Call the Catastrophists

By Krystal Languell

September 2011

Reviewed by Jeanine Deibel


Krystal Languell's Call the Catastrophists shines like a gold tooth in the cavernous mouth of literature. Languell's brusque tonal approach and her hyperawareness might wear on readers if not for the fact that her speaker is frequently self-effacing, an active component of the very system being deconstructed: "Do you have brain damage too? Me three ... During commercials, forget what I'm watching. Jersey Shore: / I feel superior. Golden Girls: I feel empowered, rapt & unmoving." Being culpable, however, does not lead to a lack of agency; the voice is autonomous and piercing, as all the characters and relationships presented seem rather sharp around the edges: "My mother thinks of her father as damaged because his heartbeat is irregular so I know / what she'll think of my diabetic boyfriend."

A feeling of uneasiness arcs over the book, as if privileged American life is an act of drowning in idiosyncratic and solipsistic fixations, as if existence is merely a revolving door where many may enter the speaker's lobby, but few of lasting worth will linger. This tendency is exemplified in "The Sadder It Becomes":

The father cut the cord at each child's birth and I babysat mean and bored worried the kids with reminders about vitamins and homework feeding the dog late that night he pawed and pawed at his bed worked to get it right the mother warned me never to    change my name changing it back is such a hassle she moved to Texas to buy a car and date a doctor who would make her want to be sober.

Picked up his youngest daughter from a party when he was too drunk at ours to do it himself pretended to her it was normal she and I both knew better and that was fine. He dated students supposedly appropriate because of this or that ethical loophole never once tried to fuck the babysitter how I got to be the favorite stayed over with the kids one  night the week I gave myself two black eyes.

Interactions on such a deterministic scale have obvious repercussions—of the catastrophic sort— deftly illustrated in one transient vignette after another. Stark and alluring landscapes undulate as the speaker goes through a process of maturation: "I spoke no / memory of it but certainly was your seizure ghost your jaw clamp and tongue blood / pouring from mouth ghost that still wakes me up gives me night sweats suppressed / images of coma watch." Here we are given the technicolor gore and the extended metaphor of a ghost taking possession of a sibling's body, while being inculcated into a liminal space where two sisters sleep. Readers are invited into an intimate and familiar space that operates as a guise, given the unknown variables and vulnerabilities circulating just beneath the surface.

These poems transport readers from one geographic location to another, while considering the intersections and gaps between systems of communication and cultural boundaries: "In the dog park, people call to their animals the same way I would later call you. / Gyere ide come here was a pet call and you didn't like it. You phoned to invite me to / Bratislava I didn't know what country that was in and stayed home ... The alphabet is longer in some places extra letters, often vowels, are needed to put a finer / point on emotional and romantic speech." Languell scaffolds episodic narratives from localized scenes in New Mexico, Texas and New York, allowing readers to get their bearings before she pivots to international settings, like Vienna and Budapest, drawing unpredictable comparison and contrast points with American ideas of value. Language collides between worlds as well, moving from Hungarian to French to English, emphasizing the prevalence of skewed interpretations and the deficiency of words to capture what they intend to signify. 

Languell's forms—prose poetry, free verse and projected verse—relate well to the theme of disenchantment, as the speaker is ultimately in a state of displacement, breaking down geographic and sentimental attachment to material things: "A gnat in my periphery becomes / a hammer swinging down // Foreign cities make me this phobic / I know I won't come back // The only place open on this block / sells toilet paper, but not Coca-Cola // Building noise is how to speak to strangers / Pull the door shut quickly."

Languell is expert at harnessing the nuances of lexicons and then manipulating them, as shown in the opening stanza of "Working the System": "It means tackling / the old arranged network / from the inside, / resisting mere iteration." She also creates associative, novel pairings, conjuring meaning through unorthodox syntax, metapoetics and conflations of high diction with colloquialisms: "You must bear a table of equations, yet / a spelling mistake changes those values. Then other words begin speaking-- / transliteration can be fun, but is usually wrong. You can only repeat your given letters. I / showed Mother my slippery verb charts." Language, and the art of poetry, are queried heavily in terms of their limitations as demonstrated in "Save These Instructions":

Three men were not well and one died but not the one I thought would doesn't matter now another cascade suddenness literally ashes not only is it possible it's a fact if one dies then my entire family will which is obvious the next time I get a Google Alert with my full name it better not be another obituary if so I will need someone to slowly feed me a handful of candy I will be childlike and difficult.

Extreme situational juxtaposition or incongruity followed by specific details then a short anecdote that brings in another voice or character. Rhetorical question or general statement. Return to specificity from beginning, but with modulation. Surprising use of simile or metaphor, disregard secondary characters in favor of meaningful interiority: idea, image, epiphanic zinger.         

The most powerful elements of Call the Catastrophists occur not in the blunt accounts of mundane happenings or in the redirection of flawed language, but in how these aggregates naturally compound into catastrophe, the result of a brooding human impetus that inevitably goes for the jugular: "I got the deposit back after I filled the holes / you put in the walls. No locks on the basement // windows, no lights beyond the kitchen. Swept / the dead cicadas off the porch for our party // so no one had to drag their red eyes across / the carpet. ... you could scare a bird back // into its cage, you could hold that hammer / under its beak and make it say please." A dreary atmosphere looms and yet there is also a source of light—albeit scarce—signifying change, neither joyous nor mournful but realistic, pensively detached, with conflict left coiled, unresolved and ready to strike.