By Sally McCallum
This book begins with a self assessment. “Already we need / hay to fill / our effigies.” Already: even at its incipient moment, what constitutes of self-thing is called in to question. And even as the self grows, it recalls the ruins of what came before:
in it & leave
it to leaven.
It will rise like
after the house.
When I was asked to review this book, I had some doubts. It is entitled The Constitution, so I thought, oh, the USA. And I have recently developed an allergic reaction to writing that takes up the task of examining national identity, really any national identity, but writing that deals with American national identity in particular – I’ve lately just been really cranky about it (I was living abroad). It seems to me such dialogs must necessarily write too many people out. For nearly any sort of person, of any sort of history, has had grounds to be defined as fundamentally American, at some point. And then saying, that very fact is what is defines America, seems too facile to me. Can’t we stop asking what is really American, I have been saying to myself.
As it turns out, this book was more or less what I needed to read. Because it’s not specifically about a nation, this nation – if you want it to be, sure, it could be, but well, only sort of – and because the task of examining any sort of identity is bound to leave us a bit desperate, a bit winded, but also exhilarated, maybe and if not hopeful than energetic.
One of the book’s epigraphs, from Ezra Pound, reads : To say many things is equal to having a home.
And this book does say many things. Broken down in to four sections, and punctuated by amendments, The Constitution is a book best read aloud to oneself precisely because it is difficult to read aloud, because the “scrib/bled” verse defies your assumptions about standard syntax and common locutions, such that as you try to pronounce these poems you’ll constantly have to amend your speech. These poems and their titles shelter jokes, bets and challenges; you’ll learn to expect to be surprised by endings to poems like “Moon Above the Law”:
like the moon
only once in
Don’t take anything for granted, not your right to a complete and conventional utterance, nor the fact that you may mold who you are, not the choice to consume what you choose, be it food or text:
talks about the weather but you
know we can’t choose our food
but we can eat
What is the sublimely rare and enormous antecedent that escapes these poems? I do not know, and neither, I think, does the book:
It is difficult
to value what cannot
Which sets me thinking about, sorry, America again, since value is supposedly a national keyword (though, seriously, try not to think too much about America as you read. Or ever. Think precisely about what is in front of you). What is it with us and the incessant desire to define ourselves, as a people? Do all nations do that? Do even that many Americans do that, or is the interest of only a certain sort? How can I know? And how can I know whether any American identity, which you know I’m contending doesn’t exist, how can I know whether that non-existent American identity has any bearing on me, on my self, on my constitution? And why do I need to know? The Constitution tells me that “a need / is no evidence / of absence” – so perhaps then, I do know – perhaps the knowing of the self and the not-knowing are here, bound.
Have fun if you fumble over these brief lyrics. Our speaker’s voice is at times critical, at times funny and always arresting in its minimalist grace. Ask yourself as you read whether you are where you think you are. The book itself does ask this, and periodically presents “Amendments” that retrace the steps that brought us here from that strange lone chimney where we began; that question what how we continue to draw breath here:
I am under an impression
I stay alive
as the air is
The presence of these amendments bids us to “stomach / the mistake of creation // provoked by the presence / of revision”.
And so as I say, perhaps this was the book I needed, for if I’m sick of hearing & attempting to generate and revise definitions of my own identity, then what I needed or what I wanted was to be reminded that the incessant return to the question, the incessant interrogation of identity and revision of the plan, was always already part of the self itself. I suppose. And you know? That was a poor sentence, but I am not going to rewrite it.
Already I’m filling my effigy with hay. All this speaking and writing and stuffing of tissue into shape has led us somewhere, maybe home. Here is a voice that animates uncertainty: that founds a script that writes on no thing and nothing out.
The Constitution is available from Black Ocean
Sally McCallum lives in Tucson and studies at the University of Arizona. Reading this book prompted her to revisit her roots by re-watching this, and she’s really not sure whether that was a good idea, but it was at least, strange.