(This is part of a series of reviews on titles from Belladonna*’s chaplet series, many of which are now available as free PDFs)
by Connor Fisher
Susan Briante’s chaplet, Neotropics: A Romance in Field Notes, is the 52nd publication in Belladonna’s series of small chapbooks. The chaplet is dense in its form, the intensity of its language, and the registers and types of language which Briante has combined. Neotropics, as its title suggests, concerns itself with a renegotiation of natural space in its intersection with human agents. Briante’s narratives place the reader in a humid atmosphere that is oppressive in a variety of ways, yet every poem and prose block demonstrates Briante’s creative dexterity, as she layers meanings and significations in minimal space. The only geographical location mentioned in the text is Galang Island (located at the southern tip of Malaysia), but page titles, as well as text throughout, indicate that the location is essential to Neotropics. Pages titled “3rd Day Of The Rainy Season,” “5th Day Of The Rainy Season,” “7th Day…” and “12th Day…” are interspersed with five pages titled “Eventual Darling” (no other titles are used). Formally, the work is largely consistent; Neotropics begins with a prose page (four paragraphs) followed by pages of lineated poetry, several of which comprise lines broken up into small stanzas or couplets.
The mentioned juxtaposition is indicative of the general form of Neotropics, as well as its overall argument. Briante plays the bricoleur in her poems, drawing language and concepts from political and feminist discourse, botany and general natural description, erotic meditation, and psychoanalytic pseudo-insights by early 20th-Century analyst André Tridon. In “7th Day Of The Rainy Season,” Briante writes,
A stem’s placability should not be mistaken for delicateness.
“Breathe deep,” the doctor told me and slid his stethoscope like a
coin over my chest
A seat by window suffices to stitch the world together.
I consider the number of heartbeats per minute within this pasture
Exaggerated mania for identification, writes André Tridon, is a
symptom of weakness (8).
Earlier in the composition, Briante engages more directly with nature, and uses natural objects to construct an ontology and a grammar, which the rest of the chaplet both occupies and troubles. In “7th Day Of The Rainy Season”
Mist treads down the mountain roof by roof to rest beside me.
White-tongued bougainvillea embrace a fishtail palm.
Romance plays no part.
Cuts of raw beef fill flatbeds hurling up the hill.
I sit with my legs closed, a single woman edging a plaza in Taxco (4).
Neotropics combines a natural environment—at one beautiful and threatening—with a politically oppressive atmosphere and a gendered, feminine space that is at once elevated and threatened by its surroundings. The sexuality of the female persona emerges, and the interior space that this invokes initially seems at odds with the external: the world of the “rainy season,” in which men define the female sexuality: “The frigid woman, writes André Tridon, is a cripple or a neurotic” (6). The result, however, is not a domination or determination of sexuality— Neotropics establishes a dialectic between the two manners of being and their associated qualities: inner / outer; performative / observing; and spectacle / diagnosis. This dialectic is formative to the poem and drives its development; as the persona and narrator navigates the inner and outer spaces of the poem, her account itself becomes a form of description, a flexible definition of the natural and the unnatural. This is at once an aggressive maneuver and a relinquishing of authority—the imposition of language into/onto the natural world confronts its inadequacies and biases; the poem possesses a political agency that rejects the external interrogation of female sexuality and political alterity. Neotropics simultaneously allows its subject matter to retain an autonomy; Briante avoids enacting the same clinical diagnostic mode that Tridon uses. She presents her subjects as they are—more accurately, as they appear to be.
Briante concludes the book with a touching moment that moves toward reconciling many of the political, sexual, and natural dialectics in Neotropics and which highlights the complicity of language in negotiating sites of political action and resistance:
Shepherds of reflex and deviation with preference for “sticks
trowels, knives,” with preferences for nipple clamps and half-light
chase flocks of pandemics across withered earth
to swat and prod at syphilophiac scars,
while the rooftops of a processing plant glisten like hand mirrors,
while the tanks of a refinery shimmer like a silver backed comb (11).
Neotropics is available as a free PDF download from Belladonna*
Connor Fisher was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He has an MA in English Literature from the University of Denver and is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from the University of Colorado at Boulder.