Ariana Reines, now thirty, has a curriculum vitae that could make her look like a star of academia. She graduated summa cum laude from Barnard and then studied with the most rarefied, radical philosophers and literary theorists at Columbia and at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. She has translated two books from the French for Semiotext(e), as well as Baudelaire’s My Heart Laid Bare for her own tiny Mal-O-Mar press. She was the 2009 Roberta C. Holloway Lecturer in Poetry (the youngest ever) at UC Berkeley. Her first book of poems was The Cow (2006), followed by the two reviewed here, and she’s the author of a play, TELEPHONE (inspired by Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book’s extravagantly difficult, graphic extrapolation from telephone technology into schizophrenia and culture), the production of which play awed reviewers and won two Obies in 2009. Reines is interested in and has studied performance, and is an irresistible, waifish, wisecracking public impresario of her poems. She’s discussed endlessly on the Web. Whatever all that might suggest, her heart truly is in the gutter with the filthy and distraught and impossible and she’s one notch above a bag lady herself, literally. She is about nothing but poetry—poetry and decency (though possibly in that order).
Coeur de Lion, originally published in 2007, is a long poem-series written in a confessional mode, intentionally blog-like, in which the author kisses off a boyfriend whose love letters to another girl Reines has found by hacking into his e-mail account.
This morning you wrote
Back to me. You said that
What really fucking pissed
You off was that I seemed
To have made a “whole project”
Out of reading your emails
And that I ran through the whole
Devastating thing with “relish.”
It’s true, I did make a project
Out of it. Right now
I’m listening to Stevie Wonder
Sing “Ma Cherie Amour.” I fucking
Love Stevie Wonder. I could fall
In love with him a hundred times.
I know what he means when he says
La La La La La La.
Reines, riffing on themes of Coeur, expanded, “There’s also the kind of creaturely smegma of living in your imagination and feeling that nothing human is foreign to you, that you can veer into all kinds of creepy territory.” “What is smegma exactly?” this reviewer, uncertain, inquired. She replied, “I have no idea. . . . Is it an ooze, like pus?” According to dictionary.com, smegma is “a thick, cheeselike, sebaceous secretion that collects beneath the foreskin or around the clitoris.” Which Reines would love because cheese plays an important role in Coeur de Lion, not only because the title signifies a brand of cheap Camembert—along with, of course, King Richard the Lionhearted, whom she annexes in the book for his mixture of aspirations to the literary and his Jew-killing (Reines is Jewish and her mother’s parents survived the Holocaust in Poland)—but also because it’s Swiss cheese that, in the book, her literarily aspiring, borderline anti-Semitic boyfriend says her pussy smells like (in a nice way).
The book’s material is daily life treated without restraint, like the gossip and chatter of self-dramatizing students, or a brainy seducer free-associating into your ear at a party—but it keeps digging down and veering off and adding up until it’s profound. It’s practically novelistic in the fullness of its portrait of this nerdy but sexually uninhibited couple in their smegma of other recent lovers, classes with Alain Badiou and A. Ronell, vacations in Venice financed by parents or student loans, fucking in the woods, references to Stefan Zweig, Rimbaud, Nabokov, Leonard Cohen, Arthur Russell, etc., insecurity and fear, pussy licking and cock sucking, ego and bravado, evocations of true horror and suffering, as for instance of the poet’s mother, who has pretty much lost her mind and wanders the streets penniless . . . And it is all real, it’s the truth, and you’re touched and inspired by Ariana Reines, and it goes the transcendent dimension and is poetry.
The new book, Mercury, is longer, more complex, and in ways more ambitious than the two previous, though consistent with them. Reines likes to let a metaphor emerge as an organizing principle to characterize and partially generate each book, and make that literal by using it as the book’s title. The Cow could be seen as interior, personal. Reines is a once and future vegetarian (as cows are ruminative grazers, and in being slaughterhouse victims a whole other pertinent symbol), and she’s obsessed with the identity of her biological, cultural gender (“cow” also being specifically female, etc.). The book is also “interior” for containing some of her most beautifully musical/abstract poetry: “A gelid streak of apple goo a purl of it I peel away from me and eat. // I know that really beautiful women are never alone. // Their intelligence curls up like a fist in them and sweetens the shutter on their clits.” Coeur de Lion, with that title’s associations, is about personal relationships. Mercury refers to the metal, of course—quicksilver—obviously potent metaphorically, and to alchemy, which in a way is rooted in metaphor, being an attempt to link material substances with spiritual ones; and the planet and the god. Mercury is about everything interlinked, the universe. It’s still gritty and first-person, but it’s the “Aria” in Ariana, it’s 239 pages into infinity, on winged heels and a prayer. “Aria” is the book’s first poem (Wednesday, “incidentally,” is Mercury’s day—Mercredi—in French):
It is Wednesday
I don’t know who I am.
How did I get here? I don’t know.
That’s a lie.
It keeps me empty
Just empty enough
for you to enter me
On both the page and at the podium, the art of Ariana Reines is, in a way, charisma. It’s perfection, but not flawlessness—rather grace and shamelessness. The works are riveting at baseline, but they also ray and reverberate with each lovely, funny recovery from, each redeeming transformation of, a series of endless errors. It’s alchemy achieved, and so vital as to exemplify poetry today in its guttural full glory.