“Stingray Clapping” by Andrew Choate

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Perhaps what is most thrilling about Stingray Clapping, Andrew Choate’s enigmatic collection of tonal, non-sequitur phrases, is that the book compels the reader to imagine the amoral absurdities of phrases not (yet) part of the cultural lexicon. In it, aphorisms exile its reader from virtue. Lists categorize randomness. Idioms, at best, address a parallel world seemingly drawn from suburban, middle class sympathies. It is a lithe chapbook that guides the reader toward a space that precedes understanding through convention, toward the transmutation of facts at the level of the utterance.

Mostly, it is hilarious. Each phrase reads like a malapropism, one so confidently dispensed it seems already a part of everyday use. The familiarity is eerily gripping. Particularly in how one can completely understand something that makes no sense.

Maybe the book’s phrases such as “conscious credit” or “witness biscuit” will never come into popular, idiomatic use. But too, these bemusing provocations, substantiated through alliteration and assorted rhyme schemes, amount to something greater than fanciful lyricism and arbitrary juxtapositions.

Its jocular apothegms attenuate their own authority, always in favor of something more spirited and less dogmatic. It leads to the regard of the phrase as a morphing structure rather than as an emblem of cultural literacy. Phrases, by their nature, are condensed sequences of words that subsume the individual words into a sing-song patter. This makes the sequence itself the principle unit of meaning. However, by dividing the structure of the phrase into smaller units still, Choate, often through a measure of indexical play,

insert prince here,

for example, or through any combination of sonic, syllabic, or morphemic deconstructions,

a fact / uh fact / hoof act / aif act / aphid / ape fthwack

enables the words to take a new precedence within the confines of the phrase. The words are not part of a conceptual unit, rather, the concept lies within their new assignation. Semiotic shifts redefine the integrity of the unit, rerouting the concept and where it situates itself. Every time the result is surprising.

For all the convivial air and idiosyncratic play enlivening the book, a real quizzical brevity surrounds each poem, which I have termed phrases thus far but are really poems. Perhaps this is because the words resonate visually, as though they were ideograms – conceptual objects in space, here, whose dynamic action relies on their hypotactic collocation rather than on the imposition of verbs:

jersey kitten


gag order

Space is sometimes illusory. The reader will even fill in blanks that are occupied, perceiving space where space is filled. As in:

the phrase ‘your last name’

That space and spatiality (emptiness to some) can enable so much meaning is part of what makes this book so impacting, but also pleasurable and light. It intones a sort of reversed anoesis. Where anoesis is a mode of perception that is without thought and thus nearly impossible to articulate through language – a supposed illness, in fact – Choate’s phrases are concise arrangements of words that do not bring themselves into singular clarity, but rather, incite innumerable combinations of meaning. Language is the locus for cross-wired sensation, as in the phrase, “bathroom shoulders”, which is impossible – and more importantly, pointless – to understand definitively. The key is taking emptiness as a sign, a pause that invites possibility.

What may be most rewarding about Stingray Clapping is how clearly the undefined communicates and how often the concretely defined shifts in meaning. That is to say, there were moments while reading this book that I felt irremediably without grounding. Nothing external to the self, not culture, not even Google, could bring me close to a satisfying understanding of what these phrases really meant, or what I thought they meant. Perhaps that is because the creativity of the mind can synthesize the vast plurality of linguistic meaning in a comprehensive manner, and do so without limit, generating its own vastness, helplessly. So I figure the book, which represents an unknown, what is not-yet-agreed-upon, might aid to instill responsibility for what is in the world, that is, in the imagination – or, alternately, in the agreements we make with others regarding what anything will mean.

Nancy Fumero (fffumero.net) lives in Los Angeles. More from this author →