A Carnage in the Lovetrees is a scramble of details, some actual, some imagined, through which one is always present and attending to a narrative thread, a very scant narrative thread. I admit I had great trouble remaining focused on any of Greenfield’s assemblages and the various different pieces of narrative that float up to the surface. My mind almost immediately became unglued from his presentation the moment I directed my eyes toward the page. Later on, after a few moments battling my waning attention, I drifted into sleep.
I suspect this is not the effect that Greenfield would like to have on me, so I feel bad. The language is carefully rendered and littered with precise observation. There are plenty of interesting references and objects invoked in the work, so I feel doubly bad that I have failed this book. However, I have to concede that the book numbs me like no recent book I have read since Lisa Lubasch’s Twenty-One After Days. Unlike my restarts with Lubasch’s book, I guess I’m just more worn down and weary now, unable to climb the mountain that is required to peer into the clear valley of this text.
So the obvious question is (apart from questions about my mental state and lack of discipline to stay with this text and glean something from it) is why does this text have its somnolent effect on me. Is there anything in common with Lubasch’s text in Twenty One After Days?
One similarity I can note is that in both Lubasch and Greenfield there seems to be a great leveling of detail. There isn’t one item that is invoked which stands out in importance from all the other items. There is a limitless band of signifiers. The affect of the voice seems so steady and passionless. A flat affect. — like someone droning on about his endless days and reflections on parts of his life without ever becoming excited about any of them, without any cue to say “Hey, you should pay attention to this here”.
What is remarkable is that if you watch Greenfield read his poems here Richard Greenfield reads at Moe’s from Tracer and here Richard Greenfield reads at Moe’s from Tracer, this is exactly the way it comes off. This is a different book than Carnage in the Lovetrees, his second book Tracer but there is a similar domestic density. If you listen to him read, his voice is a one-note samba (without much jinga). The voice doesn’t rise or lower itself even at the end.
Joyelle McSweeney comments on this same effect in Versein 2004:
In the field of traumas come the base savannas–crosshairs tighten
on the flaring pink of the evening.
Recognize the world. After the bit of blue, after a window opened
to air and the portioned stereo of love and grandeur, after–
These couplets open the book and its first poem, “Schema,” though almost any stanza in this book could serve as well as another to represent Greenfield’s sensibility.
At the end of the review she comments on this again.
Greenfield’s achievement in A Carnage in the Lovetrees is to have created a readable, saturated universe of thinking, writing, and memory, in which no term provides purchase on another.
Is this some kind of achievement — to achieve such a leveling of description and abstract thought that the entire book blends together (for this reader) as a vague bag of beige aggregate. It is bland (presumably by intent), but it feels blander.
Perhaps I should do more than acknowledge that this is Greenfield’s aim. Perhaps I should praise his courage or his loyalty to the truth of lackluster experience, of drudgery. However, I cannot.
I don’t think that if the subject of a book is monotony, it should work so hard to deliver it as an object lesson.
This kind of passionless and muted delivery is exactly the kind of bad rap that the abstract, thinking-man’s, difficult, avant-garde poetry is saddled with. It feels less than human. It feels like someone may have possibly beaten down this speaker. Is this the effect that graduate school is supposed to have on people?
McSweeney is able to derive “threads of confessional-seeming content running through the book — incest, beatings, parental drug use, abandonment, incarceration, and (possibly) murder put in appearances in these poems”. I was not lucky enough to find these threads for very long or to any significant degree.
They are leveled with the rest of the items that are on display, so their “emotional” value is the null set. There are indications that Greenfield means to subvert this kind of feeling as well. At the end of “Swum from Covalence” the speaker writes
Is that all
It felt —
And again at the end of “Signs & Self-Prophecy & Such”
Halfway, you turn
on a feeling
These mini-samples suggest that Greenfield means to subvert the place of “feeling” in the poem. It almost suggests that all feeling has been replaced by memory. I’m not sure this speaker should be writing poetry so much as he/she should be checking into a trauma center. Certainly there is a lot of effort to suppress joy throughout the book. His lack of excitement is matched only by my own as I read through it.
If this is Greenfield’s aesthetic in this book, to represent a perpetual state of grief or joylessness, then I’m afraid it seems rather pointless to me. The argument goes that the world is a vicious and nasty place, yada, yada, yada. I’ll buy that, but not to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t see any reason to prescribe to that consistent outlook on the world unless one has a permanent serious head wound.
To say this book is obsessively dark is an understatement.
In “A Carnage in the Lovetrees” the speaker seems to be a casualty of love. The despair is notable everywhere, but the despair is tedious over the course of a whole book. Originally, looking at these four pieces at Between A & B I was on board for a trip through this book. However the cumulative effect of an entire volume of this kind of work eviscerated me of my interest in it. I suppose that much of the reason for this is tonal. The depressive, self-contained, claustrophobic quality of this work over the course of 68 pages grinds me down. I find I really don’t have much time for book of poems that is so utterly joyless.
I would extend the critique of the tone of the book to the language itself. Its flatness (mentioned previously) never delights. It never delights because it is never meant to. I’m not sure that this rises to the level of a reason for putting together a manuscript. However, I might suggest that if the speaker is bent on relating the world as such a serious and sober place, then he should scrawl deep cavernous marks in basalt with an ice pick. The severity would be noted.
Again, this book seems to fall into the trap of much of what L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E work (as it is described by Jeff Menne in his review at Double Room) does. It takes itself way too seriously. This, of course, is the joke about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry that everyone who practices it doesn’t seem to get.
As Greenfield’s speaker puts it:
Jubilance is a corrupt noise to the dead, dark meat on the plate [“Cipher in Scene”, pg.55]
Oh, go soak your head. Once to wash out the dreariness. The next time to keep your lines from being so overwrought.
Let’s look at “Swum from Covalence” in its entirety to see what kind of emotional havoc the speaker is avoiding (though one poem is as good as another for this purpose).
SWUM FROM COVALENCE
Last night the thoughtless ions sparked in every tanned face of the party; our phosphorous light was not of the sun’s making. A purr moved among the couches.
Pairing off, one pairing were nameless and would fuck far from the rest, on the pumice slopes of the lakeshore.
A purr moved behind glass doors, I was outside of it, the stars and planets were outside of it. A small family of foxes at the edge of porchlight turned silver eyes on me,
I heard small yelps as they fell through the ferns, how they combined with the orchestrated groans of the neighbor’s porn and seeped into our shared space. On the face, on the ass, in the mouth —
not only aloneness but dwindling time — the tyranny of the calendar over the progeny. The animal’s survival on the tundra rests on the ovum, floating free in the uterus for months and for years in arrested development.
Once I fell—fell heavy into the bishop pines at the cliff’s edge, groped through sorrow or branches to reach the other.
There the surf roared. We nested cones, placed each upon its frustum. The cock was in its grip.
In the beseeching aubade of the species, we were not so removed.
The surf recapitulated the rote, my fumbling in the back seat with the buttons, the hot blowing in my ear.
Is that all?
Atoms coupling into molecules. Is that all? Even sex is reduced to its mundane aspect. What we have here, ladies and gentleman, is a chemical reaction.
If there is one thing in this world that I can’t stand it’s dispassionate fucking! I’m just not the kind of guy who watches porn if it looks like the people participating aren’t having a good time. I don’t have time for that. That’s what this book felt like to me. It felt like watching people fucking joylessly who were trying to prove some abstract point in doing so.
Dear reader, it rests upon you to decide if the reasons for fucking and reading are the same.