Impossible Epic: On Sandra Simonds’s “Orlando”

“‘TELL ME,’ he wanted to say, ‘everything in the whole world’”: this is how the young protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando (1928) meets his first poet. Orlando’s version of poetry is epic: the poet’s reality encompasses “ogres, satyrs, perhaps the depths of the sea.” Sandra Simonds’s 2018 poetry collection Orlando resembles Woolf’s novel not only in name or image (an oak tree figures prominently in both works), but more significantly because of the breadth of its tumultuous visions of gender, place, and time. Simonds, who is the author of five previous collections of poems — Further Problems with Pleasure, Steal It Back, The Sonnets, Mother Was a Tragic Girl, and Warsaw Bikini — lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and teaches at Thomas University, in Thomasville, Georgia. Her Orlando is an address to the city and a lover; it is a narrative of relationships, love, domestic violence, labor, parenting, and confessional self-exploration; finally, it is a meditation on epic, poetry, history, and fantasy.

In Woolf’s Orlando, there’s a scene in which, “as if to vent his agony somewhere,” the lovelorn Orlando “plunge[s] the quill so deep into the inkhorn that the ink [spurts] over the table.” Like the excess of emotion that is here less recollected in tranquility than it is immediately present, Simonds’s epic is a kinetic adventure. This Orlando is an exercise in the formal possibilities created by the explosive pressures of emotion, as well as the intrusive material pressures of contemporary life under capitalism. In this way, her collection gives the lie to certain visions of poetic work that position poetic form as outside or fundamentally alien to the structures of gender, power, and labor that impinge upon contemporary life. Instead — robust, energetic, fanciful, even baroque — Simonds’s form is a necessary counterforce. Or as Simonds writes:

the only way to protect against this
ordinary history, these mundane
capitalist gestures is to layer the story
as one descends through layers of cloud
over Orlando, pink and furious.

Before descending through the layers of cloud to the book itself, we could start with this question of the epic. Simonds’s Orlando is made up of two long poems, “Orlando” and “Demon Spring,” the first of which — primarily in tercets — is roughly Dantesque in form and narrative structure. In “Demon Spring,” Simonds poses the question of genre more explicitly:

Then I stopped inside the fire and inside
the fire there was a diner and inside
the diner my thoughts were also
a fire I will write a feminist
epic poem about everything

Simonds is obviously no high Modernist, but it’s possible to hear echoes of the epic ambitions of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, or James Joyce’s Ulysses — works that strain to contain history, to paraphrase Pound. A better literary antecedent, though, may be Alice Notley, whose 1995 essay “The ‘Feminine’ Epic” takes up the question of women writing into the male epic tradition, which for her means both epic in the strain of Homer, Dante, et al, and the US tradition of the 20th-century “long poem”: Charles Olson, Pound, William Carlos Williams. For both Notley and Simonds, the epic project is fundamentally gendered; to write epic is, as Notley puts it, to “avenge my sex for having ‘greatness’ stolen from it.” The feminine epic is writing about motherhood and domestic work that is unabashedly grandiose and not scaled (only) to minutiae, fragilities, intricacies, interiorized musings, musings in general, quietnesses, quirkinesses, or any kind of smallness. That feminist anger can, in poetry, be boomed, as well as probed or explored or sensitively rendered is necessary and refreshing.

Although I want to note that I’m using Notley’s and Simonds’s own terms for their respective work, and that Notley’s work is also “feminist” as well as “feminine,” there are also significant differences between Notley’s and Simonds’s version of epic. For Notley, writing this kind of epic means making space for a “voice” that is uniquely female, and the kinds of stories and wisdom this voice carries with it. In The Descent of Alette (1996), Notley engages and reworks the fundamental tropes and figures of epic (the descent, the mother, the tyrant, et cetera). Her project is also a formal quest for “something regular, but also catchy” — a formal pattern that would be recognizably epic and recognizably Notley’s own. Simonds, on the other hand, is more interested in the reality at hand than in types, figures, or tropes. In other words, her epic is a decidedly materialist one.

A consummate observer of the contemporary present, Simonds is able to pan out and zoom in with remarkable speed and agility. Like Woolf in Orlando, Simonds positions herself on “the narrow plank of the present,” positioned precariously just above “the raging torrent beneath.” This perch over the stream of detail, on the knife’s edge of the present, is key to the motion of Simonds’s writing:

and when the swans and ducks and canoes and kayaks floated by in the paralyzed light
of that April day, the sky, clouds, earth turned into the ink of our intertwined language,

your language flourishing, flourishing, mine flourishing, and the plants, breathing as they do,
to break through the fading lavenders and greens, a conversation soft and compelling,
a maze of ivy cobras and the feathered light, a maze all the way to the gazebo

where a crowd stands around waiting for the woman to walk up to it, and surprise!
He has asked her to marry him, and the crowd huddles around …

Simonds’s language throughout is as lush as the places it describes, attuned to the textures and surfaces — the plants, fabrics, plastics, cocktails, waters, and humidity — of Florida. In other words, like Woolf, Simonds is remarkably open to the barrage of sensory information the daily present conveys. But this proximity to the present in all its unpredictable actual unfolding — the possibility of “surprise!” — poses a formal problem for the poem. For Notley (and others), epic form had to be regular to tell its story. For Simonds, it can’t be. The formal structure of the book as a whole reflects this problem: an epic split in two, a broken epic.

This rift mirrors one of the central events narrated by the poems, a giant oak tree that falls in a storm:

Charlotte asks,
“How will we get a new tree?” I don’t know how to represent reality, the epoch

being such a robber, everything left us in such ruins, nothing
survives but this magical and grotesque testimony and aftermath, Orlando,
Eternal city of the law, judges and police, city of statecraft, war, fire, hearings,

interventions and gross entertainment, a bear balancing a beach ball on its
wet nose, city of the death cult, when they ask me if I want to die, I say nothing,
to riot order, to order a horizontal, I’ll leap out, out, to order.

“To order” rings here as both impossible demand and desperate wail: how, in the face of the general disorder of the world and the general wrongness of ordering forces (law, judges, police, statecraft, war), can a feminist epic be ordered at all? One strategy the book works through is an overarching structural brokenness: the second poem seems an attempt to start over, to retell, some of the material from the first. But through the poems is also threaded the term “fantasy,” which is worth considering as a second formal strategy:

we will know you are every song called “Fantasy,” constructed
to suppress the voice, the longing for revolt, I hold their little hands,
pain is pain, threshold of art, pepper spray on the centuries piling up like bodies
inside the scarlet sun, when they said all you deserved was rape, we said no,

that is not all we deserve, and when the oak fell and Craig threw a cup
of coffee in my face, I said pain is pain, the way it moves outward over
the pale waters of Hotel Rosenberg, sound propagates with remarkable strength,

a crew has come to cut up the oak, drag it piece by piece into a truck …

Or a little later:

… the great flourishing
of language you offered, plants, ghosts, birds, leaves, and the beached

sweater of a little girl, heartbroken song of Butterclock, and her
glass heart-shaped ashtray, the underwater feel of Florida on the brink
of sound, imagination is not fantasy since fantasy sees through nothing.

Or later still:

You must know this is a mess an affective bargain
a fantasy of form
[…]
[…] They are only a means to keep living
or wave of flourishing subjects”

What’s tricky here is that “fantasy” seems like the form of the song or the poem, limited to the awareness it itself produces (it “sees through nothing”) and constantly falling short before the temporal present to which it is bound — the surprising “now” of the poem and its subjects. Yet it is also the name of the glorious riot of both poems, maybe the name for the broken epic itself: a “means to keep living.” This resembles what Fred Moten describes as fantasy in Black and Blur (2017), in an essay on Adorno, Beethoven, Glenn Gould, Freud, and cinematic montage. Moten cites Gould: “[O]ne must try to invent a form which expresses the limitations of form, which takes as its point of departure the terror of formlessness.” Fantasy is linked to the tension between freedom of imagination and the repetition of structure, narrative, or seriality. It is what, as a sort of “dynamic totality,” might include everything and still let more of it in.

In Simonds’s materialist feminist epic terms, fantasy negotiates the necessity of being in the present while simultaneously thinking and writing about the present. The “real” that is inhospitable to poetry and the “real” that can come about only through poetry necessarily collide:

Dragging the real
into the poem
from the real
the open form
until it transforms
into a vocabulary
rich and true,
white-cap sea dealt deathly
structured of a pearl,
“I just feel this pain,”
some vision so frail
you might fail to
think it’s real

Even broken, inevitably incomplete, this epic is one in which versions of the “real” interfuse, tensely and inconclusively but productively all the same. Again, this is a problem worked out — or grappled with, if not solved — at the level of form and surface. On the one hand, there’s the version of real order that clamps down from the outside:

[The rules were simple: ignore intimacy] [Ignore the wet parts of the body] [Keep clicking do yoga be younger work out be full of health] [Never go under under any circumstances] [Be unified] [Be consistent] [Be controlled] [Never contort space with flesh] [Manage your house] [Manage your kids] [Manage your student loans] [Manage to write poems] [Manage] [Manage]

The imperative to “manage” is part and parcel of the ordering forces of the capitalist world, the power structures of class, gender, and race into which Simonds’s narratives are all embedded. On the other hand, there’s the madcap, white-cap fantastical order that rises up against that managerial order to tell these stories: “[F]ueled by the mad pursuit of desire, rage, spite, / despair.” Out of the complexities of self and world that are the material of contemporary epic, Simonds’s poetry gives us a fantastical counter-form, an oppositional epic for the chaotic present.

¤

Lindsay Turner is the author of Songs & Ballads (Prelude Books, 2018). Her translations from the French include adagio ma non troppo, by Ryoko Sekiguchi (Les Figues, 2018) and The Next Loves, by Stéphane Bouquet (forthcoming, Nightboat Books), as well as books of philosophy by Frederic Neyrat (Atopias, co-translated with Walt Hunter, Fordham University Press, 2017) and Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Postcolonial Bergson, forthcoming, Fordham University Press).

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