The logic of the camera and montage overtakes poetic volition in Jonathan Ball’s Politics of Knives. Indeed one of the many tropes of cutting in Ball’s latest poetry collection relates to the editing process of film. The cinematographic decisions governing which pieces to retain and which to discard are a kind of violence elevated to the violence real knives can inflict.
Take for example “Psycho”, a poem that retells the Hitchcock movie as if it were the camera who’s speaking. The poem describes the external setting of the shots -“Water falls thrumming, hard on motel. Vacancy wet, mother in window”- as well as the interior life of the characters with the same pained neutrality.
When it comes to the killing scene, the narration steadies textually on Marion’s death the same way Hitchcock’s camera steadied on her eyeball in the meditative coda to the violent editing of the actual murder.
“She’s dead but her eye still drains open. She’s dead face perfect, the floor screen. She’s dead while the camera keeps looking, as we stalk through this room mopped so clean.”
The majority of the collection’s nine poem-experiments are rendered in this kind of prose spliced across pages. Some of the pages have only a single line of text crawling along the top margin, emphasizing the blank space. Others, like “That Most Terrible of Dogs”, carry on in their thrumming syntax to the end of the margins.
“Waiting to be misread. Waiting for the intense retail reality of the hornet shopkeeper buzzing around its pie charts. Waiting in studied irreverence. Waiting to deflect openness, deforest anarchy. Waiting to nurture the apolitical. Waiting for the athletes to seem tastier.”
If there are verses, the pages are the breaks, and sentences the rhythmic unit. And in some cases, if you have read a line of it, you have read a page. This cut-and-paste aesthetic can falter, as in the above, for purposely foregrounding method and filling in the spaces with non-sequiturs. But the technique can also have a poignant and chilling effect when the words used go more toward highlighting what went unsaid, or was spliced in the editing process of linguistic expression.
For example, the poem “To Begin” doesn’t tell you exactly what it is or what has taken place. Yet it shimmers and a sense of pain and loss seeps between the grammar.
“Blood dripped, stars fell. The sea scarred. The sun retreated. Rain more constant than he had ever been. Someone’s always crying. The lake hissed, flaming. The child dove into the water. She curled tight so as not to scream, or he would find her.”
The most obvious typographic trick comes in the book’s title poem, placed in the middle of the other eight, denoting a fearful kind of symmetry in the work’s overall design. “The Politics of Knives” falls somewhere between a rather punctilious freedom of information request and a game of madlib. It resembles one of those heavily redacted government documents you see on the news, offering you a shell of their real meaning and begging you to fill in the gaps where every second sentence is blacked out. In fact, I couldn’t help going in and scribbling my own version of the material Ball has left out, which I suspect – the book being under a creative commons license – is exactly what he intended for me to do.
What else can you do with a page that looks like this:
…when you’re trying to give the poet the benefit of the doubt?
Ball’s instrument, here as elsewhere, is a knife rather than a pen. And again his blade has passed across the passive textual space and left a more or less rough cut for the reader, in her role as editor, to piece together again. When the experimental and theoretical premise of the work is this overt, I can’t really tell whether the poetry itself is good or bad. And in a lot of ways that’s not really the point.
As the poetic texture intermittently halts, meanders and folds back on itself throughout The Politics of Knives, the more pertinent question really becomes whether you get it or not.
Well, do ya, punk?