In the opening “Indications,” Joyelle McSweeney instructs that “the pieces in this volume were written for performance and should be read aloud—a-LOUD!” She goes on to offer suggestions for how those without a voice might sign or express the poems, tumbling eventually into a prolonged description of the performance process that concludes “How brilliant, how strange you have become. What a current.”
Far beyond reading suggestion, this opening provides an important entrance into the theoretics and aesthetics that drive Percussion Grenade, McSweeney’s third book of poetry in a career that spans genres and modes. The pages that follow are driven hard by the rhythmic and physical qualities of the words, those aspects of the language that become most present when they are enacted through the body. While there are suggestions of narrative or progression of thought, what is more important here is the way that the physicality of the words pushes in every direction, such as in the title poem:
I cause a eutrophied current to glut and push close
what a worrywarm!
I blot it, smile out and sigh I
a-tro-fy in my percussion grenade
and I defy
any pastesayer or ruddy snop to decry
the sanction of my equipage
Drinking toward sobriety, the poems succeed by holding themselves to a firm sense of the words themselves. Like in the work of Harryette Mullen or DA Powell, puns and remixes from other sources (pop culture and literature prime among them) provide a sort of connective tissue while also pointing us to the nearly endless resonances of language. The effect is that we are forced into making our own scaffolding and logic out of the explosion of phrases, the six sequences of the book all with their own recurrences and their own resistances, yet held together by this consistent mode. Beauty is suspect if allowed in, as when “The golden note emerges corrupted from her throat / Opening the wrong celestial door,” and the ability to recognize a story, such as in the “Hannie Oakley” sequence titled “Hanniography,” will only mislead if you expect anything familiar to result.
In this world, the words are not intended as written objects, but as a medium of performance (“a-LOUD”). The act of reading provides an immediate pleasure in the tactile nature of the language, “The trumped-up sludge / Like chum / Pump action.” But it also serves an additional function. The poems are corporeal in the messiest sense, and McSweeney’s images and characters are like grotesque, clowned-up Kenneth Anger films. To read them, in their vomit and pederasty, is to be thrown into the upsetting potential of the language. Familiar words, which we have been lulled into seeing as comfortable, safe tools, become instead objects of ridicule, laughter, raucous disrespect, and disgust, all gloriously so.
This is perhaps most clear in “The Contagious Knives: A Necro Pastoral Farce.” In it, a series of characters with extremely loaded symbolism and cultural histories perform a cruel drama. Louis Braille, “alone in pink panties and pop-star t-shirt from Target,” blinds himself with an awl on the opening page, going on to move through a series of monologues and manipulations with Narcissus, a Swan, and a Fiend. The Swan is tormented by her beauty, declaring that her “dress mocks me / like the dribbling grin of a fool.” The Fiend dips Louis Braille’s face in wax, initiating a debate with the Swan over the boy’s fate (“That beak’s seen so much cock it won’t even close anymore,” the Fiend/Devil declares of the Swan). And an epithalamion brings in characters like Lynndie England and a Wedding Chorus played by the Jack Smith Superstars. The language, of course, stays as frantic as ever:
only infamee’s fetal pulse
picking up in the sonogram, baptism by geiger
only petting zoo organisms
only tetanus and lockjaw
only hymen, hymenaeus, hemorrhage, cold storage,
wound center, the taxi driver’s corpse
under ice, wrapped in plastic, the big gulp, the golden shower
or bridal rice…
As with the rest of Percussion Grenade, the world of “The Contagious Knives” inhabits language and culture by tearing them open, yanking out all the meanings we know and many we hadn’t realized were there. The “percussive” movement makes it near impossible to linger, encouraging you instead to ricochet into the next grotesquerie.
There is an inquiry at the heart of all this. As performance lets us move through language, image, and self, what new social opportunities arise, and what new problems? The first step, maybe, is abandoning all the crap we’ve been dealt in order to celebrate all the other crap, to insist on all the pleasures that other people pretend are not there. When “The cop shoots the piñata with his service revolver,” we watch and maybe join as “The crowd, the crowd / Makes a spasmody / Scrums for candy.” This is not an amoral world, and the question “Is it ok to live inside the percussion grenade” is answered with an ongoing “It’s awesome It’s great It’s OK It’s OK I can OK” that does not at all convince when spoken. The violence we throw on the human body and the shame we expect of one another are all endlessly reflecting in language. McSweeney asks us to inhabit the conflicting edges of that reality, mouthing the power and joy that come with degeneracy. She does not let us read for beauty or lyricism, but makes us active participants, tongue-tied by our own culture. It’s a whirlwind of a book, and it leaves you grateful that the images keep crashing into your walls, never quite settling or letting you acquiesce.