FALL 2013 (Issue 80)

Adam Weinstein

Moving From: Jessica Baran's Equivalents

Lost Roads Press 2013
65 pages

In a 2002 article in The New Left Review, the political activist and anthropologist David Graeber, writing on contemporary anarchistic movements, argues that anarchy “is not opposed to organization. It is about creating new forms of organization. It is not lacking in ideology. Those new forms of organization are its ideology. It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks…based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy.” Jessica Baran’s Equivalents (inaugural winner of the Besmilr Brigham Women Writers Award, 2013) enacts a similar kind of resistance. While considering our interactions with each other, with our many selves, with our questions and problems—the poems multiply those interactions. Equivalents (consider “equal valence”) is an encounter, and the book is successful insofar as it recognizes the tensions of process, as opposed to definitive results.

Equivalents is broken into three sections, each a numbered series of prose poems. Most of the poems take place in an unidentifiable, universalized suburbia, a world of “leisure sports, leisure knowledge, leisure pets” (5). There’s a “twin bed where a mash of flesh vaguely copulates” (8), “a ceiling above, and a basement below” (7). It’s a world many of us know, and the poems contemplate “The anxiety of affluence” (10), where “History is cyclical” (18). Often there’s an edge of cynicism: “We’re all saving up for something, a kind of life we see in others that looks desirable” (12). But the poems never exhibit despair or distrust, never sneer.

The voice of Baran’s poems is contemplative, philosophical, and inquisitive. Sometimes the narrator is willing to make assertions: “Pestilence is a superior mode of survival” (3). But the book never anticipates arrival—that we’ll be any further along an ideological path than where we started. The first section begins: “I’m not interested in propaganda / The space where you arrived is empty when you leave” (1), and is punctuated with a final, blank page. The second section, titled “Dissonance,” which considers themes of documentation (in art, in photographs, essay), begins with “photographs of clouds,” in which “a subject never appears” (1). Baran wagers that horizontal movement—non-hierarchical and decentered—can be extremely potent. Where she is most successful is in her ability to enact that wager formally.

Baran’s poetics mirror the poems’ themes of absence. A beautiful sentence in the beginning of the first section—“It’s not what you expected: not the rich black burnt thatch long lost woodsmen cleared in a wood”—is a rush of (dis)connected adjectives (4). And in the second section, which considers documentation, the description of a photo—“Outline of light carving diaphanous nothing”—could be extrapolated into the book’s formal themes. The poem, “Like a photograph, which loses itself in its lack of evidence,” will tell “you repeatedly the wrong time” (20). But the photograph, and the poems themselves, can still tell. Both have the ability to say, as long as we remember that they are often about creating new forms of organization (a la Graeber). A poem is “A blank map charting air, dark as a closed closet” (22). But it’s a map nevertheless.