There are worse things than solitude, and the individual condition is much more varied than simply alone or with company. In the Key of Those Who Can No Longer Organize Their Environments puts pressure on the language and ways by which we would make sense of and organize the world we would dominate. The dichotomies do not hold—even such elementary classifications as present and absent, as in words and not-words, the omissions of words. We have not been told the whole truth, we who have inherited the present landscape:
The narrative, Stephanie Anderson suggests, isn’t to be trusted. The language we’ve been given isn’t to be trusted. Sooner or later, “destruction turns up” (30).
In the Key of Those is broken into three parts and follows the development of a historic district in northwest Canada, Assinibioaia, introduced in the first poem, “Through the Long Brown Grass”—a title which immediately places the reader in a landscape suggestive of neglect and a dry barrenness. Some characters reappear throughout the course of the narrative—a mother and a father. However, it is unclear if it is the same mother and father in each instance, if it is the same family history or the history of a shared Everyfamily representative of the district as it has progressed from its pioneer days, if indeed progress is the right word. Identities are not fixed in these poems. They are “fictitious settlers” (7). But the fiction is incomplete.
This incompleteness is reflected in the fragmented syntax and forms of Anderson’s poems. In some poems, such as “Rust Is a Fungus,” the wholes become visible:
In such poems as these, essential parts of the original narrative are so obscured, it is impossible to determine with any real certainty what it was the speaker was charged not to forget, what it was the receiver of this poem was told, or if the message was ever transmitted.
In other poems, the syntax simply deteriorates. The language of history becomes inadequate, but that is what we have to work with—that is what Anderson has to work with. It is not until the end that the reader learns, through Anderson’s notes, that these poems are collaged compositions, drawing primarily from three historic texts (including an unpublished manuscript of a first-person account), as well as a variety of psychiatry, psychotherapy, and geography journals, as well as an entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia.
There is a clear divide, a distancing, between the speaker of these poems and the original founders of the language tradition in which the speaker participates:
The speaker of these poems is not part of this clan. Nonetheless, she is forced to use the language of the clan, determined and subjectively imposed as it is, in order to revise the narrative as she sees necessary to draw nearer to the truth, for want of any other language available to her, or that her audience might understand.
This inability to organize our environment is nothing new. It has always been an illusion. None of us have ever been able. But there is value in the illusion, and in the persistent attempt to re-vision the illusion, each of us
In the Key of Those is a poetics of witness. It calls the reader to participate in this “perpetual human task,” to persevere and toil on in pursuit of a fully and sincerely human experience. It calls the reader to actively participate in their own narrative, to be accountable to that narrative and the environment it creates:
Most important, in this book Anderson raises questions. She challenges her readers to actively engage in dialogue with their neighbors, however far removed, “To infuse a spirit of many determination // In this age of progress” (42). The title of the work alone challenges all notions of certainty: In the Key of Those Who Can No Longer Organize Their Environments. Why can’t they organize their environments? Because of their own shortcomings, or some external force that is preventing them? Who is left who can organize their environments? Could anyone ever really do such a thing, or were such attempts mere illusions? Organized according to whose system? What kinds of environments? Natural or manmade?
What is at stake in the process of rewriting this narrative of progress? Why should we persevere under “burdens purely an arrangement” (51)? Because before the narrative as we know it was determined, as Anderson writes, “I had not learned to look for impossibilities” (18). It is our own pure potential that is at stake if we accept the world as it has been dictated by our history without persevering in our own pursuit of greatness:
In the Key of Those Who Can No Longer Organize Their Environments is available through SPD
Abigail Kerstetter is a poetry MFA candidate at Colorado State University and an editorial assistant for Colorado Review.