Real Chaos Astrology Book Reviews, Vol. 2: Permanently Empowered
Everything you’ve heard about Aquarius is true. You may know that Aquarians are famously unconventional, humanitarian, concerned with the bigger picture, aware of themselves as but blades of grass, or wild reeds, or whatever the cosmic lovechild of Whitman and Rousseau would look like as it sailed forth trying to make the world a better place, all ingenuousnes and ingenuity.
You may know that Aquarians are more idealistic than everyone, willing to cut themselves free from all the ties of conventionality to get to that beautiful place where the world is full of universal freedom and understanding. You may know that Aquarians’ weirdness is matched only by their altruism. You may have heard that Aquarius is considered an “elder” of the zodiac. [This is why horoscopes typically begin with Aries (the baby) and end with Pisces (the crone)]. The term “old soul” was invented for Aquarians; where an Aries is zoomed way in on the scene, reacting with exquisite personal rage or delight, the Aquarius is often so far out that everyone looks like smears of blue and green to her.
There is a long tradition of Aquarians being groundbreakers, truthsayers, visionaries, and kooks. Yoko Ono is an Aquarius and is probably all four. Let’s take Yoko as an example and note the way the boys from Liverpool eyerolled so hard at her they practically sprained their optic nerves. And yet here Yoko is, still making incomprehensible art fifty years later, having Whitney restrospectives and winning prizes at the Venice Bienniale and screeching away with her band. Yoko Ono does not care what you think, but in true Aquarius form, Yoko Ono is also not defiant or belligerent or angry. She’s existing, as Aquarius does, on some weirdly cosmic plane in which she just doesn’t have to take this shit personally.
This is the paradox of Aquarius: they are about love, and their love includes the ugly. They espouse the highest ideals and don’t necessarily have enough ego to live up to them. They will say the cruelest things, and those things are usually right. And they will not even try to make these things sound good. They will just dump some unvarnished truth in your lap and not care if it just set your skirt on fire. It’s not that they want to hurt you. They just exist in the service of something bigger, and you’re going to have to get a new skirt. They have all the compassion for the world and absolutely none for the singed skin of your thighs. Don’t take it personally. They don’t. They are too busy thinking of something universal.
The recent lineup from Bloof Books has more than a frisson of that strange Aquarius alchemy. It’s a trenchant and pitiless chorus that includes Danielle Pafunda’s The Dead Girls Speak in Unison, K. Lorraine Graham’s The Rest Is Censored, Nikki Wallschlaeger’s Crawlspace, and Khadijah Queen’s Exercises in Painting. No one, to borrow a phrase from a recent Atlantic article about the current zeitgeist, alerted these voices to the idea that they are “angry and temporarily powerful.” The anger ebbs and flows, but the power is perpetual. The love is as fierce and as universal as the rage.
Danielle Pafunda’s The Dead Girls Speak in Unison is the terrifying imagination of a the dead’s mouths unstopped. Pafunda steps out of the personal and visceral and into a realm of shiny hard truths like bullets, which she can stop or slow down at will.
By turns entreaty and curse, The Dead Girls descends deep into grody and then sidestep into delightfully profane abstraction: “We have been crammed full/of your unwholesome piggledy,” is followed by the plaintive “But you know what is lacking?…Of course you do. /We are lacking in you” and the matter-of-fact damnation of “she’d pull off your face/and mail it to fuck town.” Not afraid to deal in tattered and fetid, Pafunda’s lyrics confront the reader with the (lost) possibilities of (dead) the feminine, sure, but they do more than that, skipping from admission — “You already knew we were thieves” to accusation — “Your face/is full of trash/your trash the trashiest/for blocks around” and managing to skirt a line between impossible and probable that makes it clear we have all underestimated the power girls, whatever their sad and sorry fates, still wield.
One of the constant joys in this book is Pafunda’s gift for pulling sibilant silk bunnies out of very grungy hats, a trick she executes with frequency and élan: “A sucker for a silken bladder/a sucker for such perks.” The effect is tonic and embryonic rather than morbid or dirgelike, the Girls aware even in death of their power over the men who put them there, looking forward beyond their own demise to what will linger: “And in the myth/you will be named for us.”
K. Lorraine Graham’s The Rest Is Censored catalogues, with bemused curiosity and infinite patience for variables, the various ways in which things and people pass before our eyes: “Today I objectify everyone.” As a work it’s intangible, ineffable, landing glancing blows; shrinking or inflating the speaker, who always controls her words with the precision of mechanical kites; dropping stealth bombs with no apparent effort — “How long have you not wanted to get out of bed? Graham shifts effortlessly from bland and funny to blandly funny to glancingly funny to surprisingly prescient to gleefully wry — “I’d still/rather be murdered in the city” — and always, as the Aquarians’ feet seem never to float on the same soil as the rest of us, skews toward a dispassionate conjunction of humdrum and sublime, the way the writer Colette (Aquarius!), once had a heroine respond to the question of what filled her soul with “right now my soul is full of beans and little bits of salt pork” (she was eating cassoulet). Totally pedestrian. And yet if you stare at that sentence long enough it’s going to turn out to be true in the same way Graham’s “Wake up in love with each other, with the rat on the carpet” is a painfully meta observation about love.
Graham is adventurous with syntax and conservative with vision, staying firmly in the quotidian and spinning into into some kind of precious metal, in the tradition of the best captive heroines: “Quiver-kind, my he-said. Way. Want quiver. Said he-/kind way. Good quiver-day my want way.” Occasionally goofy with aplomb, her timing is impeccable: “I am the father of Kung Fu. I can’t believe it. The conditions are ideal.” And somehow all these add up to an indictment of the everyday and, possibly, its revolution: “Heart, I’ve leaves.”
One of the strange things Aquarius will do is stop stargazing for a minute and fix you with a piercing gaze, the kind that would make you squirm if it belonged to a school teacher. In this lineup, that gaze belongs to Nikki Wallschlaeger, whose Crawlspace brings the scary truths back into the realm of the real in a way that pins Pafunda’s dreamy visceral and Graham’s cool collage to a corporeal and reflective I.
Wallschlaeger’s work delights with the kind of nonshowoffy intelligence that makes you wish you could pull it off and disarms with its frank admissions, starting right here: “It’s just another crabby, prolonged pregnancy/from the TV personality observance tower of/I want the recognition that I deserve/but I won’t crab-barrel over you to get it” and going on to wrestle with race and gender with a mix of high and lowbrow that’s probably the only way such grapplings won’t ever feel fake. Sometimes her lines float about the problem, giving you a palliative pan-over: “Peaceful fuckups/ stork folk singers & gossip girls dedicated/ to the wrong impression” before descending into one-line zingers that pound you to the ground like a tent pole: “I’ve accepted that/I’m a black vagina.”
Crawlspace is the story of “Writing under the constraints of your oppressors, whoever they are,” but, though it observes the twists and pitfalls of this maze called being a woman of color in a writing life — “I am a clever girl/winnowing through a cleverer education” — its greatest brilliance comes in moments where the image bursts forth in ironic surprise: “Keeping pie holes filled with magnificence.” Read that line again: “Keeping pie holes filled with magnificence.” Magnificence now has the consistency of crème Chantilly, and it’s due to the expert whisk of Nikki Wallschlaeger.
Constantly breaking the fourth wall (a technique most successfully executed in modern times by Magnum, P.I., that lovable renegade Aquarian detective) to address us directly, Wallschlaeger’s speaker has both bravado: “We are so powerful that even space junk orbiting the earth disintegrates” and pragmatism: “Whether or not they like it depends on their versions/of paternalistic stylecraft.” Whether or not you like it, Crawlspace is full of salty secrets and clear-sighted proclamations. “I keep my blackgirl magic protected protected” writes Wallschlaeger, but don’t despair. The ugliness contains the beauty, or rather the grief is contained by the power: “We, as marked women transform/ourselves. We are the wood violets & roses stretching in the rain.”
Aquarius is here. Sometimes it’s pitiless. Sometimes it’s dreamy. Sometimes it’s firebombing a McDonald’s. Sometimes it’s damn I can’t believe you’re still this basic. And sometimes, as in Khadijah Queen’s chapbook Exercises in Painting, now available as an ebook from Bloof, it’s so much flash and glitter and beauty getting thrown around that you could almost get lost in the creaminess of the language.
Make no mistake, Queen has plenty of things to say, and most of them will blow your socks off, or at least leave you wondering why you didn’t think of that sooner. It’s just that the perfection of her line breaks and the pithy beauty of her diction is so distracting (but don’t make the mistake of being distracted). There’s nothing temporary about this powerful and shit is about to get real. “I listened for the small voice,/ the undefended, I heard it break/ my glorious” ends one poem, a manifesto for the power of this that we are, dead or alive, on buses or rugs, pushing up a rug under which we’ve all been swept and which represents no obstacle because, as “She says, I am bigger than you/ & I grow in half.” You can’t read these words enough, literally: Queen’s poems are spare and beautiful and keep sending me back to the beginning, as fun as that long-ago metal merry-go-round. Reminder: you are “Overdue living the dream.”
Did you know that Yoko Ono’s daughter was kidnapped (by her father) at eight and hidden away in a cult for years? And when news of her surfaced, over a decade later, Ono wrote an open letter in which she said she loved her daughter deeply but that she would support her unconditionally, even if she chose not to ever reach Ono again, for which said daughter should not feel guilty? That is some radical motherlove. That is a higher awareness of a truth most of us can’t even imagine. That is some Jedi mind trick of violent elegance.
It’s Aquarius. Nothing you believe about Aquarius is true. Everything you believe needs to be examined. We are all to blame. None of our power is temporary.
And maybe, just maybe, one of these four books is just the violent elegance you need.