by Ariana Reines
Fence Books, 2011
Ariana Reines’ poetry puts the heart where the mouth is. By moving the beating organ to the place where the rest of us have been told to put our money, Reines reminds us that the taste of currency is akin to the taste of blood. And Mercury, with its silver, reflective cover, is determined to maintain this electric-bodily connection: between the profit and the laborer, the consumer and the soul, the reader and the poem, and the writer and the word/world.
The book, broken into five contexts, which can be read autonomously or in series, is a tribute to alchemy and the universal solvent, to the metaphorical transmutation of the person into enlightened being (gold) and the literal belief that the transmutation of a substance into gold could be the cure to all diseases. Though that she is often regarded (and sometimes disregarded) by critics as an author of the “gurlesque” genre, Ariana’s work in Mercury reveals the spiritual, political, and most importantly, the experimental underpinnings of her craft. That she manages this reveal while still titling the third of the five books, “When I Looked At Your Cock My Imagination Died,” is a feat few writers could pull off, not to mention that she is able to do it humorously: “All my tears are dry/ I look at a Glenn Beck book/ I look at the adipose sky/ I forget how to write poetry” (“Gold” 127).
When read for its alchemical core, Mercury is engaged in an exploration of property, both public and private, as the book beautifully manipulates this common politic into an extended metaphor of substance and essence. And it is precisely the distinction between these terms that provides a point of access into the book. The essence is occult, the substance its distinct containment; in other words, the essence is “hidden by wrappings of specific properties which prevent the ordinary man from recognizing it.” This belief can also be considered through Plato: the object that is seen (the substance) mimics the universal Form, becoming just a shadow of its essence rather than the real thing, which cannot be perceived directly. It is Ariana’s task in Mercury to disclose these wrappings in order to draw out the soul from the body’s distinguishing qualities.
Like copper transmuted into gold via chemical process, Reines’ verse uses the act of writing to expose the essential spirit and to demonstrate that our likeness is found in Stevens’ dump, in The Wasteland’s ‘heap of broken images’, just as it is found in God. In this way, Mercury is reminiscent of The Cow, the author’s debut that led to her cult-like poetic fandom. The Cow, a book-length poem investigating the meat industry’s effects on the psyche and on the bodies of man and animal, has on its cover a photograph of a stack of cow carcasses. Out of this pile of death and disease, Ariana filters the desperate voice of the “I” as it tries to make sense of the horrors it’s wading through.
This notion of the “I” as consequent feeling, of the “I” as oppressed and therefore taking opportunity to speak, of the “I” as a reaction of the spirit to a specific atmosphere, is also the driving theme of the author’s recently re-published Couer de Lion (Fence Books, 2011). Couer de Lion differs from Mercury in its scope; it is a book-length series of untitled poems unabashedly directed at an ex, and reads more like a summertime bestseller in its quick pacing. But, because the book was in part written as an experiment to try and preserve the unbarred emotions of the author in the moment through an extraordinarily fast composition and publication process, Couer de Lion is the perfect set-up for Mercury’s enactment: within-in its pages, the emotion and the word, the substance and the essence, become one. Indeed, it this same breathing, volatile verse that infects the reader from the pages of Mercury and from which springs an element in need of metamorphosis.
Mecury’s five contexts are arranged as follows: Leaves, Save the World, When I Looked At Your Cock My Imagination Died, Mercury, and 0. Additionally, the author’s note, the table of contents, and each book section are pre-cursed by an alchemical symbol chosen, and in some cases designed, by the author. The book opens, fittingly, with the symbol for liquid mercury —the writer as alchemist’s most necessary substance. Before the table of contents is an alchemical heart, an emblem for vitriol, a destructive agent and native sulphate of metal, which prepares the reader to enter the book in a state ready for transmutation. From there on, the symbols in turn represent alternative or dual titles for the book’s five pieces: wood, sulfur pellets, nitric acid, the symbol for the process “to rot” (read also: to wrought), bismuth, and amalgamation. The book concludes with the star or essence symbol, signaling the success of the procedure.
In addition to the alchemical symbols, Mercury contains multiple other layers of meaning, which add to the complexity of extraction: childhood photographs of the author and her family are interspersed in the book 0; a fan’s unsolicited, pornographic e-mail sets flight to an epistolary moment that begins the book’s third context, and an array of ‘high-brow’ and ‘low-brow’ allusions free-range across the Mercury’s pages. The composition of the line is also diverse, as the verse makes a Cagean use of white space and silence.
Leaves opens the book with the poem “Aria”, which again situates the reader as substance, while also inviting the reader into the intimacy of the forthcoming experience through wordplay: “It keeps me empty/Just empty enough/ For you to enter me” (1). This section of Mercury comprises the first 52 pages of the book, and is constructed of titled poems that introduce the reader to Ariana’s body&soul poetics while simultaneously poking at popular culture.
In contrast, Save the World is a series of contiguous, untitled poems that take on the terror of the megaplex: the home of multiple theatres (many wrappings) and to the author, the place where “Anything can pass before the eyes of the person” (96). This series is perhaps the most striking narrative of the book, as it confronts capitalism and consumer culture with a searing and yet sincere eye. The book is part damning the nation, part damning the self, and therefore the tone does not register as didactic or un-empathic but rather as torn and in despair with itself:
“I belong/ to this/It’s built/ I am alive/ I must be fed/ If not today then tomorrow/ It is structures/ I am allowed to move through… And yes/at intervals I have to pay money/And I do/ I do pay it/ I pay/ I do pay/ I do and I get”
Reines’ focus on the megaplex and its nationalist gore-shows is also a commentary on our perverse understanding of movies as “the essence of life” (83) despite that their form is immutable, non-effusive, and utterly distinct. As she repeats in Save the World for two pages: “unless you are in the movie you are not in the movie” (115-116).
If there were one section of the book that could actually be classified as an adult film, it would be When I Looked At Your Cock My Imagination Died. Perhaps that is why it is accompanied by the alchemical symbol for nitric acid. But this context should not be to skipped over, as this gorgeous string of poems explores the affected interiority and the fragile spirit of the speaker, in spite of the section’s full-frontal beginning. In her sharp turning of the camera from female as object and whore, to female as natural and pure, Reines reminds us that whether we like it or not, these are the two roles that women have been projected into—in myth, in art, and in real life. In “Ranier Werner Fassbinder”, for instance, the speaker states her desire “to become the ally of cultural critics who at certain periods of the night too become romantic“ but then realizes that the only way to do this would be to diminish her womanhood, to filter herself through the wrong sieve:
“To attain the truth they point to
I have no choice but to pass through
And agree to them, their canniness
And history, its limits, and the obsessions
(which are not mine) legitimated by them
for having passed.”
Mercury is a book of passion that is filled with a unique magic. Though Reines’ work is hard to contextualize in the world of academic poetry, her aesthetic has been compared to Picasso (by Kevin Killian), Schwerner (by Mike McDonough), and her fellow Fencer Catherine Wagner, with whom she shares an intelligent, bawdy sense of womanhood. Whatever her artistic lineage may be, in Mercury Ariana Reines brews a deft poetic voice that creates for itself an elixir of life, and a way to write poetry “that is not made of words” (103).
Muir, M M. P. The Story of Alchemy and the Beginnings of Chemistry. New York: D. Appleton and Co, 1903. Print. p. 65.