At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky

By Bridget Lowe


Carnegie Mellon University Press
February 2013

Reviewed by Virginia Konchan


Kristeva defined successful mourning as transcendence: can the contemporary elegy, with its post-language distrust of closure and epiphany, and the funereal tone in much contemporary poetry besides, be considered "unsuccessful," as the "end" of the poem is forever forestalled (formally, through parataxis, and temporally: the synchronic moment of the lyric structure's Möbius strip presenting a unitary consciousness moored in an indeterminate present)?

The speaker of At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky, Bridget Lowe's debut collection, takes what she needs from pop culture, 20th century history, the elegy and other lyric modes and metrical forms, but breaks with the contemporary moment to complete the mourning cycle for the lost object, whether the beloved or futurity. The formal apotheosis occurs when the elegiac rondo of the book, "How the Pilgrim Was Transformed," appears:

Not by a horse riding fast.
Not by death or desire.
Not by the desire for death.

[ . . . ]

Not by getting slit from belly to throat.

[ . . . ]

All I know is this:
I thought love would save me.
No—I really thought that.

By grief, always by great grief.

Plath's fatalism and elegizing of the death of the lyric ("fixed stars / Govern a life") here takes on a sartorial cast. From "The Nihilist Takes a Bow": "A rigged coin toss concludes. / Nero plays a happy tune / on his portable radio . . . From miles away I can still see / you—crowned and bloated, consulting a mirror / on the status of the future / of your hairline."

The work of overcoming the death drive is a matter of finding adequate substitutes for the lost beloved, or the consequent losses of history, spatial time, and embodied consciousness: the subject's ego, as it reattaches to another object, either represses the memory of the love-object completely or fetishizes its material or immaterial remains (art, memorabilia, or the voice).

Today's necromantic elegy, then, can be seen as a process by which the beloved is objectified and fragmented, through metonymic substitution and erasure, as well as the work of care and textual restitution, here and in other collections such as Kim Addonizio's Lucifer at the Starlite, Kyle McCord's Sympathy from the Devil, Gregory Orr's How Beautiful the Beloved, and Kimberly Johnson's Leviathan with a Hook.

The devil-may-care duende, yet inimitably tender grain of Lowe's own tonal register papers the walls of a surgical theater whose prop weapon is the extra-metrical foot of Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950). Here, the Wordsworthian "murder to dissect" is the desire to deconstruct the ineffable. "They pinned the flaps of skin // open like wings / and searched inside the gristle // for a machine, / a motor and spring, the wheel // inside the bone, the reason / why." He must have lied, the speaker says, but, post-op, the foot is revealed to be that of a normal man, and sewn back together again.

Master signifiers who police the definition of "knowledge" as quanta, in "God is a Mathematician and in My Dreams" and "Her Plea: Immortality as It Was Promised Her" are rendered useless, in comparison to forms of somatic and Orphic knowing exceeding rationality: "even today, Mr. Company, I reject the equation you have left like a week old dinner / for me to eat and eat at your wicked and loveless table," and,

_____, Master, Friend,
you're wrong. We don't go on

in words. I'm sick
of these black marks across the page.

They should be a ladder.
They should be Lethe and you should be

waiting for me on the other side
in all your fame and glory.

In poems such as "Anti-Pastoral," "St. John in the Wilderness," and a poem-series about the wild boy of Aveyron (a feral child discovered in Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, France in 1800), Lowe questions to what degree the "mule of the mind" (consciousness) is dependent upon language and representation, to what degree institutional "instruction" (or, un-learning) is. As Leo Marx says, "No shepherd, no pastoral": the modernist rejection of authority spells, here, the death of noumenon and soul: "I was no longer beholding / the lamb of god // or any other / on command. // Banderoles / were meaningless, hieroglyphs / small // silent jokes / between long-dead / gods."

"I am a Receptionist Who is Not Afraid of Death," "A Washerwoman's Account, Aveyron, 1799," and other (in)subordinating poems, speak to the immanent reversal between the dominated and dominating (Hegel's master-slave paradox)— a teleological "end" to the narratives of structural racism, sexism, and xenophobia. How? Through a reversal of power relations, or manifestation, in ecriture, of the "différance" within the linguistic sign: a transcendent third term (De Beauvoir's "becoming-subject" of the abject other) destablizing the dialectical binary and homologous order of the same. Yet, the gauntlet of epistemic "proof," even when confessed to patrimonial avatars ("I was asked to tell my story in a formal manner / before a team of doctors": "When the time came to confess / what you'd seen a doctor was called / to hear you out"), still yields doubt.

Lowe's ascription of authorizing power ("pheasant quill / in his right hand, about to make something real") is heavily ironic in a collection whose illocutionary force is in "not stopping" to remain entrenched as witness, but pressing on to reclaim her daemon of oneiric vision (remembered or imagined) beyond a dialectic of power, charting a path from the millennial degradation of the abject body (of woman, animal, slave) to redemption:

And in daydreams I dare to see you
Delivered into an open field,
A vast space on the map where a creek flows

And nothing can stop it, the feeling,
The love you have for your own life,
For your very own animal body

Which has delivered you there
In time, just in time.