The Home Depot Parking Lot at Sunset: On Ivanna Baranova’s “Continuum”
By Bradley KingJanuary 5, 2024
Continuum by Ivanna Baranova
Continuum is a small book, printed on soft brown paper, almost like a mass-market paperback, which makes it feel tough, like a solid companion to carry around, and that’s just what these poems are. The design is the latest success of Metatron Press of Montréal, one of the great small presses making this present moment a surprisingly exciting one for poetry. The poems are so companionable because they are enmeshed with the crackling energies of daily life: “the chore erases the day / the day folds the batter”; “one motion removes doubt / the other absorbs it”; “do not play me your song / or my voice, breaking.” This is a tender, raw voice, yet it is also funny and tough, and it knows this about itself. Baranova will lead you into delicate, prickly scenes of human closeness and of the great chasms between us, and she won’t use any cute or clever tricks to get you out of a tight spot. You can trust her there, “imagining you as passive participant / receptive to the world’s world.” Continuum is 53 pages in length, and that’s enough to leave this reader wishing for more work from Baranova soon. I like to imagine a living edition of her poems, a giant book with the same mischievous energy as this one, which would fill our heads with its words instead of our own thoughts.
Short, discontinuous stanzas make up the central form of Continuum. “[P]resence is the first form of devotion” reads its first stanza, which seems to set in motion a devotional attention to presence, one where Baranova turns stanzas into antennae: for example, “every gesture, every / mental calibration”; “what was once obtuse now / calcified, intrinsic”; or “make me / your living bird.” Each stanza is a piece, marked with a curious pleasure that happens somewhere between the mouth and the spirit. These fragments are potent spheres of language, made up of phrases heard, read, thought, or crafted, and sectioned into lines that break open the rhythms and harmonics of their peculiar music. The discrete poems in Continuum, each about a page long, are like points of entry for the tunnels through consciousness that the stanzas dig. But these tunnels truly seem to have no ends or beginnings, and perhaps that’s one layer of meaning for “continuum,” a way to describe drifts of presence throughout a day—“a revolving door,” to quote the poet talking about the structure of her work. Baranova describes the stanzas as “signals I’m attuned to, sort of like radio transmissions,” alluding to Jack Spicer’s sense of how he made poems, and implying an involuntary spontaneity, “receptive to the world’s world.” Stanzas like “I find a swimsuit / the color / of my purported aura” teach us how not to be embarrassed by the spontaneously beautiful.
Baranova says that the stanzas allow her to “break up control,” which creates an unpredictability that can make the poems as hard to read as a person. But the epigraph from Rosemarie Waldrop offers some grounding: “to describe the inner world, you know, by definition, […] is impossible. Hard to know if it can be lived.” If our inner world is by definition impossible to describe, Continuum offers ways we might receive its transmissions by “soaking up the world, a cross of sponge and good will,” to quote a little more of the epigraph. In that sense, the book’s “inner world weather,” returning to the poet’s words, offers another sort of clarity that has less to do with coherence than with awareness. The stanzas show the poet to be restless, hungry, exuberant, sweet, horny, wrathful, approaching divinity, petty, silly, and often very still. She has a knack for evoking a nearness to actual people and situations: “listen, it’s a perfect song / the Home Depot parking lot at sunset.” “[A] blessing is whatever you see,” Baranova tells us, but the stanzas get at this vivid immediacy using hardly any images, and no visual descriptions ever. The poet seems to challenge Louise Glück’s iconic line, “If you loved the world you’d have images / in your poems,” by somewhat ironically placing it in her own book. Baranova proposes instead that the world might be better loved through involvement than imagery. The issue is less what is out there than what of it can come in.
The picture on the cover, a drawing by Kayla Ephros, depicts a figure looking into a mirror as another face appears in its glass, and still more hover in an ether below, evoking a mysterious mood similar to that of the poems:
telepathy revives our asylum
reveals whose turn it is
to be the wonder
of the other
The devotion here might be to what the poet Hoa Nguyen, who once gave Baranova a memorable tarot reading, calls “enmeshment.” In a recent poem titled “But what of enmeshment,” Nguyen hymnally announces, “We are spirits meeting for / caring for the stories we sing.” Baranova expresses a similar sentiment but in a different mood: “people make people / horrible, beautiful.” That toughness Baranova says she in part learned from Nguyen: “Her brevity, incisive anger, and restraint were an inspiration to me.” These qualities come through in the first stanza of “But what of enmeshment”: “flowers insist on their own beauty / do more in the world than you.” And you never know when Baranova’s toughness is going to pop you one:
you make rules only I can break
heart hardener, face
But it’s that devotion to closeness that fills the page, in lines like “pacing can’t move me / at the speed you’re wanting words” or “the snap of your finger ticks / my box thoughts / half speed.” The lyric I, you, and me of Continuum meet where it stops mattering (finally) whether they are lovers, family, community members, or strangers. As I was writing this review, an older lady one table over just said, “We have to learn how to nurture each other; there’s no training for this.” Continuum’s antennae poetics suggests that I should write that down here.
When Baranova speaks of how “cooperative interference deters / terror,” the political resonances of her work become audible, and they sound like what the young Mexican philosopher Luciano Concheiro calls “tangential resistance.” For him, tangential resistance is a way of talking about living out “provisional” alternatives to our seemingly insurmountable political situation. The scenes of resistance are intimate, even secret, he argues, because here we can learn to “tak[e] enemy fortifications without attacking them,” or at least to “parry with what hits us.” When I asked Baranova about the subterranean politics of her work, she reminded me that her parents on either side are refugees of violent political repression in Guatemala and the former Czechoslovakia; she said that, even if resistance isn’t on the surface of her poems, it’s always living within them. Continuum is not a book of heroic disobedience or portentous critique. Instead, it is an assembly of everyday points of connection, an agility and breadth of awareness, and a keen sense of how much is at stake in our enmeshment.
A “form of devotion”—not to worship or prayer but to what might be called our co-divinity:
the rescue of concentric endeavors
is all purifying power
from the outer show
That “purifying power” seems to involve a repossession of Judeo-Christian faith language, with varying moods of reverence and blasphemy. Devotion, hymn, blessing, miracle, and salvation are all words that float through Continuum, as do direct quotes from the Bible like “how long will you hide your face from me,” which here makes the me addressing a you into the psalmist singing to God. “[Y]our cute, sort of acceptable god” is a line that makes clear the poet’s problems with less tough genres of spirituality. There is some proximity to New Age cultures of healing and self-care in Continuum, but its voice is too blithe and too quick for those disappointing sincerities.
Another stanza almost sounds like Ted Berrigan’s “How Much Longer Shall I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine,” from The Sonnets (1964), a book of assemblage poems (this particular line clipped from Ashbery) that is difficult, not unlike Baranova’s:
I was divine three times
without the help
of others […]
precipitate my religion
Baranova’s answer to Ted’s question might involve that “rescue of concentric endeavors,” or as she said to me in our talks about the book, “the collaborative entity interweaved—or whatever you feel on psychedelics—but somehow not dependency.”
Despite the richness of its politics and theology, it is Baranova’s living and breathing language that really does the work, evident in lines like “something about waiting / really gets me off” or “speech the racing chalk of cloud time / shines and here, I am neither / over you nor under.” This is a book that teaches, not didactically but through its extraordinary charm and moral force. And to give such care and presence to the possibilities of human connection is a form of pain the poet accepts: “a year on the page / is a welcome nightmare.” To read some of these stanzas is an experience akin to going on a walk with a friend or feeling how love falls away or bursts open. Baranova does not miss such chances, and neither should we.
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