Reclaiming the Rituals of Sonic Space: A Review of Michael Nardone’s The Ritualites
Review by Mark Grenon
Dubbed on the dust jacket as “a book-length poem on the sonic topography of North America,” Michael Nardone’s debut full-length book of poetry, The Ritualites, published by Book*hug, follows the publication of excerpts of the book in other iterations.
The thematic and geographic genesis of the book interrogates the quasi-religious nature of American ritual and its civic mythologies, for instance in the symbolic force of the flag, the anthem, the atomic bomb, militarism, etc. This, despite the fact that The Ritualites is partially based on site-specific recordings across Canada, perhaps because Nardone originally hails from rural Pennsylvania.
In “O, Or Plains, Pennsylvania,” a re-titling of Nardone’s chapbook, O. Cyrus & the Bardo, a sonnet sequence that falls just short of being a crown of sonnets, Nardone proceeds by working within the limits of this strict form, but by the ninth sonnet, a drastic shift, a sonic quaking, has occurred.
Variation: soaks down dandelion, marigold
Punctures, spreads. Rises, bursts. Blends. Again
The blond lobs against the glare. Again the.
Again the firecracker timpani. Everything
In fits. Flares fleshed to the pole star fade. A wind
Change. Inflection: left perspectives right,
Holds, gold and silver fold, fold. Everything fits.
And did the feeling? Did it was it true
For you? O say you see it too. Sure the dead
Don’t undress and swim in their bleeding. Cracks
Red, red and blue. What should be the Old Glory
Blows away while forming. Send me down
Where the winds roll over. Burnt white, a wind
Comes avalanche. Smoke screens the atmosphere.
The variation, the breaking up of syntax, strikes at the heart of American ritual / the American dream. The colours of Old Glory, the American flag, become disjointed as the flag itself is blown away, a distress signal even more extreme than its being flown upside down. The sonorousness of “O say can you see ....” becomes “O say you see it too.” In a society bound by its mythologies and rituals, to break up the incantatory quality of the national song is, in effect, to take the knee.
“Tower 1, Tower 2,” a winner of Lemon Hound’s prose poem prize under its original title “Deathless Nuclear Family of the Spangled Mind,” is a tour de force akin to e.e. cummings’ “i was sitting at mcsorley’s” and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Nardone creates the distinct feeling that you’re at a real dinner table, with its objects and conversational cross-currents, yet it’s as if the message has been suffused with static, or caustic noise, perhaps as a result of the implicit terror of the nuclear bomb being at the emotional heart of the American dream. That is, behind that dream, the promise of the shining city upon a hill, a nightmare is lurking, one which splices together the good-time vibes of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (“— A dark desert highway,” for example) and the immanence of the nuclear threat:
Those inner voices.
— Same one he wore on the Enola Gay! — Inner voices? What a lot of talk!
— Woulda been one hell of a parade. — We should do some kinda toast.
You know it’s not every day we’re all here together. — Less and less I fear.
The family’s deathlessness seems merely rhetorical compared to the ebullient spirit of Whitman’s “I know I am deathless,” and his romantic quest for a union between self and cosmos across time and space. For all the arcane allusions and source material of its transcriptions, the long poem that is The Ritualites is, like Song of Myself, epic, or at least mock epic, in scope, given its traversal of vast swaths of a vast continent. The “nuclear family” of the original title of “Tower 1, Tower 2,” puns on the warmth of the microcosm of the nuclear family unit and the nuclear implications of the Enola Gay, the plane used to drop the infamous bomb, Little Boy, and “Those inner voices” haunt the gap between the two meanings of the word.
The Ritualites employs transcription as a means to destabilize essentialist language, as, for instance, the kind of language found in airport novels, or the linguistic ritualization of the military industrial cultural complex. Nardone points out in the Notes + Sources section of the book that he “utilized a number of sound recording and transcription processes”. This is certainly all very interesting from a critical viewpoint, though at times the transcriptive method can be impenetrable, and the fragments can be offputting, given how nonsensical the source material is, as in the “Far Rockaway” section of “Topologies/Otographies”.
In The Ritualites’ missing Table of Contents, we end up with more a scramble of contents, a sonic scramble, a poetic, and at times anti-poetic, assemblage. In the lengthy sections “Airport Novel” and “Unfixed Territories,” which are broken up and interspersed throughout the book under the same titles (three sections under the former and two sections under the latter), Nardone re-frames temporary prison-like conditions in an act of sonic disobedience. Detained by the Canada Border Services Agency at the Edmonton International Airport in 2011, Nardone turned the print media of his surroundings back onto the environment, picking up pamphlets, brochures, and books and dictating fragmented samples to create oral palimpsests that employ a mix of restraints and chance operations, effectively turning transcriptions of text-based speech into an act of defiance.
In “Topologies/Otographies,” we get a bird’s eye view of areas of the U.S. that have not fared as well under globalization as many major cities. The knotted nature of the text may send otherwise willing readers packing, especially if we lack the geographic, historical, and personal referents that could unravel it. Nevertheless, by googling things, it’s possible to co-create an intertextual Nardone-guided poetic road trip, where co-guides such as YouTube and Wikipedia, may take us to fascinating places. From the disastrous and bizarre ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, to the mediated sonic/textual intensity of Times Square as somehow the beating drum of the song of America, to Cactus Springs, a locale noted for its proximity to the largest-scale nuclear tests in American history, and so and and so on, there’s this sense of a weave of sound and text, and a sense of the 21st-century American self being dislocated against the wounded vastness of this landscape.
In the Centralia section, the elusive character of “O” introduced in the chapbook O. Cyrus & the Bardo returns; this character is an Osiris figure that straddles life and death in the liminal state of the bardo realm. The speaker says “Let’s hunt O / Let’s see what we find,” as if the hunt for experience, perhaps to be found in the fragments of consciousness, needs a companion, even if an invented one. Maybe the speaker is Nardone, a parodic millennial stand-in for Whitman on a search for the elusive sense of the poem that is his self, or the poem of a post-industrial-ravaged America; perhaps in the detritus they’ll find a way to make it all new again, “We’ll eat wind O stones / Scavenge what’s left of this city”.
It’s clear some readers will feel scepticism regarding the relevance of conceptual methods and the aesthetic outcomes in parts of this collection. In that case, the modernism of “Tower 1, Tower 2” and postmodernism of “O, Or, Plains, Pennsylvania” should supply them with more meat regarding how to enter the work. But the challenge, and lingering affectivity, of Language poetry and conceptual work is that they don’t play the usual language games, nor do they follow prescribed notions of taste and judgement. The work, potentially, offers itself up as an object from which the reader may depart into her own games or critiques. This is self-consciously the case in “UNFIXED TERRITORIES,” where the assemblage of cut-up fragments is a set of instructions regarding how the reader can turn the work into their own work:
So don’t just read this book.
Interact with it!
Underline your favorite passages!
Make this book your book.
Try writing your thoughts in the margins.
To engage the reader in breaking through the destructive repetitiveness of unexamined ritual, The Ritualites is framed by a poetics that invites reading as misreading, or the book as departure point for an improvised reading in which references reverberate, and the referee of the book, its binding, its being bound, may come apart, and you can read forwards, backwards, or any way you want.
In an interview with Sina Queyras in Lemon Hound back in 2010, Nardone mentioned he was thinking of Auden’s “Paysage Moralisé” when writing “Deathless Nuclear Family of the Spangled Mind.” Auden concludes his sestina with the striking tercet, “It is our sorrow. Shall it melt? Ah, water /
Would gush, flush, green these mountains and these valleys, / And we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.” Through the radical transcriptive methods of its sonic disobedience, The Ritualites is admonishing us that it is high time to rebuild the city on a hill, instead of creating a walled country, a bitterly divided Fortress America. It remains to be seen how the story of America will unfold, and how Nardone will draw upon the foundational work of The Ritualites in scoring that narrative, as he continues what is meant to be the first in a series of such works. Stay tuned. Don’t obey. Sounds good.
Mark Grenon's poetry and reviews have appeared in The Antigonish Review, filling Station, Matrix, The Puritan, and Vallum, among others. His collaborative video poetry has been screened at the Visible Verse Festival, the Rendez-vous cinéma québécois, and the anti-Matter Film Festival. Although his home town is Ottawa, he's a long-term Montrealer, and has lived in the Czech Republic, Taiwan, and Chile.