by Douglas Piccinnini
Niina Pollari’s acerbic debut, Dead Horse, lives in the foreclosed present of the American Dream and yet, it is dressed with ancient feelings. For a reader feels the urge of the Latin antiphon, “[i]n the midst of life we are in death” and, is also seduced in the throes of a young Morrisey—shirt half-open—signing “in the midst of life we are in debt, etc.”
Pollari’s complicated ennui faces “the pathless darkness / [d]arkening more.” Suffused in a desire for something—a sign, anything—her speaker presses against the dissonance of the age,
It feels like noise
From headphones, in the air
In my hand, static
We stand still as coins
The apocalypse I feel
Is turning itself up like snow
On a dead channel
This casual, almost trite confession of a lost connection—of a “static” feeling, is familiar. And to look back a century passed in a few lines from Paul Verlaine’s “Apathy,” the affectation’s ageless, universal quality reveals itself.
The lonely soul is heartsick with this dreary
boredom. They say, down there a battle rages.
Ah, if only I weren’t so lack and weary,
if I could bloom a bit in this dull age!
The distorted “noise” and “static” that Pollari’s speaker addresses is a function of what money, or lack thereof can do: time and labor involved in a dollar as a unit of currency is silenced by it’s ability to be uniform—a symbolic object that rich or poor use in the same service. A coin is perhaps the strangest common object people encounter everyday; it is loaded with symbolism. And, while this relationship of money to gold and its promise is silent, the inequality of money is silencing.
The capital in capitalism, “like snow / on a dead channel” is a bleak truth. It begets the unrest caused by the severe financial disparities of late-capitalism.
It is this disconnect that pricks an apocalyptic nerve. Pollari’s poker-faced delivery of lines like “[t]he imported shoreline is washed away each year” embodies the millennial dilemma: the inevitability of a future debt compounding our existing
In “I Owe Money,” debt not only defines, it radiates in the superficially baffling way that ‘No Credit is Bad Credit’ threatens populations into the sudden accretion of crippling financial obligations.
I owe money, a large amount
Tied to my name, and following me around
The hundreds of dollars I relinquish every month
I don’t even miss it
Paying money is part of me
Like my human face
The amoebic debt that sparkles around me
Like a beautiful shirt
Ownership is gathering things
And gathering things is a kind of self-definition
So just like that, I have gathered debt
And so I own money and let it define me
“Ownership” is “self-definition” is owing money. This debt is a type of added value. It offers a sense of worth, “like a beautiful shirt” you buy that maybe you shouldn’t but you do anyway.
The pissed-off feeling braided into this kind of institutionalized spending resides in the promise of potential, the fake it to you make it offering of every borrowed purchase made in promises.
Consider a few lines in exchange between Rocco and Leonora in Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Fidelio,
If we have no money, love cannot comfort bring,
Sadly life drags on, and sorrow follows
But when the coin jingles in the pockets,
Then fate is our prisoner.
Yes, gold brings love and power,
And all our wisher fills.
Happiness is the slave of gold;
Oh what a precious thing is gold!
Nought with nought united, what remains?
At dinner sweet love, and after dinner hunger;
May fate smile upon you and bless your endeavors.
Arm in arm, plenty of money in the purse;
Many a year you thus live.
Yes, happiness is subservient to gold:
oh what a precious thing is gold!
You can easily say so, Mr. Rocco;
Yet in truth now there is something
else which would not be less precious
to me; but I observe with sorrow that
with all my endeavors I cannot attain it.Rocco:
And what is this?
Your confidence […]
The certainty of our lives: life is a debt we pay by dying. We live in this debt as characters that seek the acceptance of our times.
In Francisco Goya’s etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” the epigraph reads, “[f]antasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.” The critic Colta Ives notes, the etching “shows the artist overwhelmed by the torments of his own mind.” Perhaps this is always the case. “Overwhelmed by the torments” of one’s own mind, a fantasy of the future is erotic in it’s potential.
Debt is to desire a certain future though we are never exactly in it. We arrive in a version of our desire, our dream. Pollari’s speaker survives at the crosshairs of time. She writes,
And how an hourglass is wide on both ends
But wide enough in the center for one grain only
That image is my voice
Working in my throat
In the present, at a center that is just “wide enough,” there is the sense of all grains that have yet to pass through the waist of the hourglass and all the grains that already have.
The voice of these poems, like a grain of sand part of a larger beach, is fated to a kind of eternal erosion.
I look at pictures of myself sometimes
And I can see my skeleton
Skull all hard
Around the eyes
Where they sink in a little
These pictures are rare but becoming less so
It’s blue around the eyes sockets
Like a mortal gleam
Pollari’s poems make apparent the baleful rule of existence—if you are alive you will die. Moreover, the inherent drama of your life is that it’s your own and “[t]he death of a body means nothing / [u]nless it’s your own.” Pollari strives at an elusive, perhaps selfish clarity, predicated in an interior knowledge that reflects her speaker’s environment. However, the environment has little to confess. It is opaque. The rules of nature and the rules of living were made by some other agent. The resulting position of Pollari’s speaker becomes one of both suspicion and indifference.
Nature bores me
The way a thing I don’t understand bores me
Like when I looked at an article about plagiarism
Sometimes I just can’t think about something
I can only describe it with words.
Norma Cole writes, “a poem is a made place, a deedless deed that stakes out or constellates ambiguity without laying claim to it, without attempting to master or contain it.” The seemingly wavering intention of a “deedless deed” or a kind of nontransferable gesture is the cultural capital of a poem, a poet. Niina Pollari’s Dead Horse gives a kind of evidence to the human condition—gives audience to the deed of living and the manifold misdeeds we are born into—“etc., etc., etc.”
Dead Horse is available from Birds, LLC.
Douglas Piccinnini was born in New York City in 1982. His writing has appeared in Antioch Review, Diner Journal, Jacket, Lana Turner, NYTimes.com and, The Poetry Project Newsletter—among other publications. He has been awarded residencies by The Vermont Studio Center, Art Farm in Marquette, NE and, The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia. In 2014, he was selected by Dorothea Lasky as a winner of the Summer Literary Seminars. He is the author of the forthcoming novella, Story Book (The Cultural Society) and collection of poems, Blood Oboe (Omnidawn).