Sarah Dowling. Down (Coach House Books 2014).
Midway through ‘Sunshine Honey,’ the first of a number of sequences in Down, the poet or a figure or the text says: ‘I guess we are part of this disorientation.’ It’s as good an introduction as any to what Down does. In its fragmentation, cutting-up, & collage effects, it subjects a number of other texts, both public & personal, to a kind of flattened détournement, an apparently objective deconstruction of sources.
What Dowling has added to the usual theoretical play with mostly banal texts — news reports, interviews, popular entertainment (especially a couple of specific songs) — is an inscribed desire not only to put them into new contentions with each other but also to slyly ground them in a personal (dare one say, lyrical) annunciation. This is especially true of her utilization of The Temptations’ version of ‘My Girl.’ One of the things pop songs do is repeat, is use repetition for emotional effect, & Dowling does this differently throughout the various pieces of Down to both heighten emotion & to flatten it out.
In ‘Sunshine Honey,’ each prose section approaches repetition slightly differently, as if to say, yes, the repetition is a part of any relationship but it both changes & stays the same, somehow:
What could make this aesthetics. What could make me feel that. Make me many.Make me better. What could make me sexless and sexual. Make me feel we. Make me feel made. Make me feel us. Make me feel matter. Make me feel this, for one. What could make me feel this commotion, this relationship to energy. What could make me feel this way.
Later in ‘Everyone Sleep,’ the text sets up a neat dichotomy of ‘Sometimes,’ with its sense of happening a lot, often in the past, & ‘Right now,’ with its sense of immediacy & once only. The chorus line, so to speak, ends all sections but the last: ‘and told my friend how I felt.’ The individual sentences are generally recognizable, they emerge from the basic love word-hoard, but piled up as here they both acknowledge their banality & then break through to something that feels truly felt. This, I think, is one of the prime successes of Down.
What’s interesting in such pieces is the way Down takes up various general public (if only because popularly constructed for a large audience) discourses & finds a way to re-imagine their use. In some of the other pieces, it directly confronts public wrongs, as the ironically titled ‘Starlight Tours’ does the death of Neil Stonechild (it piles new ironies on what the police may have felt was a lighthearted irony in using that term to describe their handling of aboriginals). Here the cut-up technique reinforces the sense of loss, of being cut off from any rational response by the official rhetoric surrounding the event: ‘before the found found found when found were likely / his boy in two and cop caused / frozen the an a more the forced guilty by’. Here the fragmentation evokes both that of the official reports & the hearts & minds of his parents, relatives, & friends. A similar effect, but without any specific event as ground, animates the ‘Brush’ sections. As various things go wrong in both nature & civilization, perhaps only documentary quick shots are possible, as they pile upon one another, & the poem can only catch fleeting fragmentary glimpses. The poems effectively do so.
But in the midst of such chaotic impressionism, the lyric returns of song allow for intimacy & its larger possibilities. ‘Morning,’ borrowing its title from Frank O’Hara, offers 112 numbered lines of just that, all of it ‘mine.’ Most importantly, ‘my girl,’ repeated most often, but ‘my feel,’ & that seems to be for so much the world still offers a receptive self. While Down insists such a receptive heart & mind must pay attention to all that’s happening in the world around us, & to the way its reporting flattens affect, it also argues that ‘my love’ is what makes such attention possible.