Toxicon and Arachne by Joyelle McSweeney / Nightboat Books / 9781643620183 / 112 pages / April 7, 2020
From the author of The Necropastoral (University of Michigan Press 2015) and Percussion Grenade (FENCE Books 2012), comes a new book poetry. Joyelle McSweeney’s Toxicon and Arachne (Nightboat Books 2020). The first collection is a frenetic work of mossy and poisonous beauty. The second is a work of immense grief and suffering, coming after an excruciating event of trauma.
Both collections are incredible works of a simultaneously ecological and technological poetics.
Toxicon is a frenetic and textured landscape. Its first poem, “Ars Poetica” playing as a kind of introduction to / summoning of this locale. “I wanted to unlock the geode. I wanted to press it to my skull. I wanted to go / right through the temple. Bedazzle my occipital.” McSweeney expertly weaves between the mythological, the bodily, the technological, and the earthly. Each poem is a barrage of language, everything that has festered and fermented in the mouth. Bubbling until the tongue lifts and the words must come out. Flowing together as this free-form of colliding stanzas and imagery. Illuminated at the moment of half-formation. In transition. As one line was about to become the next. Language moves through generations / iterations (liken to McSweeney’s concept of Bug Time from her book, The Necropastoral). Each line suffers / enjoys a great brevity. Only lasting for a moment under the reader’s gaze. When it ends, another line begins to form. It builds from the foundation of its predecessors. “A warwound smeared with lipstick / a gutwound smeared with marching powder.” Utterance is a burden / salvation which often devolves into lists and half-formed syntaxes. The fracturing of semi-natural structures. The bridging of one landmass to another via the similarities of their names against the palate. Toxicon is a beautiful work navigating the poison-soaked mouth of the poet. Mapping a landscape of dampened soil and broken phones–leaking data.
Arachne, the second portion of this double feature, is a much slower and more methodical work. Coming after the death of the author’s thirteen-day old baby (who shares their name with the title of the work). It is a book of immense grief. “Catastrophe what crowns me.” It is the preparations for a journey to the underworld. The gathering of certain tools, objects, books. This desire to revisit and see her baby once again. Other scenes find the poet-speaker navigating through the same landscapes that occupy Toxicon, only now with less fervor. Finding them to be a kind of prison, something that holds the body here on earth. Away from Arachne.
“I want to either look pregnant or like I never had a kid in my life.” Truthfully, I do not completely know how to talk about a book like this. Which is so potently formed by immense and honest emotions. The author’s grief and suffering are so present, so heartbreaking to witness. To experience them here, so distant from the reality of the situation, staring at what has been transcribed. There is an incredible truth about this book. Arachne is a corporealized object. It is something tethered to its creator. Imbued with their being. Slow and dream-like. Hovering over near-memories.
Together these two works form one cohesive text. Toxicon inhabits a larger portion (about two-thirds of the space allotted) but neither text feels all that much longer than the other. The former is technically longer, but it moves with a babbling and frenetic pace. The latter is shorter, but it is also slower and I find myself taking longer on each individual poem, contemplating the content in real-time. Arachne subverts and elaborates upon Toxicon. Toxicon sharpens the cuts of Arachne. With these two texts—this book, Toxicon and Arachne—Joyelle McSweeney has created a work of incredible honesty, exploring suffering and trauma through the lens of the necropastoral. This landscape of moss and bugs and dilapidation.