Thursday, December 21, 2017

Book Review: Hourglass Studies, Krysia Jopek (Crisis Chronicles, 2017)

Today, when the word “hourglass” is used, it’s more likely to modify “figure” or “economy.” Yet, when I was a kid, we used to make fun of a soap opera that claimed, “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” But what does that mean exactly? I think they meant it like “funny how time slips away,” as if turning it over means death? But, as a time-measurer, the hourglass and the (electric, non-digital) clock both figure time more as a circle than a line (even if you can’t turn back the hands of time). The clock may be self-contained, but the hourglass needs something to turn it over if the sands are to return to the other side, and while a clock is thought of as measuring a day, in Krysia Jopek’s Hourglass Studies (Crisis Chronicles, 2017), the hourglass measures the year (and maybe even “our lives”).

Many poets and writers have considered the analogy between the day and the year (noon is like the summer solstice, midnight the winter solstice, and evening an equinox), but viewing the seasonal cycles as the primary scope rather than the diurnal cycle gives Jopek’s poetic sequence more gravitas (it’s one thing to say “the darkest hour is just before the dawn” and quite another to plead, “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” or dream of “second innocence” or “next time is the best time” as if it wouldn’t be winter had you not made some dreadful error in summer):

“A clock points the exit    of bliss   balanced with  the least
severe   bitterness.   To want so much and turn over      pliant grains
of sand     without meaning. (1)

The clock is active; the hourglass passive; time itself seems absent. Is it the clock that wants to turn over the hourglass’s sands? Is pointing out the exit the same as wanting so much? Is the hourglass more like time itself than a clock is? What is time if not measured? What is time if measured? Does the clock really start it? Like the unmoved mover, or the logos that allegedly comes before the flesh (time)? Can measuring devices evoke the unmeasurable?

For those who are looking for ‘speaker and situation’ to ground this poem from these potentially infinite questions, one could this say it takes place “in the month of winter solstice/ when the change is due to come” (as Syd Barrett put it, setting the I-Ching to music), and, in this sense, they provide an alternative ritual to navigate the month in which American suicide rates are highest than the ready made pseudo-religious rituals of secular Xmas. Of course, the winter solstice can be “a metaphor for” a personal psychological journey, (“the illusion of starting over” 13), as if this point of the darkest sand grain second is one with the indivisible void, or the illusion of transcendental timelessness, where the center becomes the conference, but I feel this book gains power if you read it in December (or in June for Australian readers).

To “brace” for winter, to be forced to breathe in cold air and see your breath…..It’s an “uphill” struggle, a descent into darkness, a crisis poem, trying not to merely wait, trying not to cling so tight as to strangle the gift. As the winter solstice approaches, one may be more likely to feel “time’s defiant passing.” Scared of the dark and the cold, the Anglo-Americans debate is it better to hope for spring, have a “mind of winter” (they say NYC’s tough, well, I’m tough!), give in and embrace the darkness (even if you have to hibernate, turn yourself off---as opposed to over—to do so)….and let desperation have its day, aware of the dangers of pure poetry, while “skipping backwards through the hurricane” (15). Krysia Jopek fiercely flirts with many of these survival strategies, and finds a few to be immortal and free (though not without a wry gallows humor; perhaps that’s what she means by [melanc]holy). For instance, I could call Section IX an ode to the strength of fragility (pg. 17-18), and a no-nonsense account of the terror of being abandoned like a clock by time (or time by a clock), and the trauma of isolation (or is it the isolation of trauma?):

“Magnetized to the floor, the character cannot arise from the death scene, forgotten by everyone else on stage. The audience already went home and dig cathartic holes.” (18)

But such a thematic reading of Hourglass Studies can run the risk of reducing it to “those story facts, dust of the empirical, collage spun into pastiche by emphatic critics stripping the coda. Everything reified; go home.” (2), and, more intimately, Jopek’s brilliantly condensed almost aphoristic short numbered sections become like the sands in the hourglass, the grains of sand Blake could see worlds in (like snowflakes, no two alike); many of these poems use the language of measurement to evoke an unmeasurable world, even as the contemporary socio-political world makes occasional appearances (section III, pg. 5-6).

One of the greatest pleasures of this book is the severe (if not necessarily stark) forms of intimate shape-shifting (“Impeccable” 23) attention to turns of phrase that have the power to both slow down defiant time as well as speed up the transitions (and become more like time than a statue), while never losing its authority falling into “mere language play.”  Reading it, I think of Tristan Tzara’s “the wonder of the word; around its center the dream called ourselves,” relishing Jopek’s ambivalence about whether “to be fully on-guard” (15) while still letting the double-meaning exceed logic’s grasp and compel hours of timeless wonder.

Perhaps I could do better justice to this book by just quoting some of these sections that especially grabbed my attention (I wonder if I posted them on Facebook—out of context---if it would turn more people on then this attempt at review)…

“Someone convinces we were needed in that house where sorrow slips in on a Saturday, accordions the stairs.” (9)

“Wrists ache for a paintbrush to supersede the photograph. Neck falls to confound interval, whispers to the knees to straighten and heal, forget the long winter up ahead.” (12)

“Names can be changed, change can be given, wind can push light objects through the street.” (13)

Push me! The boy orders    the swing    tangling verdant
[lush] decrescendo[s] [of] the marshland   arching   from the

One of her most [dis][ch]arming devices is the use of brackets that push the envelope of language’s ability to harbor multiple meanings, perspectives and moods, which tend to get more complex as the book progresses:

…..the hand[le] slips out of focus, displaces the current…(7)

…the last day of vacation around the [is]land, different each time…(7)

…Torrential downpour and thunder [deco]rate sleep to tell of the [s]hip, the [t]rain, the waiting to be carried [a book] under someone’s arm” (14)

“pass out pain[t] for everyone”

“Furiously night after night [p]urging emotions.”

“The goodbye proven with [photo]graphs, waiting for the roof to heal, undo the laces, finish the prop[hecy], so there could be surprise again without the ego’s shallow pit[fall].” (19)

“The notebook [of winter] fell from the wind[ow]. Everything heavy when days are X-rayed by night, the chest falls back [in c]loud.” (20)

“Another comes to title the composition [Melanc]holy.”(20)

“The feet sting upon landing: memory [g]losses ambit[ion]. (20)

By the time we reach the final poem (section XII, as in clocks have 12 hours, years have 12 months, etc), the eponymous word “Hourglass” finally appears for the first time, even though there had been many clocks: “The hourglass flipped the conversation over. How to end when one doesn’t recognize the beginning?” The poem had begun with the desire (or is it need?) to turn over hourglass, as if the hourglass is a passive device, but here the hourglass is an active power, as if, like a clock, it has hands afterall, though not rendering people—at least as characters-- superfluous. In the process, many dualisms seem to resolve themselves (though not in a once-and-for-all static way). “I wake and remember I am [a] stranger.”…..Being what they seem,…..time again has meaning” Or, even better:

The director’s arms rock the camera and eucalyptus
And [time] becomes a [chara]acter”

(Is an “acter” a cross between an actor and an aster?) Being and seeming, Jopek both is and isn’t saying time becomes a character, coming to accept that time will always be defiant, but then again so will the hourglass. The ending of this poem reminds me of the Rilkean sublime that mixes “beauty and terror” (Duino Elegies) which in a way enacts the hourglass turned back to the poem’s beginning (with a Rilke quote), while at the same time evoking the green of spring, as if writing this poem got her through the winter….if you’re looking for a kind of happy ending in which worry is transformed into wonder……either way, this book helps quicken the mind, and may help prevent the onslaught of Alzheimer’s and other conditions they say we’re prone to in the winter of our lives…..

Chris Stroffolino

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