A woman and a man are facing one another and testing out some violence: punches to the solar plexus, slaps to the face. Each blow is delivered with a long pause before the next, all with intermediate strength: hard enough to move the other, yet without overt muscular tension. He is larger, balding, heavier, wears black pants; his chest and feet are bare. The woman’s hair is longer and curlier, she is wearing black pants and a black sports bra, and her feet are bare. Some of their belongings have been set down on the dark, well-swept, stone-tiled floor: light articles of clothing; a half-liter water bottle; a piece of paper with what looks to be small, neat, cursive handwriting; a pen. Unseen drums are struck intermittently to punctuate the action, like title cards in a silent film. Their sound is prominent but unobtrusive. There is need for it, and space: it fills a broad chamber which, though filled with bodies, is otherwise silent.
They part. They return to their original positions, next to their possessions, facing each other. They are standing, roughly speaking, at the foci of a quite eccentric ellipse whose boundary is marked by the bodies of the audience. They take turns reciting, with long, intervening pauses, individual words: nouns pronounced without inflection, intent, or any immediate bearing on the situation as a whole. “Situation.” “Billfold.” “Thanksgiving.” “Febreeze.” “Glance.” Whippoorwill, peon, dodecahedron, plot: even when swept up in the rhythms and the modulation of familiar, mutual conversation, English remains a particulate, irregular, disjointed tongue. But spoken as such, and in such isolation, the words come off dully, ominously, like so many pieces of a damaged alien spacecraft. “Diagonal.” “Xanax.”
They close in on each other. He lifts up her body and carries it around the oval for what seems to be a long time, during which they collaborate to shift her body, without setting her down, into a series of states of captivity against his own: her legs wrapped around his upper body and her body dangling, her entire body held up by his arms, upside down at a diagonal, and so on. This goes on for a while; the tension is such that even watching the performance is physically exhausting. There is nothing to do but observe, listen to their breathing as it increases in volume, and imagine, consciously or not, the weight of a live body.
But, at last, they stand, part, and close in on each other once more. And then they are truly grappling, engaged in a seemingly interminable series of clutches and stances, repeatedly fending one another off and repeatedly rejoining. It doesn’t seem like she is winning; given the disparity in size and strength between the two, the observer wonders how she possibly could. In spite of his superior upper body strength, the man seems incapable of overpowering the woman, and one is reminded of fights in dreams, where an enemy may be confronted and striven with but never wiped out. The struggle is choreographed at a pace slow enough to discern that it is indeed choreographed, an event that is ordered, yet the pace is sufficiently rapid, and the bodies are subjecting one another to such strain that the potential for something unplanned and unruly must hang, unvoiced, over the proceedings. Each successive shaky hold, heavy breath, or crawl renders the observer’s sense of gravity that much more acute. (The drums, along with any sense of clockwork, inorganic time, have largely ceased, their function taken over by the combatants’ increasingly audible breathing.) The whole affair seems like a kind of engine that converts vision and duration into weight.
Though time comes to feel as taut as a muscle, the performance does eventually end. He lies supine and motionless; she is poised and perpendicular to him, with a foot perched on his throat. And then he stands up and they part, each to their set of belongings. They face each other, the floor between them now darkened with patches of sweat. She is in a wide stance, feet pointing outward, knees bowed out: the effect it conveys is ambiguous, ceremonial yet slightly and mysteriously comic. They reach under their clothes, into their crotches. She pulls out a colorless tampon; an observer seated close to her can’t quite see what he pulls out. She places the tampon in her water bottle and gathers her belongings; he does likewise with his thing. They exit the performance space. Applause begins.
This event, titled MORTAL KOMBAT after the violent 1992 arcade game, took place on the night of October 16, 2014, upon the ground floor of the Whitney Museum. Of the three performers in the play—the drummer Edley O’Dowd, the actor Jim Fletcher, playing the man, and the poet Ariana Reines, playing the woman—all were, evidently, crucial to its execution. But their relative visibility, the composition of the audience (skewing heavily toward the college-aged), and the outcome of the struggle seemed to point toward Reines being both the prime conceiver of the performance as well as its primary attraction. The general character of the performance—highly ritualized, allegorical, body-centered, risk-laden, committed—bore a profound resemblance to that of her writing.
Still in her early thirties, Reines (pronounced rynes) has authored three full-length books of poetry and several shorter poetic works which, taken together, have inspired fierce admiration and acclaim from poets and non-poets alike: veteran literary interviewer Michael Silverblatt describes her as “destined to be one of the crucial voices of her generation.” Silverblatt’s invocation of destiny seems especially apt. The most apparent, and most difficult to communicate, aspect of Reines’s art is a sense of personal urgency so powerful as to extend beyond herself. If her poems frequently contain details of her own biography, Reines never seems interested in these details merely as such. The greater interest and excitement, for her and her readers, lie in witnessing her as she transforms her life into a point of departure into the common worlds of culture and history. Her books draw sustenance from, among other things, New York City, astrology, Haiti, medieval love poetry, Gnosticism, porn, Islam, and Paris. She stands at the center of her work not as a self but as a kind of cardiac impatience, as a vessel for materials bound elsewhere; her language, correspondingly, is filled with images of going through, passing out, transport.
These images received an especially extreme emphasis in Reines’s first book of poetry. Conceived and executed as an extended meditation on cosmogony, maternity, and sacrifice, large sections of The Cow (2006) incorporate passages in the most literal sense, quoting liberally and rigorously from texts as varied as the Koran, the Merck Veterinary Manual, the book of the prophet Joel (as rendered in the King James Version of the Bible), John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the 1948 French documentary film Le Sang des bêtes, the Duino Elegies, and an online brochure that advertises industrial-scale machinery to dispose of, or render, the carcasses at slaughterhouses:
THE WR2 TISSUE DIGESTOR SYSTEM EFFECTIVELY AND
RELIABLY ADDRESSES INFECTIOUS ANIMAL CARCASSES AND
INACTIVATES PRIONS. THIS TECHNOLOGY IS USED
To address a carcass is to liquefy it. This is real poetry. The tissue
digestors come in all sizes. “Cadaver” sized digestors are perfect for
humans or animals of similar size.
Quoting from The Cow is something of a fool’s errand. Composed as it is from a stunning variety of forms, styles, and registers (prose and verse, fiction and non-fiction, astral lyricism and blunt vulgarity), the book tenaciously resists reductive assessment. Meanings in it are unstable, prone to decomposition, overflow, inversion: what does it mean to “address” something poetically, which is to say affirmatively, in an economy where lifeless mechanisms, for the sake of further profit, reliably “address” the portions of animal corpses unsuited for direct consumption? (As the book elsewhere informs us, cow corpses, once suitably addressed, go practically everywhere: they are present in lipstick and plastic and who knows what else.) Reines doesn’t answer the question so much as exercise her curiosity and erudition to expand it to a universal scale. She’s acutely aware of how human beings have been addressed like cows—other sections of the book detail her maternal grandmother’s experience in cattle cars in a concentration camp—and she’s no less aware of how decomposing corpses have been turned into material for poetry. The portion of the above quote not in caps (the portion written by her) doubles as a succinct and excellent summary of Baudelaire’s poem of commemoration and decay, “La Charogne” (“So, precious beauty! then tell all the beasts who come / To kiss and eat your flesh in droves, / That I preserved the form and godly spirit from / My dead, disintegrated loves!”). In Reines’s treatment, the female figure of the cow takes on grand proportions, becoming to modernity what male figures such as Ymir (in Norse myth) or Purusha (in Vedic myth) were to their respective ancient cultures: a vast, original, dead being whose corpse forms the material of the present world.
In a similar fashion, The Cow would establish certain foundations regarding Reines’s future poetry: all of her work can be said to comprise a feminism that defines itself not according to the dictates of any set ideology but rather in the creation and recovery of global correspondences and legends carried out under harrowing personal conditions. The Cow was composed during a period in which Reines attended Barnard College while deep in debt and attempting to take care of her homeless, schizophrenic mother (once a renowned doctor) whose persecution complex and obsession with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (“mad cow disease”) would leave an irremediable impression on her daughter’s psyche.
Reines’s second book, the sweetly scathing Cœur de Lion (2007), takes its originating impulse from the poet’s then-recent breakup with a young male intellectual—wealthier, more disloyal, and less well-read—an absent “you” who constitutes the book’s apparent audience. Cœur de Lion is composed in a deliberately quotidian, flat, “personal” style threaded through by sound patterns, themes, and enjambments as subconscious/unobtrusive as they are keen. Note, for example, in the passage, “Your apartment is conveniently located. / It took some courage for me to call you / Because you’d been kind / Of distant,” the casual prevalence of hard, forbidding k-sounds, and the way the word “apartment” and the promising, then deflating, line break at “kind,” subtly amplify the sense of absence and apartness—of a character who places himself at a distance convenient for him, if for no one else. The poet rescues and recovers her disintegrated love through willful acts of reading. The book begins with her reading, without permission, her boyfriend’s emails to an ex whom he continues to sleep with and closes with a list of books they (the poet and the former boyfriend) owe each other, a kind of living will. Tellingly, the final author cited in the poem is Marina Tsvetaeva, a Russian woman poet who composed, in 1924, her own expansive and masterful breakup poem (“Poem of the End”).
The sense of crisis in the nested, cosmic Mercury (2011) impinges on the poet’s being through many occasions (relentless male catcalling, history, bad films, sex, pornographic Gchat transcripts), but its ultimate origin remains occluded, doubtful. What is not in doubt is that the world needs saving and that the powers to save it reside in images of nature and may be released through incantation and inscription: phrases are repeated even more often than in the prior books, and the central section of the book revolves around actual (meaning non-alphabetic) alchemical hieroglyphs. As in Cœur de Lion, many of the poems remain directly addressed to a far-off “you,” but the warm, plain, quasi-banal speech and images of the prior book have been supplanted by a cooler, more elevated, ethereal tone, organic symbols stated and repeated with a kind of witchy, algebraic lyricism: “[Today] I ate the flesh of the coconut, the flesh of the mango, the flesh of the ostrich, the flesh of the peach.” The logic of ingestion, transmutation, and release, so often forcefully presented under the sign of cruel, imminent death in The Cow, has in Mercury, it seems, itself been taken in and arduously reversed into an affirmation of life’s ceaselessness, its color and variety.
A state of paradisiacal expectation had existed in the prior works, but only briefly, under a subdued or faded aspect; in Mercury this state is expressed loudly and at length. To take the most glaring example, an entire long poem (“Baraka”) is composed, in all-caps, around the refrain “I CAN’T WAIT.” Yet these effusions, directed at the future, derive their power from the memory of the misfortunes of the past. As in Cœur de Lion (“It will take her long / To die and it is impossible / To give her anything. I gave her / Nine dollars, a piece of pizza, and a Snapple / lemonade. She gave birth to me.”) a section close to the end of Mercury anchors the book, and its creator, in a recollection of the poet’s mother:
[. . .] a woman of frightening sensitivity
A woman who would not know how to be a woman. A woman
With a passion for Liszt and Rachmaninov, a woman whose cruelty
Would come, basically, from her failure to have saved the world
A woman to lose everything
A woman born to lose [. . .]
Reines has written, elsewhere and approvingly, of the maternal fixations of Baudelaire (whose prose she has translated) and Proust. It isn’t hard to see how she herself has transformed—through a relentless exercise of her spirit, through the self-invention of reading—her own debilitating family situation into an art as purifying and fierce as it is foolish. If, as Baudelaire puts it, “Great poetry is in its essence foolish, it believes and it is this that constitutes its glory and its strength,” then Reines is, without a doubt, a great poet, one whose seamless, natural unions of past and present, power and abjection, visceral and cerebral testify to a positive capacity without peer in her generation.
The Cow, originally, was rescued from a pile of waste material. Dissatisfied with what her screener for a contest had passed on to her, Rebecca Wolff, the publisher of Fence Books, examined the discarded slush and discovered Reines’s work: “I was looking for something, in the pile of manuscripts, that was outside of itself, and outside of the framework of self-obsession, self-description, the meme of elegant. But yet that was not a dry ‘project,’ either. And I found it.” Since the publication of The Cow, Reines’s reception has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. One young poet and fiction writer I know, a woman of color, strives consciously to emulate her, and she’s far from alone. Another one, a young white poet-critic of the avant-garde, a man frequently contemptuous of other poets and mostly justified in his contempt, swears by Ariana. It appears as if Reines, who adores Ashbery (their nocturnal preoccupations and essentially religious sensibilities have much in common), will soon become as central to American poetry today as Ashbery (whose first book, incidentally, was fished out of oblivion in much the same manner as The Cow) became during the Seventies or Eighties. Reines has already taught temporarily at Berkeley, Columbia, and the New School, among other places, and only a desire to remain at liberty keeps her from teaching permanently wherever she pleases. It’s as if poetry only retains its power for Reines when it’s in a state of constant emigration—and her extra-poetic endeavors as a translator, essayist, performance artist, and playwright (her 2009 play Telephone won two Obie awards) also imply, strongly, a belief that being a poet involves more than being just a poet. Poetry becomes a blessing: one not received but rather taken through an active, wounding struggle with a strange being. The parallels between MORTAL KOMBAT and the Jewish legend of Jacob wrestling with the angel are not accidental. (“All poets are Jews,” writes Tsvetaeva in “Poem of the End.”)
The fantasy of new beginnings has a long tradition in America. The desire to divide oneself from the past is, in all likelihood, the sole true continuity in its culture from the past to the present day. This makes for, generally speaking, a sense of history somewhat less than gratifying to those who, by whatever strange fault in their nature, seek out origins and wholeness. Like all things animated by a great will, the dream of America as a blank slate for the spirit has had its great poets: Whitman composing rhapsodies of a self wiped clean of the stains of time transforming outer space to match its inner vision, Stevens carefully demarcating the distance between the Old World and the New in order to extend that distance into the mental infinity he defines as poetry.
What gets less press, though, is the fact that the dream of escaping from the past is, fundamentally speaking, bullshit. Americans, in pursuit of this dream, have invented a host of new grievances and savageries, but such novelties are grounded in the class resentment and the violence inherent to the societies which their ancestors, out of bravery and cowardice, fled. The inchoate insecurities and cruelties harbored by Americans do not mark the end of history, but rather represent its distillation. We do the term civilization a disservice to associate it merely with castles, palaces, temples, and the like: the brutality on which those structures depended, and which they licensed and perhaps in part excused, is no less integral to civilization than order and beauty, and whoever seeks to end such brutality should begin by explaining its character in full, from the past to the present.
That’s something I made up whimsically, but the idea of a “necessary explanation” for the evil—of America and the world alike—is also something I find addressed, seriously, repeatedly, and lovingly, in Ariana Reines’s poetry. Her books possess both the density of real filth and violence and the dreamlike purity of dedication needed to discover the root of filth and violence. The books are the antithesis of amnesia. I don’t always enjoy them and I’m not supposed to. But there are keener pleasures than enjoyment, pleasures that inspire the exertion needed to feel them, and these she offers in abundance. It’s possible, as it is with very few living today, to finish grappling with her writing feeling that it—not only her writing, but the vileness and indignity of the world in which we, somehow, move—was worth the time and strife that we devoted to it.