Vive l’amour

Pub date January 7, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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REVIEW Stephanie Young edited the anthology Bay Poetics (Faux Press, 432 pages, $29), which attempted to take a snapshot of the Bay Area’s poetry scene while acknowledging the failure built into such a task. Her second book of poetry, Picture Palace (in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, 120 pages, $15), is not particularly concerned with choosing between various poetic modes and traditions. Picture Palace draws as heavily on pop culture as it does on theory to find its form and to subsequently understand form’s impact on content. In the process, Young escapes the lyric poetry/language poetry binary. (Or, to use a less geography-bound but equally contemporary axis, the flarf/conceptual poetry binary.)

As its title suggests, Picture Palace is heavily invested in movies. Young makes and unmakes icons as well as the minutiae of daily life. On the theoretical tip, she applies Gaston Bachelard’s thought in books like 1994’s Poetics of Space and 1987’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire to the act of walking around Lake Merritt. In terms of ideas and visual imagination, Picture Palace is best described as dense. Images and their aftereffects are at play, but the reader has to dig for the gratifying thrill of recognition; even when a pop-culture reference is spotted, it has a strange murky glimmer. Young is both recovering a shared experience and implanting a new one when she writes lines like "Tim Robbins with Tupac<0x2009>/ the one where they stabbed each other<0x2009>/ for treatment," in "Betty Page We Love You Get Up."

There are other funny moments (the most intense flashes of Sylvia Plath’s "Lady Lazarus" are condensed into the formula "Rising, ash, eat, air, etc."), yet the real thrill of Picture Palace comes from the way it jumps between different levels of knowledge, in the kind of epistemological recreation that brings us back to Bachelard. Young’s ability to portray, in tandem, the way her speakers routinely perceive the world and the way they are able to break with those perceptions, and the ways of knowing the world that those perceptions embody, reminds me of the libretti of Robert Ashley’s operas more than it does the work of other contemporary poets. Much like the titular protagonist of Ashley’s Now Eleanor’s Idea (2007), her poetry is haunted by an "end of the world feeling," but where that feeling prodded Now Eleanor to pursue investigative journalism focusing on New Mexico’s lowrider culture, the same feeling pushes Young’s speakers to ponder and deform images projected onto, or from, screens: "There was a superimposed face on my face and I gradually came to see my own belief that it could never change. In this way my face functioned as an image on film."

The overall effect — and this seems like an inaccurate phrase, given how much Young’s poetics depends on micro-effects, small calibrations, and reversals of thought — is similar to Lynne Tillman’s 2006 novel American Genius. By this I mean that both writers’ driving concern is finding new forms to convey new experiences; they each establish a voice that, in its neurotic precision, contains multitudes.