(REVIEW) Days, by Simone Kearney
Oli Hazzard gauges the intimacies of Simone Kearney’s collection, Days (Belladonna, 2021), tenderly inspecting the way it balloons in rhythms and ‘deictic confetti’. Hazzard notices its swells and doodles, its distortions and submersions, while searching for the spongy sites of absorption and spillage.
Simone Kearney’s first full collection, Days (Belladonna, 2021), is a 108-page poem comprising a single sentence. The poem is of course a kind of daybook. The standardised stanzaic form is a block of 7 justified lines which have the breadth of a page of prose (a much shorter, germinal version, with 4-line stanzas, is here). The grouping of 7 evokes the week-form, already giving a sense of how the dominant temporal unit — day — can dilate into larger aggregated forms: week, month, year, life. The dimensions of the poem’s form and its relationship to reality are hard to fix, as they seem to be constantly shrinking or inflating; this is one of the features that makes it seem a spongy, puffy, cloud- and fungus-like piece of writing, one exceptionally sensitive and reactive to its environment. It registers things as they happen, anticipates events and remembers them, gets distracted by stuff in the room and by the act of composition, and describes this practice of inattention with the intimate, semi-serious, overheard frustration of the diarist: ‘I’m bored already, pretend to think about something else’. But also present is the diarist in historical mode, who wants to use their own experience to record an intuited rupture in shared time, ‘like a diary I’m writing myself but also being written by’. The tension between active and passive, half-meaning and half-perceiving, the giving of form and its givenness, is one that the poem can’t shake — is, in fact, its subject. The poem does a lot of enjoyably brusque work to try to get itself out of the way early on — ‘scooped out of what grips’ — so that it can get on with being porous, open, useful: ‘life passes through me vertically and I feel it in me’, emptied out for the impossible experience of everything. But Kearney’s singularly weird ear keeps interrupting from elsewhere (a continual irritant to the project of becoming bland, clear, purely absorptive, a medium for the circulation of currents of Universal Being) even if it is shrunken down to a little self-heckling icon in the grid corner, ‘with a small single tooth to bite into anything’. As in Clarice Lispector, from whom Kearney takes an epigraph, the egg, with its porous shell, is a recurring figure: ‘oval in evening’ are the poem’s first words. In fact I want to quote the whole first stanza to show where these first impressions are being drawn from:
oval in evening, body’s little bad translator, like myself, about to begin, there, how this artichoke unfolds, clinging like a feeling at the end of sleep, scooped out of what grips, moving backward, forward, backward, forward, to get to the heart of the matter, heart of thing, leaf, oil, spring, light above my head crackles then swells, it is burning up, big as a balloon, block of morning in June, memory snags no connection, entering the world that hangs porously on morning, thread of life passes through me vertically and I feel it in me, pulling in opposite directions, growing repeatedly, elongating pause of missed
It’s a daybook, then, but as this demonstrates, it seems more interested in the experiential texture of the poet’s days than the day-form as a social phenomenon. We do not know what time it is, mostly, and even when we do encounter an explicit time marker it doesn’t lead to the introduction of chronology. Time passes very quickly or drowsily or backwards (‘backward, forward, backward, forward’, ‘after is before’) or in several parallel streams or it does not pass at all, and these are all effects conveyed by the way Kearney handles syntax, which is with imagination and agility and skill. This is a poem in which we are so often disorientated that the shock and pleasure of exact temporal notation becomes intensely concentrated, a Jägerbomb of time. My vague feeling is that, rather than serving as referents to calendrical time, her temporal markers act as the co-ordinates of some kind of virtual space the poem is engaged in assembling around itself, the dimensions of which keep shifting, and through or across which it can zoom at will, just by spelling out names like February and June. Time is in a daze, to accept the pun of the poem’s title.
But space, too, feels like it’s veering out of shape. Days seems to slip slightly off the surface of itself. One example of this slippage is in the ‘visual’ experience of reading the poem. As I read I feel I am not ‘seeing’ objects organised recognisably in space, but their veneers bending across the curvature of a close-up bubble: ‘gutters of water, pump, seahorse, steam stiffened into stalactite like diphthongs rolling down amygdalas’. This slightly baroque feeling is again a product of syntax: the slow, mutative Stein-shift from one object to another via the comma, perception swiping and eloping with no stationing points, no centre: ‘mouth is somewhere else, ant farm, bee nest, little eloping hairs, windows are forms / of escape, off you go like a horse with your eyes swelling to pinpricks, horns that pierce / the fine tunic of road air’. I think that passage of writing is so beautiful. I love it because of the way it turns patiently from thing to thing, but also the unobtrusive rhymes (hair / air, pinprick / tunic) and the subtle distortions (hairs / horse / horns) and the submerged parallel associations between objects (the ‘eloping’ which brings indirectly into sound the ‘galloping’ of horses). There is a lot of tune in the tunic, ha ha. And it interests me, also, because those extraordinary horns that pierce that fine tunic of road air remind me of John Keats’s imagining of the experience of painting in a letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon: ‘The innumerable compositions and decompositions which take place between the intellect and its thousand materials before it arrives at that trembling delicate and snail-horn perception of beauty.’ This seems relevant not just because Days is engaged with Keats in a bunch of ways, but also because Kearney is a visual artist, and many of the most intense passages of writing in this poem seem descriptive of perceptive and expressive activity which is pitched somewhere between writing and painting, as though the difference between them had not yet been fully consolidated. (Incidentally, the book has a grid of clouds drawn by Kearney on the front.)
But I want to go back to the idea that there is an unusual spatial experience offered by this poem. It feels bubble-like, spherical: like the poem is a balloon being slowly inflated. Everything in or on it is a single surface that cannot be seen at once, but everything can also be accessed asynchronously through a sleight-of-hand rotation in the writing. It’s like it’s written using the Pano function, with the holder of the phone running circles, or something. Of course the sphere or the circle is often the form the ideal or unimaginable is given. (At one point Kearney writes ‘I want to be free to ruin circles’, the insertion of the ‘i’ into the idiomatic phrase ruining it productively). In the same letter Keats continues: ‘I know not your many havens of intenseness — nor ever can know them: but for this I hope not you achieve is lost upon me: for when a Schoolboy the abstract Idea I had of an heroic painting — was what I cannot describe. I saw it somewhat sideways, large, prominent, round, and colour’d with magnificence — somewhat like the feel I have of Anthony and Cleopatra’. At the end of Days this feeling of roundness comes prominently into view, via an ecstatic, liquid rush of unanchored deictic markers, which creates this all-over-at-once feeling I’m trying to articulate: ‘I’m so there, all over, with, in, out, off, who, under, or where, here, there, sea field, big open field, up’. Days is full of puns, often terrible ones, and these puns, which the poem can’t help but hear itself say, happen most compulsively and functionally here. Here, in the roundness of the dream-space of the poem, there and here become synonymous, the hear and here of sight and sound actualise their homonyms, and the ‘sea field’ of the scrambled perceptive field through which we have felt so far is opened up and anatomised. To me, this here-and-there-ness, seeing with your ears, a perceptual all-over-at-once, is a description of the feeling of being ‘mutual with a room’ and with others. That is, a kind of oceanic feeling: a harsh joy; or, as Jackie Wang puts it, a ‘terrible gift’. Kearney writes:
in the heat though you expand all your horizons into more horizons and suddenly you are the edge of a chair, or a piece of food on that counter, but on the other hand, cold numbs you until you are neither outside nor inside too, or a release from the things of yourself, here, in front of the sea, let your ear be pudgy of sea, with, out, as in exhale, where are you, slowly, and what, on the other side, is not
I’ve mentioned Kearney’s odd handling of dimensions already, and there is something going on with that in relation to the ‘disheveled verb’ swelling in the passage I quoted in the previous paragraph. The ‘eyes swelling to pinpricks’ is a characteristic movement of the poem. Something expands to become tiny: you open yourself up to perceive and your perceptive equipment suddenly disappears: ‘the obvious analogy is with a person, who, washing the windows, vanishes in glass’. The paradox of swelling to pinpricks is an account of immaculate absorption, then, but maybe it’s also — reintroducing linearity — an account of recoil. This is possibly also connected to Keats’s snail-horns from the letter I’ve already mentioned twice. Anahid Nersessian suggests that those snail-horns are a revision of a passage in Venus and Adonis, which describes the sight of a ‘goddess recoiling from the sight of her dead lover like a snail “whose tender horns being hit / Shrinks backwards in his shelly cave in pain”’. Nersessian suggests that Keats’s highly sensitised and hurtable perceptive faculties are connected to Marx’s account of how the senses are wrought and wrung by capital. There’s something in that which illuminates how Days experiences the process of perception, which, while often pleasurable and joyful, is also presented as an involuntary and painful form of violation (‘go on, go on, gate building music, mobility is in a sense forced on us, plying / our horizons’). The poet is often not in control of what she perceives, or how her movements are determined by her environment, though she also contributes to this circulation of mutual movement: ‘I keep getting moved around by strangers’ eyes, or they keep getting moved around by mine’. These forms of forced physical mobility in social space are connected to the ways attention itself is subject to forced motion: ‘so many promotions bloating the whole head of you’. Promotion — as advancement, moving forwards — is both spatial and temporal: it advances towards you, and it forces you to advance. It bloats or swells the tender horns with forced perceptivity: the head is a negative transparency, raw from seeing.
Late in the poem there are two pages taken up with names of companies, at a moment when the pressures and strictures of working life irrupt into the poem’s predominantly meditative mode. This is the last part of that list: ‘Equinox, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Ski Barn, Shell, BellAqua Inc., QuickChek, Extended Stay America, Uncle Giuseppe’s Marketplace, State Line Diner, Mason Jar, that was my commute, what about progress, I had no clue, what of desire, it’. Progress is a word which comes up a good number of times in the poem. The irony of the term when applied to the external world does not wholly neutralise it as a desire or impulse for the poet absorbed in her task. Kearney is sensitive to the demands for progress the medium or the world makes upon her; she internalises them and, when they rub up against the facts of immobility, openness, numerousness, non-completion, she experiences self-contempt, anxiety, resignation: ‘making no progress’, ‘I don’t think this is working’, etc. Sometimes the poem doesn’t seem to be working, does seem to be faltering; but those moments of hesitation and tentativeness are flagged by Kearney, and they’re a key part of the texture of the piece. And the poem does progress, in fact, but not in a teleological way: it doesn’t accrete meaning, it doesn’t unfold a narrative, it doesn’t arrive at a conclusion which retrospectively solves the puzzle of what has come before. It inflates and pops, over and over again. The motion of the poem is scalar, and it moves both ways: shrinking is as good as expanding, boredom is as varied as excitement, exhaustion as rich as energy.
This ambivalent rhythm of inflation and deflation is inscribed throughout the work. There are passages when I would say the writing becomes inflationary — dizzyingly detached from material life, rising to the ceiling and beyond — like this intricate argumentative extension:
thrust into its own stillness, something about remaining alert, something about not standing on the yellow line, something self-capitalizing, something residual on top, something sagging in waterholes, shuddering on a broken fluorescent corner, pillaging veins in an open field, dumb and leather, resurfacing, pouring a tunnel, but if flowering were there, what’s clipped, nounless, coagulating light, stalking a series of unspecified dead ends, pressed into nubs of atmosphere, touch someone else’s inhalation, I’m sitting on a feeling as if sitting on a chandelier, iffy
Elsewhere, the speculative, iffy, as-if-y poem pops, scattering all kinds of deictic confetti around, and the poem is returned to monosyllables and clusters of nouns, the thing-world, with a rhythmic heaviness that itself feels thingy: ‘Bonne Maman plum dropping dark red on toast”; “clouds straying from some stopped sunned turf’ ‘“want a bun?”’. This is also the register in which Kearney’s language disassembles most fruitfully into its elements and becomes a ‘song bucket’, where she just zones out and rummages about, waiting for the tunes to show her what they want:
pear arms, pear arms, pear arms and ape, no pan, pale into hair, in a row with hats of song, song out of hats into grass, grass out of
religion and into glass, glass is wrong, glass is so wrong on the weir glass its moor moor is more and heath for hire, hire is song song not higher but song bucket, disconnected fruit, more scene than astringent coo, more string than zebra, more stripe than stripe on circus burrito cone baby
I find this very intricate and moving and funny writing. (I’ll not be able to see a cirrus cloud again without thinking: ‘circus burrito’.) There are also hugely interesting moments when the argumentative stripe of her poem seems to emerge in real time from her musical doodling, from a song that grows out of hats to a song that is like hats on the sea, and the feeling of argument is made more powerful and lucid by the fact that it emerges in extemporised form from the materials to hand:
blot, blob, wet, pane, commas, like hats on the sea, tucking in the ooze of the world like a belt, and I unbelt the word, no, put the belt on, comma is shell, word is shell, as in egg, as in
Here, Shakespeare’s tender horns, which sensitise Keats’s snail-horn perceptions, which compress into Stein’s tender buttons, which are sharpened into Kearney’s horns that pierce the fine tunic of the air (I’m imagining poetry as a many-horned snail, a snail with as many horns as a hedgehog has prickles) remain hurtfully alive to perception, even, or especially, when it is language perceiving itself, withdrawn into the transparent shell of the word and the comma. From this slight recess, this ‘sphere of voices’ where everything happens, Kearney offers a scrupulously precise transcription of things that I did not know could be transcribed — moods, atmospheres, associations, and feelings which are new to me. The echoey, reverb-y music of this poem is the persistent sign of its aliveness, even as it announces its decline; its scribbly, playful, self-discovering language seems like a series of doodles on its own inside-surface. The paradoxical feeling of the work is that by withdrawing into this ‘shelly cave’ from which it seems to be written, it also finds a common place of articulation in which the boundaries between persons and objects start to seem pliable. The feeling of all-over-at-once, of Days being a common medium for writing or reading or breathing or living with, is communicated through such a powerful inhabitation of a particular subjectivity that it makes available again, with intense freshness, the things that bear down upon us all, the elements which we share.
You can preorder a copy of Days from Belladonna, here.
Text: Oli Hazzard