Poetry in the surveillance era: Jen Currin’s The Inquisition Yours

Jen Currin. The Inquisition Yours (Coach House 2010).

One just cannot keep up: this is Jen Currin’s third book, but the first Ive seen. And it’s good. When people use the term ‘epigrammatic,’ they could definitely be describing Currin’s poems. A kind of ironic minimalism pushes her carefully ordered fragments into ever deeper little abysses of political, familial, & erotic desires. Among other things, The Inquisition Yours is written under the sign of the modern surveillance state post 9/11. In these poems, language itself becomes a weapon of war/terror/ surveillance. The poet, as bricoleur/collagist, achieves her own state of observation, almost above it all, but then the poem will fall back into the world under surveillance, guilty as charged.

In three sections, ‘Papers,’ ‘Questions,’ & ‘’Chronicles,’ The Inquisition Yours carries out its own inquisition of the continuing wars around & within us. ‘These changes are autobiographical — / at least that’s what I’m told’: so says the first poem, ‘Sock Martyrs.’ This couplet provides a clue to the anti-lyric push of the whole book. There are a lot of ‘I’s here, but they resist any easy lyric categorization, are putative only. But then, as the same poem says, ‘A maimed army of lyricists // mimes the black and white laughter / of the fat man on television.’ Which allusion should also alert readers to how wide ranging are ‘the sources I have borrowed from,’ as Currin advises in her ‘Note and Acknowledgements.’

Currin takes common phrases, proverbial comments, bits & pieces of popular diction, & breaks them up, makes them strange through an artful punning & subtle mastery of internal rhyme, assonance, & consonance, often with a biting irony underlying the whole disturbing play. These poems’ ‘I’s know all too well where they are, & how they are seen: ‘My good foot in hell. / Television in place of food.’ As good a description of that site as any. A fine black humour plays across many of the sharply etched comments:

How interesting
to be dispensable.

Please send the ‘you letters.’ They’ve died
and they’re doing okay.

As the poems accumulate their various perspectives on our over-seen world, they turn more & more to the language of such oversight:

Helicopters overhead –
spied on by the stupidest fathers.

Please bug my shower radio:

This is a world where ‘we’ give in, accede to ‘security’ measures while feeling ever more insecure: ‘We frisk ourselves. The airport neutral.’ Throughout, the poems inspect the concept of ‘trying to hide the crime’ with its corollary, ‘but all kinds of words kept creeping in.’ This is both our fear & our hope, the poems seem to argue. And it happens even in poems like the fine elegy/homage to Robin Blaser, ‘Of the Mirror,’ which concludes, with subtle tips of the metaphorical hat to some of his most famous essays:

later in the stadium I smoke
your last cigarette
while gazing into a fogged mirror

rapidly my complexion fails

your last danger this language
we will now enter

As The Inquisition Yours proves with cool elegance throughout, it’s a danger we have to enter, & this poet does so with subtle verve.

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One Response to Poetry in the surveillance era: Jen Currin’s The Inquisition Yours

  1. Pingback: Reviews | Jen Currin

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