Melissa Buzzeo’s The Dev­as­ta­tion

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Thom Dono­van

A Re­view of Melissa Buzzeo’s The Dev­as­ta­tion

Ihave been try­ing to write this re­view for longer than I wish to ad­mit. For many days this past sum­mer, I would plant my­self in front of the ocean and sit, wait­ing for the words to come. One ques­tion that played over in my head was: what does it mean to write a book of po­etry about the oceans now? When we’re at the tip­ping point of ir­re­versible cli­mate change; af­ter the fail­ure of so many cli­mate sum­mits; with fos­sil fuel mining and frack­ing still go­ing strong; with so many im­ages of the Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch cir­cu­lat­ing, and of al­gae-in­fested coast­lines and of melt­ing glaciers. When we know for cer­tain that the tides are go­ing to rise and who they will first af­fect: the poor, the dis­en­fran­chised, in­dige­nous peo­ple of color, and is­landers, many of whom barely have rep­re­sen­ta­tion in global fo­rums like the United Na­tions, for what­ever those fo­rums are worth. I think about how all the eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal, and so­cial dis­as­ters of mod­ern his­tory have cul­mi­nated in the de­struc­tion of oceans; the triad of cap­i­tal­ism, racism, and na­tion­al­ism; the fail­ures of a global en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment to suf­fi­ciently link its cause to the roots of vi­o­lence. Dur­ing my visit to Cape Cod, where my par­ents cur­rently live, I would fre­quently en­counter maps of the penin­sula. Old ones and fairly cur­rent ones. Some­times I would en­counter a satel­lite photo of the land mass. In these pho­tos, one re­al­izes just how much of the Cape con­sists of water—ponds, marshes, rivers. I started to imag­ine these pho­tos in a kind of time-lapse, from the past forty years into the fu­ture, the water creep­ing over the land and even­tu­ally cov­er­ing it. I imag­ined my twenty-month-old daugh­ter never getting to en­joy the beach, as I have each sum­mer for the past forty years, and how she will live in the An­thro­pocene. In a gift shop in down­town Hyan­nis, there are cof­fee mugs that vi­su­al­ize this fu­ture for me. When you pour hot liq­uid into them, the con­ti­nents shrink. I re­mem­ber in­tro­duc­ing my­self to Melissa Buzzeo at an event at Poets House a few years ago and her telling me about the book that she was work­ing on—the book that I am writ­ing this re­view about— The Dev­as­ta­tion. At the time, she men­tioned one of the cen­tral im­ages that

she med­i­tates on in the book is that of the ocean “cap­siz­ing” upon it­self. Poof! All that it leaves in its wake is ma­rine life scat­tered among hu­man wreck­age on the ocean floor. She also told me of the two lovers in the book, who, af­ter the dev­as­ta­tion, em­brace while pick­ing bar­na­cles and trash off one an­other. If Buzzeo had only con­jured these two im­ages, The Dev­as­ta­tion would re­main a pro­found propo­si­tion cor­re­lat­ing meta­phys­i­cal disaster with oceanic de­struc­tion. The ocean, that metaphor of inex­haustible be­com­ing and deep­est feel­ing, fi­nally oc­clud­ing it­self, with­drawn seem­ingly by its own force: “the water as it vi­o­lently emp­tied.” Reread­ing many of Mar­guerite Duras’s books in prepa­ra­tion to write this re­view—know­ing Buzzeo to be a tremen­dous fan—i was struck by the im­age of Lol Stein col­laps­ing upon her­self at the sight of her hus­band danc­ing with his new lover, for whom he will leave her the fol­low­ing morn­ing. This col­laps­ing—re­called by Buzzeo’s phrase, “ev­ery­thing fall­ing through, page”—ex­ter­nal­izes in­ten­sity, a trauma the nar­ra­tor will spend the greater part of the novel re­cov­er­ing from, strug­gling to as­sim­i­late the events of that evening. So we might say that The Dev­as­ta­tion, too, en­acts a kind of in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive rup­ture: the rup­tures of the per­son struc­tured by apoca­lypse, and the rup­tures of the ex­ter­nal world from which there would seem no sim­ple re­cov­ery or re­turn. Duras came to mind else­where while read­ing The Dev­as­ta­tion, es­pe­cially the var­i­ous lovers of her books and screen­plays whose cou­pling mo­bi­lizes a vast net­work of re­la­tions. To say “you have seen noth­ing,” as the male in­tones to his fe­male lover in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, is to in­voke a global loss that might be ac­cessed only through eroti­cism; to be in love (and to be threat­ened with the loss of one’s love) in Duras’s and Buzzeo’s work is to be world mak­ing and un­mak­ing. This is what be­ing in love shares with disaster: it is to imag­ine the end of the world while cre­at­ing a space wherein the world might be re­born amidst the wreck­age.

There is the sea­weed that comes out of you. This I do not pick off. This just comes. You leave this and I carry it. Soon I will eat it to make a space for you.

At the bot­tom of the sea unan­nounced there is no tide There is no struc­ture

The sea that I car­ried for you, the sea that I made for you.

In a dance be­tween the real and the imag­i­nary, be­tween a phys­i­cal world and a world con­structed by the de­sir­ing sub­ject among other de­sir­ing sub­jects, The Dev­as­ta­tion presents a sus­tained lyri­cal med­i­ta­tion on re­la­tion­al­ity as it is al­le­go­rized by a dis­course of lovers, the speaker/s and ad­dressee/s of the book’s four parts. In Buzzeo’s lan­guage use, an ef­fort to access pri­mary re­la­tion af­ter all of the pro­nouns have been “wiped out” con­sis­tently co­heres. The project of The Dev­as­ta­tion, there­fore, is psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal in scope—test­ing out the lim­its of trans­fer­ence, trac­ing the vi­cis­si­tudes of de­sire. But it also reaches beyond anal­y­sis. One of the ways that it does this is by en­train­ing the reader/lis­tener through ac­cu­mu­la­tions of clausal pat­terns as though to in­duce a trance or a spell.

So many dis­crep­an­cies The water will come back. The water is in the other bod­ies The water killed it­self The water will never come back. We will die lap­ping af­ter it. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . There was the limit which you slept with There was the li­cense which you slept with In the bed no longer a book It be­came too big It be­came too small It be­came listed As some­one else’s ar­ti­cle.

Hold­ing her reader through anaphoric pat­tern, Buzzeo demon­strates that we are ever our­selves and some­thing more than our­selves: that we sur­pass “our­selves” (the lim­its of hu­man be­ing, of per­son­hood, and in­di­vid­u­al­ity) through the or­der­ing and stress of words, which is to say, through prosody. Like Ju­lia Kris­teva’s pla­tonic chora, we still have yet to en­ter into the “sym­bolic.” Or, per­haps more ac­cu­rately, we have be­gun to rec­og­nize a body/world that is nei­ther “mine” nor “yours,” “ours” nor “theirs,” af­ter the sym­bolic has failed us. If the dev­as­ta­tion is not the site of a ma­ter­nal ori­gin (“Your baby body / Your tod­dler body / Your skin un­rav­el­ing”), it is at the very least a lo­cus of bod­ily pro­cesses un­der­gone in re­la­tion to nat­u­ral and tex­tual worlds equally re­al­ized—and dev­as­tat­ing—in their sub­lime ma­te­ri­al­ity:

That a book is a world. That much of the world is lost de­sired de­serted drained. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . My mouth to your book. Your body to my book. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . We filled our books with sand So that they would not drain water . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . At the bot­tom of the sea there is noth­ing. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . A book that could be but isn’t.

For the dead mat­ter For the mat­ter that lives And for the water

Fol­low­ing the dev­as­ta­tion, we are re­turned to bod­ies and to the book as em­bod­ied, which is to say, we are re­turned to how lin­guis­tic em­bod­i­ment in­forms and shapes re­al­ity as part of an im­ma­nent ma­te­rial process. Quot­ing Mau­rice Blan­chot in one of the book’s epigraphs, Buzzeo writes, “The dan­ger that the disaster ac­quire mean­ing in­stead of the body.” In­stead of sup­ply­ing the dev­as­ta­tion with mean­ing—how it has come to be and what it rep­re­sents for the fu­ture of the hu­man species (as badly needed as these ex­pla­na­tions still may be)—there is also a need for the world to be re­made through the most fun­da­men­tal of means, through an at­ten­tion to how mean­ing is made by bod­ies and through a recog­ni­tion of what is made by bod­ies beyond mean­ing: “To search through all that non mean­ing for mean­ing.” It is to these thresh­olds be­tween bod­ies and word and world that we are con­stantly called by Buzzeo: we are ad­dressees of her lover’s dis­course, en­thralled by the op­ta­tive mood of her gram­mar, the fact that a world is be­ing wished into be­ing fol­low­ing the im­mense loss re­sult­ing from the dev­as­ta­tion.

In the light­ness of the page, erotic Plunged be­tween the cov­ers Loose be­tween the cov­ers And rock­ing to sleep On some­body else’s boat In some­body else’s sleep.

Our sea and near­ness And the rock of shell break­ing over body Over book be­trayal Over one lan­guage pulling out In the in­ex­tri­ca­ble mem­ory of be­ing And I am quite near the sea In the ab­sence of ad­dress And the body I make for you

And it is here, at these thresh­olds—of sea and land, mem­ory and ac­tu­al­ity, one’s self and some­body else, I and you—that I sus­pect the ques­tion I posed to my­self sit­ting be­fore the ocean might be an­swered. Buzzeo writes her poem to hold us (her ad­dressee/s, her com­mu­nity/ com­mu­ni­ties) in thrall and to hold a space in lan­guage af­ter “the es­sen­tial fail­ure of lan­guage” to sus­tain the world be­cause “there are not arms big enough.” She writes “not writ­ing,” which is to say, she is writ­ing at a thresh­old where to write is to en­act the threat of the with­drawal of the very thing one would seem to be mak­ing: “a book that could be but isn’t,” “books that lack cover or are all cover.” It is to give the lan­guage the book would oth­er­wise con­tain back to pri­mary con­tent, to mat­ter af­ter form, to text af­ter words. It is to give the reader over to a process of heal­ing and open to­ward the or­ga­ni­za­tion of new re­la­tions, new bod­ies, new books, new loves.

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