the final historian, the final cultural avatar

There’s a plight being delivered. She has a fetish for being the final historian, the final cultural avatar, she feeds the need and hence must take the persona of goddess, a tragedian and cremator of worlds. In a world of diffracted male fact she becomes a curator of new worlds. It’s a heavy responsibility bearing distress, loneliness as well as good bourn. She builds using memory, imagination and exterior English, that is, a language that remains out of touch with both itself and her cerebral thoughts. The collection reads like a long message in a bottle, from someone who lives elsewhere, and knows more than what would be found in a normal message or letter.

Birds of Equinox by Jana Astanov, Red Temple Press, New York, 2019.
by Richard Marshall

Juliusz Slowacki’s nineteenth century narrative poem of digression Beniowski recapitulates his poetic journey and is a reckoning with himself, his enemies, poetry and the world. Astanov echos her Polish forbearer and mingles tragedy with bitter humour and deep romantic irony to create an intense range of realistic, fantastic, dreamlike, symbolic and ambivalent constructs. Throughout she deliberately violates rules of syntax and romance . Hidden inside many of the pieces are allegories, or the half skin of allegories. She’s waking up a mythopoetic vision, that of the incarnation of woman’s spirit via erotic stress, mental violation, equilibrium, joie de vivre and spiritual power. It’s an unruly mix, where a physical élan vital is pushed, face down into the domestic pillow or the national wall, by intruding Parnassian intellectualism squealing delights and rages both.

In the title poem Astanov crushes in a mythic, Biblical symbolism twisted as on a spit of ellipsis and silence to detonating anguished thought – what’s happening is she’s catching thought on the move, as if holding a shooting star for one brief moment – 

‘  the land dries of water

as I find myself in a stomach of a whale 

something of a soul with something fleshy

desire and a catastrophic announcement

didn’t I ask for an adventure?’  

and that question, dragged onto a new line, it compresses the myths and the teeming wonders of the compact opening into what is a desperate emotion, a bedraggled, amazed and breaking thing. It’s a terrific, terrifying start, which embodies a sort of collapse – of confidence, in the future, in herself – by showing itself in the moment and, via the biblical whale, in all time. Astanov generates her poetic persona as some new goddess, an egg, a wanderer, a cabaret act, a victim and killer power, someone who is everywoman and flux herself. Ever conscious of the role being a woman has determined for her to become, her self awareness becomes what she possess in all its twists and turns of identity. She writes: 

‘I remember the steps

and the storyline

happily ever after

with its eerie self eulogy’ 

– and its the sense of ghosts and hauntings that catch her throughout the collection, bringing her up short as if surprised by the paradoxes and shocks of her contemplative performance. John Wayne, the kind of representative chauvinist act Astanov is hunting down, used to speak lines in his performances and then think about what they meant. He was constantly interested and surprised by his screen persona, and Astanov has that same curious, reactive quality. The voice of each poem refreshes her thoughts and feeling. Half through she’ll turn to look at what is being expressed and be startled or at least, she’ll respond to it like it’s the first time. So in this first poem she stops short and starts talking to herself, as if now there’s two of her and the rougher mother is speaking to the disappointed daughter, ‘it’s silly to want against the wanting.’ And how then to continue? It’s a kind of nettled shrug, a defiance that stares back at the bad universe and a will that’s going to create a new one in five lines of swaggering confidence that contrasts with the simplicity of the doubting voice we started with:

‘I could still turn into a swan or a crow

something soothing with something

explosive in unexpected ways

a swan in the bleakness of a coma chamber

a crow piercing the shell of a cold autumn air.’

Jana Astanov poetry based performance art piece ‘Black Swan’ 2016

Well, you can’t talk about swans without Leda and you can’t talk about crows in poems without Ted Hughes. So with Astanov you guess she’s going to rip the bellies out of both. Leda is of course raped by the male God and Ted Hughes is so often the dark avatar of Sylvia Plath, one of Astanov’s heros. So in the images chosen we’re being given some clues as to the focus of her modernism. You’d be missing what the sky is when she writes ‘ I fell off the sky’ if you didn’t know that its patriarchy, stupid! The confessional space forged by Plath and Anne Sexton are the spaces she’s inhabiting, but more ruefully and eerily than someone might if they thought they were secure. They’re not. Astanov knows the spaces are delicate, held together more on a wish and a prayer than anything, where men are still angry and dangerous and desire baffles and confuses:

‘ I am not even sure

if autumn is a sign to fly away

he doesn’t know either

just stares at his own reflection

trapped within surrounding

glass towers glass towers

glasssssss towerssssss

bleakness augments his plumage

and reigns over the valley

shortening days

weeping nights

and quarrels.’

Jana Astanov poetry based performance art piece “Performing Motherhood Part 2” 2019
photo by Ventiko

The personal confessional blends easily with the transfixed and vexed dynamic of a relationship trapped in its own corners. And that dramatic, over the top serpentine echoing is both the white noise  hiss at the end of the stanza and the 

‘…white snake

no longer a swan

a blind worm transparent

in a jar of granulated soil.’

The return of sound as an echo is itself a dynamic trope, one of the mode of allusion itself and one driving the poetics of GM Hopkins, for example, as well as Johannes Secundus, Jonathan Swift and Friedrich Schlegel. The poem becomes a strange, fragmentary ritual of descent, bereft of structural rules or lasting referential functions and as such is not causally linked to enthusiasm, belief or disassociation. Its a practice that fabricates the semblance or facade of language, like ventriloquism, skat, aphonic noise, invented archaic sacerdotalism. And of course, this is the domain of spiritual possession, vision and catatonia. Astanov is unafraid here. This is territory that forever has been dismissed by patriarchs as the domain of the hysterical wimmin but of course, you’d expect them to. This is the language of a practice resulting from the imperative to speak, a divine need so it seems. Speaking in tongues is the language that transgresses the authoritarian injunction to hold your tongue and stay silent. Violence against women – Leda and Plath keep being stirred to the surface throughout here, well, that’s the context I guess. Astanov’s language jump starts this scenario and writes to a non-language, forbidden throughout the centuries, a language that is a form of ‘belief speech’ that tears open the social places and invents the speech of a the ‘non place’ of utopian visionaries. 

Its a poetics of glossolalia, but cunning and disguised, a credulous and inspired language beyond the reach of the naturalised, socialised and policed. In this sense, Astanov stands in the long tradition of the glossolaliac, described in 1 Corinthians 14:2 as ‘ one who speaks in a tongue [Lalein glosse] speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.’ And of course Astanov finds something that the Church finds hard to swallow, what Barthes calls ‘ a dark message, or prayer,’ – one to a female Goddess by divine women in soliloquies of ecstatic spiritual emotion. The shamanic rituals of the ethnopoetic recordings of Maria Sabina is where Astanov’s weird beauties float. The Russian symbolist Andrei Bely writes:

‘before there were distinct sounds the tongue would leap, like a dancer, in its own enclosed sphere…’ and this captures a sense of the dense and shadowy atmospherics of the collection. He continues, and in so doing depicts a sense of what Astanov’s work does, which is…:

‘…to hear in the shudderings of the air the imprint of ancient meaning; and, by wrapping oneself in the image of muttering bygones, to resurrect that which has gone by.’ Astanov is one one level writing out of domestic spaces, griefs, troubles, and joys but each become sacralized almost, as if a priestess has engaged at another level to discover transmogrified resolutions and interpretations.  The opening poem ends with a lovely image of the troubled couple as flower and bee, which sings us back to the metaphysicals of sixteenth century English. But it’s pastoral is also a burlesque manger play, almost dada at the close:

‘ but I will come back

as a flower

next Spring

and he will match me

as a seeding bee

as a wasp

with charcoaled thighs

charcoaled thoughts

until then I will guard

at the deep end of a tunnel

the earth’s egg

where the crystalline substance

takes root inside the planet

in a solar check

suspended within trajectory

a sultry dispassioned logic

mimicking a purpose.’

It’s the knowy last line that breaks the mood and rebels against itself, shows a different hand, one that forces you to reread the whole again. 

And in reading the whole collection of poems one confronts an emotive imagination where the poets’ inner self and the outer world become landscapes of fused toxic images, physical and spiritually charged, an open-ended set of closures suspended over a provoked organic body. These are flesh poems, an arena that is circumscribed by organic truths of a body’s, a female body’s, resonate imagery. It as if the body is somehow beside the self and breaks through in conditions of altered or allusive states.

Jana Astanov poetry based performance art piece ‘Waves of Silence’ 2015
photo by Geo Geller

The sense of ecstacy and frenzy lurks here and this is right. Bacchic frenzy is dangerous to those who look for the orderly and the comliant. Plato, Plotinus and Longinus all knew the dangers of the poet: They’re unruly and delirious and create havoc. Astanov has the carnal twitch of the erotic genius poet Emily Dickinson: ‘ No rose, yet felt myself a bloom/ No bird – yet rode in ether’ and the Shulamite in the Song of Songs ; ‘ Let me lie among vine blossoms/in a bed of apricots/I am in the fever of love…’ when she writes, many times, : 

‘racing hearts water enveloping 

bodies swelling and surging

slippery wet shaking anonymous mass of humanity 

under the cover of the new moon in cancer 

at home in ecstasy 

the senses aware of a dense forest 

lush vegetation flowers in full bloom 

stage for fertility rites

reeds embracing the lake shore 

rhythmic movement in ruthless passion

ripples of water ripples in spacetime

vitality and strength 

hope beauty lust 

unwrapping each dark bulge of antimatter 

secretly wanting the universe to watch’ 

The ardor and romance of oblivion simultaneously transgresses against the secret lusts and seeks to share itself, become an object to be seen. She clamors to be the object of carnal delerium, seen by all, cancelling the grubby torso of cultures that seed themselves via Leda. This paradoxical juxtaposition embodies an affirmative overflowing of emotions and she’s working here in the tradition of the Sufi Rumi who sees love as an ocean, a milky way, a flake of foam on it and so forth. It’s an exchange between mystical and bodily union, both religious and profane, working one on the other and back again, constantly fucking so to speak. There’s a pent atmosphere to much of it though, and a sense of longing and unfulfilled bliss. As always throughout the collection there is something like a shadow, a denial, distance, negation and deathly feel that blurs her boundaries of self but also those of joy and sorrow. Take the whole of her poem Atlantic voices and it is hard not to feel the sense of tragic forboding alongside the soaring hope:

‘I waited in the last days of September

for the beach to clear

just me, sunset, surfers

resembling hungry intestinal seabirds

a shape

sketched between the waves

mapped above a tiny curve

I dream the hues

as if a rainbow

with yellow reminiscent

pink playful and  purple royal

I create the edges of a blade

inside the sky

more intensity pours through

to awaken deep Atlantic voices

together we will turn the canvas

into prophetic aria

then spread around the shore

towards dark waters and beyond

listening to fish’s sights of awe!

why not! why to limit yourself

with gravity laws

and human misunderstanding.’

The voice here is cracked and shaking itself down, as if she’s giving herself a good talking to. But what ocassion is this that provokes such forbodings? It’s a strange performance, where the reader wonders whether it’s feelings or cognition that she’s after, not having the chills down the spine and all that but rather having expectations proved false, hopes dashed, ambiguities left unresolved. Part of the subversion is the way she chops the language so that it feels foreign, subversive in its attempt to speak without fully determining that. And it seems aware, and makes us the reader aware, that the emotion written and the thought written isn’t quite what was originally felt and thought. That last dismal thought in the last line is its philosophical formulation – and Astanov throughout is philosophically inclined alongside everything else – and understands that there is a gap between the misunderstanding of a poem and its truth elsewhere. Coleridge hints at this when he writes  of the imagination having ‘a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order.’ Eliot disliked Hamlet because it fails to create this abundance. Astanov has passion and mystical insight but isn’t just dictated by these passions and mysteries. She has artistic purpose and expresses herself rather than betrays. Hers is a strangeness that enlarges and clarifies but in terrifying orders of dejection.

‘each petal illusory each thorn real

Baudelaire attempting to read my mind

through the midnight smoke

burnt Portuguese incense

the miracles are announced by the scent of rose

to reverse human certitude alchemically

sounding waving whisper intent’

she writes, and summarises in the title the state its all written in: ‘Love’s a verb’. That is her diagram of what she’s doing, allowing us to adopt ‘offline’ to some sense of empathy. The poems come out of enclosed paper with the cadence of maturing youth. The textures are tough knots and loops that don’t slip, like weed ferns overgrowing untended unintended land like breastwork erected during a siege. There’s a war going on here and her poems feel like the grooves around the cylinder of a bullet. There’s violence in them, and it always feels like the violence has already been done, a sequence of brisance effects, those shattering effects of the release of energy in an explosion. It’s a poetry inflamed by the slightly arched knowledge of those who give birth, someone under siege, a whole sting of adversaries. She distills and hatches, and there’s a hint of avenging deity being disclosed anatomically and vaguely. 

Jana Astanov poetry based performance art piece Performing Motherhood Part 3
‘Quack Quack Opera’ 2019
photo by Mara Catalan

Astanov writes like Rubens paints, so that everyone in her poems is touching everyone else. See, her voices gush with agency but of a peculiar kind that stops short of a freedom to actually act. Throughout there’s contemplation on actions, and an awareness of terrible freedoms and forbearances. But the real entity we confront is the poignant voice of any woman in a system where appearance remains a diagram of ontology. She reminds us lest we forget that women still get trapped by the poles of mother /lover,  and by being only objects of desire and speculation produced by male heads and shafts. The moral omnipotence and gushing testosteroidal agency of patriarchy, its oppression, the passivity of culture and history in response to this, all of it, is what Astanov’s performances confront. The poems are slanted and eat their own cadences as if they’re ensnared nets trying to kill her off. There’s a plight being delivered. She has a fetish for being the final historian, the final cultural avatar, she feeds the need and hence must take the persona of goddess, a tragedian and cremator of worlds. In a world of diffracted male fact she becomes a curator of new worlds. It’s a heavy responsibility bearing distress, loneliness as well as good bourn. She builds using memory, imagination and exterior English, that is, a language that remains out of touch with both itself and her cerebral thoughts. The collection reads like a long message in a bottle, from someone who lives elsewhere, and knows more than what would be found in a normal message or letter. She knows that she doesn’t know her reader, and they won’t know her. In this sense the poems are solipsistic fragments, shouts into a computer screens’ blankness or whatever, as if recognising the Cartesian ‘I think therefore I am’ is an invalid step, presupposing what it tries to prove. But she’s generous towards herself, and finds fulfillment of an edgy kind:

‘I am certainly more grateful this year 

sacrifice of animal body 

replaces my own.’

Small comforts. Brilliant.

About the author:

Richard Marshall is a writer, painter and a philosopher. He is a regular contributor to CREATRIX Magazine. You can buy his two books of philosophy interviews Philosophy at 3AM, and Ethics at 3AM from Oxford University Press.

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