Jennifer Soong’s Near, At is a book that precisely tracks the consciousness as attention trails off, distracted by the blurring of perceptions, or caught up in stray wisps of emotion. Soong’s poems show that new possibilities open up lyrically, politically, and personally when the mind is allowed to become diffuse, loosening its grip on the here and the now. If we have to choose between keeping track of the thoughts that give rise to our emotions and keeping track of the mind as it resists that awareness, Soong’s collection shows there is much to be gained from making the latter choice.
The first long poem in Soong’s collection, “Microcosmos,” has an affinity with Leslie Scalopino’s that they were at the beach in its seaside setting and in the semantic pressure put on seemingly random words. Still, in Soong’s work, it is not randomness so much as intentional imprecision that affords a sense of autonomy. Thus, “the man and the woman feel their parts vanish” as the result of an act of imprecision that blurs over the sex act. Semantic imprecision also allows the linens in the hotel room to go from “different” to “same”: “and in adjacent rooms, rows of the different same linens are cropped. Cropped / like one perspective intervening in another.” The word “cropped” imprecisely folds into the filmic use of the word and enables a new thread of similarly loose associations:
an upward splash while the man’s voice through the obscurity of thick
shower frost is a chamber
a chamber of voice and voice, missing nothing but the clarity of
decipherable words unlocking What
is the case of a gendered laugh? Soon,
dimness fills the room like air in a bread loaf: a vertical light, caught
flexes where the rodded
curtains don’t meet.
The o’s in “soon” loosely evoke the warm gendered holes of the woman’s mouth and vagina, and they also evoke the shower in which the clarity of sound disappears and the room is filled with dimness. That filling of the room with dimness suggests the image of the bread loaf expanded into a microcosmos of air pockets. Much like the bread, the now expands and the woman inhabits the temporal spread of “soon,” which is larger and vaguer than the now. By the end of the poem, the “never landing” of the exact position of the morning body” enables an opportunity both to be precise about inexactness and to defy precision, to make “new sounds hard earned.” The sounds are new not because they are more precise than former sounds but because they more precisely register resistance to precision. The purpose of resisting precision is to intervene in reality.
One of the pleasures of Near, At are the emotional shifts, which accompany the changes in the visual form of poems through the progression of the book. If the first section is made up of far-flung lines, the second contracts again into the self, in more traditional lyric poems, which reveal the speaker’s capacity to participate in the classic poetic emotion of imprecision—that sadness of having feelings that are ineffable, or expressible only in poetry:
I hear it now as one hears oneself.
For a minute, I think I know
what stays and is gone, what exists
on those rusted blades of grass,
guarding this last, ubiquitous earth.
It is almost as if the speaker is hearing in the wind the passing spirit of what stays and what is gone. Most moments feel modern, but such Romantic moments as this were a crucial risk to take to mark the place of Soong’s project of imprecision in literary history.
The remaining sections reject the unified self and instead embrace an idea of one that is scattered across the page and dispersed across a larger historical moment. This self is capable of participating in both consumerist consciousness and the larger political consciousness of protesters. The speaker also has access to the temporally distributed consciousness of the everyday. Rather than needing to precisely locate experience, the speaker asks in the remarkable long poem “We Ask Not What But Who We Are,”
Indoors temptation sky
Isn’t it enough to be permitted
to stay a time in each?
To know anything
of the day-to-day?
Something in your sound
is far-flung enough
to be wanted back
Time is no cheapskate.
What is at stake in this back-and-forth movement is the faith that we do not need to stay in a single state for very long to glean something about it. Maybe we only need to stay for the length of a single word, as the fling from one to the next—“Indoors,” “glass,” “temptation,” “androgyny,” “sky”—suggests. If we stay not with one emotion, but with “this wobble / this worming to neither side” among various states, that is itself a unified experience (of the “day-to-day”); that will be enough.
Soong’s poems suggest that not knowing precisely what thoughts and perceptions are behind our emotions does not detract from, but can give us a truer insight into the nature of pain, and in the final section of “My Christopher Poems,” love. The Christopher poems are in the tradition of love poems that represent love as inexpressible, thus reminding us once again of the centrality of Soong’s concern with imprecision to the tradition of the lyric.
One of the challenges of Soong’s book, which made it feel so original, was staying near rather than consistently being situated precisely in the moment of experience. I was usually with the speaker emotionally, but at times not entirely sure of the perceptions or thoughts behind the language that registered the emotion. In order to stay with the speaker emotionally (and therefore near them mentally), it helped to read each section in one sitting and the entire book in a day. This could pose a challenge for some readers. But it is a challenge that I recommend, given the ability of this book to orient us near, in the vagueness and imprecision of pensive emotions, which is where many Romantic lyric poems are at.
by Jennifer Soong
Futurepoem Books, 2019
$18 paperback; ISBN: 978-1-73303-840-9