“I say yes to the megaplex” - Ariana Reines’s Mercury
I get this power-feeling reading Ariana Reines. Her first book, The Cow, established a kind of prowess different even from the kind of things that normally get me going: Here was someone actually channeling something, not just writing words on paper. I can’t tell you how many times I read that book. I used to leave it on the floor in my apartment in the middle of where I would walk so that it would make me walk around it and just watch.
Some books, I believe, have their own faces and do shit to you while you sleep. Some books seem both strong and awake, like an actual physical location, so that instead of being over they seem to lurk. Then you want that feeling of the first experience of them done to you again. It’s awesome when the feeling of the way someone has figured out how to talk to you on paper makes you want it back immediately, like Please Inject Me. No longer a placeholder, the word becomes active, amphetamine-like, kind of ecstatic while also held there in your hands.
Reines’s latest creation is titled Mercury. Like the element, the cover of the book is reflective in a way that smears and distorts your head. Inside, five sections span a brain-wide collision of worlds, including web porn, alchemy, art, America, action movies, fucking, S&M, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Leonard Cohen, childbirth, money. Beyond all those flash subjects, though, the thrust of the book is something much larger than any specific instant. The thrumming hugeness of it is addictive, much seems to flood between the lines, distorting its format the same way mercury is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature. There is enormous spirit here, a rising and resizing; the machine of it is awake, operating both in a time where we can talk about jacking off on the internet in one breath and slaves or the myths of old gods in another. It is both destructive and perseverant, pissed off and giving. “I’m going to eat until it hurts,” she writes, “And lie to myself for fifteen minutes. / It’s Saturday. / There’s a vase / In my ass where your cock was born. / It’s cold tonight and purple light / Fills the sky.
There are a lot of colors, modes, tones in here, edges, ideas. It nearly chants. If anything, the book keeps shifting underneath you while still creating body. There are quasi-elegies and meditations and compassions and bigger anger. There is a seven-page all-caps sermon of want that contains lines like: “I CAN’T WAIT TO KILL OR BE KILLED.” The flood of styles here continues shifting, taking space on, and yet all held wrought from the same edgeless color. It becomes almost as if the language of the book is skin gathered off of a larger, uncontainable body, making this object a relic and a field. “What time is it,” she writes. “What season is it. / I don’t know. / The moon blows green / Gas into my skull. I want to hide what I dream / In a big boot, and wear the boot…”.
For me, now more than ever, our culture needs presences that fuck with the air where they are, but also seem to stroke or wake or paint them. Big moves. Mercury is one of those, a psychic catalog, a skin of runes, and Ariana Reines is the machine of it. Where so often writers end where their books end and are about as interesting as blank paper, Reines channels some serious and awesome light. Besides extending the energy of her work beyond just books, such as with her award-winning stageplay Telephone, her outreach work in Haiti, her commanding reading performances, her whole persona that eats through paper, her hummingness, there is the sense that this is not just writing, but a force, a bright reflective liquid metal.
As such, instead of just me going on about it, Ariana was kind enough to answer some questions about Mercury over email.
VICE: I think one thing that's constantly striking about your writing, particularly at first take, is how candid you are with what seems intense personal sexual relations. Does it come naturally to you to speak openly in that way, or is somehow a construction, or a way of speaking?
Ariana Reines: At this point it's become a constructed way of speaking, but it might have been something different before. My sense of interpersonal propriety when it comes to social interaction has probably evolved to be so old-fashioned and "ladylike" because of the candor in my books. On the other hand, honesty and candor are always refreshing, in person and in print, but there's a constancy of attention that it would be shattering and even stupid to sustain--like never taking one's eye away from the microscope while trying to describe the smell of leaves.
I am not sure if this will make sense, but the feeling that no one bears witness for the witness, to deform some lines by Paul Celan, is a way to describe the pressure I have felt to write as I have written. Poetry is a hermetic art to which few pay any real attention. So I've been free, in its space, to be laser-like and rigorous in my dissections. When I made Mercury I had to build into its structure the weird ways that fantasy, image, memory, and experience coalesce materially, and to find a way to contrast ways other people want to see/fuck a person with the desires, doubts, and past generations that cross and recross a person's heart. But it's not really that personal, and I'm not sure the "intense sexual relations" that come to bear in Mercury are even mine really, and even if they are, I doubt that in the end they really have that much to do with me.
I may have said this elsewhere, but I think something weird happened to my ideas about our supposed right, as Americans, to "freedom of speech" during the Bush years, which were also the blog years. The feeling that if speech is left too free it will shirk what is truly difficult, it will talk only about yummy food and bunny slippers, etc., or merely react to (rephrase) the news of the day. Coupled with the feeling that because it became so easy to look at fucking it somehow became unnecessary to speak about it. The professionals could fuck for us and speak about fucking for us, and any amateur could become a professional, become the image to supplement/replace our experience and the moral need to speak it.
That is an old feeling that has now become emulsified. Right now, unlike back then, is an invigorating time to hear the speech of people. It has taken us some time to figure out what to do with all this beautiful technology. When a real silence is broken, language is invested with superhuman power.
When I think about the power of candor I think about the Black Panther party platform, a simple list of demands that so galvanized the bodies and lives in its scope that it took COINTELPRO, assassinations, life sentences--really an all-out war--to choke it and all the renewal it promised. But the candor at the roots of that movement is a power that still moves through the world, even though so many of its lives were and still are destroyed by the state. Candor is the power that moves the culture. I didn't really believe in the power of language anymore when I was first writing The Cow. I couldn't stop myself from writing, but I had no faith in it. Modernism and postmodernism had choked something in me. It felt decadent and wasteful--to get so lost and intoxicated by language you forget the magic that happens when you bring your words to bear on the real truth of your existence. When you try. I think that's why I wanted to empty myself of language. I couldn't get rid of all of it but I think I did manage to change its substance inside me. Anyway, when I finished Mercury I knew I wouldn't write in quite that way about sex ever again, and I won't.
Mercury is set up in 5 parts, each of which feels pretty distinct but also with a similar blood running inside them all. Did you write the book with this structure in mind, or did it reveal itself somewhere along the way?
Here is how it went. I wrote the poem "Mercury," not including the five symbol incantations at the beginning, in one day in 2008. That was first. I think that's around the time I lied and said I was writing a book called Mercury, sort of like I lied and said I was writing a book called Coeur de Lion in 2006, long before I wrote it. Then I wrote "Save the World" in a day in Oakland after seeing the movie The Watchmen in April 2009. At that point I decided Mercury was a book with five books inside it, ‘cause I had written a ton of other poems, including two other book-length sequences, but I scrapped them in 2010 because I didn't think they were good. "When I Looked At Your Cock My Imagination Died" was written in the winter of 2009. "Leaves" and "0" were written in 2010-11. The book was really made May through July 2011. That was a magical time.
The design of the book also really brings a really stark body for the words to sit in: between the reflective silver cover that shows the reader back at him- or herself, and the current of strange symbols that are inserted. How did the content of that design come together?
I wanted the book to be a mirror as soon as I knew Mercury was going to be a book, but it wasn't clear how to make that show up on the internet. I wanted it to oscillate between symbol and image because I'd started studying some magic and I learned that certain modes of intuition and insight can be developed by stimulating the imagination with signs that do not merely depict, but which are diagrams for the structure of certain true phenomena. It took me a while to realize that the book was about the internet and looking, but also about searching for essences in a world of illusion. That's a Renaissance project, a Shakespearean project, but also a project of cranks and basement madmen. I've always been attracted to symbols and hieroglyphics, how they speak without tyrannizing the way images can, and without foreclosing or going in merely one direction the way language can. There's a Judaic/iconoclastic side of me that's deeply uncomfortable with looking, but also I'm a person like anybody else. So I guess that's how it came together. I hope it's a sieve that anyone can make use of.
One of the longer poems in the book starts with the line: "I CAN'T WAIT FOR MEXICO TO CONQUER AMERICA" and later "I CAN'T WAIT TO GO FROM BAD TO WORSE." I know you spent time doing work in Haiti last year and I wonder if and how that changed your feelings about this country, and if you feel at home here or antsy to be elsewhere?
Yeah, I feel totally antsy to be elsewhere all the time. And yes, once I went to Haiti I didn't want to be anywhere else. But I didn't want to be there in some false pose of avuncular aid-giving either. Haiti is a genius the world does not understand. I studied Haiti's revolution because it's the most impossible thing that has ever happened on earth. To begin to understand Haiti I would like God to turn me into a tree growing there. But right now I'm a woman. I want to run away from everything all the time. I don't like to be counted on for anything, except if I'm sent on a mission far away that's fine, as long as I don't have to stay for too long. I suppose that is a little bit mercury-like.
Performance seems also inherent to your writing: Both the creation of it (beyond the book I think about your former blog YES and how much energy the sentences there seemed to channel) and when you do readings, how you've said you never like to do the same thing twice. How does sound or the feeling of being in a body when writing and trying to get that sound out affect your writing as opposed to reading it aloud?
Some of the poems have more of a conceit of orality running though them than others. I guess I like extremes of artifice/plasticity crossed with what's intense and immediate, and that goes for both writing and performing. I used to be really uncomfortable performing but I figured out ways to do it so I can enjoy it. Somehow my body has gotten used to the artifices of literature and performance and bent itself somewhat to them, and I guess I've bent the artifices of literature and performance to fit my disposition and physical person to a certain extent too. I like your question about sound, Blake, but it's almost too hard to answer. Everything is so physical--sound too. Aren't all writers musicians, even Nabokov, who supposedly had no ear for music? I think you are.
Is the internet evil?
No, it's a pharmakon.
Previously - The Multiplying Hells of Pierre Guyotat