The Poetry Project

Quite Apart by Krystal Languell

Review by Morgan Vo

Quite apart from: a colloquialism used for saying that even if you ignore one thing, there is still another important fact to consider. Thinking about this figure of speech, I am reminded of recent declarations by BLM activists that might be phrased: Quite apart from our right to SURVIVE, we demand the right to LIVE, the right to THRIVE, the right to FLOURISH.

Languell’s Quite Apart tells stories of women living under the pressures of capitalist patriarchy. Though these stories vary in their particulars, all have been warped by the gravity of a more general narrative that delimits what roles a woman can play in this world and perpetuates the threats of death (both literal and social) that attempt to keep her from imagining anything else. Shearing off the prepositional ‘from,’ Languell’s title signals a liminal state between the threat of oblivion and the inevitable dream of possibility, where a person stands very fractured, rather unwhole. Quite Apart explores this place of fragmentation, where sediments accrue into piles of earth that bury us all, no matter what position we hold. If we accept that the normative life (and death) of a woman is a story we’ve all heard before, what can happen when we explore that it can, as a story, be rewritten?

The book begins with “Invocation,” a sequence of ten poems addressed to Languell’s friends. Each is a short composition in a kaleidoscopic form that runs throughout the book: one sentence erupts with one kind of sense, the next sentence follows with another. They bear on each other tonally, but don’t necessarily accumulate meaning in programmatic ways. Connections vacillate between the solid and the gaseous; these connections highlight value in surprise and potential over expectation and singular identification. Here’s “Poem for My Friend in Providence”:

Do you sometimes feel as if motherhood
is wielded against us? What used to gird me
changed. The big lightbulbs—one, two, three—
foreground honeycomb tiles. I wake up
with a start & nothing is wrong. A field is no
place to panic. The amulet of clarity you gave me:
what am I doing with it? Congratulations
never last. An amethyst at the beach. Your
needle & thread. We can die trying.

Through varying modes of address, different scales of detail, complete sentences set against fragments, Languell creates resonant swirls. “What used to gird me” draws out the “motherhood… wielded against us,” creating a clash of exterior and interior: a body’s capacity to hold another is thrown against it. That capacity, written as inevitability, surrounds the body, keeping it in place. “We can die trying” to fulfill that role or escape it.

From its first lines—“By the end of the summer, all the decisions / & all the interring, the full shift to open / air will be complete”—death and mourning are central to the book’s trajectory. “Poem for My Friend in Ohio” expands this grieving beyond the personal, into a haunting figure of menace:

I am glad you were not found in a
pit this morning or any other morning
beneath the shed of a troubled white man
in your state. I am glad that we, you and I,
only get groped on the street or
masturbated at on the NJ Transit bus,
that we are alive and not buried and
not buried alive, at least not by dirt,
a shed, that man.

The register here is simultaneously horrifying and pedestrian. While the overt cruelties of kidnapping, rape, and murder become the stuff of sensational news cycles, exceptions that seem to prove that violence against women is a departure from the moral stature of the sane, other more covert violations have been quietly accepted as a part of a woman’s everyday life. Languell asks us to consider why a response to literal death can be so much louder than a response to social death—in this case, whittled down to “at least” it wasn’t worse.

How are people made to accept this darkness as a given? “Invocation” concludes with a call for disruption: “Together / at the party, we took a ceremonial silver platter / home in our tote bag to glamorize our relation. / … / We are still working to heat it hot enough to melt.” Take the world we are given in its ugliest, most entrenched forms, turn up the gas and say something to melt it down.

But it’s hard to melt away a thing that replicates and reiterates in insidious ways—think of the shapeshifting android assassin from Terminator 2. “Last Song” (along with its later companion piece, “Lost Song”) is a sequence in similarly kaleidoscopic form. Its title refers to the concert encore: “Tonight this is our last song, he said, then played a few more.” When the singer lies to us, we not only buy it but perform it ourselves: we pretend that it’s our urging bringing him back, and cheer all the louder when he decides to return.

The encore renders a world split between audience-consumers and performer-producers, but joined by mutual expectations that keep both sides in check. He says it’s the last song, but we know the last will come back to haunt us again. In a different repetition, Languell describes the “typical problem” of American addiction:

What a nice girl feels is nothing but solutions.
The stock market turns on opiates, not purity.
A typical problem takes the young girl out. Her parents
invest in the hospital for her lucky breakdown.
She pleads and he says, “you’re nice,” then she’s carried off.

Opioid addiction is a “typical” problem in that it’s foreseeable, even expected, but its importance to the national economy protects it from any efforts to address it. Left feeling powerless under capitalism’s control, we instead invest in narratives that deflect from our impotence and make room for our privileges: she’s in trouble with drugs, but she’s a “nice girl” (as in, white) so she goes to rehab, not jail. Even as she is excused on one level, the blame nevertheless falls on her, not Big Pharma: if only she had actually been nice (as in, lived up to the promise of wealth) then she wouldn’t need rehabilitation. Languell shows precisely how shared narratives can normalize entrenched problems and maintain status quos. These are the stories she’s working to melt but, working with heat, she’s also playing with fire, as others can see what she’s up to and attempt to dissuade her through veiled threats: “‘Keep safe,’ the men say. ‘You’d better take that energy home.’” These men guard the stories, because demystifying the teaching aids of the state is a threat to those in power.

What is there to do, then, when stories wield so much weight? The remaining sections offer two formal departures that render some possibilities. “The Middlemarch Poems” are entries from a reading journal of the George Eliot novel. Initially, I read a more philosophical engagement with Middlemarch (“to an individual with a single purpose / what else can come to mind”), but by the end Languell’s entries focus on recounting the detailed interactions of its characters, how things happen between them, and what social machinations they are compelled by. It presents an almost materialist shift away from strictly moral questions, towards an analysis of how things are actually working, how people are in the trouble they’re in as much as why.

“Little Runaway” ends the collection with an open-field sequence in which words and clauses are incessantly bound by parentheses:

xxxxxxxxx(My sister (she) drives on the ice) (without difficulty)

xxxx(and (here) (comes) (climate)) xxxxxxx (to place) (your life) (in context)

While the parentheses follow a basic order of operations—a close parenthesis follows every open one—the inflections they imply aren’t always the same. It can be hard for the eye to settle, like watching a pinball bounce around its field of lights, but the experience produces an urge to constantly, impulsively revise: one feels that every phrase could be another, that the parentheses mark spaces in which many things could be placed, encouraging an intimacy with the contingent and impermanent, the potential and unpredictable:

xxxx(Unromantic (dropped bowl (shattered (bounced back in my face))))

I find this line resonant with my sense of the poem, and with the book as a whole. We’re handed containers that sometimes we aren’t able to hold. They make loud noises if they hit the ground, calling attention to our inadequacies. Or perhaps we end up throwing them in our own faces. If a life is put at some pains to reproduce a story, then perhaps one way toward a life outside of that story is to break each sentence at the level of its syntax—to start dividing clause from clause, phrase from phrase, word from word, and in their places, leave an opening.

#262 — Fall 2020