(Canarian Books, 2013) 
The roads are / staggered meat,” Robert Fernandez writes in his second collection of poems, Pink Reef. The roads are? Yes, are staggered meat. The undercutting of ontological firmness achieved by the line break—and most of Fernandez’s new lines are stubs as much as they are starts—would be pure Fernandez, if the end of the poem,

                                                what is meat to
                                                sides of venison


                                                covered in moths?

weren’t it, the very beauty, puzzle, horror, super reality, that is at the heart of his style and hence of this series of untitled, usually one-page poems—poems fabulous with metaphor and consecrated to surrealist violence and voluptuousness. Fernandez is a rare poet in today’s scene, an all-out tragic poet, by which I mean not glumly defeatist, like many young poets today, not crazed or hornety with vexation at disappointment, but plain glad and horrified to be alive to die, to be corruptible meat, aware at every moment of the sacrificial nature of being flesh, being here, and being every moment thieved of existence itself, of one’s loves. Also, it is true, half in love with death ("we want to steal me away"). How confusing it is: “Chanel, don’t make me laugh I’m trying to die, I’m / trying to drive.” True, he, too, is often melancholy and disappointed, one of those, one of the boys whom life has got down. But in his case not because history stinks, but because life is in its very conception, so to speak, a bizarre contradiction, a trap of death in which life is caught and torn. What is it that ails thee?

                                                      . . . it is that we are alive
                                                      it is that we are fallow
                                                      it is that ecstasy’s
                                                      gas masks
flop
                                                      from beneath our ribs

This nullity is indeed one pole toward which the poems swing. But note that what the speaker minds, cannot get out of his mind, is the lack of an ecstasy whose possibility he has sensed; he feels the lapse from long “-low” to short “flop.” He would be Dionysian, seeing that he is forbidden to be idiotically happy. Would you “imagine / yourself / not . . . corrupt or / corrupting / rather joyful, / fair”? Sure; but “(O / Wolfgang ) we are / stilled before / a wall of speakers.” Fernandez, for one, however, speaks back. His imagination is all flair and flare, his fearlessly wild images rock the auditorium. Originality jets from him: “all’s ghost / & Lord / noise & / abyssal jet”—you can’t get any more deliciously creative than that with six words strung together with &s. The same poem ends, “I am . . . a rib of heat rising along / the opaque surface / of the water.” A rib out of joint? Rather, an already always jointless rib: in a sublime view, the end pre-appropriates the beginning; “red refrigerator-blood / fills me.” Fernandez’s images of isolated body parts dismember the body—he's a butcher boy—but at the same time urge on the meat and bones a life beyond disseverment, which is what those damn moths affect to do to the sides of venison. His scenes of horror, which include almost every scene he imagines, are loud with contrasts of values, including loud color contrasts: regenerating orange, expensive red, healing violet, versus unmodifiable black. Caviar: black; but, ah, "the red roe / of ekstasis" (the spelling a nod to Heidegger). Everything includes its opposite. Life rises out of death, indestructible, as myth knows, but life cannot be without its contrary. Alas, and exaltingly, it is all stomach-lurchingly one. The dualities meet uroborically at the beginning and the end. The Carnivalesque was never before this crazy and sublime. “Why don’t I just die, says Judith, / drawing a dozen roses ta- / da from beneath her ribs”; lucky Judith, to get to pull more life out of death’s hat and thus to enjoy relatively long lines. Fernandez’s style compulsively repeats its gestures, is anaphorically jittery, driven, and hopeful that the unknown, the “fair” surprise, will come, even if only “meat enough for us all for all of us lush / medallions” (the embedment of “us” in “lush” is a sign of appetite and an argument for design). “A shock of rain, an ecstasy of sudden passage”—if the verse moves fast enough, might it not also be such a shock, such an ecstasy? But then it would be over. Would die. Well, of course. In any case, the rush is further dizzied by spinnings, “spins the searchlights / that drift screaming (all my / Marilyns are trapped in the light / all my Marilyns . . . )”—here an elegiac, come back sort of repetition. On rare occasions, the imagery is all too reckless with regard to the natural relations of things: e.g., “pink reef—in one meaning, the brain, via “brain coral”—shedding under the tree, / snapping at masks”; but illogical mixes are its discovery, its nod to the Carnivalesque interfusion of forces. How determine taste in handling imagery in such an ambience, such a vision? A little fear is good, but excess is better than caution. Fernandez braves the test and compounds the risks through syntactic splits and shifts of rhetoric: “I will follow / after the bright / seeds of marrow are / shaken from the thigh / & the thigh placed / on a stick in / the faceless gallery / I will devote, / for thou hue / thou gravel / thou hearse— / the blood oranges / so bright / because they are against a white / background / the blood oranges / so bright,” etc., in a final stuckneedle ecstasy of seeing ahead of time a determinate, heartening spectacle—a benign contrast. The consummate wisdom is that you are what you are not: “take a lesson / from what it means to say / what you are not (what you are).” In other words, you are all and not all, “heart flexing on a trident” and everything you hunger for, you are “the great grey owl's / shirred // facial /disc // everything / swivels & // slips / everything // shines.” Nietzsche, meet your latest consociate. A worthy one. This is a book Rimbaud and Césaire might have read with a shock of recognition. 

                                                                                        —Calvin Bedient 

 

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