Reviewed by Douglas Piccinnini
“[M]ost not alive, I wasn’t afraid to die,” affirms the speaker in “Civil War,” from David Lau’s first book, Virgil and the Mountain Cat. “Civil War,” like many poems in this collection, maneuvers with razored precision through contemporary and historical dramas. Lau approaches his subjects with quick, lean, gestures and offers portraits of civilization doubled over, brought on by what seems to be the effects of late Capitalism. “Civil War” begins:
I read, I write, I hate my life word after word.
Telescoping Mercury remains
a Septembrist in burglary,
eyebrows an overthrow
spring, snaky splinter
signal to another season, oppositional
turn back on the first day of the new?
The more mortal each jealous mischief/
All men are murderers the more the uneaten
fell out of charge as poems without words
(& i.e. etc. / CSPN e.g. Enron
found in the anthology of aging aleatory broadsides),
Lau’s syntactical constructions and deconstructions surprise and deliver meaning in parts equally fresh and astringent. The enjambed second line of “Civil War” carries on for six lines and, while failing the needs of more conventional grammar and syntax, this movement achieves a kind linguistic acrobatics. In the first stanza, the interplay of the repetition of “I” in the long “i” sounds found in “I read, I write, I hate my life” shifts in the second stanza to the short “i” sounds and consonance of “spring, snaky splinter / signal.” This type of craftsmanship endures throughout Virgil and the Mountain Cat, and the result is an often-jarring collection of poems that resist ah-ha! moments and succeed in their ability to enlarge the dimensions of expressive language and communicate complex and elusive swatches of reality.
In “Going Out,” a runway of visions magnifies a pre-apocalyptic age, yet the speaker does not seem to exist on the precipitous edge of doom, but instead merely accepts the dysfunctional as a surrogate for normalcy.
You say nuclear; I say nuclear.
What kind of word is together?
On Cadmium dunes we treasure our Celts.
A plane to parachute from, a city: you want the radio:
if you want the radio for free charge the living: you have to,
ladies and dental plans. Sprig of mint
on the bib ineffective against further
spread of contagion.
In pain like a blouse,
this period is a peacock
in our history: drive the continent apart:
one lung left in the window
display of the BBQ restaurant.
Despite the loaded-gun feel of “nuclear” appearing twice in the first line, Lau manages a bit of humor in homophonically translating the formal address of “ladies and gentlemen” to “ladies and dental plans” and in doing so swings the mood of the poem (though the tone never achieves lightheartedness). Beyond the casual critique of “this period is a peacock / in our history,” “Going Out” continues to scrutinize what it means to exist in the 21st century. The poem’s later mention of the “[c]ity at the growth spurts of a city” and “your interior tangle of wires” suggests an imbalance between internal and external features of existence.
Perhaps, the burden of generation after generation of artists and writers is to feel as if civilization is at its most critical moment, a world wanting to snap off the orbital grid shot perilously into space. And though the end is perpetually near, Lau seems all too familiar with this burden, and successfully shrugs off the what-happens-after features of human egotism and instead navigates the ceaseless traumas of existence.
The book’s penultimate and title poem, “Virgil and the Mountain Cat,” points toward an empire at its twilight, flickering in however long its dusk may last,
I was thinking I would like to own this house. Then I fell. Under
hat, stone, cent, moss. Cranberry season into black smoke
season. Plus a knife in the branchy flophouse.
She was coming at certain daytime, with interest. We were getting
ready. Carried dishes that smelled like a hoax candle in the
empty room. Nighttime followed the switch the guards used to
guard everywhere it went on the mountain. As she, this changed.
Knew. Knew alert. Those alarums her boy had bargained to us.
The glow would lightbulb around his head as the sun banged
down the western slope. The newspaper headline reported foreign
container ships’ rust flakes profuse in the harbor. So we were
telling. It hadn’t happened yet.
As the shore sounded.
The portentous feeling, which lurks throughout “Virgil and the Mountain Cat,” is delayed in its fruition as the speaker notes, “It hadn’t happened yet.” However the final poem, “Jellyfish,” formally address the ostensible source of this feeling, and begins “Dear XX century,” and goes on to condemn the spineless 20th Century as an age that has burned in a kind of hellfire. “Jellyfish” continues,
no one can darken skies like,
have you even been in meaning?
the forest on fire grows and glows
with sediment gorges hauled by
the clinking antiquated chain gaff:
words are worms more than what it’s not:
“The Unnamable” “The H Age”
a fucking sick hello, hymeneal subjoinder
from the whole fire and the sick
Colorfully dense, Virgil and the Mountain Cat is a rewarding book that demands rigorous attention as Lau constructs and deconstructs his subjects. Much like an Abstract Expressionist painter, Lau uses a kind of mark-making to engage with the materiality of language, and explores the semantic and sonic possibilities of verbal and ideological expression, while avoiding non-representational babble.
A detail of Cy Twombly’s Tiznit (1953) aptly adorns the cover of Virgil and the Mountain Cat, and subsequent images of Tiznit act as gateways to the book’s three sections. In a rare, published statement, Cy Twombly once proclaimed, “one must desire the ultimate essence even if it is ‘contaminated.’” Lau neither insists on nor resists presenting “contaminated” or dystopic visions in his poems. The presence of Twombly’s visual cues reminds a reader of Virgil and the Mountain Cat of not only the gestural intimacy and immediacy of art but also its ability to provoke and disturb. Twombly’s graffiti-like scratches on the canvas convey the limits of the application of his materials. The effect in Tiznit is that of raw (though intentional) rakes of color, which question not only the formal elements of painting as a medium, but the medium itself. And Lau, like Twombly, achieves a heightened connection to his subjects in an almost violent application/presentation of his materials. And for both Twombly and Lau, this complicates their authorial connection to creation, as the act of creation involves a condemnation and/or a potential dismantling of their subjects, the medium and its history.