Darlene Silva Soberano Reviews When I die slingshot my ashes onto the surface of the moon by Jennifer Nguyen and wheeze by Marcus Whale

By | 31 July 2020

Instead of turning primarily to the cosmos or the divine, Marcus Whale in his second poetry book, wheeze, mines the language of screen media to meditate on connection and intimacy. He examines the tension that arises when screen intimacy is both necessary and fraught.

The poem ‘Cities XL’ is named after the city-building video game Cities XL. Here, Whale’s speaker asks the questions, ‘How do we learn to move?’ and ‘How do we learn to see?’, deftly imitating the experience of following a video game tutorial. These questions are indented when they break up stanzas, and the visual creates a gliding effect as the speaker moves between questions and answers. The indented questions create moments of uncertainty, while the non-indented stanzas create moments of certainty. The hesitating speaker asks, ‘How do we learn to move?’, then declares: ‘It’s only human to want more’ – and the declaration orbits as a question in the poem. After asking, ‘How do we learn to see?’, the speaker relays a wish: ‘Someone I met recently made me wish / I could still play Cities XL … / Someone I met recently / would be perfect to graphically render, I reckon’. I was once asked by a friend if I could send them a picture so they could make me on The Sims. To create a me that is not me who they could order around in a video game, to make the not-me successful in a career, or to make them die: ‘If I knew how to render / the way I know how to see, / maybe I could tell you / how it feels to be like the almighty’. Here, the act of rendering substitutes for the act of seeing, which frames the act of seeing as a skill to develop, rather than as a simple human sense. This makes for a speaker who seems to be elsewhere – there and not there – trying desperately to be present: ‘I’m trying to work out / how I would look somewhere else. / I’m trying to reckon / the endlessness of where I’ve never been’. The speaker is, ultimately, ‘reckoning’ with ‘the wish to render / and the wish to be rendered / and to not be blind’, wishing to control the human tendency of misunderstanding: ‘he’s talking, but it’s coded / and I don’t see the way he sees’, and failing.

‘It’s only human to want more’. What is more? The speaker returns to the video game and answers with the final three lines: ‘Past those islands is enough water / to let us exist far longer / than we deserve’. Here, Whale almost tips uninterestingly into the cliché of portraying godliness as the answer human shortcoming, but pivots to touching expression at the last second, aided by the landscape of a video game.

wheeze as a collection wants to bend against the discomfort of being a human and having a body, wants to rage against uncertainty – like this moment from ‘Owed Nothing’: ‘The word is “crush” / and the answer would be anything / whatever’. A courageous turning towards vulnerability – and then a turning away.

The title itself is named after air, which, in the language of the chapbook, means ‘the air of sex yet to come’, as Whale writes in his poem, ‘Like Pazuzu’. ‘Like Pazuzu’ is markedly referential; even its title is named after the demon in The Exorcist (1973). There is little room for the speaker to be active in the poem except to create a mosaic of observations about on-screen sex, on-screen intimacy. Whale’s speaker questions the artifice of on-screen sex: ‘I wonder if the moans are foley / or otherwise achieved through feats of gust’. What happens, really, to the corporeal in the wind?

Is it incorrect to describe a wind as
going through me? Not among

or around, but entering, via slit
via hole. Consider me a wind tunnel.

There is an eroticism underpinning these lines as the wind is multifaceted; it is the demon Pazuzu’s domain, it is a blowjob, it is queerness. ‘They’re / silhouettes, they’re traces, and where cannot be / they make its shape’.

‘Like Pazuzu’ is followed in the chapbook by ‘Subject is a weird word’, a poem with dizzying movements. The reader is dizzied alongside the speaker as they reckon with difficult feelings resulting from a harrowing event in which ‘a culturally powerful / older gay man had me undress for his lens’. The figures depicted in the poem oscillate between an ex, the ‘powerful older gay man’, and a present lover. In the syntax and the movement between so many figures, it is difficult to really ascertain who is who, and which events are connected. The poem, in its refusal to distinguish between figures, ultimately speaks to the crucial idea that events of intimacy are influenced by personal history; a traumatic event can leave splinters all over the future. ‘Subject is a weird word’ ends with a statement that can be about any of the figures in the poem, and, in doing so, Whale lends equal weight to the consequences of trauma and to the consequences of love. At the end of the poem, the speaker meditates on representation again, but instead of a video game, they discuss photographs: ‘I wonder if / you’ve ever known the images I’m making. / I’m trying to make it so you’re more than a figment / yowling out of the surface’. ‘Subject as a weird word’ is such a specific poem about specific complicated feelings, and is well placed in this collection precisely because wheeze is so concentrated on the subject of screen intimacy.

The final poem of the chapbook, ‘Morality Is The Weakness Of The Brain’, is a narrative poetic drama. The poem is an imitation of a film script, opening with a direction: ‘We focus on their faces in half light’. The images it uses, such as ‘They gaze hard at something beyond the frame’ and ‘B glows under the streetlight’, are filmic. The chapbook has been leaning into this direction, where the drama becomes a film. The final lines of the collection are significant: ‘The glow rises inexorably towards us. / The light swallows everything’. It ends with light swallowing everything, including the reader. And the credits roll.

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