Palindrome as Portal, Existence as Performance: On Danielle Blau’s “peep”
By Elizabeth MetzgerJuly 31, 2022
peep by Danielle Blau
On the twentieth of March, day & night
hung in the balance, & we
would chant our palindromes — Redder. Peep. Noon. Oh who was
it I saw. Oh who.
These are palindromes of color, sound, time, and identity itself, and by cataloging them Blau demonstrates that no matter the poet’s control of punctuation, grammar, line break, so much of meaning is made and multiplied beyond one speaker’s intentions. Emily Dickinson famously loved “noon,” that infinite word, and it is this relationship between language and time that excites and delights throughout peep. Blau is drawn to this play with multiplicity, repetition, self-revision, and erasure across many motifs — boxes with peepholes, one-way mirrored bathroom walls in a restaurant called peep. These poems come to function like palindromes, as portals through the pain and pleasure of experience, the illusions of relationships, and the performativity of expression, maybe even existence, itself. The end of the first poem functions as a deliberately broken invocation, suggesting both the challenge and reward of reading this book. In a reversal of sorts, we the reader, play the muse:
sing: But — but it’s
us — we few out here — here — here — us now
still — we silt — we here — we water & sand — we much — we filth — we
Matter. Yes. Behold,
Note how in trying to locate “us” on the page, the speaker loses control as thought runs away from thought. The essence of experience is change, and beyond metaphor these poems enact, even perform transformation. Set off by dashes, “here” becomes both the present place and an offering, and “still” stops us before turning to “silt.” The final staccato capitalized affirmation and declaration brings to mind Dickinson’s orthographical games, except Blau is not a poet of privacy. Blau is bringing the power of Dickinson’s reverie and internal plunge to the many circuses of our public lives — restaurants, conversations, encounters with strangers. Blau’s poems deal in sleight of hand but never at the expense of relentless inquiry, philosophical and formal.
Throughout peep there is impressive formal variety. Blau is unafraid of being over-the-top and circuitous in long multisection poems as well as holding her own in compressed prose poems. She is a verbal omnivore, drawing on high and low illusion and all lexical registers from Anglo-Saxon compounds (“dazzleworn,” “skirling,” “aswarm”), text-talk, archaic terminology (“Hapax Legomenon”), joke, pun, and nursery rhyme equally as in “Full Rhymes to Live (More Fully) By”: “do you dream / in turtle green?”
The book contains a surprisingly successful villanelle, a list poem, lullabies, riddles, jokes, short Lydia Davis–like prose poems, and small material units that play with spacing between and within words (“Inventory”) à la Susan Howe’s little lace fragments in The Midnight or driven by the same language-love that motivates Jos Charles’s contemporary-via-archaic Feeld (see “Some Views f/ Thingèd Surface”). There’s a palindromic quality to the poems that often reads like a game of telephone among philosophers such as this end of “5 Revelation Loop Apt 5L”:
is when she listens to me listening to
her listen to me I
listen feeling skull inside my
face the walls are blank
For all their theatrics, equal parts baroque and colloquial (“granma”), digital (using @) and biblical (“spake”), these poems manipulate the surface of language to strip experience to its pith. With satisfying music and sophisticated irony, Blau exposes the universal tics of existence. In the first long poem of section one, “The Fear” we see the performance of self-consciousness: “Oh. Well anyway, / well actually never mind.” Self-revision is not a hesitation away from but rather one of the greatest machines of truth. Take this simple question of causation from section two of “The Fear”: “What causes it? / No one knows.” By section five, the question is repeated and distorted with a contemporary, humanizing smirk: “What causes it? // Gluten.” Proliferating questions, Blau mocks the simplicity of the answer as a form itself.
Blau leans into repetition to showcase the way experience is not linear or singular, but doubled, messy, erasable, revisable, and folded eternally in on itself as it overlaps with other experiences and the experiences of others: “Prognosis: get out get out get out get/out get out get out get out.” Blau further transforms this repetition later through altered lineation: “get out get / out get out // get out and” The refrain becomes a kind of pure neurotic rhythm of thinking, the not-thinking kind of thinking that moves us forward in time, between what we often refer to as our experiences. I can’t help hearing the theme song of the TV show Russian Doll which plays as the character enters the party at the start of each episode: “Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes…” The song takes on new meaning each time as we know the main character will die by the end of the episode.
The payoff of the show Russian Doll, in which the protagonist plummets through a hole to her death by the end of the night, comes from the dramatic irony of knowing what will happen, of noticing the various versions or minor differences that occur in the interior and outer world. How is it that we as an audience are equally helpless yet increasingly aware at once? Follow the nesting doll structure of tiny open tercets no more than a few syllables per line that close “The Fear”:
I found a
that had a
mirror in it
looked in at
hole in it.
There are optical illusions, false reflections, and holes that aren’t holes throughout these portal poems. The deeper we travel inward the more room for emptiness we find, emptiness or a peephole through which we might commune with a world beyond us. When humor leads to the human, the balance strikes just right: “singing she / leans in for a kiss and I see // there’s a hole in her face where / her face should be…”
There’s a wry, even resigned existentialism that delights as in these lines from “Nth Sunday in Ordinary Time”:
When we leave there won’t
be breeze and I wont have to miss
the whirr of the fan.
It is sad being
born to a punctured sphere;
but its something
to hear stars at
night deflating slowly, slowly.
Some models of this kind of successful often apocalyptic play: Mary Jo Bang in The Bride of E or The Last Two Seconds, Franz Wright’s poem “Auto-Lullaby,” Brenda Shaughnessy’s Interior with Sudden Joy, or Mary Ruefle’s Trances of the Blast. As in these works, peep argues for artifice as a tool for exposure, reflecting rather than masking the contradictory voices inside ourselves.
Not everything is staged here. There are mentions of “real-life” relationships, but these relationships are often not explored directly, or the strength of the poems comes from the riddling wisdom of the speaker more than the depth of an exchange. In the poem “magus,” the father’s distance is only hinted at through the idea of illusion which pervades the book: “Only distortion / of surface, of tint — it’s just a trick // of light played by dad, wherever he is.” A heartbreak is glossed over, but the brilliance of the experience comes in the final image of moving to an apartment above a wax museum: “I have yet to witness anybody enter, still, or exit.”
Likewise a mother is mentioned more than once but comes through most strongly in the final poem, “Conversations with Death,” when the role of death in dialogue performs a disturbed maternal role. Death, part mother, part clown, haunts this book as much as any character. Language is always in a pantomime with our ultimate silence. peep ends with its own subversion of Hamlet’s soliloquy. What does it mean to ask “to be or not to be” when the choice is itself an illusion. Here is Blau’s take on the problem of being in time:
Out. Wait. Can
A thing that
Hasn’t happened yet? Come. Yes ? Come
Yes I forget.
The wisdom of the speakers in peep is not that of an authority who has puzzled things out via her own experience but as an observer who now and then dances into the frame like a court jester or Shakespearean fool. In the ninth section of the final poem, “Arpeggio Progression in Missing Key,” this bald, even grave wisdom is delivered with cunning and wit:
do you know what
I love no one
up that you can never get.
I think of Mercutio’s drunken revelry, foreshadowing more than he knows of a dream’s danger, or Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach in which the rhythmic repetition of numbers takes on emotional valences that cannot be put into words.
peep is an original and ambitious debut that transcends two common crutches of first books. Blau never lets up pressure on her medium for the sake of story. Language never slackens for the sake of a coming-of-age narrative. Second, Blau never satisfies herself with a well-made thing unless it delivers a question or complication. She does not fall prey to imagery for imagery’s sake. The abundant metatextuality in this collection is risky — one might wonder what is hidden, what depth is danced around, but it is always more than a game, aiming to show us the warp and weft of thinking itself.
Her least interesting forms are often interestingly the safer more medium-length poems in couplets, where the couplets feel arbitrary or slack. Other times, the ample use of white space on the page draws too much attention to a less riveting turn of phrase.
Ever occurred to you, you’re
it should have, long ago.
This is not a criticism of Blau’s ability to make diamonds of emotions with her ellipticism elsewhere. Take these lines from the lyric “Whose Hands,” where felt clarity transcends contextual ambiguity:
Dark through the lintel.
Whose hands are these?
Inside, it seemed, a woman laughing.
Or this refreshingly plain set of couplets from the poem “How Long Now Since the Mailman’s Gone Missing?” that rise above the vibrato of peep’s tongue-twisting ontology:
It’s a sad yellow feeling
like walking into someone else’s childhood.
inside a vast, black egg:
At their most virtuosic, the poems in peep follow the formal rebels Diane Seuss and Victoria Chang, who have reinvented the forms of the sonnet and the obituary respectively in their latest award-winning collections. In all three, linguistic rigor promotes range and richness rather than inhibiting contemporary thought or straight talk. One of the most compelling poems in peep is a subversive nod to the genre of Documentary Poetics in “We’re Human, All of Us Girls, and We’re Young,” in which Blau investigates the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Raising historical questions of class and gender, Blau’s reportage is so precise that her uncertainty about her own relationship to the event and her questions of purpose shock and burn, such as the ending of this prose strophe: “The girls who were too burnt were identified by buttons on their cuffs, heels on their shoes, darns in their stockings, braids in their hair, caps on their teeth. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, which facts matter.”
Blau’s poetics seems to be ever after a reconciliation between maximalism and minimalism. One of the quiet lyric highlights of this collection is “I Am the Perennial Head of this One-person Subcutaneous Wrecking Crew”:
for every sill of my flesh
I must invent a new method to flay. F
ew people know inside your skin
is a microscopic garden.
The poem could have stopped there, but the speaker goes on to enact the gardening: “With love I tuck in seeds / of its destruction late / each night, daily tend my // dear ruin…” A catalog including “unsuspecting / clovers” and “stomata full of / rodent bones” take us to the question that needs no question mark, so clear is its emotional strength: “Who / could love you like you.”
If a peep is a small sound or a quick look, these poems offer entries and ledges from which we can witness our own internal worlds. Blau frequently addresses a “you,” breaking the fourth wall: “Follow me. I’m right // here. I’m that / dot over there on your screen. // No, over there.” Our gaze becomes part of the play. The reader becomes self-aware, implicated, a voyeur. And it is not just that we are the audience but that we perform the audience as in a peepshow, thinking we are safe in our boxes while witnessing the enticing, terrifying, and erotic.
According to Audre Lorde’s definition, “[t]he erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Celebrating that porousness between self and chaos, the real act of peep is an act of mind. Even when the language is plain and conversational or the lines seem unkempt, one can trust that the mess is part of the craft. Danielle Blau is aware of her demands on the reader, and the architecture of the book itself offers relief just when we feel burnt out on linguistic metaphysics and tongue-in cheek existentialism. At the end of the book’s second section, a poem about preserves, with all the sensual cataloging of jam flavors (“Persimmon & Wild / Sumac Preserves, Candied Citron Pith, Green / /apple ginger, Scuppernong…”) is a reward for the cerebral season: “Come let us coo over each / other’s maladies, in the light of / the lampshade where (softly) knocks a fly.”
Blau’s poetics is as radical as it is entertaining, as charged with the unknown as it riddled with the quest to know. As Vijay Seshadri, judge of the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, writes in his introduction to peep: “Blau is the performer of her own experience, but she is also its scholar and critic.” Here is a voice that is hungry for evidence of its own existence. The reader, rather than merge with the speaker, must stay a bit apart, off-stage, backstage, at times pulling the curtain strings ourselves: “Although if you’re like me — Are / you like me? Please like me…” With this invitation to participate and enjoy the speaker’s company, Blau offers the reader more attention and power than many collections, let alone debuts, do. Entering Blau’s consciousness, we end up one step deeper into our own multiple, irrational, infinite, and unknowable selves.
Elizabeth Metzger is the author of Bed, selected by Mark Bibbins for the Sunken Garden Chapbook Prize. Her first book, The Spirit Papers, received the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and her second full-length collection, Lying In, will be published in spring 2023 by Milkweed Editions. She is a poetry editor of the LARB Quarterly.
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