For the last several months, I’ve received a healthy blend of encouragement, praise, and compliments, as well as backlash, complaints, and insults regarding the series of poems now titled This isn’t about Jon Ross, it’s about art. The critics varied from people I did not know well at all, such as other contemporary writers and students, to those very close to me, my friends and even Jon Ross himself. I think that on both lines of the fence, people agree upon what the basic premise of the book is. The more divisive point of contention is the motive behind the book and whether or not that’s acceptable.
At its most malicious, people interpret the poems as a sort of libel, an attempt to ruin the subject’s life, or to perturb him deeply for his refusal to requite my amorous intentions. Still others see it as a catharsis, wherein I was able to overcome my feelings for this boy by way of objectifying him and distancing him via writing. At one point I declare that his name no longer even seems to be a proper noun to me, but rather “a generic phrase for ‘boy who doesn’t text me.’”
The truth of the matter is that the Jon Ross poems, while certainly having come close to achieving both of the aforementioned tasks (kind of in an unforeseen and maybe a little unintentional way), were part of a project that went beyond my personal feelings or his reputation. Exactly one year ago, I was faced for the first time with contemporary American poetry. I had dedicated most of my college years to becoming an expert on Argentine poetry, but did not expect to be hit head-on by my compatriots in the pages of a zine I contributed to while abroad.
In the literary zine, Ceci y Fer II, Cecilia Pavón translated poems by Ariana Reines and Dorothea Lasky for, as best as I know, the first time to Spanish. Soon after, I was tearing through a .pdf version of Cœur de Lion and had family porting me Awe, Blake Life, and The Cow on their next trip to Buenos Aires.
Cœur de Lion struck a chord with me. I appreciated the idea of what is known concisely in Spanish as the poemario. While it can be taken to just literally mean “a collection of poems,” I find a vast difference between un libro de poemas and un poemario. For me, the poemario subscribes to the adage: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Cœur de Lion is not just a collection of poems, but rather a detailed account of the ins and outs of falling out of love. It’s the ramblings of a madwoman hacking into gmail accounts, describing with blunt force various sexual encounters, recounting run-ins with mutual friends and whining about old habits that annoyed her. What makes the book so enjoyable for me is how comforting these ramblings are, how much I can identify with this "madwoman." Emma (the other woman) doesn’t really seem all that bad to me, but I despise her nonetheless. And intellectually, I sympathize with Jake (the ex) as he seems to try to distance himself from the author, but emotionally I am provoked to hurl stones at his face and am relieved to have heard Ariana inform at a New York reading that both he and Emma had read Cœur de Lion.
In one poem, Reines declares:
According to you I ruined
“Things” and turned you “into
A monster” but whatever.
Ariana is the perfect portrait of a poet gone mad, one who rather than exit civilly and, in some peoples’ minds, “with dignity,” has chosen to write about her true feelings and, in doing so, villainize Jake. The possibility of regret is dismissed simply with a “but whatever.”
As she trudges through recounting various tender and many not-so-tender moments of her time with Jake, Ariana questions important values, such as the relationship between writing and reality, or the nature of love in modern culture. On page 55, Reines says:
Where is the “you” of You
Tube. Who is the
You of advertising.
A slot. An empty
Envelope. A speaker
Should have to pass
Through everything in the world
In order to dare
To say You.
She often speculates as to the relationship between the “you” to whom she writes these poems and the man who slowly becomes more absent as her life moves on. She likewise identifies a disparity between the strength of her poetic “I” and the real her, a wounded girl lashing out at an ex lover and finding strength (it would seem) in the process.
In another poem, she compares the writing of the medieval chivalric genre with her own:
All that medieval love poetry
With its military metaphors
The woman as the fortress
The errancies of gallant knights.
Maybe long ago things were too
Too solid, and now we live in an ether
Of ex-sentiments, impossible
To make sense of...
This theme of love in contemporary society runs prevalent, as gmail espionage plays a central role and the role of women in this era where they are supposedly equal is heavily examined. Early on Reines speaks of being the “Gallery Girl” and what that entails: being interested in proximity to rich artists and buyers, or “acting pretty and disdainful,” despite being neither of those things.
While all of Reines’ ponderings deserve attention and debate, what I care to stress the most is how all of these intricate doubts, musings and memories blend together to form a cohesive narrative: the story of Ariana and Jake. The ability to use the poemario to narrate the history of one relationship, particularly a failed one, moved me deeply. While I’m sure it’s not a new idea, there’s something about Ariana’s syntax and word choice, her blending of metaphysical reflection and sex without condoms, of words that are practically Greek to the contemporary, young reader and everyday swear words (there is no distance between “cocksucking” and “perfidy” in these verses), that makes Cœur de Lion impossible to shake off.
I do sometimes wonder if it was a dumb decision to push Jon Ross away, to write so many manic poems about him. Some times I ask myself whether or not things would have been okay when I came home for the summer, had I not posted the phrase “this isn’t fucking about Jon Ross” so often on facebook. But the truth of the matter is that I don’t think Jon Ross is a bad person, nor do I think I really needed a chapbook’s worth of poems to get over a spring break crush. The project interested me as a way of exploring writing the way Reines had successfully done. Of questioning the values of love and rejection in an era of cocksucking and texting. Of discovering how to “ramble” without quite moving off point. There’s a certain writing style that I’ve come to appreciate of which I was incapable before this project. There is a way of viewing myself as a poet in relation to other real people which is no longer discomforting.
I have many times joked that all boys who date me should be prepared to become poetic fodder. With a Reines-like élan now driving me, this is truer than ever.
Cœur de Lion will be re-released by Fence Books on September 27, and if you don’t buy it, you’re simply dumb.
In the meantime I’ve composed this .pdf of some of the poems translated to Spanish by Cecilia Pavón and myself. Enjoy!
A special thanks to Cecilia Pavón for contributing her translations, and to Javier Calvo for eyeing over mine.