressive atmosphere and cyclical image systems may deter those readers that are seeking the brutal concision of Ruin (2006) or Wunderkammer (2014). Nevertheless, this collection should by no means be dismissed as a Dickinsonian shuffling of mechanical feet. With its emphasis on slow catastrophe, eschatological crisis, and damaged dream worlds, How The End Begins is a significant addition to Cynthia Cruz’s distinctive canon.