The Modernists earned their right to break tradition first by evoking tradition, then finding it unsatisfactory for the age in which they were writing. Postmodernists stretched the compulsion back onto themselves and bore the confession. Traversing the schizophrenia of styles and movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, a dominant attention has been paid to varying the incarnations of language for the writer to convey a more subjective impression of reality. For many writers, good writing is not just showing, but the telling as well, all of which crystallizes only in hindsight. Approaching Ariana Reines’s poetry requires a willing sympathy for her forbears. If the reader understands the catalogue of histories and canons that goes into her writing, it is obvious she has earned her language. Her pronouncements on excrement and blatant sexuality are wonderfully French and Symbolist, and she has appropriated such variances on this particular vocabulary and theme better than most American poets writing today. The limits of language should not be withheld for the sanctity of what constitutes a poem or Poetry, thus far a notion which represents the backbone to her linguistic approaches. A great and confident intelligence excites the work of Ariana Reines. Turning to Baudelaire, she finds a voice decrying a strain of decadence that overshadows Democracy, Capitalism, Love, Desire; in the French theorists of the twentieth-century, she finds distrust in what an author really is and the semblances between art and reality. On a fundamental level, her work gratifyingly and aggressively scrutinizes what the art of writing ultimately is. Reines has extended Confessionalism into a new realm.
But the aesthetic struggles between an all or a nothing—infinity and nothingness—symbolically bear the drawbacks inherent in Mercury. An opportunistic compulsion to overextend allows Reines the room to manufacture a poetic tome regardless the necessity in relation to the subject of poetry’s mystical properties. As the logic goes: if anything can be art, then a nothing can be art; therefore, as mathematics may be applied to logic, anything equaling art is mathematically unsound. This all-inclusiveness is ultimately unrealized for the purposes of the poetry in Mercury, if for no other reason than the outdated idea of the alchemical processes that may resound within Poetry’s aesthetic (Rimbaud’s aesthetic comes to mind). She has the knack of extending a dominating metaphor over the course of long works in order to establish a frame of reference, and the idea only reinforces a desire in Mercury to have the poetry viewed as this mystical reaching. It is a noble attempt however unrealized, for statements themselves do not stand in for artistic merit, as Reines writes in the section “Save the World”: “Poetry’s not made of words.” May it be as such; may it even be irony on the poet’s part within these pages to say so, yet the latter assumption will come as interpretation only through a subjective reading. Overall, the reader will see attempts at poetry made up of words rather than the intended objective.
Some places throughout the volume fall flat due to a sense of incompletion or, conversely, excess. The excessive poems dilute a compelling reading. Much of the work in this book could have been left out, and a slimmer volume of definitive lyrics would have made for a stronger volume. Reines is trusted as a writer thanks to her previous writing; her previous work, especially in The Cow, is remarkable for illustrating a deep understanding of the workings of language and how linguistic perception is appropriated by the conscious mind. Yet in Mercury, a little poem like “Gold,” which states in its entirety, “I want the gold / shimmer shimmer shimmer shimmer shimmer,” denies the reader a sense of necessity however potentially humorous its reach. Whenever one reads a line of repetitious dactylic pentameter as this, maybe King Lear comes to mind (“Never, never, never, never, never”), but little evidence supports the allusion. Without proper support, such an example distracts the poetry away from a central arc of the book’s aesthetic especially since the work tends to encompass many styles (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Lyric, Spoken, Dada, Narrative, Confession) and sources (email, chat, conscious writing, stream-of-conscious writing).
The impulse of Mercury is a logical and welcomed progression from her two previous works, The Cow and Coeur de Lion. Quite a few lyrics in Mercury exude the excellence represented in her other books. In “Arena,” Reines writes:
I’ve swept the floor
All the wood and leaves off the bed
Brackish semen fills the sky
And dazed bees browse my drooping
Though the poem takes a jarring turn in the subsequent lines (“Look asshole. I know exactly who you are…”), the ability to convert commonplace occurrences as simple as cleaning to a pastoral quality, with conscious attention to a beautifully rearguard vocabulary, assonance and alliteration, proves Reines’s capabilities. Considering the book’s epigraph which quotes Thomas Vaughan (“…the Chaos is generated out of a certain water”), and the understanding that the “certain water” is the element of Mercury, the conclusions drawn from such tension between the pastoral and the more urban/technological elements of contemporary society (emails, movies, music, etc.) help to augment the supposition between infinity and nothingness. The poem progresses in a healthy direction, furthering the tension between alchemy and empiricism by way of poetry and language. In a poem concerning a grandmother, “Bain Marie,” Reines writes:
Wind hisses through her boxwood
And all the white and all the black
Cherries are twins on her trees.
Fat carp fill her pond and bullfrogs
Groan around it all night long.
When she says the word
Cherry I see
The red bunions on her two feet describing
Every angle of her body in my mind’s eye.
Again, here the reader is afforded a glimpse of one of Reines’s best poems. Whereas in her previous volumes, such divergent qualities of the lyric proved successful due to the condensation of the final product, in a nearly 250-page collection of verse the “chaos” of which Thomas Vaughan wrote becomes too prevailing and slipshod of an occurrence. Vaughan’s epigraph continues: “The water [mercury] hath all in it that is necessarie to the perfection of the work, without any Extrinsecall Addition.” Implicit in his closing statement is that no additions are necessary, but subtractions and dissections may be. Otherwise, the formlessness of such a mysterious element as mercury, and alchemy or the spiritual as a whole, will yield incomplete results. ~RS