By Sara Deniz Akant
Reviewed by Carrie Chappell
When I first picked up Sara Deniz Akant's Babette, I couldn't move past the title. I sat there with it, touched its white sans-serif letters, noticed how it and the poet's name appeared so separate yet so together in the strange form of a list:
Already, I was confounded. I traced the right corner of the faded pink cover where the names lived. Babette. I had seen this name before. It had a wicked and ghostly space in my head. An un-identifiable place. It was a name but also a kind of community, or maybe it was a field. I asked a Frenchman, Where does the name "Babette" take you? and he walked into a kitchen. He stood beside her. Elisabeth, he said, Babette is short for Elisabeth. To him, she was a woman so unknown yet so quoted she was at once classic, kitsch, and somehow completely elusory. To him, this mental un-image was coined, implanted from early childhood. He saw her there in her restaurant—yes, Chez Babette, he said, une auberge. She was blurred there, just out of reach, a woman of a collective aesthetic, at once his and no one's. I conceded that I could see his Babette, but explained that "mine" was recalling other worlds, mirages of women—a good-hearted, lottery winning soul from that Danish film, a coquettish Disney character, a barely cohesive cultural merge between the American "babe" and the general, feminine –ette-ness that emanates from diminutive forms found in the French language. But there was nothing miniature about what Deniz Akant's book was heralding.
Akant's collection—selected by Maggie Nelson for Rescue Press' Black Box Poetry Prize—ushers us in in unusual tones, ones that come perhaps necessarily when we acknowledge the stark lines that divide a quaint past (that of a Babette in her inn) with an unknown present or future (that of Akant's imagination), the stuff of earthquakes, the friction between selves. What is this name? To what form does it belong?
The opening of the book erupts in flames. "dual fires" acts to disrupt and establish what is to follow—the "sweat of eies/ and silence dual"—by forcing the reader into linguistic and symbolic destabilization, semantic disruption. What are "eies"? And yet, we can read it; we can think "eyes" without understanding where we are going, what we will witness. In this jumbled inheritance of old and new language, Akant unleashes the becoming "gohst" in her ethereal world, where even spirit-forms need rewriting. When she floats us into the unpronounceable poem, "_:^:_ _:^:_ _:^:_," we begin to recognize the twisty depths into which she wants us to wander:
now back we stare at ancient pathways.
that stepping will be stepped into
once and again.
soft lean to this harness.
loose gaze across the cortex.
accept the unusual image machine.
Akant's "we" ignites and indicts us, our collective story. The story of paths. The circuits of language. And in this poem, Akant's verse outlines the inevitability of certain events, certain associations, as the reader walks through the acceptance of being controlled by "this harness," wed to a visionary outlet of questionable creativity. In this harkening of "the unusual image machine," the poet asks us to admit our production, our certain conventionality.
Here, a bit erased, I return to the title. Babette. There is no kitchen. There is the name, refilling. And some questions—Is a name a predetermination? Where can we go for freedom when our language has already lived among others? Must we share the same shackles? The same recipes, stove? Does a language control the limits of our thoughts, our protections? What do we risk in stepping outside? In declaring our system a system? What choices then do we create, deny? What happens when we take from these systems and forms? What happens if we choose to break or to revamp them?
The figures of Akant's collection appear in broken silhouettes, barely skeletal, half-born, half-dying. Formally, the poems are themselves as fractured; series develop and disappear while sections of varying size define their beginnings and ends in pages of grey, heathered by a short pattern of hyphens.
The speaker's omniscience intrigues and disarms us, the foggy-eyed. In the small series titled "[[-]]," Akant implies a kind of quest, a wish for wholeness, to be one, a challenge in a dangerous "chopping":
landing in sand and in layers. there are
strangers are chopping her hand,
and completely. what lands
is her landing completely.
Akant does not permit us a long séance with this spirit, not before she un-anchors us a bit, moves us into still more brief series, those with references to other obscuring proper nouns—Lucies and Coras and Sandies, quasi-French words such as "ovatrôn" and "lamarté" that appear to represent features of another planet, that speak "in the eloquence of place."
However, through a small hole in this atmosphere, we see an old familiar, an image reborn, enough to reignite the thesis, though even that Akant may not wish us to have. While the sands takes a short rest, and everything breathes a few new distortions, Babette, mid-way through the book, emerges:
someone's been living here in this
start-up 'someone is living here
Babette.' she stands in ashes
glistening with sweat.
And in this moment of another duality, we make out the creature, herself estranged from her surroundings, "this / start-up" intentionally imprecise. It's everywhere and nowhere. It's a mentality. It's a vacuum where Babette is radiant with life, "glistening with sweat," albeit perhaps won in fight. It's Babette, whatever we assign her, whatever Akant gives us. And even that, in this ever-mutating space, might change on the next page.
Akant's collection cuts us up, cuts itself up. No part of it is interested in tidy imagery, in you reaching the final page warm in awareness of what you have read. No. In reading this book, I said to a few friends, I don't know if I can write about it because I don't know if I get it. Yet, the mysteries that hang in this book's shadowy turns are what invite me back. As a reader, I can have fun. The ambiguity allows me to project, to feel like Babette, or any of these creatures, whose "silence / still spots through the dune." I think we might all know the feeling of these voids, as if we are, too, stuck in "this start-up," a puzzle world of electronics, degradation, where each thing we know is merely a figment, where we're sure we're evolving, but what into? We are Babette, we've existed before, but we can make nothing of a beginning or a now. Akant boldly writes of this confused space, which is both rich and bankrupt. And it is when near Babette, in the desert fog of this self-corrupting world, that Akant's speaker makes one of her great declarations:
now it is time
for the absolute absence of any event.
there are nests of clumsy language there are
'hazards to Babette.'