Poetry Month: The Politics of Knives by Jonathan Ball

April 11, 2013 by · 2 Comments 

The Politics of Knives. Jonathan Ball; $17.95 paper 978-1-55245-263-2, 96 pp., Coach House Books

The mirror as a symbol of the fractured personality is complemented in Psycho by the “cutting” imagery: in Saul Bass’s title designs, which tear and split the names; in what Hitchcock called the basic geometry of the film – the bisecting horizontals and verticals (a motif in part established by a construction crane that cuts the horizon of Phoenix, by the bed and bedposts of the hotel, by the standing John Gavin and the supine Janet Leigh, and, most of all, by the horizontal motel and the looming, vertical house); and in other suggestions of slashing – a telephone pole that “slices” Leigh’s parked car; scythes and rakes suspended over heads in a hardware shop; and the murderer’s raised knife. The cutting imagery establishes a visual design in which conflict in the viewer extends the conflict within the characters …

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto

The_Politics_of_KnivesMirrors and cutting imagery – both literal and metaphoric – pervade Jonathan Ball’s third book, not least in the prose-poem sequence “Psycho,” which employs a William S. Burroughs/Brion Gysin–style cut-up technique to strip Hitchcock’s thriller to its bare bones. Incorporating images from the movie, lines of dialogue, and frequently disturbing riffs on the film’s darkly ironic undertones (“She skins so beautiful, she showers for us clean”), Ball employs linguistic compression to intensify a feeling of claustrophobic unease. “The letters break,” he writes, referring specifically to Saul Bass’s famous titles, but also to his own poetic approach in this sequence, and throughout the collection.

Mirrors abound in “Psycho” (as they do in Psycho). “In mirrors that car,” the poet writes, then a short while later, “In the bathroom the mirror. Doubling desire.” Still later: “All the mirrors, what shines in their glass. Dead hollows reflect outward, gaze.” In Hitchcock’s film, mirrors reflect things, but as Spoto points out, they also symbolize duality – the split personality that inhabits many of the characters. In Ball’s conception, “dead hollows” – empty sockets – shine in the mirror’s reflection. The poem repudiates the very agency of the onlooker: “Eyes erased like our Norman erased.”

The Politics of Knives interrogates the subject of voyeurism and its moral implications, something that also concerned Hitchcock. “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” says another Hitchcock character in a different film, summing up the dilemma of the filmmaker, who could be considered the ultimate Peeping Tom (see, for example, Michael Powell’s film of the same name).

Much of the activity in The Politics of Knives is viewed through the lens of a movie camera. The anonymous character in “He Paints the Room Red” sets up a camera in the corner of his writing room; the action of the narrative is framed by the camera’s viewfinder, presenting it as simultaneously artificial and mediated. The artificiality is accentuated at the poem’s end, when the author disclaims any control over his character, or knowledge of the character’s motivations: “I do not know his reasons. I don’t understand any of this.” The poet then flips the argument on its head, implicating the reader. “But you watched him … And you did nothing, just like me.”

Elsewhere, Kafka’s hallucinatory novel The Castle becomes emblematic of our societal obsession with mediated imagery. In Ball’s spare and fractured retelling, K. can only enter the Castle after he literally “becomes a camera.” Readers of the poem are treated to scenes of bureaucratic desolation as viewed through the intermediary of the camera’s lens: “Camera moves through outer offices, their bustle and noise, racking forward, keeping all in focus, gliding quiet along makeshift rails, invisible to those scrambling for attention and those ignoring, checking books, past the sometimes passing of outdated messages, letters long dead.”

Dead letters evoke the idea of a postal repository for undeliverable mail, but Ball also means this literally: a few pages later, he refers to “papers strewn corpselike.”

The conflation of violence and language is pervasive in this collection, beginning with the epigraph from Plutarch detailing Caesar’s murder. The first line of the opening poem reads, “When she spoke, she did not speak” – a contradiction that places language in violent conflict with itself. She “did not speak / but with exhalation of wires,” we are told, which expands the metaphoric violence of the language into the realm of the actual. There is a clear abnormality in the juxtaposition of breath and speech and metal here, a creeping unease that is extended in the following poem: “A click as she shut / and then nothing opened / but into worlds of knives.” The pronoun is ambiguous: it would appear to refer to someone human, but the context seems to suggest the personification of a manufactured device, something that clicks shut, and opens “into worlds of knives.” This image is repeated in the third poem: “She wore nothing but blades.”

The opening three poems form a triptych that serves as a kind of invocation to the muse, also seeding the ground for what is to come. The insistence on knives reappears in “Psycho,” and again in the title sequence, in which words and phrases have been blacked out, literally excised as though having been sliced through. The blacked-out portions call to mind redacted government documents, an association made explicit in the poem’s last line: “What to do when the sheep elect wolves.” (This is also an example of Ball ratcheting up the tension in the language by substituting a declarative statement for what would more commonly be cast as a question.) The wolves here echo the “chiselling” teeth of an early poem, and prefigure the book’s final image, of the mythical Cerberus, “that most terrible of dogs.”

The Politics of Knives aims to rupture language in the same way Bass sliced up the opening titles in Hitchcock’s film, and to much the same effect. Occasionally, Ball strains too far (“in vitro city,” we are told, “the weather is always whether” and “there is no god and we are its profits”), but for the most part he manages to force his language almost to the breaking point without passing over. The consequent tension infuses both form and content, resulting in a reading experience that is discomfiting, but also weirdly entrancing.