The r-hu, we’re told, is a Mongolian stringed instrument. We’re also told that the poems here were written partly in Mongolia—although, aside from occasional references to yaks and “the vertical black Arctic Ocean,” Scalapino seems less interested in describing locales than fluctuating states of mind. She combines dreams, story fragments, poems, personal and critical essays, explications of her own previous work, and responses to essays by critic Marjorie Perloff—and the result is . . . what? Most of the collection is in prose, although occasional line breaks appear in the text. In a section called “Seamless Antilandscape,” blocks of words pile up like “Warhol’s coke bottles.” A construction such as “hysteria light hysteria hysteria moon hysteria night” is repeated a dozen times with slight variations, unfortunately not adding up to much at all. Scalapino’s poetry has long sagged under a profusion of gerunds, passive verb constructions, and variations of the verb “to be”—at one point here she actually asks, “So how can we be being killed?” Those with patience for grammatical and syntactical eccentricities will discover many darkly beautiful, imagistic passages. Scraps of narrative float by: salt miners, guns that shoot digitalis, MTV, and murderous goings-on in some sinister, authoritarian shadow-world. In the latter passages, Scalapino alludes to the hierarchical (sometimes tyrannical) nature of language and thought while evoking Stein and Burroughs: “Requiring all individuals to be wired to receive incoming directives at all times, punished if the wires are detached—this dictate accepted because further demands were threatened if it were not accepted, but further demands were made anyway—.”
Demanding and strange, at times curiously affecting, more often simply infuriating.