September 17, 2021KR Reviews

“Empire Gold” : A Review of Claire Meuschke’s UPEND

Blacksburg, Virginia: Noemi, 2020. 113 pages. $18.00.

Descent into the archive harrows the person who goes looking as sharply as it sorts the past, its present. To read against it and recover what it hides, the searcher has to develop ways of feeling, tactically, with its power, ways of pressing on the scar tissue of its incomplete erasures. Such ways of feeling also have afterlives. Suspicious, you might end up fingering the artifacts from your own childhood, a fan of gold paint chips, for instance, like lost relics, or rehearing the family myths about your grandfather, listening to the silences of the women.

Haunting archival recoveries give Claire Meuschke’s spellbinding debut, UPEND, its structure and its atmosphere. Studded throughout are blurry documents attesting to state violence, family loss, and the distortions of settler colonial language. The book’s ability to reframe what enters its pages sensitizes the reader to the torsions of language and the great pathos in artifacts, such as a newspaper article about a great-grandfather who “died (murdered)” in San Francisco’s Chinatown; the Angel Island interview transcript of Meuschke’s teenage grandfather; and Sherwin Williams paint chips from her abusive father’s painting business, rendered in black and white and quietly testifying to the ways language hides, sheens, self-indicts. “Classical Gold,” “Gold Coast,” “Folksy Gold,” “Empire Gold,” “Gold Vessel.”

Meanwhile, a poetic voice taught by teasing out those lost histories and trying to imagine the lives behind them, gathers also the very recent past. One poem borrows its headline from  SFGATE, “Stunning Angel Island Fire Seen for Miles,” and offers a plainspoken parable about the ways violence and occlusion echo through time. After the island’s notorious immigration station was retired, the reader learns the military “planted 24 acres of eucalyptus that expanded to 86 and invaded native plants,” which, being highly flammable, seeded the devastating 1991 Oakland fire across the Bay, where the speaker grew up. It is a poem that, like the book at large, cuts adroitly between distant eras, layers event on nonevent on white space, and dares the reader to reconstruct the calamities of earthquakes, fires, murders, and their violent passage into the historical record, as much as the labor, the language, and dancing that comes in their wakes. In lines that demonstrate just how much thought and feeling can inhabit in the silence between her stanzas, Meuschke writes, “In 1915 the military introduced mule deer for recreational hunting. // Surviving is everything after.”

These are hints, but it must be said. This is a book of great beauty, both loose and razor sharp, and a book that on its deepest level enacts and creates complex freedoms. UPEND often adopts the sanitized, passive tones of institutional language to break them: though the end of sense, like calamity, may leave us unsure who or where we are, “a boiling pot is water’s maximum freedom.” Meuschke’s title hovers between an uncomfortable imperative (such linguistic authority is always self-unsettling for this poet) and an as yet unconjugated verb, a future of disidentifications waiting to be set in time. Elsewhere: “A semicolon is clipped as a means to continue.” Such freedom as the book wins is difficult, unstable, bearing the trace of the structures it breaks. The book’s most visible emblem of freedom is the long and appropriately nameless poem in its center, a poem half disruption, half collage. In it, Meuschke recuts the insistent questioning, the many, “I don’t know”s, of her grandfather’s immigration transcript, into a slowly mutating constellation of “Q.      ?     A.       ” and variations of the refrain “Do you remember anything?” The poem preserves, poignantly, the archival photostatic quality of the original documents, making it seem as if Meuschke has reached back and, by opening its seams, repaired the record, put the questioning state itself on trial, and lifted the pressure on that scared, detained teenage boy.

It is a poem of wandering white space, which preserves, also, the small clerical marks that, tested tentatively from all sides, open into one of UPEND’s deep questions. The mysterious decorative “—oOo—” (crown? halos? altar? symbolic family?) that adorns the top of that immigration transcript, comes, in Meuschke’s meditations, to speak to the human drive for decoration, an excess of imagination, an indefinable supplement that sometimes rises to the level of beauty and can tempt us to gloss over the mundane violence that enables and occasions it. Refracting the symbol, Meuschke might read this possible angel against the angels in quattrocento iconography and consider the way the earth is broken to supply the rare and necessary pigments. Or her plainspoken voice adapts its level of imagination down to that of the anonymous clerk: “circle around the head to bring out the / head-like qualities of the head / shared air between here and the outer air.” But even this carefully controlled level of description slips toward a recognition of its complicity with other, objectifying languages of description. The poem concludes, with characteristic drift, self-revision, and focus:

words are empty space
stars cut sight
words are the central figure
surrounded by space
stars cut sight

words represent themselves as well as
the cut around the circumference of the head

in 1850 California
the state funded bullets for volunteer killers
the price for an Indian scalp
was at least 10 dollars

In a poem so concerned with visual patterning and the drift of analogy, the alien echoes of the last four lines, with their slant feminine rhymes—bullets, killers, dollars—read as deeply unsettling. History returns like a song you can’t get out of your head, dark and inevitable.

Though Meuschke’s approach owes debts to Saidiya Hartman, Layli Long Soldier, Robin Coste Lewis, and Diana Khoi Nguyen, her interrogations of ideology and language have a meditative rhythm of drift and focus that reads as deeply inhabited and utterly individual; these are poems that make tea and go to work and try to concentrate while the dangerous neighbor rages upstairs. It is one of those rare books whose unique way of seeing lingers, like a second mind, long after its conclusion. As Meuschke, a forester, stares at forest green (contemporary Yosemite) to “get cochineal on the page” (the Ahwahnechee genocide that enabled it), so the reader, turning back to daily life, is haunted by the afterimages, chains of resemblance and echo, many not without beauty, that continue to structure the language and practice of American settler colonialism.