Violently Dancing Portraits by Arvo Villars, recently published by selva oscura press, is a gorgeously intertextual, experimental Caribbean-American lyric fantasia in two parts. Each section, titled only by number, is carefully constructed to fit together as closely as implied by the table of contents—which is carefully formatted as a dense block of text, marking the separation of the two parts only by putting the numbers “one” and “two” in bold. While the two sections both deal with a wide variety of subject matter, always foregrounding the particular Caribbean-American perspective behind them, if pressed to ascribe a central focus to the sections, I’d argue that “one” seems to circle around the questions of art and artistic production, while “two” is about the troubled space of gender and sexuality under the regimes of racism in the United States.
With titles like “the poem,” “the dancer,” and “lyric” in the first section, literary and artistic subject matter is on clear display, refracted through the poetics of the collection. Right from the beginning, the very first poem, “book of clichés,” raises the question of what it means to create out of the material of the world. This particular “book of clichés” is full of original and arresting images: “mages and whispering wolves / whose beating temples granted songs once a pilgrimage,” “a bottle of melted centaurs,” “the seams of a mime imploded” (p. 1). As an opening piece, it draws the reader into the book through its display of impossible transformations before dropping the reader off at “the poem.”
This next entry, in turn, takes its own form as its jumping-off point, to explore the conditions of meaning, declaring itself “quieter than the silence i am / in / as though my soul always / understood the language of repose” (p. 2). It then eventually turns to implicate the lyric “I” in the poem as both present and absent, closing itself by referring to “this i” (p. 2)—that is, something abstracted away from the pure assertion of the self, and instead taking on an additional distance to reflect on the nature of selfhood in both the world and poetry. This line of questioning and exploration continues throughout section one, speaking outwards to other poets, transforming the stuff of art into life and vice versa.
The poem “corrections,” for example, is dedicated to poet francine j. harris, and serves as a particularly vivid instance of this approach. To what does this poem offer “corrections”? It isn’t clear. Perhaps to proofs of publications, perhaps to incorrect information, perhaps of behavior. That writerly potential, reading the corrections as made to text, animates the dedication: these amendments are made in the other poet’s honor, placing the work of poetry on the world. Look to section v. of the poem, which opens,
i prefer wood to iron.
it’s not about the cactus.
it’s about land titles in tornadoes.
it’s about moonsets in eclipse.
it’s not about manna.
it’s about learning iron. (p. 9)
These six lines rewrite their own circumstances, repeating what “it” is and isn’t about, in order to shape the discourse around these “corrections,” solidifying the reader’s understanding by stages. Poetry and “aboutness” become governing forces, allowing the poet to “correct” the world as they would a manuscript by using progression and inversion (as in declaring that “it’s about learning iron,” as if to clarify “i prefer wood to iron”). The poem moves towards its close in these visual and sonic steps.
“corrections” is not the only poem for or inspired by someone or something external to the book, and these interactions are an important part of its operation, especially in “one.” In addition to the poem for harris, “one” contains a poem for Michelle Obama, inspired by film and fiction, and citing Édouard Glissant (an important Caribbean artistic and cultural thinker). These referents are broad and varied, constantly situating the poems in the world of both politics and literature. These, of course, are only those intertexts that are directly signaled—the rich landscape of the poems reaches outwards constantly, as when in “measures of worth” (a remarkable and expansive prose poem) we arrive at a “silicon valley of mythical gods & silicon alley of terrestrial philosophers” (p. 26), capturing the technological imaginary and its underbelly in the midst of this question of value. “one” is always making connections.
While the poems and construction of “one” are excellent, it is in “two” that the potential of speculation really makes itself felt. These poems dive seriously into the fantastical, and to great effect, right from the very beginning of the section. The first poem, entitled “a way forward” ends,
there my womb
for celestial levity
under a lawful tree (p. 39)
To understand the body’s “rebirthing” the physical material of the world as “a way forward” provides a compelling and exciting possibility of change. Locating that transformation in the body, “a way forward” becomes a remaking of the structures that shape and limit the possibilities afforded under that same “law” that produces a “lawful tree.”
Similarly, poems like “conch” and “in” take on the body in a variety of ways, with the speaker of the first declaring “i started sewing / bottles of dew in my breasts” (p. 41), while that of the second announces “the body is fragmented / it is neither flower nor land” (p. 49). In these poems, the speaking self works with and against the bodily form in order to take on the world, as the poems build up their images and demand to be taken literally. In both of these, the images of the impossible and the transformational assert themselves, in the process putting forward a richer world in which to live. Actions are taken for a reason and carve out possibility against the (largely unspoken) strictures that seem to inspire a desperate magic, strictures that are felt in the frequent invocation in the footnotes of the condition of Haiti in particular and other colonized Caribbean nations—especially those colonized by the French and those where their language, or a creole descended from French, is still spoken.
The poem that crowns this movement is “young virgin auto sodomized by horns of her own chastity,” titled after the painting by Salvador Dalí. This poem takes full advantage of its speculative dimension and ranges over the space of multiple pages, embracing the sonic and the visual in equal measure. The whole world comes alive, as if watching the woman of the title as she acquires expression and perspective. The lines echo in a haunting manner as they spread themselves out across the page, using indents and line breaks to expand each shift over both horizontal and vertical space. The woman in the poem manages to take ownership of her world even as she is cast in Dalí’s phantasmagoric self-violation, responding to him calmly and coolly to put an end to his attempts to author her.
After that, the final two poems of the collection serve as a sort of answer, also taking advantage of experimental form and visual expansion, “after church—mystic lagoon” answers Dalí’s painting with the painting of Haitian painter Edouard Duval-Carrié. This poem lays claim to its own haunting, refusing to let its plural voices be circumscribed as they identify themselves as emerging in strength from Haitian folklore. This bold move offers yet another facet of the collection’s thinking and rethinking of the shape of violence and its visitation on the Caribbean and on Caribbean-Americans. It achieves this through what the poem calls “the ritual of insistence” (p. 60)—which is, we understand, not available to the addressee.
The collection then finishes with “a quiet,” which, in two parts again, works to recapitulate and reframe the whole book. This final poem is cutting and elegant, as in part i., “contiguous ampersand,” where, about a third of the way through the section, it reads: “the solar oven will save us. microfinance will save us. the missionary will save us. bizango tell us the truth. gede tell us the truth. baron samedi tell us the truth. baron samedi give us hope. baron samedi i’m tired. make me a zombie” (p. 62). The colonial force of the missionary (and of the “developed” world’s efforts to shape the “underdeveloped” in its own image, as in the biting assertion that “microfinance will save us.”) is undercut, in this moment, by a kind of magic and a kind of escape—by the call to be made into a zombie, to leave behind and frighten those who would contain the voice of the poem, undoing and departing even as it cries out in despair. Abandoning hope in favor of the erasure of the self involved in becoming a zombie, the poem turns the moment of giving up, when even hope must be provided from outside, into a kind of resistance that takes the form of resignation. By giving up and asking to become inhuman, the voice of the poem unifies liberation and abandonment in a move that drives home the importance and difficulty of taking back the colonized self—and wrests final control away from the oppressors, who cannot control the zombie any more than they could ultimately control the poet.
Violently Dancing Portraits ends up being a great success: drawing on history, art, religion, folklore, and anti-colonial thinking, it puts them all to work effectively and elegantly, with footnotes that make the text more accessible without being distracting. The collection reclaims artistic production and embodied experience for colonized peoples by revealing both to be already exceeding the strictures placed on them by colonial oppression. The poems make the most of the sonic and visual resources at their disposal, drawing the reader in and forcing them to think with the poems as they work through the collection. While not an easy book—never shying away from what it has to face—it is a book full of magic and celebration, as well as the underlying devastation that goes along with so much of what is described. Villars has, in this collection, constructed a remarkable piece of thinking and writing that will be of interest to readers of speculative fiction and general poetry alike.