Virginia Konchan, The End of Spectacle, Carnegie Mellon University Press,
Reviewed by Eileen G'Sell
The poems in Virginia Konchan's first full-length collection, The End of Spectacle, betray an Olympian quality, jumping ontological hurdles like a rogue savant. The natural, decorative, and utterly human splinter, mingle, and coalesce in a space where an emerald broach turns tumorous, where "[v]egetation is not love, is not life," but rather "the pleasure god takes in an onrush of green." Flirting with the baroque in a way both cerebral and soulful, these poems cross cultural and temporal dreamscapes to honor all who shimmer, shiver, and burn—from the likes of John Keats and Jackson Pollock to Coco Chanel and Karl Marx. To each Konchan grants equal gravity. Language as ornament, as spectacle, is always on full display, but never at the expense of the lives at stake, including the poet's own.
"Dear gray matter. Dear black matter,/ Dear hurdy gurdy of memory, drawing us back, and in." Here is verse so smart, so sumptuous, it reads like an Epicurean feast for the brain—Nabokov's Dolores Haze sidles next to Monet, Homer and Scheherazade hang with the quail eggs. Academe and Zsa Zsa Gabor become intimate bedfellows, tucked into lines where Latinate phraseology segue into a poem for Whitney Houston. "The reaper turned out to be lively," the elegy reflects, "tossing out ripostes like burgers at a fundraiser for teens." Lexical flips from the formal to demotic are the norm in this world, as are an appetite for paradox and a knack for rupture.
"Ideas are things. And things don't fare much better," we read in "Madonna and Child," one of many poems in the collection where a reflexive instinct merges with Christian mythology. "If the spine is an alphabet,/ I remain on the low rung,/," reads "Corpus Christi," "practicing my guttural moan./ Speak. Call the body back./ Roll away the stone."
The body is what it wants, but also everything it struggles to deny. "Touch me./ Announce yourself," says the speaker of "Love Story," "Now is the heroic age." Sex becomes a proclamation of apocryphal consequence, no matter how frequently—and inevitably—our bodies fail one another and ourselves. At the end of "Nativity," our speaker asserts that "the broken object in this painting is not my body, it is me." For Konchan, our frangible selves are at once abstract and corporeal, essence and fetish. "Crawl toward me, beloved," intones the speaker in "Albero Della Vita," "I am the earth and the sea."
The poetic voice is as restrained as it is selectively emphatic, swinging between ecstatic celibacy and headlong eros. "[T]here is nothing to eat here but rocks and snow," we are told by a speaker who then requests that we "disrobe and don this robe, of ermine and pearl." Even "the fat," we learn, "is the fat of decorative art," excess of the body conflated with the excess of ornament. In a later poem, the speaker will "abstain," an "icon of sublime indifference"—even apathy is a performance of glorious proportions.
In Konchan's lyric universe, consciousness itself is a kind of consecration. "You held my skull," the speaker recalls in "Amor Fati," "in your strong hands,/ saying, in earnest, my name./ And this is how a prayer/ is born, among the reeds:/ lissome as a song, crying out, let nothing/come between us./Crying out in vain." Physical tenderness may be a course to closeness, but never total intimacy—so, too, the world of the mind. This is a poet to whom dog-eared books do not "cry out" but "back," indicative of a speaker who plays the role of both hero and reluctant sufferer. The crying, in both cases, remains the same.
And yet, as life turns tragic, there is a kind of redemption in the spectacle of our daily undoing, a spiritual dog-and-pony show where the latter is leashed to a "glittering chain." To be deliberate, Konchan suggests, is also to deliberate, perhaps the only real choice that this spectacle affords. "I want a final death/ in my bolero jacket," reads a couplet from the poem bearing the book's title, "poised in my front-row loge seat, accepting/the violence of the track: hooves pounding,/ dust flying, emcee roaring, life-wound/ of becoming-object badly sutured by a quack/ doctor on the plane to nowhere, where I am instructed to enjoy,/ beatifically, the end of the sensible world." Swapping the sensible for the sensory, the rational for the ruinous, Konchan embraces the do-or-die as though either option is worthy.
Reading The End of Spectacle reminds me of Antonin Artaud's theory of cruelty, defined as the "appetite for life, a cosmic rigor and implacable necessity, in the gnostic sense of a living whirlwind that devours the darkness, in the sense of that pain apart from whose ineluctable necessity life could not go on." Konchan may "cry" or "cry out" at such pain, but hers is a hand that grazes the flame no matter how hot it gets.