Through two previous books of poetry – Good Morning, Midnight (Roof, 2001) and Trama (Krupskaya, 2004) – and several chapbooks, Rosenfield has honed a distinctive style of literary collage, one that often atomizes its source material such that only fragments, or even single, singular words, point back to its origins, her sentences becoming, thereby, the spawn of some unholy communion of clashing discourses. These sources can range anywhere from medical textbooks to Mademoiselle-style beauty guides, psychological theory to amusement park tour booklets. The general effect is, surprisingly, not so much one of mocking the core discourses (even as her poetry subverts their authoritative totality) as rendering them musical – not melodic, but mellifluous, not bel canto but ambient. Her technique adds rich tonal registers to each prosaic phrase and turns even the most bathetic bits from women”s magazines, or the most turgid prescriptions from medical journals, into a synaesthetic element of the flow.
Her newest publication, re:evolution, from the Los Angeles publisher Les Figues, could almost be said to offer a theory of her poetics, as it playfully investigates the game of recombination – DNA replicating into RNA to further the species – focusing, however, most pointedly on moments of mutation, failure in the Darwinian struggle to be “fit,” and our own misconceived notions of how these themes play out in real life, where no one, in fact, is ever quite “fit,” and – singularity being the spice of subjectivity – doesn’t want to fit. Re:evolution moves from prose-like paragraphs to formal lyrics and back, dramatizing the very formations of base minerals into life and the dissolutions of “life” back to the soil. Entropy might be the key term here, as her words, phrases, even chapter lengths, can’t point to any ideal wholeness to work against, but rather dramatize the entire gamut of noise to information, fragment to sentence. Another would be panoptic, as Rosenfield examines this play from all possible angles – at one point, from the perspective of a cellular automaton, at others taking the bird's eye view from the top of a New York publisher’s skyscraper, partaking in “The contemporary crisis of an / engorged image spectacle / prostituting privacy.” These transitions – an aesthetics of “zoom” that moves from macro to micro and back again seamlessly – can be smooth or jarring, but the basic counterpoint, the illustrative tension, between discourses rarely moves far out of comprehension:
ATT CGA CGG
When chromosomes duplicate, molecules hang like dinner lamps. Then two neophyte molecules form and identify their origins. This is the whirl in which genius might be transmitted in general succession. The genetic message of DNA is content with these lewd sequencings.
Three base sequences codify together and when the basest sequence is treated in an amicable manner, it cries out for protection or protein.
Once there was an error in the duplication of DNA and one base element was substituted for another. The base sequence became lost, old, and aggravated.
Informational genetics stay flushed and alone from DNA gone straight to hell.
This is what we call “dogma central.”
6. The structure of genetic material, the acid of desire, nuclear, is based on an after-structure uniting phosphate and sugar alternatively and turning to the left.
This excerpt gives a good example of Rosenfield’s style throughout re:evolution. Simple declarative sentences, in normative, prosaic syntax, set the base tone, even if, in fact, most of her sentences don’t quite parse. A sort of knowing, hipster sensibility undercuts the trajectory of sentences that are set up to only give up their prize at the end – it is there you will find the “lewd sequencings,” or “dogma central.” Rosenfield also has that casual Surrealism, manifest in the pitch-perfect non-sequitur and naturally deflationary affect that characterizes much poetry of the later New York School. Her lyrical “I” is never quite not Kim Rosenfield, carnival barker and perfume saleswoman, and yet – pinched from different sources – it is Kim-inflected general, abstracted “I” (an amalgam of “I”s created through strategic eaves-dropping) that lifts her work above mere solipsism. It is poetry that still sounds like it’s talking to you; perhaps, more accurately, it’s what a general textbook or manual would sound like if it were trying to be your therapist at the same time. It’s personalized information – and isn’t that what the internet, sort of, is?
The clinical tone allows Rosenfield to address any number of issues without seeming maudlin or confessional. She asks of the “spirit” that grants life:
When the baby enters the birth canal
does a disembodied spirit go in and pull
a switcheroo? (26)
The word “switcheroo” seems addressed to the child itself – archaic but still part of the general vocabulary, it’s a word an adult uses to explain an adult concept to a child. It’s not clear who’s asking this question, but again, it is a fine example of Rosenfield’s seemingly anti-poetic stance offering us, at the very last moment, a moment of hipster delight. Lingering underneath these playful musings about serious things is a sense of trauma, and it is to a traumatized person that one would want to utilize euphemism to avoid potential psychic land mines. Allusions abound to meaningful life events that are conveyed in a disembodied tone; something has suffered in this book, but the panoptic, scientific worldview that countenances neither will nor spirit has no language to anchor this pain to a single person. Trauma – female sexual trauma in particular – is alluded to but never explicitly stated. For example, “Sexual incidents should be regarded as we do mumps and chicken pox,” or “Gender is datum and we suffer for it.” At times, the poem seems to be offering a diagnosis for an unknown – variably psychological or physical – ailment:
It is founded in a natural instinct
It is founded in a desire for cleansing
It is a form of sexual gratification akin to masochism
It is a form of sexual gratification akin to exhibitionism
It is a form of devil-phobia
It is a form of power-complex.
The very absent center of these musings – each successive “it” neither fully cancels, nor fully confirms, the possible referent of the former – is the absent center of all of our musings about the body, as the language of information – of description, of diagnosis – will only ever be able to hover above the self-warring, ignoble, solipsistic, questionably motivated thing that is the body itself.
Who is sealed out?
People, are they different from stones?
Their lived-in worlds do they live-with?
Is it excitement like violence or ho-hum I’m not aroused? Is this what is called ontological?
The rip-roaring final chapter of the poem, titled “Denouement,” states it most forcefully, right down to the naked tautology:
Freedom nestles in a human context.
Freedom is falsely conceived as a lovable abstraction.
There are lovers of freedom and lovers of freedom—O! The differences to me.
Freedom is linked to human nature that has a million years experience as a cruel animal, a dirty beast, a sadistic hunter, a vicious warrior, a shameless robber, a merciless exploiter, a cunning flatterer and liar and four-finisher and charlatan. A savage bent on canceling humor from the world by encasing his hairy self in evening clothes and learning to manipulate language. A child full of tyranny and tantrums and egoism and provincialism. A creature properly called homo apien who only the day before yesterday, possibly a day before that, was known as Pithecanthropus erectus, a simian son-of-a bitch who has been persuaded by a few exquisite-minded men and women, saintly variants, wonderful mutations, (beautiful mistakes on the part of evolution) to practice an unrestrained freedom, an uninhibited laissez-faire to go forth and do with life what the impulse of the moment surreptitiously invites.
(Impulse is the most beautiful force in human nature—when it is. It is the most evil force of human nature the rest of the time.)
The kamikaze drop-in of that unmarked qualifier – “When it is” –demonstrates a sort of recursive heart to everything Rosenfield seems to “propose,” drawing any sort of vector of statement back into itself, Ouroboros-like. Indeed, in a concurrent publication, the chapbook “mission in poetics: Kim Rosenfield’s Integrated Mission,” which mimics a pamphlet by a new self-help guru named Kim Rosenfield, we are once again immersed in a world of feel-good, pseudo-scientific propositions and soothing, Muzak meters, never quite sure where proposition and parody meet. This time, however, the targets are small lexicon the laity in subway self-analysis. As she writes in the introduction:
These pages give us the framework that animates these new developments in integrated mission. They tell us not only something of what is happening around the world, but also why these things are happening. These pages remind us to care for the total person and to our calling in society. These pages highlight the fundamental concepts of care, community, change and hope – concepts that are at the heart of every form of integrated mission. These pages therefore have something vital to say to everyone.
Rosenfield’s charismatic, charged collage poetics and agile, puzzle-laden ventriloquizing – in which we are never quite sure when nature, nurture, or the New Yorker is scripting Wonderland (or Disnleyland) for our distraught Alice – keeps the reader poised on the precipitous edge of these important questions while smoothing the ride as we rush over it.