by Levi Bentley
Of Mongrelitude, by Julian Talamentez Brolaski. Wave Books, 112 pp., $18.
Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s Of Mongrelitude scraps with language, rolls in the dirt of it, smells every smell, however cagily. It is a playful, lonely, wild book that exercises in equal measure an array of techniques that tear apart and reconstitute language and conversational hijinks that come to lick your face. Of Mongrelitude extends the style Brolaski established in previous books Advice for Lovers (City Lights, 2012) and gowanus atropolis (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011). And it is by turns tuneful, flirtatious, dyspeptic. It is the book of a two-spirit Indigenous poet who uses the personal pronoun “it.”
Of Mongrelitude is also the book of a country singer with a background in medieval studies. Queerness is not always on the surface; it underpins the text. References to an unknown third party often use less common gender-neutral pronouns such as “xe.” Concerns about a variety of intersections of identity show up, often elliptically, and sometimes hyper-legibly. The implications of Brolaski’s tactics and concerns dawn slowly, through an experience of pleasure, texture, joy, and tangling.
Brolaski’s signature mark is to reinvigorate the malleability of language through an engagement with older conventions of English. Archaic usages, uncommon abbreviations, and multiple spellings of a word (even within the same poem) celebrate and challenge language’s capacity to hold meaning and change meaning over time, privileging its shifting features. It re-wilds our capacity to bend words to our usage while taking issue with theories of prescriptive correctness.
This practice also challenges assumed distinctions about high and low culture. In our current experience of culture, there is a contradiction between our view of older forms of English, in which usage and spelling were much more fluid, as “high culture,” and our rigid prescriptivism in usage. Brolaski leans into unstable word forms and dares the reader to think this is a product of illiteracy. It is a mongrel move.
It’s a dance, a brawl, as though Brolaski swings into a bar with guns blazing and then, when the bullets run out, reveals it knows martial arts. This text is one that enacts itself. Those looking for deep revelation or intimacy might come away feeling a little shut out. In some ways the text shrugs at legibility, opting for a thorny approach to “accessibility,” however it has enough good-natured fooling around and “plain language” moments that a first time reader may laugh out loud and feel rewarded enough to engage further. Multiple readings flower into a landscape of wonder and adventure.
As the knots unfold, the density of sound and image give way to access, or at least to understanding and familiarity. The poem “on loneliness” is fairly accessible to a general audience on first reading. It enacts its subject; it calls out for contact:
D. says that loneliness is a disbelief
in the possibillity of Love
I hid it so well
I hid it from myself.
Footnotes lay bare some of the techniques at play. An unfamiliar word “Lozen” turns out to be the name of a two-spirit warrior. Some lines are overheard moments in movies. This poem provides a few keys to how a verse may open up under sympathetic scrutiny, while some moments remain private and opaque. A key phrase for accessing the text may be: “my belief in myself / as some kind of speculative cartography.” This seems like a key insight of the text, a valorization of trying on, trying out, exploring, experimenting as a means of self-determination
The title also hints usefully at a kinship and identification with animality. Queer people, Indigenous people, Black Americans and others who experience othering often find that personhood is denied through being languaged in particular ways that round them down from personhood to the animal realm, less than human. Mel Y. Chen, in his book Animacies, suggests that rather than fighting to be seen as separate from or more advanced than animals, identification with animality can be a strategy with strong political and ecological connotations for racial and sexual minorities. For Brolaski, identification with the mongrel is an act of embracing abjection and also hints at political solidarity with the natural world. Just as Of Mongrelitude tangles with the gnarly roots of the English language, both excavating its living qualities and ignoring strictures of respectability, so it takes issue by implication with the stability of socially constructed identities, and excavates the roots of animality in the human. Often images of wounding and distrust hint at the wounding of the earth for which humans are responsible, as well as the poet’s personal woundedness and isolation.
Although there are political and ethical implications, nothing is pure here, nothing elevated. The sacred and profane are revealed to be linked, co-constructed and thoroughly entangled. Along with less common pronouns and archaicisms, Brolaski employs much demotic language, that is, language written as it would be spoken or sung. Its condensed syllables and irregular spelling are offset by an offhand, easygoing turn of phrase. It is here that Brolaski’s erotics of language is most visible—in the wild, playful, surreal, flippant, confrontational, in taking the prerogative to make things up, to mess things up. In this I can see the Julian Brolaski who sings in a country western band, with an unerring ear for what sounds good, whether you know what it’s saying or not. The play is a light and hefty swaying of phrases. What I’m saying is, when the text is most itself, it swaggers.
The first stanza of “I did it for something to do reads:
I did it for something to do
flimsy as fishbones
wracked eche sentiment brevily.
This in some way gets at the mode of making, a process for the writer that is half freewheeling joke, half emotional torture, adding up to a “flimsy as fishbones” remainder of marks on a page. This quality of joking shows up again in “fireplace,” a fairly hermetic fable that ends in an accessible punchline. The text, however, is restless, as the title suggests. It doesn’t settle on a particular set of established or estranged strategies. In what may be a nod to Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems, “most honeyed” contains a history of excisions and insertions, even as it continues in themes of isolation, wondering, wandering. The strikeouts and small superscript of added language provide multiple readings and a chance to see the way a poem moves for this poet. The word “has” is struck out, and followed by the more archaic “hath,” but far from being stiff and staid, it sounds casual, singsong, spoken:
—&now n—now being asked to re-whoa why ought
that be (that) that to be thir job? __________ has not required a
being not not not a person. perhaps one does not
not want to be found
One gets the sense these are experiments particular to a time and place that remain locked up in private conversations and friendships, private meanings. Is the word “being” crossed out because it is a reference to non-being? The text says one thing while also saying its opposite. In this it approaches philosophy, or a koan. It stretches towards recognition even as it shies from it. It claims erasure, process and visible revision.
The condensation of syllables can function as a kind of interruption and erasure, or hiding out. The visual quality is knotty. Along with references to Emily Dickinson, a touchstone for the avante garde, the condensed words may reference without copying the strategies of Ezra Pound. Gender activist kari edwards is referenced in the opening of “most honeyed” in an epigraph where she uses as pronouns the words “something” and “whatever” for the character p. It makes sense that given a history of literature mostly dominated by white cis men there may be a level of distrust in expression for a two-spirit Indigenous poet, for whom recognition may mean violence as often as companionship, for whom the demand to speak of identity in creative work must be very loud and often overwhelming. In “ack, buttery” the second stanza seems to speak to this:
obvious at whatever one is—the judeity, the genera,
that I make (of myself) a cheapness. its hyde unlissomish. a field
peopled w/ concrete nouns—obviate unicorns toying w/ chiffon.
One gets the sense however that the avoidance of clear or stable identification is not only an avoidance. What is certainly a lament about hyper-legibility also seems to be an affirmation of unstable self-states, a denial of fixity.
The line “l pay money for money” and the poem title “what do they know of suffering, who eat of pineapples yearround” recalls the work of Ryan Eckes in its emphasis on the surreal double-binds of capitalism and its critique of class. Dog, mud, dancing are all recurring images among the truncated words. In the poem “Notes from the Mummy chamber” Brolaski introduces the concept of Inuksuk, meaning “like a person.” Inuksuk appears to show up as the speaker of the poem. It opens “l will not sit within their fishtraps / w/ rudimentary arms.” In this collection of images and the use of literary tactics that refuse to conform to any existing standard of literariness, one sees perhaps the value of a poem as a private experience of joy. Dance and song are tools of joy for oppressed people throughout the world. One may dance or sing as a way to process sorrow, to build identification, or to experience joy regardless of wealth or social status. Fred Moten writes about how song and dance are characterized by philosophers in the European tradition as less than human. Moten works in a philosophical mode to rescue song and dance as a way of recuperating the experience of Black Americans, whose many cultures were stolen by slavery.
Brolaski may be doing something similar in the sense that to some degree the poems are about the possibility of escape and freedom and play. Even on the verge of nonsense and total alienation, when the poems refuse to coalesce into a sense of depth, disclosure, or profound observation, they are in fact doing exactly what Brolaski intends. The fun and play, flirtation, song, and scrappy linguistic recombination on the surface are sometimes exactly enough. While perhaps pessimistic, they are not heavy. Instead, the poems function as a “ghost dance / w/ its insurgent meter / made up as medicine.”
Levi Bentley is a 2019 LAMBDA Literary Fellow, and Director of Pedagogy for Blue Stoop. Their poems have appeared through Apiary, Bedfellows, BlazeVOX, Elective Affinities, Fact-Simile, Gigantic Sequins, Madhouse, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Rupture, Stillwater Review, The Wanderer, and a variety of other venues. They live in Philadelphia.