On Nikki Wallschlaeger's Houses (2015) & Crawlspace (2017): A Notebook

crawlspace and houses.jpg

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I N T R O D U C T I O N

The way I’m living, I tend to read around a hundred books a year. Of those hundred, twenty to twenty-five fit the following parameters:

• poetry
• poet under fifty
• original work, not translations
• book published in the last five years

Predictably, around half of those were written by people I know. I’m not making these figures up; I’ve been keeping track. Result: every year I have approximately a dozen chances to discover something new and exciting.

How many exciting discoveries should one expect, living as I do? Basically none. Most years, it is none. I like my friends’ books to one degree or another, and that’s that. My most common response is feeble approval. I am “willing to allow the book has the right to exist” and no more—which is exactly the response I myself get when I bubble-envelope my books to my dear ones. They “can’t wait to read it,” and that’s the last I hear of the matter. 

So the following parameters are somewhat severe:

• poet under fifty
• original work, not translations
• book published in the last five years
• poet not personally known to me
• book is genuinely exciting / repays study / will be returned to many times

—But you see where this is going. This year, I found something. 

Nobody told me to read Nikki Wallschlaeger. What happened was I saw her read in Chicago, the reading made no impression, I didn’t buy her book, and then more than a year later I did. At which point I started running from place to place, saying “Nikki Wallschlaeger, Nikki Wallschlaeger.” 

Now she has two books, and about those two books I have: objections, observations, thoughts. This present writing delivers these in the form of a touched-up notebook I’ve been accumulating, all through October and November 2017. The first section begins with me complaining about a very common vice that Wallschlaeger does not have. Except she kind of does. See below.

 

S T R O P H I C   P R O S E   V S   S O N N E T S

Goethe says somewhere that when he gets to heaven he hopes it’s not populated by the people who believed in it. I think he says it in the Conversations with Eckermann. Anyhow, that’s exactly how I feel about interesting line breaks. I don’t say there are no interesting line breaks. But the people who believe in them are a pain in the ass.

You have to understand how the devil works. He loves it when we kid ourselves, and when we flatter each other. Nothing pleases him more than the spectacle of poets developing highly sophisticated strategies for making poems that contain neither insight nor eloquence. He wants our poetry to be “good for other reasons”—which is to say, he wants a lot of vague, feckless stuff.

The servants of the devil do not write prose and then cut it up into couplets and tercets. But they might as well. I’m always thinking: Why not be more honest and let your prose be prose? Can’t you see that all these more-or-less arbitrary line breaks only serve to make the poems harder to read and understand?

Imagine somebody writing a novel and doing the paragraphing the way poets for the last thirty years have done stanzas. Basically you write a normal paragraph, and then every other paragraph in the whole novel has to have the same physical dimensions as that first paragraph—even if it means installing paragraph breaks where it makes no sense to do so. The purpose of paragraphing would be utterly defeated, replaced by something more “interesting.”

Wallschlaeger’s practice is not in full sympathy with the above remarks. Actually, the first book mainly is, and the second book mainly is not. It seems to me telling that the first book is written according to a recipe of her own devising, whereas the second is supposed to be a set of sonnets.

“A recipe of her own devising”—let me describe.

Houses (2015) is written in strophic prose. There are no line breaks; instead, there are paragraphs. But the paragraphs are genuine strophes—rhythmic units, like the verses in a song. The effect doesn’t require each paragraph to end with a period. But it does require that each end with a rhythmic heave. 

Most art poetry of the last thirty years, you could totally change all the line breaks and stanzas and it wouldn’t make a dot of difference. Change the couplets to tercets, or vice versa—nobody would notice. Houses isn’t like that. For the most part.

Wallschlaeger’s prose itself is Martian, ramjam with special effects. Crazy-nimble syntax with lots of chiasmus, long noun phrases that end in periods, surprise rhyme-sprinkles, anaphora and its opposite, and her special favorite, malapropisms:

I basilisk in the sun [Houses, page15]
he must gut the grass on the weekends [20]
They stare at us from their monster salvaged pin-up trucks [21]
so I am going to kiss my friends good fight [31]
The most toxic of beta blockers in a 401K run [33]
the ghostest of the mostest in the MTV graveyard [33]
Around the turnip of the century [35]
Welcome to subverbia [38]
smoke is touring out of our mouths [44]
add a touch of Cape Code [61]

It is not quite true that every page of Houses manifests every one of the bells and whistles I just listed—but nearly. I’ll throw down a whole poem in a second, but first I want to underscore: The reader gets all these candies and rhythm too. This is why I experience the mechanics of this first book as a blast of fresh air. All manner of pretentious line breaks and stanzafication banished, like somebody whipping aside a shower curtain. Wsshhk! 

 

Blue House

 

A blue house where water is responsible for all our thinkings. In the desert  water is choosy, in the oases the palms are large and loud, chatter, piss, food. Clatter, room, lick. Sit on the toilet and read to me while I’m in the tub.

I sit and rub the cat who licks from the faucet, she prefers water to be running into her, not placid meniscus like a dog pillow from the fireplace. He sleeps without frills, in the water bubble, but plenty of cat paws cat heads we ask politely to leave the room

afterwards we read the diaper papers of our times. Warm feather water eased by pain and window of fogged glass blocks, you can hear the mens walking by. Once in a while we will hear someone say I saw something it’s a bathroom

it’s a bathroom window, a naked woman hope, being all hawt, hair pinned up. An agreeable romance cutting through the yard but no, it’s usually you or me or the young un playing with blue dinghys and splashing bumble trucks I say did you wash your

body properly with the washrag I gave you. Here are your pajamas it’s time to go to bed now that you are damp from your bath maybe you’ll dream about tadpoles.

I’ve replicated the orthography of this neatly described domestic scene very closely, including the misspelling of dinghies. If you’re longing to get in there and put in some semicolons, I’m with ya. But do you see what I mean by “strophic prose”? Those white spaces are not arbitrary; they punctuate the rhythmic units. Even the one at the end there (“I say did you wash your // body properly…”) works fine, ’cuz when a pattern has been firmly established, divagations pop.

(You know who else wrote in this form a lot? Czesław Miłosz. Especially after he won the Nobel in 1980. I riffled through his Collected the other day; must have been forty poems answering the above description, all in the last third of the book. And not one of ’em as memorable to me as the fifteen-or-so best pieces in Houses.)

As for Wallschlaeger’s super-nimble syntax, look again at:

it’s a bathroom window, a naked woman hope, being all hawt, hair pinned up.

That’s efficiency. And revisit the pleasing diction here:

An agreeable romance cutting through the yard but no, it’s usually you or me or the young un playing with blue dinghys and splashing bumble trucks

That’s good writing. But never mind good writing for a second. Go back to the thing I was saying before, about how she basically invented this form for herself. Forty-six poems, every one of ’em titled “[such-and-such] House” (where such-and-such is a color, in every case but one), everything set up as strophic prose, with lots of special effects. TONAL PALETTE: witty and invulnerable, lots of irony and defiance. THEMES: race, childhood, family, domestic stuff. 

Such was the recipe. And every element of that recipe recurs in the second book, except for the form. Crawlspace (2017) has the exact same page count (sixty-two pages of poetry), but it’s only forty poems, all but one of which is either fourteen lines, or some multiple of fourteen (the longest piece is a sextuple sonnet). This is a form she did not invent. 

A good writer is a good writer, so it will surprise nobody that Crawlspace is a good read, well worth your time, full of good stuff, etc. But the form doesn’t do Wallschlaeger any favors, here. In the other book, the compression that naturally results from strophic structure prompted her to giddy invention, left and right. I feel certain that lots of people reading Houses are gonna say “I should do something like this.” But over the course of Crawlspace, you just watch the poet’s resistance to her chosen form grow stronger and stronger—and it was pretty strong to begin with. Upshot: she makes sonnets look like busywork.

The tennis net is already long gone, on page one. No rhyme, no meter, line breaks that have nothing to do with rhythm. The rules are: “fourteen lines at all costs,” and “all lines equal in length.” ’Course, those are easy rules to follow if you don’t care where the line breaks go. (Also, in the first fifteen of the poems, she preserves the old Shakespearean final-couplet effect; thereafter, she dispenses with it. I, for one, was sorry to see it go.) 

That thing I said, before, about how one could change all the line breaks in most magazine verse and it wouldn’t matter? In my judgment, that’s true of all the poems in Crawlspace. Here, judge for yourself. Here’s one of the pieces I like; it’s a double sonnet:

 

Sonnet (38)

 

You liked the book I was reading
matched my blouse & said so approvingly.
Girls with portable accessories then a gentle
corrective in the authors I should read next.
I’m wondering what you have in mind for my
next set of outfits that rhyme with poetry.
The thing with alcohol: you are nicer to people
who really don’t deserve it. You place your
baggage in a clear hatbox next to his baggage
on the airplane carousel. Our heads are bare
with electronic trust, a bartender’s gun with
all the boozy ways to mix the feels of strangers.
Of course there’s the handful of cherries you’ve
collected & even in my drunken topiary I roll my

eyes. Maybe that’s my first mistake: forgetting
they’re girls like me due to their overuse as logos
of commercial femininity, cattle class sucking on
their overpriced drinks. He admires my arm, how
he could snap it like a branch, a swizzle stick in the
shape of a shotgun. The candy rolls from his loins
dusted with heavy K-hole pancake makeup. “You
should swallow next time,” he says. By now I am
eating the maraschino cherries like a good girl,
they match the dress he just bought me on State
Street. The petticoat is made from a special famine
lace that spreads my legs wide whether I’m walking
or sitting. He wants to be able to find me if I get lost
in a crowd.

Not saying the line breaks are indefensible. Go nuts. But, to me, they’re feckless. Just look at what the same poem might have looked like, if it had been a poem in Houses:

You liked the book I was reading, matched my blouse and said so approvingly. Girls with portable accessories, then a gentle corrective in the authors I should read next. I’m wondering what you have in mind for my next set of outfits that rhyme with poetry.

The thing with alcohol: you are nicer to people who really don’t deserve it. You place your baggage in a clear hatbox next to his baggage on the airplane carousel. Our heads are bare with electronic trust, a bartender’s gun with all the boozy ways to mix the feels of strangers.

Of course there’s the handful of cherries you’ve collected and even in my drunken topiary I roll my eyes. Maybe that’s my first mistake: forgetting they’re girls like me, due to their overuse as logos of commercial femininity, cattle class sucking on their overpriced drinks. 

He admires my arm, how he could snap it like a branch, a swizzle stick in the shape of a shotgun. The candy rolls from his loins dusted with heavy K-hole pancake makeup. “You should swallow next time,” he says. By now I am eating the maraschino cherries like a good girl,

they match the dress he just bought me on State Street. The petticoat is made from a special famine lace that spreads my legs wide whether I’m walking or sitting. He wants to be able to find me if I get lost in a crowd.

If the above doesn’t convince you, I give up.

 

O N   C H A N N E L I N G   T H E   U N I N T E L L I G I B L E

My standard method of studying books of contemporary poetry involves the use of a hand-held voice recorder—in particular this one:

Voice Recorder.jpg

It usually takes less than forty-five minutes to record a whole book, and once it’s recorded I can play it back over and over, while I do calligraphy. Having done this for years, I’m prepared to assert: At the very least, the thing you learn is which poems you genuinely like—as opposed to the ones you merely find “interesting” or whatever. Once you know the book, the very first words of the poems you actually like will cause a small, involuntary chest spasm that means “oh goody!”

Unless……unless the first half of the poem makes no sense to you, and all the stuff you’re excited about is at the end. In that case, the pleasure will seem to come out of nowhere, every single time. The pleasure ambushes you. My metaphor for this is you’re looking at a hedge, and then suddenly a goose’s head pops out of it.

As a critic, I’m uneasy about that hedge. I don’t like it that the hedge is just a foil. It makes me think why can’t I just have the goose? But the answer is obvious. The goose, just sitting there, is not as good as the goose that has just jack-in-the-boxed the shit out o’ you. On the other hand, imagine watching a YouTube video of twenty minutes of hedge, and then at the last second, goose. Twenty minutes is too much. So then the question becomes: OK how much hedge do you want? And, more: is one hedge really just as good as another? What can we do to get some really high-quality hedge?

And now I impart an insight. Most people’s mistake is exactly that they think hedge is hedge. And worse, they think if hedge is boring, good! it will heighten the contrast with the goose’s head. Score one for the devil. He loves it when we find uses for the boring. Hence my uneasiness. Yet there is, after all, another possibility, and Wallschlaeger has found it. And it doesn’t require the artist to make her peace with boringness.

The solution is to channel a certain amount of unintelligible-yet-beguiling spangablasm. The word that used to be used for this was “nonsense” but, these days, that word is apt to be confused with mere senselessness, so it’s probably just as well the term has been decommissioned. “Unintelligible-yet-beguiling spangablasm” is rather unwieldy, but I am trying to be precise here. Let me give you a few examples of the effect operating on the sentence level (all of ’em are from Houses). Some of the following are typical Wallschlaeger topiary, some are topiary + goose.

Old weather wet teddy bears tied to the lampposts, color all gone, rain ran away with the shovel [page 22]

There is no small talk anymore. There’s still warmth, but in a distracted silly-string sort of skeeball way. That’s to be expected. [27]

His body rejected the new lung like my body rejected your dick, but here it is anyway, a fresh new track in the mud, filling with rain, & the children of frogs who have nothing to do with you. [41]

The water in the drunk tank is filling bodies and I hope the new puppy shakes her raincoat off on the crowd playing with their pocketbooks. [52]

On his right knee is a long radio wave of a birthmark, that’s where it’s been determined by DNA evidence that the first human crawled out of the culture club where I’ve worked as a valet for thirty-five years. [62]

the merry sailor-suited clay bear of your efforts. We have diet sodas for the next sublimation, a wistful man sitting in a reproduction Viking ship somewhere in the united states. "I must’ve been a Viking in a past ¶ life," he says, "because I have a bottomless love for travel.” [73]

That last one, you see what I mean by “hedge,” right? “Sailor-suited clay bear of your efforts”—? Who knows what she’s talking about, yet you feel she is talking about something. “We have diet sodas for the next sublimation,” comma, “a wistful man,”—etc. So, is the wistful man the next sublimation? Can’t tell. But the guy himself and what he says are clear as day. Thus, from the hedge: goose.

Now, what follows is a case of the effect on a larger scale. Here, the first four stanzas are enjambed and seem radioactive with occult significance without ever yielding a single clear thought. Then the last three stanzas come out of nowhere, and together form a jewel of clarity and wit and understated irony:

 

Glitter House

 

Has nothing to do with you. I was going to say. I was going to say social thing. Social thing like pleather it’s a big one, shame. I wish we could go back & witness our friends’ births. What kind of scream or

whimper micromanages you. Traces of languages, a baby with a gourd in my fist, covered with names. To be shameless with a shovel. Digging up a stage in a community theater. If we knew what we were

getting ourselves into. The humanity of a people on the cover of Vogue, a basketball player next to a supermodel. I feel so good about my progress that I’ve fallen in love with life. Like no one else on earth

they say the rich typhoon will be merciful. The shame of an abused people, the abused people making wars. I may be making you uncomfortable. You might cough or rattle off laundered seasons of impunity

but I’m way ahead of you. I will open a show called “Angst in Young Millennials, a Retrospective” sponsored by a hip natural detergent. It will smell as fresh as an English daisy in a springtime garden

you will walk away with one postcard of the young millennial of your choice. Feel free to use it as a smart & inexpensive way to dress up your refrigerator. Everyone deserves to feel inspired, right?

Right. Now if you’ll step through the double French doors my team of international students will be happy to assist you.

By my lights, that ending is exquisite, and I am willing to venture it is the more exquisite because it explodes out at you from a haze of unfollowable spangablasm. I have mentioned I am uneasy about this kind of thing, but I must also report the uneasiness does not occur to me when I am listening to my voice recordings of these books.

Now, I do not wish to assert that Wallschlaeger never writes poems that are all “hedge.” It happens. But it’s infrequent. The fact is one never doubts one is in good hands, as each poem starts. One never thinks her secret goal is to get you to watch a shrub for twenty minutes.

 

C O N C L U D I N G   U N S C I E N T I F I C   P O S T S C R I P T

The following are miscellaneous notes that seemed too good to chuck. They are in random order.

There are at least four chapbooks. Head Theater (2007), I Would Be the Happiest Bird (2014), I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel (2016), and Pizza and Warfare (2017). I’ve never seen copies of the first two. Head Theater must have come out when she was twenty-four or twenty-five years old. 

I Hate Telling You How I Really Feel, which is one of the best four or five chapbooks I’ve ever seen, is available for free on the internet here. Hard copies, however, are unavailable at any price. It’s all images of black Barbie dolls, with meme-style slogans or put-downs or spangablasms, about half of which are drawn from the text of Crawlspace. Samples:

CONFUSED FRIENDSHIP
WITH COMPLIANCE AGAIN

DOES THIS DRESS
MAKE ME LOOK LESS OF A
  PERFECT VICTIM TO RALLY AROUND

YOU'RE KILLING ME BROET

EXHAUSTED FROM GIVING A FUCK

Meanwhile, Pizza and Warfare just came out. If you’re reading all this and thinking Wallschlaeger’s stuff might be for you, you better order this one fast. Here’s the link. The copy I have in front of me says on its title page: “Out of a print run of 30, this is number 3.” The “30” is crossed out, and written above it is “15.” And to the right: “Sewn by MMC, drinking wine.” That’s probably Marty Cain, one of the chiefs at Garden-Door Press.

Pizza and Warfare is exactly what I was hoping it would be: more information about Wallschlaeger’s family background. Houses and Crawlspace make you want to know about her long-gone black father and her more-or-less estranged white mother + the racial tensions every which way. Pizza is sixteen pages of exactly that, in prose. And, for the first time that I know of, Wallschlaeger admits to a certain amount of weakness, vulnerability. Act fast, supplies are limited.

Instantiations of the poet’s invulnerable, self-approving, abrasive persona: 

City citation says no food gardens allowed on front lawns, city citation says I can’t puff naked across my lawn. What will the neighbors think about my hairs. Maybe you shouldn’t be bothered by looking. [Houses, 20]

This is why my grandma lived. We’re both wearing minkettes for the family  funny farm portrait. Say cheese America! We’re eating watermelons. [Houses, 29]

Being vegan is never enough. I don’t hate to break it to you. [Houses, 44]

I’m just a tiny MILF fledgling lost on her way to Trader Joe’s [Houses, 48]

Parakeets make the best erasure poems by shitting on the newspaper at the  bottom of the birdcage. [Houses, 55]

I smell very strong in the afternoon, on my showering fast. [Houses, 72]

Or the ending to “Bronze House” [Houses, 32]:

She [= Wallschlaeger’s mother] has about 30 cookie jars now, ranging from chicken little to baseball tart. Someday I will have to sort them. I will do something strange to pay homage to what we couldn’t bridge, I will bring the pieces of

ceramic cows and giraffes and rearrange them into a pentagram on the sidewalk. As a teenager I refused to come home one night and got drunk, had sex, and passed out. The next day I was sentenced to 2 days

in the county mental health facility. When you picked me up, you didn’t say a word. So the first shard, a piece of bear nose, goes here

Indeed, the two books, taken together, are a tour-de-force of early-thirties hateful vitality.

Two poets are trying to cook a whole chicken on the stove. Why don’t they cut up the chicken first? Maybe that’s supposed to be my job and

they’re afraid they might be racist if they ask me. I believe you’re supposed to hit your pride before you pass it. There’s just one catch: if I help you, I don’t want to see any Frank Ocean

or Drake postings as proof that you’ve passed into the other language. We know you haven’t. Set the oven for 350 degrees to bake for the brownest, crispiest skin.

About this, my friend Brendan’s comment was: “‘Passed into the other language’ is gold.”

One of her Tweets: “I’m going as a witch for Halloween who hears the kiddies knocking at the door and doesn’t answer it”

Wallschlaeger getting onto the page the kind of observation I associate with the D.H. Lawrence of Sons and Lovers: “I brought in logs for the fire. They did not fit so I made them fit. I felt arrogant.”

Last note. Since apparently it’s unGoogleable, I’ll enter into the record here the precise citation for the epigraph Wallschlaeger used for Crawlspace. Here’s how it appears in the book:

all of us are tired
and some of us are mad
                      —Lucille Clifton

Those are the last two lines of a poem called “The Old Availables Have,” which appears on page 5 of The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton: 1965–2010, ed. Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser (BOA Editions, 2012). The piece is one of Clifton’s “uncollected” poems, written when she was between the ages of twenty-nine and thirty-three. Many of these were written to her children. She had six, all of ’em under the age of five in 1965, when she was just starting out. I speculate that the construction “all of us are tired / and some of us are mad” was suggested to Clifton by the following stanza in Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” which perhaps she had recently read to her little ones:

“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
   “Before we have our chat
For some of us are out of breath
   And all of us are fat!”

ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013Boston ReviewFenceHarvard ReviewLana TurnerLIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books).

Kaveh Akbar, Calling A Wolf A Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017)

Jill Bialosky, Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir (Atria Books, 2017)