Whisk in the Mouth

Reviewed By

Editor’s Note: We don’t usually run reviews that are conversations between two writers, and we don’t usually run reviews on Saturday, so you’re getting a doubly special treat today. Here are Hilary Plum and Zach Savich discussing Filip Marinovich’s And If You Don’t Go Crazy I’ll Meet You Here Tomorrow.

Zach Savich: Filip Marinovich’s second collection of poetry, And If You Don’t Go Crazy I’ll Meet You Here Tomorrow, reminds me of the time-lapse films shown in high school biology classes, in which a shuddering frond slowly unfurls or a beak punctures its shell beneath cycling days of clouds: we see that energy is evident only through transformation, but that transformations are made of discrete stages, such that, as Marinovich says, “Fire is fire / no segue / Ash is ash / when it’s log it’s log / not future ash.” The challenge, it seems, is to keep those tautologies stimulating, so they don’t dull into the inert wisdom of “things are things,” even as Marinovich hustles to chart a perpetual present. “That’s not now that’s / when when when I was this / I was then / Now I’m when when when when when,” he writes, and his achievement is that I hear each of those “whens” both as distinct moments of variable size (“summer when / spring when”) and as plain repetition; they are made blank, they accrue further meaning. Do you think this relationship to time—insisting on the sovereignty of still moments, also showing those moments change—echoes the book’s depiction of spiritual practice? Does it lead to principles of inclusiveness that let Marinovich so affably say, “It’s wonderful to stink in public”?

Hilary Plum: I want to quote from Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way (Nagarjuna, “Snake Master,” the founder of Mahayana Buddhism, from which Zen would descend; Marinovich’s practice is in the Zen tradition, as documented by the long poem “Boddhisattva Graphomania”), but don’t have the book on hand—let’s say it’s: causes are no different from effects, and effects are no different from causes. Nagarjuna’s take on time is like this—there’s no past, present, or future, as we usually think of them, because you can’t draw the line and stick a label here or there without perpetuating an illusion. The frond is that which has unfurled; the bird is egg, beak puncturing, discarded feather, and so on. Marinovich’s title phrase appears in the text as a means to work through this problem of self-ness and time (like the “when when when” you quote above)—he quotes his Roshi saying: “Who am I now / who am I now / who am I now / keep asking yourself that / and if you don’t go crazy / I’ll meet you here tomorrow.” When Marinovich says “ash is ash,”¬ this seems a way of hustling to chart the now, as you say, and also an affable way of turning Nagarjuna’s formulation (“ash is no different from fire,” etc.) on its head by insisting that daily experience is like this, even if it’s not.

“Boddhisattva Graphomania” incorporates a lot of Buddhist philosophy and instructive quotation, but in a way that feels less dogmatic than, say, many of its ’70s predecessors, which when read now seem too doggedly committed to tutoring their readers. Marinovich’s “inclusiveness” helps free him from dogma; his aim is not to capture the philosophy itself so that he can serve it up, but to document his own experience of Zen practice during a specific time and place. The poem, then, is a documentation that is also a reenactment—of his time at a Zendo in 2007, of these experiences in consciousness that at their “best” resist language, but which language is needed to refer to, to point at, afterward. In this way I think of the poem not as a biology film, which can let us witness the event itself, but as one of those fictionalized filmic reenactments, like Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers or Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday, in which the art’s aim is to offer reality as it should have been seen. Marinovich’s poem explores the tension between the desire to document and comprehend what has happened and the knowledge that what happens in language can’t be said to be the “real” thing.

I’ll use those two films as a jumping-off point to note how the larger geopolitical world is present throughout this book: New York to Belgrade to Kiev to Afghanistan. This sense of place and politics is tied necessarily to time: each poem is dated at the end, and the poems often aim to engage with specific moments in history, quick before they pass, as in the lovely “October 2001”: “You want to make love in Kandahar / with the bombs coming down.” The book is also set continually in the time in which the poet’s grandfather is dying, or has just died, which brings the grandfather’s past in World War II to the fore. In the poem “America Death in New York,” which you quote above (“it’s wonderful to stink in public”), one line I return to is “The still-life starts to rot again. After a couple of days / everything becomes a desperate craving for home.” The first sentence problematizes the sovereignty of still moments, and the second aches with the difficulties of time and narration: how present the past can be in us, how our physical presence (the when and where) must be mapped against our continual wanderings through dreamscapes—including the nightmare landscape of the political world.

Savich: A problem, perhaps, with reenactment is that it justifies the banal—I get that the banal is part of a spiritual journey, and that appreciating it can be a spiritual end, to see that enlightenment is “sometimes ecstasy / sometimes cutting up cucumbers.” In some of the book’s poems, which mark time less by the darting juxtapositions of “America Death in New York” or the spiritual wrassling of the final poem, time is created primarily by the free play of a voice on the page. This play isn’t counterpointed in the ways you mention above, as in the gorgeous temporal zing when one realizes that the still life is rotting AGAIN, meaning it was rotting before, and then stopped, or we stopped noticing it. Rather than moving within and against aches of time, the language in these poems is the main thing that keeps time present. This reenacts a psychic experience, I guess, since the language’s composition reenacts itself in my mind, which seems to be the method of a poem like “The Gift of Eavesdropping,” as its title suggests (drop in on its drift: “JAIL PUPPETS! / We don’t have enough rich words / no soil but / a concrete square / with tar spit circles / on it / Oh train translate that / The shower we ran / We rented out a couple / I’ve been a man for six / months already warm out”). But I respond to this wandering reenactment by reading for punch lines, for pieces of language that stand out from the continuous texture.

This can be a rewarding way to read Marinovich, particularly because his punch lines, the more discrete pieces of language, often shift one back into the ongoing flow. In “Descriptions Automatiques,” I love the couplet: “I hung myself and shot myself / U.S. roulette.” I glide happily from it into the less snappy lines that follow, which mimic real-time association and revision (“I returned as a game made for you / you thought you dissolved / the Soviet Union / the Soviet Union is dissolving in you / a time-release pill / washed down with a white and black Russian”). Those lines truck in word play that is a level more blunt than pun. I adore this joy in the obvious, in laid-bare associations, in dumb humor, that populates war-scarred Belgrade in Marinovich’s first collection, Zero Readership; if the human spirit has any triumph, it might be in such moments of simultaneously belabored and effortless pleasure (“Like the guy / who worked at the pet store and then went to work in a butcher shop”; or a jeans, gene joke, blissfully irresistible to Marinovich). In that book, humor contrasts with the darkness of the political landscape, highlighting the absurdity of both; in this one, it is often instructive, using the absurd to transmit messages, in addition to unsettling them. “I DON’T KNOW WHY I’M HERE I DON’T LIKE ZEN / I DON’T LIKE THE FORM!” one roommate at the Zen retreat screams. The groaner of a reply: “TRY THE EMPTINESS!”

Like you, I appreciate that Marinovich’s take on spiritual practice is rangier and richer than its pious counterparts, since a joke works by a kind of enlightenment, and nothing resembles koans as much as bad jokes do, though I wouldn’t call his work irreverent. Rather, its reverence turns moments of over-obviousness not into heartwrenching absurdity, as often happened in the earlier collection, but into awe (I think he’d like the joke blurb: “poems of schlock and awe”). Again in “Graphomania,” we are told “Roshi’s instructions to Jikido (‘Person who keeps time and cleans the zendo’) on how to use the morning wake-up bell: // ‘It rings on it’s own, you just walk.’” This no-duh one-liner is beautiful and stupid. It reminds me of the rebelliously reverent sensibility of Zen poets like Norman Fischer, whose On Whether Or Not To Believe In Your Mind seems like a precursor to Marinovich’s work, as well as of more recent poets who employ zany bluntness to lunge from poetic expectation into unironic wonder, such as Loren Goodman (“Tonight, my girlfriend’s brother is / visiting from Japan. We take / him to New York’s tallest building, / the moon”) or Matthew Rohrer in a poem like the one that concludes his series of “Forest Haiku” in A Green Light: “I look forward / to writing / different poems.” Compared to the comedy in Tony Hoagland or some of James Tate, which follows situations through to their propositional conclusions, much of what we think of as comedic in recent American poetry—Mary Ruefle, Dean Young, Alice Notley in a poem like “The Prophet”—subverts proverb and undercuts representation in ways that, if not indebted to Zen, at least meet it in Marinovich.

This poetics also permits the banal, delighting in the materials of the world with attentive exuberance, exuberance that is often wonderfully pleased with itself and its capacities for transformation, even when those metamorphoses fall flat. I see this delight in Marinovich and also in classical Buddhist writing. In my favorite enlightenment verse from Lucien Styrk’s 1973 anthology, The Crane’s Bill: Zen Poems from China and Japan, the poet, Chokei, depicts a kind of daffy, disjunctive, defiant, ebulliently aphasic wisdom that I can get behind: “Rolling the bamboo blind, I / Look out at the world—what change! / Should someone ask what I’ve discovered, / I’ll smash this whisk against his mouth.” The anthology notes that Chokei’s teacher found these lines unacceptable; a dutiful workshop student, the poet revised his enlightenment into a more conventional verse of epiphany and stoner’s grandeur, though I want to believe he was laughing when his teacher gave him an MFA for it: “All’s harmony, yet everything is separate. / Once confirmed, mastery is yours. / Long I hovered on the Middle Way. / Today the very ice shoots flame.” Marinovich applies the spirit of the first verse not just to his reenactment of meditation but to his depictions of the body, living among psychiatry, poetry, fucking, and friends.

Plum: So maybe the next question is: how do you tell enlightenment from epiphany from punch line from orgasm? (Could be a good joke, but I don’t know the punch line?) How do you (person, poet, reader) deal with the banality of time without looking for some way to cheat, some quick enlightenment, fix, way to get out or off? I like what you say about Marinovich’s poems “keeping time,” and how many of his best punch lines don’t conclude or sum up, but shift back into. This is one way in which his long poem resists, I think, some of the oft-stumbled-in pitfalls along the American Buddhist-influenced literary paths: in which poems conclude with a lyrical epiphany, the mind realizing its own mind-ness through careful observation of the (usually natural) world. Such moments can be quietly convincing, but often seem unfortunately self-satisfied—a poet, neck sore from moon-gazing, who is happy finally just to examine his own pointing finger? “Boddhisattva Graphomania” offers moments of something like epiphany, maybe even some that seem a little strained, but it keeps going past them into the next thing, and in this way is able to make a larger argument about consciousness in time, the ever-new “who am I now.” Thus even an occasional lack of persuasiveness, or overt “spiritual wrassling,” can become part of a larger practice, a larger poem, in which these stumblings and wrasslings are borne witness to.

Maybe Marinovich offers an answer to my fake question, above, in wonderful lines like: “What booze remains from the secret party you left / with shells in your pockets and fuses to blow yourself up with / before the suicide bomber could get to you.” Here syntax and time twist away from themselves, and somehow impossibly you have to follow (into your own death, twice—the still life rots again…). Marinovich hits an ontological note that has political resonance and is also, though not simply, funny. When you talk above about the possibility of triumph through “simultaneously belabored and effortless pleasure,” one way to read this is about the human spirit striving for and achieving moments of epiphany; another could be as a thinking-man’s description of sex. Omnivorous, frenetic sexual desire characterize the book’s first half, which makes the second, set in a Zendo, seem markedly and effectively ascetic. Marinovich’s poems are often forcefully erotic, in a way that emphasizes climaxes less than continual hunger—a desirous form of “when when when” thinking. “At the Cathedral of St John the Divine” begins “I gave you cunnilingus in a dark alcove / while poets took turns reciting ‘The Inferno’ / in the Poet’s Corner” and ends “Now I dream you come back to me every couple of weeks / and you are simultaneous translator for a Russian theater director.” This ending is kind of a no-ending, a no-revelation, which seems very satisfying. There will always be a thrill and a disappointment to answering the question “Who am I now”—here I am! here I am?—but the truly banal thing, and the biggest joke, is that the whole thing (the whole I) keeps happening, over and over again. Until it stops (whisk!). Thank you, Marinovich!


Hilary Plum has had recent work in Diagram, The Quaterly Conversation, and The Critical Flame. Zach Savich is the author of three books of poetry, including The Firestorm. More from this author →