by: Alina Stefanescu
Futurepanic by Amish Trivedi. Co*Im*Press, 2021. 107 pages. USD $19.95.
White Bull by Elizabeth Hughey. Sarabande Books, 2022. 77 pages. $15.95
If a sinking ship goes on sinking for months and months, humans on board begin to adapt.
They get used to it; they modify their actions to fit the normalized context. But do they change their principles? Can humans actually adapt without radically re-imagining and revising their weltanschauung or worldviews? Are we doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past and the present? Living during the normalization of pandemic death and climate change is not equivalent to living with it. And that’s exactly what we’re doing now: we live in the now, but not quite with it. Linear progress is blurred by chronology, and this shapes our relationship to futurity. We can’t inhabit the warning signs. The alarms. The sirens. Poets Amish Trivedi and Elizabeth Hughey bring this sense of disheveled, discontinuous time into their most recent collections, FuturePanic and White Bull.
What if you woke up one morning and knew humanity was finished—or trapped in a nightmare of its own creation with an ending so visible that it verges on banality? Amish Trivedi poses in FuturePanic. He pleads. He pleads louder. Finally he strings his lyre with despair and sings into the void. There are echoes of echoes.
Using repetition as a formal strategy to create a lyrical phenomenology of mental breakdown, Trivedi's sense of futurity—the unwritten time, the blank—looms over the poems. Anxiety is the fulcrum and the engine that builds throughout the book. The lyric mode addresses the reader directly across five sections, where individual poems meander across the pages, untitled; each section embodies the poet's ontological mood.
In a virtual reading, Trivedi described anxiety as a gradual accumulation, a loudness growing louder. Having never dealt with this edge of anxiety, Trivedi explored it, looking for endings and beginnings. In the first section of Futurepanic, "Automata," the poet focuses on art, which he defines as, "a kind of engagement / with the future, depleting resources // so it can replicate itself" (4). A sense of futility inhabits certain images, as, for example, when the grenade "pin seduces," and the urge to destroy seems inseparable from the drive to create.
“Fault is a hyperawareness / of one's disease” (20) and so blame is the specificity, the part anxiety selects. Trivedi’s time is ruined by its passing—by the borders and lines that enforce what he calls a “patriarchal” world. "I’m not worried about my future," the poet says, "there’s a hard limit to it," which is to say, the world will end. But the fatalism of future catastrophe fails to soothe Trivedi. Things keep happening.
A sense of "urgency” enters the book with the rubbing of an old wound which the poet refuses to elucidate—but which seems to relate to this particular wavering of the "you":
There was time and time enough.
To trade places with your body on the side of that road
for you to be here instead of me
to trade in for the corpse you became
for the spectre I am,
haunting the spaces where we used to go. (7)
The plural pronouns feel detached from particulars, shifting back and forth from fellow artists to humankind to unnamed intimates. From the specter of a self, Trivedi shifts into
“Constructor,” which begins by promising we will be forgotten. The word "oppression" appears frequently, whether in the context of genetics, history, responsibility, or patriarchy—oppression is an echo that colors the scars, an abstraction.
is present panic: future children
will witness our present lines. (30)
The internet is our immortality; every Tweet or lamentable “like” preserved for posterity to judge. Since the poems and stanzaic patterns are structured by breath, the lycial aphorisms enact the anxiety of repetition, turning a word forward and back on itself.
"The future is a panic that oppresses by looming from behind" (40), Trivedi writes in "Unreality." And the fatalism involves learned helplessness, becoming part of the cycle, the apparatus of back rubs in the academic community, a vague "spoils system" which Trivedi invokes.
The power we want is also the power we critique, he suggests in different ways—as in "Spree," when he admits: "In my sexual fantasies, I'm a capitalist" (84). The visual locus shifts with a right-aligned stanza:
If I am vague it is so that no one
can bury me in my words. No one can tie
my language around my ankles
and drown me. (79)
The speaker fears being seen or known as much as he fears the world that destroys others. I can't help seeing Trivedi's formal decision to leave proper names and persons out of the manuscript in relation to this. The unspecified wound stays private, but the anxiety is public—the anxiety is the poem's terrain.
Trivedi’s phenomenology of the future is located in fear, but it includes parallax, building a “diaspora of time," an identification of self through temporality. The aphoristic statements are textured by timelessness—one could imagine them in any fin de siecle, in any urgency. Trivedi keeps turning back to lift time, to hold it, define it, apply theory in a way that makes it knowable. “Time is terrorism, unstoppable, exiled,” or time is a thing that creates social conditions; the speaker calls himself "a refugee of time "(8).
Trivedi's tone at the close is one of acceptance, of existence within this centerless, unmoored chaos. “To deconstruct is to lose a center"(80): this italicized quotation from Jacques Derrida appears mid-page (acknowledged in the paratext as a misquotation of Derrida).
The particle accelerator of Trivedi’s anxiety kept me spinning, swirling, feeling as if chunks of unspeakable possibility were breaking off, particularly when he rubbed the risk “that some abyss” becomes the new normal, or when he walked to the edge:
There is a future
that is not for me and a present
that goes right up to it. (73)
“The revolution is always easy,” the poet reminds us, since we are seduced by the destruction of the old and less interested in imagining the idyll to come (78). “The boredom to preserve is greater than the desire to destroy”; the price of not-saying is an endless ticking, the quiet grenade.
Several poems despair of divisions created by consumerism, or the growing market for displays of virtue. There is no god outside the market, Trivedi suggests, and I wonder if a Nouveau Piety has filled in the gap with virtue signals. How does the development and polishing of our individual brands foreground the personal while ignoring the structures which actually constrain us? One hears, again, this interesting terrain between the 19th century and the present, between religious performance of virtue and secular virtue signals, when Trivedi says, “Piety is not a source of knowledge” (21). Piety is the performance of access to knowledge, of being one who knows.
Elizabeth Hughey enters this fraught space of virtue signals and piety politics. What came is still coming, she reminds us in her new collection, White Bull, which won the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, judged by Alberto Rios. Hughey meets time in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, in the shadow of Bull Connor, a politician who served as Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Since white flight carved off its wealthy suburbs, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Homewood, Birmingham lives in the shadows of unspeakable silences.
Connor's words—clouds which hang over Birmingham's head—are taken out of linear time (or acknowledged in their present tense as a presence) and carved to reflect these changes. He was the face of official white supremacy, the bullhorn of silent Southerners whose racism was cloaked in concern for public safety and order.
Hughey addresses Connor's legacy in Alabama by taking his words out of time, or out of the solid, fixed history, and bringing them into a deconstructed present. In "The Papers of Bull Connor," Hughey reveals that she is using papers and speeches as the source for all words in these poems:
When I ask your words
what they did, they'll say nothing.
They can't remember
how they were used. They can be
grooms for everyone to marry, again. (2)
The interlocutor is the language, itself, or the speech act. Words are the inheritance, the soil in which things grow, as in "The Belongings":
We have to work
with what has been
handed down to us.
We eat off the words
our grandfathers said.
We sleep in them.
We set our drinks
down upon them. (5)
Hughey alternates between addressing Connor's words in the first-person, and addressing posterity from inside a plural pronoun, a defensive "We" that explains or justifies white silence. Back and forth, again and again, these poems tack between voices. "With your letters / I make a riverbank" the speaker says to Bull, in "Bull Becomes A Leaf" (23). The power of words to create landscape is a theme that Hughey returns to as both a formal strategy and a theme.
"A belle dress complains forever / on the back row of every photo" Hughey narrates in "Peachtree Circle," but "The ink remembers the list / that girls had to be born onto" (62). The legacy of Southern cotillions and privilege is invoked, and one gets the sense that a bewildered innocence is the latest ball gown for many former Southern debutantes. How many refused to continue the tradition of representing the plantation belle? How many had the courage to reject their inherited status and splendor? (I didn't know a single one who said no.)
Tearing open traditional constructions of Southern femininity at the level of language, Hughey also approaches motherhood with a carving knife, indicting herself as well as her inheritance. "White Inks" spotlights the white residents of Birmingham by letting them plead their excuses, by retelling local history in a choral voice of things "We" did, an inventory gathered from the words of the Bull.
The word "white" is used again and again as a modifier for objects, emotions, and silences—and I keep thinking of the euphemism white lie and its relationship to harm. White is so heavy here—white keeps getting thicker, hulkier, more leaden. White is the heaviest color—the one we assume, the backdrop of Birmingham's state-sponsored crimes.
Taking Bull Connor's words as the soil, Hughey becomes the one who sees ghosts. Her refusal to let the dead lie buried evokes the hauntology of Southern life, but it also seeks a reparative future that acknowledges, and disempowers, the old. To the extent that virtue signals dominate our reading of texts, one could read Hughey in this light—and one could suggest that invoking the legacy of white supremacy in the words of Bull Connor makes him relevant again. But this view presumes that Connor's legacy is dead.
"I have my dead, and I have let them go," Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his "Requiem for a Friend," while preparing to speak to the ghost who seems quiet, or those who cannot speak for themselves. The leisure suit of fatalism assures us that what is gone is finished. But panic is not a separate world, Trivdei insists; panic is also the private world of violence we choose in our lifestyles, our aesthetic preferences, our personal lives.
Both Trivedi and Hughey acknowledge a sort of mechanistic fatalism in the world around them—and both reject this fatalism by engaging the inappropriate thing, namely, anxiety (Trivedi) and the inheritance (Hughey). Trivedi's personal consciousness constructs the world of these poems—and his head becomes the cosmos. Hughey's consciousness is the silenced inheritance as it plays out in her family, her flesh, and local history, the site of conflict.
"And in time there is no forgiveness," quotes Trivedi in a lyric from J. Mascis on the epigraph page. In time as we know it, poets create new forms of time to reckon with despair, history, and complicity. Both of these books ravage time in spectacular, disturbing ways.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020). Her poetry collection, dor, won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize and is forthcoming in July 2021. Alina's writing can be found in diverse journals, including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, Virga, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes, Poetry Editor for Random Sample Review, Poetry Reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Co-Director of PEN America's Birmingham Chapter. She was nominated for 5 Pushcart Prizes by various journals in 2019. A finalist for the 2019 Kurt Brown AWP Prize, Alina won the 2019 River Heron Poetry Prize. She still can't believe (or deserve) any of this. More online atwww.alinastefanescuwriter.com.