Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death

By Caryl Pagel

Factory Hollow Press
September 2012

Reviewed by Angela Woodward


Truth for the man of science is that which can be demonstrated reliably and repeatedly in controlled conditions. Psychical researchers, from William James to Hereward Carrington (from whom Pagel borrows her evocative title), expended much energy on devising rigid conditions for studying psychics and mediums. Often those most eager to debunk became the most fervent believers. Carrington relates how one of his scientific colleagues hired detectives to shadow Mrs. Lenore Piper, known as "The Greatest Mental Medium of All Time." This scientist, afraid of being hoodwinked, diverted Mrs. Piper's correspondence to see if she was obtaining information about her clients through the mail. He was careful to obliterate any clue to his identity when he attended her psychic sessions, where she spoke from a deep trance, in the voices of the dead. He drew up to Piper's residence in a closed carriage and slipped into the back of her parlor, completely masked, and disguised by a black cloak. To his astonishment, Mrs. Piper spouted messages from his grandparents, long dead in another country, words he concluded could only have come from the spirits themselves. Thus the scientist is racked by suspicion and gullibility in equal parts, the terror of being duped wrestling with the longing to believe. It is this fractured consciousness, both skeptical and hopeful, that animates the poems in Caryl Pagel's Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death.

The poems investigate what the body is, what is behind the body, what is inside the body. "'You are not/ your body you inhabit it'" declares someone, in quotation marks, in the poem "Occult Studies." We do not know who speaks with such authority, any more than we know where the soul goes after death. The speakers in these poems are varied—a woman who flies out the window, a photographer of ghosts, a medium, a scientist. Many of the poems stutter visually, as white space breaks up the middle of a line, or runs as a chasm through the whole verse. Dashes, ampersands, quotation marks, italicized phrases, ellipses and brackets clutter the typographical thread. Even in the poems with a fairly defined narrator, we have the sense that another voice is talking through or over it, like a radio tuned between two stations. Scientific authority is repeatedly undermined by the capricious other world. This is the "L" section from an alphabet poem, "Common Plant & Animal Names (Existing & Not Existing)":

Lady's Thigh, Lambwood Tie, Lie-to-Me, Lioneye

Luscious on the tongue, the hyphens in "Lie-to-Me" somehow persuasively taxonomical, the reader nevertheless vacillates: which of these are "Existing" plants, and which "Not Existing"? Is that a Lady's Thigh blooming by the edge of the path, or merely the poet's mischief? Pagel researches her poems thoroughly or bases them on acute observation, so the world they expose has a tempting solidity. Yet always it is pulled apart, something other, occult, invisible, unwanted, unthinkable, made available in the gap.

Naming also preoccupies these poems, especially in the luminous series "Botched Bestiary." Six of these are spread across the book: "Those That May Disappear," "Those That Require Warning," "Those That Operate From Deep Space," "Those That Are Possessed By Nightmare," "Those That Are Not Immediately Ill," "Those That Wish Closer Than." These dense paragraphs string together sentences in quotation marks, scattered with ellipses for words removed, bracketed words inserted, all describing various animals. In each case the name of the animal has been erased and substituted with "the body." The bodies drop from the sky, drink from ragged veins, crawl under barriers, come back from extinction, are golden or peppered with spots, sing and swim, or "return into the same hole they had made in the water when they leaped." The sources for the Bestiary range from Melville and Calvino to Wikipedia and Time-Life nature books, resulting in complex patchworks of reportage on the mysterious doings of "the body." With the names of the individual animals removed, the Bestiary poems depict one singular "body," with often terrifying qualities. Here again the voice switches channel over and over, each sentence embraced in a new set of quotation marks, as in this section from "Those That Are Not Immediately Ill":

"Bodies there [we]re few and wretched, for they [we]re fed with boiled meat and boiled rice." "In the dark of [the] night…bodies search[ed] the air for bodies, bodies scan[ned] the ground for small[er] bodies…and large bodies prowl[ed] about." "Each body had its own way of managing." "Bodies mostly eat small flying night bodies like bodies, bodies, and others. [Other] bodies mostly eat ripe fruit found in the rainforests."

By removing the names and splicing the source material, Pagel creates powerful hybrid texts. The Bestiary poems are nightmares of scientific observation, recorded in a tone that emulates definitive research, but is its own slippery poetics.

The switching from voice to voice, the voice caught in between, the voice calling out through a keyhole, the gesture flickering from a glass photographic plate, the life still evident in the taxidermy, the plant waving from the page of an antique herbarium, the you just glimpsed in passing, was it you, are you here, and then the gap, the erasure, the em dash, the word broken by its hyphen: throughout this collection, Pagel's poems allure and entrance with their truths both revealed and occluded. "What did you glimpse out         there Was        there an-          other" someone whispers, or someone half-hears from another room, in "Spirit Cabinet." Neither questioner nor questioned are fully present, and the reader becomes a taut observer, a third party to these ambiguous exchanges. Like Mrs. Lenore Piper, Pagel is a masterful medium, distracting the ear, defrauding the eye, to conjure enchanting specters.