Okay. Of course, this isn’t 50 Shades of Gray. This is poetry, for one. It’s a collaboration between Brittany Cavallaro and Rebecca Hazelton, two talented and accomplished poets. And perhaps most importantly, it riffs not off of a tweeny bestseller but one of the most sophisticated, startling, and idiomatic literary works of the American tradition, John Berryman’s Dream Songs. The authors’ note that accompanies the result—a fine little chapbook from Black Lawrence Press—is lovely and simple and explains the project well:
We were neighbors, and we were poets, and so we met everyday to write together. Brittany had the idea of writing an opposite imitation of a John Berryman Dream Song, and suggested that Rebecca write an opposite of that opposite. It was a strange game of literary translation, and by the end, it was hard to know who’d written what. These poems are an homage to Berryman’s singular syntax and diction, and our own engagement with it.The poems, then, take the same title (itself an imitated opposite of a Dream Song title or first line) and stand left and right on facing pages. The corresponding Dream Song is not indexed, so there is a little bit of hide and seek that kind of adds to the thrill. Indeed the collaborative structure is hauntingly ternary, hence the game of telephone: we begin with the opposite by Cavallaro, which is then made opposite by Hazelton, the result of which is the supposed original but in highly distorted form. Berryman hangs just out of frame, “choreographing,” as Simone Muench’s included blurb puts it, Cavallaro and Hazelton’s pas de deux. His presence is a ghost.
This game of opposites has a microscopically unsettling effect that really makes readers think about how sentences and images are put together. But it scales outward, too, to the overarching feel of each version. The poems here are decidedly realized as independent works, offering their own idiomatic (and more contemporary) sense:
She, unsure, skittered to the middle to takeWhat emerges in the ‘oppositing’ collaboration across the chapbook are two sustained characters, one male and one female, usually in social settings. For as playful as the poems are, these social settings can get terrifying, just like in the Dream Songs. Here is a section from “Iron Brain”:
back her stories. This future, she said, is a bar
and now is a bar too.
She rummaged through the crowd
for the broken. Girl, one said, be upset,
all you make are decisions.
(“Linked to the Land at Low Tide”)
The forecast was a little dreadful. We tuckedAnd the corresponding opposite:
her in till she was tight, and begged and whimpered
to see her body.
The history dimmed then brightened. We drew backThe choral sense of interlocution is certainly a feature of the original Dream Songs and finds a new and satisfying expression here. We are never sure exactly who to trust—and this includes ourselves.
the loose blankets, and shouted and shouted
to see his brain.
But the most striking feature of these poems is, ultimately, their playfulness, and a great deal of the joy of the collection is in seeing how the speakers choose to opposite their source, and what new image can be made, since the choice is not always straightforward. Frequently, it’s pretty funny. For instance, who knew that the opposite of “Kyoto” is “Atlanta” (“That Rabbit was a Fraud”)? More seriously is how these poems play at polarities, our mental categories. In “Your Shotgun,” “feathers” become “fins”; “touch” becomes “abstain”; “licked bright” becomes “spattered dull”; and “I gave all” becomes “you took everything.” This last example is very interesting, for it is not the linguistic opposite but, perhaps, the emotional one. This is all to say that for as exact as the opposition can feel, it is also startling.
It is hard to say whether these poems can fit comfortably within these poets’ respective oeuvres—their initial draw is one of curiosity, and their categorical context is that of the exercise. But there is no denying, on one hand, the accomplishment of these poems as they stand on their own, and on the other, the artistic use and pleasure of seeing the exercise played out. Besides, originality has long been in contest in the arts—and here is a plug for Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius.
Instead, I will finally give Berryman his voice, and show you how richly these two poets can turn it over. Here are the closing lines from the more famous Dream Song, “There sat down, once”:
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,And from the opposite, “Could Not Make Good”:
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
And of the whole bodies, what walked back outAnd the opposite of that:
up the mountains, still drenched
in their ridicule? She doesn’t think. In the night
she steps around them in the hall.
They will all leave for the ocean again.
There are not enough hands to count the missing.
And what of the leg, the arm, what was tossed
down the valley, desiccated
in our esteem? He thinks on this. In the morning
he trips over it, over her, in the bedroom.
We cannot see the land anymore.
There are just enough feet to count her missing.