(REVIEW) Hello by Crispin Best
In this review, Josie Rogers reads the desiring pursuits, moonselves, evil plans, semantic playgrounds and conversational prowess of Crispin Best’s debut collection Hello (Partus Press, 2019).
> About halfway through Crispin Best’s Hello, an image announces itself that pivots my reading of the whole collection. The image is of an orrery, in the poem ‘poem in which i mention at the last moment an orrery’. In case you were about to Google that, as I had to: an orrery is a mechanical model that shows the motions of the earth, moon, and other planets around the sun. You could buy one on Amazon, in homage to Best’s poetic commitment to beautiful and banal commodities: to that which is plastic and reproducible but which holds meaning nonetheless, if you let it.
> The orrery in ‘poem in which i mention at the last moment an orrery’ is, I think, an artefact of the intimacy held between the space of the poet and the addressee. It’s a love poem that begins with an inverted blazon: Best invites us to ‘consider the things my body is | for example there is a part of it | which is an ankle | another part which i can only describe as | the distance between distance | and distance | a part which makes a muffled | hopeful noise and another part which is | an ankle’ (Best 2019, ‘poem in which i mention at the last moment an orrery’). The muffled hopeful noise seems to be embodied intimacy itself, an optimistic and stunted thing, and the distance between distance and distance recalled to me the psychoanalytic idea of desire as perpetual deferral — to desire is to be unsatisfied in some way, and so desire is what must always remain unsatisfiable. Poetry is the domain of feeling, and poetic feeling is so rarely without desire. Here, it is held in the sprung trap of the body. I like how Best repurposes poetic desire, stating it in honest and absurd terms: ‘and i long for a poem | that is just about | i don’t know | cucumbers’, or, ‘[i] want | to bite through | the porcelain | of a mug | while you watch’ (‘how do we feel’). The wish for uncomplicated cucumber poetry demonstrates how Best swerves the — ambivalently ecstatic and agonisingly humiliating — lyric pursuit of truthfulness: by being disarmingly, candidly bizarre. He confides his desires directly to you, the reader, too: ‘i want to tell you | that the moon | is my favourite kind | of indirect light’ (Best 2019, *that sound from the start of “circle of life”*).
> The orrery revealed how often the moon, and the sun, ‘earthlight’ and ‘windowlight’, appear in Hello. The moon in the line above offers a kind of interstitial illumination (like how poetry can illuminate through reflection, as it slips between pruned and manicured language and language that seemingly bubbles up straight from the heart/bones/head/stomach). But then later the moon becomes, quite explicitly, the moonself of the poet: ‘i am a moon and you | are a moon | i mean i am the moon and yes | you are too | i am calmer when we’re the moon if you can believe such | a thing’ (Best 2019, ‘poem in which i mention at the last moment an orrery’). At first I considered how two people could both be the moon, and then I remembered that some planets have many moons, and then I remembered that really moon is just a word we have applied to a thing to make it make sense to us. Such tiny revelations are often the punchlines of Best’s linguistic jokes and facetious non sequiturs: ‘on uranus a year lasts 84 years | […] on uranus you die on your first birthday’ (Best 2019, ‘io’).
> The moonself suggests a metamorphic subject, made holistic by distance — the distance between two bodies, between our expectations and the devastating realities of how we execute our existence. A poem like ‘my god’ revels in this painful deficit: ‘you have no idea | of the distances i would travel | just to disappoint you | i will even wear a fashionable shoe | my god | just watch me | another? i ask | go ahead you say | and another? | no that’s too many shoes’ (Best 2019, ‘my god’). You are ambushed, simply and ridiculously, with the image of a man trying to wear three shoes; and with the equal absurdity of hoping not to disappoint the people you would do the most for. Moons wax and wane, like desires and like our capacities for presenting ourselves to the world as we want to be seen. Moons suggest both illumination and occlusion, the equivocation that we might see as the essential quiddity of the lyric voice; the i, in Best’s case. The divine feminine energy of the moon also suffuses Hello: a lunar pull (of desire, of the desire to be heard and touched) that is at once tender and powerful. One quora.com contributor suggests that moon symbolism in literature signifies an evil plan. I like that. I think Crispin Best has an evil plan, and it’s to make you laugh even while you feel sad and strange — ‘when i die | know that i died how i lived: | not wanting to die’ (Best 2019, ‘io’). That’s my favourite kind of evil plan, and my favourite kind of poetry.
> Most of all, the orrery made me think of orbiting. It made me think of spinning in space and time, surrounded by other strange celestial bodies cutting their own orbits. ‘and it’s nearly night | the same sunset | has been travelling | around the earth | for millions of years’ (Best 2019, ‘poem at the dinner table’), Best writes, and we glimpse an infinite celestial spillage that both illuminates and retreats, heralding the same ending and beginning: f(lux). (It’s pleasing that Hello’s cover resembles a dreamy, galactic fog.) He embeds the astral plane in the domestic — ‘between the boiler’s ticks’ … ‘it is good to be talked to | and also | to hear people sleep’ (ibid.). He dramatises the (extra)terrestrial pleasure of just being and knowing that there is someone nearby, just being, too. He bears a blushingly tragic longing for even the abject: ‘barack it might be enough just to find | a longer hair in my sink | once in a while’ (Best 2019, ‘fao barack obama).
> Hello is marked by wonderment at the sheer elsewhereness of things — say, that, ‘next time we are together | hundreds of people will be sleeping in submarines somewhere | why wouldn’t they’ (Best 2019, ‘in a white sweater at work for you’). The orrery models bodies interacting, but they remain parallel on their paths. ‘Hello,’ one moon in the orrery says to the other as it passes. Hello is a greeting and an introduction to the potential of intimacy. In it, Best masters a distinctive, conversational voice — not conversational in its informality, although it is often informal, but conversational in how its apostrophe manifests; i.e., how these poems are directed at or spoken to someone or something. Some poems are addressed to a singular (love interest?) you, some to a plural reader-you, some perhaps to the poem itself, and one to Barack Obama. Hello has a formal sinuousness, in that the construction of its lines and caesura demand little from the reader: they seem natural, as far as poetry can be natural. Best, like you and I, lives on the internet, and his stylistic conventions of minimal capitalisation and punctuation just look like how we tend to communicate textually now. In ‘centralia’, excessive ellipses cut a curving shape on the page and fill what would otherwise be blankness. It’s like you can see Best typing in real time (…) (…) until his next stiches materialise. As serious poetry critic Jonathan Culler has pointed out, apostrophe, occurring in poetry as it does in the presence of witnesses, often does more to dramatise or manifest an image of the self rather than an i-you relation (Culler 1977, 59). The image of Best’s moonself builds itself up in this way, and poems like ‘nature poem’ and ‘i’m not late’ read like reruns of those seemingly unimportant conversations that stick, inexplicably, in the mind; or of conversations you wish you had had, if only the paths of your orbit had tilted.
> These poems are often collages of dialogue and thoughts and images that bloom towards the construction of a social subject. It’s a lyrical and unpretentious realism, telling stories of selfhood without staid narrativisation: ‘i long to hang glide / with a thud / into the face / of that perfect cliff / the shame / of just going about / my idiot business / from day to idiot day / sticks to me / like a dark sausage’ (Best 2019, ‘but do dolphins want to swim with me’). Sometimes, Culler writes, apostrophe can endow objects with power, reifying the forces they exert on us sentient beings (Culler 1977, 61). ‘io’ is a long poem in which Best apostrophizes to many objects and phenomena: ‘o party rings | o life | o des’ree | o sonique | […] o curly wurly wrapper | o nokia 3210 | o crepitating autumn leaf | o mars bar ice cream in september and the rain’ (Best 2019, ‘io’) and, in doing so, creates a sort of living elegy for himself comprised of a cavalcade of consumables. It reads like someone’s life flashing before their eyes, a life that bears the imprint of ‘dragostea din tea’, along with ‘brookside’, ‘modern american poetry’, and ‘goatse’ (ibid.). Maybe it’s just a shared millennial nostalgia that makes me moon over this, but I made one of my oldest friends when she showed me a dance routine to Dragostea Din Tei. The idea that poetry can assimilate this system of self-building, of nebulous and frenetic reference to the strange apparatus of our capitalism-conditioned youths, feels fresh and real. This mode of referentiality also reflects the ways in which many of us wrote ourselves and our relationships over the internet (via myspace, MSN, tumblr, etc., depending on your age and preferences), like magpies curating and sharing points of cultural reference to generate a conversation and, then, some kind of relation.
> In the period of late-late capitalism we inhabit now, critics often pathologise the ubiquity of plastic objects as a symptomatic plasticity of our times; a kind of mutability whereby such objects, and their connective tissues, become meaningless. But ‘io’ demonstrates instead how plastic objects and strangely plastic cultural phenomena stick in our lives and life-worlds. ‘io’ realises the compulsory eclecticism of our daily lives under a system of hyperactive production and consumption; of the baffling abundance of stuff we have and have experienced, and how it shapes our orbits. The kitsch aesthetic of Hello, like certain other contemporary poetry the critic Christopher Nealon writes about, performs a contemporary experience of materiality that is both ‘desubstantialised and supersaturating, subject to both lightning-swift consolidations and dispersals and to humiliating, vegetally slow decay’ (Nealon 2004, 581). Thinking about our position in plasticky 21st century capitalism in this way also speaks to the appeal of banal, communal delights in Hello: the tenderness of domesticity, the strangeness of our normal bodies, and the absurd potentialities of language (see: ‘what if v neck stood for | very neck’ (Best 2019, ‘fao barack obama’). These small, slow things provide comfort in contemporary reality, moving as it does at breakneck and exponentially increasing speed, and codified by capitalist individualism and energetic exuberance.
> Reading Hello is like scrolling through messages from a friend. Best balances the gentle existential turmoil we all seem to feel with silliness, a welcome facet of post-internet poetics. This mode both invites and resists critical reading — why does ‘fao barack obama’ feature no less than three holey carbohydrate snacks (doughnuts, bagels, pretzels)? What could this systematic signification MEAN? I think it just means that these are things we can grope for in the haze of our quotidian lives, as we orbit one another like odd little planets on the rotating mechanical arms of an orrery. We can ‘laugh at the sheer | machinery of feelings barack’ (Best 2019, ‘fao barack obama’). Hello, hello, there is solidarity in these sensations. Best deploys them like ‘a custard pie in the face | of certain death’ (ibid.).
Best, Crispin. 2019. Hello (Oxford: Partus Press)
Culler, Jonathan. 1977. ‘Apostrophe’ in Diacritics 7(4), pp. 59-69
Nealon, Christopher S. ‘Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism’ in American Literature, 76(3), pp. 579-602
Hello is out now and available to purchase via Partus Press.
Text: Josie Rogers