Sunday, November 29, 2015



Ashes and Seeds by Michelle Greenblatt
(Unlikely Books, Lafayette, LA, 2014)

The Inner Performance: Reflections on Michelle Greenblatt’s Ashes and Seeds

No hour is the same hour: each perceptual pause holds eternity / in its power.
 -Michelle Greenblatt

Each perceptual pause.

Identity, in the view of phenomenologists from Austin to Butler, is founded in acts of performance. Gender, personality, and the apparent core of any given subject, come less from the internalised examination of self that things such as speech acts and public actions. The traces of our existence, after all, are things which are seen.

How much more is the performance present in poetry? Founded in the festival, the song, the religious chant: poetry is an art form that is rooted in the exchange between subject and subject beyond the profane ordinary. In the twenty first century, performative identity is enhanced in the post-internet era by the supplemented identity potential of social media. It is at this cross-roads, we find Michelle Greenblatt. Very definitely a serious and disciplined poet, and very definitely an internet poet. As Jonathan Penton, her editor and close friend, points out in his introduction to her print collection, Ashes and Seeds, Greenblatt “…did not spend a moment of her adult life contemplating whether or not the internet was worthy of her poems: it was widely considered a legitimate venue for publication before she had any adult works to publish.”

Greenblatt, therefore, is a figure of the crossroads. She appears on the horizon of twenty first century performative identity and its poetic expression. Penton places the genre of Ashes and Seeds as confessional verse. How does the internalised examination of confession, with its therapeutic implications, act against the performance of poetry? We are drawn, it seems, to Whitman’s imperative…

 And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Confessional as it may be, not all of Ashes and Seeds can be taken as literal. Nor should that be expected from the form. Plath, after all, framed the communication of personal feeling against several non-personal narratives, using language in reference to the Shoah where she was neither German nor Jewish. Greenblatt evades the lyrical I altogether by the use of a third person narrative in the first section of Ashes and Seeds. We are introduced to a protagonist called Scarlet. Who is, at once, a princess and a writer at a computer screen…

It’s 7.13 p.m., she notes.  She’s just about to leave her cursed computer when another damned idea demands it’s time to / to bleed the screen again.

I will come back… she starts, then pound the delete key in fury. She hikes out to meet her edges. 

A second protagonist, a prince…

Drives around in a B.M.W, which he now can’t afford; he rides around all day, looking to score. He knows his cleverness is a weapon, pour to melt, he insists.

These actors are clearly framed in twenty first century actions and life-worlds. The abstraction of the language pours in from high fantasy themes, sharply violent, sometimes drug infused. It is more G.R.R Martin than J.R.R Tolkien in reference.  The high fantasy feel is enhanced throughout the first section by the repetition of the phrase “…I will come back…” recalling the form of a ballad. Word contractions further assist the mystic landscaping of the language and are repeated through the following sections, peppered with light use of anachronisms, both emotive and ironic. 

In the next two sections, we are released from Scarlet’s narrative (though she will return in a later poem). The lyrical I returns to the verse, subtly, with occasional swings of tense and perspective. Second person is employed occasionally. The scope of Ashes and Seeds is outside of personal confession, and finds its sense in inter-subjectivity. Poems dwell on the loss of friends, love, death, and meeting.  Always there is the sense of a journey, and how these things contribute to a personal psychic state. In section two, Atomic Time feels central to the causation of the undeniable darkness of that psychic state. The poem implies an act of sexual violence more directly than any other part of the book…

Then came his sourblack acts.

As I obeyed, I could feel the metal
tip of his gun warming
against my skin.

Again, the fantasy style word contraction of “sourblack”. With a delicate hand, Greenblatt draws the verse out from this shock, letting it flower into a discussion of the abstraction of poetic description itself…

no one said, “why are there bite-marks
on your breasts?” they only asked “what color
is a hospital?” and “are you the color of death?” or was that
me, asking myself, rocking in the cold waiting
room, making noises like a wounded
animal. The cold was a noose
of ice around my neck.

Thus, the centrality of pain in Ashes and Seeds, co-exists with the necessity of performance. Trauma is seen as identity and identity is explored against trauma.  The trauma, of course, is present in descriptions of love, friendship, and the ordinary phenomenon of time passing, but so is the transcendence of the abstract always present in trauma. One is not the cause of the other. In Greenblatt’s confessional, we are asked to do more than empathise or feel with the subject – we are given a glimpse of the inner screen, where true events may play out in a way that can be viewed cinematically, philosophically, and couched in the epic. Greenblatt’s fantasy figure is not the hetero-normative sword warrior, who fights pain with pain, but the artist, who confronts trauma with the discipline of consideration and observation. 

Even with the sense of Journey in the book, in the act of an agent hiking out to meet her edges, there is, as Penton writes “… no suggestion in ASHES AND SEEDS, that people can, by behaving in a correct way, experience positive results…”.  The reader must always feel the presence of a threefold past, presence, and future as it if framed by the core of suffering. None the less, with the co-existence of the transcendent moment in the midst of that suffering, Greenblatt follows the natural form of argument and narrative to end strongly in the moment of remembering an expansion of spirit. The final poem, “Without the help of a ladder,” begins with, now familiar, angst and then admits…

… I’ve sat frozen in panic until I remembered to look up, then found a plump skyline full of wider wings than I have ever seen or dreamed.  Whole worlds whip past me, beckoning.  The only blood-borne cries I hear now have dimmed.

Eyes; throat; lips exposed, mark the beginning of the first creation-kiss.

We are left with the picture of a woman with her head raised. She is exposed, considering the damage that has passed before, exposure suggests a danger, but also an interplay with beauty. The last word contraction rings with trauma’s uses.  It is the ugliest of blessings, and the most fortunate curse – the artist takes the pain and joy as contrast and makes art. It is the blood of the birthing ward, the moment of the poetic abstract forming – it is the creation-kiss.

To know Greenblatt as a figure at the horizon of the post-internet age is to know the extreme diversity she has used to deal with the poetic abstract. In comparison to visual art, which sought the photo-realistic before the photo-realistic was commonplace, language art begins in the abstract, with metaphor, simile, and analogy used explicitly as early as The Iliad and The Torah. The function of art is realised through a confrontation with the alien. For visual art, a photo-realistic representation was a moment outside of secular time at one point in its history. We are brought to the grove outside of town, outside of our ordinary lives, where we can focus on experience beyond ourselves because, before the photograph, a static image of that sort was strange. Language starts at the point of plain representation – man, woman, boy, girl, 1 2 3 4. For poetry, the chant to the divine and the speaking of mystery was the first stop it could make.

Ashes and Seeds, a print book, is constantly at play with the possibilities of its time.  A reader could, for example, use the extended epigraphs from songs and Shakespeare to simply find the source material in seconds, and play a recording of it as background, zoning between the dense verse and a  performance of Richard III, or the dark arpeggio chords of Heather Nova’s, Island. At the same time, epigraph is an old poetic convention. Moving across time, tense, and perspective as it does seamlessly, Ashes and Seeds becomes that transcendence of the moment, or of a personal life-world. In response to Greenblatt’s wider wings and creation-kiss, we can say, in contrast to Benjamin’s formula that “The storyteller borrows his authority from death,” the poet borrows her authority from immortality.


Alan Fyfe has written journalism, poetry, prose, and essay.  He is a winner of the Karl Popper Philosophy Prize and lives by a river, with his son, very far from you.

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