Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Julia Bloch, The Sacramento of Desire

Sidebrow Books, 2020, $18.00

Review by Patrick Pritchett

Julia Bloch’s latest book of poems, the playfully titled The Sacramento of Desire, amplifies the formal and thematic concerns of previous volumes like Valley Fever (also from Sidebrow). Yet this book also marks a sharp departure from Valley Fever, whose focus is a kind of gentle interrogation of the beginnings of a relationship and the re-orientation to the poet’s native state. The poems in Sacramento, while maintaining a stylistic semblance to Valley—the calm cadences, and a deft mixture of subdued descriptive language with wry observations and lyrical moments of pure surprise—sound a note of struggle and loss: an odyssey of bodily travail and personal trauma, refracted through a rigorous formalism that eschews self-pity even as it lays bare a dire crisis in the most intimate ways. Bloch’s approach is well-suited for its task. Cast in an austere prose, these poems amaze with their formal audacity and pithy narratives of a fragmented, yet rich, cohesive interior. The fragmentation is the richness. It demolishes the expectations we’ve been trained to look for in a poetry of crisis, plunging us instead into the immediacy of an experience that confounds any easy consolation.

These are very specifically California poems (though hardly confined to that terrain), evoking a California state of mind that is far from the glitz of LA. They seem dispatched from a vacant, sunburnt parking lot at the end of the rainbow, when the rainbow has dissolved and all that remains is the harsh glint off a rusty, aging Cadillac’s rear fender. The romance of California is leached clean. “I left California and the air and light tilted as if to rip a museum or a bridge or a whole city in half, how will I manage the ache of this road, its inky ribbon, illusional its acrid inversion layer its paper sky leaky contamination and synchronization.”

Bloch’s roots are in Northern California and have more to do with the astringent and unsparing critiques of the Golden State laid down by the High Priestess of skepticism, Joan Didion, than the romance of the Pacific coast. This alone guarantees their queer appeal. The queerness in Bloch owes as much to her own queerness as it does to both her native state and a medical trauma—ovulept—that overshadows and informs these poems until they become mutually entwined. The failures of medicine are not just failures of practice, but of the clinical language that shapes the medical establishment’s attitude toward the female body. That this is something women, queer or straight, must still cope with, is, of course, a major scandal. As Ashley Fetters notes in a 2018 article in The Atlantic, medical gaslighting is incredibly prevalent when it comes to pregnant women: “the true-life horror stories women tell about their struggles to get reproductive health care … almost always feature some variation on the same character: the doctor who waves a hand and says, ‘You’ll be fine’, only to acknowledge much later that an actual problem does exist and that a woman’s ‘pain was real and present the whole time.’” (This is to say nothing of the obverse: gender-reveal parties and the way the media fetishizes celebrity pregnancy with photos of baby bumps and so forth, reducing the often arduous and fraught process of carrying and birthing a child to a saccharine spectacle for mass consumption).

“Ovulept,” Bloch notes in an interview, “was coined amid research into the politics of reproductive technology. I explore how poetry can stage an argument for queer futurity as it maintains a skeptical stance toward the violent norms of reproductive futurity.” And in the opening section titled “Glossary: Ovulept,” she writes: “ovulept: the anthropogenic restructuring of ovulatory time by lungfull emissions, endocrine disruptions, hazy particulates.” In short, not merely an interruption of the body’s natural cycles but a violent intrusion into them. This violence is encoded within what Bloch calls the “assisted reproductive industry.” The emphasis here being on “industry,” which due to a rigid adherence to heteronormative biases and protocols, effectively represses or simply make no allowances for queer reproductivity. The experience of becoming alienated from one’s own body via the dehumanizing logic of a medical technology designed to help bring life into the world forms the core of Sacramento.

Bloch documents this experience with a carefully measured voice that belies the anger and sorrow propelling it. Other poets might be tempted to make of such an experience an overly subjective account of travail, replete with melodrama, but Bloch eschews that, opting instead for an aesthetic distance that magnifies the sense of agon without wallowing in it. This is a poem that makes its report on experience through a tightly controlled phenomenological approach, observing the details without languishing in self-pity.

Can’t have soda. Can’t have beer. Can’t have coffee.
Can’t let availability drip from your earrings. Can’t click open.
Can’t suck licorice. Can’t take airplanes. Can’t hear the other
one. Mara says pick up your painful reality swords and Lorine
says throw things to the flood and I am lonely lonely lonely of
Rachel everybody’s hoarding everything all the time.

This piercing litany, which alludes to Lorine Niedecker’s famous line that mixes fecundity with disaster, illuminates a dire crisis of spirit. How much must one sacrifice to bear into this world another? And when is enough enough? That sacrifice and sacrament share the same root points to the heart of the dilemma.

This may be Sacramento’s most powerful accomplishment: to articulate the actuality of living through such duress; the medical industry’s implacable procedures of reduction, its desert of care, in an often austere language that simmers with bitterness but never indulges in it. “Time to test your human chorionic gonadotropin out on Highway 13 near Woodland.” “Here open to all air, in the room with no light and no heat, completely waiting for technology to get right down to the center of experience.”

The title alludes to Linda Gregg’s decidedly different 1992 book, The Sacraments of Desire, a book whose richly romantic (read Rilkean) and somewhat insular lyricism is far from Bloch’s own concerns. While Bloch provides an oblique personal narrative, confession is not her aim here. The poems are indexical rather than self-reflective, mapping a crisis without surrendering to the pandering sentimentalism which confession so easily engenders.

The title poem of the book is a deceptive tour de force. Ingeniously structured, it appears at first glance to be a series of discrete poems. In actuality, they comprise a single long poem, broken up, across 65 pages, into short, block-like paragraphs. White space predominates, setting off each poem in its own purchase of light. The last line of each poem is set in italics as is the first line of the poem that follows it. A kind of fractured cantus mobile is put in motion. This makes for a powerful mix of momentum and interruption – a sustained balancing act from beginning to end. But it also creates continuity by way of fragmentation and the deferral of an ending. The swath of white space below each poem is not some idle blank, but performative, reminding the reader of the potentiality and sense of expectancy that comes with a pregnancy.

so take the bait Ruth slides a needle in Dr. Clio slides a needle
in Vito slides a needle in Eva slides a needle in Lauren slides a
needle in David slides a needle in Matt slides a needle in Cara
slides a needle in Sarah slides a needle in Brianna slides a needle
in Brenda slides a needle in Beata slides a needle in temperatures
of friction

The use of bland repetition here, devoid of adjectives or editorializing, is almost a form of verbal slapstick, belying the invasiveness of reproductive technology, its sheer tedium, with the patient a passive recipient of well-meaning but cold procedures.

In its calm, almost casual cadences and the quiet sequence of pivot points that range from the comic to the bitter, Sacramentooffers an account of the queer female body in its exposure to the mercy of medical interventions and the sometimes kind but often obtuse attitudes of medical professionals. We are, of course, not the complete owners of our body for to be embodied is to be always already a subject, to undergo whims and caprices, insufficiencies and catastrophes not of our making. One can come to feel used or betrayed by one’s own body. Nevertheless, an intimate vibrancy shines through these serpentine meditations.

                             Cheer up: egg-white mucus is a go. If you can
tell the story draped in light they’ll admit you to the cheery
sharp-edged cibachrome waiting room, the last parts all seething

               the biggest thing is not to feel your own eyes. Los
Angeles was oil and leaves, Sacramento was furious squares,
Philadelphia is breath and commerce; fear is not irony we welcome
your questions and concerns

Back at the apartment, pray to the bruise. Writhe on the futon.
Paper the corner room. Chart the pulses and rotate the crystal over a
flame

                                         Two big bleeds then one small bleed and
the want seeps through the matted hair above the clots, a little slit to
clutch the fingers sliding inside and opening wide, breath above
breath, expanse lungs and heart as one goes for breast and
the other goes for breast alive tender biting fingers in rhythm held
between bones a locking sensation toward, not friend, closer my
close part and when she runs it up my, steam

These mysterious, contagious lines close the poem. Their plain diaristic tone, written with a near absence of inflection, charts a drama that pulls the reader into the enigma of the body and the enigma of the poem, both driven by desire’s ongoingness toward the mad sacrament we all pray before: to simply connect. As they attest, Bloch pushes her conclusion toward a provisional utopian horizon, one which draws its potency from the visceral dynamics of bodies in flux, yearning and touching and longing to be touched, an enclosure of satiety that is somehow never quite satisfied, that is to say, human.

To undergo the desire for a child means being led willy-nilly into a sacramental relationship, which as Kenneth Rexroth notes in his poem for William Carlos Williams, is what poets are for: creating “sacramental relationships / That last always.” Paraphrasing Frank O’Hara, Bloch writes, with equal parts wit and resignation, “So go not on your nerve but on your last disaster.” Disaster shapes us, wounds us, propels us. It pushes us to the brink. But as Hölderlin observed, “where danger lies / grows that which saves.” Julia Bloch’s The Sacramento of Desire performs such a rescue with the most extraordinary intimacy and a harrowing, yet hopeful, poignancy.

Post by Patrick Pritchett on 5/22/2021 at 12:00 PM

Patrick Pritchett is the author of five books of poetry, including Orphic Noise and Refrain Series. Scholarly work includes essays on Ronald Johnson, Lorine Niedecker, Gustaf Sobin, Michael Palmer, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, among others. He has taught at Harvard University, Amherst College, and Hunan Normal University in China, and currently lectures in English at the University of Connecticut-Hartford.