WHAT IF RED RAN OUT
By Katia Grubisic
A poet’s medium is language and it goes without saying that they should use words carefully and with precision. That said, language is always pulling in connotative and denotative directions, stretched by centripetal and centrifugal forces that condense and expand meaning. The latter case is what usually attracts the most notice, it being where a poet is said to be most “playful” (an overworked expression that I think has had its day). Punning is an obvious example of this, but any metaphor involves the same technique. Somewhere between pun and metaphor lies ambiguity: when words are not quite one thing or the other, but a bit of both. Ambiguity cuts both ways.
The second section of the long poem “Preemptive Fieldnotes” in Katia Grubisic’s debut collection What if red ran out begins with a pregnant example: “For good, winter has receded, drooled / the other seasons in its wake.” Does “for good” mean that winter isn’t coming back (ever)? Or does it mean that getting rid of winter is for the best? What makes the point resonate is the way it relates to the question the poem begins (and ends) by addressing: “What if the world is a slide?” The answer to which can only be “What exactly do you mean by a slide?” The poem unpacks this ambiguity. The slide is, first of all, the fall of man, beginning with our picking dream fruit in the garden. It is Larkin’s “long slide” into adulthood, sexuality, and beyond. It is civilization’s progress – in the sense, I think, of Ronald Wright’s “progress trap” – and the wake of flotsam and jetsam it shits out behind us, piling up and threatening to bite us in the ass (“Everything / we have ever swallowed cavalcades”). It is the rhetorical slippery slope of argument, leaving us to consider with Aeneas that “Ascension / is more complex than it seems.” The imagery tips from the innocuous (the slide as “playground apparatus”) to the cartoonishly sinister (the collapsing Scooby-Doo staircase activated by a “secret-agent button”), but it doesn’t tell us whether the world is in fact a slide and whether or not that’s a good thing, whether winter will return or whether it’s gone for good. Or rather it answers these questions with an ambiguous yes and no.
Part of the difficulty in formulating answers is that the language is metaphorical. The title, for example, is part of the poem “Baffled King Collage” and it’s unclear from the context what sort of a value we are to place on red. Do the lines refer to things that are red, or redness as a quality of things? A part of the spectrum of light? A state of mind or feeling – violent, passionate, a sanguinary humour? Ambiguity suggests all of the above. Grubisic likes to suspend any final, authoritative meaning in these poems. “Barometer” is a clever instance, prolonging the moment of not-quite-kissing through a single rambling sentence. The kiss itself (almost) takes place in the imagined geography of a canyon that appears out of nowhere
The trouble with deciding to kiss someone,
anyone, anywhere at all – the hand, or at the foot
of a canyon –
We naturally assume the “anywhere” is going to refer to a place on the body, and so we are not surprised by the reference to the hand. But then comes the foot which trips us stumbling over the stanza break onto the ambiguity that inheres in anywhere: both a place on someone’s body where we kiss them and the place we are when we kiss. That surprise returns, along with the tripping feet, in the poem’s fluid climax as the rising waters of the canyon sweep the would-be lovers “off their feet, to somewhere or / else.” Coitus interruptus, or the consummation devoutly to be wished? There is no conjunction of identity, as with metaphor. The two don’t become one. The beloved only “aspires / to be wholly other.” We never make it to the bottom of the slide.
This resolute indeterminacy might have been coy in a poet less sure of what she was about, but Grubisic makes it work with a careful blend of drearily local and visionary imagery and a calculated snap in her lines. If “somewhere or / else” isn’t identified, we still feel that it’s a place. The quality throughout is also remarkably consistent, with few poems failing to fire on at least some cylinders. If not for the fact that there have been a number of really good first books of poetry in recent years – a testimony to the job small press publishers are doing in this country, by the way – a book like this would stand out even more. As it is, it takes a place among distinguished company.
Review first published online June 1, 2009.