This series of formally experimental poems explores subjectivity in contemporary wartime and environmental crises via Greek histories
Hell Figures ventures into the fragmented mythical and literary histories of Helen of Troy, Sappho, Cassandra, Antigone, and others by way of our current condition of perpetual war, violence, and environmental destruction. Grinnell employs the transliteration of musical forms, such as the fugue and humoresque, and homophonic translation as methods of giving form and voice to obscured, inaudible, illegible, unintelligible, and omitted subject positions
Want wants, place is ether, land is landlocked, is sightblindness, is an unraveling of the It of It, is music posted on the wall, framed and unhearable. Hell Figures is therefore rhyme that is visual, that sticks in your eyes since landlocked and stuck to your land, your city, you can’t anyway anymore hear so many careless deadly words and yet, in Hell Figures words fly out from the score’s constraint of these personal personal times, into burning lyric evisceration. Indeed, Hell Figures must be written for me, into my nasty complaint, written on a chalkboard wall in a Cherry Grove rental “No more atmospheric poetic histories!” This work is not only not those, it negates them. In Hell Figures no place exists from which to tell such “a promontory of gazes gone to/prosopopoeia.” Hell Figures is the individual, “reckless landscape’s/counterpoint,” is HELEN returned RIGHT and ON FIRE.
This is bridge-work, poetry as leap (lover’s leap?) by a first-rate craftswoman of the post-Mallarméan white space, a space that is a “terroir of amnesia” where “light rebels.” Here the lyric—“crisis lyrics frozen”— up against the edge of silence, sews at its seem/seams but only to bridge it via a fourfold structure of what the poet calls “episodes,” where ἐπεισόδιον classically means the matter surrounding song or ode in a tragedy. Grinnell is that rare poet able to draw our attention (gaze & ear) in/to the material letters, vowel or consonant, that make up the war chest of vocables with which she creates a whirling, wording world where a descent into hell (the name Helen testifies to this) becomes hope because it is movement, “the voyage / vocalized.”
In this erudite, elegant, complicated, and dazzling book, E. Tracy Grinnell reflects on the classical female figures that have held in place the social and political architectonics of Western culture, with its basis in gender difference, heterosexual reproduction, and control of women. A meditation on Helen of Troy, Sappho, Cassandra, the Sirens, and Mnemosyne (mother of the nine muses and goddess of memory), Hell Figures performs a deconstruction of patriarchal imagings of these figures as props to men, revealing them as ciphers for various modes of compromised female agency. Distortedly mirroring distorted mirrorings, Grinnell refuses imaginative recovery of these vanishing points by ingeniously rebounding the violences they have always met with: HellFigures retraces the peculiar transposability of these feminine eidolons onto one another as they are perpetually re-projected into logics that deauthorize them, figuratively and literally killing them. This book also mimes the more explosive maneuvers of Claude Cahun, multiply-gendered, surrealist writer, translator, photographer, and anti-fascist activist. Taine to Cahun’s mirror, Grinnell re-queers Cahun’s queering of Ovid’s Heroides through deliberately wandering translations: we come to from these material swoons cum analytics on the other side of sense. “La sirène succombe á sa propre voix” (Claude Cahun) – have you listened to an anti-siren in an echo chamber, seducing gender to its wreck? Put this mother-of-pearl to your ear…
Joined by the specters of Helen of Troy, Sappho, and Cassandra, Grinnell (Portrait of a Lesser Subject) roams “the terroir, of amnesia,” in her accomplished collection. In one sense, these prominent women of classical literature are the eponymous “figures,” but they have been ventriloquized through patriarchal narratives, authors, scholars, and millennia of literary transmission, so figuration constitutes these characters while also stripping them of subjecthood. It is from this critical tension between representation and effacement that Grinnell’s sparse yet richly nuanced poems emerge. Grinnell does not recuperate or reconstitute these characters, but instead asks “What can I do?// in the narrow mirror/ showing the part for all?”—a question that is about both agency and the possibilities and limits of composition. Fugues, palindromes, translations, and quotations highlight iteration and repetition where “no body// letters alone/ proliferate.” Figure, author, text, and reader become scrambled in a feedback loop wherein “the effigy imagines us/ panoptic glass eye.” In four distinct, symphonic movements, Grinnell questions whether there is a way out of a violent echo chamber of literary representation—”how else traverse/ , in loudening// howls the rendered/ animal,// darkest, darkening/ refraction, our// how else/ stand, walk, murmur, think/ , grieve?”—while nonetheless forging a new way forward.
Feature in Yale Review
E. Tracy Grinnell is the author of portrait of a lesser subject, Music or Forgetting, and Some Clear Souvenir. Helen: A Fugue was published in the first volume of the …