Review: Exteroceptive (Wild Honey Press, 2013) by Sarah Hayden
I first began reading Wild Honey Press chapbooks (pamphlets) back around the year 2000, when I reviewed some for a print issue of the old Burning Bush. (One such essay was reproduced on the Wild Honey website and can be read here.) This small press, published by Randolph Healy, is one of Ireland’s (and the world’s) most interesting and innovative presses, and I’ve continued to read many of its poets since then. So it is fitting, I think, and certainly a pleasant task for me to review one of the latest Wild Honey publications, Sarah Hayden’s Exteroceptive.
This 29-page, hand-stitched collection contains some of the most remarkable poetry I’ve read in a while, actually. The title, which I’ll admit I had to look up, means “pertaining to exteroceptors, the stimuli acting upon them, or the nerve impulses initiated by them” (exteroceptor: “any sensory organ or part of the body, such as the eye, able to receive stimuli from outside the body”). Thus, Hayden purports to examine through poetry the workings of the senses. However, the senses can be deceived, and perhaps more to the point here, deranged. Hayden is more interested in simulating exteroceptive disruption, through language use, than straight-forward, “accurate” description/imagery, which quickly becomes obvious in the first section of “Optic”: “this exhibit has been removed from view / but pulses still in its tang in a high-chem vibrato”. That the “exhibit has been removed from view” in a poem titled after the sense of sight should clue the reader in that his/her expectations ought to be left at the door. A little further on in this poem, the speaker notes, “my eyes itch”. “Optic” ends with two beautifully hallucinatory sections, the latter of which employs unconventional typography and a heavy dose of parataxis.
The next poem, “Auditory”, engages in some interesting soundplay, including rhyme and alliteration, foregrounding the poet’s ear for language. Then, almost contradictory to its own title (though then again perhaps not), shifts into some remarkable visual images. For example:
Itching up against each other
calf tendons taut
from boot to boot
a herd of twitching deer. . . .
Even here, though, there is a conciseness in diction and sound that makes this scene sing. Then we find “A double-membraned egg” that “is thick / but sensate / perversely mapped with hot / wet nerves”, which is ultimately seen “hissing in foul puddles.” At this point (if not before), the astute reader notices a heavy-duty Surrealist influence on Hayden’s work, and then sure enough, in the poem “[Proprio]”, there is an allusion to André Breton (with the name “BRETON” appearing in block caps). The poem “Olfactory” seems to faintly echo James Joyce with its portmanteaux and especially resembles Finnegans Wake chapter II.2 in the use of cryptic footnotes. Joyce is not exactly a Surrealist, of course, but the Wake does deal with the subconsciousness. Remember that Surrealism does not mean just any old thing that is bizarre or unexpected. It is instead defined by Breton in his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” (Breton further elaborates: “If the depths of our mind contain within it strange forces capable of augmenting those on the surface, or of waging a victorious battle against them, there is every reason to seize them — first to seize them, then, if need be, to submit them to the control of our reason.”)
I happen to love Breton and Joyce, as well as Mina Loy, who could also be a touchstone here, and it is good to see a contemporary poet picking up where they left off. But Hayden has her own concerns and speaks to her own contemporary moment — in one clever aside, she refers to herself as “the artist autophagically cheerleading / signing her hyper-alliterative aphasia from the acropolis of the last-ever occupy camp”. “[Proprio]” is something of an artistic manifesto, in which such depictions of “the artist” appear in different forms throughout. Also notable is “the artist as an unsentimental collector. remember this as she truffles through your waste / paper”. The enjambment here puts something of an emphasis on the word “waste”, and it reminded me of a scene in the 2008 documentary film The Examined Life (by Astra Taylor) where Slavoj Žižek walks through a garbage dump asserting that garbage is in fact the perfect metaphor for the contemporary world. (As Arthur Vafin interprets this scene, “The waste deposit is an example of how man escapes from garbage, in a wider sense — from the thing one is most afraid of. It seems as though the thrown out garbage disappears from our world. However, it disappears only from the world of illusions, but still exists in reality” [International Journal of Žižek Studies 6.1]). What Hayden’s poetry suggests is that we need to see our world as it really is, even if it means that it is a decadent world, and even if therefore we approach it through sense perspectives that are themselves skewed or compromised. On the one hand, she seems to say, we must artistically embrace the world as “waste” even while, on the other, we must highlight, respond to, and oppose the financial and other forms of corruption that led to the Occupy movement.
The final three pieces in this collection, “Olfactory”, “Haptic” and “Hypogeusic”, therefore further the sense of decay and confusion posited in the first half: “This is the smell that blinds” reads a line in “Olfactory”. In “Haptic”, with its “vegetal reek”, there is the image of
scoliotic youths loung[ing]
among the wider branches jaded panthers
more aptly aligned
they sigh hotly, abrading petulant mouths
“Hypogeusic” describes a landscape of “leaf litter and curdled splatter” and “rusted pools”. A dream, our reality in some way, or both? It is not just in her images, however, that Hayden embraces decay, but in her language as well. Like many progressive contemporary poets, she is of course aware of the mediated nature of language, and so there are lines like “phonemes coagulate / whole sentences compose themselves in a slow ear”. But I also find her individual word choices to be quite interesting. Throughout this chapbook she utilizes “flowery” and/or Latinate words, not only in her titles but all over the body of her poems: “infructuate”, “excrescence”, “indexicality”, “vitrine” “osteoporitic”, “automata”, “agglutinative”, “farinaceous”, etc. There is a view held by some English-language poets, often put forward as the conventional wisdom of writing poetry, that such diction is “weak” and therefore undesirable and decadent, and that basic Anglo-Saxon words are “strong” and therefore better. Hayden deliberately turns this notion on its head and thereby suggests, rightly I think, that the English language in itself is decadent, sullied and mixed up, and that therefore a good writer can do whatever the hell s/he wants in it, if s/he can pull it off. In Exteroceptive, Hayden pulls it off.