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Samiya Bashir, Field Theories.

Samiya Bashir, Field Theories. Nightboat, 2017.

In physics, field theory is a way of accounting for physical phenomena in terms of a field (where a field describes a space governed by a delimited set of rules and forces) and the interactions among fields and with matter. In Samiya Bashir's Field Theories, the theories, and the fields they reach for, include not only the magnetic, gravitational, and electrical fields one might expect, but also America's troubled racial history thought as a field, fields of influence, fields of human relation. Bashir thinks all these terms through each other and, by recasting lived experience in the terms of physics and physics in the form of the material details of human life, opens new ways of thinking about each.

One of the primary ways Bashir produces this recasting is her titling scheme--many of the poems have titles that use physics terminology and concepts. The book is broken into roughly eight sections, each headed by a quote from a prominent Black public figure, overlaid on a grayed-out and tilted version of the Planck equation in the background. The sections follow a kind of countdown through the laws of thermodynamics, from "Consequences of the laws of thermodynamics" to "Zeroth law," punctuated by three historical persona-poem sections all titled "CORONAGRAPHY." The poems in each of the sections have loose but traceable relationships to the physics concepts from which they take their names--the poem called "Second law," for instance, deals with the frictions and losses of force that come with time, labor, and difficult love relationships, "spent matches with burnt-out / love--," "print / disappearing disappearing." The second law of thermodynamics dictates that changes in entropy of a given system can never be negative; systems tend to move toward increased disorder over time. Other representative titles include "Carnot cycle," "Planck's constant," and "Radio Wave," a poem interested in traversing time and space ("across the road"; "sail"; "roamed"; "nomads") and whose references range from "black holes" and sailable "starlight winds" to "Eocene camels," "damp desert nomads," and "the radio." Like the radio waves (and radio and waves) of the title, the poem's thought travels freely, invisible but consistent in its frequency and the choreography of its stanzaic patterning (consistently three lines, which gently get longer as the poem continues).

Bashir's graceful and idiosyncratic rhythmic and sonic sensibilities are part of what makes the poems energetic and a pleasure to read--they're a study in high craft done with a light touch. Though it's difficult to locate how Bashir does it exactly, I would say some of her major tools are heavily enjambed, short, spare stanzas (frequently couplets) and a consistent use of near rhymes, assonance, and consonance punctuated by moments of heightened sonic density. The degree to which the poems draw attention to their own sonic crafted-ness feels thoughtfully modulated throughout both individual poems and the book, and is part of what produces a feeling of effortlessness and grace. Bashir doesn't do what many poets invested in craft do, which is to say, she doesn't constantly insist that we notice that work is being done formally. I'll point out two examples that help clarify, but mostly one gets a sense of this effect by moving through longer sections of the book. The first example is from one of the last poems in the book, "Zeroth law," named for the thermodynamics principle that specifies that relations of thermal equilibrium work transitively. If A is in equilibrium with B, and B is in equilibrium with C, A is in equilibrium with C. The poem, similarly, uses a kind of 2-3 modulation in its sonic patterning. I quote the entire poem here to exemplify Bashir's craft and also because I think it's such a beautiful poem:
    When leaning on the backyard beam
   beneath a full wolf moon and my slippers
   shiver under my nightdress as I happen
   upon a reason for waking call it a snowflake
   a belly-flop blue jay or even my own small toe
   peeking through a not-yet-hole as it fissures into
   my slipper's future and I'm not out for a jog or
   to find a misplaced piece of scoundrel lover
   but to marry my morning coffee to
   an old cigarette to the new blue-gray light
   of an icy pacific year in mid-set
   See how they swinghold hands and raise the sun?
   Hey, you! Bluebird! Whatever will we do
--with all of these merciful gifts?

Often, two words sharing a vowel sound (e.g., "leaning" and "beam" in the first line) will occur close together, and then a later section of the poem will repeat this sound (e.g., "beneath" as the turnaround word in the second line), chiming across the poem's lines and stanzas. Similarly, the first stanza ends with a strongly emphasized "-ake" sound: "upon a reason for waking call it a snowflake," which the next stanza picks up as an echo in the long "a" in the "jay" of "belly-flop blue jay"--"jay" heard loudly because it works as a kind of landing place after the three modifiers preceding it. The effect of this is a smoothly transitive linkage--we hear the linkage of "leaning" and "beneath" across the line break, like two systems in equilibrium with each other through their relation to a middle system. Similarly, you can hear the linkage of "waking" and "jay" across the stanza break, sustained in their relation by the shared middle term. Also, like "belly-flop blue jay," in this poem (as elsewhere in the book), Bashir will often formulate highly compounded nouns--"misplaced piece of scoundrel lover," "new blue-gray light," "a not-yet-hole," "icy pacific year"--which have an effect similar to Hopkins's sprung rhythm and concentration of stress (e.g., "dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon"). They function like prosodic intensifiers, which Bashir balances with smoothed, lower-stress regions around them. The effect is what might be called an elegant rollicking, as paradoxical as that might seem. It's a rhythmic intensity that is unpredictable, resistant to monotony, a pleasure to think with. Bashir cites great blues and jazz artists and critics in the poems, and it's of course hard not to place her work in relation to theirs, and perhaps also in relation to Charles Olson's notion of Projective Verse and field poetics--by attending to the rhythms of breath, and engaging speech where it is "least careless--and least logical." Bashir finds an intuitive and energetic way through the poems.

Bashir also develops rich networks of consonantal patterning. Briefly tracking how they work can help draw out some of the ways one can see "fields" operating formally in her poems. Here's the ending from "Planck's constant":
    the sun went down forever so
   what else made sense but to
   climb one another hand over
   hand and cleave to whoever was
   left and near enough and would?

The couplets are very comfortable with leaving dangling connective words ("so," "to," "over," "was") at the ends of their lines and with delaying closure of the sense unit to the next couplet, which, combined with the internal sonic balance of the lines, produces a kind of forceful but casual propulsion from couplet to couplet. Also important here are the subtle and nested consonantal and vowel patterns--there is a remarkably high frequency of words that use "ve" ("forever," "over," "cleave," "whoever") and each of these words also participates in networks of vowel patterns happening in the section. These networks make the "ve" words feel like nodes where patterns or fields, if you will, intersect, lifting them higher in the reader's attention--there are a lot of long "o" sounds in relational words ("over," "so," "who," "to") that draw them together, and many short "e" sounds as well ("left," "sense," "-ever," "enough," "else," "went"). And though these sounds are common enough, their repetitive occurrence here, in ways that circulate around the less common "ve" words, produces a fluid but perceptible field--a space defined by delimited rules, a space where movement is possible. I think this ending is so satisfying and effective (as many of Bashir's endings are) partially because its last line, allowing for a "headless" catalectic first foot, also crystallizes a ghostly iambic patterning that floats around elsewhere in the poem--"--left | and near | enough | and would"--the line falling into iambic tetrameter. The effect is at once one of closure, as the pattern rises to the threshold of perceptibility, and also springing-forward--iambic tetrameter being often the energetic meter of children's rhymes and 4/4 song lyrics.

The last line also asks for a flexibility of sense-making that produces a kind of pleasing intellectual swiveling (also something Bashir does well), which I think is available to experience as itself a kind of motion. Specifically, I refer to the lines "cleave to whoever was / left and near enough and would": in this formulation, "left," "near enough," and "would" all ask to be read as modifiers of "whoever." But they are quite different words, both in the implied relation they produce between the "whoever" and the world, and in the degree to which they resist their grammatical status as modifiers. Whoever "was left" suggests that the participation of "whoever" in the cleaving is the result of the world's action ("whoever was left" suggests simply a state of affairs--the existence of the whoever is a marker of what has happened in the world). "Near enough" suggests relational placed-ness; "whoever" may be identified based on their position (in a field of action) relative to the speaker; we think their identity relationally. And then, finally, "would"--here the "whoever" is summoned as an agent, they may be identified based on their inclination. But the formulation places all these terms on equal footing, forcing the reader to encounter them in the same framing and to think quite differently in order to make sense of each of them. In so doing, the line seems to point to the fact that the action of sense-making might really be described as understanding the relational field produced or suggested by the behavior of the terms within it. The friction between the identical framing and the kind of sense-making each word asks of the reader makes the fields of the poem's form perceptible. That's to say, it helps to show, at a granular, formal level, the complex ways one can project relation through language, and how the "world" and/or the "I," can swivel into and out of place as the frame of reference, the field of orientation.

In addition to enriching the ways one can think about human experience under the sign of physics, one of Bashir's major projects in this book is to think about how race, and the ways Western colonialism and capitalism have operated to produce and then to exploit race, affect the daily lived experience of Black people. History and race, in other words, are also fields for theorizing here. For example, "Law of total probability" notes--through a text riddled with white holes (blank circular spaces that partially obscure the words--perhaps recalling the scattering and reflective "white bodies" of physics)--that "i cross the street away from cops of / my being black." The "CORONAGRAPHY" series represents two lovers struggling under slavery, with the term "slavery" louder for being unspoken, as one covers the sun in a coronagraph to be able to see the fainter light at the edges. Or consider the ways the texts ask the reader to hear or perceive the human "Black body" in poem titles like "Blackbody curve" (a physics term having to do with the amount of radiation emitted by a black body, in physics an ideally absorptive entity from which no radiation escapes). Field Theories makes its reader think about their own position in these fields, and how that position affects their possibilities of relation to the text. For example, about midway through the book, a poem called "You don't have to pump the breaks you just gotta keep your eyes on the road"--possibly referring to the 1980 South African Apartheid-era film The Gods Must Be Crazy--describes the nonchalant cruelty of "white people":
    ... Coke bottles falling from the sky to
   an old man's village and the white people just
   laugh and laugh and line up to pay and laugh
   and get paid and laugh. That's what they made.

Just a few stanzas later, a "we" (i.e., not the "white people" of the above-quoted stanza) emerges, a "we" that becomes increasingly present in the second half of the book. While Field Theories engages throughout with issues of race, it is at this moment that it seems to ask the reader most directly to think about the ways race and racism and history impact life not only in the abstract, but to think about where they situate themselves within these fields, to identify their own position in the field because, as the previously quoted ending of "Planck's Constant" shows, it is only in terms of the field that one can be in relation. More directly, the racially marked "we" here necessitates reflection on the politics of identification--can you identify with or operate within the "we," itself a kind of space or field?

What makes this work particularly remarkable and interesting is the way that, even as the poems demand that you reflect on and identify your own position (one possibly outside the first-person plural position they mark for themselves) they allow a movement-alongside and sustain a relation, one whose terms include an awareness of the multiple kinds of fields the poems work to make perceptible. You just have to stand, as a body, aware of the terms of the fields acting on you, to do so. Overall Bashir's book is beautiful, thoughtful, graceful, and strange. It is a book that makes the conditions of sense-making, the conditions of life in a system with an inherited racist history, the conditions of formal movement in a poem, available to sense in new ways.
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Author:Ihns, Kirsten
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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