Our Obsidian Tongues
hardback, 64 pages, £12.99,
David Shook’s literary CV thus far is formidable – having studied endangered languages at Oklahoma University, he now edits for Phoneme books and the arts journal Molossus. He also served as translator-in-chief at the South Bank’s Poetry Parnassus project in 2012, an attempt to gather and translate poetry from every country in the world. That year he also premiered a covertly-filmed documentary about the Equatorial Guinean poet Marcelo Ensema Nsang. You could forgive me for feeling slightly trepidatious before opening Our Obsidian Tongues, his debut poetry collection for the excellent new press Eyewear Publishing.
Shook grew up in Mexico City, and his childhood experiences and subsequent visits to the capital form the core of this collection. Walt Whitman is quoted in an epigraph: ‘This is a city and I am one of the citizens, whatever interests the rest interests me…’ Shook’s interest in ‘the rest’ results in a collection that unfolds as a restless, shifting chiaroscuro. A number of different voices emerge, disappear, and recur, giving the impression of a lens moving in and out of focus, briefly resting on different parts of a wider scene and then moving on. Formal invention is also at play here; we are given epigrams, ghazals, songs, blocks of prose, and postcards. There is an epistolary story concerning a bungled kidnap.
Initially this feels like fruit-machine logic: as image and character and form come piling after one another, it is easy to become disorientated. Gradually, though, it becomes clear this is a vision of Mexico which cannot be seen straight-on. By structuring the collection this way, Shook achieves some of the slipperiness of memory he intends to convey. One gets the feeling this is the only way he can talk about Mexico that makes any sense.
Make no mistake; this is tough poetry. It requires patience to reveal its shadowy delights. Consistent images, when they do emerge, are often of envelopment, or coating – there is a particularly lurid image of oral thrush infecting the mouths of the elderly in a retirement home ‘like cobwebs over tongues too seldom moved’. In a later scene, ash falls from a recently exploded volcano, coating the streets – ‘an army of tephra stretched across the polluted sky… lapilli sergeants and agglomerate commanders linger behind their troops’. And the tiny epigram ‘earwax grey / mucus marbled black’ neatly encapsulates the unpleasant daily invasions experienced by all city dwellers.
Despite the pervading darkness, Shook gives us playfulness and humour in his poetry too, and occasionally tenderness. The ‘Silvestre Adán’ sequence in particular, in which the subject is portrayed as a carpenter, a farmer, an artist, an orchard keeper, and a ‘morning singer’, are comparatively restful. The garden mantra ‘Come chili. Come corn, come watercress. / Come plum and mango from your trees’ stands out especially as a moment of calm, its rural simplicity serving as an air pocket in an otherwise turbulent, suffocating atmosphere.
And what of the titular ‘obsidian tongues’? Within the collection, there are three prose poems all concerning thin, sharp objects: ‘The Needle’, ‘The Toothpick’ and ‘The Pin’ – all three are examined minutely, playful and obscure facts are volunteered. The needle ‘speaks a tiny language’ and is pleasingly described as a ‘robotic eyelash’ and ‘slenderest of icicles’. The toothpick is ‘the most democratic of mouth furniture’ and the pin a ‘Giacometti meditator’, a ‘perfect obelisk erected in the forest’. Shook’s poems work best when they are unpicking connotations in this way, the comparisons coming thick and fast, as if to say: choose one, or none, or all of these, but they are all true. These are thin yet solid objects; in fact they are the ‘tongues’ with which Shook attempts to thread his poems together. The titular poem, also the collection’s first, contains perhaps the clearest indication of this quick needlework: ‘Our tongues chip / thin flakes when stabs / aren’t straight or quick’. It is a declaration of intent; the lines dart over the page, unforgiving; they move quickly into the light and the retreat, their work complete.
In contrast, the final poem ‘Incense’ feels like a release, the welcome unravelling of a tightly woven pattern. Here, the tongue is described as ‘a bundle of sage… burning like incense from its tip’. The poem is song-like, organic, and full of wide movement; it works beautifully as a coda.
Our Obsidian Tongues is by no means an easy ride, and neither should it be, but it is certainly enjoyable and surprising. If he is occasionally guilty of overindulgence (the line about aeroplanes ‘descending into protracted numbness’ is peculiarly adolescent), it is only because Shook is clearly a writer of big and original ideas. The version of Mexico he presents in this collection is unlike any I have read before. His study of endangered languages now seems crucial: as soon as one voice or form appears in this collection, it feels pursued, hounded by the next poem, until it is supplanted – these are poems that live under the constant threat of extinction. The question is whether Our Obsidian Tongues is an attempt to hasten their demise, or to preserve them for future study. The answer remains deliciously unclear.