reviewed by Simon Turner
It’s probably flying in the face of all sorts of reviewing protocols and conventions to ignore the old adage about not judging a book by its cover, but I’m going to do it anyway, if only for a moment. Firstly, it needs to be said that this is a really well-designed work: the folks at Eyewear Publishing, the meatspace wing of Todd Swift’s long-running litblog of the same name, clearly know their onions when it comes to the mechanics of putting a classically stylish book together. Maybe I’m deeply shallow, but I’m put at ease by good design: it makes me feel as though I’m in safe hands for the duration. I’m also reassured, though for different reasons, by the author photograph that graces the back cover of Our Obsidian Tongues. David Shook (whose debut this is), before we’ve even made our way to the contents of his collection, seems an arresting figure, sporting a Dali-esque moustache, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Hüsker Dü’s bass-wielding handlebar-sporter Greg Norton leapt the stage in the 1980s. Why reassuring? Because anyone this committed to pulling their facial hair in such avant garde directions is not to be trifled with, and – one assumes – applies the same degree of seriousness and attention to detail to other areas of his life.
It feels like a designed collection, thematically constructed, recurring images or conceits stitching the individual poems together.
We’d be right in this assumption. Our Obsidian Tongues is an effervescent and assured collection, the work of a writer who has honed his skills with care and dedication. Moreover, Shook displays a commitment to the social and political importance of poetry as a project, focused here upon an unsparing portrait of the modern city. This is no real surprise, given Shook’s other life as a student of endangered languages, and as a translator of, among other things, Roberto Bolaño (specifically, the Infrarealist Manifesto, the calling card of a short-lived avant garde collective which Bolaño, with equal parts tenderness and irony, immortalised as the ‘Visceral Realists’ in The Savage Detectives). Like Bolaño, Shook is very serious about poetry, and these poems speak of a faith in the capacity of language – for good or ill – to have some kind of instrumental impact upon the world.
What’s at first most remarkable about Our Obsidian Tongues is that it feels like a designed collection, thematically constructed, recurring images or conceits stitching the individual poems together. One such recurring image, and it is, I would argue, central to Shook’s intentions, is that of the tongue as a mobile symbol of violence, corruption and, eventually, redemption. The collection’s opener is also its title poem, and here, the tongue is tied to an image of Mexico’s historic acts of violence and sacrifice:
Our tongues are obsidian tongues, shorter than the knives priests use to sacrifice but equally sharp. Our tongues flint sparks. Our tongues chip thin flakes when stabs aren’t straight & quick.
The tongue, then, is both instrument of communication and violence, equally capable of creativity – “flint[ing] sparks” – and destruction, and liable to self-annihilation if misused, if its thrusts aren’t “straight & quick”.
Elsewhere, the potential violence of the tongue as cipher of communication is replaced by its degradation, with the yeast infection thrush becoming a recurring trope. This is more effective than it sounds, and Shook’s use of the metaphor of oral infection (which at various stages of the collection affects newborns, young lovers, the elderly, eventually spreading to envelope the sky above the city) suggests something deeply troubling at the root of contemporary communication, a pervasive and depressive malaise that makes the final modulation of the image of the tongue with which Shook closes his collection all the more redemptive:
My tongue is a bundle of sage, O My tongue is a bundle of sage, O Wild sage, picked from the foothills Where bees nest after their toil With the flowers [...] (‘Incense’)
Tellingly, this shift from the image of the tongue as site of decay to one of cleansing and renewal takes place in the wild. With the exception of a series of more pastoral poems revolving around the figure of Silvestre Adán (an exhaustive Googling suggests Adán is a flesh-and-blood Mexican artist), who variously takes on the roles of orchard keeper, farmer, carpenter, morning singer, and, yes, artist, the remainder of Our Obsidian Tongues is decidedly urban in character, with Mexico City providing the dominant setting. Shook, indeed, is an exceptional poet of the city, his restless, roving eye and tough, sensual language proving more than a match for the disruptions, dispersals and brutal enjambments of the modern metropolis. The collection as a whole reads, in fact, like species of collage, moving through a variety of adopted or borrowed voices – a number of poems are ‘after’ someone or other, Shook no doubt wearing his translator’s cap at an angle – just as it quick-cuts between disparate scenes and images. There is a politics here, a serious and engaged politics at that, but one mercifully free of tendentious editorialising. Shook doesn’t hold his reader’s hand and lead us to particular conclusions about the urban panorama he portrays, and his work is all the stronger for it. His Mexico City is fragmentary, seen in glimpses; we’re left to read a narrative into the shards ourselves.
Shook’s city, too, is capable of extremes of opposition. At one moment, he can reduce the urban sprawl to a telegraphic catalogue of its numberless ills – “bus exhaust, fruit rot, / soured smoke of boiling hops, trash & burnt plastic” – yet at others find a warped beauty amid the chaos. ‘Four Ashfall Questions’, a sequence detailing the effects of a volcanic eruption on an urban population, concludes with an image at once apocalyptic and sensual: “The sun burns orange through / the haze, the color of ripe peach // flesh near its pit, bar flash / neon, the glow of heated / / metal, the lit tip of god’s cigarette.”
There’s also a leavening streak of self-deflation running through the collection. If Shook’s is an activist poetics, animated by a sense – however tentative – of poetry’s instrumental value, he is also aware of the poet’s privileged, isolated position within the society he affects to critique. This is most apparent in the scathing ‘Mutt Ghazal’, where the cliché of reading the small-stakes, high-tempers world of poetry publishing as a dog-eat-dog morass is cruelly literalised: ‘David’, who whiles away his life “loitering online, scribbling poems” sees himself as no better than the dogs entered into tawdry pageants. Abstract values like “world peace” (or poetry even) have no place here: the poem ends with the brittle kiss off “money is the way to go, dog”.
A more subtle appraisal of the poet’s dilemma as both stumbling participant in, and detached observer of a fallen world occurs in the short, titleless lyric observations that form the collection’s backbone. Here, an unnamed narrator – possibly the same ‘David’ who willingly excoriates himself in ‘Mutt Ghazal’ – watches the world, in all its splendour and horror, unfold from his tenth floor apartment window. These pieces showcase Shook at his very best: they’re brisk and quietly savage, their politics implicit and arising through the telling juxtaposition of images. The tensions and contradictions of the unnamed narrator’s position are apparent from the outset:
The last few months I’ve looked on her with pity. I’m on the tenth floor & even here I hear the whines of drills, the rumor of automobiles & the whimpering of dogs that refuse to die. I observe her intensely, I try to see the sun through her haze . . .
The speaker is moving towards some kind of concern – or ‘pity’ – but pity is not action or engagement: rather, it’s at one remove. Similarly, there’s a hint of ethical engagement in the image of “whimpering dogs that refuse to die,” but it’s a dark parody of concern: the dogs are little more than an intrusion, merely another item in the catalogue of noises that the speaker-poet observes drifting through his window. The unnamed speaker might be hunting for the sunlight behind the smog – that is, the beauty amid the detritus of the city – but it feels like an impossible utopian act when read in the light of the remainder of the poems gathered here. The only beauty possible here necessarily presents itself in a more prosaic context (“Through the dust & ozone, / jacarandas flash, swords of color & the penetrating stench / of rotten oranges”), or is actively undermined by the facts (“I peer down to admire the spring. / / Surrounded by trash lovers kiss & rats mate.”)
If I had a complaint about the collection, it is that Shook’s restlessness and virtuosity can feel overwhelming at times. Our Obsidian Tongues is packed with some startling phrases (my pick of the bunch: “Silverfish mate beneath the seminary pillows like sequins fucking”, from ‘At the Baptist Seminary Dormitories in Mexico State’), but the reader’s rarely provided with an opportunity to breathe between such bursts of concentrated language. In addition, the prose poems detailing the characteristics of three unassuming, everyday sharp objects – ‘The Pin’, ‘The Needle’ and ‘The Toothpick’ – fail to leap off the page with quite the same verse as Shook’s other work. The objects under scrutiny work as analogues of the kind of sharp and penetrating creativity that Shook clearly favours, but their cataloguing of the various qualities and permutations of their chosen subjects is flattening rather than expansive. The conclusion of ‘The Needle’ is brilliant – “The needle speaks a tiny language, inaudible, even, to music box prongs & harmonica reeds & dentists’ vibrating scrapers of plaque. Tinier than Polish” – but it’s something of a slog to get there. But these are minor quibbles at best. Considered in its totality, Our Obsidian Tongues is excellent, and offers one route towards a serious, and seriously engaged, activist mode for contemporary poetry.