Brooklyn, New York
Ugly Duckling Presse
At an Adamic level, humans have always, it seems, been destined to destruct or self-destruct. On an atomic level, the world once seemed scientifically determined to remain in certain composite, certain constitution, certain form or energy. Today, however, we know that to be untrue. Staying Alive, the most recent collection of bare(ing) poems by Laura Sims, is a documentation of sorts, a reckoning with the end as we may think it, predict it, and already begin to feel it.
This book was prompted by a particular chosen haunting of Sims by Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel, The Road. Sims’ poems recognize that once-fairy-tale and taken-for-granted object / totems become salvaged items for use, for memory, for sale or barter: “We gathered provisions: / A clock, a slipper / And a silver spoon” (24). But what need has one to tell time in a period without time, when Bergson’s duration becomes wholly internalized? What need has one of waiting for a mate, be it shoe or love or for life? What need has one for the once-symbol of wealth when what can be bought now requires more or less than cash, than credit?
But one would of course still need to acknowledge a passage, making world appear in moments, normal. One would need to continue seeking, searching for a fit to balance one in mind and body and environment. One would need a utensil by which to feed one’s self. One would continue to need, and it would become all the more necessary to stay, as in cessation of an annihilatory process and extinction, but also as in remaining, alive. These poems are predictional remnants, on the very etymological and definitional edge of “stay.”
Sims writes beautiful endings; or rather much of her writing is of ending, the gerund of it all, the absence of final end within the process of ending. For instance, in her earlier collection Stranger, a measured book after the loss of her mother, she writes: “The world / In the zero // Held / For a moment [. . .] (No / Carrying on.”
In both Stranger and Staying Alive, Sims leaves parentheses unclosed, unpaired, thereby rendering the parenthetical not more connected but less separate. Contiguity turns continuity. The side-by-side-ness of language, in Sims’ works, becomes more capacious, less dense with alphabet and bracket—more space, less marking, which ultimately allows for a loosening of a planar hold. The letters create a meaning that works with, as well as against the punctuational presence and absence. Her refusal to close this parenthesis, or end stop almost any line, for that matter, is a graphic mirroring of what Sims is doing conceptually with the poems, and with the story her work is telling. The end continues—be it her mother after death, or human or planet after its murder. There is always still a present. This poetic series in three parts follows and does what Derrida wrote about différance: “The text prompts us to examine the essence of the present, the presence of the present.” But are these poems apophatic or cataphatic? Despite all that no longer is, Sims is still a writer of certain affirmation: “Look // I am semblance / Of life I am // Shaped like a rock like dirt vegetation and urban debris” (44). In this one line, Sims captures the lush and the desolate, but before this line she has given us even more and included the foreshadow of end—she has given us biblical images of the irrigational, of the desert, back to back, in that order: “Radioactive ambulances apples // Hanging / In the garden” (39); “The growing desert / Of houses: // Words // Between a person and her soul” (40).
And since Sims’ work conjures Derridian elements for me, reading her writing—even reading her book Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, itself a one-sided, footnoted correspondence of letters from Markson to Sims, but none of hers to him—speaks to the integral question, too, of apophasis and cataphasis, as well as trace. I often ask myself if poetry itself is the primary example of trace. Very few poets seem to do the work that achieves this; Sims is one who does. The writing in Staying Alive touches this, what Derrida writes in “Differance”: “The trace (of that) which can never be presented, the trace which itself can never be presented: that is, appear and manifest itself, as such, in its phenomenon. The trace beyond that which profoundly links fundamental ontology and phenomenology.”
Like the female protagonist, who might be the only remaining person on earth, in Markson’s innovative novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (Dalkey Archive), the speaker in Staying Alive observes in the first person: “When the culture passed over / We bathed in its light in its feat in its / Mountain stream. We left mountains / Of carts full of junk behind. We bade them / Farewell. They bade us / Weep and know shame / They bade us be hard. / Without power, I wielded my body” (36).
In the afterword, Sims brings together Guy Davenport, science fiction, the afterlife, Laura Ingalls Wilder, stars and human molecular composition. It is a strong ending to a book that feels gravity-defying despite its weight. But I would like to look at how the poetry itself ends—its last lines—and let the words and their drop zones speak together:
“Dissent cannot undo / An end or // An origin” (from Stranger).
“We drew close to something then / We who don’t live // On this earth” (63).
(Thank you, Laura Sims
Mullin is an editor and writer residing in Des Moines, Iowa. She has a B.A. in English; an M.F.A in Creating Writing; and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought. Her poetry collection must (with drawings by Mariela Yeregui) was released by Nomadic Press in March 2016.