Our mouths were a stunted rosebud.

-Carrie Bennett

Deterritorialization & Becoming-Strange in Carrie Bennett’s The Land Is a Painted Thing

1:: Strange territory

We filed into the room. We positioned ourselves along the white walls. Our mouths were closed and waiting.

The Land Is A Painted Thing, Carrie Bennett’s second collection, reads like the first and only poetry of an offshoot-world of our own, where all modes of expression have failed some unfathomable evolutionary test.

So it’s fitting that the story Bennett tells in these prose poems is haunted by a tone that feels both elegiac and inchoate. The axis of that haunting is a speaker who seems only dimly familiar with the structure of the world around her. Oscillating between passive and active participation in it, her will to adaptation (vs. adoption) is at the core of each poem and the book as a whole:

“I learned that all living things must be still to survive. I became a smoke stack, a statue, a slow and silent stalk” (ANATOMY OF DREAD).

Out-of-step with many contemporary iterations of the personal lyric, Carrie Bennett is not timid about replacing metaphors with realized fictions. While the speaker’s voice is intimate and personal, it is just as much the echo chamber of a volatile, barely conceivable universe.

Of that universe, The Land Is A Painted Thing serves up a literary experience that feels almost ahistorical; it is a wild assemblage powered by a sustainable and necessary fountainhead of strangeness, which, we will ultimately discover, is a currency of survival.

Your homes have disappeared like fallen airplanes in a foreign sea.

The Land Is A Painted Thing — part testament, part escape plan, part natural history of a Body without Organs — is a captive female speaker’s first-person account of subjection, tenderness, terror, and emergent technologies of the body/the beautiful. It’s also a tactical guide to resistance by deterritorialization.

We were told scabs would cover our legs. The words were spoken through the loudspeakers and we were to trust that. . .But in our dreams our legs were fields of poppies.

LISTEN TO “PRODUCTIVITY PROPAGANDA” by Carrie Bennett

[Editor’s Note: You will need a soundcloud account to access these audio files]

Against the murmurs of a flickering, machinic, desaturated, post-organic, post-affective space dominated by a faceless and oppressive Voice, the speaker’s language — burdened, measured, sparse and autochthonous, yet persistently singular, elegant and polychromatic — unravels like some long-overdue, now instant mutation.

But even so, Bennett’s writing (and it feels like the writing itself is an invisible character in her book) doesn’t always take sides: in executions that stutter proscriptive and aesthetic language alike, her speaker’s dreamscape and the Voice/Other’s totalitarian narrative frequently collapse into one another. No body is immune to radical revision; in this assemblage, every thing can be plugged into every other thing.

Deterritorializing the body in sections II-IV, The Land Is a Painted Thing, Carrie Bennett. (The art at the center of this schematic is a derivative of “Girl” by Thomas Helbig, used under CC BY)

In fact, we encounter dissonant couplings from the very start of The Land Is A Painted Thing. An early poem named “WILDLIFE,” begins, sort of tragically:

The room was a caged field.

Here is just one of many double-take moments seeded liberally throughout the book in which we are taught that no familiar thing is without a trapdoor. Bennett’s crypto-pastoral world makes the very idea of wildlife seem naïve. Her terse, tame prose line delivers a deeply unsettling portrait of the violence inherent in turning land (the page?) into one’s territory.

[T]he landscape was a body stitched shut.
Caged fields/territorial mind (© Tom Turner, 2013)

Keep your eyes peeled for bait-and-switch strategies like these; Bennett likes to attribute just enough sentience to beautiful things (in this world a field/landscape counts an extremely beautiful thing) that the heart shudders when they are wrapped up in terror.

Listen to “A New Animal” by Carrie Bennett

The poems that make up The Land Is A Painted Thing are windows in to a long series of volatile negotiations between sublime/dreadful imaginaries. The speaker consistently aligns herself with smooth, open planes (the land, skin, the sky). Even acts of compliance form a surface, concealing the speaker’s muffled acts of resistance. The Voice, on the other hand, represents forces that deal in segmentarity (cages, instructions, plots, boxes, organs), that compulsively roomify free space and ultimately seek to organize the stuff of its subjects’ perceptions and dreams. It’s no accident that Bennett locates the epicenter of that almost-living system in a structure called the transplant factory.

2:: Aftermath poetry: invasion, body and the earth

Whatever was going to happen hadn’t been named yet.

Listen to Transplant Factory [2] by Carrie Bennett

Before we can get our bearings in this world, Bennett builds us a room. And an us:

We filed into the room. We positioned ourselves along the white walls. Our mouths were closed and waiting.

And a them:

Near the ceiling, rows of fluorescent bulbs shone starkly, loudspeakers hung in each corner.

And orders:

Stand still, said a voice we had never heard. Someone coughed quietly, someone began to cry soundlessly.
You no longer know your own names, the voice told us. Watch how your bodies refuse submission. Time became a pile of snow…

And a window. And the beginning of an aftermath:

At that moment I looked out the window and the sky unburdened itself and forgot it ever knew light.

(“TRANSPLANT FACTORY [1]”)

Listen to “Transplant Factory [1]” by Carrie Bennett

In this extremely cinematic opening poem, Bennett, with an inimitable touch that is at once tender and dangerous, pushes us into the landscape of the “transplant factory,” a sort of post-singularitarian environment filled with grief and ruin and alienation and devices designed to torture the earth itself.

Mutual deterritorialization/the strange mind (Richard Serra, Storm King Art Center, NY)

It is a mostly-hermetic, hungry, bric-a-brac space. It feels labyrinthine, yet somehow panopticonic; secret alcoves exist, but, like dreams, afford neither privacy nor respite. The transplant factory is a stage upon which a whole micropolitics of body, survival, and self unfolds.

[O]ur eyes like boxes without lids…our mouths connected to wires in the walls…How could we hate our own organs? Were we changed people?

It’s the space where, throughout The Land Is a Painted Thing, the speaker and her cohort are beset with instructions on posture, labor, physical routine, even hope:

Each day instructions were sent on the uses of the body. Today we practiced bending our arms to embrace. Our elbows were sharp windmills, our wrists were bolted joints.

Still, at the shifting center of this collection is a speaker’s drive to assemble the beginnings of an escape plan using the matter of the same body that has become the site/seat of her subjection.

3:: Flicker, Plateau, Parataxis

There was so much silence it was like walking away, then walking away again.

The Land Is a Painted Thing is a narrative in four acts composed of 53 individually titled text blocks. In Carrie Bennett’s hands, however, this spare collection of microexperiences is enough to build a universe that ceaselessly reinvents itself in time without sacrificing its voice or mission. (Reading this book reminded me of reading David Markson, Italo Calvino, John Yau, Laura Sims for the first time.)

In the world of Bennett’s speaker, time is a collection of plateaus separated by fugue states. We read each poem as if by the pulse of a long strobe, shedding only enough light to burn after-images into our field of vision. Every poem is a hold-your-breath kind of poem.

I think The Land Is A Painted Thing achieves that effect by the simplicity of its line and the complexity of its silence. Bennett deploys (practically unpunctuated) lines against exquisitely timed page breaks that feel like little moments of clarity (the space-time between pages in this book is, like gutter between panels in comics, a co-creative agent).

The Land Is a Painted Thing sort of glitches how I read the prose poem; it builds a short-lived alien-feeling dissonance into each one. Instead of becoming more elaborate as it moves forward in time, Carrie’s book moves forward while constantly starting over.

Listen to “Transplant Factory [3]” by Carrie Bennett

And while her collection tells a complete story (albeit with no exposition or history), there is a remarkable absence of sequentiality. None of the poems quite pick up where they should. Strangely — and I think wonderfully — it’s Bennett’s commitment to the absence of connective tissue that makes her assemblage gel.

I told myself my hands were peppermint leaves I stuffed inside my mouth.

The net result is an unfamiliar experience of speed. The alchemical and terrifically human poems that make up The Land Is a Painted Thing are deliberate, accretive, heavily designed, and yet fast. They flicker. They deliver memories of anatomy lessons in dread (and the unsafe beauty kicked up in its wake) and then dissolve. Bennett’s closing lines, for example, frequently manage to estrange themselves from the very poems they put to rest, as in “MORNING CALISTHENICS”:

The voice drilled over the loudspeakers. Move your mouth. Smile. Now smile more. I closed my eyes and our faces became seagulls.

Listen to “Morning Calisthenics” by Carrie Bennett

More misdirections than jump cuts, these unexpected transitions always manage to feel smooth. In a book deeply concerned with juxtaposition and the power of adding-to, Carrie Bennett pushes parataxis to its zenith. Each strange coupling haunts the reader, is a reminder of the untold stories that it excludes.

Even the titles in her collection are more than labels. They’re more like haunting-machines (HIBERNATION NOTES, WHEN THE SKY WAS AN ABANDONED BUILDING): they don’t provide clues, or punctuate experience, or halt the gathering shadow. Nor even do they provide momentary respite from the book’s story flow. Instead, they remind you that you’d be wrong to think that there could be one (trauma has no plan). Every title is like a vigil to the poem beneath it. Each poem is on a trajectory toward dissolution and silence from the very first syllable it utters, or more often, murmurs.

Listen to “Transplant Factory [4]” by Carrie Bennett

Published by The Word Works, available from SPD.