Rise In The Fall
reviewed by Emily Brandt
In her essay “We Would Prefer Not To,” Croatian-born Ana Bozicevic* writes, “To produce positive content, to speak an essential lyric of ‘your voice’ and ‘self-expression’ in the face of the alien and alienating, patriarchal, racist, violent context of the America you inhabited seemed simply inadequate.” In her latest collection of poems, Bozicevic embraces and confronts this alienating, patriarchal, racist, violent America, as well as the inadequacy of words. The result is poems that ring out through and beyond the lyric. Rise in the Fall is a call to action, to movement, to personal, political, and artistic revolution.
Bozicevic’s second book, released this year by the ever-impressive Birds LLC, is composed of incredibly organic free verse that treads into form, tercets for instance, only when the content begs for it. There is no squeezing into too tight shoes in this collection. Eileen Myles refers to the book as “radiant,” which it is, and “brilliantly unbalanced,” which is perhaps its greatest strength of many. Here is a poet so adept at teetering that she pulls the writer’s scaffolds away to reveal the process of poem-making, which is not always so tidy. The speaker herself seems frequently still, in the center of a disordered world, maybe even stuck satisfied in a burning car, but really she is constantly moving. When you think you know her next move, she proves you right, for a moment, and then dreadfully wrong.
Bozicevic employs a plurality of registers. For instance, in the same poem, “Casual Elegy for Luka Skracic,” you get “I was on drugs Stuck / a fish up my cunt” and “This is how it happened in the underworld, there was no downtown / there, no uptown, this was midair.” Baseness and beauty, myth and reality, everything gets tied up together in fast motion for the reader to learn from. This is a book of subcellular and transcontinental instructions that defy containment. In “The Day Lady Gaga Died,” Bozicevic writes, “New York School is because / you have to name things in New York. / Otherwise, too much exists.” The poem, like all the poems in the collection, resists any type of naming or neat categorization in favor of embracing the too much that exists.
The poems’ sense of surprise and motion is captured brilliantly in Bianca Stone’s cover and interior artwork. Stone’s drawings are a perfect fit here: they are anachronistic (characters don fatigues, pajamas, military gear, street clothes, nothing), gestural, figurative, and symbiotic. Her drawings convey a sense of “rush[ing] the barricade / in a pearlspray of bubble and light.” The nude and semi-clothed figures illustrate an energized acceptance, an embracing of vulnerability as strength, that the collection speaks to.
This is a book of desperation, courage and humor; of grit and love; and at its heart, of the brilliance of failure. Failure here isn’t tied to fear, but rather to change and to radical acceptance. There is satisfaction in failure and it is celebrated as a visible and beautiful part of the artistic and human process. Susan Sontag, in 1964, wrote, “When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant.” Here, in Rise in the Fall, failure is a thematic concern, and it does not make the poet indignant; it makes her a person, or rather a people (for there is not so much separation between writer and reader in this book), on the rise. Bozicevic’s strength is in being vulnerable and fierce at the same time. She takes her readers on an interactive journey and expects us to be active participants on the ride. She advises: “Mean something. Invent nothing. Change everything.” And she leads by example in these often dialectical poems.
On first read, I did not consider how imperative the collection’s title is. It’s a broad enough directive to apply to any reader, any land, any galaxy—and Bozicevic does not set out to define what “the Fall” is, other than everything in life, in country, in war, in patriarchy, in personal failure, in failure to fulfill gender expectations, in failure to write the perfect poem, and so on. And the “Rise,” again, not so simple to define, but includes the sincere, confident revolution born of introspection and examination and challenging of the systems that define our world. The rise includes the poet, the artist, the Occupy Movement, lake swims, unions, and pearls. And while this collection follows the threads of human thought, it goes beyond thought into action.
Revolution isn’t always obvious, as Bozicevic knows. In “The Fall of Luci,” she celebrates its less-obvious forms: “revolution / lives in tired old bodies walking away from the revolution.” For one of the book’s epigraphs, Bozicevic selected lyrics from The Smiths’ song “Ask”: “If it’s not Love, then it’s the Bomb that will bring us together.” Like Morrissey, who is able to deliver piercing lyrics in an oh-so-dreamy, joyfully pensive voice, Bozicevic uses her own dreamy and ever-clever voice to show us the destructive and redemptive consequences of war. She begins the collection with the poem “About Nietzsche,” in which she writes, “Soon you’ll learn / the song of the pretty bridle is stronger / than the song of the wound that it grooves” only to later go on to write, “This is the whitest shit / I’ve ever written,” and then:
Truth is, Osama bin Laden was killed today, two women were shot in that raid, and yet again I can’t escape this feeling of living in a world of men whose intricate games I’m to jeer and cheer, but they leave my head blank like a foggy morning. In down-curved streets of oddly familiar towns whose patisseries mean everything to someone and nothing to me. It’s like I’m already dead. or talking to some apple trees, and yet again beauty has won in all its casual terror and pain.
Too much exists and she is taking it on. War, patriarchy, patisseries and their beautiful uselessness. And Bozicevic declares the winner in the poem’s final line, but the collection continues to grapple. The imagery, as in this poem, is often of war/patriarchy, but she changes the expectations. The next poem is one of the collection’s strongest. “War on a Lunchbreak” suggests, by its very title, the American tendency to avoid the reality of the wars we partake in, and foolishly believe we can contain in easy doses on, say, a lunchbreak. We have other concerns. She begins with a seemingly simple question and a haunting response:
What’s war? You’re not able to find the other dark pearl earring, and you don’t really care, except: that earring’s your brother. He’s dead, and there was only one, you’ll never see him again. What’s war?
Later in “War on a Lunchbreak,” Bozicevic makes the connection from war to exile to internalized sexism. She writes: “Eternal countrylessness. / Lady poets writing about cock, / not thinking about gender.” And she goes on to challenge the terminology of war and its collusion with patriarchal forces: “I contemplate / Starving myself / So I’d be ‘the bomb.’” The poem then wonders: “To get degrees, have interests— / is that the anti-war?” The war expands to include the self (“I know there’s war all around me, / and inside there’s war”) before she declares, “I don’t know how to end this.” This poem? This war? The final lines bring us back to the individual in her experience, presumably on her lunchbreak, but also returns us to the insanity of sensation in a world where those we love are killed: “What’s // war? This: / I feel the sunlight but I keep asking why.”
“Intervals of Please” again addresses the bomb and gender. Bozicevic writes: “When you think of the bomb, / even though you pit your / fear // against it, does it / not give you a hard / on?” The patriarchal cock stands up for war. But there’s more to this story than the obvious. She later writes:
Through the war I fondled a picture of a girl, right in front of that girl. Her handshake felt just like a handjob. But when she stepped on the mine Her body looked not cute. Her leg soaring through the air was not cute. Why am I bringing this up? It takes a hard on to detonate a Bomb.
The visceral imagery of sex and violence, of the body in bliss and in destruction, disturbs as much as it serves to convince that yes, “It takes a hard / on to detonate a / Bomb.” Bomb is a loaded word that has already appeared in this collection as a lyric from a Smiths tune and a reference to a hot body. Words are in flux, and this bomb has a capital B. The bomb and the body, lust and mass murder are fused together. “What / diffuses // us must love us / but can’t want us to / shoehorn // beauty into shoes.”
War is not the only manifestation of patriarchal contempt in this collection. In “About Mayakovsky,” Bozicevic claims Mayakovsky as her right to discuss, not the right of the suburban American teen stepson. However, it’s not long before she decides that Mayakovsky’s maleness makes him belong more to the boy than to her (“He’s more you than he’s me now”). She momentarily resorts to the domestic sphere, where she makes miracles:
I hope to thin into that era when female people like me were given hooves & the strength to pull the field over their stepson, like a blanket. Without kitsch I’m called witch & turn white stone in a fern forest. Not having been “finished,” I use the implements of housework for miracles. Grow the darning needle into a mast, rag into sail
She transforms the implements of housework into a sailing ship, in effect making the change she is encouraging for all of us.
Bozicevic embraces the poet/reader relationship in all its awkwardness and hyper-intimacy in Rise in the Fall. She rattles and challenges the reader, to stun you with beauty, to horrify, to make you laugh. In “Children’s Lit,” the third poem in the book, Bozicevic writes, “I’m writing in some kind of vernacular / that’s not even my own, just to endear myself to you / am I not endearing?” Whether you find that charming, or relate to its self-consciousness, or resist the sentiment, the message is clear: you and Bozicevic are in this together. What could sound like a self-conscious revelation of the poetic process and the poet’s desire to be accepted is turned on its head. The very next line is “I’m a fat married girl.” Fat. Married. Girl. All three words conjure a slew of societal presuppositions, and the first two make it known that the third is off limits, as if this girl even cares anyway. She shuns you after she tries to endear you. Or perhaps in spite of. Regardless of your personal reaction, these lines embody an intimate framing of the relationship between reader and writer. And this book has so much to do with that relationship, for it’s not a book to be passively consumed, nor is it a manifesto to be followed, but rather it’s art that’s meant to, like food, enter through your blood, embody your cells, and adjust the way you, reader, do things. Again, it’s a call, certainly not an instruction manual, for change.
Bozicevic bares her process throughout Rise in the Fall. In “Death, Is All,” she writes, “Someone please push me out of the way / Of this bad poem like it was a bus.” She ends “Midnight Oil” with the lines: “You want this to mean something? / Then make it. Mean / Something.” Reader, you are implicated in this, which is one of the many pleasures of the collection. And in the title poem, “Rise in the Fall,” she takes it a step further, into dream territory. She writes: “This poem’s boring. I dreamed some lesbian wrote a really good poem / called Pinko and // I woke up to a straight straight world. / Let’s sit here in the café for now. We’ll rise up // next fall, when they can no longer deport me.” She goes on to include the dreamt text of “Pinko” and then continues, “That’s all. Pinko was not even that good but / I can still change everything / about it. // Change everything.”
Changing everything includes changing how we view art. In “About Content,” Bozicevic writes, “I’m told / by other artists: working’s not artful. That’s where you’re wrong.” She refers to “bad poems” as “an art fail” and goes on to say “I’ve failed, thee beautiful / messy jar on a green grassy knoll,” but redeems the experience by stating “most of all / I fail into myself.” The intimacy and depth of failure brings one closer to oneself and the ensuing wisdom makes it worth it. Bozicevic concludes, “I know there’s something wrong with this poem but I’m / done trying to clean up any of it.” There you have it.
In the final lines of “Poem,” the book’s last poem, she writes: “It’s not too late // I say: tell me it’s never too late for this poem, / and then you go:” After plowing head-on into war, love, immigration, revolution, and dismantling of the patriarchy, the final words, “you go” followed by the colon, leave the rest to the reader.
Apologies to the author; the Typekit fonts we use don't support the diacritics in Ana's name. We made an editorial decision to maintain the typography of our magazine rather than print this review in Helvetica.
— Doug Hahn