by Lee Norton
31 October 2014
The second full-length collection by Calgary poet Nikki Reimer, Downverse (2014), resists the kinds of total claims that critics are in the habit of making about books. Yes, Reimer articulates her first- and third-persons in ways that do imply powerful critiques of poetic self-expression in the digital age. Yes, Downverse does serve as “a guide to modern absurdity” of the sociopolitical sort—especially in the phantasmagorical public sphere constructed in the book’s final sections, “that stays news” and “oil and gas and television.” But millennial angst is the substrate for Reimer’s humor, not its target. The idioms of digital “speech” and the mediatized perplexities of contemporary politics in Downverse are more DNA than objects of critique external to its operations. Reimer doesn’t talk about the ambient digital, millennial, or geopolitical—taking them as her materials, she fashions them into the arresting verbal artifacts that make Downverse a surprise at every turn.
One need read no farther than the collection’s opener, “prorogue,” to get a feel for the strategies by which Downverse will resist straightforward themes even as it appears to offer them up. The poem clears a ground for the “latter-day psalms,” broadcasts and manifestoes to follow with a series of disaffiliations:
Not hit not yell
Not shop not fuck
Not medicate not cry
Not be a better person
Not give in to base impulses
The net effect of all that denunciation is extraordinarily productive: If not—if neither/nor—then what? Each pairing declined begs the question, all the more emphatically because Reimer’s binaries, while they make a kind of intuitive sense, are not really opposites at all. It would be easy to write off the “prorogue” as yet another example of the parataxis-for-its-own-sake that feels endemic to a certain scene of contemporary poetry. But unlike so much of the incantatory verse to which the “prorogue” bears a family resemblance, here the unique weight and register of each impacted “not” resists being whitewashed by a logic of total equivalence.
As a third alternative to reading polemically on one hand and immersively on the other, Reimer asks her reader to adopt a strategy of recursive self-interruption. In “artists decline as a percentage of the workforce,” she turns interruption against herself in order to deflate the self-seriousness that threatens any claim about “what qualifies as enduring / art”:
the question is –
sorry floks! sorry,
Seems that the idea
is to redo stuff
Reimer is interested in cutting across this sort of rhetorically bombastic style, exploiting its potential for play (as in this example) but also, in poems like “television vs. the real,” overloading the exclamation point to discover an unease in the afterimage of blank enthusiasm that is ultimately quite sobering:
we watched Steven and Chris
who featured “your wardrobe for every decade”
but we were 29!
& felt conflicted!
as to whether we should be dressing!
for our 20s!
or our 30s!
In addition to these “loud” interruptions that Reimer interjects, the reader’s path through Downverse is troubled by a battery of nearly imperceptible hesitations, hesitations that register as so many double-takes and second guesses. Unpacking the hashtags of the manifesto mashup “the declarative, the dialogic: the decade goes pop” is halting work. Elsewhere, a section of “vancouverlament” presents what appears to be a straightforward erasure—but closer inspection reveals a more contested relation between poem and “source text,” as the “found” fragments appear to overwrite their source as often as they are lifted from it. In Downverse, Reimer is everywhere employing the ostentatious prescriptions of form in order to worry that unity with minute disjunctions: poetic jump cuts and dropped frames that harass the reader at the threshold of perception.
Throughout Downverse, we are brought up short by typos: “qaterbacks” and “floks” [folks] flock to the text with a frequency that charges the physical page with the virtual ambience of a chatroom log or a comment thread. That Reimer deposits digital speech in that highly-curated container we have come to know as the “little book” or “slim volume” of poetry accounts, in part, for the insistence and self-confidence of these slippages, which (not unlike the title of the “prorogue”) read like Saroyan-esque micropoems for the bathetic digital age. But while Saroyan’s works are suffused with an overdetermined aura of cryptic intention, here the emphasis is quite different. Read against the banal, exhaustive archive that social media creates as its byproduct—read against a high-velocity language game that renders error and neologism nigh-indistinguishable—Reimer’s poetry squarely emphasizes the way in which language is always and immediately its own artifact.
This may be a scenario ripe for satire, and despite its highly precise manner of articulation Downverse is capacious enough to thoroughly send up the absurdity of its moment. But its sculptural interest in the possibilities of portmanteau, typo, compound words and forms suggests a stubborn sort of beauty as well. Inhabit the style in order to explode it: the ubiquitous imperative of a certain pop-critical poetry is legible enough here. But if Downverse succeeds where other works in a similar mien do not, it is because Reimer articulates a counter-grammar to its own cliché-laden registers. What Reimer ultimately delivers is a poetics of conjunction itself, a poetics in which even disjunction is a form of joining. Downverse is the reliquary appropriate to this alchemy of joining, and the multifarious, obstinate objects you will find within it become ever more fascinating as you turn them over in your hands.
Lee Norton is a Mellon Graduate Fellow and PhD Candidate in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He serves as the Carolina Quarterly’s poetry editor. He studies models of organic form in biology and the novel after World War II alongside interests in film and critical theory.