New Books by Nicolette Polek, Honor Levy, and Tracy Fuad


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Mural at the Amargosa Opera House. Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gia wants to disappear. This is an ordinary desire while in pain. In moments of hardship, it is tempting to admire the ascetic. The imagined glory of solitude is that our inner life will become a source of endless pleasure. Of course, this is fiction. Everyone is touched by loneliness, while alone and in company. To bear it, we must find something from beyond to sustain us. This is what Nicolette Polek’s Bitter Water Opera seeks.

Polek’s debut novel, published last month by Graywolf, shows us the mechanics of a mind negotiating a rupture. It’s easy to say that Bitter Water Opera is about a breakup, but that would be a narrow view. As in real life, the relationship comes undone downstream from a more preeminent but obscured event in the emotional life of one or both parties. Gia’s relationship seems fine. It is sparsely characterized, mostly through memories of excursions dotted with palms and bougainvillea. But for Gia, this pleasantness is intolerable. She starts acting erratically, flirting with strangers. Soon after, she leaves both him and her post in a university film department. Her mental state is vague, made up of a loose association of memories, summoning trinket-like facts, like “the prevalent tone in nature is the key of E.” She has traded a life in exchange for something she has not yet learned to want. But what is to be done when desire turns its cheek to you? What is there to want when you’ve stopped wanting what you wanted? In the absence of wanting, it is helpful to find a human example to follow, try to insinuate yourself in their map of desire and its attendant habits.

Through the figure of the dancer and choreographer Marta Becket, Gia tries to summon a model for a life she could find agreeable. “Marta got through without needing, grieving, or waiting on someone, and now, after death, I was her witness, hoping that she, in some act of imitation on my part, could fix my life.” Becket was a real woman who abandoned her life as a ballerina in New York in favor of the oblivion of Death Valley, where she dedicated herself to running a previously abandoned recreation hall to showcase her one-woman plays and ballets. At the Amargosa Opera House, Becket performed her own choreography for nearly fifty years. In the early days, her only audience members were the faces of heroes and loved ones that she had painted into the trompe l’oeil mezzanines, from which they permanently applauded. Her husband, Polek writes, was off with the prostitutes in town, trying to withstand the fact that Marta did not need him. Eventually she became a cult figure, luring crowds, the press, and lost women like Gia into her orbit, even after death.

After Gia writes her a letter, the ghost of Marta enters Gia’s life, and with her a flurry of activity. The pair have full days together: painting, picknicking, hiking. For a while Gia pantomimes Marta’s actions, but it soon becomes evident that she is not yet ready to stand up to the task of living (she attempts to get back together with her ex-boyfriend). The ghost of Marta exits, taking her watercolors with her. Gia descends into catatonia. Towards the middle of the novel, Gia looks out over the pond outside a house in the country where she’s staying alone and sees the floating corpse of a dead deer. This visceral encounter with a rotting animal draws Gia out of the misty, desultory realm she has lived in for so long and forces her to contend with the bare facts of nature, and the nature of herself: she does not live the life of an embodied subject. Her central problem is her tendency for “limerence,” as she calls it, which leaves her chronically unable to connect with the present. But this insight is brief, and an epiphany does not cohere. “The smell faded for good, and with it my revelation.” Here she is confronted with the mystery of herself: something has peeked out from the curtain behind which her mind stages a secret play. It is a glimpse at something that will eventually be revealed in full, but she must wait. Insight tends to come soon after we are emptied out completely. As the epigraph notes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

—Hayley J. Clark

 

Being more “connected” than ever to the world, there can be a strange sensation in trying to determine where we end and where everything else begins. As Tracy Fuad writes in her powerful new book Portal, “I have imagined / The rootlets / Of new nerves / Extending / To carry sensation / Back to the crescent / Of numbness / Above the line / That marks the boundary / Of no dimension / In between us.” Life’s events are bizarre, but at the same time all too ordinary: they might be stalking an ex online (who has deleted the photos of you together), the contortions of learning a new language, or even the sensation of pregnancy. Fuad is the poet of this porous feeling, and she follows the tides of that ever-changing boundary. This condition, both banal and terrifyingly expansive, is addressed in a poem cleverly titled “Hyposubject”: “How do you feel when the world is big inside your head? // Another common moment.” What’s common can be elusive—we can forget how strange what we’re doing is—but then it proves to be a source of shared strength, if effort is taken to open its hidden possibilities.

This transformation of the everyday has much to do with the clarity of Fuad’s forms, which range widely but fit together seamlessly in the book’s structure: the long unspooling of short lines down the page in a ribbon, the single-line monostitches that open up space on the page and test each declaration. Together, they make a theme of the difficulty of managing discrete information, the struggle to find form within flux. Fuad’s excellent poem “Birth” was published in this magazine, but it’s the shortest poem in Portal—to me, one of Fuad’s great strengths is the mid-length lyric. Although she is capable of marvelous compression and precision (“After the storm, I step on a buried bird at the beach. Soft as a loaf of bread.”), the longer poems are true to the book’s title, which I think conveys a spirit of dilation. Once the portal is open, the poet must remain open to connections and continuations. At the same time, Fuad keeps her subjects clear and focused, from a meditation on German business customs and its language to a poem about the varieties of edible acorn on Cape Cod. Although the screen is always just a glance away, Fuad doesn’t feel bound to it—inch by inch, pixel by pixel, the poet’s attention recovers its agency. Nor is Fuad trapped in her first-person subjectivity—a stunning, more abstract sonnet sequence anchors the book, forging surprising intimacies from some of the book’s most “difficult” language.

Many writers either pretend that the phone glued to the hand doesn’t exist or are subsumed by it, mirroring its frantic language. Fuad finds a synthesis that is neither an evasion nor a surrender. As she writes, “When the self finally appears, don’t turn the self away.” With its inventive, precise language, Portal makes clarity from noise.

—David Schurman Wallace

Most twelve-year-olds online today have the kind of intuition for the infinite plasticity of word and image that you used to have to study semiotics to acquire. This is why we’re living through a Cambrian explosion of linguistic creativity; it’s also why Twitter eventually makes you feel like words are meaningless, and like you are dead or “deconstructed.” What makes Honor Levy the voice of a generation is her ability to take all those floating signifiers and dead metaphors, all these junk-bits of content rendered inert by their repetition—on Reddit, on Tumblr, in Shakespeare—and give them new life; in other words, meaning. And she makes it look easy! At their best, Levy’s sentences hopscotch through intricate sequences of signs with perfect control and infectious glee; all you want to do is sit back and watch them play. My favorite piece in her new collection My First Book is an otherwise traditional short story composed almost entirely of cultural references, and a virtuosic example of this sense for rhythm and quotation: “She’d stare up at him with her shining anime, no her shining animal eyes, her real eyes, realize real lies. Wondering what he was thinking. He’d stare into them and then he’d sit beside her, very close, take a breath and say, Damn Bitch, You Live Like This? like Max to Roxanne from A Goofy Movie (1995) from the meme (2016). They would smile. There would be butterflies.”

The story being told here is a tale as old as time: boy meets girl—except online. The simplicity of this conceit belies the beauty and intelligence of its execution. Like Instagram, and like one of the oldest scraps of internet syntax I personally remember, it’s so meta: “Love Story” shows us how the love story is itself a meme—the original one. “Odysseus and Penelope, Eloise and Abelard, Adam and Eve, Bella and Edward,” as Levy’s story goes. Their love is why we’re here, and their stories are why we fall in love. And Levy’s unnamed Zoomer Romeo and Juliet are acutely aware of this: their status as characters and images, as memes and as (thanks to xenoestrogens, diminishingly viable) genes, and the melancholy this can produce. Deep in her “Ophelia era,” she has to remind herself of her actual existence: “That is my body on the screen there. This is my body on the bed here.” Sometimes, when you know you’re just a vessel, you feel really empty. As the Wikipedia page for Metameme states, “It has been proposed that the degree of consciousness a society has about the very memes that form it is correlated with how evolved that society is,” and sometimes, knowing you’re at the brain-expanding final stage of humanity isn’t so fun. A “Withered Wojak,” he feels “depopulation, doom, the sun setting for the last time ever, a great ugliness, the end of history flashing before his eyes.” (These low points come after a poorly received nude.) A less courageous and more cynical writer, perhaps someone working on Euphoria, might have left the romance at that: poor alienated fucked-up Zoomers. But Levy knows we’re so lucky to see “all of the ends and the beginnings beginning and ending and beginning and ending and beginning and ending infinitely.” And our generation is lucky to have a voice that gives us a happy ending, or, at least, a happy way to end. <3

Olivia Kan-Sperling, assistant editor





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