The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues
FEB 2020 Issue

Soong's staging of pre-arrival: Near At, and the scene of the crash

Jennifer Soong
Near, At
(Futurepoem Books, 2019)

Seventy years after Mina Loy attempted to convert “an inobvious real” into “over-obvious irreal” (“Hot Cross Bum” (1999)) Jennifer Soong shakes the remainder, parsing the distinctions and convergences between the here/now and there/then, the heterochronic encounters of everyday life and everyday displacement that characterizes Post-Internet culture. Soong’s auspicious debut, Near, At (Futurepoem Books, 2019) understands the promise of its title, blossoming into an investigation of the liminal and imitative apperceptions that can only occur through passage. In language that is lyrical and dense, stuttering and elegant, playful and probing, Soong joins a coterie of writers as expansive as her first collection—rubbing up against Loy’s vibrant aphorisms on Futurism that presaged Modernism’s inquiries into self-alienation (as evidenced by Loy’s titular revision years after publication), as well as the disappearing acts of self-erasure that suggest Surrealism’s endeavor of infinite arrivals, the slippage of body into its manifold parts that marks Gherasim Luca’s work, for instance, along with many other marginalized postwar writers, detoured and interned and on the move. I call attention to this migratory condition because if not the routine exile and denationalization brought about by a global war, Soong’s work on tenuous mobility is informed by the simultaneous celebration and degradation of the individual in a culture of highly mediated representations, the staging ground for global visibility and global invisibility. Rather than reconcile these paradoxes of logic, Soong further fragments the (w)holes, splintering so as to deepen the aperture from which we might view the scene.

In “Microcosmos,” her attention to the framing and staging of bodies, and their often indecipherable movement, the passage from the whole to its fluctuating parts, the melting of subjects in a scene where bodies become inextricably converged—“their parts vanish[ing] in one another”—juxtapose economies of labor and leisure which also melt from the collective imaginary. Rather than further obscure the processes of global neoliberalism, Soong’s own choreography highlights the aporia of a transnational economy rooted in the avid passage of commodities and the arrest and seizure of the internally excluded foreign workers who make the fantasy of the consumer ideal possible. One thinks of the aforementioned Romanian Gherasim Luca, and his ritualistic move toward self-erasure in “Madeleine” (1991) that began: “passes her right hand/under her left elbow/hides half her face/with her left hand” and ends “without hands or face/arm in arm/Madeleine hides Madeleine.”

Soong’s gaze, too, is less documentarian than promiscuous and probing—the transit(ion) to the Dominican Republic (“Winter Vacation At Punta Cana”) presents her an opportunity to ruminate, for instance, on “the statistics of/corporate retreat/passive-aggression” and the made-up notion of a stress-free experience, all of this prefaced with an itemization of the parts of the body and the objects of the home, a conflation that implies that the objectified body and the bodily objects of everyday life encounter each other in the moments of pre-arrival: the “scene of the crash” and its inevitable grasping.

“For the body really/does end,” she writes, pages later, “so wondrously/in the crowd that it/snaps back/into what space/contracts and grows overly magnetic” (“For Oli Browne and the Protests of Early 2017”). If modernity introduced the debasement of literally getting lost in the crowd, the effect of the metropolis’s intensification of nervous stimulation, as Georg Simmel theorized at the turn of the 20th-century, then Soong’s work is to reclaim this collective anonymity for its phatic, creative, and political uses—not to bow down to the money economy but to reinvest it with pleasure, an inward-facing practice that the poet articulates jubilantly across Near, At’s back cover: “DIFFERING FROM LIKABILITY, PLEASURE remains our ONE HOPE for A LIFE that is NOT DEFINED BY NECESSITY but by ITS EXCEEDING of it.” Soong’s inward-facing practice has aims, too, which exceed the individual and sketch out a composite language for collective growth, as evidenced by the closing lines of “For Oli Browne and the Protests of Early 2017”:

The difficulty of sustaining
what one does
not achieve alone
ever but always as
renewal […]

Soong’s present task is to carve a space for the unacknowledged—and as yet unconceived—“condition of/our mutual integration.” Elsewhere, Soong investigates the dialectic of naming and description, a phenomenological inquiry into extra-sensory perception, the haptic and haphazard encounter with what comes into the body (pain) and what leaves it (pain), a serial experience mirrored by the act of transcription, recording, writing it down, and always with some delay. All of this necessitates iteration if not also errantry and Soong embraces the authorly incantation, as when, in “We’ll Probably Talk Before You Get This” she writes:

but the membrane continues
as I write the membrane continues
because it’s this:
What parts now, not
the last time you wrote

If a specter haunts this collection it’s Soong herself, but also us as the reader-receivers of her transmissions. Near, At thus becomes not just a question, but a call—or rather, a call and its own response—a reclamation of the margin and the marginal—“What of the margin makes it sad. I’d like,” she writes, “to forge from it an entire pie you are obligated to eat” (“Steps To Undertake For Whom It Concerns”). This “you” is also the collective we, both a calling out as cultural critique and a calling to as a precursor to empathic action. And yet, in order to move forward, to rise up, to come together, we might need to forget the self, abandoning, also, the event of being for the instant which is; one thinks of Clarice Lispector’s post-structuralist inquiries in Água Viva (1973) when Soong asks, or answers, while observing children at a schoolyard in “Utterances of the October Aside”: “Oh,/how many selves have they yet to get through?” No myth abounds but the myths we construct. Forgetting, too, can be a kind of retribution.


Chris Campanioni

CHRIS CAMPANIONI is the author of seven books, including A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books | Seismicity Editions, 2020), a re-writing of Henry James's The American and Gertrude Stein's “Americans” which merges theory, fiction, and autobiography. Recent work appears in American Poetry Review, Ambit, Nat. Brut, Poetry International, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, and Life Writing, and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. He teaches at Pace University and Baruch College, and edits PANK and PANK Books. His selected poetry was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was named Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid piece, “This body's long (& I'm still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. In 2019, he was awarded a CHCI-Mellon Global Humanities Institute fellowship to join the Consortium for the Transnational Joint Research Center for Migration, Logistics, and Cultural Intervention.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues