Noose and Hook
University of Pittsburgh Press
Paperback, 62 pages
Link to Purchase
Reviewed by Adam Tavel
Of the many adjectives that David St. John invokes in his glowing jacket blurb for Lynn Emanuel’s new collection Noose and Hook, the most striking is “subversive.” It is a word rarely used in American poetics, apart from its occasional grenade-lob during the culture wars of the 1990s when the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E guerillas stormed the palace. But in 2010, what is left to subvert? What precious system remains intact after years of post-modern theorizing and flaccid anti-war poetry have clogged the drain of our collective unconscious, and we stand at the precipice of another decade with equal parts hope and doubt? With its exotic quirkiness, ceaseless self-interrogation, and “insatiable identities” that shape-shift from one page to the next, Noose and Hook digs a trench and empties its clip at our hallowed notions of voice and linearity, and serves as a testament to the depth of Emanuel’s vibrant, indeed subversive, imagination.
When one sets aside the frills and epigraphs, Noose and Hook is a slender volume with only fifty pages of actual poetry. With each successive reading, however, it reminded this reviewer of a good punk-rock album: it thrashes in a rough ecstasy of violence only to leave one reeling in its wake. With themes of pointless aggression and the flawed necessity of the self, the first of the book’s three sections lays Emanuel’s groundwork for all that follows. We see this in poems like “The Revolution,” arguably the most traditional narrative in the entire collection, where “a burn/of sound, those voices, a braille of noise” reveals a domestic dispute below the speaker’s apartment, as a mysterious woman is “locked in the arms of two men/and trying to bite her way out of their official embrace.” The poem brims with kinetic wrath, from “the room twitching and burning/from the all night TV,” to the figure whose nightgown is “screaming like something metal opening against its will.” Rather than building to a didactic crescendo that shrieks against our patriarchal culture, however, “The Revolution” ends with a flat, jarring admission: “There had been trouble, we knew. Betrayals./Who was to say she was innocent?”
Hilariously entitled “The Mongrelogues,” Noose and Hook’s second section is an eighteen page, two-part allegory that reads like a bizarre alchemy of Pilgrim’s Progress and Berryman’s Dream Songs. Written in an inimitable dialect that marries the antiquated syntax of John Donne with the phonetic spelling in George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” comics, “The Mongrelogues” chart the creation, persecution, and self-discovery of Dogg. Dogg regularly addresses his mistress-poet “Mistrust,” as he does in “Dogg’s Refusal,” where he laments, “Yew r not the ad i answered,/i sd to her./Nor iz this/Room To Let/equippt wit truble an debt./i wood not bee caught dead on the register uf yr guests.” It makes for a ludicrous, self-referential tale in the spirit of Jonathan Swift that ingeniously replicates the great satirist’s barbed sting in addition to his punning. One winces as much as one chuckles reading it, but this appears to be Emanuel’s desired effect, for when the humor melts like the veil of morning fog, her language is as gripping and savage as anything in The Dream Songs, as we see in Dogg’s final passage from “Whut i wood Like to Bee If i Wuzn’t Whut i Am”:
The evenings wit Mistrust i askt:
when will the spring come an the swans upon the rivers wit their coral
but she just dowst the lampan the black et us.The moon lookt wite an damp as a cut radish back in the years uf the
in truth as i lay in the dark, spookt, i did not feel this world wuz gone to the
dogsbut to sumthin that cood take the cold an dark an luv it,
like an albatross or a worm,or one uf the uther lower, meeker orders that will inherit the earth.
The book’s final section is more rhetorically cohesive than what precedes it, as many of its untitled prose poems reveal a poet who has finally let her guard down, if only briefly at the end, to show her wounds. Drug use, a mother’s death, and professorial frustrations all manifest with palpable ache, and though there is certainly some self-pity lurking in the lines, the poems maintain Noose and Hook’s restraining order on sentimentality.
It is difficult to think of another contemporary American poet, apart from Mary Ruefle, with such an unwavering commitment to her own singular vision and inventiveness. And like Ruefle, Emanuel can, from time to time, fall victim to being weird for weirdness’ sake, but in an age when many poets strive harder to sell their verses than they do writing them, it’s good to know a few wild scrappers have strayed beyond the pack.