Adam Golaski
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Review of Atelier, by Claire Lux
(AQP Collective, 2005)

 

Atelier = workshop or studio; anglais offers a more specific meaning: an artist’s or designer’s studio. The Atelier at hand is a chapbook, assembled 199 times at Red Dot Studio. The cover is brown, faded at the top (as if by the sun). On the front cover is the word ATELIER trailing a green band that wraps around to the back cover, where, within the green band, is a name: Claire Lux.

OK. “Atelier” (in quotes) is a poem and the first two lines are: “The days end while// Configuring hours gore.”

So, sun, set.

The poem doesn't offer a clear narrative, and at first scan appears to be like an annoying Bruce Andrews' poem in which there's little meaning that can actually be derived from the poem itself, but is just a stack'v praxis leaning hard on clever poetics. The next five lines are: “Stave the skin of a crazy/ Silent toad// Configures memes/ On top of a/ Giant blue plateau.” But “Atelier” isn't that, and lovely (if dark) scenes emerge as one reads into the poem.

There is sunset and quickly death, “Some die and never perceive,” death and the matter of understanding who/what we (humans) are and then there are historians (scam artists) and the documents they create (history) in order to understand:

Carefully
Monitor with tragic
Confidence men
Questioning
Rite illegitimacy
Whether or not to EAT
Them Burn then or love
Their pearly edges

Or a document such as Atelier (a book) is. We revere/consume (eat) or destroy/censor (burn) or reduce the document to pure object-hood (love)—how many of you collect chapbooks like porcelain figurines? How many unread books live on your shelf? We (humans) revere documents, are in a frenzy to preserve everything: baseball cards and New Orleans. The why is tangled up in how we measure achievement: with those documents we call money, with the things we‘ve built and made. A thought had is vapor until it is made into language. Yet, under our noses, the meaning of all these documents constantly change, and so what are we preserving? Not memory, exactly, but something like it. Reminders of what we (humans) were like, once thought, once did—dubious reminders, yes, for we cannot truly know what it is to be someone other than who we are. And dubious because such reminders/documents are so easily manipulated.

We are not concerned with preserving our documents when we are distracted by the time we live in. By the crisis of daily life. When we cannot dwell upon self-value or manifest nostalgia. That is when we “die and never perceive.” So, Atelier is another document for us to have, to look at, destroy, etc.

Atelier is made of sections, some quite short and centered on the square pages of the book, some a little bit longer. The poem begins with the end of the day and ends there too, “At bed time”; I could see the poem as the thoughts of someone not exactly relaxing before bed.

There is quite a lot of language and idea to enjoy:

The way I lick my lips is older
than ethics history rhetoric
Lighter than tawdry feathers
Strung from the tail
Of a pagan desire

The language: “lick” “lips” “ethics” “rhetoric,” the hard sounds these first two lines force from the reader’s own lips, the smile the mouth makes (not happiness but musculature) “lick” is repeated “ethics.” Immediately following these aggressive sounds is “Lighter than tawdry feathers” and it is a lighter line to my ear. And then idea: the way we lick our lips, an ancient gesture, an action that links us to our past, certainly more physically than (and I reverse the sequence and shift the words) language, documents, or rules of behavior. “lick” “lips” like Archaeopteryx; OK, so the first bird might’ve had no lips to lick, but a tail and “tawdry feathers.”

Another passage I like, for its vivid pictures:

How moisture hangs
In the dark tidal sky
Like cloth on flexed
Muscle how my love
Rescinds nasty flags
Or toys bounce down
A set of stairs

The moisture from the first line connects to tidal and is carried to the cloth and the muscle—I see a damp, thin fabric—black (night) stretched to reveal skin (stars) beneath. Toys bouncing down stairs is automatically ominous and melancholic; I see no child behind the toys, nor waiting for them.

Also good in that passage is the ambiguity of “…how my love. Rescinds nasty flags.” Is it my love, as in the love of this poet who takes away “nasty flags” (political, cultural, historical differences) or is it my love , as in a person the poet loves (is loved by). The former suggests a love almost god-like—My Love accomplishes great things; the latter suggests something more humble, sweeter: my love does this for me and it is good.

There's quite a lot of good language to choose from, really, some small passages that appealed to me: “I could sit here all/ Day squeaking stalks/ Of clenched grass” and: “Dissonance/ Couldnt tune/ Fools…” and: “Insects darting at/ Cracks in the wide/ Walks.”

Some decisions perplex me: why CAP the first letter of every line (so traditional), why ALL CAP certain words, and why eliminate apostrophes? These questions are not meant to damn those decisions. No apostrophes makes sense when there is no other punctuation in the poem, and on occasion the lack of apostrophe creates some interesting ambiguities, for example in regard to possession: “…my states urban/ Center courses through/Tangled veins” could be “…my state's urban/ Center…” and, in what I think of as the title passage of the poem:

Im the mills ATELIER
These rainy day parts
Are my solid paints
These acrid black clouds
Are paint fumes
That split
My head in two

Up to this point, I'd been alternating between reading the lines with the ALL CAP words as part of the line, and simply omitting the word. So: “I'm the mills/ These rainy day parts” or “I'm the mill's ATELIER.” I am the mill's studio is a very interesting declaration, and if I = atelier, that brings up some new questions, mostly about process. The poet as a generative space, a place where poetry is gathered, as opposed to a human who creates. Are we “a space” to be “Filled in with/ Frightful things,” only to then expire “expect/ The storm to pass”? Or do we actually make things? I suppose, with a head split in two, we could be both.

That title passage could be read as a reference to Claire Lux, who is not a poet, but a “…character invented specifically for this project”—the project being, “ a series of thirteen poetry books” with characters as the authors. The author, then, of both Claire Lux and the poem “Atelier” is John Most, the editor of Call: A Review.

This raises a number of questions, some intended, surely, others perhaps not. By revealing on his website that Claire Lux is a character, Most indicates that anonymity is not his goal. Perhaps a delyaed anonymity—the book itself offers no clue that Claire Lux isn't real/the author, so there was a period of time during which, as far as I was concerned, this was a book of poems written by a woman. Most, at least according to the mustache on his My Space photo, isn't a woman. I'm no longer able to think about “Atelier” as a poem by a woman, and now, neither are you. That the next two books in the project are written with female pseudonyms indicates a trend, and I assume Most wants us to examine what it means for a poem to be written by a woman vs. a man. I dunno, I liked Claire Lux, and was just a little dissapointed when she died. As far as the poem “Atelier” is concerned, the gender of the author neither benefits nor detracts. At most, the person I picture squeaking stalks of grass changed from a woman to a man and that switch wasn't revelatory.

I've been debating whether or not it is a stretch to call Claire Lux a character. There is no story of Claire Lux outside of the book; she is a name. Yet, the poem is by Claire Lux, and so we can learn of her character through the poem. If I grant that to Most—that he is telling the story of his characters through the character's poem, that telling these stories is his project—then there is a demand Most must meet: each poem in this project must be different enough to have come from a different poet.

Publishing poetry is a little anonymous. Look through the table of contents in this issue of word/ for word and find a name you don't know: that poet = the poetry that is ascribed to them in this issue and nothing else. If you like the poems, you can say that you like that poet, and you might then take steps to learn more (the first step being to read their bio). If you are indifferent to the poem, the poet will remain anonymous. Most poets do.

A couple of years ago I was kicking around an English department with a friend. Set out in front of the English chair's office was a huge box of literary journals. Now, I may not be all that well read, and I'm sure my friend would admit to limits to his knowledge, but we went through that box, flipped through magazines we knew (Grand Street! The Iowa Review! TriQuarterly!) and many more we didn't, and journal after journal we came up with anonymous poets and essayists and short stories writers and—etc. My friend couldn't help but speculate that one day a box just like the one we'd gone through would appear in another English department and our names will be on the warped, mildewed covers of the discareded journals inside.

The “I” that appears throughout Atelier is oppresive in some cases: I don't like, “That split/ My head in two” (the obvious line break doesn't help), nor what follows: “Im a space/ Fill me in with/ Frightful things expect/ The storm to pass.” The “I”—Claire Lux, perhaps—is not as interesting as what the “I” sees without indicating itself. Fortunately, that “I” is used on a limited basis (it is that reluctance to use “I” that provides much of the poem its mystery and tension).

The occassional gag in the poem contributes nothing. A good section is damaged by a line break gag that is meaningless except as a gag:

Necklace the paper moons
Performers the jostle
Sychronized to arhythmic
Feet/ SINGERS suck
Back their words
Step
Off colored light
Water smoke it is easier
To loosen than to
Retrieve

“SINGERS suck” is like bathroom graffiti in an otherwise lovely passage. This might seem less like a gag if “singers” wasn’t in ALL CAP (and so again I question the use of ALL CAP). Read the passage this way:

Necklace the paper moons
Performers the jostle
Synchronized to arhythmic
Feet/ singers suck back
Their words…

Later, another gag: “Pathetic speech/ Pathologies delight.” This attempt at being clever is only distracting.

Atelier (the poem) is better than the experiment it's a part of—the Claire Lux experiment. Perhaps John Most found himself released by Claire, able to write poetry he otherwise could not; perhaps Claire does things in her poetry he would not. If so, write on as Claire, but why not share the process that is writing as Claire with your readers? Perhaps this project will look better to me when the thirteen chapbooks are bound into one book, 13 Women by John Most.