Christopher Janke has published a pretty book of poems. That’s obvious from the cover of Structure of the Embryonic Rat Brain alone: a mauve and purple tangle of presumable neuronal matter brushed with green. Fence Books, always pleasing with its designs, has cut Janke’s book wider than it is long and interspersed his poems with eye-catching doodles. If you flip the pages fast while staring at the lower right-hand corner you’ll see a rat put through its paces. This book makes it clear from the beginning that it intends on giving tactile pleasure while stimulating your mind. Like those famous lab rats pressing levers for cocaine, this book wants to keep you turning its pages.
Pretty continues into the poems themselves. I suspect Janke wouldn’t like this word – he’d probably prefer “complex,” “multi-noded,” “myelin-coated,” or “meiotically bold.” As someone delighted by grammatical skewering, intriguing page-jumps, and the abolishment of articles though, I call them pretty. Strikingly beautiful even, if you will, as in Janke’s opening words:
What kind of knife? What kind of throat? What steel? Who cuts the warp?
Who scissors through? Who pins the paws? What kind of pins? What color?
What creature? Who slices a head? What gory miracle? What unanimated
gelatinous – dead-pink & fatty. What kind slices? What kind
peers? What kind slices?
Right away you see the word-play. The eventually-dropped article establishes one of the book’s liet-motifs, the ambiguities at work within language: Are we establishing the type of slices or their dispositions? Insightful play and turns-of-phrase that tunnel into one’s own ratty brain stud the rest of Janke’s pages. What impresses me perhaps most about Structure of the Embryonic Rat Brain is Janke’s ability to craft precise, jaw-clenching descriptions from strings of strong words juxtaposed in unexpected ways. What seem like mere lists of words and phrases collectively assume their own breath and intensity. Meaning seems buried just under the surface, inexplicit yet undeniable. For example, take these lines from page 11’s poem: “O people of the desert, of the flood, of desperation and groping with intangible hands.” Feel the Biblical catch there? Wonder about the hands?
When this approach becomes most dedicated, it risks the peril of randomness. A reader may lose patience with the occasional indulgences of seemingly-silly combinations such as in “o great hyperbola, o great and slippery dog from which the earth has descended with its giant purple eye, with its prairie for the multitudes of buffalo-angels and hippo-angels with the what-spark in the center of the brick with the glimmering hyperspatial relation between a woman and her town with the castigations.” Luckily, this is a minor pitfall into which Janke seldom falls. Instead, his references indicate profundities as yet incompletely mined. He makes us want to look closer, through the telescope of language, at the things we are still trying to name. He makes us want to speculate.
And then there are the rats. Muted rats. Brother rats. Rats subject to the “theory of squish.” Rats who dream. Rats in the stars and stars in the rats, and the rats who think of you when you are on your earthbed thinking of them. Read page 35 for more about rats, and a demonstration of how Janke forces the noun to carry numerous kinds of weights, meanings, and pressures. This is how a very clever rat might subversively reassemble gnawed bits of scrolls, histories, myths, suppositions and scientific texts of all sorts and dates.
Which brings us to the book’s title – what does Janke mean by it? I’m not even going to conjecture. I’m going to let you find out for yourself, with the injunction that you should. And I’m going to leave you with more of Janke’s first page: “The mind, my horse, I, its awkward saddle, leather-riven and awl-holed, my seat a shining star of sludge, dirt and oil, muck, how I move my arms, how I reign.”