(REVIEW) Utopia Pipe Dream Memory, by Anna Gurton-Wachter
Nasim Luczaj reviews the beastly latticework within Anna Gurton-Wachter’s Utopia Pipe Dream Memory (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019), offering up temperate strokes of fruit fly discourse and chewed cat hair. This is Gurton-Wachter’s first collection of poetry, following the publication of six pamphlets. Encountering feathers, avant-garde women, slits of ecstasy, Nasim trips out in Gurton-Wachter’s poesis, holding a flame to the very strikes – the associative rubbings – that set its utopian lexis alight.
In Utopia Pipe Dream Memory, people and animals are joined together as if by a birthing class or a psychedelic trip. There is something immensely strong going on inside each of them, including a lot of putting insideness into question. There is trying to be simple – lines manage not to break, punctuation is mostly in place, and narratives do get to form. The inhabitants of the utopia, of the pipe dream, of the memory stutter round, repeating their smooth sentences, absorbed in a crazy fumbling through world – always a shared craze, a shared fumble, a shared world.
No wonder – this is a work on community, as Gurton-Wachter alerts us before the text per se even starts, stating her gratefulness to her ‘real lived community’ that makes it possible to say ‘this book inhabits a world of imagined communities’ in the first place. Nevertheless, the text is anchored and brilliant in voice, self, the ‘I’ in all its despairs and elations; the I that needs tools to fully inhabit itself, that is: divorce itself. As in a trip, we may be enthralled in a somewhat egotic attempt not to be coming from a place of ego; we might begin to imagine we go into imaginings that usher out of the ego into something more entwined. There might be flickers of success. There might be coursing back to the subject.
And it’s satisfying to come back, for where this ‘I’ struggles, the language is at its most charged (of course the voice in labour projects the most). The reader might feel almost parasitical, and Utopia surely encourages parasitical feeling, just as it encourages the use of a fruit fly’s mouth, or throwing up in a lecture hall; just as the work’s figures turn to worms. The discipline of Animal Studies is reserved for the finale. This makes perfect sense – surely it’s where the reader’s to be left.
The situations this self goes through up to that point are all full-bloodedly oneiric insofar as the self is both trapped and porous. The passage between figures and situations is always in rush hour. Every great avant-garde female figure crops up to be covered, together with the speaker, in lion blood. The Deren-Notley Being is the most definitively dreamish of the bunch. Maya Deren and Alice Notley appear in one figure, but must be greeted separately, for they ‘were not interchangeable. They were just both there in one body that time’. Hard-hittingly casual. Then there’s the woman you see eating cat hair on the news. She’s soon there to hand you her fork. As you read, it might cross your mind that there’s an issue here – all these freedoms to invent anecdotes and slits of ecstasy might not change how often we are women or what the lions (who get a lot of airtime here) will go ahead and eat.
Know that the voice finds the category of ‘woman’ particularly cumbersome. This is highly understandable coming from someone who wants to ‘prioritize the cascade (...) to revalue my agency, make a declaration and so speak the story of a collective mind thrown together in the flourishing presence of others’. This is the utopia, the pipe dream, the memory stapled to our every waking. The ‘I’ must leave after this line, and it passes us on to houses: ‘Some house will exist and it will take over and dominate all who write and speak within it’. The self may leave, but that won’t flatten down the building or rid us of the notion of domination. A house, an overarching, a community, is not benign. There are noninclusive floors. There are walls we might not get to get through. There is maybe even asbestos. There may not be enough life to tap into all that architecture, all those dangers, but we are always somewhere – stuck in a room, a lecture hall, an expanse, the difference it makes to be in either, the lack of difference. ‘Imagination is never naked. It always echoes through the thought of a room.’ Here we are, then, clothed in echoing, surrounded by either the intensely urban or intensely barren and out there. The rubbing of the two against each other sparks dream. A kind of incarceration might be a kind of expanse. A kind of expanse might be a kind of incarceration. ‘Some day you might wake up and call out, “Is my mess my dream state?” – Is that my body that just went by?”’ Where will you go then?
To court, maybe. ‘To enter the realm of writing one must take one’s self to divorce court.’ Even if a divorce is possible, the divorcee self will be left wandering, a ghost hungry for biro. ‘“I am looking for something to write with”’, the voice chants at a teleportative Gertrude Stein so many times that we start to pick up on things: writing is written with. Every action is completed with the tool. You are in that action together, and every tool is made with another tool. This is unfabricated community. That's all well and good, except the narrator cannot find it and must also bury their hands. 'Yvonne Rainer stands over me as I am digging the hole where my hands will get buried. "What has become of these tools of magic and loss?" she quietly reports' and we're only on page 24.
Mouths are a solution. ‘Off-screen I am singing from the shared mouth of the fruit fly’. Why fruit fly? There could not be a reason, but google it I did. Apparently ‘the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) is one of the most well understood of all the model organisms.’ Its complete genome was published back in 2000. Are we meant to wonder what is it like to sing through a completely published genome? I have immense gratitude for how this book got me to such questions.
As I read, trying to join into the singing, I also couldn't help but remember how for Wittgenstein (1953), philosophy is there ‘to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle’. Where to – some everywhere-vessel? Anything's pipe dream is about ways out. ‘Now it is finally time for me to say out loud, “To know something is to look down one’s throat as one speaks.”’ It is about honing in and about how that'll take us back out. ‘When you chew on cat hair, a hormone is released that exists nowhere else. I associate utopias with rarity and song.’ It is also always about how sentences are beside themselves. Road to road, in fitting with how, ‘according to the hawk, people’s minds are kerbside’.
People’s minds are also crammed: crammed even with notions of the open. In the medley of memory and perhaps memory of the future, we have the figure of the executive, we have attaining an advanced degree, Animal Studies, cookies, surplus, homelessness, and an ad on how the corpse flower is about to bloom. We have speech-debris, too. The speaker pictures giving a lecture to leopards: ‘Really the entirety of the lecture will consist of me saying out loud, “I believe in showing up and throwing up and giving up. Just show up and you will be fine.”’ We have the Freudian slip: 'lioness'/'loneliness', 'feathers'/'fathers'. And, as in any utopia, we have the promises: ‘You will forget the sea of definitions as it foams over you. You and the women and the horses and the goats and the grains will bathe in the same water’. Concepts will make us appreciate what is outside concept and so relentlessly AWOL to our minds. And ‘if I initiate the roof, build it I must also be able to take it down’. Of course some of what’s left of the roof will stay there on the ground, like so: ‘what will we do with the concept of exhaust? / Or surplus? / Or cocoon?’
I don’t pretend to know. Neither does Gurton-Wachter. But ‘whatever the human limit is a carnival is laced with’. There’s our consolation. I think it’s thorough.
Text: Nasim Luczaj