I found this text to be profound, relentless, frustrating, inspiring, demanding, silly, pompous, elastic, and mind-expanding. That is what poetry is for, and this is for poetry.
CA Conrad’s book of (Soma)tic Exercises, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon collects 27 exercises, theatrical experiments designed to generate poems, and these are followed by the poems they produced. It’s highly original, creative, but dramatic, over-the-top, showy, and a little pretentious for my tastes. They nonetheless leave a lasting sensation that is both interesting and demanding; the (Soma)tic Exercises are innovative and crucial to our art form—they both invent a new genre and help increase freedom from the double tyrannies of both the tired narrative form and short, personal lyric form. Conrad must be one of the most original practitioners of poetry forging new territory. The (Soma)tic Exercises are really works of non-poetry, non-fiction: they do not argue for a point; rather they are about Conrad’s own wisdom. Written in prose, they are pulsating with a rich body of reading knowledge, the brute force of personal honesty, and a delicately calibrated tone that results in a powerful authoritative voice. Steeped in the liquids of mysticism, herbal medicine, sexual vulnerability, and a kind of pushing against our junk culture, the poems sing. They show a general affection for the universe, yet allow the reader the experience her own alienation from that universe as it presses against her.
All of the exercises are attempts are attempts to be somatic, in the sense of how the world affects the body, and how that body’s outer walls are moved, touched, made wet or dry, colored, changed in some way, and at the end of a series of sensory inputs, a new kind of poetic language will emerge. The concepts and insights of the exercises are provocative and often profoundly moving, but loaded with ostentatious nonsense—sitting outside during a storm, a tying red string around my penis, eating only blue food one day, putting a washed penny under my tongue, etc. None of that would be bad, though, if not for the qualitative discrepancies between the exercises and the poems derived from them. The lines themselves appear to radiate naivety; they’re short and the pacing is too quick, and the language and intelligence behind them is so much less interesting than their preceding exercises, it becomes tough to weigh the purposefulness of the exercises. In fact, the exercises are wildly varied, and show a kind of bravery that’s rare and important: then the poems follow and read identically to all the other poems regardless of the exercise from which it emerged. Perhaps that was the point, but the thrill of each exercise and the disappointment of each poem are schizophrenic.
The attention to detail in the (Soma)tic Exercises is impressive: watching Pasolini films in a discarded cardboard refrigerator box; examining Zoe Strauss photos while eating peas; finding objects in a graveyard. Conrad infuses the banality of life with the energy and enthusiasm required for making poems.
A related question of the strengths or weaknesses of this text is not with the writing, but its production: the large format, absent cover art, white text on black pages, handwritten endpapers, and padded length all make for unpleasant reading experiences; the book also includes a long interview with Conrad, and samples of his syllabi for workshops he conducted. These are meant to enhance the poems, but a less is more approach might have been better: rather than leaving me wanting more, I want much less. I say this cautiously because Conrad’s political stance and the ways he positions himself and his art is important and distinctive. Yet I feel that the (Soma)tic Exercises and the poems speak for themselves.
A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon reminds me of two works of art, but neither are books of poetry: Kazuo Ohno’s World From Without and Within (Wesleyan University Press, 2004) and the first Antony and the Johnsons album (Secretly Canadian, 2000). These show related ways of engaging the personal and the political; for example, American hubris in the world, seeking art as a panacea for suffering associated with gender and the body, and using the body as a template to new freedoms of expression via the artists’ chosen materiality of thought: dance (for Ohno), music (for Antony), or language (for Conrad).
The thinking behind the writing in this book is what will draw readers to it. He resists easy classification; he is, like Duke Ellington, beyond category. Either I am too closed-off from using my body as a creative wellspring to new ways to write, or the book’s nonsense cannot be separated from its wisdom. Operatic in scope, yet deeply local and personal, the book works in many ways.
A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon really should be required reading for MFA students, who are frequently anathema to taking imaginative leaps, yet I am unconvinced that lying in an MRI machine, meditating on the healing properties of a stone, or tucking a condom into my sock will help me write better poems. To me, writing is about writing; all the theatrics surrounding poetry has nothing to do with writing and therefore adds nothing to our trade. I found this text to be profound, relentless, frustrating, inspiring, demanding, silly, pompous, elastic, and mind-expanding. That is what poetry is for, and this is for poetry.