Caroline Crumpacker’s Astrobolism (Belladonna*, 2016)
Review by M. Ryan Murphy
In the frontmatter of Caroline Crumpacker’s debut full-length book, Astrobolism, the title is defined as: “The result of being struck by a star. The blasting of the sun during high summer…(hence the ‘dog days’), in which the air is bad, dogs go a bit mad, and people and plants get sunstroke.”
The definition induces a conditioned maddening then – a loosening of the norm and spotlighting of the structure of things. It also makes linguistic play on, thus critique of, the feminine body under constant scrutiny – historically hysteric, politically sunstroke-d.
And opening further, gaps appear in corporeality, in government, in fashion, in motherhood, in love, in architecture, in femininity, in nature, and more. Is this what happens when struck by the height of the sun?
The answer throughout Astrobolism, which appears in many iterations and incorporates everything, is at once a mimicry of our modern structure and its undoing. It is entry. From “Introduction to My Work”:
“This is the story of
and then blank.
This is the story of ‘Blank brought me here.’”
This poem appears in the middle of the book as defiance. A lighthouse spotlighting the spotlight-er saying: I too critique and change constantly, despite the strict boundaries of modernity. We arrive at a nothingness because the norm brought us to it. But this isn’t destruction or finality. A point made clear at the end of the poem:
“Let us then again begin:”
The colon here is a coupling that opens rather than close. Opening is what makes Astrobolism so pertinent to political climate. It’s in the language and conceptual framework. It abounds in the formal construct. Each poem bleeds with breaks and caesurae. Offering entrance into reprieve, a private space in the public eye; and also spilling over with the possibilities and knowledge of a world beyond today’s binary.
In a Habermasian sense, Astrobolism anchors and widens “the intimate sphere of the conjugal family… [which] created…its own public” (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, 29). Crumpacker forces space in language for a family-created-publicsphere to remain. This, “…a public sphere in apolitical form.” Not unconcerned with politics but beyond it. A trench opposing today’s public authority. A poetics of ruin and regeneration that interrogate, break down, and rebuild the intentionally too-perfect terrain of a modern city.
The city in “Post-Habitation Design” is luring and entrapping, with dubious blue waters, but it’s all superficial.
“When I saw the way they lived,
I could have wept.
There is a strange silence
the impact of could have.
And in “We Embrace Imprecision as a Side Effect of Distance”:
“we contrive silenceas a lack of attention .”
One understands existence then as today’s overstimulation. We are beings full of inattention. We feel empty because of this. We then imagine what else could be had but often find it impossible to escape the city and scrutiny. It’s a cycle of negation with no answer. A consumption and desire and consumption of desire, constantly.
“Is it an act or a lack of action?
I would like to exist within that question for a while.”
To exist in this question is to resist and live briefly in the Habermasian public-private space away from the raging Anthropocene. It’s about construction and the position one inhabits during particular moments of corporeality. It’s about fashion and femininity, private kin versus public authority, “[t]rains vivisect[ing] the country.”
And in the journey, a Butler-esque inquiry of kinship over state unfolds. Like Antigone, Crumpacker “… cannot make her claim outside the language of the state, but neither can the claim she wants to make be fully assimilated by the state” (Antigone’s Claim, 28).
There’s power in this heterogeneity. There’s spheres widening constantly; Crumpacker writing of motherhood, daughter-ship, and marriage. For being and having a mother is to exist in:
“A space not public, no,
This Butler-Habermasian space is laid bare in “Charm Detection” when a child is born as the mother’s mother passes.
as the sense of purpose
Public authority, sucking up our purpose, imposes a private authoritarian limit through Mother. Mother is all knowing, never to be crossed, a space of clarity/suffocation, where care often verges codependence. This is what the State wants from the nuclear family; Mother as reproduced version of societal structure but also a blessing. So, a great place to explore boundaries.
“When my mother died,
the world loosened.”
“One woman asks me
I have no sides or delineation.
Like a rock.”
All spheres loosen when Mother passes but still the need to be a rock lingers. To be solid and whole. This amplified when a child enters, but different. A new mother’s chance to undo boundaries for her young. To shift the limits set by her mother. To allow kinship to reign over state. To encourage gaps and a breaking of the rock, the architecture of a city, the popular fashion that carries oppression, the false momentum train rides provide. A chance to turn inattention into a uniquely private action that multiplies to dismantle the public.
A hope, answering the question posed in “Body Property”:
“What do we look like outsidecontrols?”
To Crumpacker, we look porous, parts hollow and full. Naked and at times clothed. Lush and bare in this growing extinction. Subjectively familial. Private and public. Attempting balance. But is this truly possible? After all:
“it is misleading to claim
that the time before collapse
is not in itself