Matriarchal Flight in All Its Voices: On Annelyse Gelman’s “Vexations”

Mark Irwin reviews “Vexations” by Annelyse Gelman.

Matriarchal Flight in All Its Voices: On Annelyse Gelman’s “Vexations”

Vexations by Annelyse Gelman. University of Chicago Press. 56 pages.

MANY DISTINGUISHED BOOK-LENGTH poems written in the last four decades, especially lyric ones, are marked by radical perception and a crisis of belief. John Ashbery’s Flow Chart (1991), Alice Notley’s The Descent of Alette (1992), Anne Waldman’s Iovis Trilogy (1993–2011), and Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets (2021) come to mind. Fractured in different ways, the first three books flirt with the contemporary epic, while Seuss’s work reads more like a memoir in verse. Notley’s mythopoetic female protagonist is locked by a tyrant in the underground world of subway cars. Ashbery’s protagonist forays through “the published city” with what at times seems aimless intent, while the poem drives deeper into the relationship of language with mortality: “We’re interested in the language, that you call breath, / if breath is what we are to become, and we think it is, the southpaw said.”

Annelyse Gelman’s intriguingly readable Vexations (structured after Erik Satie’s score of the same name, a motif to be played “840 in succession,” slowly and without a break) is a brilliant new book-length poem composed of 220 sestets that subtly resist their form and function start to finish like well-oiled wheels. Always keen to the “dialect of our tribe,” Gelman’s work shares more than a bit of T. S. Eliot’s parodic sweep in 1922’s The Waste Land (originally titled He Do the Police in Different Voices).

The diasporic narrative features an unnamed mother, the primary speaker, and her daughter as they move through a world whose ecological, social, and economic systems—distraught by capitalism—seem precarious at best. The skeletal plot, polyvocal at times, proceeds not by logic but through the dislocations we all feel in a time of sociopolitical turmoil, and it is Gelman’s surreal touches and command of a highly nuanced language that propel us:

In front of the police chief’s house a live oak
Cracked the sidewalk like crème brûlée
Beneath the paving stones there was not a beach
There were only life-sustaining elements
We would move through life quickly and never get hurt
Like a hand brushed through a lit wick, unburnt

Moving forward through one peril after another, the poem and its social observations remind us of those in our throwaway world without a home, while the high-tech world of global communication rolls on: “We purchased equipment for sleeping safely outdoors / We stored this equipment carefully until it was garbage / Newscasters invented new verbs to accommodate the news.”

One of the more fascinating aspects of the poem lies in its repetition of certain lines, as though it were a computer program—updating itself—that echoes the algorithmic world in which we live and from whose hegemony we cannot escape. Two of the most frequent refrains include, “It was around that time I started taking the pills,” or variations on PA announcements that remind us of our current, disjunctive plight: “Over the PA someone announced that the mall was closing / People came up to me and said, Did you hear? / People came up to me and said, What mall?

Along with its marvelous tonal range, versatile use of language and imagination, what drives this work forward is its mysterious plot. The daughter, ill, is guided by the mother toward some unresolvable place of safety, and it’s their matriarchal flight (recalling the patriarchal diaspora in Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road) that summons great curiosity and compassion within the reader. We participate in the mother and daughter’s anonymity, which makes their plight more universal, moving as one might through a sophisticated video game like Gris (2018), by the Spanish developer Nomada Studio. Gelman is an accomplished video artist in her own right, and her long poem reflects this in its visualization:

People went over waterfalls in wooden barrels
People built a road straight through the base
Of the oldest living tree in the world
The specialist took a core sample
From daughter’s spine with a fat needle
Everything she’d ever felt was there, preserved in layers

Successive narrative crises flow naturally out of the wasteland we traverse, and even language becomes infected: “A sentence, like a massacre, had to be answered / Birds in clear-cut woods mimicked heavy machinery.” The unpunctuated ends of each line facilitate the poem’s movement and spontaneity, while vernacular is mixed with more formal language, including spliced quotations from modern and classical texts, often incorporated with humor: “Over the PA someone said, Eram quod es, eris quod sum [I was what you are, you will be what I am],” a common phrase chiseled on Roman tombs, as the poem seems to march toward extinction.

In addition to blurring the demotic and high poetic, Gelman braids the physiological with the technological, including our communication tools: “A thick slug of blood slid out of me, then my phone / Slid through the slats and splashed down there / The cracked glass feebly flashed and went dark.”

As the speaker addresses the various scientific, social, and environmental plights of our time, one marvels at the distinctive voice that Gelman has assimilated. Among the echoes of poets, one certainly hears Ashbery, especially his tonal range: “Scientists put jellyfish genes in a rabbit / The g-forces were delectable in my pelvis.” The effect, however, seems more invisible here. Humor balances the book’s darker plot as exaggerated images are juxtaposed with real ones, and the profane tumbles along with the more sacred: “People carved baroque monuments out of Styrofoam / And spray-painted them gold and left them outside mansions.” And later: “Our eyes were staring, our mouths were open, our wings were spread / With the wreckage of history on our wretched heads / She’s gone, a mother might say, regarding the dog.”

Note the echoes of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, delivered with a little Dr. Seuss spunk and vitality, all a part of Gelman’s spiky repertoire. At times, the tonal effect is like hearing splashes of a Gershwin score through a more tragically drawn Mahler symphony.

Forms of disease, pills, blight on landscapes, malls, roads, and forests are some of the images that unroll in cinematic fashion, but perhaps the most conspicuous is Gelman’s evolving and deeply moving image of the equine that leans toward apocalypse:

He was on fire, the horse—
A fire that burned with no smoke, it started at the mane
And trailed down his lips, a muzzle of fire, ashes swirled
Around his nostrils, a fire that spread its tendrils where he grazed

And later: “Daughter met the horse’s gaze as we passed / And held it until the fire went out.”

It’s here, two-thirds of the way through our epic journey, that we understand the daughter’s potential healing will arrive via the animal world. The horse, symbol of virility and power, ravaged through wars and always at service, is endowed with a sacred form of healing, at least for the daughter in this Waste Land–reminiscent landscape.

Brava Annelyse Gelman, a poet who gives us a feminist epic, punchy and curiously inflected at just the right times (“An old woman walked a red-haired dude on a leash”).

Vexations views the contemporary world from many angles. The narrative creates a vertiginous effect while we accompany the mother and ailing daughter who simultaneously bear the weight of living in a technologically advanced world, one with an endless ability to store memory. Past events, even erotic ones, often outweigh the present: “People stood in plazas with clipboards and vests / In cleanrooms people milked horseshoe crabs of their blood / The memory of a kiss outlasted the kiss.”

Our current moment of optics and social surveillance has created a disproportion of mind over body. We must become our own witnesses, and Gelman beautifully heightens this in a metaphor where we become our own Icarus, falling through the glut of language via all our electronic devices: “The brain surveilled the body, the body multiplied in secret / We witnessed our thoughts, they were not ours / Little black feathers fell out of the sky like commas.”

How will we evolve and adapt into our new language tainted by texts, tweets, and the hypertext we feed to bots? Gelman’s response gives another nod to Ashbery: “Onto the dusk-charged air we welded a new preposition.” And aren’t we simultaneously inclined to hear “proposition”?

After many literary and wonderfully skewed artistic references—i.e., “There were airs, waters, places, daughters” (Hippocrates); “Indefinite postponement” (Kafka’s The Trial); “A maid stood next to a window pouring milk” (Vermeer)—we learn that the daughter, in addition to her “ontological sickness,” a result of the challenging terrain she traverses, will also need surgery: “The surgeons began by inflicting a wound / And aimed a bright light into her darkness.” The poem later suggests that the daughter’s internal makeup contrasts with the world of artificial intelligence: “To reveal the wires, they opened daughter’s wrists / There were only vines.” This suggests the daughter’s closeness, like a contemporary Demeter figure, to a vegetal world being destroyed by pollution.

Gelman’s long poem concludes its roaming through a wide range of wasting landscapes that lead toward death—and, finally, hope? I would have liked to see the return or further development of the horse motif as a component of her healing. Instead, the female archetype wilts in spite of her resilience, which is moving, if more expectable:

Two butterflies flitted in her folds
A smear of pollen stained her gold, she writhed
Like dew comes on the grass, rain came on the lake
Lorem ipsum dolor in the shade
She wrapped her fists in roots, she flowered in its mouth
She sighed, she wilted, she lay down

“Like vines on the pillars of oracles’ temples,” this matriarchal voice—though vexed—will not stop, and Vexations is nothing less than an astonishing, polytonal romp that vividly sustains and attempts to redeem our ecologically battered and high-tech world.

LARB Contributor

Mark Irwin is the author of 11 collections of poetry, which include Joyful Orphan (2023), Shimmer (2020), A Passion According to Green (2017), American Urn: Selected Poems (1987–2014), Large White House Speaking (2013), Tall If (2008), Bright Hunger (2004), White City (2000), Quick, Now, Always (1996), and Against the Meanwhile: Three Elegies (1988).


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