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Nikki Wallschlaeger, Crawlspace.

Nikki Wallschlaeger, Crawlspace. Bloof Books, 2017.

The history of the sonnet is, among many things, a history of a composure derailed at an alarming moment of epiphany. Despite the message being trammeled in fourteen lines, or in the period-specific coding of its medium, the sonnet's epiphany is based less in the form than in the activation that the form engineers. In the Petrarchan tradition, the sonnet is a dichotomous structure that plays on a balancing of inequalities; in the Shakespearean, it terminates in a couplet that ties together divorced rhymes at its endpoint like strings bridging the tongue of a shoe. In Nikki Wallschlaeger's Crawlspace, a book composed of fifty-five sonnets (some unnumbered, some missing), the sonnet is none of these things, nor does it care to be. Instead, the function, divorced of its form, is approached from an angle of vision that disrupts the sonnet's usual allegiances and skillfully deconstructs its historical baggage. Here, the sonnet is nothing more, nothing less, than an unlocked room, a deterritorialized space in which extraordinary incidents and minor violences might occur, or have already happened, if you look closely enough. As Wallschlaeger writes in "Sonnet (3)": "What is the difference between / a house and a mall really?" A critical difference that points at the deleterious effects of a metastasized capitalism, in which human interiority becomes perilously entwined with corporate sprawl: "You and your family can live here / pay rent and/or mortgage." The tenancy, in this case, is the fraught real estate of the sonnet space.

Wallschlaeger's incredible technique blueprints the sonnet's fourteen-line structure in several formally innovative ways, some lines longer and laden with decolonial insight, others breaking off toward alternate freedoms, to reveal startling lacunae or risky omissions in a rhetoric of United Statesian pathos. As such, Crawlspace should be considered a new entry in the tradition of anti-sonnets, along the lines of Ted Berrigan's, Bernadette Mayer's, and Clark Coolidge's postmodern sonneteering and, most recently, in the work of Sandra Simonds, Ian Heames, and Terrence Hayes, which powerfully redefines what the sonnet can assemble and do. In disassembling the form, Crawlspace goes further in interrogating and reconstructing the constrictions of a tradition complicit with what Wallschlaeger calls "the constraints of your oppressors."

Part of the beauty of Wallschlaeger's intervention in the history of a form is its construction of an unhistory, a turning-upside-down of a vessel that spills out the contents of an occluded discontent. In "Sonnet (8)," she writes that "we should all be oyster joyous & keyless / when we have our geometries managed / & the intersections waiting on tables / showing us how to be better at patience." In the widening gap between labor classes and derivative classes, and in the racialization that ensues, the career ambitions of everyday people are reduced to waiting for tips and promotion in the service industry, and it is in service to the crude reductions of capital's "layers & layers of prison care" that negativity is flipped (obscenely) into positivity. Wealth is whited out and wiled away, while silence and complicity are malignantly posited as a virtue: "we are going to be abundantly / pleasant & quiet on a payday afternoon." There are no persons or personalities here (not even personae): instead, personhoods, disconnected voices, instructions, and actions default or finish in irremediable frustrations. The joys are minor but consumerist: "My joy, privately owned." Pointing her weapon at the sonnet's cagey form, carceral capitalism rears its head: "The most crafted ending of all / is usually the electric fence."

Ultimately, part of Wallschlaeger's critique is about whiteness and its heralds, the historical investiture of prosodic form. Colonialist paragons are incinerated into blurs of white sameness: "George Washington's mouth comin at you / yappin some bullshit about honesty or was / that Abe Lincoln I dunno they start to fade." What Claude McKay had queried of the nation's "tiger's tooth" sunk into his throat in the sonnet "America," Wallschlaeger pursues in her navigations "about White Satan & the reign of Ira Glass":
    No boudoir photo in this country
   could convince me
   that America is the best place
   to fuck. Cities sprouting
   out of my skin & I tug
   at your famous teenage welts.

Wallschlaeger's polemic is a necessary one, charged by a deep knowledge of the hazards of whiteness in everyday life. Whiteness isn't (just) a person, a politics, or a color (the terrifying "visible absence of color," as Melville says), but it's also the invisible flag bearing the arms of the capitalist mechanism, the ideological whiteout that displaces difference and remarks on it in the same manner that people shopping at Target remark on the linen count in a bedding package or the argyle design in a cheaply and brutally manufactured cardigan imported from Sri Lanka. Whether a skin for the phone, or a template for the small business website, the whiteness of everyday life creates a crawlspace for the bifurcated, disaffected mind.

More importantly, whiteness is a zone of tensions and resistances where personal history becomes dangerously imbricated with colonialist, corny-as-fuck, hegemonic forms of thinking, which Wallschlaeger is asked, often forced, to adopt:
                      When I hurt I think about the
   racism of my white mother in rearview mirrors,
   who suggested I read The Color of Water
 & believed
   in the joy of Hattie's enslavement & how because
   of this I keep my blackgirl magic protected protected
   their souvenirs from this nostalgic scene: a brunette
   on perky roller skates pumping up the muzak gaslight,
   decorative plate ordered from Fingerhut, the iconic '50s
   inspired Coca-Cola kitchen set.

The everyday detritus of capitalist spectacle covers over the everyday casual racism of cultural assumptions and reconciliation fantasies. If it isn't the unspoken, yet heavily policed, codifications of race, it is patriarchy and mansplaining that arrest the speaker in the mire of the sonnet's assumptions concerning mastery and voice:
    You liked the book I was reading
   matched my blouse & said so approvingly.
   Girls with portable accessories then a gentle
   corrective in the authors I should read next.
   I'm wondering what you have in mind for my
   next set of outfits that rhyme with poetry.

The identification here of form with sexism, rhyme with "commercial femininity," effectively analogizes the tremendous "Weight grabbed onto/ into me" that Wallschlaeger holds up, tears up, and flings out. Wallschlaeger effectively dismantles the sonnet form, blows it up and distends it to its breaking point, as a way of disputing the tacit linkages between whiteness, patriarchy, and prosodic form. Although this might be interpreted to be an anti-traditional move, Wallschlaeger's use of the sonnet as a vehicle of feminist intersectional potential might be related to a long tradition of women poets who have used the sonnet to question male authority and heteronormative desire. As Lisa L. Moore has argued, the sonnet is a space that "often exceeds, reverses, doubles, or even contradicts" its syntactic and historical lineages because it is in the sonnet's "famous doubleness, tension, and sense of internal difference" that it performs empowerment through subversion and voltaic reflexivity, especially for women and queer poets in the Sapphic tradition. The sonnet, in Wallschaleger's hands, contributes to such a tradition, but also complexifies it in the inclusion of intersectional vectors that a sentimentalized (and frequently depoliticized) prosody might leave out.

It is in this spirit that the microaggressions of everyday life (patriarchal, racial, classist) are itemized at the level of the sonnet's lineby-line metrical finitude. It isn't enough that liberal culture makes room for new and marginal voices in the tradition of a form, but that these voices answer back at the presumed innocence of a "woke" gentry:
       That I've been refused service at diners in
   northern Wisconsin so I'm supposed to be grateful
   that you're liberal enough to serve me in a restaurant.
      That I'm nervous now about writing the line
   about Los Angeles and New York disappearing
   because white supremacy has a way of making folks

The secret life of a form might also be the concealed supremacy of a way of thinking, leaving out the exhaust of a burned-up margin only barely discernible in what the history of a form omits or undervalues. That "adding / a black cartoon princess is considered progress" is what Wallschlaeger wants to unpack and refute: it is not enough to copy or mimic a popular form (the belletristic sonnet as much as a Disneyfication of race relations), there must also be a total derangement of the polite capitalist sensorium. The final "sonnet" of the book ("Sonnet 55") implements this in a complete and excessive exploding of the sonnet form, extending itself like a wild growth running rampant through a field of carefully pruned flowers and plants, tearing up the ground not through desecration but through more and more growth, more and more sacred rage.

Ultimately, Wallschlaeger exhausts the sonnet form because she is herself exhausted: "I've been exhausted my entire life //1 hate telling you / how I really feel." Like the impactful Lucille Clifton quote that begins the book ("all of us are tired / and some of us are mad"), Crawlspace rehearses its conflicts and historical trajectories in a shimmer of intersectional resistance and "blackgirl magic." Asking "what of the world's municipal mistakes / that are stored in us?" the book carefully weaves together a picture of the "marked women" who "transform / ourselves. We are the wood violets & roses stretching in the rain." These are not sonnets; they're better than that: fiercer, freer, and loosened as the wood violet is of the murky ground. Held, yet uncontained.
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Author:Moctezuma, Jose-Luis
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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