Book cover for Toxicon and Arachne by Joyelle McSweeney

Joyelle McSweeney
Toxicon and Arachne
(Nightboat, 2020)

Response by Chris Holdaway

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Within the glove the grasp

As publisher of Compound Press and thus Minarets I had always sought to avoid deploying my own words on my own platform. And while certain I wanted Toxicon and Arachne represented amongst the ‘Apocrypha’ of our book response series, I knew myself equally unwilling to let anyone else on the job. For Joyelle feels like something of a dark mother from the time I spent as her student amidst the University of Notre Dame’s faux-gothic hallways, and given the motherhood besieged by all filial ruin that lies within the second conjunct of this book’s title, I can accept nothing less than a false son to make from my milieu a case by breaking the rules. It’s true I’m flying close enough to the sun that the lamination on my duly carried Necropastoral Society card might start to peel—nothing if not a good acolyte unto the very end. Thanks mum.

... on her commute-by-tube, one wisp loosens
from the worker’s knot, one comet, at her wrist,
a polyethylene grocery sack rides the current,
swings on turns. It’s so expensive
not to have it in the world. It’s so expensive
to stop.

(Toxicon and Arachne, 52)

Once upon a poetry workshop circa 2014 Joyelle brought up the dazzling tradition of bejewelled skeletons in the churches of Europe. I don’t remember the precise context or even the point at stake, but it has endured as illuminating for me when it comes to thinking about her writing and indeed her thinking. This extravagant adornment of death; such flagrant addition onto the ultimate negativity or lack; the general futility of ornament returning with a vengeance as the intolerable thinglyness of the world. For one might characterise the poetry in question by the sheer piling up of nouns and objects and other signifiers well beyond breaking point more than anything else; taking stock of the military hardware (warheads, black ops), bio-organic detritus (proboscis, lady sperm), banal kitsch (Kodak, a mickey mouse dictionary), and intersections of all (sleeper cells, drone pilots) that are of course the basic content of reality. Plus a few byzantines for good measure.

This is poetry where the only real happening is the thick and inexhaustible being of every thing: “That’s why I’m not avant-garde since I have no interest in marching forward with my banner though I do have a banner and it’s made of rags and rats and estrogen-shedding plastics, a toxic and lousy affair.” (from ‘FUTURE NO FUTURE’) Or as Matthew Henriksen has said: “McSweeney treats words, like images, as instances of their precise contents rather than symbolic references.”

Yes. Something other than the familiar post-modernism by juxtaposition is afoot in this linguistic demolition derby. In fact it may not really be juxtaposition at all, which relies for its effect on the concurrence of terms striking us as unexpected;—there is no such expectation in McSweeney’s accumulations that present themselves instead as utterly natural to the point of pathology. The point in dredging up so much stuff is not to point at the endless plurality of all things, insisting on their absolute difference constantly undermining the stability of our interpretations with post-structural aporia. No sir. Unlike some late-yet-vanguard 20th Century attempts to avoid or negate the commodity form by eschewing nouns and objects for the flux of actions and attributes (see the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and their eternal flight from reference), books like Percussion Grenade (Fence, 2012) and Toxicon and Arachne engage in willful nominal excess, shooting for the highest imaginable realism with everything they’ve got. We’re still in the symbolic order I suppose, but we’re using it as a battering ram.

Hello World.

If you think there’s a moral here
Or a femoral artery, a Pastueral,
Good news, you missed it, you’re missing it.
You’re missing the morale boat
The boost
The boast
The overall thrust
At the throat
Of the heart.

(Percussion Grenade, 31)

A poem at the opening of Toxicon and Arachne’s maw (an Ars Poetica no less) initiates with a litany of desirous I wants culminating in the commandments: “Bedazzle my occipital. Be / dazzled like a jeweled vagina or an improved corpse.” (7) And the possibility of even a viable let alone thorough catalogue of affairs slinks into the sunset like our gemstone skeletons. Let me just say, by way of gross structural thinking, that this book is in its own way the most accessible laying down of Joyelle’s totalising poetry to date. Percussion Grenade and The Commandrine (Fence, 2004) seat turbulent verse plays amongst the poetry, yet here is a book that for all its leaping octaves maintains a remarkably consistent tenor when considered as a whole; the violent cellular diversity evening out in the tragically macroscopic organism. Strange but perhaps inevitable that the most essential oil of what I’ll perversely call her late objectivist body of work should come out of the most acute bodily loss that haunts this book. Is this why the poems have an eerily tender sense of teaching you how to read them (and you will need to learn), the flow of riffing combinations trying to make things almost virulently easy for you? Blanchot: “Nothing extreme except through gentleness.” (The Writing of the Disaster, 7)

So yes, this is a book of poems presented as such (as opposed to an overall conceptual project), complete with some curiously trad elements such as the fact that everything starts on the recto (right-hand) page; a classical technique from lost eras of printing that leaves blank verso (left-hand) pages which may appear as great lacunae to some readers—just as I will continue to dance around the ‘Arachne’ section without really saying anything. We all have our limits.

instead of lungs
resonating chamber
instead of lungs
a false sea floor
a carpet of bladders
deflecting the sonar
deflecting the warline
in the benthic boundary
in the bathyspace
in the bath-scape of bathos
tragedy, trajectory,
porcelain oval
vesica piscis

(TA, 48)

The clearest culprit without a doubt is ‘Vesica Piscis’. Here where the carats in gold are negative and “sim card information writ in protein” (TA, 46) things get messy. The violent instruments of modern imperial control are debased and undercut as drones get ennui and depressed by their homing, while the rangefinders of warheads and anti-aircraft missiles are all subject to leaky swimbladders of fish to maintain flight paths. Beatitude is reduced to the peduncles that fix the cerebrum to the brainstem, and the godhead descends clothed in the red light of hemoglobin.

Your honour, oversupply in the first degree!

Like scenes from Breugel or Bosch we do not in the first instance perceive anything happening beyond a general immutable cacophony, and what changes we do mark come more from seeing the same mass at different angles, sliced by different dimensions. Even the poet, writing before the event horizon, seems to catch portents of the book’s final and as yet unborn poem in the fray—instead of lungs...

—Forgive me I’m out of breath.

Some long lines are concentrated towards the beginning, but the poem progressively turns into a sharp whirlwind that approaches list form, chaining mutations like beads of coccus bacteria: “enrobed / enthroned and enthroated / narrow road of the aerobe.” (47) We see this kind of generative move often in Joyelle's writing, like a lexical (as opposed to semantic) simile that says as much about the very possibility of comparison in our dizzying world as it does about any particular image.

The poem’s title is the name given to that archetypal Venn diagram of two overlapping circles whose centres lie on the other’s perimeter, so called for its resemblance of the bicameral fish bladders used to regulate buoyancy. Already a tension between the hygiene of geometry and the glut of nature. It’s also a figure in Christian iconography, the middle portion between the two circles generating the ichthys/fish motif symbolising the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, and was used as identification by early Christians persecuted under the Roman Empire. Indeed the major exception to escape the torrent of substances is the “godhead” who seems to act rather than merely appearing as an item in a list/litany/liturgy. The “I” that is able to wish at the poem’s outset does not return once the godhead arrives on the scene, and ultimately the “regnant king” returns “to smash it up / as he did in the beginning” and deal “the first blue crack / in the blasting cap of day.” (50) But for all the angles and trajectories in the poem this rapture is not one that comes familiarly from above but rather from the unknowable deep below; one where a swimbladder and a bathysphere might do you more good than prayers.

The decadence the thing in which I’ll catch the conscience of the king?

Bad host, you clutch your guest. Green seam
fluoresces in night vision, signature of
heat and flesh. Green ghost
lifts headline to the camera, proof of life
washed white by sudden flash. From satellite,
Earth turns on spit like a gut infloresced
with bad intentions. A god descends
with gifts of poetry and plague, he lights up
factory hens, a baffling intervention. They tote
their viral lode on wheel, on wing, on breast,
transmigrate the globe and upload
souls to heaven. O victor-bird, o vector,
I am like you, a non-state actor,
Death-fletched, alive, immune to all elixirs.

(TA, 31)

Another centrepiece of Toxicon and Arachne is the ‘Toxic Sonnets’ sequence: a crown of 14 linked sonnets where the last line of each is repeated in the first line of the next; written according to Joyelle “from the perspective of the tuberculosis bacterium that killed Keats.” Compared to the stabbing inventories of many of the other poems in the book, the sonnets are conspicuous in their concentration, considerably more discursive in winding phrases around longer lines and bringing enjambment into play with the more traditional form that is nonetheless more. Helix-like, the rungs and spines of these short poems land on striking punchlines more consistently than permitted elsewhere, pithy and saccharine enough to fuel the enacting of contagion from one sonnet to the next. The progress is bittersweet: “I know from his letters that he would rather have lived.” Yet there’s an honest recognition that the transmission at stake here is but a specific case of the processes that underpin all life, and as every eternally adolescent poet knows, there’s no severing the rapture of Keats from his tragedy. Who are we to root for? The fourteenth sonnet/station, before dipping back into a moment of punctuated itemising admits: “Here life converts its currency...” (42)

Amongst his holy poems Donne also composed a crown of seven dovetailed sonnets depicting the journey of Christ from immaculate conception to everlasting ascension. It would be both too much and not enough to template Keats with Christ, but we are confronted by two figures who prevail beyond death by means of the word: “Which cannot die, yet cannot chuse but die.” In any case the ‘Toxic Sonnets’ also bear an obvious kinship to Joyelle’s own earlier ‘King Prion’ poems from Percussion Grenade; likewise a sequence of intense and compacted quasi-lyrics under the aegis of a common title. From the mycobacterium bovis that leaps from cattle to humans with its tuberculosis, back to the future of corrupting prion proteins behind bovine spongiform encephalopathy: mad cow disease.

The penchant for medical pathologies in subjects and vocabulary can have a curious grounding effect in her poems, such that a certain clinical sterility or at least an ostentatiously technical naturalism can become an emergent property of the linguistic excess. What could be more down to earth than jamming your interface?: “A net of guarine / Gingko-balboa azatine melamine / Camphobacter phylacter nicotine.” (PG, 21) It’s for this reason that these poems never become properly surreal, for all their vertiginous affinities with the likes of Césaire. When Joyelle quotes Breton from a literal crematorium in the poem I’m fast treating like the Scottish play—“Let beauty be convulsive / or not at all” (TA, 128)—there’s a quality of grace (“Let beauty be”) compared to the original’s demand (“Beauty will be”). Through all the burning there’s no burning need to invent her way past the strictures of reality to greater glory—the bare fact of all that is the case is enough to always already rupture every thing. Little wonder that Bataille is another touchstone: the extravagant materialist and ejected surrealist.

We’re just shooting for a different region in the multiverse.

Had a brain for sin
And a body for numbers
While I synch
Sank sunq
Number after number
Into the slain crowd
Like lawn darts or
A numb raft on the
Party circuit
In a gown slit oar-high
Like a ribbon of moonlight

(PG, 26)

I’ve left it until this point to inevitably address the dumb luck of this book materialising during the global COVID-19 pandemic. But with the general state of worldly entropy it was bound to happen eventually, as Joyelle and co-conspirator/husband Johannes Göransson have been nothing if not consistent in their deployment of contagion as a lens on the production and reception of poetry, translation, and the very idea of all media(tion). Indeed one of the tap roots to her critical project the Necropastoral comes in identifying the idyllic and pastoral countryside as a fraudulent invention of the elites who would flee there during times of plague.

By playing psychoanalyst and embodying the viscous muck and processes of decay that constitute the bourgeoisie's repressed reality of nature, McSweeney starts from a wordscape so densely populated that infection is all but assured, from which she can make incursions into the territories of violent class asymmetries, political upset, and the industralisation of biohazards. To triangulate from other coordinates with comparable intensity, I’ve also consumed during COVID quarantine the only recently late Sean Bonney’s Letters Against the Firmament (Enitharmon, 2015)—another death another crisis. Writing amidst the thick of psychgeographic recollections of the London Riots, Bonney begins immersed in the very crucible of politics-in-action that in a letter towards the end of the book boils over at its extremities into the plague. For a society now examining the blind spots in truisms assuring us that we’re all in the same boat before the virus, it feels darkly prescient:

Personally, I like the Moscow Plague Riots of 1771, both for their measures of poetry and analogy, and for the thought of them as an element of the extraordinarily minor Walthamstow Riot of 7th August 2011. Plague is a bad metaphor, that’s its accuracy, it refers to both sides, all sides, in quantitatively different ways. But primarily, it’s dirt simple. It runs in both directions. Means both us and them. As in, metaphor for class struggle, also. As decoration for some unspeakable filth, on the one hand, or as working hypothesis on the other. A jagged rip through all pronouns. The thunder of the world, a trembling, a turbine. Cyclical desperation, cluster of walls.

(Letters Against the Firmament, 113-114)

I’ve left so much out it’s criminal, yeh. The ‘Wormhole for Leslie Cheung’ which begins with the liquid-crystalline “Let’s pose / on the fritillary edge of a black hole” (TA, 81) and rides its ‘PT Cruiser’ like a champagne limousine, hearse, and gunned-up Humvee all at once. Forgotten human collateral returns as our collective nightmare when the dead prisoner Adriaen het Kint in Rembrandt’s famed ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp’ lifts his own hand to take control of the demonstration; Alejandra Negrete is politically murdered along with a Mexican journalist for being his housekeeper, and is simply referred to as “the fifth victim.” The sestina form strains under the weight of 43 disappeared student teachers at Ayotzinapa, it’s first lines each beginning with a crisp “Never” while the later repetitions of “Thank you” are buried in long passages, as if gratitude must be wilfully excavated in a world that declares itself negatively.

run it again
double the charge
what’s the damage
sign for it
the universe wheels around in its dishevellment
like an afternoon drunk
rolls a wild eye which is a loophole
everything crawls out or goes in after it
the endtime’s gonna last awhile

(TA, 55)

For the reader who finds McSweeney’s always-dialed-up-to-11 mode of zealotry repetitive or inaccessible, there is of course the risk of blunting or simply normalising all that which is kicked up as the terrifying over-abundance of the world. The good, the bad, and the profligate. But perhaps another way to look at it is a refusal to play the usual critical game of taking one’s tensions and eventually figuring out how to subsume one into the other. To elect the victor. In this corner Heraclitean flux and in the other a seemingly outdated metaphysics where things brutally exist. Shock horror. But our intellectual history is in large part just the dialectical oscillation between deciding which pole is going to have primacy. In his debates with Slavoj Žižek, radically orthodox theologian John Milbank offers another tactic in Trinitarian paradox, where contradictory notions are each ineluctably defined by the other and held in surfeit suspension that does not even permit their mutual annihilation.

Many of the subjects at stake would utterly refuse any neat resolution, so it’s just this sort of both/and in place of either/or logic that animates Joyelle’s poetry. And it goes some way to accounting for why it was the first place I struck contemporary permission to indulge the necessarily heady convolutions of simile in the face one of those dictums I’ve always (if perhaps apocryphally) attributed to Pound: “Don’t tell me what it’s like—give me the real thing.” This assent to paradox is no literary centrism that shies away from taking any sort of stand; on the contrary, Toxicon and Arachne is her strongest claim to date of a poetry that just so happens to have both its dynamism and its brute facts of existence;—an endlessly morphing mass nonetheless resolutely composed of things in all their never-ending relations. It’s also the most clear-cut Necropastoral masterclass in Joyelle’s own body of work; a great and intolerable vision of our material reality that also reaches out to our subjectivies by way of intoxicating lyrical moments and apostrophe to exquisitely dead poets, pop stars, and daughters.

Something so
exquisite could drown me and I’d be
grateful, fail
the test, go under
with you, gold thorns
to collapse the lung, and drops of pearl
instead of air—

(TA, 136)



Chris Holdaway (Auckland, NZ) is the author of HIGH-TENSION/FASHION (Greying Ghost, 2017). He received his MFA in poetry from Notre Dame, & his MA in linguistics from Auckland University.