When was the last time you played a game of telephone? The concept is easy to abstract: this is how a signal degrades over multiple transmissions. The abstracted version of telephone misses the fun of watching your friends lean conspiratorially towards each other, the anticipation as the message makes its way around to you, the hot breath in your ear, the decisive moment—to faithfully convey what you have heard or willfully contribute to the message’s distortion. Finally, the big reveal and the swells of laughter that usually follow. Why is it so much fun to get it wrong? I think we live in an era and a nation in which zeal for efficiency and clarity (that albatross) have such total sway that we are desperate for play, imaginaftion, Dickinsonian slant truth.
I found all these in Jen Besemer’s Telephone, out 2013 from Brooklyn Arts Press. Here’s a poem in full, which gives an idea of some of Besemer’s concerns and methodologies:
to find wilderness in the scraps of cloth held in
fraying fingers : scarecrow-smiles in parcels of toys
: bird cries in sand hissing fast & soft into a pail : an
open mouth from which pours light like a thousand
greyhounds : territories without maps : borders to be
crossed & kissed : to find whole cities in the erasures
of a manuscript of interrogations : rough magic of
thwarted desire : denial : with pain :: (70)
Here Besemer takes a multivalent view of the signal loss that reads to others as chaos. What is it like to live in the death spiral of empire? Need we sing dirges on the way down? Perhaps instead we could “find wilderness in the scraps.”
What are the scraps? One formal answer is the colons which Besemer uses, like Alice Notley’s quotation marks in The Descent of Alette or Dickinson’s m-dashes, as an idiosyncratic system to arrest the flow of the reader’s eye. However, I believe that there is something more: the colon is the symbol of creation, textual
expansiveness, and particularity. Here I name a thing: there I break it into parts and examples. The colon conditions readers to expect this, part of why I believe Besemer gets away with the truly lavish multitude of embodied data (the word images does not quite do justice to Telephone’s sensory sweep).
Besemer’s poetry conjures the possibility of reintegration with nature and the body—not a romanticized version of either, but one which includes “how we become what we inhabit : how our surroundings become us : the moving negotiation of taking place : the breakdown of language for embodiment” (97). Besemer enacts this blurring throughout Telephone, in juxtapositions anthropic and zooic: “fabric-encircled missiles with shark-fins & claw feet” (78). Besemer engages the somatic as CAConrad has spoken about it; both in the sense of memory as a thing, and in the definition of soma as “to press and be newly born.” Besemer presses the self into the service of play, and as Lynda Barry reminds readers in What It Is, “Playing and fun are not the same thing, though when we grow up we may forget that, and find ourselves mixing up playing with happiness. There can be a kind of amnesia about the seriousness of playing, especially when we played by ourselves” (51). It should be noted that Telephone is broken up into sections entitled “call” and “response”. Besemer takes both parts, not in Pessoan affectation, but in such a way that this structure speaks to the real multiplicity of the self: who rides the bus, who works, who returns home, who texts, who absorbs toxic compounds, who dreams.
While hybridizing the material imagination, Besemer also hybridizes the cultural imaginary’s Grimm archetypes, peppering the text with castles, princes, and a sorcerer’s apprentice, but here the castle is “made of dust,” the prince’s kingdom amounts to “nine sentences,” and, as for the sorcerer’s apprentice:
this time when the music starts the sorcerer’s
apprentice will do nothing : will remain absolutely
still : will ignore his text message alerts & his software
updates & the slightly disturbing crackle when he swallows :
this time there will be no terrible accidents
: nothing to clean up or put right : no workplace
injuries or reports of unsafe conditions : no unpaid
overtime & hostile environment : this time when the
music starts the sorcerer’s apprentice will sit down on
the floor & rest his hands on his knees, just so :: (62)
Moments like these feel like graphs of the tectonic shifts in archetypes due to changes in lived experience, namely the global rise of economic precarity and environmental crisis. However, Besemer is not content to graph the shifts but attempts to reverse engineer them, through dreaming. An “epiphytic dream,” seeming to subsist off of air and rain, presumably because there is so little to nourish our dreaming (56). This is the act of an optimist and there is an optimism here which is neither naive nor cruel, as in Lauren Berlant’s definition. Besemer veers away from other poetic responses to the anthropocene, such as self-serious documentary and somber elegy which do not account for literary pleasure: “an exile into sincerity is your doom” (45). Can dreams be the map? Telephone left me in a mood of apocalyptic hope :
Buy it from Brooklyn Arts Press: $15
Zoe Tuck lives, writes, and reads poetry submissions for HOLD: a journal in Oakland, CA. Her chapbook Terror Matrix is forthcoming in the Spring of 2014 from Timeless, Infinite Light. Recent work can also be found in Textsound and Dusie.