Pantoums and Peacocks



by Jessica Sequeira

The Sky Isn’t Blue
by Janice Lee
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 226 pp.

Los Angeles is a city of sprawl and sunshine, but it can also be a very lonely place. When Maggie Nelson moved out there from New York to teach at CalArts, heartbroken, she wrote her collection of prose poems Bluets, about her love affair with the color blue. All her personal experience somehow became abstract in that locus of freeways, museums and well-watered lawns. Janice Lee’s fragmented “essays”, inspired by Nelson and other past teachers like Eileen Myles, along with French theorists such as Gaston Bachelard, her dead mother and musings while visiting favorite places along the coast, begin from a similar place of loneliness. This is a book about sadness, about the ways in which a young woman understands and dissects her emotions, and transforms them into art.

Several of the pieces were previously published on Lee’s online magazine Entropy, and the independent press background is clear in the work’s formal innovations. Not all of the sentences or phrases work completely, or at times seem to express “obvious” sentiments. Yet this doesn’t really seem to matter, as it’s the accumulated effect of phrases that’s of value here, not any individual quote. Lee seems to think of the space of the blank page as a kind of house, one in which the placement of furniture (the words) is only important to a certain extent, as words, like furniture, can be rearranged. And so, while she insists memories must be localized, as in her meditations on the Salton Sea, there’s a constant dislocation within the texts, possibly intentional. Adjective often doesn’t quite sync with noun; there’s a sense of searching and incompleteness, quotation and repetition, a casting about for the right word; and all this is part of the point. A wash of words breaking against shore, searching over and over again to be “the” phrase, never closing off meaning or declaring itself the end, receding and returning, eternally capable of shifting form into something else. Empathy and heartbreak consume and recreate themselves; sadness feeds on sadness, blue on blue.

In these essays, argument is poetry, and emotion becomes process. Lee dismantles language into almost mechanical parts, thought diagramming into other thoughts, and this abstraction makes it an art text. In an essay about preparing a reading for LACMA, Lee worries about this way of thinking of her body and emotion as elaborately structured pretexts for action, and the attraction to structure as the inverse of sprawl, drift and unconnectedness is a recurring theme. In Backpacking, Point Reyes, Driving, Lee says the sestina, in which stanzas loop back on themselves, is an appropriate poetic form for the childhood place where she finds herself, a place that “tends to conjure and reconjure ghosts, the uncanny repetition that induces haunting, déjà vu, strange warpings and relocations of memory… Echolocation.”

In the same essay Lee sees a flock of quail, “unafraid, beckoning or mocking or completely apathetic to whatever it is I am doing.” This natural world exists beyond her personal concerns; the human and her anguish are irrelevant to the non-human world. Los Angeles, the financial system and the anthropocene reality in which we find ourselves, do not care about our emotions; abstract intelligence is what is most highly valued. Yet throughout the book, Lee expresses her nostalgia for a way of life that is animal, pure non-thinking. She believes that the poetic stance of openness to one’s surroundings, and the intensity with which one perceives and expresses consciousness, can transform a tree into a haiku, a peacock into a pantoum.

This processing of emotion into poetic prose is a tremendously valuable project. It is also a trompe-l’œil, as this insistence on empathy becomes so divorced from any specific person that it too becomes cerebral, an object. The temptation to mysticism, and desire to simply embrace nature are framed in the most abstract, almost aphoristic prose. That love could be for anyone. That sky could be anywhere. Triggers for memories could come from direct life, someone else’s life or stories and myths. Lee herself admits this. “Even in this state I can recognize the shameful sincerity of my situation. I do not miss you or even you. I miss the sensation of you. I miss the warmth, the questions,” she says in Mornings in Bed. Her way of writing is a way of seeing the world, an embrace of the ahistorical, unattached life at the western edge of a young country. “There are no ancient tribal feuds, no wounds, no blood. It is less absolute, perhaps. But better” than the history-obsessed Old World, as Chris Kraus claims in the last lines of Torpor. “The sky isn’t blue”, Lee’s rallying cry of possibility, inhabits the same mental space. For Lee, the sky can be (should be?) different every time.

In Los Angeles, where the sky is always blue, this is a radical denial, but its “anything goes” ethos is also the most LA statement there is. The city is central to Lee’s fragmented accounts, as it is an urban nexus, a place where one can wake up beside someone and never see them again; where relationships require advance planning; where all is atmosphere, gridlock, freeways, immensity, movement; where life is different for everyone, even different for oneself from one day to the next. LA is an unquotable haze, just as in this book, almost no sentence can be quoted, but quoting isn’t what it’s about, even if Lee herself occasionally hat-tips the authors she likes, such as Kenneth Patchen, Jaime Saenz and Pierre-Jean Jouve. What it’s about is an attitude, the creation of an atmosphere. This attempt to articulate emotion in a unique way can reduce to trivial thoughts, which provoke despair precisely when one realizes nothing new can be said. The lyre’s been strummed since the beginning of time, the sky is blue.

Yet when Lee dares to flout the obvious, and say once again that she is sad, that the sky is not blue, something happens; this becomes an intrepid statement in itself. The imagination is rearranged; the insignificant becomes significant. As Lee writes, “that is what love is, perhaps, a complete rearranging of the imagination, a complete infiltration of a subjectivity that seems to defer how images correlate with each other. Suddenly, what matters is the color of the sky. The direction of the stars. The speed of light. Significance and insignificance change places.” Perhaps that is what the inverse of heartbreak involves too. In the utopian dystopia of Los Angeles, in which the certain and uncertain, the vastness of the city and tininess of one’s bedroom, the permanent and transitory, the inane and artistic, become irrecoverably confused, so that dichotomies and structures begin to lose meaning, Lee’s sincere tributes to tears, rain and the places that mean something to her begin to refract infinitely in a mirrored hall of self-consciousness. Maybe this is one way, in a lonely city, to cope.

Images by Amayzun and Karol Franks.

About the Author:

Jessica Sequeira lives and writes in Buenos Aires.