It’s 1990. I’ve shut the door to my bedroom, like any self-respecting teenage girl, to listen to my new CD—the one I ordered for a penny from one of those promotional if-you-sign-up-we’ll-give-you-the-world catalogs. While my classmates are listening to Mariah Carey, Bon Jovi, Janet Jackson, and New Kids on the Block, I’m crushing on the bald Irishwoman with the most incredible eyes. I unwrap Sinéad O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, on the cover a close-up of her ethereal face. Track 5 is “Black Boys on Mopeds,” a call to action. Sinéad sings, “These are dangerous days / to say what you mean is to dig your own grave,” and I’m hooked.
It’s 2012. Sinéad’s new album just came out on the heels of a suicide attempt her own tweeted pleas for a husband. We can look at Sinéad O’Connor’s public persona today and see that those lines from her second album were portentous: her meanings have morphed so much and so publicly that they nearly ruined her. From singer to activist to off-shoot-Catholic priest to lesbian back to straight woman to Rastafarian—’s persona lugs behind it the burden of human expectation. We don’t trust change—particularly not the jarring and unmitigated kind.
It’s precisely this notion of de-centering the reader that Neil De la Flor and Maureen Seaton explore in Sinéad O’Connor and Her Coat of a Thousand Bluebirds. Those lyrics of Sinéad’s about saying what you mean work as a thesis statement for a book struggling against meaning as a fixed organism.
We trust a voice that fixes itself in space, yet these authors don’t want our trust. De la Flor and Seaton write of the book, “It’s about our personal interior landscapes that fracture and wind around each other like a tornado winds around the wind. The book is about weathermen and pink-eyed women. And thermospheres. We have no idea what this book about.” Sinéad is not really about a thing, certainly not about its title character in a biographical sense, except that’s about our idea of a thing. Our idea of order—how appropriate that the book’s backdrop is South Florida—land of Stevens’ Key West, of hurricanes and oceanic swells that master the land as quick as a blink.
To pin a narrative netting on this book would be to grasp ephemerality, in the wind of storms and fleeting voices. It’s a book birthed in a Florida storm, characterized by a recursive birth, in which sound and space figure prominently. It’s a book that likes good banter; I can tell the authors had a lot of fun playing off of each other’s energy, but for my money, Sinéad’s shorter poems are these authors’ true accomplishments, where their collaborations really shine and meld into a cohesive voice and where form tethers banter.
In a poem that takes its name from Hurricane Floyd, “Floyd,” uses the language of estrogen, orgasm, and shipwrecks to suspend its speaker between two worlds:
But I’ve hammered so many boards onto the eyes of houses
that, blind, I am left poking a top/bottom with my finger
and pinky toe. Imagine modulating substances in the bodies
of ostriches. Estrogens, like adrenalin and firewood, create
the best shipwrecks. I can’t guarantee you won’t die in one,
but someone may find you naked and give you a hat.
That the speaker can’t guarantee how we’ll die pulls into focus the circus of hammering and ostriches and estrogens. It’s precisely because our lives are three-ringed storms that there are no guarantees. Yet the poem itself provides an anchor of couplets around which the winds of language and imagination swirl.
Sinéad is, perhaps like its real-life counterpart, a morphing of the shadows of Jerry Seinfeld and David Byrne, Sally Field and Bette Davis. There’s Queen Latifah, Patti Labelle, Doris Day, Winnie the Pooh, Coriolis, and a host of first names that mean nothing to me but figure into the book’s hurricane winds.
While there are plenty of men in the book, the she-ladies hold court. For instance, in “The Bette Davis Mosh,” the mosh pit, an arguably masculine organism turns into the face of a feminine silver-screen legend where “Everything flies by. Everything feels like a boulder on the cheek.Alignment and spacing are frivolous.” By feminizing violence, the poem questions the hierarchies of language and the rules of the poetic line. Breaking lines, the authors seem to say, is like seeing the face of Bette Davis in the mad catastrophe of angry elbow throwing.
“The Boat with a Boy’s Heart” is a poem in which a lost boy (not yet a man or a meaning) stars alongside his own morphing heart. It’s a beautiful poem, full of weird imagery that enhances the poem’s emotional resonance. In the lines below, the boy is the wind’s ragdoll, and the reader a witness to the wind’s cautionary tale:
He was a small boy—lighter than a shrimp boat,
slighter than the lip of a lungfish
He was lost without his carousel, mermaid, gazelle, amoeba
all huddled and muddled as if thrown from miles
in a hurricane, a loose wind the color of oysters Rockefeller—
he and his glowing ribcage, his placable heart.
He swept the last strands of the wind to the wind and the wind
said to him:Avoid symmetry, be brave as a jib.
I like what De la Flor and Seaton have going on with spacing here and in “The Bette Davis Mosh” (cheek.Alignment) as commentaries on arbitrary notions of space. When people live in a tract housing development, for instance, they feel a sense of constructed safety until a storm comes and washes them away. That configuration of space is no longer a barrier to fear. Same goes for the space after punctuation. It’s jarring when that space is erased. (Here’s to these anomalies being intentional!)
The tiny poems in the middle of the book making up “from Archaeologia” are some of my favorites as little oracular-koans. “The Archeology of Doris Day” disassembles the All-American girl in its first couplet. She’s a clown made to dance in the rain. The poets turn on a dime, then, and the second couplet gives us phallic sex between a ponderosa pine and God. The reader’s left to make her own sense of the juxtaposition. Is the masculinization of God as silly as the notion of an All-American girl?
Each day the girl in the clown suit
Two-steps to inclement weather:
The ponderosa pine, it is said, is the only tree
That has ever had sex with God.
“The Archeology of War” is poem with enough guttural g’s to set you on edge, to contemplate grief, even amidst the guiding light of a guerrilla’s glowstick. Again, the authors are deconstructing our ideas about the world this time through the idea of productivity, as nonsensical a construction as a rebel telegraphing his position with a rave toy:
If there are two men producing nothing,
It is guaranteed one
Will eventually die of grief.
Every guerrilla has a glowstick
To guide us in the night.
I didn’t love the book’s longer pieces precisely because their lines didn’t add up like the shorter ones did. They felt too rambling, distant, and loose. But they serve a purpose. Sinéad’s longer, unlineated pieces serve a similar purpose of pulling the reader in, pushing her away, pulling her in, pushing her away through a sometimes welcoming, sometimes in-clubby banter in a tide cycle of language. The title poem, one of the strongest longer pieces, fixes meaning as continual metamorphosis:
That’s when I found Sinéad O’Connor, singing, when blue birds flew out of her mouth.
Her coat was a thousand bluebirds coming to life and flying away like pieces of transformed sexual abuse.
And the crowd was pointing fingers at her coat, her blue tongue of feathers.
Such an intelligent bird, I thought, and all the cats inside me whispered: mouse.
From singer to bird, bluebird coat to blue tongue made of feathers, it’s impossible to pin this character down; it’s impossible to know if she’s the creator or a victim of creation. In this way, through the book’s hurricanes and shipwrecks, morphing characters and flights of fancy, we experience the language as mis/understanding, dis/satisfaction, and re/occurrence.