Jonathan Ball. The Politics of Knives (Coach House Books 2012)
Following his neatly demented theatrics in Clockfire, Jonathan Ball turns his détournement-ing, his tormenting eye on film in all its forms in The Politics of Knives, a collection of poem sequences, in which a phrase from one of them seems to apply to all: some thing or event ‘brings with it some brutality.’ Ball uses prose & verse equally throughout: the poetry resides in the edgy vision. I confess to like the 2 verse sequences most but acknowledge my bias. They’re all interesting, & although a few of the prose sequences definitely approach narrative, they all feature a deliberate fragmenting & fractioning of the sentence, making for a deeply non-programed prose. On one hand, these are a group of individual sequences, but in bringing them together, Ball has found ways to set up segues from one to the next, thus making this book as whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Ball opens his book with a neatly subversive, what he calls ‘perversion of,’ the invocation of the muse, ‘The Process Proposed.’ Proposed, indeed, as a series of 3 manifestos, it appeals to an industrial-to-technological age figure, full of violence:
Then a no-place gathering.
‘If I must be a muse,’ she said,
‘then I will be terror.’ And came.
Given what the appeal to the muse usually involves, that last word is darkly ambivalent. As is the whole sequence, with each line carrying the load of what came before & what will follow. This muse refuses love, denies it; she’s an exacto-knife of a girl:
Where she touched she bled.
She wore nothing but blades.
She did not believe in odds.
She exacted. Everything
had to be certain. Everything
had to balance on breaking.
From this what can follow? In the poem, this:
When it was over.
In the final line:
her breath, caught.
There’s so much going on here, & it sets up all the mashed tales & dark images to follow. Ball loves his puns & what they can enact, the ‘perversions’ of language that free meaning to double up on itself. ‘In Vitro City’ takes the Latin phrase as a descriptor for a phantasmagoric vision of the city we all live in, under glass, or under surveillance. The title becomes a neat prepositional phrase leading to a series of experimental image commentaries on the city as concept. ‘K. Enters the Castle’ imagines K. as a camera, but then who sees him as such? There’s a story here, a version of the original vastly compressed, with a starling pronominal turn at the end. From a famous novel to a famous film: ‘Psycho’ also plays off a well known story (one which everyone, even those who haven’t seen it, knows). It could be sub-titled ‘The Notebooks of Norman Bates,’ but that might limit it. Certainly his, or their, thoughts & responses seem to fuel the fractured narrative here.
The title sequence is about knives, but also about what they do: cut out. And so each piece has words & phrases cut out, only the blackened spaces left, thus interrupting any clear reading of what’s written there: much of which seems oddly familiar. A play on advertising – as adversity, perhaps.
‘Then Wolves’ is the other verse sequence in The Politics of Knives, & I really like both its highly compressed language & its complex structure. The 2 quatrains followed by the one word ‘Wolves,’ followed by 3 couplets makes a neat constraint that forces the subtle allusiveness of the whole. It makes me wish Ball would write in verse forms more often.
‘He Paints the Room Red’ is another fractured tale, this time with an elusive narrator observing that ‘he’ who is also filming himself enacting the title. It keeps almost arriving at narrative but refuses the final step of connecting parts to whole. Well, it’s ‘a report,’ says the ‘i.’ Violence concludes the action but not the writing, which is full of questions never answered, for the writer as well as the reader. ‘To Begin’ utilizes horror conventions in a series of fragments that also seem to contain only the few good lines from usually poor writing. The final bit –
She runs, out of options. He gasps, losing air. Someone
lights a match. A promise readies to break. I don’t know
what to say, where to begin. We sit together in this
burned room, waiting.
Apparently, where to begin is the next, & last, piece, ‘That Most Terrible of Dogs,’ (which is the final phrase in the book), which begins, every sentence, ‘Waiting.’ And Ball manages to get just about every possible cliché we all wait for into this delightful list (like the Invocation to the Muse, an epic formula). Certainly, it brings this entertaining & provocative volume to a rousing close. The Politics of Knives marks Jonathan Ball as a talent already here in a big way. Read it.